It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.
So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.
My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.
I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.
Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.
I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.
Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.
Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.
My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.
Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:
clip ≠ magazine
Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”
That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.
And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.
Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.
On to the book itself.
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
Available for free at the author’s blog here.
And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.
American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.
Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.
But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.
The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.
Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.
And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.
Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?
Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:
The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.
Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.
Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.
All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.
It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.
What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.
The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.
What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.
All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.
Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.
I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.
It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.
It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.
It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.
And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.
Oh, my sci-fi loving friends, what a treat we have today! I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the excellent cast of main characters? Maybe so. There’s Viekko Spade, the Martian warrior with a white hat and a long braid, and two 1911 pistols. He’s a classic pulp protagonist–a hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-hewn tough guy. I love his gruff way of speaking and his habit of swearing in Martian.
Then there’s Althea Fallon, Viekko’s former lover, the highly competent medical officer who does her best to manage Viekko’s dangerous addictions, and Cronus, a computer expert who lacks the martial talents of the others, but makes up for it with his skill with computers.
The team is led by Isra Jicarrio, a hard-driving, powerful and often stubborn woman, who tries her best to control them, which is no easy task.
But maybe it doesn’t make sense to introduce the whole crowd without talking about the situation they’re in. Yes, I should have started with that–they are exploring Titan, the moon of Saturn, which is now a wasteland left behind in the desolation of a massive civilizational collapse. There, they find two warring factions, fighting over the remnants of what was once a mighty empire.
Speaking of that mighty empire–did I mention that every chapter starts with an epigraph from a fictional text about the collapse of the empires? Here’s a quote from the first one: “It could be that civilization is an inherently destructive force. A kind of virus that consumes and destroys everything around it and, when it can no longer sustain itself, commits suicide.”
I love, love, love it when authors use fictional texts as a world-building device. It’s practically like getting two books in one, at least when it’s done well. And is it ever done well here.
So there are two native groups fighting each other on Titan, and throw into that mix a mega-corporation that intends to conquer Titan to exploit its resources. This is the fraught environment in which the four protagonists must try to survive against dangers of every imaginable sort.
This book is everything I look for in sci-fi. Deep philosophical concepts mix with exciting action sequences. (The climax of the book in particular is a pulse-pounding page-turner, but even then, there’s a brief pause to reflect on the meaning of history. Just amazing stuff.) There’s even a tinge of horror in the scenes involving the Venganto–winged demonic figures that patrol the night skies of Titan.
The plot is perfectly paced and the writing is crisp–the characters each have distinctive ways of speaking, from Viekko’s hardboiled drawl to Cronus’s techno-philosophical flights of oratory. More than once, I stopped to savor a particularly well-turned phrase, both in dialogue and in description.
This is science-fiction at its best. Reading it felt kind of like how it must have felt to see Star Wars in 1977, or read Dune in 1965. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, you say to yourself.
Except they do. This book was published in 2018. Maybe someday it will get popular enough they will make a movie out of it. I’d love to watch it. In the meantime, though, you need to read this book. This isn’t quite the end of the review, but we’re at the part now where I’m going to nit-pick and rant about my personal hobbyhorses, so you might as well bail out and nab this book before reading the rest of this.
Right, so first of all, at one point they call a weapon’s magazine a “clip.” This is super-common. But it drives me nuts. There is such a thing as a clip, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when someone says “clip,” they mean “magazine.” See Peter Martuneac’s blog for a visual clarification.
Second thing: covers. The cover above is seemingly the most recent and therefore “official” cover for this book. But it’s not the cover that made me buy this book when I saw it on Goodreads. No, that would be this:
Now, it’s true, these covers aren’t that different. To the extent they are, the new one is more polished. But I like the unpolished-ness of the yellow one better. Directly I saw it, I said “Wow, that looks like a 1930s pulp cover!” The top one is a fine cover, but it doesn’t radiate that vibe that says, “You are looking at a treasure from a bygone era.”
But you know what they say about books and covers and judging. Of course, we all do it anyway. I judged this book by its cover, and thought it looked pretty cool. And I was right. If anything, I under-estimated just how cool it was. This is a fantastic novel that could have easily been from the Golden Age of sci-fi. I take my hat off to Mr. Jones, because he’s created something really, really special here, and his work deserves to be widely read.
I didn’t know what to expect from this book. It’s a romance, but obviously in a sci-fi setting. The premise is that a company has created a lottery, the winner of which will receive a trip to Mars.
Recent divorcee Katrina buys one ticket, largely to appease her daughter Francesca. Francesca has been lobbying her to buy it chiefly because Francesca’s father, Katrina’s ex-husband Doug, is a spokesman for the lottery, and Francesa hopes that if Katrina wins, it might spark a reconciliation.
Both Katrina and Doug still have some lingering feelings for each other, although there’s no doubt they have major differences too. They are sort of an “odd couple,” with Katrina being super-organized and fastidious about cleanliness, while Doug is a spontaneous, rough-and-tumble outdoorsman.
And, fairly early on in the book, both Kat and Doug meet attractive romantic prospects. Ariel Anderson, a wealthy and influential woman, who guides Doug and Francesca on a trip to a horse ranch in Montana, is practically flinging herself at Doug. Meanwhile, when her robot maid, Minnie, begins behaving strangely, Katrina meets a handsome and eager young robot repair technician.
You probably won’t be surprised that Katrina wins that trip to Mars, but that’s only the beginning–from there follows a hilarious chain of events during the long voyage to the Red Planet. From a mystery involving a plan to breed horses on Mars, to the hilarious antics of Minnie the robot, to the rom-com hijinks as Doug and Katrina try to sort out their feelings, the book goes from one hilarious episode to another. There were quite a few moments where I laughed out loud.
And, incredibly, despite it being such a wild and unlikely set of occurrences, the underlying plot is actually a tight thriller. The climax caught me by surprise, but it felt satisfying and tied things up well.
Basically, this book was way better than I was expecting. It was funny, sweet, and clever. The characters are all well-written and enjoyable. If there was any flaw, it was that the antagonist’s motives were a little vague. But, it really didn’t bother me; the main thing is the satisfying resolution of Katrina and Doug’s arcs. Also, while the extremely-human behavior of some of the robots was something that might not normally sit well with me, I found it worked here. I think it’s because this is a comedy, and taking it in that spirit, the robots’ antics are some of the funniest scenes in the book.
Mars Madness is a delightful romantic comedy, with great characters and a wonderful premise. I recommend it highly.
Lost in the Red Hills of Mars is an adventure book. The protagonist, Celine Red Cloud, is a teenaged girl born in a Martian colony. Her father is missing and presumed dead on an expedition in the Red Hills on the other side of a huge crater.
Celine and her Earthside grandmother both sense that her father is alive, but no one else in the colony believes her, including her mother, who is about to remarry a military scientist named Morg.
However, when Alex Rittenhouse, a teenage heartthrob who stars in a popular adventure show arrives on Mars, Celine enlists his help to go on an expedition to her father’s last known location.
There are a lot of plot elements in this book, from the mysterious “brain booster” shots that doctors administer to Celine, to the apparent greed of Alex’s “father” (more precisely, the man he is cloned from) for Martian resources, to a recurring thread of magical realism. Celine is of Cherokee descent, and there are repeated references to Cherokee beliefs and culture, particularly in her discussions with her grandmother, which help her on her journey.
I liked all this, as well as the detailed descriptions of the Martian landscape and the process of rock-climbing. As Alex explains while teaching Celine, it’s not as easy as it looks.
On the other hand, I struggled with the characters. Many of them seemed kind of… inconsistent. I think Alex was the one who was most unpredictable–sometimes he seems genuinely helpful, other times like an arrogant, greedy, spoiled celebrity. And there’s no reason he can’t have both elements in his personality–indeed, it makes sense that he would–but what makes it awkward is the way he goes back and forth between the two almost instantaneously.
It doesn’t help that his and Celine’s relationship becomes similarly unpredictable as a result–one minute they’re fighting, the next saying how much they appreciate each other.
Other characters also behave in odd ways. Like, when the two teenagers run away from the colony, it doesn’t feel right that Alex’s father would apparently just throw up his hands and say, “Oh well.” He seems like the type of guy who would spare no expense in finding his son–not only because he cares about him, but also as a point of pride. He struck me as one of those proud businessmen whose ego would compel him to prove that he is the master of all he surveys and nobody runs away from him; hostile alien landscape or not!
In other words, the character was set up very well, but then it seemed like we didn’t get the follow-through.
Also, while the overall plot is well-paced and enjoyable, there are some subplots that never get resolved. It may be that the author is planning to write a sequel.
Despite these issues, I still enjoyed the story and of course I loved the detailed presentation of the Martian setting. I also liked the way Celine grew as a character over the course of the book.
This is a YA book, but don’t let that put you off. Admittedly, I don’t read much YA anymore, but this was one of the better ones I’ve read. It felt less formulaic than most YA. I guess the only problem was the total lack of swearing. Not that every book should have swearing–I hate it when writers use gratuitous profanity to make something “gritty.” But, all the same, I have a hard time believing a veteran military officer, when something goes badly wrong in a high-stakes situation, would say “darn.” Of course, in YA, you can’t write out what he actually would say, but I’d just use something vague, like “he swore angrily.” That’s a minor point, though.
All in all, this is a fun book for anyone who enjoys Martian adventure stories. Despite my gripes about some of the characters, I still encourage sci-fi fans to give it a try.
This is a hard science-fiction novel about an expedition to settle on Mars in the year 2075. The novel begins on a dystopian Earth, where society is collapsing and the super-rich leaders of large corporations live sheltered lives, away from the rest of the desperate populations.
David Gill is head of a food production company, and is enlisted by his business partner, Robbie Newall, to join the mission to Mars. Gill and Newall are incredibly badly-suited to working together, however–Gill is an honest engineer, while Newall is more of a businessman. And not an ethical one, either. He’s always hatching increasingly complicated schemes to enrich himself through morally-dubious means. This is a constant source of tension between the two.
Because the venture includes multiple corporations, as well as the military leadership, there are all sorts of factions jockeying for power on the newly-settled planet. Gill, who has something of the Heinlein hero about him, constantly finds himself getting involved in these power struggles, even as though he really cares about is getting his settlement up and running. It reminded me a little of Pat Prescott’s Fan Plan books, where industry power struggles don’t stop just because of extremely harsh environmental threats.
I have to admit, at times I struggled to follow all the different schemes and corporate machinations. That’s not to say they were poorly written–in fact, I suspect the author gave them a great deal of thought–but dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a businessman! If I understood how to make a killing by floating junk bonds… well, I dunno what I’d do. But the point is, I don’t.
There are definitely some moments when I got a strong feeling that I was just not smart enough to understand this book. In addition to the business wheeling-and-dealing, there are long passages of heavy science, as one might expect in a novel about settling Mars. These are, again, well-written, but a lot of it was over my head.
Even with all that said, I enjoyed this book. There are still plenty of action scenes and interesting plot twists to keep an uninformed reader like me interested. If I have a criticism, it’s that the characters tolerated Newall’s increasingly outrageous behavior way too long. In an environment like this, I find it hard to imagine people would put up with the things he does.
Actually, that’s an overarching issue: characters would feud, apologize, then feud again. It seemed sometimes like they just… didn’t remember things. It wasn’t a lack of continuity, exactly–the plot is actually pretty tight–but it was odd. People didn’t have the emotions that one would expect them to. But they weren’t bad characters; don’t think I’m saying that. Besides Gill, I especially liked the expedition’s commander Adrienne Shepherd, the clueless empty corporate suit Graeme Cherrington, and the plucky anti-corporation pilot Jacqui.
Part of it is, it’s a long book, with a ton of world-building and huge scientific concepts throughout. At times I found it hard to picture what was going on, but that’s understandable given the sheer scope of the setting and the amount of technical description involved.
This review sounds more negative than it should. Because despite all the ways I struggled with it, I really liked this book. It reminded me of some of the cult-classic video games of the late ’90s, where the ambition of the designers exceeded the technical capabilities of game machines. The result is sometimes a bit clunky, but that shouldn’t detract from the sheer scope of the story that is being told.
I was hooked on the story and couldn’t wait to find out how it would all end. There’s so much information here, it can be a little bit overwhelming at times, but it’s also an incredibly daring attempt at a thriller set in a plausible, carefully thought-out Martian colony. It’s a big time investment, but it’s worth it.
They say not to judge a book by its cover. In general, this is probably good advice. But when the author of the book is also a gifted painter who creates his own covers, I believe it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. For in this case, the cover is not just some bit of packaging a publisher slapped on the text; it is the product of the same imagination that created the world of the story.
Look at this cover! What does it evoke to you? A fantastic rock formation, perhaps? I encourage you to think for a moment about this before you read on.
Don’t you feel a little as if you’re gazing at it across some open plain, where the chilly breeze whips against you and the weak light of the sun–paler than on our own planet–throws blue shadows down across the barren desolation? You can almost hear the echoing horn of the train at the elevator’s base as it rolls along.
At least, I can. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up in a rural midwestern town where the biggest landmark was a grain elevator with a railway beside it. The Mars of this book is a Mars that I can easily relate to.
On to the text itself: the book’s protagonist, Gy Mons, has awakened after some 700 years of stasis in a Martian facility. While he and his wife, Keiree Tulla, had slumbered in their pods, a plague devastated the solar system, more or less wiping out colonies on Earth and the Jovian moons.
Gy soon learns that Keiree’s pod was stored elsewhere, and so she was not awakened along with his group. So he–and his genetically modified silka cat, Molly–set off to find her, at every step discovering how Mars has changed while he was in stasis.
There’s a fascinating temporal parallax that occurs for Gy as he searches his and Keiree’s old neighborhoods on Mars. For him, it feels as though it’s only been a few weeks since he’s been in these places, though in fact centuries have elapsed. If you’ve ever come back to your old hometown after being away for years, imagine that, only multiplied by 700.
This book is, obviously from the setting, sci-fi. And yet, I’d say it’s really what is often called “literary fiction.” As I read it, I kept thinking of Mark Paxson’s novella The Irrepairable Past, which is not at all sci-fi, but which also deals with someone reflecting on bittersweet memories. Both books are about something deep in the human psyche, and Keiree feels every bit as emotionally relevant and powerful as if it were set on present-day Earth.
This is why I dislike the distinction between literary and genre fiction. We write books to make people feel a certain way. Whether they are set in the distant past, the present-day, or an imagined future, is secondary to their true purpose of evoking a feeling in the reader. And Keiree does evoke many feelings. So what if these characters are living on Mars, many centuries from now? They are still people, and Litka treats them as such.
Well, except of course Molly, who is a cat. A genetically-modified one, but in ways that if anything only accentuate her fundamental “cat-ness.” Anyone who ever owned a cat will know instantly what I mean.
Keiree is a wonderful novella, and I recommend it highly. Everyone, whether they like sci-fi or not, should go visit Litka’s gorgeous vision of Mars.
This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.
“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”
Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.
As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.
This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.
Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.
The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.
Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.
Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual.
The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.
Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.
There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.
This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.
Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.
And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.
I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.
I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.
Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.
And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.
The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.
I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.
There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.
The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.
Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.
My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.
Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.
This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book.
One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.
And now, a word about zombies.
I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed.
Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning.
I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.
Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.
It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.
I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?
Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.
While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.
In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.
That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.
Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.
That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.
Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.
A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.
Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.
Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.