I’ve recently downloaded Carnage, the 12th volume in the massive Arisen series (originally by Glynn James and Michael Stephen Fuchs but now just by Michael exclusively – more on that in a minute) and am in the process of tearing through it. As the overall story has been refreshed in my mind, I thought I’d write a little about it here for anyone who may want to check it out.
The first thing to understand is that I’m covering the series and not just a single book. This series is a modern day incarnation of the old school serial; it’s pointless to try and pick out a single book in the set. There are certainly books that stand out among the rest but, really, the only way to consume this beast is to start at the head and work your way down to the tail a piece at a time. If you try to get on the bus in the middle of the trip, you’ll have a leg ripped off.
The broad strokes of the series are as follows: the zombie apocalypse has already wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population. Humanity has made its last stand at Fortress Britain (the British Isles are completely surrounded by water and, since the virus originated down in Somalia, they’ve managed a good job of keeping the virus out).
The entire series focuses on the efforts of a multitude of soldiers, sailors, marines, troops from other branches, and a small collection of surviving civilians to complete a single mission: find the cure.
In their quest, they must contend with challenges of ever increasing difficulty, ranging from constantly evolving zombies, the fact that resources are running out and what is actually left is mostly held together with duct tape (sorry; 100 mph tape) and tie-wire, and the brutal, antagonistic intervention of rival nations.
This series is comprised of non-stop, shit your pants action. Anyone interested in introspective naval gazing need not apply. That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that there is zero character development happening; there is. It’s just that between the reality that the vast majority of the characters in these stories are already at the very top of their game (and thus don’t have a great deal further to go by way of growth) and the fact that the author doesn’t really take his foot off the gas once he gets you rolling (except for some recuperative sequences that are few and far between), there just isn’t a great deal of opportunity to take a character from A to Z. This is especially true towards the end of the series (which, I need to add, is not yet completely written), where entire books become an exquisite, play-by-play breakdown of some of the most intense running gun battles you’ll ever read.
Character development is actually happening in points; you certainly see it earlier on in the books when the author(s) is doing all the heavy lifting of introducing you to all of the different characters (and there are a ton of them). Group dynamics and friction are a major factor in these times. Internal struggles also come into play (characters tend to spend time second guessing their own motives, wondering if they’ll be able to make the tough calls, and so on).
The main target audience of these books (it seems to me) are unabashed lovers of zombies, military action, naval warfare, aerial combat, and spec-ops teams at the top of their games killing the hell out of each other. If any of this is your cup of tea, jump into the series. Now.
Note that, given the content involved, I’ll be employing a slightly modified ratings system for this series of books. Whereas you’ll typically see some form of star system, I find myself forced here to utilize the 5.56×45 NATO system.
Easily five out of five head shots. Even if you’re a run of the mill civilian (like myself), you’ll find that the author presents all of the military information, acronyms, and concepts in such a way that you can keep up with the story and, over time, you’ll discover that you’re even learning a few things. The saltier characters (especially Gunny Fick, who ends up standing out early as a series favorite) are a joy to behold, having elevated the practice of vulgarity from competency to a form of artistic expression.
The only thing that keeps this arrested at a four out of five head shot rating for me is that the series goes on for so damned long (it’s not the actual length here; it’s the mileage). The longer it runs, there are more opportunities to produce content that cannot possibly please everybody. There are certain things that are happening in this book (things which I’ll get to in the spoiler section if you care to go there) that I don’t consider to be a big deal when they occur once or twice. Now that the series spans 12 freaking books, with a 13th well on the way, there have been more chances for these little niggling items to pop up and annoy me and, frankly, the more I have to think about them the more I’m bugged by their existence. Even so, I feel that I should emphasize that 1) the things that are bugging me won’t end up bugging the vast majority of the intended audience for this series, and 2) they aren’t bugging me enough to impact my enjoyment of the story. These books make it really easy for you to just accept them for what they are and roll with it.
Four head shots and a punctured kidney. These books are packed cover to cover with an ensemble cast of incredibly strong characters. And I mean that: they are all incredibly, ridiculously, unbelievably strong. This is something I’ll discuss below in the spoilers. Now, the personalities of these characters are one thing – they are distinct, enjoyable, and easily identifiable, such that you can tell them apart easily by their behaviors and mannerisms.
On the other hand, everyone in these books ends up being so much of a bad ass (even the random civilian characters who have received no ultra-uber death commando military training) that your basis of comparison kind of flattens out over time and you start becoming numb to how awesome they are (a state of being about which you will be reminded frequently by the author). It kind of reminds me of the old Homer epics like The Iliad and so on. Every new hero that got focused on in those stories ended up being the GREATEST X that EVER Y’d!
You kind of get that sense here in the Arisen series as well. It creates a problem of unrealistic expectations as you work through the story. You spend a ton of time seeing examples of these people pulling off unbelievable feats of skill and endurance; and yet later on when you see them behaving like humans (making mistakes, basically), you wonder what the hell caused them to brain-fart so hard. This is compounded by the fact that you’re constantly being reminded that these guys are all hyper professional and the very best in the world at what they do. It causes one to ask questions like, “Well, okay, but what about that last chapter when Professional Pete got into a pissing contest with one of his team mates over stupid shit?”
For a guy like me (a guy who tends to overthink this stuff), it makes it hard to decide what I’m witnessing: am I looking at characters who are flawed or an author who has painted himself into a corner by repeatedly insisting that the characters are basically god-like while having to deal with the reality that perfect characters are boring?
This is a tough one. For a book to hold your interest, there has to be some sort of drama going on (I mean in the classical sense, not the high school variety). If the characters are going to be flawed, that’s cool. Thank god they’re human; I can relate to them easier. Certain choices are still hard to work my head around, though, as I’ll describe below.
As stated, this won’t ruin the story for the intended audience and it certainly hasn’t ruined it for me. It is there, though, and it is noticeable.
This section is relevant only if you consume these books in audio format. Once again, I’m discussing a book performed by R. C. Bray. I promise not all of my reviews are going to be Bray books; I just happen to be listening to the latest in the series right now. He’s actually the reason I picked it up; I tend to go on Audible and just scroll through the list of titles he’s performed until I find one that grabs my interest. For those of you who are already fans, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Bray really, really has his work cut out for him in this series and he attacks it happily. For one, there’s a huge amount of characters to contend with in this series (it’s like Jarhead War and Peace, seriously), and Bray’s subtle nuances of character and delivery are a major help in keeping everyone straight; I feel like I almost need that additional reinforcement to keep everyone firmly set in their appropriate bucket. I’ve never been good with names but faces and voices are never forgotten. Honestly, if I didn’t have the narrator holding my hand on this one I’d probably be having a harder time keeping up.
I’ve been through the whole series two or three times now (advancing like waves a little further up the beach each time, as new volumes are released) and the only thing I might be able to pick out is that I think one or two characters might have gotten modified accents along the way but it’s hard to be sure. One of the characters in Alpha team, Alli (I’m going to assume I’m spelling it correctly here because I’ve never actually seen her name in print; only heard it spoken), I believe starts the series with a feminine no-accent early on and morphs into a more pronounced clip as it becomes clear in a later book that she was originally a native Somali. It’s hard for me to tell, though, because if this did happen it’s very subtle; if this is the case it would indicate a bit of error correction after the fact, which is cool with me. Actually, it would kind of impress the hell out of me, as it suggests that Bray is bleeding that in carefully over time so that it’s under the radar. That’s kind of a jaw dropper if I’m right.
Another item that I’m even less sure of is that I think one of the Marine characters shifted from an American to English accent across a couple of volumes, although I’m seriously shaky on that one; don’t hold me, the narrator, or the author to it. The only reasoning I can come up with behind this, if it’s actually true, is that Bray saw Marine in the earlier volumes and figured American Leatherneck and was perhaps corrected by Fuchs later, informing him that the character is a Royal Marine (the character spends all of his time in Fortress Britain). Again, no clue if I’m right or not; I don’t even remember the character’s name at this point and, having only the audio copy of these books, it’s hard to go back and look it up. Again, over the span of some 13 or 14 freaking volumes (however many the series ends up being), hiccups like these are to be expected and I don’t hold them against anyone. They in no way impact my ability to enjoy these books.
While this isn’t the best series I’ve ever read, I’m going to classify it as a perfect series (perfect in that it does exactly what it sets out to do). Now, I’m going to make some assumptions about the author(s) just based on how the series progresses. I want to make it clear up front that I don’t know the guys, have never spoken with them, and I haven’t spent a great deal of time reading up on the behind the scenes info regarding why the series goes the way it does. Everything I’m about to write is based on my experiences as a reader and what I’m able to intuit from the writing and the progression of the story.
First of all, Glynn James was involved as a co-author in the first eight books in the series. He dropped out after that due to time constraints and commitments to other projects. To my knowledge, there was no falling out between the two authors; James simply couldn’t keep up with Fuchs’s pace and didn’t want to slow him down. So that’s One.
Two: James is primarily a sci-fi/horror writer, with some healthy bits of fantasy added in. He cites writers like HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Stephen King as major influences. This is important.
Keep the above in mind, now, as I point out that, from what I can tell, Michael Stephen Fuchs is a military fiction writer. He does action/thriller stuff. It is especially evident in his writing; he really digs the military, you guys.
Consequently, we see throughout the series, a hard turn away from the zombie horde as the primary antagonist, just a bit after book 9. It is around this time that the zombies fall into the background as a forgotten threat and the new primary antagonist is firmly installed: The Russian Spetznaz forces.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. I will say that if you come to this series wanting to see the very finest of the combined military forces of two of the world’s greatest nations engage in a slobberknocker with literally millions of Zeds, you’ll absolutely get that. You can, however, expect a tapering off of this activity in the latter part. In the last two books that I’ve read thus far (11 and 12), zombies haven’t even been a thing worth mentioning, having been completely supplanted by the Russian aggressors.
I think it possible that Fuchs may be feeling some zombie fatigue at this point, honestly. Keep in mind, it isn’t just the books in the main timeline that he’s produced; he’s written a prequel and intermediary episodes as well; the dude is a writing machine. I think he’s either just finished the 13th book (or he’s getting very close to doing so) and I don’t think he’s showing any signs of slowing down. Specifically, I think he sees the end in sight and, if anything, is ramping up the pace to drive that final coffin nail home.
You can’t blame him, either (or at least, I can’t). These books have done some pretty amazing and imaginative things with our friend the zombie over their many volumes; things that, I believe, have breathed new life into the genre. He’s examined disease mutations, tidal horde behavior, and has executed massive, continent-wide battles in print that are outright fucking page turners the first time you encounter them (I’ve been through the series a few times now). All that being said, how many volumes of this story can we reasonably expect the guy to keep turning out brain-eating behavior that is fresh and unique?
I believe this is the reason we see such a hard shift from zombie fighting to top-tier spec-op fighting late in the series. For a guy like me, who didn’t come for the zombie action only, this is no big deal. If you happen to be interested primarily in zombie action for your reading pleasure, I regret to inform you that this is going to drop off to nil towards the end of the books. They are not finished, of course; there’s a good chance he brings them back – Britain does still have to be saved, after all.
All that zombie/non-zombie stuff aside, I’ll say here that there’s some character stuff going on that I think is starting to get a little clunky, due mostly to the fact that I’ve been reading about these characters for so many books now. I’ve been listening now to twelve books of Handen doubting his ability to lead his team effectively. Twelve books of Alli and Homer being stupid in love but resisting each other for the good of the team. Twelve books of Hanough being a pain in the ass. All of these things are fine for a couple of books, and these are pivot points around which some of the best character development happens in the series. On the other hand, after getting twelve books in, I’d really like to see some of these get resolved already.
One of the plot points I had a really rough time with revolved around the Sarah character (who, for some reason, appears in my mind’s eye as T2-era Linda Hamilton). Without taking up a lot of space to do a deep dive, she’s this series’ version of Lori Grimes from The Walking Dead. It’s totally plausible that her husband gets chewed up into corpseburger and she’s cool with it. The author even does a good job of explaining why that is later in the story and you find yourself disliking her husband right along with her. But…her kid, man. It’s been a while since I read this specific book (it’s early in the series) but she first watches as he’s eaten and then again sees him get plugged later on by Homer, if I have it all right. A few days later, she is not only jumping into the sack with Handen; she’s also reveling in her new found freedom and actively flirting with all the testosterone factories on the carrier (yeah, she starts out somewhere in Michigan and ends up on an aircraft carrier off the East Coast later on – look, a lot happens in these books). The unfortunate eventuality of all this (plus what I’m going to discuss next) is that she ends up being unsympathetic, if not downright unlikable.
And, this brings me to the Hanough->Sarah->Handen high school drama triangle…
There’s a lot of baggage, here, but the main point is that Sarah’s banging Handen, Hanough and Handen don’t like each other, and Sarah ends up being friends and flirting with Hanough later on, which Handen walks in on (of course), becomes intensely jealous over, which effects his ability to work effectively with Hanough, which Hanough uses to get under Handen’s skin, which further increases his own self doubt, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Did I mention that these guys are ultra professional, top tier operators who are the very best in the world at their game and won’t let anything get in the way of them completing the mission?
Look, I’m cool with flawed characters. They’re interesting and complex. But when I see some shenanigans going on between characters who are supposed to be the biggest hardasses in the series and all of those said shenanigans resemble an old episode of Dawson’s Creek (it was a teenage drama TV show from the 90’s for you younger readers), I have to start asking questions about just what the hell is going on. The inter-team drama between Hanough and Handen (without accounting for Sarah) is fine, by the way. All of that is well set up in the beginning of the series with Ainsley and the fact that Hanough holds allegiance to him. The friction between Hanogh and Handen in this regard is well earned. I just have a rough time swallowing these love triangle dramas between seasoned, capable adults. You’ve established that they’re the best of the best. That’s awesome. Don’t turn around and hand me a scene where they’re acting like tipsy interns at the office Christmas party. That undermines the whole best-of-the-best thing you just worked so hard to set up.
I probably sound overly harsh on these issues, and maybe I am, but it just seems to mar and otherwise flawless series for me. All of the above aside, the series is absolutely perfect for what it sets out to do. It is clearly written by a person who is deeply passionate about all things military, and that focus comes out wonderfully in every word, to the benefit of the narrative.
There are certainly cheesy things going on in these books. There are a whole force of Russian Spetsnaz who are comically evil (seriously, half the fun you have in these books is listening to how screwed up Ivan is). This is just fine for a series of zombie books, and yet I’m pretty sure that the real life Spetsnaz forces aren’t a bunch of torture loving Bond villains running around murdering everything in sight for the sheer joy of blood lust. I’ve done some research into these guys out of curiosity; it turns out they’re soldiers a lot like ours. They’re people of all ages from all walks of life who enlisted to serve their country and made it through a rigorous selection process to climb to the ranks of one of the top combat units of their nation.
Even so, I don’t care. It’s a freaking zombie book. Let the Russians be cartoonishly evil. I’m accepting a wave of animated corpses sweeping across the globe, I can certainly deal with a bunch of Russians with Daddy Issues. As I said; they’re fun.
I’ll also take a minute to note at this point that our protagonists run into gear drops like they’re playing Call of Duty. Every time they turn around, it seems like they’re running into a hidden pallet of the best X gear ever to have been conceived. The author himself even gives a tongue in cheek nod to the reader in one of the later books where a security team stumbles upon a whole locker full of bite proof, fire resistant, riot gear just in time to run a critical mission into a zombie-infested Middle Eastern city; all of which would have come in super handy in earlier books.
The characters in the book end up chalking the whole event to the evils of basic bureaucracy, inefficiency, and stupidity all around, while in real life, you can basically hear the author saying, “Give me a freaking break, okay? It’s a zombie book.”
Ultimately, I give the dude a break. For any of the flaws that I happen to pick up along the way, the stories more than make up for them in sheer, page-turning, popcorn-eating, high octane fun. These books are just fun, okay? That’s all they should be. That’s all they’re really meant to be. Go get in there and have some fun with them.