Review | "This Is Not A Test" & "Please Remain Calm" by Courtney Summers

TIA HERE with my first book(s) review of the year, and of Duo Diaries... ever. And there is no better way to kick off the book reviewing than with the book I just finished yesterday—Please Remain Calm, the novella sequel to This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers. Because the two go very much hand-in-hand, I thought it'd make sense to throw them all together into one nearly spoiler-less post (don't worry, there's a bold, all caps warning for when you get there).

Let me preface this by saying, "I LOVE COURTNEY SUMMERS!" I could not emphasize this more heavily if I tried. She's a YA writer who knows how to pen the exact kind of book that reminds me why I love YA. She's poetic, angsty, fantastic at creating characters, and dedicated to a deliciously ambiguous ending. (I hate an ending that ties up every loose end perfectly—it just doesn't strike me as natural. More on that later.) With that knowledge, I hope you understand where I stand as a reader, and that my review will be reflecting my tastes in that way.

For those who want to start out with a summary, here is how This Is Not A Test is described on Goodreads:
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?

This Is Not A Test is technically a "zombie book," but that doesn't seem quite right. A better way of describing it would be to say, This Is Not A Test is a book "with zombies." What it's really about is the fight for life—no, the search for value in it—when surrounded by death. Is that an allegorical spoiler? Maybe, but there's more to this book that makes it good.

First of all, like with all of Courtney Summers' books, I see it as an elaborate, extended character study. While the chaos of survival is engaging, leaving the reader with the tense feeling that zombies might be at their door at that very second, it has always been the main character of Summers' books that carries the story through to the end. Sloane is a difficult character. I would not be surprised if someone were to pick up the book, take one look at Sloane, and put the book back down. I can imagine people complaining that Sloane is not "enjoying" (re: fighting hard enough to survive) the zombie apocalypse and her desire to simply cease existing puts a damper on the exciting rampage of zombie killing and fleeing. I, on the other hand, think that's what makes Sloane so interesting.

Summers does not write characters with a goal to make them likable, appealing to the masses, or winners, but rather writes them to appear complex, different, and strikingly real. I adore Sloane. Throughout the book, I felt like I connected deeply with her feelings, able to understand them even if my life looks absolutely nothing like hers. Her perspective, as a girl ready to die in a world where the fight to survive has been escalated, creates a whole new perspective on the zombie narrative. Even if you are one to get annoyed with the suicidal teenager in the zombie apocalypse, I encourage you to read it to the end. If you have ever been in Sloane's position (minus the zombies, I presume), you will find it especially rewarding.

Because the end, while classically Summers in the way it appears suddenly, maybe even too abruptly, adds layers of value to everything Sloane has gone through.

Of course, a review is never complete without critique. So, on the subject of the ending, while we are there, I do think I should add that I was not totally satisfied. As I said before, I'm a fan of the open sort of ending that suggests continued storyline movement past the page, but that does not mean any abrupt ending works for me. The ending of This Is Not A Test was strikingly curt. When I flipped the last page and saw it was over, I endured a long, stunned moment to take in everything that had happened. While I usually enjoy this type of thing, I found this one particularly quick. The buildup over the past chapters seemed to be accumulating to an explosive revelation, and after the endless fight for survival, the ending hit me a little too lightly. Obviously, in terms of content, the ending made sense and offered a feeling that a long thought had finally been completed. However, I did not feel as if the action was quite settled, nor that the finished thought had been embraced fully enough. I think I would have liked another page or two, just to fuel more power into the close.

Perhaps that's why Summers came out with the unexpected novella sequel (a two hour max, quick read). But we'll get to that one in a little bit.

That said, I came to enjoy the story and its ending more as time increased from when I had finished the book. Letting it settle in my mind over time, I came to love it more and more, and my understanding and appreciation of Sloane grew to an all-time high that I still hold onto today. (I find her a truly admirable character.)

To move onto other issues, although I had no particular qualm with this personally, I do think this book does not follow the traditional plot structure of a novel in ways that could be potentially damaging. The intensity of the events stayed fairly constant to me throughout the story, with little reward after build up. While the plot did peak near the end, it was not a dramatic spike of a climax with a quick downfall into denouement. Instead, it was a movement upward, a cool plateau, and that was it. If you don't mind losing typical plot structure (which is traditionally preferred by most readers) to favor instead the realism of a zombie novel (because there can be no real denouement if the fictional world does not conclude with a way to end the zombie threat), then disregard this point as I did while reading. I thought the realism, characters, and zombie-stress this book delivered to me more than made up for any supposed need for a traditional buildup. I was engaged with the story from beginning to end, and it flowed over me like water as cold as the undead. Could it have benefitted from a more classically dramatic climax and rounded out ending? Maybe. But I think it might have changed into a very different book, and one I, personally, would have liked less in the long run, as satisfying as it would have seemed after my nonstop read through.

But the story didn't end there.

[NOTE: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHETHER OR NOT SLOANE SURVIVED IN THE FIRST BOOK, DO NOT CONTINUE READING THIS REVIEW.]

Not long after This Is Not A Test hit shelves, Courtney Summers released Please Remain Calm, the short continuation of the first book, starting exactly where the previous one left off. Plot twist, though: the main character in Please Remain Calm is no longer Sloane. As a huge fan of Sloane, I found this personally a bit disappointing at first, but over the course of the story, I found value in the new perspective. (For fear of spoiling more of the first book in terms of who survives, I will just say that the new main character is a character that appeared in the first book and is with Sloane at the end.)

This character is much more "normal" than Sloane, and so I found their point of view less fresh to the Walking Dead-type narrative, and more for the zombie lovers who wanted someone who was a bit more of a fighter and who ran into some new types of characters along the way. Once I got over the tragic loss of Sloane as the narrator, who unsurprisingly does not make a very interesting side character (as she is often mysteriously quiet when you cannot hear her thoughts), I enjoyed where the story took me. Basically, Summers did what she didn't do before: she gave us the Sloane mental struggle ending in the first book, and the physical, action-oriented ending in the second one. While filled with its own kind of heartbreaking trauma, Please Remain Calm gives readers the more certain ending they had been asking for.

While this short sequel dotted the i's and crossed the t's of the last book, it also played with some interesting ideas relating to the general zombie narrative and expanded This Is Not A Test's universe from the city to the outskirts and the forest beyond. Like a tasteful fanfiction of the original book (except, of course, canon), Summers gave readers what they were craving and more, from a new point of view, in a new setting, but with already familiar characters. While a great addition for those searching for some more peace of mind, I think this sequel was unnecessary to the Sloane story, but completely necessary to the "bigger picture" story regarding zombies, other characters, and the fictional universe Summers created in the first book.

That said, I would give This Is Not A Test a solid A rating, and Please Remain Calm an A-, following the first book close behind. While you can most certainly get away with reading the first book without the second, if you find yourself unsatisfied with the first one's ending, the second one will be just the fix you need.

Happy reading! And definitely check out more of Courtney Summers' books. The others don't mess with the supernatural, but they are just as artfully written, especially for an angsty YA audience.

For more, check out Tia's new blog!

Much love,

T.