The Plot: Benny Imura has turned fifteen, which means he has to get a job or lose half his rations. Morningside and its inhabitants have survived the First Night of the zombies and fourteen years later, the zombies still moan outside the town’s fences. Benny tries a number of different jobs; he manages to find something wrong with each one of them until he has no choice but to become his brother’s apprentice.
His brother, Tom Imura, is a professional zombie killer. Benny knows it won’t be exciting; he knows Tom isn’t as brave as people think. Tom never talks about killing zombies, doesn’t boast about daring feats like the other bounty hunters, Charlie and the Hammer.
Tom takes Benny beyond the fence, into the Rot and Ruin. Turns out, almost everything Benny thought, about zombies, humans, and even about First Night, was wrong.
The Good: Rot & Ruin begins humorously, with Ben and his slacker friend Lou Chong trying job after job. Locksmith, because even bedroom doors need locks on both sides… in case someone dies, becomes a zombie, and turns on his family in the night. The zombies of Rot & Ruin are the type that, with death, lose coordination and planning. Also, the dead always rise, not just the ones that were bitten by zombies. Locksmith is actually a bit boring and, well, unnecessary as zombie’s usually can’t even turn a door knob. Then there’s Carpet Coat salesman, because carpet coats are so thick they hold up well against zombie bites. They hold up so well pretty much everyone already has one. Funny, yes — but always lurking in the background are the zombies. Benny’s saga of job-seeking not only establishes Benny’s character, it is also a terrific way to show the reader Benny’s world, a world of zombies, of isolation, of Benny thinking the way he lives is normal.
Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and action packed.
Maberry examines the question — what will life be like for that first generation of survivors? Rot & Ruin is set safely away from the actual events of First Night and the months that immediately followed, the months of running and fighting until the town that would be Mountainside was founded. Benny knew (or thought he knew) his own story: his father a zombie, his frightened mother shoving her toddler son into the arms of his older half-brother with the one word: “go.” Now, there are houses with cisterns for water and trade routes between the isolated towns. Now, there are fences to keep the zombies out. Now, the people who live behind the fences can almost — almost — forget.
Rot & Ruin also addresses the fact that the dead were once alive, and not just alive but loved ones. Family. Father, mother, child, sibling. After running, after survival, how does a person handle that their loved one is out there? Erosion artists, one of the jobs Benny flirts with, creates zombified pictures of relatives.
How does surviving zombies impact people? Does it make them kinder? Traumatized? Do they value life more, or less? Benny is forced out of his teen slackerhood into adulthood, forced to make these decisions out in the Rot and Ruin.
I am thrilled to say that there is a sequel coming this summer, Dust & Decay.
Because zombies aren’t in this book just because they’re the latest cool thing. Because zombies manage to be both terrifying and sad. Because Tom Imura is an amazing zombie fighter, even if it takes a while for Benny to realize it. Because I am as haunted as Benny by the Lost Girl, the human child surviving beyond the fence. Because after I read this, I went into my kitchen to try to figure out how much food I’d have when First Night struck and realized, at most, I’d last a few months. Because of all this, Rot & Ruin is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.