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The Return Man by V. M. Zito
Cover Artist: Images: Rhett Poderson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Orbit Mass Market Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316218283
Date: 01 April 2012 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Book's Webpage / Sample Chapter / Show Official Info /

Author V.M. Zito makes a strong debut with his zombie ridden road trip across a Southwest nobody lives in anymore, except of course, the dead, some cultists that would be better off that way, and Henry Marco, once a prominent neurologist, and now known to those who need him as "the zombie hitman".

When the zombie apocalypse spread over the Southwest in a tsunami of undead resurrection everyone with an ounce of sense got out fast. That didn't include Marco, who's been rooted to his Arizona home in the hope that his wife would return...so he could put a bullet in her rotting, undead, brain.

Now that's love.

What Marco discovered about the zombies is that even though they don't have a lot of frontal lobe brain function left, there's something in there that pulls them towards places that meant something before they un-died. Maybe it was a favorite bar, or the office that ate their lives, or home sweet home. The dead don't know much, and they don't move fast, but eventually they'll shuffle on to some special place.

While Marco is waiting to put his wife Danielle out of his misery, he's built up an interesting little practice doing the same for others. Say you made it out, but your husband didn't. If it would give you peace of mind to know he's not out there decomposing and lusting after human flesh, Marco will find him and put a bullet in his brain, returning him to wherever you go when you're really dead. Does it matter to the dead? No, but "returning" like any funeral rite, is about the living, about making a break and moving on.

Something Marco isnít good at.

What he is good at is surviving, finding individual zombies, and coming back alive.

Which is why the head of Homeland Security wants him to head back into the heart of the Evacuated States and find the zombified remains of Roger Ballard, a brilliant scientist that almost came up with a vaccine before he got bitten and the world went to hell. Even if the vaccine was only partially effective, Ballard's blood is worth whatever it takes to recover, and considering he was last seen going down under a massive zombie prison riot it's going to take a lot to do the job. Ballard and Marco have history, which is another good reason why DHS needs him on the team to find the dead doctor.

Though a special ops team is sent to escort Marco, they never show up, having been neutralized by a lone Chinese operative, Kheng "Ken" Wu, who passes himself off as the sole survivor of the team and heads west in what has to be the goriest buddy road trip novel ever written. Not that Wu and Marco are buddies, exactly, considering that Marco has no idea that Wu intends to kill him as soon as he IDís the target, and is full of anti-American yellow fever to boot.

But it's hard for two guys to go through hell watching each others back and building up a balance sheet of who saved who last without developing some sort of bond.

Like all journey novels, The Return Man is ultimately a story about finding yourself at the end of the road, not so much about the destination you're supposed to be heading towards. Ultimately, Marco and Wu will arrive at the prison to bring home the prize, and on that level it's a solid bit of gore gone wild storytelling. The more important story, for Marco if not the world, which stands to gain a vaccine against zombification, is about letting go of the pain from his life before everything fell apart, and that's all mixed up in the hunt for his wife as well as for Ballard, who may be a zombie now, but whom Marco needs to forgive before he can move on.

Marco, like the shambling corpses around him, has been staggering through the post-apocalyptic landscape long enough. Now it's time for him to rejoin the living. If Wu doesn't kill him first.

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