For a post-apocalyptic zombie novel that is set after the zombies have won and humanity isn’t just trying to survive but salvage some kind of lower existence, Tankbread would seem to present a story with nowhere left to go but into a bleak future; humanity has no existence left to fill except to serve the upper class, now comprised of zombies that have managed to sustain themselves and elevate their intelligence to near full capacity by feeding regularly on human stem cells. In this vein, Tankbread presents an interesting comment on class in our present, not-yet-apocalyptic society.
The story begins with a courier that remains unnamed throughout. He is being patronized by an evol, one of the upper class of zombies that is intelligent enough to lead. The courier’s charge is to go to the Sydney Opera House, where some of the last of humanity have set up a protected community, and pick up a package. There we learn the secrets of Tankbread and the morally questionable pact humanity has made with the evols for survival. Essentially, Tankbread are human clones the surviving humans create to feed the evols in exchange for an agreement that they will leave the humans in the protected communities alone. As the courier is learning all of this, feeling safe in this Australian landmark, the Opera House is attacked, but the courier escapes with a Tankbread he later names Else and a charge to get her to a research facility across the country.
The mystery of why the evols break the pact and attack the Opera House lingers, but it is answered by the end. If there is one thing Tankbread does very well is it presents us with questions that it seems to abandon, but it brings us back to them and answers them in full, rewarding us for our good faith.
Following the opening sequence is a thrilling, action-packed, post-apocalyptic adventure across the Australian landscape where we meet handfuls of memorable survivors, some friendly, some not so much, as well as variations on the zombie threat that keep the appeal and mystery of this world up. Perhaps the most prevalent and appealing theme in all of it is the courier, who is hardened and by all accounts a terrible person when we meet him, learns essentially the same lessons he teaches to the Tankbread, Else, who is learning how to be human in an inhumane world. That is, maybe with everything he’s been through in surviving the zombie apocalypse and then eking out a meager existence as what a zombie refers to as a dog, he’s forgotten the value of human life, and Else helps him remember.
However, like any work of fiction, Tankbread is not without its flaws. Tankbread does mix some genre conventions toward the latter part of the story, which sort of undermine the original idea of the work that was so compelling to begin with, and it sometimes seems that, just when a familiar motif has dropped in, another one is set in front of you. However, while these plot elements can feel distracting at times, Mannering makes the best of them, and if they aren’t explored to their full potential, they’re at least honest.
Tankbread’s biggest weakness is its pacing. While it ushers the reader along and keeps the pages turning, I did feel like I wanted a bit more substance at times. That is not to say that what is there is not good. That is to say I wanted more of it. I thought some of the ideas Tankbread presents were so thought-provoking and just plain cool that I wished Mannering had dwelled a little bit more on them. I didn’t exactly want a longer narrative, per se. But I wanted a bit more meat during some key, meaningful scenes.
In the end, Tankbread is a fun read. While there is admittedly some familiar ground here, there are undeniably noteworthy ideas that distinguish it in a market some might regard as saturated. If you’re looking for zombie action and adventure through an apocalyptic wasteland, endearing tales of learning the values of life when there is little value to human life, and zombie carnage related in masterful detail, this one is a good bet.