In his novel Warm Bodies (which was adapted into the 2013 rom-com starring Nicholas Hoult), Isaac Marion showed us that even zombies are capable of love. Now, Marion continues R’s story in a sequel, The Burning World, which EW is thrilled to excerpt below before its Feb. 7 publication.
But first, in this charming introduction the author has written exclusively for us, Marion explains why exactly he needed to write a sequel, and how he pushed the story beyond its initial premise. (As he writes, “‘The protagonist is a zombie! … He falls in love with a human!’ is only cute once.”) Check out the intro and excerpt, below, and take a look at Marion’s upcoming book tour dates to see if he’s headed toward a city near you.
Introduction to The Burning World Excerpt, by Isaac Marion
Warm Bodies ends at the beginning of R’s life, so I always knew there would be more to his story. Ok, he’s alive… now what? He’s still a man with no history, no identity, and very poor social skills. He still lives in a ruined world where death has malfunctioned and thoughts twist reality and the people in power are desperate and insane. He’s stepped out of the cozy stability of death and into a bright and noisy world where people need him and he needs them and everything is on fire.
This wasn’t the kind of sequel where I could just repeat the original with slightly higher stakes. “The protagonist is a zombie!” isn’t a joke with legs. “He falls in love with a human!” is only cute once. The novelty of the premise has been spent and it’s time to move on to its deeper implications: what makes a person a person? What are you without your past, even with all its stains? And how can you fight a plague that’s ingrained in humanity’s bones?
It’s a big leap. By the time I reached the end of this story, the starting point felt miles away. This is my favorite excerpt because it links the two stages of the journey. R and Julie and their fellow rebels are on the run from a terrifying remnant of the old world, and they find themselves hiding out in the place where it all began—the airport. There’s a wistful nostalgia for the “simpler days” of Warm Bodies, but the world has changed, and they have to change with it. It’s time to grow up, stand up, and fight.
Excerpt from The Burning World by Isaac Marion
“Hey, guys!” M bellows with a friendly wave.
The horde goes still. A few snap their teeth at us once or twice, then resume their shambling. But most remain motionless, regarding us with inscrutable expressions. Their faces are worn and weary, their bodies slumped; their strange, leaden eyes stare at us with sorrowful longing, like beggars resigned to starvation. I feel a surge of emotion for these lost creatures, pity laced with love. I was one of them. I’m still one of them. Yet somehow I escaped this place, and they remain trapped.
There was a moment, sitting on a hill with Julie, when I thought freeing them would be a simple thing. Not easy, but simple. We would come here, we’d share what we’d learned and spread what we’d created, and they would see the light and be healed. Our effect on the Boneys had been immediate and dramatic. Those empty husks had sensed a shift in the atmosphere, an inconceivable alteration to the rigid rails of their reality, and they had fled, perhaps in search of more stable land, some new flat surface on which to rebuild their universe. But my fellow Fleshies? The Dead who had yet to cut that final thread? Our effect on them was subtler. Something has changed; the bullet-scarred giant by my side is proof of that, as is B and every patient in Nora’s Morgue. But our attempt to go forth and evangelize was disastrously naive.
They are not impressed. They are not convinced. They are waiting for something more.
M strides ahead and begins to mingle, shaking hands and slapping backs. The Dead stare at him with furrowed brows, like they don’t understand what he is. He still has some distance to go before all traces of his rot are rubbed out, but I have retained enough of my Dead senses to know he registers as Living. So their uncertainty is not the age-old question of to eat or not to eat. It’s something more complex.
I follow M into the swaying, stinking crowd.
I look back and see Julie and Nora lingering at the end of the hallway like kids on a dock, scared to jump in the lake.
“Are you sure about this?” Julie says.
“Maybe find some blood to smear on us?” Nora says with a cringe. “Like you did with Julie?”
I shake my head. “Wasn’t just the blood. It was me going with you. Won’t work anymore.”
I shrug. “Because I’m not Dead anymore.”
I plunge into the crowd.
“You’re insane,” Abram shouts from his chosen position far back in the hallway. “Where are you even going?”
I point toward the distant end of the hall, over the heads of a thousand zombies. “Somewhere safe.”
I press further in. Julie and Nora stick close to my back, and while Julie is fighting hard to embrace her convictions and not be afraid of these creatures—these people—Nora is a little more transparent.
“Hello . . . ,” she greets them through gritted teeth. “How are you . . . please don’t eat me . . .”
“Let’s go, Daddy,” Sprout says. She tugs on his hand, but he remains rooted to the floor.
“Come on!” Julie calls back to him.
“I’m not dragging my daughter through a zombie horde.”
“Use your eyes, man. It’s okay.”
“You don’t know what they’re going to do.”
She throws up her hands. “You don’t know what anyone’s going to do! Any person in any crowd could be a murderer, a rapist, a suicide bomber. You dive in and hope for the best.”
Like her, I’m putting on a brave face, but I can’t pretend I’m not scared. Fighting off the plague didn’t make me immune to it. This was one of the first big questions among the Nearly Living—what happens if we’re bitten again?—but we didn’t wait long to find out. A suicidal runaway showed us the dismal answer: what happens now is what happened then. We rejoin the Dead. We lose it all. We start over.
Despite my long struggle, despite the Gleam and all the other mysteries of the cure, I am just as vulnerable as Julie. And just as dependent on the whim of the mob.
Once the restaurants end and the gates begin, the density thins and we pop out into an open area of benches and plastic trees. Further down the hall, another group hovers around a bagel stand, staring at the empty case and pretending to read the menu. Perhaps by accident, a woman stumbles behind the counter. The crowd instinctively forms a line. Before the man at the front can place his order, the newly hired cashier wanders off again, and the line disperses with a vague aura of disappointment.
I watch all this with great interest. Is it just the lingering echoes of old instincts, or a sign of recovery? A stiff body stretching its limbs, testing its reflexes? I remember my first real meal. I’d been trying for weeks. Every evening I’d shove bread in my mouth and force myself to swallow; sometimes I’d even manage to hold it down until Julie finished celebrating before I snuck off to the bathroom to vomit. I didn’t want her to share my worry that I wouldn’t survive my transformation. But then, after about a month, it happened. I felt a stirring of the old hunger. The kind that didn’t demand human sacrifice. I watched Julie frying potatoes from our garden, drowning them in hot sauce, and my stomach grumbled. I wanted food. I didn’t want to suck the lightning out of a human soul; I wanted to eat hash browns. And I ate them. It was another week before I could eat again, and even now my body remains distrustful of such simple, deathless nourishment, accepting it only when starvation is imminent. But that moment gave me hope that I didn’t know I lacked. It was a step.
Now I watch these bewildered corpses stumble through the motions of human gastronomy, and I pour my hope into them. I will them to take the next step.
“Where’d he go?” Julie says, standing on tiptoe to see through the crowd behind us. She hops up on a bench. “Abram? Sprout?”
I don’t need the bench to see that they’re no longer in the hall.
“Did they seriously ditch us?” She cups her hands to her mouth. “Abram!”
“Keep it down,” he says, emerging from a service door with his daughter in tow. “You’ll wake them up.”
Julie sighs. “I hope you feel stupid taking the long way around now that you see we’re all fine.”
“I don’t take risks with my family.” He fixes me with a stern glare. “Where’s your ‘safe space’?”
To Abram’s relief—and mine, if I’m being honest—our route doesn’t take us through the bagel crowd. The hall branches off to the right and I lead us into the elevated tunnel that connects Terminal A to Terminal B. Behind us, the overhead sign promises baggage claim and restrooms. The book store is called Young’s Bay Books. The intimidating tome in the bestseller kiosk is The Suggestible Universe: How Consciousness Shapes Reality. I smile, remembering the countless hours I spent staring at all the words in this airport, wondering what they were trying to tell me. My budding literacy has lifted a veil from the world, revealing the tips of a thousand icebergs. If I ever have another peaceful moment, I’ll dive deeper. I’ll sit in my favorite chair with my favorite mug of my favorite tea and I’ll read The Suggestible Universe cover to cover. Though I should probably start with the book next to it, Scary Jerry and the Skeleton King. Or maybe the one next to that: Goodnight Moon.
“What?” Julie says, noticing my faint smile.
“Nothing. Just thinking. What’s your favorite book?”
She considers. “I have about fifty.”
“I want to read with you.” My smile expands as I add her to my tea-and-tweed daydream: sitting next to me on the couch, leaning against my shoulder with a paperback spread between her fingers. “Let’s make our dining room a library.”
She drinks in this image with a wistful smile. “That’d be nice.”
The longing in her voice pops my bubble, a cold reminder of our circumstances. What was our actual life a week ago has become an improbable fantasy.
The lights flicker. The generators fire up, or the solar panels activate—whatever forgotten energy source powers this place wakes itself again, and the airport resumes a sad semblance of its former functions. The lights come on, the PA system stutters something about unattended baggage, the conveyors begin to move. I step aboard, Julie hops on behind me, and we take a break while the others walk past us, giving us mildly disapproving stares.
Once upon a time, Julie and I watched the sunset through these wall-to-wall windows. Now we face the other way and watch the sun crest the mountains, flooding the runways with pink light. An American Airlines plane with no engines. A United plane split in two. The blackened wreckage of a private jet. What a sad little island the airport must have been during the last days, when every person in every place thought someplace else was safer. A nexus for all doomed hopes.
I watch the pots of plastic plants glide past us, now overrun with real daisies, and another bit of nostalgia warms my thoughts. I lean over the railing to pluck one, but it passes just out of reach.
By the time we reach the end of the conveyor, the rest of the group is waiting for us, arms folded impatiently.
“What?” Julie says. “We came here to wait, didn’t we?”
“Let’s wait somewhere secure,” Abram says. “Not in a glass hallway exposed to the whole world.”
“Almost there,” I assure him. He’s right, of course. I need to focus, but I can’t seem to shake my whimsy. Despite the multitude of dark memories this place evokes, the few bright ones I built with Julie keep rising to the surface and painting a dumb smile on my face. Things were so easy then. So simple and sweet. Just me and my kidnapped crush and her boyfriend’s brain in my pocket.
I lead the group down the boarding tunnel to the door of my former home, my refuge from the horrors of my undead existence. I never imagined I’d come back here to hide from something worse.
I pull open the airliner’s hatch and step aside with a grim smile. “Welcome aboard.”