This is not a Test by Courtney Summers

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Title: This is not a test

Author: Courtney Summers

Genre: Apocalypse/Survival/Zombie

Rating: ****

Review: Listen closely. Do not draw attention to yourself. Once you have found a secure location, stay where you are and help will come soon.

This is not a test. Listen closely. This is not a test.

On the day that Sloane Price decides to kill herself, the world ends.

Wait. Let me start again, six months earlier.

One day, out of the blue, Sloane’s 19 year old sister Lily runs away, leaving Sloane utterly on her own. In the months following, Sloane’s life turns into a bleak, nightmare of fear and pain from which there is no escape. Sloane has, alone, absorbed the brunt of her abusive father’s fury – and after six months, she has no more to give.

Now. Back to the beginning —

On the day that Sloane Price decides to kill herself, the world ends.

The dead come back to life, and Sloane finds herself banded together with a group of five other high school students. The six have made their painstaking way across their ravaged town and have only barely managed to reach Cortege High, taking refuge in the school’s strategic location, its stores of water and food. Together, the group grapples with the loss of their families, they struggle to make peace with each other, and to survive the horror that lurks outside their makeshift barricades.

For Sloane, whose world had already ended with the loss – the abandonment – of her older sister, she struggles to find meaning in a world where life has already been sapped of any value or purpose.

Wow. I haven’t read any of Courtney Summers’ work before, but this is Not a Test is one hell of a place to start. With sparse, beautiful prose, and a deeply disturbing, resonant character in the narrator of Sloane, This is Not a Test is, beyond a doubt, one of my favorite books of 2012.

The best works of apocalyptic fiction (particularly of the zombie persuasion) force readers to confront the essence of human nature when pushed to the brink, or when facing unspeakable devastation. Summers’ novel does exactly that, but through the lens of an already deeply hurt character who is so desperately grasping for meaning in a senseless world. Sloane’s world just happens to have zombies in it. The bulk of the novel takes place within Cortege High School’s barricaded walls and does play with many familiar zombie tropes – the need for supplies, for protection, the immediate distrust of outsiders, the common ways to become infected and kill those infected…you know the drill. Instead of being mundane, however, summers’ take on zombies focuses more on the human factor and the struggles within each of her core characters. It is through Sloane’s words and her unique perspective of bone-chilling dissonance, that this is Not a Test surpasses the mere label of zombie novel, and becomes a truly, utterly powerful work.

Related through Sloane’s brutal, cutting first-person narration, reading the book is a claustrophobic and harrowing experience. Sloane frequently slips away from the detail of the present to a more stream-of-consciousness type of internalization, always with the crushing weight of loss at the forefront of her mind. And that’s really the key – loss. More than mere grief or fear, it is the palpable sense of loss that characterizes this is Not a Test. From the loss of loved ones, to the loss of civilized society, to the loss of any kind of tractable sense of life as it once was, this gaping, aching hole punched through a ruined world – due to the walking dead, or to a sister’s abandonment – is the novel’s defining theme.

From a character perspective, this is Not a Test also plays with some familiar tropes, but excels in terms of development, heart, and depth. Our motley crew comprises familiar figures in the zombie apocalypse space – the aggressive hot-headed dissenter, the coolly assured leader, the peacekeeping appeaser, and all the others that fall on one side or the other. Yet, while these broad strokes seem fairly stock, the characters in This Is Not a Test are not devoid of their own Color. I love the tension between the angry, frustrated jock Trace and the calm, calculating leadership of Cary, just as I love the unconditional love and understanding between twins Grace and Trace (cute names, right). There’s the snivelling nobody, Harrison, and the quietly observant Rhys who watches Sloane carefully. And then of course, there’s Sloane herself, who remains distant from the group for as long as she can, absorbed in her own pain and resolved to end things once and for all.

Make no mistake, this is a stark, grim affair. Characters die, hearts are broken, and dreams are crushed. But at the same time, a girl finds a reason to move on and live – and that is all kinds of awesome. I loved this very beautifully oppressive, cloying nightmare of a book from start to finish. I will say it once again, so listen closely. This is Not a Test is, beyond a doubt, one of my favorite books of this year.

Buy it here:


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