by Lia Habel (Corgi, 2012)
This book is what would happen if Doctor Who, Gone With The Wind and the complete novels of Charles Dickens were all blitzed together in a blender and served up with a hot zombie on the front. Seriously. After a fairly slow start, it gradually picked up pace until by the end, I couldn't have stopped reading if I'd tried...
The first in Habel's Gone With The Respiration series, Dearly, Departed is about the kidnap of Nora Dearly, a young lady in a post-apocalyptic New Victorian society. Still reeling from the death of her father a year ago, Miss Dearly is attacked in her home by a band of zombies - only to be rescued from her own rooftop by another. Before she knows it she is having to come to terms with life in a zombie army camp, and finds herself caught up in a war that is fast becoming far more personal than she could ever have dreamed. As the icing on this new and bizarre cake, she might just be falling for the handsome Bram, the young (dead) captain of the 'Z-Comp'...
There is much to recommend Habel's debut novel. There are some wonderful characters at the centre of the story: Bram and Nora are deeply appealing, and the supporting cast are, without exception, utterly engaging. I particularly liked Bram's witty friend Chas (who reminded me very much of Arriane in Lauren Kate's Fallen series) and one of the zombie doctors, Doctor Samedi (great name, too!) who both lit up the page every time they appeared! The slow-burning romance, with its emphasis on genuine old-fashioned courting and mutual understanding, is a far cry from the much-maligned insta-attraction of some modern YA and paranormal novels.
The political backdrop tying the characters and plot threads together is satisfyingly complicated, with wars erupting between the living and the dead, between the Punk and New Victorian societies, and between 'good' zombies and 'bad' zombies. This paves the way for the exploration of plenty of ethical and moral grey areas, led by complex characters with both glorious virtues and horrendous flaws. There are some gory moments, but equally there is always a dose of humour to lighten the most intense chapters. The zombie-creating 'Lazarus' virus is well thought out (and again, wonderfully named!), and the 'coping mechanisms' Habel has created for her zombie army are quite fascinating. The multiple narrative works well, allowing several important subplots to play out side by side in the build-up to the explosive climax.
There were, however, a few things I didn't like so much. Occasionally I felt like I'd missed a step and had to go back and read a section again to untangle a dodgy paragraph or unclear plot point. The book had a very slow start that I initially found ominously offputting, taking far too long to establish the New Victorian technology and attitudes. The 'teen angst' during this opening section didn't really sit well with the rest of the novel either. The futuristic Victorian-based society definitely allows Habel her creative freedom, but occasionally felt like an excuse for accidental slips of language and modern idiom. A few bad typos didn't help matters ('pouring' over a map?) and got quite jarring at times.
Happily, despite these small (and easily fixable) issues, I found myself utterly immersed in Habel's world, with its horrors and delights, romances and friendships, political unrest and old-fashioned manners. It was quite an addictive read in the end, and I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, rooting for Bram and Nora and the triumph of the good guys over the bad guys. Habel left the book on a bit of a cliffhanger ready for the next in the series, so I'm now chomping at the bit waiting for Dearly, Beloved to hit our shelves! Highly recommended!
- "There are symbols of me everywhere around you. I am in everything I have ever touched. I am in every memory you may have of me. I am in every utterance of my name. I am in every atom of your blood.' He looked deeply into the camera. He was crying... 'It is impossible for human beings to truly die. We leave too much behind.'"
- "It is the ability to carry on with life that will see us triumphant in the end."
- "I stared at the doors until they stopped moving. I stood there until I was fairly sure I was composed. She really needed to not do things like that, because the Laz was thrilled at the idea of chasing her, and priming my muscles for the task."
- "I had nothing to give her. I couldn't exactly arrange for a skating party or a trip into the city, or anything. I really sucked at this whole 'I am very attracted to you and would like to demonstrate this to you via attention and creative uses of my disposable income' thing... I finally had to fully acknowledge it. I liked her. I liked her a lot."
- "I looked at Bram. I looked at all of them in turn. It was like I was caught up in a carnival freakshow, or one of the lowest levels of hell. In my panic, I felt like they were looming over me - creatures full of holes, their flesh missing, their skin stitched together like horrifying rag dolls, watching me with eyes like mirrors reflecting a sickly moon."
- "This time, I let myself fully enjoy it - the fact that I had already come to care for her, and that she obviously cared for me. The fact that I could touch her, and she wouldn't rebuff it. The fact that she sought me out. It was the simplest, purest thing I've ever experienced."
Source: Many thanks to the lovely folks at Random House Children's Publishing, who sent me a copy of this book for an honest review (and did a bit of fangirling about the cute cover model along the way!).