I first heard of Dearly, Departed – probably on Goodreads – in a context of absolutely aghast disgust. A story telling about a girl who falls in love with a zombie?! Horrors – and not in a good way. And it’s true, on surface it’s another one of those ideas which Should Not Work (I should create a shelf for those). Although it does occur to me that there’s a fine, fine line between all those “I Loved a Vampire” PNR’s and this – undead is undead. Still, undead but whole and able to heal is rather different from undead but possibly missing bits that won’t grow back and liable to rot without maintenance.
But Lia Habel and her zombie hero Bram recognize this. And heaven knows her living heroine, Nora, recognizes this. That makes a difference. The well-written and interesting description combined with the gorgeous cover art made me put it on my wishlist despite any qualms (are you listening, self-published authors?), and when it became available on Netgalley I requested it with fingers crossed. With most books I request from there it’s a click-and-forget proposition; I’ll request almost anything that sounds interesting, and if I get I get it, if I don’t I don’t. But this one I wanted. So – thank you very much, Netgalley and Lia Habel. Out of the books I’ve read through the site there are a handful whose authors I will follow from now on, and maybe two whose digital galleys I enjoyed enough that I’ll seek them out and buy them. Dearly, Departed fits both of those categories.
The world where this book (this series) takes place is beautifully built. It’s our future, 2195, and there has been an ice age; needing to rebuild their society, they decided to take the best parts of the Victorian age (and, inevitably, some of the not-best) and pattern themselves on it. There has been terraforming, and mass migration and lots of adjustment – and fighting. In fact, one of my favorite things about the beginning of the book was that zombie attacks caught on film by the press are passed off as simply more brutal fighting between the Victorians (called, derisively, the royals) and the Punks – those who prefer to carry on an almost Luddite tradition as opposed to the New Victorians’ new gaslit digital age. Lia Habel created a believable, enjoyable steampunk fusion of parasols and laptops, high-power weapons and crinolines.
Bram Griswold is – was – a Punk. That is, they were his people; he did not join the military until after he was dead. No one knows quite how or when or where the Laz – the zombie infection – began, but it’s as is usual in zombie invasions: if you’re bitten, you will die of it before long, but you might not stay dead. And in an attack on the mines where he worked Bram was bitten. Most of the victims wind up mindless and ravening: grays. Through luck, and early intervention, and (usually) not having eaten human flesh despite the body’s craving, some few manage to keep their minds and their humanity intact and learn to function as if still human. And Bram did have intervention – he was saved by someone very important to the “good” zombies, as well as to Nora Dearly.
Now Nora herself is immensely valuable to all of them, both sides of this hidden zombie war. And she’s also very important to the people she left behind – well, if not particularly her remaining family, a chilly aunt, then to her best friend, Pamela, who is a terrific character (and an even better friend).
I don’t do horror. I tried to watch AMC’s “The Walking Dead” when it premiered, having heard great things. I didn’t even make it to the first zombie; the tension got me. I’m a wimp. I can’t manage zombies. Which makes this all the more fascinating, in a way.
I think I can handle this denomination of zombie, though. There is a healthy dose of classic zombie horror here – not all the zombies have personalities, and in fact not all of them have working limbs, leading to what they call “Worms”, which … *shudder*. The descriptions of the zombie hordes are terrifying – it’s obvious why zombies are such a horror staple
But a lot of the element of horror comes from the insight into Bram, and through him his comrades: he is a formerly healthy young man, good-looking and smart and funny, trapped in a body he himself finds appalling and which he knows will fail him in just a few years at most. The psychology of it is impressive, and fascinating, and honestly moving. I like this character; even apart from the deadness he’s not the usual PNR Hero. He’s a fairly ordinary kid (yes, attractive, but not devastatingly so) who has landed in a situation that would break most people.
And I like Nora. Again, attractive without making men swoon, trying to adapt to horrific circumstances. She’s terrified, but neither stupid about it nor ridiculously courageous; uncomfortable and afraid of becoming comfortable among zombies; longing to be anywhere but where she is, yet strangely happy. And it’s perfectly plausible.
Pamela, Nora’s good friend from school, is another wonderful character. She knows Nora has gone missing, but not what the circumstances are, and meanwhile she has problems of her own as the zombies come to her neighborhood. As the zombies become her neighborhood. Like her friend, she is a clever and resourceful young woman; she is fighting the strictures, sometimes completely unreasonable given the circumstances, of her extremely proper and conventional family (and annoying brother), and is longing to fall in love herself, whatever the circumstances.
So – another book on the “This should NOT work” shelf. It does work. It really, really works. And I want more.
- The Big Idea: Lia Habel (whatever.scalzi.com)
- Review: “Dearly, Departed” by Lia Habel (witchoftheatregoing.wordpress.com)