18, February 2012
The Return Man
Book review by Dan Collacott
Zombie apocalypse as a genre has a very recognisable plot structure to it, take a global event that turns millions into some form of infectious (and usually cannibalistic) undead, throw in a group of survivors, add a potential cure or infection free location to journey towards and you’ve got your standard zombie film or novel. Most tales of survival against all odds merely take a different spin on how the outbreak happened, examining the science or mythology behind the virus and the effect it has on civilisation. These aspects are usually secondary to the characters, but ultimately the core formula always remains the same.
In a sense the outbreak, setting and unique 'undead assassin' element of The Return Man is also secondary to the high-octane multi-layered plot at the heart of the novel. The difference being with this book is that you could probably replace the zombies and post apocalyptic setting with something more mundane and you would still be left with a highly entertaining piece of kick-ass fiction!
In the world V.M. Zito has created, the US has been split in two, one half is an over populated but infection free zone, and the other half has been left to the mercy of the infected. Only Henry Marco has remained in the harsh wastelands of the dead, carrying out paid contracts to kill and ‘Return’ walking corpses that belong to those living in the safe states.
Just a short way into the story and my expectation was that the whole book would revolve around Marco's various missions to return dead loved ones. This concept alone is original and intriguing enough prospect for a book. However, no sooner has Zito set the scene and circumstances of the fairly tragic Henry Marco, then we find out his business partner in the safe states has been detained by the morally corrupt right-wing government. They present Marco with a new target to return and a mission he is forceably blackmailed into accepting.
From this moment on the action and gore are unrelenting and the jaw dropping and original set pieces mandatory. Marco is joined on his mission to a prison medical facility by Wu, (unbeknownst to him) a member of the Chinese military. Wu is forced to fight side by side with Marco but has his own mission and shadowy agenda to fulfil.
Thus through Wu and his backstory growing up in China, Zito creatively channels a different social and cultural perspective on the post apocalyptic society and the outbreak itself (something rarely seen since World War Z). Without giving anymore spoilers, Wu and Marco find themselves on a near suicidal journey, battling not only to stay out of the eager jaws of the starving undead, but away from the bullets of the others trying to stop them obtaining the prize Homeland Security (and the rest of the world) covet so badly.
The whole book feels like the author has created a perfect Hollywood style action movie but set it within a zombie apocalypse. Any wonder then that the film rights have already been obtained. The quality of the writing is quite extraordinary for this type of book, the level of detail and different interwoven plot elements create a perfectly balanced layer cake of action and horror. You won’t be able to put the book down and despite the well tested foundations. Zito pushes the boundaries of the genre with some heart stoppingly tense situations and brain blisteringly action filled set pieces.
The story somehow always feels fresh and the characters rounded with well honed and interesting back stories. This is a stunning debut and matches the feelings I had when I first read the likes of World War Z and Hater. Even if you are not a lover of horror and zombies you are unlikely to experience a better crafted and adrenalin fuelled thrill ride than V.M. Zito’s novel The Return Man.
The Return Man is the perfect jump off point for a full on franchise, so I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Henry Marco either!
Want to know more? Check out my interview with V.M. Zito here
Hodder have just launched a new Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror page, which is running a competition to win Stephen King's Dark Tower series, by asking readers to submit their 'Shelf of Glory'.