But then dad went and messed it up. Like he always did.
It wasn’t just dad throwing a wrench in the works, though. It was what was happening outside. What was causing destruction and havoc.
Sloane’s still alive a week later, as are five of her classmates, and together, they’ve built themselves protection in their school from the chaos outside. The thing is, Sloane still wants nothing more than to die.
This is not a test.
Courtney Summers delivers a unique take on zombies in her genre-bending This is Not a Test, and it’s one of those books I’m pretty sure will be sticking in my mind long enough this year to make it to my favorites list.
Sloane’s home life sucks — her father is extremely abusive. For much of her life, Sloane had her sister Lily to turn to, to love her, to support her, and to suffer with. They made a plan to escape their house together when Sloane turned 18. Except, Lily breaks the promise, leaving Sloane to fend for herself. The abuse is so much that Sloane has no reason to have hope anymore. In the initial scenes of the book, it’s evident how brutal her life has been, and she immediately garners sympathy. Even though what she wants to do isn’t necessarily sympathetic, it’s understandable. And when the zombies arrive, Sloane is elated; it’s her chance to die, and not at her own hands, either.
Once the initial zombie story unfolds, we’re tossed into Cortege High School, where Sloane and five fellow students have barricaded themselves inside. There’s Cary, Harrison, Rhys, and brother and sister duo Trace and Grace. It’s frantic and desperate at this point, at least to those five; Sloane, on the other hand, is annoyed. Her plans were ruined, and now that these five have dragged her to safety, she’s even more frustrated. The thing is, she can’t seem to find a way away from these people who want to live, and even when she has the chance to end her own suffering, she doesn’t.
And the zombies keep banging against the barricades. . .
Sloane is one of the most interesting and enjoyable characters I’ve read in a while, but she’s very challenging. She is obedient in every sense of the word. Because of everything with her father, there’s a sense of reluctance in her. She allows herself to be dragged to safety (where it would be easy for her to not), and she doesn’t actively seek out her options for dying when she has the chance at Cortege. Rather, she continues to follow what she believes is the right thing to do. To stay alive. Sloane is entirely removed from her body because of the abuse. Anything she could feel for herself has been taken away, physically and emotionally. That’s part of why she’s unable to actually go through with ending her life. Amid all of this, Sloane is likable; there’s just enough hope inside her and just enough desire to move forward to make readers pull for her and believe she can survive.
This is Not a Test is a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven novel. Despite the zombie apocalypse occurring, what matters in the story is not the undead coming alive but the living coming alive. Secondary characters in this book are fully developed, and they each serve distinct purposes for Sloane. Trace and Grace at first make her almost envious, as she’s watching how a brother and sister function together and love each other despite their differences and despite spats. Cary becomes a tap for Sloane, one that allows her to learn more about her sister Lily (and therefore herself). Harrison, the quietest character who has the least page time, serves almost as a mirror of Sloane herself — he’s used as a tool among the characters in a similar manner Sloane was used as a tool by her father. And finally Rhys, who comes off as sort of a dangerous guy, becomes a hugely important person in helping Sloane discover who she is. I found each of the characters interesting and realistic, and their desire to survive and protect one another worked well.
What Summers excels in is her use of subtlety to develop the characters, particularly Sloane. There are single lines or short scenes so raw they sting, and they speak volumes to who Sloane really is (who she is, not who she’s told she is or who she has come to believe she is — a big difference). One that stood out to me, that pushed home the fact Sloane really has no physical ownership of herself, comes when she’s observing Grace. She talks about how she’s never really had a body worth anything and that she wishes she could be like Grace and own what she had. Be confident in it. It’s telling not only for the obvious, but also for the less obvious, which is that tiny spark of hope still dwelling within Sloane, even when she’s told herself there is none. The pacing in the book is deliberately slow, begging the reader to pay attention to these things. The story doesn’t drag, though. Summers delivers on strong writing that doesn’t try too hard and works to advance these characters.
Moreover, this is a story about observation. Sloane is keen-eyed; she has to be because of her history. She’s watching everyone around her because she has no other choice, but she watches carefully how they interact with one another because she doesn’t quite have a true frame of reference for how people relate to one another in a healthy way. She romanticizes the sibling relationship between Trace and Grace, and she watches in both shock and admiration a private moment between Grace and Cary. And it’s that moment which sets her to the realization she deserves to have good things for herself. Rhys, too, is a character who thrives on observation, but his comes in the form of watching Sloane. That observation ends up propelling him to teach her about how she can come to own her own body, her own emotions, and her own future.
This is Not a Test is an extremely physical book. Each blow can be felt, as can each of the more tender moments. Not only is it physical in the body sense as it relates to Sloane, but it’s physical in its use of place — Sloane describes everything quite meticulously. We know where things are lined up, we know who is bringing in breakfast, and we know just how much blood has been spilled. The book doesn’t shy away from brutality nor does it shy away from being gruesome; despite being heavily vested in reality, it’s still a novel about the zombie apocalypse. The metaphor of the physical reality of Sloane and the other teens vs. the non-physicality of the zombies feels obvious, but it’s woven in smartly enough to pack a punch. I felt beat up and bruised reading this; fortunately, I had the same moments of hope and promise Sloane did throughout.
Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about this book was that Summers doesn’t throw in a romance to throw in a romance. In fact, there’s no romance in this book at all. While Rhys and Sloane share a couple of very intimate moments, they’re not at all sexy. They’re tender. They’re the result of Rhys’s observations of Sloane’s needs, and rather than allowing herself to be overshadowed or saved by a boy, Sloane’s instead coming into herself because of his selflessness. Because she’s allowed herself to finally feel and finally own herself. The softness with which some of this comes across had me near tears because of how much I had invested in Sloane herself. How much I wanted her to love herself.
This is Not a Test ended perfectly for me. There’s a definite conclusion to come away with, and the way it’s done is savvy. Sloane has to make a series of very difficult choices that force her to confront everything she’s been so eager to shy away from. She’ll revisit everything with Lily and her father and come to realize her body and her choices and her life are hers. So while this is a story of survival, it’s also a story about what we fight for, and why we fight for things at all.
I’ve talked at length about how much worked in this novel, but there were a few problems. The biggest one for me was it took a while to become invested in the secondary characters — I wanted to know them a little more from the onset, and I felt that Harrison sort of fell out of the story. It makes sense on some level because Sloane herself is determined not to get attached from the onset, but it didn’t make it forgivable for me. Harrison became a toy in a game of power for a while in the book, and to have him sort of disappear didn’t quite work for me. While he wasn’t important, I wanted a more solid break. My other big challenge was that I had difficulty gauging passage of time; while we’re given time frames, they weren’t always the easiest to discern. Again, this is due to the story being told from Sloane’s perspective and we know it’s skewed, but given how much she observes her world, it felt like something she’d have kept better tabs on (especially in light of how many days past her planned death day had then passed).
For me, this is Summers’s strongest novel to date. This is Not a Test takes the edgy and raw aspects of her contemporary stories and mashes it with the elements of a terrifying zombie apocalypse. I think there’s no doubt there’s a readership for this book, but I do think it might be a tad tricky to nail it. Fans of contemporary fiction will find Sloane’s story compelling but they may shy away a bit at the zombie element, whereas hardcore zombie fiction fans may find the story treads a little too closely to realistic fiction. They may also complain there are simply not enough zombies in the story. That said, I do think readers on either side of the divide will find something enjoyable here and those who love stories that transcend traditional genres will want to give this one a try. I could see this one working very well for fans of Cecil Castellucci’s First Day on Earth, as these books have a lot of interesting similarities in terms of theme and execution.
I’ve got a copy of This is Not a Test to give away for one lucky reader. Fill out the form below, and I’ll draw a winner June 30.
Review copy received from the publisher. This is Not a Test will be published June 19. In full disclosure, Courtney and I are friends.