The Return Man by V. M. Zito
Read by Bernard Clark
Length: 14 Hrs 2 Min
Genre: Zombie Apocalypse
Quick Thoughts: While it took a while for me to really get into The Return Man, when I finally did I found it to be a well paced thriller that offers a lot of fun zombie action and some truly emotional moments. While Zito relies heavily of thriller conspiracy tropes and stereotypical bad guys, he does a good job creating emotionally complex situations and uses the zombie tableau to examine the value of human life in a way that truly pays off for the reader.
Zombies offer such a great tableau for writers to work with. They are monsters, and whether they are fast moving or slow shambling, they tap into our deepest nightmares. They are unthinking instruments of death, whose sole purpose is to consume us. This allows for a great setting for straight up horror action. Writers looking for a fast paced, harrowing horror action tale can’t go wrong with zombies. Yet, for writers looking to explore some of the essential issues of humanity, Zombies are a great medium as well. Zombies are us. We are the monsters. This allows writers to put their characters in situations where they are fighting against mindless killers, and there only real response it to kill them unmercifully, yet, these monsters look like mom and dad, son and daughter, in fact they very well could be your parents or children. One of my favorite issues that some authors take on in zombie tales is respect for life. The vast majority of Americans believe in some form of soul, that when the body dies, some part of the essence of a person lives on. Yet, how would you reconcile that in a zombie apocalypse. Is the soul still trapped inside the body, as it rampages, searching for fresh flesh to consume? A few books have handled this topic well, particularity Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, combining the horrific elements of a zombie Apocalypse with a respect for life. Books that can take on this issue plus give an added bonus of gripping Zombie action, always make it high on my list.
In The Return Man the main character Henry Marco is called a Zombie Hitman, but that title really does a disservice to his character. Marco "returns" the walking corpses to their true death. When the Quarantine Zone was set up, effectively cutting the United States in half, Marco stayed behind to search for his wife. Now, he lives in zombie occupied Western United States, and takes on jobs searching out loved ones of his clients, and putting them down. This is made possible because the Zombies retain some residual memory, often returning to places that were important to them. One of the problems with making your main character damaged, and both physically and emotionally isolated, is that the reader depends a lot on the internal thought process of the main character. It takes a while to really get into The Return Man because of this. While Marco was a complex and well realized character, it takes some outside influences to bring that to life. It’s not until he is forced into a mission by a corrupt politician, and meets up another character. Kheng Wu, a Chinese spy he mistakes for his military escort, does the novel really begin to take off. As opposed to Marco, I had issue with Wu’s character, who seemed a strange mix of foreign bad guy tropes, but at least the interaction brings to some life into Marco. The flashback scenes examining the relationship between Marco and his wife, and his frantic search for her on the day of the outbreak were the highlight of the book. Zito does pace the novel wonderfully, putting Marco and Wu into many seemingly impossible situations that at time pushed credibility but were always exciting, well orchestrated and kept the story perpetually moving forward. I liked both the political and scientific aspects that Zito built into the story. I found the scientific explanations for the zombies to have a more authentic feel then the vast majority of Zombie novels, and while the political situations relied heavily on "ripped from the headline" style pop conspiracies, I actually enjoyed it. While it took a while for me to really get into The Return Man, when I finally did I found it to be a well paced thriller that offers a lot of fun zombie action and some truly emotional moments. While Zito relies heavily of thriller conspiracy tropes and stereotypical bad guys, he does a good job creating emotionally complex situations and uses the zombie tableau to examine the value of human life in a way that truly pays off for the reader.
There are certain narrators that have this rhythmic style of reading that many listeners enjoy, but I find to have an almost robotic tone, and Bernard Clark seems to be one of them. These narrators seem to bring their own rhythm to the reading of the text, and unless it fits with the prose of the author, it seems to suck some of the life out of the story. I’m sure that plenty of people will enjoy Bernard Clark’s reading of The Return Man, but so much of the early part of the novel is prose over dialogue, and I found his voice and cadence contributing to my inability to connect with the text. When Clark is reading dialogue, he brings more life into his reading, and I felt his characterizations for most of the characters were spot on. I think he captured Marco perfectly, allowing us to see through his dry wit and sarcastic tendencies to the fractured nature of his personality. I do feel he missed the boat a bit with Wu. While Wu is a Chinese national, he is described as having Americanized his speech in order to fit in. I mean, he was a undercover spy, and Clark had him sounding very foreign, with a strange tone and way of speaking. I found his interpretation of Wu not to match what I envisioned him to be. Overall, I enjoyed the audiobook, and the majority of my issues with the narration were mostly due to style preference over actual problems with execution.
Note: A special thanks to Hachette Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.