Zombies are kind of a basic concept. There is really only one thing you can do with zombies and George A. Romero did it back in 1968. But even going back as far as Night of the Living, a good zombie movie is never really about the zombies. The tones addressing racial inequality are what made that movie profound. The zombies are just the catalyst of the story. The same thing can be said of other top-notch zombie stories like Shaun of the Dead and the first few seasons of The Walking Dead. This is something The Girl With All the Gifts understands and manages to do right.
Now, this is a story where the zombie apocalypse has already happened. The zombies themselves are not the traditional slow-moving kind either. This is more of a cross between 28 Days Later and I Am Legend (the book, not the terrible Will Smith version). But despite those similarities, The Girl With All the Gifts does use some new ideas. Without spoiling anything, it has a bit more of a sci-fi touch than traditional zombie stories. But that is still far from the most profound differences that make this story unique.
The first key thing is the characters because that is where readers will start. Melanie is the main character and she is a child. Telling any story from the perspective of a child can be extremely difficult. Even more so when the book is aimed at an adult audience. This story is through the eyes of a child who has grown up in a world very different from ours. And as the story progresses, we learn more about the adult characters who remember the way things used to be. While some characters are less developed than others, no one is left on the sidelines. Readers are given a level of detail that makes them feel less like characters and more like people.
The other big thing is the philosophical implications of the story. Ultimately, the question it addresses is, “What does it mean to be human?” There are many other themes present as well. Themes of loss and what people are willing to do to regain their pasts. Themes of hope for the future and what sacrifices people are willing to make to make that future reality. What abstract terms and concepts like “good” and “evil” really mean. And so, so much more. Rather than simply a good horror book, The Girl With All the Gifts is just a good book. Even readers who normally avoid the genre can get something here.