Thursday, November 05, 2009
ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "Half Past Dead," by Zoe Archer and Bianca D'Arc
Alternate Title: Twist & Shuffle
First things first, I would like to thank the authors of this piece, particularly Zoe Archer, for being kind enough to offer an ARC of their two-novella zombie romance anthology, Half Past Dead. To repay your generosity as well as the time and effort you spent writing your novellas, "The Undying Heart" (Archer) and "Simon Says" (D'Arc), I would like to, very tentatively, suggest you not read this review. It may hurt your feelings. I'm not attacking you personally, because (at least in Zoe Archer's case) you are hilarious on Twitter and you have some really original ideas. I just didn't happen to care for your stories.
Onwards and upwards, as they say:
"The Undying Heart", by Zoe Archer.
The Chick: Cassandra Fielding. Freshly initiated into the magic-protecting secret society The Blades of the Rose, she's charged with following a Bad Dude named Broadwell, who may be in possession of a powerful Source of magic.
The Rub: Whattayaknow! Her secret crush who was thought dead is also tailing the same Bad Dude! Wait - what? He still is dead?
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.
The Dude: Samuel "Sam" Reed. Transformed into a zombie by evil sorcerer Broadwell, he managed to break free of his control and vowed to have vengeance.
The Rub: His surprise reunion with the love of his life reheats all of his cold parts - but his mission is to break Broadwell's spell - and that means death, real death, for him.
Dream Casting: Rufus Sewell.
Cassandra: I'm so sneaky, trailing after this sneaky sorcerer. I'm so glad I'm not at Almack's!
Cassandra: OMG! You're alive!
Sam: Uh...yeah, about that...
Cassandra: No worries. Let's go kill a sorcerer!
Sam: You're not scared of the fact I'm a walking corpse? That I'm cold to the touch and all broody and stewing in angst?
Cassandra: Dude, I've read Twilight. I'm all over that shit.
Evil Sorcerer: Curses! Foiled again by meddling Anachronistically Feminist heroines and Angsty Heroes! *defeated*
Sam: Oh Cassandra, I never stopped loving you. Your heart, your strength, your braaaaaaaains...
Cassandra: What was that?
Cassandra and Sam: *break spell*
Sam: *dies* ... *revives* OMG, I'm alive!
Sam: You still love me?
Cassandra: Yeah! Team Jacob! *flashes T-shirt*
Sam: Hooray! ... I think.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Anachronistically Feminist Heroine
1 Hero Suffering from Overdose of Vitamin Angst
1 Evil Sorcerer
2 Secret Societies
1 Magic Hoo-ha
1 Death By Bees
Several Undead Marines
The Word: Cassandra Fielding, the aforementioned Anachronistically Feminist Heroine, is staking out a nasty fellow by the name of Broadwell when she receives the surprise of her life - Samuel Reed, the man she believed was killed in the Crimean War beside her brother Charlie, is not only alive, but hunting the same man she is!
Eh, turns out she's only half right. Sam was killed in battle, but by his commanding officer (Broadwell), who then used evil magic to bring him back as a zombie and make him do his evil bidding. Sam is very vague about what's he's done (going only so far as to say it was Very Very Evil, No Really I'm Talking Evil Evil, So Evil I Can't Tell You Because I'll Lose Readers' Sympathy Evil), but it was enough to make him break free of his master's spell. For the last three years he's hunted Broadwell, hoping that once Broadwell's dead, Sam will become completely dead (instead of *heh heh* mostly dead) and gain some peace.
He, rather reasonably, expects Cassandra to freak the hell out upon learning he's a walking corpse. Conveniently, however, Cassandra is part of a secret society known as the Blades of the Rose, whose purpose is to protect sources of magic from being misused, particularly by yet another secret society called the Heirs of Albion, of which Broadwell is a member. She thinks that Broadwell's in possession of a powerful Source - probably the very one that gave him the power to raise zombies - and she convinces Sam to team up with her and stop him before he turns a boatload of drowned Marines into the 1858 version of Thriller.
While I applaud Zoe Archer for the originality of making the hero a zombie, she neglected the number one rule of zombie fiction: don't make your main characters less interesting or understandable than the zombies. Cassandra is Standard Issue Mary Sue - she fights for factory reform! She scoffs at Stuffy Social Strictures! She still finds Sam sexy despite the fact that he doesn't breathe, eat, sleep, or have a pulse! She's so beautiful and willow-waisted but of course totally strong and not fragile at all! Also - did I mention she's an experienced Sex Goddess who went out and lost her virginity with some random dude because it's not fair that men are allowed to sow their wild oats while women are not? In 1850s England!
In one of the cooler aspects of Zoe Archer's world-building, Sam can't stay in public long without awakening instinctual That Ain't Right feelings in the local populace, who tend to go all lynch-mob-y about that sort of thing. But not Cassandra, of course! She even righteously condemns the townsfolk for being "ignorant fools." Yes, yes, what morons they all for hating a zombie, especially when all other zombies are still being used for Evil by Broadwell. What fools. This just struck me as bad characterization, that Cassandra wasn't at all perturbed, even instinctively, by Sam, when every other human being within a 100-foot radius was, to the point where they're willing to murder him within one hour of him going out in public. I can definitely believe she'd be able to fight or suppress those feelings, but the fact she felt none at all made her a little Too Perfect. Sam's a zombie. There's a reason people are afraid of them.
As for Sam, he, too, is shiny-happy-good. He was able, through sheer Awesomeness (the novella really doesn't give any other reason), to break Broadwell's enchantment over him and gain back control over his own body. He uses this as an excuse to drown in angst about how he's a monster and worthless and he and and Perfect Good Cassandra can never have a future. As understandable as it is, it gets a mite repetitive, along with his constant declarations of how Perfect and Wonderful and Thin and Gorgeous and Loving and Spirited and Compassionate Cassandra is.
It's often a sad tendency for characters in fantasies and romance fantasies to suffer from Mary Sue Disease, because authors tend to focus on the External Tension (wizards, monsters, the end of the world, etc.) and so they keep the Internal Tension (i.e. character flaws) to a minimum. I'm looking at you, Lord of the Fading Lands! However, Zoe Archer's world-building is flat and inconsistent as well.
Yes, yes, yes, Cassandra is Feisty and Passionate and Righteous and all that crap, but she's never handled a firearm or weapon in her life and she's banned from using magic - so could someone explain to me why the Blades of the Rose thought an unarmed woman would be the perfect person to tail a dangerous sorcerer by herself? Even Sam, bless the decaying chunks of his heart, thinks that's ridiculous. Also - why would the Blades even recruit Cassandra in the first place? She mentions they heard of her campaigns for factory reform and contacted her. Yes, because handing out pamphlets and frequent public speaking have everything to do with hunting down evil wizards, right?
And I haven't even got to the zombie stuff yet! Sam mentions his heart was cut out, oh, then it's back! He hasn't had a zomboner in three years, yet once Cassandra shows up, wow! But wait - Sam establishes that zombies have no blood circulation! So, what, his zomboner's really rigour mortis or something? HOW DOES THAT WORK?
I'll tell you how - the Magic Hoo-ha. Jennifer Crusie established the romance novel concept of the Sparkly Hoo-ha, where a hero who used to go half-mast with just a sexy smile from a stranger can now only float his boat in his Soul Mate's port. Well, this is the Magic Hoo-ha - where consistency, good story-telling and established rules go out in the window. Logic has no place in the heroine's vagina! Hence, Sam gains zomboners, a higher body temperature, and restored nerve sensitivity, and all just from burying his bone in the right woman's Pleasure Cemetery!
Maybe I better cut down on the euphemisms. But seriously, the novella offers no other explanation for the blatant deviations from established zombie-ness. Zoe Archer is blazing a relatively new trail with zombie heroes. That's fine. When writing fantasy, you can make up whatever rules for zombies you like. Zombies smells like cheesecake. Zombies tap-dance in the sun. Zombies can register to vote - whatever you want. You can make up whatever rules you want SO LONG AS YOU ABIDE BY THEM. D
I'm already running a high word count, though, so let's move on to the next novella:
"Simon Says," by Bianca D'Arc
The Chick: Dr. Mariana Daniels. Years ago, she had a brief, torrid affair with a soldier in Special Forces who abandoned her without a word. Just when she thought she'd gotten over him, he shows up covered in blood at her clinic.
The Rub: Uh, ZOMBIES!
Dream Casting: Jennifer Morrison.
The Dude: Simon Blackwell. When a horde of zombies took out his team, he was bitten but, miraculously, didn't die. He's not only immune to the contagion, but now that he's got super-healing powers he can hunt zombies really well.
The Rub: Um, having super-healing is, uh, so freaky, yeah, he's such a monster, no one can ever love him, also he's a lone wolf, etc., um, ohlookZOMBIES!
Dream Casting: Michael Muhney.
Zombie: *nom nom nom* Tastes like angst!
Simon: Wow! I'm alive! With my newfound superpowers, I can be ... overcome with broodiness!
Mariana: You're hurt!
Simon: That's classified.
Mariana: Are those zombies?
Simon: Let me distract you with sex!
Mariana: Do you love me or are you just going to wimp out thanks to a mild, contrived inner turmoil?
Simon: Hmm, which Kama Sutra position haven't I tried yet?
Evil Marine Zombie: Braaaaaaains!
Simon: *kills Zombie* Oh, all right, I love you.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Lone Wolf Hero
1 Soulful Healer Heroine
1 Set of Commitment Issues
Several Zombie Marines
1 Zombie Grandma
1 Brief Torrid Affair
Several Sex Positions
The Word: We start with a rather snappy prologue where Special Forces commander Simon Blackwell and the one survivor in his command run the hell away from a shitload of zombies. While Zoe Archer's zombies are based on fantasy and folklore, Bianca D'Arc's are science fictional in origin - started by a contagion a la 28 Days Later. Simon's friend gets eaten, while he's only nibbled - however, he doesn't die right away like his comrades. Instead, he lives long enough to be rescued.
Cut to, uh, sometime later and Simon is spying on his ex-girlfriend's house. For her own good, natch. He's not only survived the contagion, but emerged from the ordeal with super-healing powers, so the military's hired him to hunt the last remaining zombies in the forest near Quantico to make sure they can't spread the disease.
While he heals fast, he doesn't heal, say, Wolverine fast and when, after his super-secret-stalker mission, he's clawed up pretty good by the undead, he decides to show up at his ex-girlfriend's naval clinic. See, he's kept his super-healing powers a super secret because he doesn't want to end up a labrat, and he fears going to a bigger hospital. Yeah. That's it.
His ex-girlfriend, Mariana, must fight the resurgence of Tingly Feelings for Simon because after their brief affair (where he was the best lover EVER and ruined her for ALL other men) he left without a word. Without even a post-it. Simon, too, has Tingly Feelings for Mariana, but with his super-secret-super-healing powers he feels like a freak (I can practically hear "Undying Heart"'s Samuel Reed cackling, "That's your angst? Man up, dude!") and figures the life of an ex-Special-Forces Zombie Hunter is no place for a lady or some other such vague hogwash.
And then zombies show up. They eat a grandma. Mariana should contract herself out to the Pentagon because her soulful searching eyes are really good at weaselling out Simon's super-military-secrets. Lots of sex is had. Emotions are questioned. More zombie Marines - (zombie Marines seem to be the running theme between these two novellas, and yet, they are still not as creepy as the Marines Katiebabs and I met at RWA 2009).
I can't really describe much more about this story. I may not have liked Zoe Archer's plot or characters, but at least her writing engaged the reader. She showed us what was happening, how her characters felt, with imagery and use of the five senses. Bianca D'Arc tells, tells, TELLS us everything, and in the most overused, laziest of cliches. Simon is actually described as the "strong, silent type" with a complete lack of irony. "Undying Heart" reads like it actually took some literary skill and creativity to write - "Simon Says" reads like someone built a story out of pre-used sentences, like those magnetic poetry kits you put on the fridge. ________(heroine) ________ (verb) ______ (overused expression for worry) = (Mariana) (watched him go) (with her heart in her throat).
For example, this torrid affair Simon and Mariana had in the past? We are told what happened, in the vaguest of terms - most of which boils down to: We Had Lots of Sex, He Touched Me Like No Other Man Ever Did, Sometimes He Was Charming And Nice As He Made Me Breakfast. Simon's angst is pretty mild, but he keeps repeating it like a mantra. Even the zombies were m'eh - easily recognizable creatures based on horror movies. Claws, eaten-away faces, moaning, the misbegotten results of an experiment gone wrong, all that jazz.
While this story doesn't quite merit an F as it's not so bad it's offensive, it's relentlessly tedious. D-
General Anthology Grade: This anthology's dead on its feet - whenever it's not contrived, it's boring. Whenever it's not obviously spoonfed to the reader, it's nonsensical or inconsistent. Definitely a Big Ol' D