Patrick D'Orazio's Review of Michael S. Gardner’s “Downfall”
Downfall starts out fast and rarely lets its foot up off the gas pedal throughout. There is plenty of action, blood, guts, and mayhem to keep the zombie fan’s adrenaline pumping. The story introduces us to Matt, the main character, and Cole, his best friend, who have managed to make it through the first few weeks of the zombie apocalypse with a small group of other survivors, including Cole’s girlfriend, in a suburban area of Virginia.
We are also introduced to a wide variety of undead. There is danger not just from the shambling, slow rotters that surround them, but from mutations that cause them to elicit attributes that range from speed, greater predatory instincts, to having unnatural strength and size. Included in this mix are undead dubbed titans. Rarely seen, but virtually unstoppable giants, they hint at an ongoing cycle of mutations among the undead.
Matt and Cole are making due as best they can out in the wastelands, saving who they can while realizing that survival means that they sometimes have to be ruthless, not only with the undead but even with the bitten that have yet to die and turn. Naturally, there are human predators as well who pose a threat to others who wish to survive. The world, as it has always been, is filled with dangers both inhuman and human alike.
Among the survivors they come across is a scientist who claims to know where there is a safe haven-a research facility turned military base down in North Carolina. Though skeptical, the survivors continue to work at protecting themselves out in the wilds while the lure of this promised sanctuary weighs on each of them, especially as the loss of life piles up.
The relationship between Matt and Cole drives this story. While they have suffered at points they seem to be enjoying the apocalypse with their penchant for weapons and weed going hand in hand. We often see characters that are endlessly distraught or seem to be near-superheroes in the face of a zombie onslaught. Rarely have I read a story where the characters seem to be more like the fans of zombie fiction, or least how many of us who are fans of the genre picture ourselves. There is a bit of a devilish delight in being able to let loose and lash out at the world at large with no moral repercussions. Don’t get me wrong, the boys aren’t impervious to the despair this new world causes them and the tough decisions it forces them to make, but they seem to appreciate finding new ways to kill the creatures that destroyed their lives. In a world getting flushed down the toilet, they’ve found a way to gain some enjoyment on the trip down.
I read a version of this tale a couple of years ago, after the author’s first draft was completed. He did modify it somewhat, with some new and interesting elements. As this is his first novel, he also did some polishing to the tale that gives his characters some added emotional heft. The fun Matt and Cole have in crafting plans to keep their people safe and to gather supplies in a dangerous, dead world remains, while the depth of their emotions has grown. Still, it avoids getting bogged down in the melancholia that can often plague apocalyptic tales. The pacing is solid, and while the story tends to meander a bit, with minimal direction for the characters to take, the action remains fast and furious, with a lot of entertaining splatter and action for the zombie fan to sink their teeth into.
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