5:00 pm EST, November 16, 2018

‘The Living’ book review: The well-earned ending the Warm Bodies story deserves

Some think they know how R and Julie’s story ends after just reading (or watching) Warm Bodies, but they couldn’t be more wrong. It’s The Living, the final book in the series, and not Warm Bodies that brings their epic tale to a beautiful and fitting end.

When we first met R and Julie in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies eight years ago(!), he was just a peculiar zombie and she was a teenager with dreams too big to be contained by the stadium where she was forced to live. Together, they proved that the plague that was consuming their world was reversible. It wasn’t clear how, but it was.

Cut to The Burning World where their efforts to cure those around them were halted and practically dismantled by outside forces looking to capitalize on the chaos. Forced to go on the run, our heroes all but gave up on the world they were trying to save, looking to escape to somewhere else. Some new place where they wouldn’t have to fight for the life they wanted but could just already start living it.

Obviously, that didn’t work out.

After doing some unexpected soul-searching, R, Julie, Nora, Marcus, and the rest of their friends return in The Living with a vengeance. They’re no longer the simple characters we met in Warm Bodies. They’re beaten-down, tired, and desperate to see the power-hungry “old system” come to a grinding halt.

The previous novel really put these characters through the wringer as the majority of them had to face quite a few awful truths and memories from their pasts. Ones that they’d convinced themselves were from another life and worked so hard to forget. But, in The Living, one by one they all finally realize that they can’t ignore or deny their pasts any longer if they want to live in a better world. They’ve revisited the traumas of their last and no longer drag the weight of them around like they did before. They’ve absorbed the parts that count and left behind the remains.

As a result, The Living makes for a much more fascinating read than any of the installments that came before it. As much as I was fascinated to learn all of the details of their pasts in previous novels, seeing all of those details in action makes for a much more gripping novel. It’s like up until The Living we as readers were only really connecting the dots and putting puzzle pieces together, but now we’re able to join the series’ chorus of voices and see the larger picture. I really enjoyed spending time with the characters at this point in their lives because they all felt much more whole than they did in the past. And, I mean, in a lot of ways, they were.

Practically every character who merits a name in Warm Bodies, The New Hunger, and The Burning World makes an appearance and has an important role to play in The Living. From adorable traveling duo/gay dads Gael and Gebre to Evan, that guard who used to have it bad for Nora back in the day, characters from our heroes’ past return to help pave the way for the future (for better or for worse).

Speaking of Nora, hers is one of the best storylines in The Living. Ever since The New Hunger, I’d been waiting to explore her mind and see what happens when she opens those doors she shut so tightly in the past. While The Burning World is definitely the story of R coming to grips with his past, The Living is Nora’s. After holding herself back and putting herself into the role of best friend sidekick so long ago, she emerges here as a fully-formed character.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how great R and Julie are in this installment.

The Living by Isaac Marion

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of R in the previous novel. He worked so hard to block out his past and keep secrets from his friends that it was impossible not to be frustrated by him. But, of course, that was by design. We were supposed to feel that way about him because we were learning about the significance of the past right alongside him. But I’m happy to report that he’s back and better than ever in this.

From the get-go, R’s discoveries and acceptance on where he comes from gives him a new and important perspective on the world and how it came to be such a mess. Not only that, but he doesn’t hide it. Sure, he’s not exactly forthcoming with his information, often choosing to mull it over for a while before telling his friends what he knows, but that’s only so he can make sense about how all of the pieces fit before alarming the others. One of the things I loved about R in Warm Bodies and The New Hunger was his insight on existence and what it means to be human, so I was more than pleased to see this aspect of his character return in The Living.

Also back and better than before is Julie, who even admits at a few points in this novel that she had been acting pretty terribly during the events of The Burning World. Seeing her mother understandably broke her, but her treatment of her friends and her giving up on the world she had so much hope for was a hard pill to swallow. But here, she, along with R, is lighter.

One of the things that has always made Julie such a compelling and root-worthy character was her hope. It’s what set her apart from Perry as well as her father, both men who had a similar optimism for the future at some point but gave in to despair. She was a beacon of light during dark times. Though she lost her way in The Burning World, Julie shines brightly once again in this novel, serving as a catalyst for much of the widespread changes that occur and guiding her friends (as well as humanity itself) through some pretty tough situations.

As I pointed out in the cover reveal for this book, there’s a quote from The New Hunger inscribed over her silhouette on the cover that reads “Life is only fair for the Dead, who get what they want because they want nothing. Julie wants everything, no matter how much it costs, and this is why she will change the world.” Previously, this had really only referred to her hope and optimism, but it takes on a whole new meaning in The Living. Her hope becomes the fuel that fires her to take the world in her hands and re-mold it into what she believes it could (and should) be.

In terms of this novel’s plot, The Living picks up right where The Burning World left off, almost down to the hour. And so, this novel ends up being another sort of road trip story. But instead of the destination being somewhere off in the distance like it’d been previously, The Living is a story about the importance of the return trip as well as everything it takes to move forward.

As a result, the characters don’t really experience anything particularly new in the first part of this book (as they’ve pretty much always been in some sort of danger since the moment we met them). On the contrary, their backtracking causes them to re-experience previous situations and actually work through them.

One of my favorite examples of this is a section toward the middle of this novel that pops up unexpectedly but is absolutely riveting. You’ll know it the moment you read it. This scene directly involves the past in order to unlock the path to the new future and world that these characters have chosen to fight for. In fact, it practically gives the character involved a full-on redo so that they can use their knowledge of the past, as well as their hope, to create a different outcome for themselves.

The Living by Isaac Marion

Now I’m not the type of person who physically reacts to I’m reading or watching, but believe me when I say that I couldn’t help but audibly gasp when I encountered this event. Not only that, but it was difficult to keep myself from speeding through the slightly unrelated chapters following the event just to get back to this one character to find out what happens next! This one small sequence is a beautiful example of the novel’s larger message: Nothing is absolute, but we have to try something different in order to achieve different results.

That all being said, the story here wasn’t as gripping or addictive as I’d hoped it would be (or as the previous novels were). I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that The Burning World and The Living were, at one point, the same novel. So, a lot of the adventuring and action, as well as the detective work, happened in the former, leaving the latter with most of the philosophical and “what now” heavy lifting. While I enjoyed thinking in new ways and considering the events of the book (as well as our own world) in a new light, it’s a bit exhausting to do it as much and as often as the novel asks.

But, on the other hand, that difficulty makes unlocking the characters’ secrets, connecting all the dots, and then finishing the novel (as well as the series) feel like well-earned accomplishments.

And though they weren’t my favorite parts to read, The Living‘s long, philosophical passages and journeys through multiple planes of existence were some of the most beautiful aspects of the novel. While that might sound a bit highbrow for a “zombie novel,” it’s perfectly appropriate for this, a novel about what it means to be alive and be human. Parsing through all of these dense ideas can be exhausting while reading the novel, but they’re worth sticking with and unraveling.

The Burning World felt — and very much still feels — timely and relevant to the current world climate (what with its commentary on power struggles and apathy), but reading The Living feels like looking into a crystal ball and seeing a potential future for us all. Even when things feel insurmountable and like they’re at their darkest, it’s never too late for us to change course if we have hope, conviction, and the motivation to change our circumstances.

The Warm Bodies series and the story of a zombie filled with love has come a long way since it made its first appearance in the world. Evolving from a sort of existential Romeo and Juliet story featuring zombies into a cautionary-tale-turned-uncanny-commentary on the current world climate and now to a beacon of hope, this series encapsulates every aspect of the human condition. It may have been pitched as a story about zombies and survival, but The Living proves it’s so much more than that.

The Living by Isaac Marion is an impressive feat of storytelling that puts this epic tale to rest in the most thought-provoking and organic way. Spanning multiple generations, thousands of miles, and several planes of existence, The Living shows us all what it really means to be alive and how to exist in the world we wish to see.

Though I’m sad to say goodbye to R, Julie, and the Warm Bodies series as a whole, I couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion to such a gripping and soulful story. I’m so grateful to Isaac Marion for creating such a nuanced and thought-provoking world and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

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