Christopher Golden, Soulless (MTV Books, 2008)

There's a lot to admire in Soulless, Christopher Golden's young adult zombie novel. Golden makes some bold choices in the book, and does so without apology or pandering. Witness his cast of characters: the lesbian teen starlet, the gallant Asian gangbanger with the African-American best friend, the matched liberal and conservative college students who man up and overcome their ideological differences in the name of something bigger. All of them take stereotypes and demolish them, in large part by ignoring them. It's no big deal to any of these character that they're not the standard winsome YA lot from Central Casting; they are who they are, and they do what they need to do in the face of something nobody should ever have to face.

That would be, of course, the fabled zombie rising that's become popular as the supernatural apocalypse du jour. It starts in Manhattan, on the set of a show suspiciously like Good Morning America, with a high-powered séance featuring three of the most famous mediums out there. In the audience is Phoenix Cormier, whose father, Joe, is one of the mediums.

And naturally it all goes horribly, bloodily wrong. Rather than the gentle homecoming that everyone's supernatural theorizing had promised, the dead come back with a vengeance, possessing both their memories and their bodies. But something's been added to the mix -- an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh -- and something's been subtracted -- human compassion, or, in other words, the soul. And as the wave of otherworldly terror expands out from the television studio, it sweeps over the lives of the other characters in the book, drawing them relentlessly together in an effort to stop the unholy epidemic at its source.

Like all good YA material, Soulless takes the power of real change and puts it in the hands of its teen protagonists. The adults in the studio are either locked in a catatonic, unbreakable trance, or rendered hysterically ineffective. The ones on the road succumb to despair, to foolishness, to self-sacrifice, but they're all cleared off the table sooner or later, leaving the kids to save the day.

And that, ultimately, is where the novel's weak spot emerges. Key to the whole plot is the fact that the mediums are physically bound to each other, their grip literally unbreakable. It seems clear that separating them may be the key to breaking the supernatural circuit that's sustaining the crisis. Much of the drama of the novel comes from the debate over how that circuit might be broken, and the cost, human and otherwise, of doing so. Without giving away the ending, the decision that is finally made, and the odd lack of consequence to all involved, do much to detract from all that was built up in the rest of the story. There's a logic there, but it's an awful logic, and one that does the characters little credit.

There's a lot to like in Soulless. Golden's take on zombies flashes some sneaky-nasty originality that makes it stand out. His characters are written with respect and style, and they do much to impress themselves upon the reader. And above all, the book is unafraid -- unafraid to show the zombie rising in all its physical and emotional violence, unafraid to make hard choices for the characters, unafraid to inflict real loss, and to open the door for real growth. But the ending does rankle, and the epilogue doesn't quite ring true. An ending that matched the buildup would possibly have made the book something special; as is, it's just a fun read.

[Richard Dansky]