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Drifters
by John L Campbell
Berkley, $16.00, 352pp
Published: January 2015

While this is the third book in his 'Omega Days' series, which is new to me, I quickly found that there's no requirement to have read its predecessors, 'Omega Days' or 'Ship of the Dead'. Sure, some of the characters here were clearly in either or both, but what they did there really doesn't matter. What matters is that they're in this one and it's pretty obvious what's going on from moment one.

For a start, we're in a zombie apocalypse, though we, like the characters, have no idea what caused it. It isn't important either because nobody here is trying to cure the plague or save the world; they're just trying to survive. Well, a majority are just trying to survive; Angie West is also trying to find her husband and their two year old daughter, Leah.

She's the network executive's dream character for a story like this: a young lady who both looks good and kicks ass. Before the world ended, she starred in a reality TV show called 'Angie's Armoury' and for good reason; she knows her stuff. Unfortunately she was away from home when it all went down, leaving her husband, Drew, to spirit little Leah away from the big city of Sacramento and take her north to safety at her parents' ranch and bunker outside of Chico. Fortunately he's ex-forces and capable on his own merits. Unfortunately, the ranch is known to others and it's soon raided and burned with extreme prejudice. That leaves Drew and Leah on the run and both halves of the family trying to find each other.

This search is the heart of the film, but it's not the only story going on. I assume that some of these are continuations from the earlier books but, if so, they play like new adventures for the characters involved even if they're also part of bigger stories. Others, however, I'm guessing are completely new to this volume in the series.

Vladimir Yurich is surely one of the former, a Russian helicopter pilot stuck in the US where he was training Americans. He's a honourable man and he takes it all in stride. It helps that he has a Black Hawk to fly around. I presume he's based on the USS Nimitz, anchored off San Francisco, but flew Angie and their team, Carnie and Skye, up to the ranch. While she's searching for her family in Chico, he stays behind and befriends Halsey at the next ranch over. Unfortunately for them, landing a helicopter in the front yard doesn't help keep a secluded building hidden for long and the war soon comes to them.

That war around Chico comes in two forms: the dead, known here by a number of different names, including the 'drifters' of the title, and the bikers working for the local warlord, Little Emer. He's a real piece of work, a sadistic character who likes nothing more than throwing babies into a pool full of zombies just to see how long they can last. His heroes were Roman emperors, the crazier ones, and he has their names tattooed on his back. There's something of a dynamic surrounding his followers, because most of them want nothing to do with Little Emer but find that they have to follow him because he's in charge in this town, especially with a Bradley tank to his name.

I found Campbell's writing smooth and polished. It makes 'Drifters' a fast read but a measured one. As would surely be the case in any real apocalypse, he introduces us to a variety of characters, most of whom don't make it to the end of the book. They each have their own stories and motivations, but hearing about them doesn't bog down the book; instead this sort of detail elevates it to something more than just a cheap horror novel. In fact, this isn't either cheap or horror.

While the publisher, Berkley, categorise it as horror, I felt that it fit much better in the post-apocalyptic genre. Sure, most post-apocalyptic series are testosterone-fuelled affairs full of survivalists with weapon fetishes and a growing cast of wildly fantastic villains, but their focus is always on survival before anything else. Campbell writes more believable characters than the norm and they include not one but two strong women who are prominent and a few more in support, but they're still trying to survive. That they're up against zombies really doesn't matter; they're just doing whatever they need to do get through the day.

Another reason why this feels more like post-apocalyptic than horror is that zombies have been shifting steadily out of the horror genre over a decade or so, following the vampires who preceded them. When I grew up reading horror novels in the eighties, vampires and zombies were staunchly horror monsters, but nowadays if you pick up a book about vampires, it's more likely to be a romance or an urban fantasy than a horror novel. After Anne Rice, they were adopted by the mainstream. Now zombies are following suit in literature and especially in film. It became too easy to let these mindless creatures serve as metaphors for your favourite minorities and fashion your great American novel around them.

The walking dead here are relentlessly generic, just shambling corpses with a taste for human flesh. They don't appear to represent anything and they don't have any particular character to bring to bear, at least until an odd change late in the book that suggests that they may be evolving into more than that ahead of future entries in the series. That intriguing promise is only hinted at here though; in this book, zombies are annoyances or tools, nothing else, and they're frankly forgettable background details compared to the human villains of the piece like Little Emer.

Usually, after starting a series partway through, I'm either explaining why I didn't think much of the one I read or I'm logging into Amazon to buy all the books that went before it. Strangely, I find myself stuck somewhere in between for a change with 'Drifters'. I enjoyed it and felt it a solid and capable read, strong in every regard and with few actual flaws to expose. I merely found after finishing the last page that it hadn't done anything at all to stick in my mind. It's slick and well written, but it's just another zombie story in a world full of zombie stories.

I'd therefore recommend it unreservedly to the hardcore fans but shrug away from doing so to a wider audience. I'm sure you could do a lot worse, but I know that your shelves are full and you'd be better off by following other priorities. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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