Rendered Flesh by David Cartwright
Level Up Publishing, pb, £11.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Have you ever wondered if we’re already zombies? Consumer zombies mindlessly buying whatever the white men in power tell us to buy, which is usually whatever lines their pockets. Thought zombies believing whatever the press tells us and never question where this news has come from or what they are not reporting. A political zombie absorbing the elitist privilege from our government and directing it downwards so we feel good about ourselves. This is how Lex feels. University-educated but unable to get a job in the field they studied in, unable to express their gender pronouns for fear of violence, weary from trying to make a difference online because there are more trolls than supporters. Is it any wonder they prefer playing online with their friends, Indi and Jay, to the real world?
So when Indi suggests a new release of a cult zombie game, Lex is keen. There is a purity in zombie games that is an escape from the unwitting zombification the modern world is forcing on them. The game uses the latest VR technology and feels so real it’s not just unnerving, it’s terrifying. But it’s still just a game, isn’t it? But when a spate of gamers are found in comas in their gaming chairs, and Jay finds a countdown hidden in the game’s code, is it a coincidence, or are they connected? And where does the new global network that’s replacing 4G in a few days fit into everything?
And why can Lex no longer log out of the game?
If there is anything guaranteed to capture my interest, it’s zombies. I can’t help it. I grew up on Resident Evil for the PlayStation, I was conditioned from an early age. This meant that when I saw Rendered Flesh at Fantasycon, I was immediately hooked.
Tapping into our post-Covid weariness, this story shines a light on the darker aspects of today’s society, such as online abuse and the hostility that those who don’t conform face. Lex, who uses they/their pronouns, lives with daily anxiety that strangers will abuse them for just being themselves. They are already emotionally and mentally weary when we meet them. The game Rendered Flesh is their opportunity to escape and be with like-minded people who share the same ideals. Something a growing number of adults can relate to, judging by how big the gaming industry is now. I certainly can.
The description of the game itself was amazing. It’s no mean feat to move someone from the real world to an immersive game and create a completely believable scenario, but Cartwright did just that. There are rules to the game; the characters have stats and weaknesses, meaning they have to work as a team. No one character is perfect. Lexi might be fast and stealthy, but their stress levels can immobilise them at the worst moments. Likewise, Indi might be the huge warrior of the group, but his stamina is low. The characters had item slots and could only loot at specific times like once a zombie was dead and had to rest to level up. I loved how perfectly depicted the co-op game was.
Make no mistake, though, this is a political story, but perhaps not in the way you think. At the start of the novel, Lex felt like spending time online on forums talking about things was how they were going to instigate change. However, no matter what your political leanings are, we know that just talking on message boards will not change the world. This story is about Lex learning and discovering how far they are prepared to go to achieve real change.
Cartwright sticks the ending as well. There are real-life repercussions for the players, and saving them in the game may not be enough. Having created 3D characters, Cartwright threw everything at them, made them stronger, made them more vulnerable and scarred by what they had seen and done, even if it was a game, and I really cared what happened to them. I won’t go into detail about the ending, but it was enough to catapult this book into one of the best I’ve read this year.
I also have to mention the inclusivity in this book. There are people of all different colours, sexualities and genders, but none feels like a tickbox exercise, as can sometimes feel the case. As I have stated earlier, Lex and their friends felt real, multifaceted, with strengths and weaknesses both in the game and out. Things like gender and sexuality were only an issue to those who made it an issue, and I felt for Lex with their general weariness of everyday life where they were judged for every minute aspect of their life. This is how inclusivity should be done.
Fast-paced with strong characters, fantastic descriptions and a brilliantly crafted computer game. Rendered Flesh is a must for every horror/political fan. Highly recommended.