Review: The Walking Dead - Rise of the Governor / Author: Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga / Publisher: Tor
"When the locusts come, and the river runs red with blood, the guy with the most to lose gets to lead the pack." (pp.11-12)
In The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor, the first in a series of three mass market horror novels co-written by series creator Robert Kirkman and seasoned thriller author Jay Bonansinga, that guy is Philip Blake.
Philip Blake is all things to all people. First and foremost, he's a father to Penny, the apple of his eye, and the wind beneath his wings, but Philip is also a little brother to Brian, who makes up in brains what he lacks in brawn, not to mention balls. He's a widower, in addition. but not because the zombies ate his wife, as zombies are wont to do to those nearest and dearest to our hearts; rather a tragic car crash, fully three years before Z-day, put paid to that part of his life.
When the walking dead come to town, Philip finds that he is a survivor, too – as are Penny and Brian, luckily enough, as well as Philip's high school friends Nick and Bobby – and not only that: he is a leader. And this motley crew needs a leader like a zombie needs a hole in the head, which is to say gravely. So he takes charge. He takes them from their quiet countryside hometown to Atlanta, where they've heard tell of some safe haven. Fans of the comic book and/or AMC's lamentably inconsistent adaptation should have a fair idea how that's likely to work out.
In any event, what Philip is is nothing next to what he will become. Because Rise of the Governor is of course about the fan-favourite character from the comics: a sadistic monster of a man who leaves quite the impression on the group of survivors The Walking Dead follows, when they come to Woodbury. Not coincidentally, Woodbury is where Rise of the Governor culminates, with an alarming body-count and an almighty twist.
To wit, if you think you know how this story ends, think again.
Remember, "no man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks." (p.213) So sayeth the 18th century women's rights advocate and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose wise words are a fitting epigraph to the devastating denouement of Kirkman and Bonansinga's first collaboration.
What Rise of the Governor gets very, very right is the intermittently sweet but take-no-prisoners atmosphere of The Walking Dead in its original iteration. Bad things happen to our cast of characters, and in turn some of our cast of characters visit that evil unto others, but there are good times, too... contented times, if not exactly happy days, and with the undead everywhere, rioting at the scent of their flesh like sharks mad for chum, that seems an appropriate balance for the co-authors to strike. Most powerful of all, as in the comics, are those moments neither naturally good nor innately bad – those inimitable instants of "horror-stricken silence" (p.103) where the shades of grey this world revolves around are revealed, in all their tarnished tones.
Rise of the Governor has not a few tricks up its sleeve, fit to subvert the expectations of even the most dedicated franchise aficionados, but for the larger part they're gathered about the shocking last act. As Brian recollects, "it's only afterward you start shaking." (p.31) In the interim, this first prose novel to spring from The Walking Dead lore is simply a story of survival, like any one of a gazillion other zombie books. What separates it from that poor man's horde is its snappiness, its sense of momentum, and the sense – ever the sense – that something greater is at work here; that even as we speak, there are other stories happening in tandem with this one.
Given that they are essentially zombie fodder, Kirkman and Bonansinga's characters are an astonishingly tolerable lot. Philip makes some awful choices - some real stinkers, not least one encounter on an Atlanta rooftop, as lightning splits the overcast sky - but there is ever the hope against hope that he will redeem himself, and to a certain extent, he does. Brian, on the other hand... Brian is an absolute pansy: a nervous wreck in the aftermath of the zompocalypse who cannot summon the spine to put a single solitary Biter out of its misery. You can see his arc taking shape already, right?
Penny, meanwhile, is "the glue that's holding them all together, keeping from self-destructing," (p.217) and she is truly a dear, sweet little thing, with her calling to put all the broken dolls back together. I'd have loved to hear more from her, but for reasons that will be clear enough if you're even passing familiar with the Governor's role in the comic books, that simply isn't the hand she's dealt.
I am, I confess, pleasantly surprised to find this book so fully formed. So strong in terms of character, and as to plot... well, it can't hurt that Rise of the Governor is so short – you could read it in an evening – but that isn't to say it's insubstantial, by any stretch.
When it was announced late last year, in the wake of the TV series' success, the decision to translate The Walking Dead lore into prose seemed a cash-grab and a half. And that's as may be, but Rise of the Governor is a hand-axe in the head of anyone who thinks money-spinners can't be successful fictions on their own merits. Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga's first collaboration is both a perfect introduction to the franchise, and a great service to all those folks who've walked with these zombies before. It's a genuine pleasure to see the series make the transition to pictureless literature so smartly, not to speak of smoothly.
'The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor' is out now