Friday, 25 April 2014

With Zombies by Michael F Stewart

With Zombies by Michael F Stewart is the final volume in the Assured Destruction trilogy. If you haven't read the earlier books or my reviews of the earlier books, Assured Destruction and Script Kiddie, probably best to skip this. Unless you want to be spoiled, in which case, please do. Also, I have a new spoiler function, which I'll be using for the first time. So if you do want to be spoiled for With Zombies, hover your mouse over the dark grey boxes below (or highlight, if you want to be low-tech). The spoiler won't be hidden if you're reading this in an email or an RSS feeder (or Tumblr dashboard), so you might want to consider clicking through, unless you don't care about spoilers.
The final book in the Assured Destruction series!

Jan Rose may already be expunged from the police department's High Tech Crime Unit. Her mother's hospitalized, and Assured Destruction's on the cusp of bankruptcy. But Jan doesn't wait on anything, she seeks out the customers who used to keep the family business afloat. That's when everything starts to go wrong.

A computer virus--aka the Zombie Worm--threatens not only her school and Shadownet, but the entire city. A skull with a chain running through its socket links a powerful gang to her former customers, and holds the secrets to why her father left and the identity of her mother's boyfriend.

To save her family and the business, Jan must determine who is friend and who is foe. And decide what type of hacker she wishes to become: Gray, white, or black. Not only her life hangs in the balance.
Oh my goodness, this book was awesome. I mean, I enjoyed the first two books but in this final volume everything really comes together. The previous two books had fairly stand-alone stories which dealt with a few events that wrapped up by the end of the book. In contrast, With Zombies builds on all the storylines that have gone before, including a few things that weren't obviously part of any over-arching story. And that was great, it was nice to see everything come together. But it wasn't the real strength of this concluding volume, or at least, not the only strength. The title, by the way, can be taken to mean a few different things, the most obvious being the zombie worm (virus) that's plaguing Ottawa.

The easiest thing to discuss is how this concluding volume raised the stakes and had more excitement in it and so forth. In many ways, this is also the least interesting thing to discuss — although I did enjoy the twists and somewhat shocking turns the story took. The best bits were the continuation of how the author dealt with Jan's mum's MS and the sensibly realistic consequences Jan suffers after the events of the first two books.

In my review of Script Kiddie, I said that the most pressing reason for me to read the third book was to find out what happened to Jan's mum (Tina) after her health took a turn for the worse. Tina's health is, indeed, a very big, looming issue in With Zombies. It's written almost as a background issue — since Jan is the main character, not her mum — but Jan is only 16–17 (she has a birthday somewhere during the book) and still needs parental supervision to guide her. On the other hand, being a teenager, she does thing she can be fairly independent. And like a fairly normal teenager, she's reluctant to rely on her mum's new (ish) boyfriend.

Trying to look after herself, keep the family business afloat, not miss any more days of school (so that she doesn't have to repeat the semester), visit her mum in hospital, make friends with and learn from hackers, and deal with a virus that has infected everyone's computers... Jan bites off more than she can chew. The fact that she's still having PTSD flashbacks to the traumatic events of the first two books (being kidnapped, fighting off and nearly shooting a paedophile) is a nice, realistic touch but doesn't help her state of mind. I really really liked the realistic portrayal of consequences.

<spoiler, mainly concerning illnesses>
Combining all that with not enough sleep and yet another traumatic event, it's hardly surprising that Jan suffers from an episode acute stress disorder and ends up in the psych ward. Really, it's perfectly logical. And better yet, there's no stigma, in this book, attached to mental illness. Once her friends realise what happened etc, they're perfectly understanding and supportive of her. Jan's main reaction to being in the adolescent psych ward is wanting to see her mum and getting out to get on with fixing things. Her mum's time in hospital for catatonic depression is similarly treated. Everyone worries about whether she'll be OK without stigmatising the depression part. It was a really refreshing take.

Also, both before and after her mum's hospitalisation, it was clear that although the MS made it harder for Tina to do things (like walk), she was still capable and had raised a smart teenager with little help. And, without spoiling too much, being ill and in a wheelchair does not stop her from saving the day. I cheered.
<end spoiler>

The last main thing I want to talk about is Jan's character growth. In the first two books she makes a lot of suboptimal decisions (they weren't all that bad) and doesn't think everything through. Things work out, but only just. In the third book, she starts off doing the same — the third book picks up only an hour or so after the second book, so it would be strange if she didn't — but after things come to a head, she is forced to learn to accept help. And then, after realising that she really doesn't have to do everything alone, she even learns to plan more than two steps ahead. Yay, Jan.

I didn't realise until I got to the end and saw the acknowledgements, but apparently both book three and the omnibus edition (as a stretch goal) are the result of a Kickstarter campaign. Especially given the minor cliff-hanger at the end of book two, I was a bit surprised by this. Of course, I'm glad it was funded and glad I saw it on NetGalley and decided to read it. I've given each instalment a different number of stars but since I'm up to the last one, I feel like I can also give a rating to the omnibus as a whole. The whole series is greater than the average of its parts (see what I did there) and I'm giving the omnibus 4.5 / 5 stars.

I highly recommend this series to fans of geeky contemporary fiction, YA and cyberpunk — although there's nothing speculative or futuristic in it. I would also recommend it to anyone interested in reading good representations of disability, chronic illness and mental illness. I'm honestly having difficulty thinking of other books that treat mental illness without social stigma. I was pleasantly surprised by this series, and if I had any geeky teenagers in my life, I would be foisting it upon them all.

5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2014, Non Sequitur Press
Series: Assured Destruction, book 3 of 3
Format read: omnibus edition (review copy)
Source: publisher via NetGalley

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