The Damnation Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow

I received an ebook copy of Saintcrow’s The Damnation Affair as a prepub from Netgalley.com. 

15789012Lilith Saintcrow’s The Damnation Affair is a standalone entry in the author’s alternate history/steampunk Bannon and Clare series. You really don’t need to read the first book, though you might want to in order to get a better handle on the curious world Saintcrow created.

Our heroine is Catherine Barrowe-Browne, a Boston society girl who takes up a post as schoolmarm in a town called Damnation in order to tack down her wayward brother. As soon as she arrives in the desolate town, she strikes the fancy of good guy Jack Gabriel, the town’s sheriff. So far, the story is pretty much par for the course. But then the zombies turn up. As Catherine tries to find her brother, Gabriel keeps the town safe from zombie incursions and investigates a curious occurrence in the mountains around Damnation. It seems that someone (it doesn’t take much of an effort to work out who) woke up something evil and hungry while trying to find gold. As the town’s positions gets more and more dicey, the plot works up to a very interesting plot twist near the end that changes how you see Catherine and Jack.

Even though the setting remains a little vague and the characters a little shallow, this is a fun read. I really enjoyed the twist; I really was not expecting what happened. And I am very curious to see what happens to these characters next, if Saintcrow works them into the main series as I expect she will.

Pariah, by Bob Fingerman

7600451Most of the zombie novel’s I’ve read look at how the survivors, well, survive and how they set about rebuilding society. Bob Fingerman, however, looks at what happens when you strip away civilization and the survivors are just waiting to die. Pariah is an extremely bleak book because of this.

This might seem unrelated, but I have a point to his digression. Earlier today I was listening to RadioWest’s show about online comments. The host and his various guests were trying to work out why comments are so vulgar/racist/sexist/stupid, etc. etc. My personal theory is that online comments do the same thing that Fingerman’s zombies did. They strip away the veneers of civilization. If you don’t have a reason to keep your worst ideas under control, then you won’t. Online, no one knows who you are even if you sign your posts. In Pariah, there’s no one to impress and it would be inhuman to turn someone out even if they turned out to be a truly awful human being and it would probably be safer to do so.

Pariah moves back and forth between “then” and “now,” spending most of the time in the characters’ present. (If that makes sense. It’s tricky when the author uses the then/now chronology.) The narrative also bounced around among a slight handful of survivors who have holed up in a barricaded apartment building. They are entirely surrounded by zombies and entirely alone. They are slowly starving and dehydrating to death. It’s too dangerous to make a break for it, even though there’s a grocery store cruelly within view. Their numbers are slowly being whittled down by misfortune. The more I got to listen into one particular character’s thoughts, I kept hoping he’d be the next one to go because he was an absolute bastard.

When a girl who appears to be immune to the zombies strolls down the road one day, the characters start to see some hope–not a lot, just that their lot might improve with fresh supplies. But once they stop starving, the utter bastard starts to get dangerous again. You just know that things are not going to end well.

This is a tough, challenging book to read primarily because you get to hear the worst of their thoughts, their jealousies, their lusts, their violent mental revenges, and all the rest of the thoughts that belong locked away deep in one’s subconscious. But I think it was a worthwhile reason exactly because Fingerman shows you these things. As I said, no other zombie book that I’ve read has gone in this direction before. I think Pariah might actually be a more accurate depiction of what would happen if zombies were real.

Blackout, by Mira Grant

Well, that’s it for Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, one of the more innovative zombie stories that I’ve come across lately. On the one hand, I’m glad to see authors ending series before they drag on into irrelevance. On the other, I would have liked to see more of the world Grant created. Oh well.

11806716Blackout is told in alternating chapters by Shawn Mason and a cloned copy of his sister, Georgia Mason. (This isn’t really a spoiler, since Georgia II figures out what she is in her first chapter.) Blackout reads more like a continuation of the second book in the seriesDeadline. It will be impossible for new readers to get into this book without having read the first two. But then, why would you want to? Anyway, Shawn and Georgia II are investigating the same vast government conspiracy from two different angles. Shawn is on the outside, on the run, trying to figure out how to keep his crew alive and reveal the truth about the CDC’s attempts to rule people through their fear of the zombie virus. Meanwhile, Georgia II is trapped inside a CDC facility. She can’t let her journalistic skills rest either and starts to uncover another one of the CDC’s dirty secrets: cloning.

I have to say that the best book in the series is the very first one, Feed. It was fantastic. The second book was still pretty good. I think Blackout is the weakest of the three because of some of the choices that Grant makes. Two of these choices in particular make it hard to call this book a completely satisfactory end to the series. The first is a revelation about Shawn and Georgia’s relationship. It came completely out of left field for me and didn’t and anything to the story. Rather, it subtracted from the story for me. The second thing that bugged me was how long it took for Shawn and Georgia II to meet up. The real action takes place after they join forces and, unfortunately, this only accounts for about the last third of the book.

I would still recommend this series for zombie fans. It’s fresh. It’s different. And there’s the delightful bonus of snarky dialog.

Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory

9466865Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall is an interesting twist on the zombie apocalypse in a number of ways. It’s a fresh story (though that might not be the right word considering that most of the cast is made up of animated corpses). In traditional zombie stories, the dead are mindless, hungry things. But in Raising Stony Mayhall, once the fever passes, the dead become aware again–bringing in all sorts of narrative potential and ethical complications.

The prologue to the book gives you a clear sign that something catastrophic has happened to the United States. But you don’t get enough information here to know exactly what happened. The prologue plants a seed of dread that grows as the story progresses. The first chapter then takes us back in time, to 1968, when a family of women find a dead girl on the side of the road, carrying what appears to be an equally dead baby. Except that the baby moves. He doesn’t breath or eat, but he moves. And through some miracle, he actually manages to grow.

The book really gets interesting once Stony gets into his teenage years. He’s known for some time that there was an outbreak in 1968, and that if he’s ever found, the authorities will shoot and burn him. But he chaffs at hiding. After a car accident, however, Stony has to leave the nest. He soon falls in with a group of other self-aware zombies. (They prefer LDs, or living dead.) The LDs live in secret, with human volunteers who hide and help them. But they are divided into factions. The Abstainers are strict in preventing any new outbreaks. The Perpetualists want to transform a few people to to keep their own race going. And the Biters, who want to get the humans before the humans get them.

I can’t say much more without getting deep into spoiler territory. As in Gregory’s previous book, The Devil’s Alphabet, this book is a fascinating mediation on what makes us human, especially when we don’t look human and the regular people are frightened of the differences. This book goes farther than The Devil’s Alphabet, because the LDs have the ability to transform any human into one of them and they have the awareness to decide whether or not to do so. Regular zombies are frightening enough. I thought I’d seen the pinnacle of scary zombies when they gave them the ability to run. But when you give them the ability to think, well that’s frankly terrifying, because it means not only will the usual precautions not work but also that killing them means that you’re killing a sentient being.

So, for a different and challenging spin on the zombie story, I highly recommend Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall. Fans of regular zombie stories may be disappointed in the lack of blood and gore, but this book is a rewarding read for all that.

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

I’m well aware that it’s pretty macabre of me to enjoy zombie novels. When anyone asks me why I like them so much, I feel like I’m doing a little verbal dance to keep the questioner from knowing that I kind of like watching society as we know it be destroyed. What keeps me coming back to these books, really, is watching society rebuild itself. We’re pretty stuck with the way things are with our traditions, debts, enmities. Changing anything is very, very hard. So I often ponder the question: what if the slate were wiped clean? Would we get to build a great society, or would we try to rebuild the old?

10365343So, even though there’s not much zombie action (though there’s enough to satisfy the reasonably bloodthirsty), I enjoyed reading Colson Whitehead’s take on the zombie apocalypse in Zone One. The novel takes place over three days, though it covers more chronology through flashbacks. Our narrator, known only by the nickname Mark Spitz, is working as a sweeper in New York City. The worse seems to have passed and the sweepers are responsible for taking out the last lingering zombies that the Marines and the Army missed during the big push. Because Mark Spitz doesn’t have a lot to do, physically, he reminisces about the past. He doesn’t think much about this life before. Mostly, he thinks about his encounters with various survivors and “skels” and life at Fort Wonton in New York’s Chinatown.

It may sound boring, on the face of it. But I found the book interesting precisely because it ponders the same sorts of questions that I wonder about when I read zombie novels. In this version, there seem to enough vestiges of government and business from the old world to try and resurrect the old society. Sweepers and other advance groups are not allowed to loot or to destroy property. Chains of command are preserved. Government propaganda seems to be working overtime to forcibly raise the survivor’s morale. It seems that there are enough tethers to the past to keep the slate from truly being wiped clean.

To me, that would sound awfully pessimistic. But even having finished the book, I’m still not sure if Whitehead intends the book to sound that way, or if he’s trying to inspire a grim sort of hope. Because at the end of the book, I honestly felt both emotions.

Zone One is an interesting hybrid of genre and literary fiction. There’s enough action to keep you going, but the bulk of the book is designed to get readers thinking. Novelist Glen Duncan wrote a review of the book for The New York Times that pointed out the oddity of this blend (with a few snotty comments thrown in about lowbrow readers having to look up the big words). I suppose some genre fans might wonder about this big show treading on their turf. But I like to see genres blend like this. I’ve always thought that literary fiction could use more blood and guts and I know that genre fiction has a lot to saw about our society–it just gets dismissed by the cultural gatekeepers. I don’t know if this book is a gamechanger in that regard, but it’s a pretty good step in the right direction.

Deadline, by Mira Grant

Deadline
Deadline

I don’t often get to say this, but I think Mira Grant’s Deadline is even better than the first book in this trilogy. While it still has problems with repetition in the prose, it freaked me out (in a good way) more than the first book did. Don’t get me wrong. Feed was great. I read it in one day it was so good. But Deadline runs with the premise set up by the first book, deepens the conspiracy, and ratchets up the terror.

The zombies in this series are the result of two man-made virus (one to cure cancer, the other to cure the common cold) combining into a terrifying new disease. All mammals are susceptible. To make things worse, the disease is mutating, evolving. At the time of the second book, they know about fifteen strains.

The beginning of the book starts about a year after the events of Feed. Shaun Mason is still coping with his loss and seems to have lost his taste for poking dead things with sticks–his previous passion in life. Though Shaun and his team of bloggers got the truth out, the cost appears to have broken him. So when a new conspiracy, potentially more explosive than the one from the first book, lands in his lap, it’s tempting for him to think about passing it by. His sister’s commitment to the truth prevents him. Almost before Shaun decides to investigate, he finds himself in them middle of a man-made outbreak of zombies and an airstrike that takes the life of one if his bloggers.

Shaun and his team spend most of the rest of the book running, crisscrossing the country to find out if what they suspect–that someone is manipulating the deadly zombie virus–is actually true. In Shaun’s world, manipulating the virus and potentially making it worse, is the ultimate taboo. One of the few things that gives the living the upper hand over the dead is the fact that the virus can only transfer through fluids. If it managed to go airborne, humanity might be looking at the end of their species.

It sounds a little pale when you write it down in bald sentences, but it’s a lot more gripping when you get it piece by piece as Shaun investigates. And because Grant is the kind of author willing to sacrifice characters like pawns, you never know who’s going to die next. I’ll admit I kept reading partly to make sure my favorites survived to the end of the book. (I’m not going to say if this worked out or not.)

There’s only one book left in this trilogy, due to come out in a couple of months. I have no idea how Grant is going to escalate from the events of Deadline. But if the fact that Deadline is such a great read and seems to suffer from none of the middle volume doldrums, I am very excited to see what happens at last.

Feed, by Mira Grant

Feed
Feed

At first, Mira Grant’s Feed struck me as an overstuffed novel. It’s a zombie novel, complete with hordes and close shaves and bullets to the brain. It’s also a conspiracy/political thriller involving a presidential election and assassination attempts. It’s also a commentary on the state of media and journalistic ethics. It’s also just over 600 pages long. There’s a lot going on here.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any big plans today.

Grant quickly introduces us to a world that’s had 20 years to acclimate itself to a zombie virus that strikes no matter how a victim dies. In this world, the zombie virus actually infects everyone. It only goes “live” when the victim is bitten or dies. Everyone is just an accident or a spot of bad luck away from an outbreak. Elaborate security measures have developed to keep everyone as safe as they can be under such circumstances. On this front, Grant has a very serviceable zombie novel. There are a number of thrilling close shaves that keep you on your toes as you read.

Our guide to this world is Georgia Mason, a professional blogger along with her brother and friend. Georgia is prickly and cynical. But her dedication to reporting the truth (and her wicked sense of humor) override any dislike you might have had for her. She’s the conscious and the ethical center of her little cadre. Her brother is usually too busy poking zombies with sticks (sometimes literally) and uploading the live feeds to the internet. And the friend is a technical genius, but a flake when it comes to just about everything else.

Shortly after a fairly spectacular opening involving a motorcycle-assisted escape from a small pack of zombies, Georgia gets word that her group is the first group of professional bloggers exclusively selected to follow a presidential campaign. It’s a big coup for them and lets them go independent. But it becomes clear after a couple of deadly coincidences, that something sinister is going on.

At this point, the zombie plot gives way to the thriller plot somewhat. George and her team try to track down whoever seems to be trying to kill or otherwise destroy their candidate. But when it became clear how deep the rabbit hole goes on this particular conspiracy, I didn’t mind so much that the zombie action died down. In fact, it all leads to a rather terrific conclusion.

I can’t give away any more of the plot without revealing a major plot point. But that major point also makes this book worth the price of admission. If you read this book and get to that point–you’ll know the one I mean–you’ll see how Grants novel suddenly evolves from a workmanlike, but original novel, into one that has startling emotional depth and pathos. I was having a blast up to that point, enjoying all the fights and mystery. But that moment tugged at my heart in a way that I was not expecting.

The other thing this book does is serve, as I said, as a commentary on the state of media. Most people I know distrust the traditional media to a greater or a lesser extent. In my role as a librarian, I try to get more people into that questioning group. In the world Grant created here, no one trust the traditional media because they ignored the first outbreaks as hoaxes or nonsense. Only the bloggers told the truth. As things got worst during those initial outbreaks, the surviving public lost all faith the media and started trusting the bloggers. People learned, the hard way, to triangulate their news. They learned to seek out the news from more than one source. Bloggers eventually get licenses to help regulate them, to make sure they’re not following the route followed by their older siblings on TV and in print. So both journalistic ethics and critical reading also get resurrected. (Sorry about the pun.)

When I first started reading Feed, I wasn’t sure if Grant was going to be able to pull it off. Sure it was interesting, but it was an awful lot of plot (not to mention character development) to cram between two covers. I can point to instances where Grant stumbled. But it all comes together. And, as I said, that bitter moment of pathos near the end elevates this book from the category of “Pretty Good Read” to “Really Great Read” for me.

The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell

8051458Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels reminds me of nothing so much as True Grit with zombies. It’s plain spoken and profound at the same time, anchored by a tough girl who is trying to do the right thing in a violent world. Unlike True Grit, there’s no one to protect and guide Temple. She’s on her own, with a vengeful man on her trail. In that way, it’s sort of True Grit in reverse. With zombies.

We meet Temple in an isolated lighthouse somewhere in the Florida keys. When a zombie (or “meatskin”) washes up on shore, Temple pulls up stakes and returns to the mainland to find a safer place to live. For a fifteen year old girl, however, the living are just as dangerous as the dead. Temple soon runs afoul of Moses Todd, a giant of a man with a lecherous brother. Temple kills the brother in self defense, and Moses starts to chase her all over the ruined Southern landscape.

Temple is not a bad person, though she constantly fears that she is. She questions what is right and wrong. She desperately wants to do what’s right, even if it is hard. For a large portion of the book, she shepherds a mentally challenged man to Texas to try and find his family. But she is constantly put into situations where she must answer with violence. She’s good at it; she’d be the first to admit it. But one comes away with the impression that this is what scares her most of all: her satisfaction with bloody jobs well done. Temple is a born soldier. She just can’t seem to make peace with that. Her bloody jobs haunt her. Her guilt drives her on as much as her need for safety.

I love these ethically thorny books, and not just because they make me wonder what I would do in similar situations. I love ethical dilemmas because they push us to really consider what is right and wrong. I’m pragmatic, and I would argue that ethics–for the most part–have to be decided based on the situation. But Bell uses this book to also look at the repercussions of the decisions, even when they were clearly the right ones in the situation.

This book has great characters and a great plot. But what made me really love it was the language. It’s plain, sure, but Bell is capable of creating beautiful images with it:

She watches the fire and feels sleepy, and when she pokes it with a stick, the embers fly up into the air like a crazy squadron of insects and then simply disappear as if they’ve gotten lodged in one of the many folds of the night. (161*)

Temple twists English a little, creating malapropisms like aerodynastics. But she’s far from stupid. As she points out later in the book, when she should have been in school, she was surviving. She speaks a bit like the characters in Firefly–that’s really the only way I can describe it. But I could read her for hours because I love the way she bends a phrase.

In a way, it’s a shame that the book is so short. This is a rich environment for stories and characters. But on the other hand, if it had been longer it would have been tempting to natter on about guilt and ethics and right and wrong and utterly suck the life out of the book. I can tell that this is a book that rewards multiple readings.

I’m really looking forward to Bell’s next book. He’s the sort of writer that elevates the genre.

* 2010 trade paperback edition.

Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne

7296271After reading Day by Day Armageddon’s sequel, Beyond Exile, I feel like I need to watch a comedy or something before I can get to sleep tonight. Reading this book is like playing Left 4 Dead late at night; it freaked me out. I’m really glad that I read it broad daylight. Holy cow.

We met our nameless hero in the first book in San Antonio. In order to deal with everything and to keep a record of his life–for however long it lasts–our hero keeps a roughly daily journal. Beyond Exile finds him at Hotel 23, a missile silo somewhere in Texas with the other survivors that he collected in the first book. Just when it seems like there’s no one else alive, the crew at H23 intercept a distress call from a group of marines. After rescuing the marines, Nameless’ people makes contact with what’s left of the US military.

Things hum along at Hotel 23 until a reconnaissance mission goes wrong and strands Nameless more than two hundred miles away from his safe haven, all on his own. The rest of the book (more than half) is all about his attempts to get home to his girl and safety. It’s a bit like reading a narrative version of Max Brooks’ Complete Zombie Survival Guide. It’s all about fighting off hordes, noise discipline, and finding shelter. It’s a cracking read. Even though the writing style is spare and our hero doesn’t do a lot of reflective thinking, you feel like you’re right there, riding along on Nameless’ shoulder, dodging the undead and trying not to die.

The book ends with a clear set up for a third book and I am very much looking forward to spending another day reading. (I sure as hell won’t read it at night.)

Breathers, by S.G. Browne

5149517I’ve read a lot of zombie books and watched a lot of zombie movies, but this is the first time I’ve heard the zombie’s side of the story. S.G. Browne’s Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament follows Andy, a recently resurrected zombie as he tries to figure out why he’s alive (read: undead) and what his purpose is. As I read, I thought that this book was a horror novel with aspirations to be a literary novel. While there’s a lot more action that I’ve come to expect from literary novels, there’s as much introspection and pensiveness. And, of course, there is no happy ending.

The book actually begins somewhere near the end, when Andy wakes from a drunken binge to realize that his parents are dead. The perspective then shifts back a number of weeks and we meet Andy again as he goes to an Undead Anonymous meeting, to therapy sessions with a particularly clueless psychologist, and passive aggressively spars with his unhappy parents. We learn that Breathers (people still alive) treat zombies with contempt. Frat boys are a particular danger, and several zombies meet their end at their hands.

The action really starts to take off when Andy and his cadre discover the joys of snacking on Breathers. Andy discovers a little will and starts to agitate for zombie rights. He stands on corners with signs and tries to ride a bus (zombies are banned from public transportation). After an unfortunate incident at the Social Security office to try and get his number reinstated, Andy gets shot by a security guard and lands back in the zombie holding pen at the local SPCA. (Yes, Animal Control rounds up loose zombies.) His friends call in the media and all of a sudden, it looks like Andy might get the legal rights he wanted in the first place.

Meanwhile, all the zombies are snacking on homeless people and troublesome Breathers.

Unfortunately, even thought there’s more action in the second half, the narrative gets more and more unfocused. It seems like Andy becomes more and more a mouthpiece for the author to comment on racism (vitalism), civil rights, and the media–all while trying to keep the body count high.

Breathers is a very strange read. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to any but the most die-hard, must-read-everything zombie fans or to people who like their literary fiction more than a little off kilter.