Series: This Is Not a Test #1
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on June 19, 2012
Genres: YA, YA Horror
Source: print ARC from Amazon Vine
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self. To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live. But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside. When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?
“Maybe the only way our story can end is varying degrees of sad. And that I miss her, and that I need her, and this kind of missing, this kind of need, the kind of emptiness it leaves behind is worse than waking up one day finding the whole world has collapsed in on itself, that I was over long before it was.” (ARC p. 226)
Zombies? Usually, I’m not interested. The zombie fanatic of the family is my brother, who has infected everyone else in our immediate family with his fascination. Still, something about This Is Not a Test intrigued me. The good word friends put behind this author and this book in particular? The way I swear I saw someone describe it as a more depressing The Breakfast Club in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? Whatever it was, I snatched it up and started the novel with a sense of caution.
Unless you really can’t stand zombie books, go buy this now. Do it. Less a story about the zombie apocalypse (though we do get some good zombie scenes in there, especially toward the end) and more about a group of hurt people doing what they have to and being forced to deal with their own problem while doing so, This Is Not a Test took me by surprise.
Characterization is the novel’s strongest suit. Sloane’s well-painted struggles with her sister’s abandonment of her to their father’s ways create a brilliant character. All of the teenagers except perhaps one of them are given the same treatment as Sloane and do some pretty despicable things over the course of the novel. Some of them turn other people into sacrifices; some of them have to become murderers. They’re trying to survive long enough to see the next day, not be good people. But they’re still just teenagers. They’re just children without parents forced to find a way to make it through the zombie epidemic that’s suddenly taking over the world.
More than it’s about killing zombies (but there is some zombie-killing, especially toward the climactic scenes), it’s about these broken people trying to pull themselves back together. Wanting, angry, hurt people who need a reason to keep going and not toss themselves to the ragged-breathed hordes outside the high school just waiting for their next meal.
Partway through This Is Not a Test, I had a revelation: This is it. What Summers can do is exactly what I want to be able to do as a writer when I try to focus on the less noble emotions of my characters. She channels these desperate, damaged characters so well and makes them feel so alive even when they themselves feel like they’re the walking dead (the kind that don’t want to eat human flesh yet). I want to capture the hopelessness of a hellish situation you can’t escape the way Summers did. When my characters feel like there’s nothing left for them, I want them to be as authentically wretched as Sloane and co. are after everything concerning Mr. Baxter.
The only problem I had with the novel was that its writing style was often off-putting. Perhaps this will be fixed because I had an ARC, but the long, rambling run-on sentences nearly drove me up the wall. Their meandering structure made it hard to keep the picture in my head moving the way it should. When they mixed with short fragments–oh God, the pain. Toward the end, I stopped caring because it ended up working so well.
Just over halfway through the novel, I was feeling so good about this novel that it made me binge on Courtney Summers’s entire backlist of novels. An author with this great of a handle on the darker human emotions and characterization (and who can also make me shamelessly jump up and down with the book in my hands in the middle of a high school full of judgmental people) is one to keep an eye on. Her upcoming novel All the Rage and the enovella sequel to This is Not a Test, entitled Please Remain Calm? I NEED THEM NOW.
“I wouldn’t have let you die. When I saw them coming for you, I ran to you, to save you,” I say. “I wouldn’t have left you like that. Not like she did to me.” I swallow hard. “She always said I’d die without her and she left anyway.”
“But you didn’t die,” he says.
“I did,” I say. “I’m just waiting for the rest of me to catch up.” (ARC p. 226)