Thoughts: The Burning World, by Isaac Marion

I watched Warm Bodies at Sneak and read the book at my earliest convenience, and really liked it. Quirky zombie romance, full of heart and black humour, exploring the choices we make to be human. Later, I saw that there was a sequel and added it to the pile.

I kind of wish I’d just taken Warm Bodies as a standalone…

Spoilers ahead.

My feelings on The Burning World are in a big complicated pile of good things and bad things and personal things, and I’m not sure where is a fair place to start. Screw it, let’s start here: I felt a little bait and switched.

The Burning World took everything I loved about Warm Bodies and systematically crushed it. It seemed to have decided both that it needed to be darker and more gritty in order to show realism, but also to be more esoteric and experimental in order to show ??? (more about that later), and neither half sat well with the other. The Burning World was a long, dense book, and fell into the trilogy structure of the first book being almost standalone, and the second tied fatally to the third with no resolution of its own. It felt like a run-up, it felt like backstory, it introduced a lot of things and the majority of those things weren’t explained by the end.

First, the disclaimers. Part of my feelings are down to pure personal preference. I wasn’t in the mood for something this bleak. I can take or leave the Generic Post-Zombie-Apocalyptic American Military Fantasy in which everyone tries to outdo each other’s trauma and everyone needs to be able to use guns and whatnot or they’re worthless and people are just needlessly unpleasant to each other.

I don’t really like too much coincidence of the type where people find out that actually they were The Special One all along, or when the person you meet just so happens to be the exact person with the exact information… There are variations I don’t mind – the gang coming across the writer of the Almanac zine was nice and I liked it! – but R’s surfacing backstory just seemed too convenient (and I get that I’m not meant to be annoyed that his pre-zombie self was such a monster of a human [ho ho ho how ironic] because blah blah the point is that he has made this tabula rasa choice to be good but whatever, it didn’t work for me). Abram also falls into this category. He happens to be Perry’s brother, and he happens to also be this well-placed inside guy, and he just happens upon our protagonists. Finding Julie’s long-vanished zombie mother through pure coincidence is another one.

The problem with a story like this, whose backdrop is an abyss against which our protagonists are a tiny candle flame and all our easy modern communication is gone, reminding us of how large the world is… is that too much of these coincidences undermine it. No one is just a random. Everyone is conveniently closely connected. They make the world small.

I personally hate the character archetype of the Angry Loner Who Thinks He Is The Smartest In Every Room, Holds Information Back From Everyone And Then Responds To Their Uninformed Decisions With A Surprised Pikachu Face. He also constantly says cruel things to people and expects them to sit and take it, and has his own arbitrary logicless rules by which he will respect or disrespect you, and I just cannot, okay? I hate that guy, and I resented meeting him in The Burning World and having to spend so much goddamn time with him. He learned nothing.

His Cute Kid ™ did not redeem him. I have more patience for Cute Kids With Some Kind Of Supernatural Powers, as long as it’s done in a way I personally like*, but I don’t know if this particular one (or two? Or four?) is done in that way because all of that was left unexplained and unresolved by the end.

So that’s all the stuff that I didn’t get on with that is down to me and is not poor Marion’s fault.

Now I can talk about the stuff I didn’t get on with that I don’t think is my fault. It’s been a while since I read Warm Bodies and I am a different person now to the one I was then, but the tone of The Burning World just seemed so different. It was relentlessly bleak. It had no charm. The humour was reduced to the grimmest afterthought; the closest to good humour was in Julie and Nora’s exchanges near the beginning, and it didn’t last. The bleakness was of a particular type, of a corporate militia called Axiom (the book implies multiple times that there were corporate militias at one point but they’re all gone, and this new one is not the same as them, but I don’t really know what the difference could possibly be, so I’m going to use that term for these ones) which is going around forcibly taking over any and all human settlements in horrific, grey, inexorable ways. And like, if I wanted to feel the way I felt when reading that section of the book, I would frankly choose to read the news, you know? There’s a kind of dark corporate humour in the trappings of the takeover, but for me the horror was just too in-your-face to enjoy it.

From there it was a neverending journey from torture to going on the run to bad thing to bad thing to worse thing to the worst things that characters could ever conceive of happening to them, all without respite.

Between R’s narration are “we” chapters, narrated by ??? I think they’re the… dead? As in not the undead hordes, but like, afterlifey dead souls? I don’t actually know because nothing ever comes of them. I really thought this would be explained by the end, or pay off in some way, but despite their very first chapter promising that they are literally right about to erupt, they spend the entire rest of the book silently observing things and telling us things that the protagonists aren’t there for.

Similarly, Abram’s Cute Possibly Supernatural Daughter, Sprout, seems to have some magical eye stuff going on (she wears an eye patch but seems able to see “things that aren’t there”) but this is also never explained (not necessarily bad) and nothing ever comes of it (bad). Same with the mysterious zombie boy who is the only(?) zombie on earth who is still sort of human or maybe just something totally different – what is his deal? We do not know.

Ending my grumbles on a petty note, I was never convinced by all the pop culture references literally every character uses. It was never quite clear to me when exactly the apocalypse had actually taken place, but it’s stated that there was a very long decline in which life changed sort of post-apocalyptically before the final zombie nail in the coffin. This being the case, it seemed really jarring that Nora and Julie would talk about university and stuff the way they did, because surely neither of them could possibly have experienced anything remotely like it or even reasonably hoped for it, given their age and the years of post-apocalyptic history other characters would reference. Why would they use such ancient, unrelatable references? And more to the point, how does R know any of this to use in his metaphors? Even during his actual pre-zombie life he grew up in poverty and a religious doomsday cult and then joined the worst company in the world to be a murderous businesschild whose job seemed to be to have sex with interchangeable women and get drunk a lot. How does he know what I Love Lucy is? How does he know enough about pre-apocalyptic normal (American, middle class, grown up) daily life to make the references he makes? It doesn’t make sense to me.

So, am I going to read the next one? Marion’s writing remains really lovely, regardless of my issues with the overstuffed plot and bleakness and lack of resolution/satisfaction, but if I can be sure the next one is the actual last one, then I think I might read it just for the closure. By the end of The Burning World, it actually felt like something was going to happen soon. And if the Warm Bodies series is all about baseless hope, then I can keep up my own baseless hope that Marion will return to his Warm Bodies form for one more book, right?

*It’s true, readers are the worst! How does anyone ever please us when our demands are just “do something I like, and no I can’t explain what that is”?

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