Rot & Ruin is the first volume in Jonathan Maberry’s popular Benny Imura series. This novel introduces 15-year-old Benny and follows his adventures as he becomes an apprentice to his zombie-killing older brother Tom, whom Benny has always resented because he feels that Tom failed to save their parents from becoming zombies. (Tom obeyed their mother’s order to take young Benny and run to safety, but it’s a believably teen kind of stubbornness that makes Benny turn his personal survivor’s guilt into anger at his brother.)
This is a fast-paced narrative full of conflict and vivid imagery, and it’s not surprising that it became a bestseller.
One of the really impressive things Maberry does in the novel is how he handles his world building closely within Benny’s point of view. The novel is set in the fictional town of Mountainside, California, and takes place thirteen years after the zombie apocalypse. The town and the society within it has deviated considerably from the modern world the reader is familiar with, and so there’s a fair bit of setting to establish here through the eyes of his somewhat naïve protagonist. The twin risks inherent in any type of complex fictional worlds are that:
- Forgoing/delaying details about the world can leave readers confused and cause them to disengage from the story.
- Technically adequate world building can end up delivered in long, indigestible expository lumps that slow the narrative down to a crawl.
Maberry deftly avoids both these problems right from the start of the book.
At the beginning of the very first chapter, Maberry establishes than in Mountainside, young adults face having their food rations cut in half when they turn fifteen if they don’t take some kind of job. Benny, being a believably stubborn and somewhat lazy teenaged boy, isn’t keen on having to go to work and resents the whole situation. He’s especially resentful when Tom offers him an apprenticeship and sullenly turns his brother down. But he can’t get away from his problem, so he and his friend Chong go in search of some kind of part-time job that isn’t too difficult. But because Benny and Chong are teenaged slackers, they don’t keep any one job for very long, so they work a whole string of them, all focused in some way on dealing with the zombie threat … and the reader gains valuable details about the world the characters live in as a result. It’s all very smooth.
By the time Benny realizes that he really does have to take Tom up on his apprenticeship offer, Maberry has thoroughly established the world of Mountainside and how the zombies work as creatures and how human society and social mores have changed in response to the constant threat of their dead coming back as devouring monsters.
So, in short, Maberry’s plot structure ensures that he can engage in world building that’s smoothly integrated into the rest of the narrative. That’s clever, and I’m going to remember that technique for the future when I’m sticking to a single point of view in a longer narrative.