Perhaps no zombie story is as beloved and influential as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. From black and white comic book to smash-hit TV show, The Walking Dead has captured the imaginations of the living and forced them to wonder, “What would I do if the world ended, but I didn’t?”
The Walking Dead is a story that by this time needs no introduction. I decided to give it one anyway, because it is just that epic and because now zombiephiles and fans of TWD are getting introduced to the story in a whole new way. This rebirth of the story in which the dead walk the Earth and the living are almost indistinguishable from their undead counterparts comes to us in the form of the first-ever The Walking Dead novel.
Written by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga, The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor is the first of what will hopefully be many novels to expand the universe of Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Instead of following Rick Grimes and the survivors fans have come to know and love through the comics and TV show, TWD: Rise of the Governor examines the back-story of the comic book’s most infamous villain: The Governor.
And what a story it is. Any reader of Kirkman’s TWD knows not to make any expectations of what’s to come next, because those expectations will ultimately be dashed to the floor and stomped to tiny bits and pieces (along with the last shreds of your hopes and dreams… yeah, The Walking Dead is like that). Rise of the Governor is no different, introducing readers to the man who would become the Governor a mere three days after the dead have replaced the living as the dominant species on Earth.
Philip Blake is a working-class man just trying to survive the madness with his brother Brian, two best buddies Nick and Bobby, and his little daughter, Penny. He doesn’t want much from the world: Just a cold beer every once in awhile, the comfort of a woman after his wife was killed in a car accident, and all the joy and safety he can possibly give to eight-year-old Penny. All of that becomes a lot harder when he has to take up bashing in skulls as a full-time occupation.
Philip’s brother Brian is a failure at life. Though he’s older than Philip by a few years, Brian is skinny, weak, and just a little cowardly when it comes to exterminating zombies. He’s failed at his marriage, his business, and at moving out of his parents’ house. Now that the brains have hit the fan, Brian is tagging along with Philip and takes on the job of keeping Penny out of harm’s way while the other men fight off the monsters.
The story follows the Blake party through the familiar landscape around Atlanta, Georgia: The same landscape Rick Grimes and his companions traverse in the comic books. From the Wiltshire Estates to downtown Atlanta to the Georgian countryside, the Blakes quest for a place to hide and live in peace. But nowhere is safe anymore, and as the monsters close in around them, the monster within Philip Blake starts to show through his exterior of loving father and protector.
Focusing on the points of view of the brothers Blake, Rise of the Governor paints a stark picture of the end of the world. In a way, the TWD novel is more gruesome and graphic than the comic books or TV show could ever be. Kirkman and Bonansinga make no attempt to shelter their readers from the horror and gore of the acts of killing and maiming. The writers don’t pull any punches, and the result is a descriptive horror-fest of blood and filth that takes your imagination to places it would rather not go. It’s been awhile since reading a horror novel has given me nightmares, but Rise of the Governor certainly has.
The horror of the novel comes not only from its graphic descriptions of zombie violence, but from the violence the living inflict on one another. There is horror in what the characters do to each other, how they abuse each other both intentionally and accidentally. Certain scenes will be deeply disturbing and even traumatic for readers, and Kirkman and Bonansinga must be commended on their deft and sensitive handling of the violence of rape and torture in the novel.
Besides the drama, action, and gore, a thread of moral questioning runs through the TWD novel. Throughout their journey, Brian ponders the ethics of “killing” the walking dead, even as Philip throws himself into the task with reckless abandon, even glee. While Brian makes his ethical inquiries into the extermination of other people, Nick (a deeply religious character) worries about the spiritual implications of leaving them here on Earth when their souls should be set free to go to Heaven.
Much like the comic book it follows, Rise of the Governor is more than it seems. Often the characters’ actions have questionable motives and disastrous results. Driven from place to place, the Blake party slowly begins to crack with each new tragedy, until the unthinkable happens and Philip is driven over the edge. The story offers a disturbing look into the minds of severely traumatized people. Though it doesn’t excuse the Governor’s heinous acts in the TWD comic books, Rise of the Governor at least provides some context for what could drive a person that deeply into madness and inhumanity.
Because this is Robert Kirkman and The Walking Dead we’re talking about, the novel wouldn’t be complete without a thoroughly mind-shattering twist at the end. And what a twist it is! Seriously: It will blow your mind. Let me know when you get there. I’ll be waiting on the corner of “What the ever-loving hell?!” and “I did not see that one coming.”
The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor is an excellent companion to the The Walking Dead comic books. The story is enriched by the novel format, and the characterization of the series’ most hated villain is something no fan will want to miss. This zombiephile and dedicated The Walking Dead fan gives Rise of the Governor a standing ovation… and more than a little fear.
Stay informed, stay alive: The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga will be released from St. Martin’s Press on October 11th, 2011. It is based on the comic books by Robert Kirkman, which have been adapted into AMC’s hit TV series The Walking Dead.
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