You can not go into a book with a title like Last Ones Left Alive with the idea that it is going to be at all cheery. It opens on Orpen, a teenage girl and her dog, pushing a wheelbarrow across an empty Ireland. In the wheelbarrow is Maeve, who is sick in some way that soon becomes clear. Orpen is on a mission to get Maeve to a place called Pheonix City where she can be cured and the pair will be safe. But there is plenty of danger along the way, and there is a reason why Orpen is basically on her own.
That’s right, Last Ones Left Alive is, as the name implies, firmly in post-apocalyptic territory. Something has happened which at some point in the past turned the population of Ireland, and implicitly the rest of the world, into bloodthirsty zombie-like creatures called skrake. The skrake are undead, they move in packs, they are very hard to kill and if they bite you, you have about two weeks before you turn into a skrake yourself. Orpen, trained as a fighter on a remote island by Maeve and her mother, has to navigate a blasted landscape and deal with skrake attacks. But it turns out that the thing she finds hardest is dealing with, and trusting other human survivors.
Debut author Sarah Davis-Groff’s point of difference from some of the other many zombie tales is the story of her protagonist. Orpen was raised to be a survivor, handy with a handful of knives but not able to communicate confidently with other people. She has to learn what it means to be both a survivor and a human being, to regain some of her humanity while dealing with pain, loss and an implacable enemy. This is a bit of a girl-power zombie tale, with Orpen having been raised on the myth of a group of zombie-fighting women called Banshees, a group that Orpen’s guardians may well have once been a part of.
But aside from that, Last Ones Left Alive is pretty standard Walking Dead-style zombie fare. It follows many of the rules of zombie road-trip books and movies – rotting undead that are difficult to kill and move in packs, broken roads and abandoned towns, the myth of a human sanctuary to strive for, and terrible decisions to make involving loved ones. This one just happens to be set in the emerald hills of Ireland so is replete with celtic names and Irish locations. But the beats are generally the same. So while there are some effective twists, mainly coming from the alternative present and past chapters of the narrative, the main plot is nothing new. But for those readers who still can not get enough zombies, this has enough originality to make the journey worthwhile.