Isaac Marion is building his first zombie novel Warm Bodies (2010, adapted into a 2013 film) into a bona fide epic. He has surrounded it with both a prequel (the novella The New Hunger, 2013) and this superb sequel, and there’s more to come.
Marion’s original Shakespearean twist is just good enough to be true. In a zombie apocalypse, it makes so much sense for “Romeo and Juliet” to get reduced to “R. and Julie,” and for a petty family feud to get enlarged into a global battle between living humans (Julie’s beleaguered tribe) and the Undead (R.’s hapless, brain-eating kind).
In the first novel, R. and a few of his zombie friends begin to feel human warmth coursing through their dead veins. All hell breaks loose between survivors of the zombies’ hunger too afraid to believe in this “resurrection,” and those who believe it but don’t know what to do about it, let alone what it means. In The Burning World, this conflict grows into a comprehensive political nightmare, a brilliant satire on current events.
R. and Julie are the only ones who keep their heads. That’s because they love each other. In the sequel, their love is tested to the breaking point, barely held together by the friendly presence of another zombie-human couple, characters we recognize with a wink from the prequel.
R.’s slow return to humanity brings with it unbearable memories of his first life, before he died and turned Undead. This tripartite identity—pre-zombie, zombie, post-zombie—is Marion’s master stroke. When a former zombie realizes he was worse as a human being, the spiritual toll is shattering. From time to time in the new novel, an uncanny chorus called “WE” addresses the reader with an omniscience and detachment that can only be called sublime. Who are “WE”? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I can hardly.