Contagious Chaos is the third volume of the Contagium series, which is the chronicles of a young woman (Orissa "Rissa" Penwell) as she struggles to survive a zombie-outbreak. Rissa' situation is slightly better than most zombie survivors as she quickly hooks up with a group of Marines who defy genre convention by NOT being evil rapists or morons.
The premise is Rissa has gotten herself captured while exploring a former insane asylum. The inhabitants (a group of white-supremacists which have taken over) have set up their own quasi-Woodbury-esque dictatorship under a man named Dre.
The asylum-dwellers have ample food, medical supplies, and weapons which they have been using to (what else) prey on other survivors. They intend to beat and torture a location of Rissa's group out of her. Rissa doesn't intend to let this happen and will do her best to escape so she can warn her friends.
I think the asylum-dwellers are biting off more than they can chew as I would put my money on the Marines rather than a group of heavily-armed gang members. The author tries to sell them as a serious threat, however, and a group comparable in might. I can't say I'm a big fan of setting up "utterly evil settlements" in zombie stories, though, even if there's justifications for this like them being composed of racists.
I'm more a fan of things like Rick being willing to take the Woodbury survivors into the prison at the end rather than total destruction as the only recourse. We have enough arguing for that in the real world without fictional people being reduced (ironically) zombies.
Contagious Chaos is more interested in telling a story of good versus evil with a side order of revenge than moral ambiguity, however. The asylum dwellers killed a friend of Rissa and tortured her, which drives her to want to exterminate them. Any and all obstacles which stand in her way are ones she cuts through with a knife. Rissa even plans to unleash zombies onto the asylum, something I'd only advocate in the most extreme situations.
The book makes use of one of my personal bugbears in sexual assault (or the threat thereof) as a means of illustrating the villains are evil. I automatically remove a point from any novel which makes use of this plot point. I've seen it too many times in everything from the Book of Eli to The Walking Dead to ever want to see it again. Thankfully, it never gets beyond the villains suggesting it is Rissa's fate if she doesn't cooperate.
Despite this, Contagious Chaos is good.
Rissa is an excellent proactive female heroine in a genre which is only now starting to produce excellent ones. She's tough, intelligent, motivated, and neither overly sexualized or removed of those qualities. Rissa has a fully-realized personality and we get to know her intimately during this book. Even if I believe her desire to destroy the asylum residents verges on the brutal, many readers will appreciate a female protagonist motivated by anger and revenge.
My wife certainly does.
I liked the character of Hayden who is a wonderful romantic foil for Rissa. As the handsome Marine she's seeing and the only human being with an immunity to zombie-itis (so to speak), he could easily be the protagonist of the series but isn't. I like how he desires to be protective of Rissa but understands that's a stupid attitude to have with someone so proactive. Their relationship sort of reminds me of the best of Buffy and Angel.
The book is filled with action, great emotional moments, and hard decisions. Rissa is the toughest woman left alive in the world and it's fun watching her have to push the Marines to the right decisions sometime. I also like her relationship with her fellow female survivors, teaching them how to be tougher in a world where weakness is going to be exploited.
In conclusion, I think this is an excellent action-orientated zombie apocalypse novel. It's about finding the bad guys and smashing them up good. It's got plenty of zombie-killing, romance, and despicable villains. I may not like its depiction of the mentally ill or the threat of sexual assault as a problem for our heroine to overcome but these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things.
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