I was going to start this out by saying, "Maybe I'm jaded," but then I realized that I am jaded, so there. No need to hem and haw about it.
While I enjoyed The Girl with All the Gifts, and it was well-written with interesting characters, I couldn't help but think I'd read something like this before. Or something vaguely like it. Small girl saviors seem to be Writer's Choice when it comes to horror, especially post-apocalyptic horror (see: Robopocalypse, The Stand, Carrion Comfort, The Passage, etc.). My ultimate reaction to the ending was a mental gallic shrug. That happened; let's move on to the next thing.
Melanie is the smartest kid in her class. The teachers rotate from day to day, but the best day is Miss Justineau day. Miss Justineau is young and kind and shares stories with them, like Greek myths and poetry. It's a lot better than the days with the drunk teacher or the apathetic teacher. The fact that Melanie attends class strapped to a wheelchair and that she's never been touched, ever, is completely normal for her. She doesn't quite understand why Sergeant Parks and his men seem to hate her and the other kids so much, or why they smell so astringently chemical all the time. But Melanie loves to learn, so it's okay. One of her favorite stories is that of Pandora and her box: this woman with all the gifts who unleashes horrors onto the world, but also lets out hope.
Sometimes other students go behind the big vault door to Dr. Caroline Caldwell's area. That's normal too. These students don't come back, but Melanie doesn't think about this too much. Other kids come to take their places, and equilibrium settles again.
One day, Miss Justineau reads them "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and the children ask her what death is. Does it hurt? What happens when someone dies? Miss Justineau's face flickers between emotions, and for one brief moment, she breaks protocol: she touches Melanie's hair. It's no surprise that Dr. Caldwell targets Melanie, the brightest of them all, as her next subject.
You've probably guessed that this isn't a normal school. It's England, post-zombie-apocalypse, and the children in the classroom are aberrations: they are zombies who have retained their higher cognitive functions. Dr. Caldwell believes that by dissecting them--vivisecting, really, although she insists that they are already dead--she can find a cure.
Not so very long ago, a fungus infected humankind. This fungus hijacks the brain and causes anyone infected with it to devolve into a mindless host with a hunger for flesh. Any flesh will do, but that of humans is most sweet. This mycelium eventually grows out of its host, wreathing them in a fine gauze of fungal growths. All human attempts to kill the fungus have failed. So Caroline Caldwell--ambitious, proud, and with one heck of a chip on her shoulder--is determined to use the children, or hungries, to find a cure.
Melanie is prepped to have her brain removed when Miss Justineau comes to save her. Naked, shorn, and strapped to a table, Melanie suddenly realizes exactly what happens to the students who disappear. She is afraid. But then there is a new reason for fear: a huge pack of hungries, driven by feral humans called Junkers, attack the compound and overwhelm it. They break the glass of the dissection laboratory; Caldwell fights them off with a shard of glass, shredding her own flesh in the process, and Justineau goes after Melanie. After much zombie-munching, Parks and a young soldier roll up in a Humvee and rescue the remaining three.
Thus begins what is probably one of the worst road trips ever: hunted by Junkers, dodging hungries, keeping Caldwell alive, preventing Caldwell from carving out Melanie's brain, running, more running, hiding, poor decision making, more running ... it's rather exhausting to read. This was the wasted potential section of the book. Instead of starting to unravel the mystery, Carey just has them run. And run. And fight. And run. This means that all of the explanation--or at least, what he doles out--is crammed into the last few pages. The explanation for Melanie's condition is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it revelation, and the whole "what is a human?" question got beaten to death at the end. When I finished the book, I thought, "Well. That happened."
Everything was suitably bleak, and themes of guilt and absolution wind their way through the plot but aren't exploited to their potential. Melanie manages to charm without being silly; she's both wise and intelligent. I really wish Carey had done more, plotwise, with Dr. Caldwell. I found her to be the scariest of all of the cast, including the hungries, because she has absolutely no concept of or respect for morals and ethics. And she's not a loud, ranting, menacing person, either. Caroline exerts total control, examining even the wreckage of her hands and the ensuing infection with a detached scientific interest.
However, if you need a pretty straightforward zombie apocalypse story with lots of intestines, this may be the book for you. It's just not the book I wanted it to be.