Before getting to the subject at hand today, I thought I'd point you in the direction of some blogs. My partner in crime Norma wrote a blog about her late parakeet Sam. If you're not already familiar with the bird, take a look, and you'll get to like him. She also wrote a blog about a thin skinned writer burning bridges. Finally, over at Lyn Fuchs' blog Sacred Ground, I did a guest blog on the California Gold Rush. Check them all out!
With my back against the fence, I stared through my strands of shoddy raspberry-colored hair and into the dead faces in front of me. Ten of them. Slow and stupid, but large in numbers....
And so we step right into Gravely Inanimated, by Esther Wheelmaker, the first in a zombie-steampunk hybrid series. The author goes squarely into the zombie side of the horror-paranormal genre with this book, all the while putting her own spin on things. This is a good thing for me; normally I don't care for the zombie genre in film, television, or books, but when a good twist is added into the mix, it takes the theme in another direction entirely.
Lucille Knight is a young woman in Victorian England, though it's a very different England than the one we know from history books. In this world, the dead have been walking the earth for years, rumored to be the workings of a voodoo queen. Queen Victoria's armies do their best to keep the zombies at bay, as does an esteemed inventor, whose mechanical marvels and weapons, some of which are called automatons, are quite adept at zombie killing.
We meet Lucy in the midst of trouble, on her way home in the evening when she is pursued by a pack of zombies. She is saved by a mysterious man calling himself Aeron, a masked fighter with a particular talent for bringing down the walking dead. She finds herself both drawn to and annoyed by her rescuer, and we begin to get to know her as a person; her relationship with her widowed father, who seems more anxious to see her married off to a respectable suitor, her close bond with her best friend Emily, and the fact that Lucy has been burned in love before. Burned is a vast understatement, all told. The cad and his new wife turn up in the book, and one feels compelled to strangle the jerk.
Lucy concerns herself more with her own amusements early on, and at a restaurant- and then a social party- meets Lord Garrett Ashdown, son of the Countess and the Earl Ashdown. The Earl is the aforementioned inventor, a genius with steampowered engineering, automated devices, and weaponry. The Countess at first seems emotionally distant. Garrett himself is a dashing and charming fellow, drawing Lucy's attention.
A pivotal moment changes everything, and Lucy finds herself given a new purpose in the wake of a tragedy, learning the ways of how to fight zombies. The book explores her growth as a character, her transition from being a society belle to a role she would have never expected. The bonds and relationships she has change fundamentally over the course of the book, and the changes she undergoes really form the core of the book.
As mentioned before, I don't normally care for the zombie genre... and yet in this case it works. Instead of the usual dystopian future of the genre, the author is wise to take us back in time and tell the story there. It's a good twist on the genre. And incorporating steampunk elements into the story is another good twist. The technology made by the Earl Ashdown feels both plausible in a Victorian era, and also feels capable of the task that it's required to undertake. And the author understands the essentials in the genre. Her zombie sequences have the attention to detail, the horrific and the dreadful as the hordes of walking dead advance on key characters or the passerby. There's not an excess of it, but just enough; it's grisly without being gory. By extension, the previously mentioned voodoo queen does finally turn up in the book, in control of the zombie hordes. The author wisely conceals the voodoo queen when the reader finally meet her, giving us shadowy glimpses, really, never quite the entire picture. She leaves that to our imagination, which when horror is done properly is much more effective.
Characterization throughout the book is strongly rendered. I felt sympathetic to Lucy very early on, when the writer shows us the circumstances of how she was badly hurt in love. Her transition from society belle to a fighter against the zombie curse is paced well, with her character developing naturally throughout. It never feels forced. She has a sparkling personality that undergoes trials, but that spark never goes out.
Emily is a character that's very likeable; she has a fierce loyalty and a bit of what in the current day we'd call a smartass personality. Lucy's father is an enigma, distant at times and cold... though it also makes him come across as authentic, particularly after a painful tragedy.
As the reader gets to know more about the Ashdowns, the characters come into their own. The Countess is initially hard to pin down, rather distant, but slowly the layers are revealed, and the reader gets to understand what makes her the way she is, and gets to like her. Earl Ashdown, the Inventor, is wonderfully eccentric. And Garrett himself is a charming sort of rogue with manners... and a few secrets. The bond that gradually forms between he and Lucille works well, developing at just the right pace.
Gravely Inanimated does a splendid job mixing together the zombies of horror with the tech of the steampunk genre in a Victorian world rather unlike our own. It's the first of a series, and while it brings its story to a close, it also leaves room for future revisitings. There's well drawn action, good characterization, a sense of humour, and a dash of romantic passion thrown in for good measure. As someone who'd normally avoid zombies in my fiction tastes, I enjoyed it.
You can find Gravely Inanimated at Amazon.com as an ebook for Kindle.