Book Review: The Burning World (Warm Bodies #2) by Isaac Marion (2017)

August 14th, 2018 7:00 am by mad mags

“What can we become?”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

For a variety of reasons, some good, most bad, I am famous. I am the first of the Dead to challenge the plague, the one who triggered a change that’s still spreading. I am the disease that cured itself. And I am the monster that kidnapped General Grigio’s daughter and brainwashed her into falling in love with it. I am the demon that lured legions of skeletons to the stadium and caused the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, and that may have personally infected General Grigio and thrown his converting corpse off the stadium roof. I am the reason there are zombies roaming their streets and eyeing their children. I am the reason nothing makes sense.

He thinks goodness must be more than just kindness. It must have a hard frame to hold it together. How can you stitch a wound if you faint at the sight of blood? How can you do good in a world you refuse to see?

Have I missed something? What I just saw was gruesome and tragic, yes, but also beautiful. I saw a woman pull herself out of her grave and climb up to whatever’s next. I saw a woman save her own soul. What did they see?

Several months have passed since the end of Warm Bodies: since an unassuming zombie met a girl, ate her boyfriend’s brain, took her back to his 747 parked at the kinda-sorta abandoned airport to listen to Sinatra records, and accidentally discovered the cure for the plague ravaging humanity. Since that girl took that boy back to her fortified home at CitiStadium to meet her father, leading to his infection and suicide, the invasion (and retreat) of the Boneys, and the dawn of a new era.

Or so that was the hope.

When we catch up with some of the most memorable protagonists in literary history – certainly in zombie fiction, anyway – we find that Julie and R have shacked up in a little fixer-upper in the ‘burbs surrounding the stadium, to help spread the cure beyond their bounds of their enclave. Their success has been halting, at best: the Fleshies, unlike the Boneys, are unimpressed with what Julie and R have to offer.

Meanwhile, Nora has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. In addition to the Living, Nora ministers to the Dead as they make the slow, laborious journey from Mostly-Dead to Nearlies, and then back to the land of the Living. While the Gleam – remember that yellow glow in Julie’s eyes? – heals “the rot” that eats at the Fleshies, it is powerless to fix the wounds inflicted from without. In R’s words, “Wounds aren’t the plague. […] The damage we do to ourselves is our responsibility.”

Another plague haunts our heroes: doubt. Julie and R don’t know how they conquered the plague, let alone how to replicate the results. R’s return to humanity has proven slow and tedious; he struggles to master Curious George, while his good friend M, much later to the party, can spit out polysyllabic sentences without missing a beat. And since so many of her patients expire on the operating table, mere seconds after rediscovering their long-lost humanity, Nora is understandably careening toward depression and burnout.

If it feels like I’m giving away the plot, fear not: this all happens in the first tenth of the book. With the odds already stacked against them, Marion introduces a new, more horrific villain into the mix: a shady private military corporation called the Axiom Group. They have a plan for the United States – North America? The world? – and Uncategorized Dead like R don’t fit into their blueprints. Before Julie and R (and Marcus and Nora? PLEASE DOG MAKE THIS HAPPEN!) can even begin to spread the cure, they must go up against an even crueler and more formidable adversary than the zombie plague: human greed.

So, look. I loved Warm Bodies. Love love loved it. Every time I read it, I am reduced to a puddle of slobber and tears. If it doesn’t quite make my Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time, it’s definitely in the Top Twenty. (What can I say, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler are stiff competition, okay.) When The Burning World came up on NetGalley, I immediately requested a copy…and then sat on it for more than a year. I had lots of personal stuff going on, it’s true, but also I was terrified to read it. Terrified that it wouldn’t be in the same stratosphere as Warm Bodies. I mean, it was so amazing, what are the chances that such strange magic can strike twice?

The answer is…not entirely terrible?

It’s hard to compare The Burning World to Warm Bodies, since the two are such different beasts. Whereas I’d categorize Warm Bodies as a zombie horror romance, The Burning World feels a little more traditionally action-adventurey. Again to quote R, who is eminently quotable: “I am finding it hard to be here, in the present, with all its explosions and car chases and covert operations.”

This isn’t to say that the plot of The Burning World isn’t “good” (read: entertaining, enjoyable, engaging, imaginative) – it is. This is a great story and, on its own – meaning not in relation to Warm Bodies – I might give it five stars. Four and a half at the very least. I was on the edge of my seat for nearly all of the 512 pages. And the writing is just as beautiful and poetic as that in Warm Bodies. But the story lacked some of the magic and wonder that made its predecessor so unforgettable, so enchanting…game-changing, even. With its all-too-human, all-too-recognizable, all-too-fleshy Big Bad, The Burning World feels a little more mundane. Warm Bodies, on the other hand? Witchcraft.

But there are so many things I adored in The Burning World (STUMP SISTERS!). R finally remembers his First Life, and it is freaky and sad and really kind of horrifying, and makes him into a character that’s even more complicated and sticky than he was before. Julie and Nora meet their idol, and she does not disappoint. Our heroes leave home, traverse the country on what may very well be the last functioning commercial airliner in existence, and ultimately decide to stay and fight. The Undead Army rises. A Mostly mother sacrifices her potential life to save her adopted Nearly children. Monsters reclaim their humanity and humans behave like monsters. Everyone loses someone, but some of these losses can still be undone.

In sum: if you loved Warm Bodies, you may or may not love The Burning World. If you hated Warm Bodies, you may or may not hate The Burning World. “Things were so easy then. So simple and sweet. Just me and my kidnapped crush and her boyfriend’s brain in my pocket.”

Atria, please please please publish The Living. We need to see what these people – Living and Dead, Nearlies and Mostlies and even the Boneys – will become.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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