Ruined (The Hunger #4) by Jason Brant
The Hunger series is, or was, a trilogy charting the rise of an average schlub, if not an outright loser—a chunky, middle-aged, vaguely “survival stupid” American everyman who relies on (really) dumb luck, sarcasm, and an endearing dedication to slow personal improvement over time.
The transition of Lance is a familiar but enjoyable arc of “a failure at modern life finds success, and himself, only when the world ends”—and along the way, bosses, ex-wives, strongmen, and other annoying sorts are given their just desserts. Good people come and go, too.
As Lance works to keep the muscle and lose the fat, he finds a punky, Mohawk-sporting hottie (Cass) who is tougher, smarter, and swears more than he does in the process. Cass is a fan favorite, and should be.
So there is the core cast, and, without spoilers, the upshot of that highly-recommended three-book journey is to introduce and explore a vampire-leaning (aka “Vladdie”) monster apocalypse that resets humanity in the way of say, the Rot and Ruin series, The Purge of Babylon series, or (sigh) The Walking Dead series… I could list about ten more names of series installments here, but I won’t. You’re welcome. Point being, the only real “problem” is the saturation of the broad concept.
Brant managed to pull-off The Hunger trilogy anyway, because while he doesn’t reach (deliberately) for the creativity and literary value of, say, Rot and Ruin, nor the character-interchangeability (not a compliment) of TWD, he has something most other series phone-ins of the genre do not: humor. A good mix of it, mostly lowbrow, but at the same time, not dirty or nasty. Having read quite a bit of “dark fiction” of late, I also thank the author for avoiding deep dives on bumping uglies and the descriptions of same, because… eh, just because.
Anyway, humor: that’s what made the trilogy work so well. Zombies and vampires are both dead genres (uh, you know what I mean) thanks to overexposure (to the sun, hah!), and short of creating great literature “featuring” these creatures, it’s difficult to imagine anyone resurrecting (hah, but seriously, last time) the scene for quite some time… unless it’s funny.
Humor works in all stages of a bubble, but it’s particularly good fun to stab the needles of satire into yawning repeats and to roll your eyes at established norms—ones that, in honesty, are usually pretty stupid right out of the gate.
Okay, so that was the past, and it brings you up to speed on where Hunger #4 goes, or tries to go, or at least launches from initially. Brant fast-forwards two years, matching the real-world, two-year gap from Hunger book #3 to #4. The conclusion of the trilogy is deftly shifted (not so much reversed) by realistic possibilities that, yay, demand new material and adventures. This might not seem like a big deal, but Brant went for closure with his trilogy, got it, and it would have sucked to see it reopened badly.
But fear not: it’s all good. Lance, Cass, and friends come out of retirement and get moving again in the world of the Walking Dea… err, of a post-apocalyptic world filled with vampire-like demons that can only play at night and, zombie-like, don’t think or talk so much. Well… those were the trilogy’s rules, anyway…
This book moves, and as it screams along, other humans appear, new ones in pretty basic flavors. Aside from the Vladdie invasion/occupation, there are human resettlement and survivor groups with different camps and outlooks. These differences are logical enough, but as screen time is limited, descriptions are extremely taut, and the reliance of emotion is on the trilogy crew.
Would more time with the “bad guys” help? Maybe, but it might also drag, and Jason Brant doesn’t let his junk drag, people. Instead, he has snappy, short dialogue chunks, fun cultural references, self-aware nods to horror and fans of action movies in particular, and this installment is a satisfying fun-guilty-read from sentence one. Literally.
I don’t always love frantic “minimalist thriller” pacing of this kind, personally, but this is less a ding on Brant than it is a question of a whole “new” type of storytelling arising as attention spans and educational levels hit new…
Oh, was I talking?
Anyway, there’s zero fat on any given sentence in the entire book, and that’s a good thing, however it happens.
Hunger #4 is a satisfying and worthwhile expansion of the universe. The “80s action hero smartass” role of Lance and the axe-wielding iconoclast Cass are now familiar, but there is character growth (bro!). For one, they are now parents. If nothing can quite return us to the joy of a first impression for a beloved character, it’s still a fun ride.
The humor returns in #4 as well, but slightly less prevalent, as the book dials slightly more into a tone of loss and concern (as opposed to the somewhat absurdist, zero-day hilarity in the first entries of the series). As humor is hard in fiction, what jokes and laughs do exist are much-appreciated… because, again, it is humor that elevates this above the pack of competitors.
Another strong book in a great series, Hunger #4 very clearly leads into Hunger #5, and the plot, pace, and characterizations are engaging, established, and (thank goodness) the non-human villains are constantly evolving and changing, physically and mentally, such that it isn’t another FPS-on-paperback wearing out its welcome.
Hunger #5? #6? Yes, please!