I came into this book expecting zombies and the book did not disappoint on that score but it was so much more than that. A tense, atmospheric survival story balanced with a well-drawn character study, I really could not put this one down.
This is Not a Test is a book about six teenagers who hole up at their local high school to out-wait the zombie apocalypse that is raging outside. The book is told from the point of view of Sloane, a young girl has experienced her fair share of trauma, who already feels dead inside even before the end of the world hits. The book opens with an intense, emotion-filled scene that shows the reader what horrors Sloane has suffered through. When the zombies appear it is almost a relief.
The book then flashes forward to a week later, with the kids barricading themselves inside the school. This is where the bulk of the novel takes place. The zombies are an ever-present looming threat outside. However, what they have to face inside is even worse. The group comprises of Cary (the de-facto leader), Grace and Trace (a pair of siblings), Harrison (a fourteen your old boy who is perhaps the weakest link in the group), Rhys (the potential love interest) and Sloane herself.
The group is fractured from the beginning, due to events that have happened before they reach their hideout. Cary and Trace have an antagonist relationship right from the outset that threatens to split the group. Alliances form and the danger they pose to each other is as great a threat as the zombies. The undead are an under-pinning psychological presence, not always there but very much driving the narrative. The sounds of them banging on the doors, trying to get through the barricades that the teenagers have erected, is scarier than when they are actually physically there. Living in this fear-filled environment, the cracks in the group deepen even further and threaten the temporary safety they have found. The fear of the zombies breaking through is always with them, and at some point there will be a breaking point.
Sloane is a very interesting main character. She is suicidal, in fact the day she decides to take her own life is the very day the world ends. Sloane had a close relationship with her sister Lily, who ended up betraying her when she left her alone with their abusive father. Sloane is, throughout the novel, on the verge of giving in but she is surrounded by people who actively want to live. This creates a great deal of tension with certain characters, notably Rhys, who Sloane forms a bond with.
Sloane is somewhat detached from the horror of what is going on round about her. At the same time, she is constantly being drawn into the events by the other main characters. Sloane will have to decide if she wants to give up or keep on fighting for the chance to escape the zombie horde.
Although the vast majority of the book is concerned with the characters inter-personal struggles, both within the group of survivors and the struggles that Sloane has within herself, there are some intense actions scenes that are both creepy and gory. The threat of the undead is always there in the backdrop and when they make an appearance, the tension is even more ramped up.
I felt drained when I finished This is Not a Test (and not just because I sat up to 3am reading it!). The ending was like a punch in the gut, it happened so quickly and everything was left ambiguous. When I first finished it, I would have liked a little more of a denouement but the more I think about it, the better I like where things left off.