It is a rare occasion that I jump into a book knowing absolutely nothing about the story or author. The reason this showed up on my radar was Seanan McGuire raving about it on the SF Squeecast. She managed to make it sound juicy and fun without giving anything away and, having now read it, I believe the best way to experience The Girl With All The Gifts is to just dive in. The synopsis from GoodReads does an okay job, giving you a feel of what to expect without spoiling the little twists. Still, it doesn’t hurt to skip it.
Published by: Orbit, January 2014
Hardcover: 405 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: Her name is Melanie.
Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her ‘our little genius’. Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh. Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
Melanie’s world is small but beloved. Her entire world is made up of her cell, the corridor outside it, and the two doors at each end. One – the red one – leads to the classroom, a place where she learns about the world, about the laws of physics and mathematics, but especially about stories. Her favorites are the Greek Myths, and of those, her favorite is the story of Pandora’s box. The door at the other end of the corridor has been closed for as long as Melanie can remember…
Reading The Girl With All The Gifts is a little bit like poking through a tiny window into Melanie’s life. Over time, the window opens up a little and we get to see more of what goes on around her. But at first, we – like Melanie – know only her cell, the classroom, and the showers. It’s not too hard to guess why school children are kept in a bunker-like building if you read closely. Something devastating must have happened to the outside world and for an avid reader of SFF it becomes fairly obvious what the cause is.
However, there are more layers to this story than a simple post-apocalyptic how-to-keep-on-living narrative. Melanie is front and center for a long time. As the story opens up, chapters switch between her viewpoint and that of other characters, but Melanie remained my absolute favorite. Now it’s getting really hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. Let’s just say: This story uses a trope. A very, very well-known trope with a newish spin. I’m not particularly fond of this kind of book because it’s been done to death and there’s usually not anything new to discover. But The Girl With All the Gifts has one thing going for it that kept me hooked even after the mysteries were solved: Melanie.
Melanie sees the world through the eyes of a much younger child. Being approximately 10 years old, she may well be classified as a genius. Her hunger for knowledge is insatiable and she enjoys making connections. But even for a smart kid, being suddenly thrown into a vast world is overwhelming, especially if you’ve only heard about it in lessons but never experienced it for yourself. There is a good reason Melanie and her classmates were kept locked up. The side characters – Sergeant Parks, Helen Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and young Kieran Gallagher – were all sympathetic and interesting in their way, but like I said before, none of them drew me in as much as Melanie did.
The plot as such starts out wonderfully intriguing. If you go in completely oblivious it’s a thrillride to figure out what is going on. Once certain truths about the world are established, however, the story drifts off into territory that is plastered with cliché. Melanie’s presence still lends it originality and enough to keep readers interested, but for me it was a little sad to see such a great idea end up more or less like any other story involving the same SFnal trope. Not that it isn’t well done. It’s just not something that I haven’t seen many times before.
As the characters meander through their devastated world, Melanie in tow, the focus of the story shifts toward problem-solving and exploring what it means to be human. I wasn’t bored exactly because I had come to care for the characters (even the despicable one) but my interest wasn’t anywhere near the level it held at the beginning of the book. This may all have to do with me not liking the central trope very much. That said, I was all the more thrilled to read the ending. I don’t think in all the movies I’ve watched, and books I’ve read, the make use of you-know-what I’ve ever come across an ending quite as poignant and sad and full of hope. It left me breathless.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good