Starting with the title of the book, which is a translation of the name Pandora, The Girl With All The Gifts makes a lot of references to Greek myth. Melanie, the 10-year-old girl at the center of the story, is obsessed with the tales her favorite teacher told her, tales about heroes fighting monsters, about overthrowing the titans who formerly ruled the world, and about the titular girl who unleashed so much misery upon mankind. All of those themes are also present in the action of M.R. Carey’s novel, which puts a genuinely fresh spin on an often-told modern myth: the tale of the zombie apocalypse.
Comic book veteran Mike Carey, writing under a pseudonym here, is a pro at crafting unsettling stories that call the concepts of evil and monsters into question. He even managed to make Lucifer into a compelling protagonist worthy of his own series. That talent is on full display here. In many ways The Girl With All The Gifts is a traditional coming-of-age story about a precocious youth pushed out of the comforts of home and forced to reexamine her role in the world and her relationship with the adults around her. Except in this case Melanie is a zombie, a special sort that has a genius-level intellect despite being a walking corpse with a taste for human flesh.
Carey hits on all the major tropes of the genre, complete with coming up with a different term for zombies: hungries. What starts as a surreal narrative of life on a military base devoted to studying these aberrant zombies soon breaks down into the standard zombie narrative as a small group of characters with checkered pasts that insist on playing nice is forced to run from both the infected and the perhaps even worse, gangs of ruthless human survivalists. Even the source of the plague, in this case the brain-controlling parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps, has been used before.
But Carey keeps the reader guessing by using some tropes, subverting others, and somehow finding ways to make parts of the standard narrative even more horrifying through particularly unsettling imagery and grim views of the world’s future. By setting the action decades after the plague has ravaged humanity, he’s able to take the narrative in fresh directions while still integrating much of the common wisdom of how the world might react in the first days of a zombie outbreak.
Most of the chapters end in some sort of cliffhanger, but the structure of dividing the story between five narrating characters provides its own opportunity for taking breaks, because these characters are far from created equal. Melanie is the most interesting, her pages showing her coping with the chilling realization of what she is and mulling over what that means and how she can do right by her beloved teacher, Helen Justineau. Justineau herself is far more disappointing, because she so quickly falls from her initial role as a cool, analytical developmental psychologist playing teacher to a class full of monsters she can study to simply being a mother figure attempting to protect Melanie at all costs, despite the evidence revealing that might not be the best idea. Fortunately Carey does better with the rest of the mix, especially the insane Dr. Caldwell, whose fascination with the grotesque workings of the parasite provides for some much-needed and well-thought-out exposition.
There’s another common theme between Greek myths and zombie tales: Death is common, and not everyone gets a happy ending. The Girl With All The Gifts is no exception, but it distinguishes itself by being excellent horror, mixing the right amount of gore with its psychological chills.