Sometimes I feel that reading post-apocalyptic tales are less an escape and more training for the future, after all as a race we aren't doing a great job of preventing this self-destructive outcome. Luckily there is no shortage of literature to teach us about survival in a future wasteland and School's Out Forever is a Omnibus of such tales which collects School's out, Operation Motherland and Children's Crusade along with a short story and extra material - all witnessed through the eyes of children and young adults and centred around St. Marks School for Boys and Girls. These stories are set within the shared universe of the Afterblight Chronicles which at the time of writing includes 10 novels from author who include Simon Spurrier, Rebecca Levene, Jasper Bark, Paul Kane and Al Ewing.
Don't be mislead though, these aren't some young adult novels aimed at teenagers, these are adult novels and are written as such (although young adults can enjoy them) that offer a post-disaster story reminiscent of Lord of the Flies - but in my opinion a vastly superior tale and one that offers a much greater sense of immersion. The book also offers a more complete rebellion against authority, the series expanding on this "children survival" idea in the second and third novels. It's much more grim too, a harsher more realistic vision which doesn't portray adults in an unrealistic, idyllic manner but those who could be blamed for causing the whole mess in the first place.
In this grim future a virus has devastated the world's population (an event known as "The Cull"), only those with "o-negative" blood type being immune and it's these survivors who roam the wastelands, trying to stay alive in small pockets of civilisation, while others roam the land taking advantage of this lawless society.
Whenever I hear the words "Shool's out Forever" I always think of the Alice Cooper classic and the song is pretty apt although the Pink Floyd "Another Brick in the Wall" would equally suit, in fact they both fit perfectly and describe some of the main themes running through the book.
As far as the story goes, relentless would be an understatement, the book doesn't let up at all, right from the start the action begins and around every corner there is another danger; another life-threatening situation that appears to hold no hope of survival. This energetic pace combines with an inspired story that allows us to examine the mistakes that adults make, and the evils they perpitrate, often with the excuses "for the greater good" or "following orders" - through the eyes of children. This is a harsh world, survival of the fittest or more accurately survival of the most violent often reigns supreme and mercy has been wiped from the post "Cull" vocabulary.
One of the major themes is that of the inevitable changes to a persons psycke as they are forced (or encouraged) to kill to survive, or indeed to protect loved ones and rather than shrug off these acts as we so often see in many heroic figures. We are given a much more realistic view and the effects that such acts would take. Of course we also have the theme of war and violence itself, which rather than the naïve (and in this situation fatalistic) view "war, what is good for?", takes a much more pragmatic approach; that sometimes it's necessary to protect oneself and others, kill or be killed but also where does one then draw that faint line between fighting to protect and fighting for revenge or even fighting "because you can".
There is a gritty realism to the story, each character is drawn in shades of grey with rich personalities and it's the decisions they make that drive the story forward. Andrews manages to sucker the reader in completely and it's impossible not to feel connected to this rag-tag band of children, which makes it all the more shocking when one of them dies. This is something which happens with an alarming regularity, including some of the major characters and often in an abrupt, realistic and heart-stopping fashion. The principal protagonists are teenager Lee and young adult Jane, the majority of the series is narrated in the first person from their perspectives and I loved this close, personal feeling that the style imparts. It really does feel like these characters are speaking directly to the reader. The switch between the perspectives of these two characters is handled very well and helps to break up the plot.
It's been a long time since I was so hooked into a book as I have been with School's out Forever, I really haven't been able to put it down and read through all three novels and the extra material in little time at all (over the course of 3 evenings). I can honestly say that the end of the book is very emotional, I'd defy anyone not to be moved and although the ending was somewhat inevitable it still shocked; I couldn't have imagined a more powerful finale. There is also a rather brilliant introduction by the editor David Moore and I agree with everything he says.
School's Out Forever is one of the most memorable, most impressively written pieces of fiction I have ever had the fortune to read, simply inspired.
Written by Antony, 07 September 2012.