I’m sure I’ve babbled about much I like post-apocalyptic fiction many time – well, it’s still true. Chris Pasley’s Cages treads a similarly violent and terrifying future as Charlie Higson’s The Enemy. They’re both Young Adult horror stories with zombies, and I imagine (not having children myself) that they’re both going to give parents nightmares about whether to let their children read them. I would, but that probably doesn’t help.
Cages follows Sam Crafty, only just into his teens (and critically just into puberty) so he is, naturally, locked up with all the other teenagers. This future America has seen the country descend into anarchy and violence as the Bitten (adult zombies) and the very scary Beasts (teenage victims) tear society apart. They are all infected with a parasite which lies dormant in the body. About 10% of teens have their parasite triggered by the hormone soup that is adolescence. From that point they mutate swiftly into a ravening monster with spines, teeth and wings that rips everything nearby to shreds. The emergence of the creatures is genuinely tense and frightening in the book. To deal with this serious health problem all teenagers are placed in Quarantine for their adolescent education, guarded by heavily armed adults and locked into cells and classrooms.
The story presents a harsh teen school drama – Sam’s the new kid and has to try to fit in (taking a radical trouble-making climb to the top of the peer tree) – but the school is permanently on lock down and everyone knows their closest friends could turn into monsters and kill them. That makes friendship challenging. It’s also a vicious political thriller – the guards are just as afraid of the kids, and their job is to kill them if they turn. The warden, or principal is a cruel thug, also trapped in the nightmarish Quarantine, with no control or leash on his decisions and actions. It’s also a horror story, and a good one, using the metaphor of change during puberty in a much more literal way, covering the fear of youth and what they might become.
I very much enjoyed the outside paranoia and difficult relationships that parents have with children who have every chance of turning into monsters and being killed. The characters are engaging, often desperate and fearful living in a bleak world of disaster where the future promises to be even worse. It’s a fantastic environment that Pasley creates, one which feels ruthlessly pragmatic and brutal. It would be difficult to read it without thinking about the issues of guns in schools in the US, as well as lots of other troubling issues which Pasley includes, but leaves it to the reader to think through. Cages kept me rapt and tense throughout – I can’t wait for the second in the series. Read it.