Some books feature powerful characterization and heart-stopping emotional journeys. Others have great world-building in the service of a thundering great adventure. Still others have clever scientific ideas. But it's rare to find a book like M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts, which aces all of the above.
Astute readers may see past M.R. Carey's cunning disguise, and identify Carey as the author of the bloody fantastic Felix Castor novels as well as such fantastic comics as Lucifer, The Unwritten and My Faith in Frankie. But with the pseudonym this time around seems to have come a certain amount of freedom for Carey to reinvent himself as a hard science fiction/post-apocalyptic novelist, with maybe a slightly grittier voice.
I really don't want to give away much about the plot of The Girl With All The Gifts — it's such a clever, surprising ride, you're better off discovering it for yourself. But here's the basic set-up: a group of kids are being taught in a very special school, where they learn about Greek myths and literature from a group of teachers, including the kind and beautiful Miss Justineau. But when they're not being given a classical education, these children are herded into cells by a group of soldiers, who treat them like wild animals. And occasionally, one of the kids is taken away to a laboratory to be dissected by the cruel scientist Caroline Caldwell.
The smartest of these kids is Melanie, whose imagination fixates on the myths she reads about and whose mind is constantly going in romantic directions. She has a doomed hopeless crush on her wonderful teacher Miss Justineau, who in turn is trying very hard to keep Melanie from being the next child marked for dissection in Dr. Caldwell's lab. But the things that Melanie doesn't know about the world outside her little school will soon shatter her romantic notions forever.
That's really just scratching the surface — Carey does a fantastic job of building up the mystery of exactly what Melanie is, and why she's treated like a vicious creature as well as a gifted child. If you go in to this novel cold, you'll be utterly amazed.
So without going too much into spoilers, let's just talk in some generalities about why this novel is so great — a huge part of it is that the characters and their emotions feel utterly real, and Carey has captured something sweet and terrible about a student having a platonic crush on a teacher. Melanie's feelings about Miss Justineau are both overblown and completely relatable, and over time you realise that Miss Justineau is aware of Melanie's love for her and trying her best not to crush it. Miss Justineau, meanwhile, is somewhat cynical and self-loathing, even though she also cares desperately about her very special students.
In fact, Carey manages to create a number of really vivid characters — even Dr. Caldwell, who seems like a horrible human being at first, comes to seem more sympathetic and understandable even if she's also totally unethical in her experiments.
Once Melanie finally does get to visit the outside world, we discover a version of Britain that's both instantly recognisable and massively transformed, and it's here that Carey starts ratcheting up the sense of constant menace. Prepare to spend the last 200 or so pages of this book riding the edge of your seat, because Carey packs in more tension and impossibly scary situations than a dozen found-footage horror films put together.
And finally, the science — again, without going into crazy spoiler-land, Carey slowly builds up what feels like a very plausible scientific basis for his transformed world. And he goes way beyond the scenario you think he's spinning, into something both more menacing and more plausible. The final third of the book keeps getting scarier and weirder, as Carey's global disaster starts getting more and more out of anyone's ability to control. It's here that Dr. Caldwell's self-aggrandizing, clinical viewpoint becomes more and more important in helping us to understand just what's going on here.
The final thing that makes Carey's book such a masterpiece is that he brings all three accomplishments — Melanie and Miss Justineau's ultra-personal journey, the fantastic menacing worldbuilding, and the clever, well-thought out science — all come together into a single resolution that at no point feels overly tidy or forced.
Lots of books try to use coming-of-age, or the process of shedding your illusions and becoming a fully-formed person, as some kind of metaphorical counterpoint to the process of discovering the horrors of a radically altered world. Bookstore shelves are sagging with the weight of dystopian young-adult books. But what Carey manages to do here is create a really unique story about growing up in a hopeless world — in which your expectations get turned sideways and the uniqueness of his characters leads to a really unique story.
The fact that Melanie has been raised with Greek myths and romantic notions in her head seems like something that will ultimately bring about her downfall, because she clings so hard to these outdated notions of the world. But in the end, Carey surprises you with something both sweeter and darker.
The Girl With All The Gifts is a chance to watch a master storyteller at work — but it's also a great book for all those of us who grew up clinging to our outlandish mythologies and lonely idolatries. It's a brilliant work of science fiction, but even people who never read science fiction should absolutely read this one.