When one typically says the word "post-apocalyptic zombie fiction", you assume the former is caused by the latter. The first intriguing thing about Z-Boat is the zombies are completely unrelated to the fact the world has gone to hell.
Set in an undetermined time in the future, Z-Boat describes a world where the environment has been totally destroyed by pollution and only a few countries remain due to economic collapse. While I was knocked out of the book by her, presumably humorous, choice of North Korea as one of those nations--we have no idea just how long the world has been in this state.
I found Suzanne Robb's vision of a humanity on its last legs enjoyably dark. Everyone continues to go about their business despite the fact its obvious the world not just coming to an end but had ended years ago. Humanity is taking its time dying out but the sheer amount of devastation makes any repair attempts impossible (doubly so given humanity is using outmoded rusting 21st century equipment).
The bleakness is all subtext, though, with the humans of Z-Boat not really caring about the end of the world. Instead, their chief concerns are their paycheck and whether or not their next mission will get them killed. The crew of the titular boat reminded me strongly of the Nostromo's crew from Alien as a result. A collection of individuals in a doomed situation, shady corporate sponsorship, and one exceptionally competent woman who might save a few.
The characters are an ecletic bunch and the book's chief draw. The Betty Loo submarine is more or less the last stop and all of them have checked pasts of one kind or another. Not all of the crew like each other and tensions run hot and thick between the original crew as well as the newcomers.
My favorite characters were Ally and Brian, the former being a survivor of a cult-like militia and the latter being the ship's alcoholic Captain. The novel spans multiple perspectives and gives us a multifaceted view of the situation while also making sure we don't know who the "main" characters are. This keeps tension hot when bodies start to pile up.
Suzanne Robb brings an interesting new approach to zombies as well. Her particular Z-words are notable for the fact infection doesn't destroy a subject's intelligence. Instead, they just become incredibly hostile and focused on feeding above all else. The zombies are thus able to plan and strategize before falling on their former human allies like the cannibals they are. There were times when I wondered if they were possessed by an alien parasite like in The Thing. We got only a short bit from the perspective of these "smart" zombies and I'm hoping for more in future books.
Readers should be forewarned the actual zombies don't appear engage the crew until the last third of the book. Suzanne Robb is far more interested in the tensions, paranoia, and in-fighting amongst the crew to drop in her cannibalistic creations off the bat. Therefore, the book is something of a slow burn before an explosive climax. This may not to be everyone's taste. Likewise, I question the choice of the surviving nations in this reality and believe others would have worked better.
One scene also bugged me. A crew member of the Betty Loo is revealed to have taken part in a monstrous crime. One so horrific and destructive that the casualties outnumber Nine-Eleven a hundred fold. When his part in this horrific massacre is revealed, the crew just sort of shrug it off. I'm not sure if the author was trying to make a statement about the callousness of people in the future or simply the idea such tragedies are commonplace now. Either way, it took me out of the book.
Still, the personal relationships of the crew helped endear them to me so when the zombies finally did arrive--I cared who got eaten and who didn't. This is an important quality for any work of horror and Z-Boat successfully pulls it off. I look forward to future works set in the world of Z-Boat and recommend the novel for zombie and apocalypse fans.