Review: “The First Days” By Rhiannon Frater (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I read a zombie novel. So, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at Rhiannon Frater’s 2008 novel “The First Days”. This was a zombie novel that I found when I was looking online for second-hand horror novels and, after reading the first chapter, I just had to read the rest.

However, I should probably point out that this novel is the first in a series and doesn’t tell an entirely self-contained story. Even so, it still works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel.

So, let’s take a look at “The First Days”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Tor (US) paperback edition of “The First Days” that I read.

The novel begins in an unnamed Texan city during a zombie apocalypse. After seeing her husband and sons turn into zombies, Jenni barely manages to escape her house before being rescued by a mysterious woman in a pick-up truck.

The two survivors, Jenni and Katie, decide to leave the city and head to the safety of the surrounding countryside. When they reach a petrol station, the attendant hasn’t heard about the zombies and mistakes them for thieves.

But, soon after they fill up the truck, the zombies begin to arrive at the station. Still shaken by everything that has happened, Jenni remembers that her stepson Jason is at summer camp in the nearby woods. So, they begin to plan a rescue…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really gripping, atmospheric and innovative zombie novel with excellent characterisation 🙂 It’s a little bit like a cross between Jonathan Maberry’s “Dead Of Night“, Dana Fredsti’s “Plague Town” and Melissa Marr’s “The Arrivals“, whilst also being somewhat different in tone and style to pretty much every other zombie and/or post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is filled with the kind of fast-paced gruesome horror that you’d expect from a zombie novel, but there is also quite a bit of emphasis on bleak post-apocalyptic horror, suspenseful horror, tragic horror and some moments of character-based horror too. Although there are lots of horrific zombie encounters, this is more of a novel about the emotional toll that the zombie apocalypse takes on those who survive it.

One of the really innovative things about this novel is how the other survivors are presented. Traditionally, zombie novels/films tend to make the other survivors more of a threat to the main characters than the actual zombies are.

However, this novel takes a slightly more realistic approach to the topic – with most of the other survivors Jenni and Katie encounter being friendly and eager to work together to protect themselves against a common threat.

In a similar way to the computer game “Shadowrun: Dragonfall“, this is an anarchist story in the best sense of the word. Whilst it doesn’t gloss over the occasional arguments and problems between the survivors, it is a novel about a group of people organising themselves without outside authority. Yes, some characters do lead the survivors at times, but this leadership is based on competence and consensus rather than official authority. Seriously, I’m surprised that this doesn’t turn up in more zombie novels.

As for the actual zombies, the novel mostly uses modern-style fast moving zombies, who sometimes display limited forms of intelligence. This adds a lot of fast-paced drama and suspense to the story, especially during the earlier parts.

Although the zombies have some traditional elements (eg: a bite turns someone into a zombie, zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain etc…), the novel also does a couple of other innovative things. For example, many of the characters are reluctant to use guns because the noise attracts more zombies and, when a zombie isn’t chasing a person, it just kind of stands there and does nothing.

In terms of the characters, this novel is excellent 🙂 In addition to a lot of well-written characterisation, a lot of the novel’s drama focuses on how the characters handle the zombie apocalypse emotionally, in addition to dealing with their memories of the time before the apocalypse (eg: Jenni is still haunted by memories of her violent husband, Katie spends the novel mourning her wife etc..).

As I mentioned earlier, the relationships between the survivors that Jenni and Katie meet are surprisingly, and realistically, friendly – although there are still arguments and conflicts. Plus, this novel’s romantic elements are also realistically complicated in the way that you’d expect with a group of random strangers meeting each other after an apocalypse too. Seriously, the characters are one of this novel’s major strengths 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly fast-paced and “matter of fact” way, whilst also including plenty of descriptions and characterisation too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 331 pages, it is neither too long nor too short. But, although the earlier parts of the novel are a brilliantly fast-paced adrenaline rush, most of the rest of the story has a slightly more moderate pace (with more of an emphasis on drama and/or suspense). Even so, the whole novel is still very compelling. However, perhaps because of the fact that it is the first novel in a series, the ending/epilogue feels somewhat rushed and some plot threads are also left unresolved.

All in all, this is a really well-written and innovative zombie novel with excellent characterisation 🙂 Yes, the pacing was a bit different to what the earlier parts of the story had led me to expect, but this is a very small criticism of a brilliant novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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