Release date: 19 June 2012
Summary: (Taken from Goodreads)
Goodreads | Amazon
It’s the end of the world. Six students have taken cover in Cortege High but shelter is little comfort when the dead outside won’t stop pounding on the doors. One bite is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monstrous version of their former self.
To Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. Now seems like the perfect time to give up. As Sloane eagerly waits for the barricades to fall, she’s forced to witness the apocalypse through the eyes of five people who actually want to live.
But as the days crawl by, the motivations for survival change in startling ways and soon the group’s fate is determined less and less by what’s happening outside and more and more by the unpredictable and violent bids for life—and death—inside.
When everything is gone, what do you hold on to?
My middle school used to do these things called lock-ins. They meant this literally. They would lock us in school for the weekend at the beginning of the school year in a sort of desperate, prolonged bonding exercise. Everyone in our grade had to go, and we would be forced to play ice breakers, which was awkward and universally hated, but we were essentially given free reign of the entire school, and we absolutely LOVED it. The most mundane actions were somehow heightened by the novelty of being in school in the middle of the night. Capture the flag turned into an intense, vicious competition in the dark. Movies were suddenly thrilling. Walking down the hallway alone was strangely terrifying.
What I learned from lock-ins was that it's hard for buildings to exist on their own. In the middle of the night, without thousands of people crowding its hallways, our school completely foreign to us. It ceased to be a school, and became precisely what it is: an empty shell, carefully constructed with brick and glass and linoleum, waiting to be filled.
The majority of This is Not a Test takes place in a similar environment: Cortege High School, where Sloane and five classmates have managed to barricade themselves after a zombie plague sends their small town into chaos. With their school and town empty, Sloane feels the same strange disconnect that I did back in Middle School, intensified by her slightly more dire circumstances:
"The tiled floors shine weirdly under the emergency lights lining the ceiling. They wash out the uninterrupted stretch of beige and purple walls and make them almost seem to glow..."
"...I imagine this place crowded with students, all our faces tilted up. Everything about this is wrong. This school was never built to be empty."
It is this emptiness that Summers exploits so well. When there is no one else, and schools and houses become instead potential shelters or refuges, all that remains are people. This novel is ultimately more about characters than about action, and though there is plenty of lovely, bloody flesh-eating, it's only shown in detail when the characters need to see it and be developed in some way.
This is a book about people. I might also say that this is story about death. The dead walk the earth, Sloane is dead inside (or so she thinks), and the presumed death of a character's parents is a huge source of tension in the group. Completely isolated, with the dead pushing against their barricades, the characters have no choice but to deal with the emotional trauma of their situation, and in Sloane's case, a lifetime's worth of grief.
So even though the characters have found a safe haven in their school - they have everything they need to survive for quite some time, and become rather complacent - the tension is there. There is literally nothing else for them to do but wait for rescue or wait for the zombies to break through. Naturally, tempers explode. Characters become increasingly paranoid and violent. Sloane, numb to the world, is frustratingly moody and indecisive, but Summers manages to develop her character so well in such a short amount of time. Their survival story becomes more about emotional rather than physical resilience as they try, and generally fail, to come to terms with what has happened.
I don't think this book would have worked for me so well if it hadn't been for Summers' expert pacing. The book starts off with a rush, showing you short, intense flashes of the initial panic and dash for safety to get your adrenaline going, and then you're plunged rather suddenly and soberingly into the quiet of the school and left there to witness what's left. The waiting and speculation after such an energy rush is maddening, and almost drove me as crazy as it did the characters.
There's not much else I dare say without spoiling too much of the story, except that This is Not a Test is really, really good. At 320 pages, it was such a quick and intense read that I could barely register what had happened, yet the emotional impact still hasn't worn off. Summers throws you in and pulls you out of the story so suddenly that it felt surreal, almost like a dream.
If I had to describe this book, the closest I could probably get would be "The Breakfast Club" meets "The Walking Dead". Which honestly is a pretty epic combination, as far as combinations go. That would totally sell it for me. So if a character-driven zombie story with teenagers appeals to you at all, read this book as soon as possible (alone, at night, in the dark, with a flashlight), and revel in the genius that is Courtney Summers' writing.
- After quite a few descriptions of 'milky-white' zombie eyes, I kind of don't ever want to drink milk again. Why, Courtney??? It's like she spent some time contemplating the precise hue of a zombie's eyes and decided that it is the shade of MILK, which goes into every food worth eating. What's worse is that I can imagine exactly what milky-white eyes would look like, and it's a very apt description. Congratulations, because milk has never been so repulsive.