Of all the monsters humans have created, zombies stand out as among the most terrifying. While vampires (representing unbridled sexuality and the lure of immortality) and werewolves (representing the animalistic id of human nature) are arguably the most popular, zombies have become the metaphor for our greatest fear: our own consumer nature run amok. Rhiannon Frater’s The First Days: As the World Dies follows the path of previous zombie stories and films but manages to break some new ground in terms of characters.
Horror literature as a rule tends to be a male-dominated genre in literature. This makes Frater’s book unique in that it comes from a female perspective. The choice of having the two lead characters be female is also a drastic departure from the genre norm, which almost always involves an every-man type character (man being the operative word). Instead we have a bisexual lawyer and an abused housewife named Katie and Jenni, respectively. Rather than go into cliché territory, Frater manages to give both leads distinctive enough personalities to be able to tell the difference in word choice and dialogue. Through Jenni, who escapes from an abusive home thanks to the zombie apocalypse, she examines what post-traumatic stress disorder and a victim’s mentality could potentially look like in an individual.
The author does not stray too far from the formula from zombie literature or Romero-esque films. The two leads wander through the blighted landscape before finding a safe haven, encountering other survivors, and attempting to make a permanent settlement amidst the chaos of the dead rising from the grave. Despite relying too heavily on the formulaic set up, Frater does manage to infuse the setting with enough differentiating characteristics to make it her own. By setting the story in the middle of Texas, she establishes an innate independent spirit and stubborn personality some consider essentially Texan. The issue I have with the setting is that it wasn’t specific enough. Too many of the locales in the novel, including the fort that serves the second half of the novel as the permanent settlement, feel like window dressing that is painted on only at the last moment. This may be due to the pace the author uses moving from one set piece to the next but there were times I felt that the novel could have explored the towns visited in more detail. Some of the descriptions, particularly the haven of Ralph and Nerit are quite vivid in establishing a bucolic sense of home that is slowly being eroded by the dead.
Speaking of the secondary characters, Frater makes a decision to avert delving too deeply into the “inhumanity of humanity” angle for much of the novel. It is a wise decision on her part, as this allows the audience to be introduced to the principal characters and the relationships that form. With few exceptions, the majority of the characters Jenni and Katie run across are not hardened monsters but caring, forthright individuals who offer to help the wayward pair. The characters of Ralph and Nerit are an intriguing pair, filling an almost grandparent-like role for the two leads. One has to stretch the bounds of disbelief to imagine Nerit, an ex-Israeli sniper, settling in a small central Texas town but it is doable. This emphasis on humane actions stands in contrast to the later chapters, which begin to sow the seeds for potential intra- and inter-group conflicts.
Unfortunately, Frater also has an unrelenting tendency to engage in heavy amounts of telling rather than showing. These can be as simple as moods characters experience and changes in characterization to the epilogue of the book, which is essentially a “to be continued” that felt entirely tacked on and unnecessary. Quite a few of the romances that appear in the story are completely predictable and appear like hanging curve balls waiting for the writer to swing the bat for the expected home run. The two male characters Travis and Juan are given no more than two or three character traits and spend much of time either seeking or avoiding relationships with the two leads, respectively.
For all its faults in execution, The First Days: As the World Dies is a good first novel. There are raw edges of dynamic storytelling that can shine through without the perfunctory melodrama that sometimes finds its way into such apocalypse fantasies. The world Frater creates is a lived-in place with characters that one begins to care about, which is and should always be the first step any author takes when creating fiction. While she doesn’t reinvent the genre, Frater’s use of genre tropes is interesting and worth exploring in the other novels in this series. If you’re a fan of zombie fiction and want to engage young, fresh talent in the writing field, I’d strongly suggest checking out this novel.