It’s been about a year since I took a gamble on following my interest in the ABC show “The Walking Dead” to the point where I purchased and read the spin-off novel; The Rise of the Governor. Mapped out by Robert Kirkman (the mastermind behind the original comic series) and pulled together by thriller writer Jay Bonansinga, the novel focuses on the back story of one of the most recognised and revered characters in the Walking Dead universe; Brian Blake (known widely as The Governor across all the aforementioned media). As my last review highlighted, the book overall pleased me, though it was not without its obvious drawbacks. Now nearly a fortnight into summer holidays, I’ve respectably flicked my way through the remaining three books in the series (though at two hundred and fifty-ish pages each, nobody is calling these a modern day War and Peace).
The second book in the series is titled “The road to Woodbury”, but rather than picking up where we left off with the Governors seizing of Woodbury’s power network, here we are thrust into the world of a separate character; Lily Caul (who is all but absent from the TV adaptation, but shows up as a regular at points in the comics). This installment starts as gripping and enthralling as that of the first, with Lily and her companions constantly facing human and zombie dangers alike. Being on the road, the pace ticks rapidly forward, never giving the reader or our protagonists a moment’s rest; a feature of Bonansinga’s writing that he might call a signature move. The inclusion of a female protagonist is a welcome sight, with Lily standing apart from previous male bravado-type characters and seeming far more human in what seems an increasingly unrealistic world of human responses to apocalyptic life. Josh and the remaining plot characters are written well enough that the story doesn’t suffer (at least not in that department), and by the halfway point there is a genuine desire on the part of the reader to want to see them safe. A huge plot shift occurs on arrival to the eponymous Woodbury. Rather than providing the overwhelming political and interpersonal tension that is characteristic of post-apocalyptic settlements, the novel seems to slip into a coma at this point; the new dangers of avoiding the town’s uglier denizens not living up to the perils seen on the run for our characters. By the end point the Governor is armed with enough psychotic intentions that the climax comes booming from the pages, but not without a splash of melodramatic flavouring.
The Fall of the Governor is split up into two identically sized pieces; its blurb reminding us that at this point characters made popular by the on-screen version are set to make an entrance into the series. Here Lily Caul again features as a viewpoint, a notion now so familiar the reader could wonder whether the Governor ever was supposed to stand out in this trilogy. Luckily this time even though we again find ourselves rooted in Woodbury, the tension is dialed up a notch, with Kirkman edging the Governor further over the edge in his actions, to the point where some of the residents question where the real problem lies-outside with the undead or inside with the living. Characters such as Martinez and Doc Stevens get more explored roles, with the Governor’s own henchmen also featuring to act as antagonists. By the time Glenn, Rick and Michonne arrive (their names so synonymous with the series it does jolt the reader back awake), the plot opens out into a much larger sweeping narrative, with multiple points of view becoming the norm, and short snappy scenes quashing the previous longer internal monologues. Austin arrives as a character throughout this final piece in the series, and immediately bolsters the ranks, with the Woodbury day-to-day life having diminished our pool of characters originally seen in book two. Once the narrative shifts to the prison, the challenge of trying to bring all the pieces into play at the right time really shows up in the pace of the story; the writer now clearly focusing on what is an inevitable outcome rather than giving the series the ending it deserves. The character of Michonne just gets annoying by now, her over the top displays in the field nothing short of laughable, a problem also seen in the TV show, which is no doubt always stemming from Kirkman himself. Lily Caul on the other hand goes from strength to strength, nearly reaching a point where the reader wishes a Woodbury victory over the memorable TV protagonists. Books three and four are swamped in tragedy, their tones far darker than those of the first two. The brutality now is relished by the characters not just thrust upon them.
On a whole the series succeeds in its mission to capture many of the elements of the other formats while giving a good account of the stories of the main characters. It’s a page turner and there’s no doubting it; the evidence of Bonansinga’s thriller writing experience present throughout. When it’s on the road, the novels are tense, gripping and highly engaging. Once it settles into a standstill, the ability of the book to hold the reader falters a little, but not to the point that you will lose faith. The series oozes action scenes, something any interested reader came in expecting, and so there’s no disappointment there. Where the books really fall down is the writing. It’s a lucky thing I came in wanting a theme more than some great novel. Because the latter can never be found. The writing is at best page-turning, at worst it’s enough to make you cringe and wonder did the author’s nine year old daughter step in for a chapter or two. Over description of the most mundane details is widespread. The writer clearly tries to convey some deep knowledge of biology at any possible moment, though having studied basic physiology I could give him a few pointers. Characters become stereotyped the second time we meet them, words are used to the point of outrage (apparently you can just about ‘thumb’ anything) and the phrase ‘nobody notices’ may as well comprise half the series for all its usage. It’s enough at times that the writing is what really is going bump in the night; the danger of drowning in sea of zombies nowhere near as close to that of suffocating beneath an onrush of unnecessary jargon. That being said, not all is at a loss.
Not one hour ago, I switched the TV to Film 4, and seeing that “The Wedding Planner” was just starting, I shrugged and sank back in my chair. It’s a very dull rom-com starring Jennifer Lopez and a boyish looking Matthew McConaughey. Having racked up a meager 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, it leaves a lot to be desired, but there I sat, watching it at my leisure, completely aware of what I was getting into. And perhaps that’s where the Walking Dead books triumph. For all their faults, they give us, the enthused, exactly what we wanted. Seeing that Kirkman has ordered Bonansinga to hammer out another four novels (starting with “The Descent” in October 14), I’ll remain quietly hopeful of a revamp of the series. Let’s not forget, Matthew himself would have laughed on the set of the Wedding Planner if you told he would hold up an oscar for Best Actor not two decades later…