Author: Courtney Summers
Genre: Horror, Contemporary, Young Adult, Zombies
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: June 2012
Paperback: 320 Pages
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self.
To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live.
But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside.
When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: While I have heard wonderful things about the searing, contemporary YA work of the established Ms. Courtney Summers, I have never read one of her books – though I have been curious. When I saw This is Not A Test, I was instantly drawn to the haunting cover (is that a blood splatter? Why yes, yes it is!) and title. Then, reading the blurb, I discovered this is a zombie novel. And that was that.
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 hotheaded 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 sniveling 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, 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 2012.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
I woke up and the last piece of my heart disappeared. I opened my eyes and I felt it go.
I sit on the edge of the bathtub and run the fingernail of my thumb up the inside of my wrist. I trace a vein until it pitchforks out and disappears under the fleshiest part of my palm. Lily couldn’t sleep; a few weeks before she left, she had all these pills to help her do that. I didn’t know why at the time but now I think her guilt was probably keeping her up at night. When I searched her bedroom earlier, I couldn’t find them, which is too bad. I was counting on it. Her. I should know better. It just seemed like maybe the stars would align for this–that the day I decided to die, everything would go right.
But they didn’t and now I’m not sure what I’ll do.
Three sharp raps on the bathroom door–onetwothree–stop me breathing. I look up from my wrist. I didn’t hear his footsteps. I never hear them when it matters anymore, but I hear them now, retreating down the hall. I wait a few minutes before leaving the bathroom and then I walk the same path downstairs he did. His cologne soaks the air, musky and cheap, and the scent is so heavy in my lungs it makes me want to tear my skin off. It’s stronger the closer I get to the kitchen and mingles with a more bitter scent: burnt toast. He burned the toast. He only does that when he thinks I deserve it. I check my watch.
I am five minutes late for breakfast.
Early morning light streams in through the window above the sink. Everything it touches turns gold. Everything looks golden, but it all feels so gray. An envelope sits next to my plate of (burnt) toast. I pick it up and run my fingers along the edge of it as my father explains it’s for the school, about my absence. His cover. This is what we are going to tell them kept me home for so long. I had that flu that’s going around. Do I understand? I had the flu.
He says, “Let me get a look at your face.”
I tilt my chin up. It’s not good enough. In one swift motion, he reaches across the table and I flinch away before I can stop myself. He exhales impatiently, takes my chin in his hand, and turns it roughly toward the light. I keep my eyes on the envelope, like I could turn it into a letter from Lily just by looking at it. A letter that says, hey, I’m coming back for you tonight. I used to read the actual note she left me over and over again and I’d pretend those words were coded between the ones that said I’m so sorry and I can’t do this anymore.
He lets go of my chin.
Things got worse after you left.
You can read the full excerpt HERE.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)