Coldbrook is a new horror novel from bestselling author Tim Lebbon. The story revolves around a secret facility deep in the Appalachian Mountains – named after the eponymous and deceased genius Bill Coldbrook – where a small team of scientists have achieved the impossible: breaking through from Earth into a parallel reality. Aging Jonah Jones and his lab-coated colleagues have barely popped open the bubbly when disaster follows in the form of a virus, plunging Earth into a bloody struggle that threatens to bring civilisation to its knees.
Yes, Coldbrook is a zombie novel, at least on the surface. Fans of the current undead craze will revel in vividly rendered tropes, violent and gory scenes reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. But there is plenty here for the jaded reader and Lebbon’s strengths as a writer soon come to the fore, lifting Coldbrook way above the tag of ‘just another zombie novel’. For starters, there is the characterisation. Lebbon doesn’t present the reader with a host of gun-toting heroes hell-bent on battling the raging hordes. Instead, the reader finds themselves in the company of all-too-human survivors, isolated, desperate and scared. Engineer Vic Pearson is particularly conflicted, torn between his affections for his family and his attractive co-worker Holly.
Jonah, Vic and Holly provide the main narrative strands of Coldbrook. The reader follows Vic as he flees into an infected America, a landscape of mindless, bite-crazed ‘furies’, gunfights and burning cities. Vic is a hard character to like. Cheating aside, his cowardice causes the initial outbreak and he flees to save his family, leaving others to face their fate. At the same time, these flaws add realism to a narrative strand that at times verges on the cliché, despite the high quality of the writing. Far more interesting is Jonah Jones, trapped in the bowels of the Coldbrook facility, playing a chilling game of shadows as a grisly spectral visitor stalks him. Or escapee Holly, who ventures alone through the breach in realities and stumbles into a strange – and yet strangely familiar – alternative world. These strands draw gradually together as the scientists begin a desperate search for a woman called Jayne, wandering alone in the destruction, who may hold the only key to survival…
Primarily, it is Jonah and Holly’s adventures, a heady mix of sci-fi and fantasy, that make Coldbrook so enjoyable, revealing an author in command of his material and not afraid to push things forward. In fact, it’s a testament to Lebbon’s skill that he can make Vic’s well-trodden scenario still feel tense and exciting. This is a fast-paced and often nail-biting ride. There are excellent set-pieces thrown in along the way, from an on-screen progression of global disease to a desperate struggle inside an airplane. There are more than a few nice touches too, such as the characters’ familiarity with the genre itself, lending the novel a layer of irony. A sly reference to Stephen King comes over as a timely and amusing in-joke. Questions of science and faith are intelligent, heartfelt and provoke thought. There is an aching humanity in amongst all the blood-splattered twists and turns. Make no mistake, this novel is a gripping read and builds from the start into something fresh, thrilling and ultimately memorable.
In summary, Coldbrook is more than the sum of its infected parts. Lebbon cleverly sidesteps reader expectation and presents the theme from a much wider angle, daring to delve down unexplored paths.
With Coldbrook, Lebbon proves that there is life in the undead yet.
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