BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The zombie apocalypse has turned into a wild west where children are used for bait and happy outcomes are few and far between.
PROS: moments of excellent prose and horror; one-of-a-kind zombie mythos; interesting heroine; solid ending.
CONS: weaker middle; weak empathy for secondary characters; disappointed after really enjoying first book.
BOTTOM LINE: The action from an interesting concept of Happy Town’s dark secret, along with the heroine’s emotional journey made this a good read, but the lack of supporting characters you really care about made most of the events only marginally exciting.
For those who haven’t read Rise Again, the precursor to Below Zero, know that Ben Tripp is a very talented author and quality zombie fiction is hard to find. He has two strongly empathetic characters in this series: Danny Adelman, a war vet turned alcoholic sheriff of a small town, and the little sister that loves her in spite of her addiction. Both books display an emotional ride through her alcoholism and the realization of her failure as an older sister and leader. That aspect alone puts his two book series onto my short list recommendations for zombie books. But Tripp also writes some of the best action and horror scenes while additionally serving up excellent world building. That means there’s a solid chance you’ll enjoy these books. Both books had sections in the middle that lost momentum, but both books also ended with a strong finish.
For those who have read the first book, but not Below Zero, my non-spoiler review for you is that Tripp unravels more of the mystery behind the zombie virus evolution in a way that I haven’t seen before and which creates exquisite zombie-horror scenarios. Even though I mention being disappointed above, it’s worth the time to wrap up the series. Maybe it won’t be a disappointment for you. I’m glad I finished this story and will recommend it to others.
The Happy Town idea about people creating a safe haven for children surprised me with its dark secret, but made this more of an event-driven story than a character-driven one. As a result, it left me flipping pages without much emotional interest. Danny walks a tough road (and gets a bit of a surprise at the end) but the combination of a lacking supporting cast and a character arc that felt thin and repetitive left me with a good, but not great, reading experience.
*** WARNING: Spoilers Ahead! ***
The last sentence of Rise Again propelled it to excellence, which has never happened for me before. You know what happened. Finding out what would happen to Danny and her sister after that revelation made the sequel a highly anticipated read. To then have Danny’s sister die so early in the sequel made me wonder how the author was going to maintain the same level of interest. There seemed to be untapped potential in her dying, as well as in the secret in the bag, which revealed and ended in a ho-hum reaction.
The second two-thirds was interesting, but the author essentially replaced the empathy we’d have for Danny’s relationship with her sister with empathy for Danny’s woe-is-me, you-guys-can-go-to-Hell attitude and her quest to save Silent Kid, some child that is supposed to be cute because he has a dog, is abandoned and doesn’t talk. There is empathy to see that kid survive, but not nearly as much as we had in the first book when Danny sacrificed everything to find and save her little sister.
If the first book was Danny learning about herself and the search for her sister, this second book is about how to cope when she’s lost everything. That’s a tough story to tell, but I wish Tripp would have included more sympathetic characters to engage the reader in an otherwise very dark story. Danny’s alcoholic bender with Wulf was a low point, but it happened more like an event checked off a list than an emotional experience. It was sad that the guy died, but I wasn’t very close to that character. The woman in the wheelchair started off as a potentially strong sidekick, but lost screen time and, looking back, didn’t amount to much by way of the finale. The booty call scene with Topper was sudden and because of that, didn’t make me care if they got back together, something that would have created more emotional tension to a horrific scene later on—one of the best in the book, but which could have been better.