The story revolves around Jack and Ed, best friends at the same boarding school, and a disparate bunch of their contemporaries as they battle their way into London in search of food, safety and other survivors. Along the way they encounter Greg, seemingly immune and the only adult not struck with the disease, and his small son Liam who are headed to Islington aboard a coach, with food and water and some brash young girls who they picked up along the way. Ed just wants things to calm down, to be safe, to go back to being Mr. Popular with everyone, Jack wants to get back home, to see his house again, and the rest of the kids with them all have their own agendas, but things don't go according to plan as they fight for their lives in this decimated new world.
I have to say that I wasn't far into The Dead before I had to check to make sure it really was a young adult novel and not a horror novel for grown-ups. This is a book that doesn't pull any punches, in fact at times it's positively grim and one scene in particular will all but break your heart, but that's probably one of its key strengths and one reason why these books are so popular. Higson doesn't talk down to his audience, doesn't sugar-coat things and this sense of 'realism' adds real strength to the story.
On top of this he writes decent characters. Sure they're a little stereotypical, the jock, the nerd, the popular kid, the bookworm, the clothes horse and so on, but he gives each of them, even the bit-part players, their own unique flavour and, cleverly, individual voices, not just tone and cadence but accents and colloquialisms mixing the street slang of London with typical cockney, bland Thames Estuary, and cut-glass Surrey public school. The things they talk about too, films, comics and TV, girls about boys, boys about girls as well as what's happening around them ring true to anyone who has ever listened to kids speak, and it's all said with with the kind of bravado and irreverence that makes each of the kids just that little bit more real to the reader.
As the tale unfolds it becomes increasingly clear to the kids that they all need to play their part if they're to survive. The nerds, filled with knowledge and wisdom beyond their years, are as important to the group as the fighters and jocks and it's nice to see mutual respect grow the longer they stay together. Interestingly, the nerds give us some decent theories as to why the Sicko's - as the Dead have been dubbed - keep trying to eat the surviving children and it'll be interesting to see if they're right as these kids grow-up beyond the fourteen year threshold.
The Dead is a terrific thrill ride of a book, fast paced, with relentless action that will keep readers of all ages, not just young adults, on the edge of their seats till the last page. It's probably not for the squeamish but the violence and chaos of the world it describes has been so perfectly realised, the aftermath of a world decimated by death and disease, that excitement quickly takes over from horror because danger lies all around - not just from the Sicko's - as we find out towards the book's spectacular conclusion.
So another triumph for Charlie Higson, roll on the next one.
Your chance to meet bestselling author and comedian Charlie Higson at his only London signing of new book The Dead.
Charlie will be signing copies of the book at The Children’s Department, Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0EB on Saturday 18 September 2010
To kick-off the event, Charlie will risk life (or rather limb) in a – literally - nail-biting stunt when he rescues a copy of his new book which has been chained to the bottom of a tank full of Piranhas!
So get yourself along and if Charlie still has any fingers left he'll sign your copy of the book!