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The Girl in Red
by Christina Henry
Berkley, $16.00, 304pp
Published: June 2019

While Christina Henry has written original novels, such as the 'Black Wings' series, she clearly prefers to take existing stories, mess with them in her own inimitable way and create something entirely new. I reviewed 'Lost Boy', her take on 'Peter Pan' a couple of years ago and she's written a couple of books shifting Alice from 'Alice in Wonderland' into a new structure. You're not, therefore, likely to be surprised to find that 'The Girl in Red' is a wild reimagining of the fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood.

How wild? Well, this Red is a lesbian liberal arts major of mixed race who has had a prosthetic leg since she was eight. She's still going to Grandma's cabin in the woods, but she has three hundred miles of zombie apocalypse to traverse in order to get there. She's no survivalist and she doesn't want to carry a gun, but she's independent; has a strong distrust of both government and officialdom; and is a strong fan of both science and science fiction.

Yeah, that's a little wild. While it does seem like Red, whose real name is Cordelia, is nothing but a conglomeration of checkboxes, she's actually fun to follow. I was more annoyed with her parents, who wildly underestimate how quickly everything goes to crap in an apocalypse. That's quite literally a fatal mistake for them and I can't say I was sad. I was also more frustrated with her brother, Adam, who's a year older but less streetwise and far more deserving to become a casualty on the journey.

I can't see that as a spoiler, by the way, because the author alternates her story between timeframes, Before and After. Given that Red's clearly on her own in the After sections, we know we're going to lose Adam somewhere and I can't say that it came soon enough. The pair of young kids she acquires in a forest are much more interesting and, frankly, far more believable.

I liked this book but I had a few problems with it.

For a start, the Cough, which is what sparks the Crisis, is presumably meant to be a MacGuffin but it never quite manages to be and I'm not fond of that approach. Either use it entirely as a backdrop and never explain it or leap headlong into the technical details so that we know what's going on and what the survivors are up against. Henry treats it as unimportant, just the way it is now, but then adds details to tantalise us, like monsters that burst out of people's stomachs, without any explanation. Maybe it's supposed to be frustrating to us because it's clearly frustrating to the characters, but I don't buy that.

Another is the way that plot convenience plays a major part. The sweep is a journey Red takes through this new landscape to get to Grandma's cabin and I appreciated how characters entered and left that sweep. Sam and Riley, those young kids, are great examples; they show up when they should and leave when they should. There's an elderly Korean called DJ who does the same thing in his own appropriate way. I won't say how in either case. However, Sirois is not so well-handled. He shows up time and again but only when it's notably convenient to the plot.

A third is the way that the author ties everything to "the movies". Maybe it would be that way in a real zombie apocalypse, everyone so caught up in what happens in the movies that they see the world around them as they would on a screen. And I don't just mean assumptions, the way people would do things in a particular way only because it's what people do in the movies, but also a meta-level of understanding, the way people would do things in a particular way only because people always do something stupid in the movies instead. It just seemed overdone here, Red constantly driven to do something different, entirely because she saw so many people die of stupidity in the movies.

Overall, I enjoyed this. I liked Red. I liked her journey. I liked some of the supporting characters. And I liked how it tried to do something new. I liked that Red is not the usual lead in a post-apocalyptic story but she's entirely appropriate for the material. She's tough in unusual ways and she had my sympathy all the way. She's a good lead.

But there were things I didn't like. I didn't like the back and forth, as the back really didn't matter; everything is fundamentally about the forth. Sure, it built her character a little but there were other ways to achieve that. I didn't like the blink and you'll miss it ending. And I didn't like the unobtainium threat. This often felt like a Little Red Riding Hood story without the Wolf and what would that be?

Fortunately, the likes outweigh the dislikes, not least because the author's prose is smooth and engaging. I'll be on board for the next book in which Christina Henry takes an old story we know and love and transforms it out of all recognition. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Christina Henry click here

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