In Monster Nation, the second book in David Wellington’s “Monster” trilogy, we go back, to the beginning of the zombie apocalypse that’s a foregone conclusion in Monster Island. The book opens with an attack in California, then switches to strange happenings high in the mountains of Colorado, both events that any undead aficionado will quickly realize are the first pieces of a zombie puzzle. Before long we’re witnessing the slow fall of the Florence ADX (aka Supermax) prison to the newly vigorous dead and things really get rolling.
Like its predecessor, Monster Nation focuses primarily on two protagonists, one living and one undead. The living is a man named Bannerman Clark, an uptight, career National Guardsman who’s lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in the right place at the right time to be on the front lines of the dead rising. The undead is a woman called Nilla who maintains most of her intelligence as she dies, making her the rare smart zombie. As the story unfolds, Clark’s motivation is clear and his goals simple: he just wants to stop the world from ending, once he realizes that’s what happening. Nilla makes for a more complicated and, to some degree, conflicted character. She retains some degree of her humanity, as a consequence of her intelligence. Despite that, she is still a zombie, and thus likes to do zombie things, like eat the living, no matter how bad she feels about it. This structure, and that conflicted-zombie setup, should be familiar to readers of Monster Island.
Nilla is the target of the intense interest of a few different parties, including Clark and others that can’t be revealed with spoiling plot points, because of her “specialness.” Much of the story, perhaps a third to half, centers around this pursuit of her by Clark and others, with the rest of it focusing on Clark learning what’s happening and fighting zombies, and Nilla slowly learning what she is. Naturally, the climax of the book comes after she and Clark cross paths and begin to work out what’s going on to cause the dead to rise. As to what that climax is… well, this is a prequel to a book where the zombie apocalypse is well into the apocalypse stage, so it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest things don’t work out so well for the human side, is it?
The book offers plenty of the solid, fall-of-humanity action that forms the backbone of zombie apocalypse lit. Most of it is shown directly via the characters’ experience, but bits and pieces are delivered with excerpts from news reports, blog posts and diary entries interspersed throughout. It’s a nice way to add a bit of offscreen color and an epic sweep to the relatively focused main storylines.
Overall, Monster Nation is a solid book that still feels like a bit of a disappointment. That’s because, as good as it is, it falls well short of Monster Island. Compared to the tight plotting and gripping story of Island, Nation meanders a bit, lacking focus and impact. It’s stuffed with secondary and tertiary characters that seem jammed in without much effect, and it doesn’t help that the main story arc can only end one way (seriously, if you know the zombie apocalypse is still happening in Island, it’s obvious that Clark is going to fail, whatever happens with Nilla). Again, these aren’t fatal errors—this is by no means a bad book. It’s just not nearly as good as its predecessor.
Call it a sophomore slump, point to the inherent unwieldiness of origin stories, or just accept that Monster Island was something special and it’s hard to catch the same lighting in a bottle twice, but no matter how you spin it, Nation is a letdown. An entertaining letdown worthy of a read, sure, but still a letdown. Now, let’s hope that Monster Planet ends the series on a high note…