Reviewers of the books in Michael Grant’s ‘Gone’ series which precede Plague (Gone, Hunger, Lies) compared them to Lord of the Flies. Grant himself denied seeing any similarity until others suggested it, but acknowledged the probable influence of the TV series Lost and Stephen King’s The Last Stand (‘I loved this book,’ says Stephen King on the dust jacket.). Apart from the fact that a bunch of kids below the age of 15 is isolated in an adult-free zone and reduced to frequent violence, I wouldn’t make any such comparison. The five characters of substance in Golding’s story are drawn with psychological complexity and individuality. Grant’s 30 or 40 named characters move rapidly in and out of his plot; they are closer to comic-book or computer game super-heroes, with no more than a couple of personality traits apiece and, sometimes, spectacular supernormal powers. The moving deaths of Piggy and Simon reverberate through events and minds on Golding’s island; in Plague, death is neither here nor there, though the manner of the killing is often prolonged and graphic and, I’d guess, provides one of the book’s attractions.
It is almost pointless to try to board this express plot at page 1 of Plague. It’s very hard to know who is who. There is little exploration of characters’ minds or motives, and since very few are differentiated through their voices, action is all. You need to begin with Gone to know what on earth is happening and how we got here from there. For the record, though, this is another dystopic episode played out under the 20 mile diameter dome which is the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone) surrounding the American seaside town of Perdido Beach. For reasons not yet revealed (though we know it is partly to do with a nuclear power station in the region), this area is inhabited only by people under the age of 15, struggling with hunger, lawlessness, sadistic brutality and everything else that under fifteens struggle with at the best of times. Now they have to confront not one but two plagues. The first involves the emergence of repellent winged snakes which gestate inside human bodies (and within the local marauding coyotes, it turns out) before bursting through the skin of shoulder or stomach, mouthparts chomping hungrily. (Remember Aliens, Sigourney Weaver and the chestbusters? These are those monsters’ close kin and just as nasty.)
As if this wasn’t enough for the good guys to take on, the more-or-less human bad guys – already familiar to readers of the series – are on the murderous rampage again. Grant switches the focus from one adventure or location to another effortlessly. Alongside all those different names zipping in and out of the plot, readers need also to handle gravity-defying levitations, death-dealing rays springing from finger-tips, mutating creatures, off-page sex, pitched battles where the future of the entire population is at stake, and torrents of gore. And there’s another thing – the second plague, a virus that spreads very fast, its victims coughing up their intestines in explosive and terminal agonies. For quite a while I resisted all this stuff, but in the end the sheer narrative energy of it all kept me page-turning with an increasing need for a resolution.
For those who have the stamina and the stomach – and judging by the web sites and all the spin-offs feeding on the first three books, countless readers already know they have – Fear and Light are already promised. That should be another thousand-plus pages still to come in the next couple of years.