Monday, February 08, 2010

"The Down Home Zombie Blues," by Linnea Sinclair

The Chick: Commander Jorie Mikkalah. One of a group of Guardians, intergalactic zombie hunters, she's sent to Earth when her undercover contact goes missing, but she accidentally reveals herself and her mission to a human, police Sergeant Theo Petrakos.
The Rub: Now that Theo's aware of the Guardians, Guardian law states that he has to be transported to a prison planet to keep their secret. Jorie, however, still might have a use for him.
Dream Casting: Jessica Alba.

The Dude: Police Sergeant Theophilus "Theo" Petrakos. While investigating the bizarre murder of a man who appears to have been mummified, he runs into alien Jorie, who informs him he can't return to Earth now that he knows her secret.
The Rub: He catches a reprieve when he offers to help Jorie find and eliminate the zombie threat, but only if he consents to an implant that will let Jorie kill him on a moment's notice should he try to escape.
Dream Casting: Robert Downey Jr.

The Plot:

Jorie: Crap! Our Earth contact's been killed by zombies!

Theo: Crap! An alien! Crap! An uglier alien! *shoots zombie*

Jorie: Crap, now I have to make you a prisoner.

Theo: Crap, now I'll never see my home again.

Jorie: Crap - how can we hunt zombies without knowing anything about Earth culture?

Theo: I can help!
Jorie: Only if I can implant you with a killswitch.

Theo: Crap.

Jorie: Crap! We're not only hunting zombies - but evil sexy aliens!

Theo: *shoots evil sexy aliens with gun* Not so sexy now, are you?

Evil Sexy Aliens: Crap! Our advanced shields are no match for physical bullets!

Jorie: Crap! I can't contact the ship! We're on our own.

Theo: Oh well. Let's kill some zombies!

Zombies: *killed*

Jorie: *zapped back to ship*

Theo: *alone* .... SHIT.

Jorie: *zapped back* No worries, dude, I'm a captain now!

Theo: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Evil Whore Ex-Wife

1 Evil Whore Ex-Fiance

Several Dead Zombies

1 Jar of Glorious Peanut Butter

Several Evil Sexy Aliens

Several Good And Still Fairly Attractive Aliens

1 Nosy Neighbour

Several Greek Endearments

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

The Word: I wanted to like this novel. I wanted to like it with pretty much every fibre of my being. I loved Games of Command, ever since The Booksmugglers dared me to read it. Kel-Paten is one of my favourite heroes of ALL TIME and the heroine was no slouch herself. The worldbuilding was intense and relevant - no wall-paper science fiction settings. I'm pretty sure, since I have the edition of Games of Command with the un-romance-y cover, that I can trick my dad into reading it.

So I was looking forward to reading The Down Home Zombie Blues. And, to be fair - it got off to an excellent start. Commander Jorie Mikkalah is a member of the Guardians, an intergalactic military unit that hunts and kills zombies. These zombies are not flesh-eating corpses, but rather biologically-engineered creatures that were created to guard lanes of space transport against infections and biological warfare. However, two hundred years ago their genetic programming went awry and they went rogue, hunting down any warm-blooded creatures they could find and draining them of their vital fluids. As the Guardians created the zombies in the first place, they consider it their responsibility to hunt down the herds and eliminate them.

This time around, Jorie and her team are sent to Earth, a nilworld - meaning a world lacking the technological development to participate in intergalactic travel. While Guardians can openly pursue zombies on worlds as advanced as their own, on nilworlds they must remain covert, knowing their presence could spark off xenophobia, religious persecution, and wars over their technology amongst the nils. Jorie and her pals know very little about Earth, and have so far relied on the information of their agent on the inside, Danjay. Unfortunately, Danjay's gone MIA and they fear the zombies may have gotten to him.

Meanwhile, Theo Petrakos, a Florida detective, is examining the corpse of a man that appears to have been mummified. There's little evidence to be found, but the man's house contains some weirdly advanced technology. Theo takes some of the tech as evidence, tech which Jorie must retrieve in order to preserve the Guardians' secret. Her attempt to discreetly steal back the evidence fails when a zombie attacks and Theo becomes involved. In order to protect them both from zombie reinforcements, she beams them both back up to her ship.

Theo has no idea what the hell is going on, but once he learns the gist of what zombies are, he's eager to return to Earth and alert the authorities. Unfortunately, as a nil who's now aware of the Guardian presence, he can't be allowed to return to his homeworld, but will instead be transported to Paroo, a pleasant but isolated planet where the Guardians reluctantly send all nils who end up knowing too much.

However, now that it's obvious Danjay is zombiefood, Theo dreams up a way to escape: he volunteers to be Jorie's personal Earth tourguide, since the Guardians need a least a basic knowledge of Earth and its culture in order to proceed in secret. Jorie accepts, with a caveat: Theo must consent to be fitted with a killing implant that Jorie and her superior can detonate if he tries to escape. Seeing no other choice, he assents and the two team up.

It sounds like a story heavy with drama, and it is - for a while. As I kept reading, however, the story slowed more and more, until soon I was bored out of my mind and found myself daydreaming on buses and subways instead of reading the book in front of me. By page 400, I gave up entirely and started skimming to the end.

In this case, the two aspects of Linnea Sinclair's writing that I considered to be some of her best assets turned out to be the albatrosses around this novel's neck: the action, and the worldbuilding.

At the beginning, our protagonists are fully-formed and seething with angst and personal drama. Jorie is gunning for a captaincy, but she's still hurting from a broken relationship with a scientist who cheated on her. She's also a survivor of torture at the hands of an aggressive race known as the Tresh (the aforementioned Evil Sexy Aliens - I'm not kidding, their hawtness is an indication of their Treshness), and when it looks like the zombies on Earth might be the experimental projects of the Tresh, nasty memories rise up to jeopardize her professionalism. Theo, meanwhile, is recovering from a broken marriage to a woman who ended up being a cokehead looking for a new identity.

However, the action soon sweeps all character development away. The task of tracking down zombies takes over, and the characters take a backseat. While occasional spurts of development pop up occasionally, the protagonists spend more time reacting than acting, so I felt distanced from them and from the narrative. This may sound weird, but while they're smart and efficient, they're too smart and efficient - solving problems quickly and easily without really giving a sense of their personality beyond, well, intelligence and efficiency. It's easier to determine a person's character from their personal screw-ups than from their victories, and the few times they do screw-up, more often than not it's thanks to the Evil Sexy Aliens or a technological malfunction.

And holy cats, the tech. Here's where Linnea Sinclair's world-building becomes an impediment. There's a fine line in world-building - while you want to create and convey a detailed, fully-formed world with aliens and zombies and ships, at the same time, you don't want to bog down your narrative with loads of minutiae that may be creative but don't contribute to the narrative. Even in science-fiction stories, the world-building should support the narrative, not the other way around. You can write a beautifully realized intergalactic empire, but it's not worth diddly squat if you don't have a story to tell with it.

In Down Home Zombie Blues, Jorie is always fiddling with her tech, and checking her tech, and fiddling with her shields, and creating new shields, and re-checking her tech, and repairing her tech, over and over until I wanted to pull my hair out with boredom. WE GET IT, THE TECH IS HELLA IMPORTANT, you don't have to TELL US every time she uses it unless it's DIRECTLY RELEVANT TO THE STORY. I did have a problem with some of the sci-fi jargon in Games of Command as well, but the story always came first. A lot of Jorie's plans to take down the zombies involve very complicated procedures using her tech - procedures we have to read in exacting detail, often multiple times as she explains it to other people. This also means that much of the lead-up to action scenes involves lectures on foreign technology and how it works rather than anything the protagonists actively do, which ends up being another distancing factor for me, the reader. It makes the novel's pacing slower than molasses in January - the novel's 500 pages long but the narrative takes place over only a few days.

The world-building itself is still very well-thought out, and there are some good moments - I really liked Jorie's discovery that some of Earth's technology is so outdated it's actually more effective than her tech: for instance, the enemy's shields are so focused on repelling the high-frequency lasers that all advanced aliens use, that they're defenseless against good old fashioned bullets. The language barriers between Jorie and Theo are expertly demonstrated - Jorie's second language is Vekran, which is almost but not quite English, and her word choices and sentence structure reflect this.

It's obvious that Down Home Zombie Blues took a lot of creativity and artistry to create. However, I couldn't enjoy it as a romance - the pacing was too slow, the characters' development had little to do with the action at hand, and the overabundance of repetitive technobabble kept me at arm's length from the narrative. I hated the fact that I had to skim it, but the fact that my eyes continued to glaze over at page 400 finally made me give it up. I may have to wait a little while before I try Linnea Sinclair again - but so long as Hope's Folly remains on my TBR, I will read it - eventually.


  1. The peanut butter was a cute thing. I really do enjoy all of Linnea's books. I enjoyed this one even though Games of Command and Gabriel's Ghost are my favorites. ((SULLY))

    I give you Kel-Paten but Sully is mine.

  2. There was one more interesting thing about the heroine that I forgot to mention - the author actually has her do something outright wrong, that can't be explained away by necessity - when she describes how Jorie murdered (yes, murdered) a doctor.

    It didn't redeem the book, but I'll admit that having Jorie do something like that in her past took writing balls. Other writers might have written it off, saying it was necessary (it wasn't) or she had no other choice (she had plenty). Here, they actually let the heroine do something utterly, completely wrong and see how it shapes her character.

  3. You gave it better grade than I.

    I really like Linnea Sinclair, but this is one I could have done without.

    Hmmm.. Rhis is still free... Hmmm...

  4. Great review! A thoughtful dissection with trashing the book. The "tech" is what generally keeps me from bothering with space opera-- I have a low threshold for it.

  5. Estelle8:58 AM

    I think this book is Sinclair's weakest one and I couldn't finish it. I was bored and kept putting it down every few pages.

    But I LOVE Sinlcair's other books, especially Games of Command. That book is brilliant. It's in my top 5favorite romance novels.

    Finders Keepers and Gabriel's Ghost are also very good.

  6. I wasn't at all fond of this one myself. But it's the exception with her books. All the others I've loved.

  7. Vorkosigrrl4:59 PM

    It's funny you should review this one; it's my least favorite of Linnea's books. The pacing was too uneven -- it was always hurry-up-and-wait. The interlude with Theo's aunt and uncle (Christmas) was totally unrealistic to me (they're needing to save the planet, and they stop to find her a dress at Walgreens and shmooze with the relatives??). And it felt like a very unlikely HEA. Jorie becomes Captain, therefore, realistically, no longer goes dirtside to kill zombies -- only Jim Kirk went on all the missions. Does Theo learn Alarsh and go off into space with her? Ok, whatever, I'll cut her some slack with the ending.

    Interestingly enough, Linnea has sold the movie rights for this book. Hollywood loves big alien shoot-em-ups, I guess. I can see big changes coming if they actually make it into a movie. Mrs. Goldstein - gone! Aunt Tootie and Uncle Stavros - gone! Evil sexy aliens -- bring 'em on!

    But please don't give up on Linnea just yet. Not until you've tried Finders Keepers and Accidental Goddess (my faves, besides Games of Command), not to mention Gabriel's Ghost and Shades of Dark (more complex and darker, but also very, very good).

    You'll probably like Hope's Folly, too, although for some reason it didn't resonate that much with me. I just didn't relate to the characters very much.