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REVIEW: Half Past Dead by Zoe Archer and Bianca D’Arc

Dear Ms. Archer and Ms. D’Arc:

Half Past Dead CoverWhen Zoe Archer offered ARC copies of your new two-novella book, Half Past Dead on Twitter, I enthusiastically requested one, with more than a little curiosity about how zombies would work in Romance. I would have to read substantially more books to fully quench that curiosity, but your novellas gave me a glimpse of the possibilities beyond the popular imagery of dying flesh and mindless subservience, neither of which figure to me as particularly romantic. While I must admit to being less than blown away by the volume as a whole, I did find the stories interesting in their refiguring of the zombie myth for genre Romance.

In Zoe Archer’s The Undying Heart, we meet Cassandra Fielding as she waits outside a tavern for the nefarious Colonel Kenneth Broadwell. As a member of the Blades of the Rose, Cassandra now understands that Magic does exist, even in mid-19th C England, and is too often used for dark purposes. In the case of Broadwell, as a member of the Heirs of Albion he exploits a magical “Source” by killing and turning his soldiers into zombies for England’s military success. And Cassandra has been dispatched to track and kill Broadwell, and hopefully to retrieve the Source.

Samuel Reed knows all about Broadwell’s zombie magic, having been turned by Broadwell to become part of his own personal zombie army. For some reason, though, Sam has been able to break the singular mind control Broadwell, as his maker, has over him, and he now hunts Broadwell to exact his revenge for the involuntary condemnation to the tormented life of the fully conscious but undead.

When Sam comes across Cassandra outside the tavern, both are stunned; she has long believed her brother’s best friend dead in battle like her brother, and he is amazed at the striking woman into which Cassandra has grown. Sam did not know of the crush Cassandra had on him while he was alive, and now that he considers himself a monster, he cannot imagine her desire to renew their acquaintance. Because while Sam may not be the flesh-dripping monster we are used to from the movies, he cannot quite pass for normal, either, despite Cassandra’s insistence on treating him as she would a living person. When the townspeople start to band together and arm themselves, Cassandra is flummoxed:

“Arming themselves,” she muttered. “I don’t understand.”

They probably don’t even know why,” Sam rumbled. “Primal instinct. Something unnatural is in their home and they want it out.”

“But you haven’t done anything!”

“Doesn’t matter. You should run from me, get yourself to safety. They won’t bother with you.”

“Get it through your undead head,” she gritted, “I’m not leaving you.”

Thus do Cassandra and Sam set out together to defeat Broadwell, who they know is busy turning a shipful of drowned Royal Marines, and increasing the destructive powers of the dark Magic with his stolen Source.

I understand that this novella kicks off a series of Victorian-set novels set around the Heirs of Albion and the Blades of the Rose, so the focus of those will be more on the Magic elements than on zombies, per se. And there are many elements of The Undying Heart that are clearly intended to set up the series, from the unusual home of Blade member Honoria Graves – which is tricked out with some serious Steampunky equipment – to the novella’s climax, which revolves around Sam’s status as zombie, the nature and force of the Sources, and the whole concept of balance within the supernatural matrix of Magic.

I think that there’s a great deal of potential there, and if The Undying Heart is supposed to stand as a kind of teaser for the series, it’s a good one. But as a stand-alone story, I had some issues with both the zombie concept and the world building, as well as with the suspense aspect.

First, despite the fact that zombies do not lend themselves to romantic heroism, Archer works a little magic of her own in creating a zombie hero who is neither a mindless slave nor a decomposing pile of flesh and bones. To Cassandra’s eye, he is a decent approximation of his old self, and their previous acquaintance further eases her acceptance of the undead Sam. But those same clever work-arounds also beg a question: why a zombie hero if two fundamental aspects of the condition have been altered? Vampires offer immortality and the erotic feeding ritual; werewolves offer a sense of primal wildness and animalistic sexuality, but what do zombies uniquely offer as Romance protagonists? Certainly they offer a dilemma: how can you have lasting happiness between someone who is effectively dead physically and a mortal partner? But I think I might want a full-length novel to explore some of the more interesting issues at stake. For example, it was clever to introduce the uniform mind of the mob that chases Sam and Cassandra as a mirror of the mentally enslaved zombies; I would have loved if if this relationship had been drawn out a bit more. Also, the whole question of how one breaks that mental control is raised by Sam’s existence but not really answered beyond an assumption of his exceptional individual strength.

More specifically to the plot of The Undying Heart, though, pairing Sam and Cassandra up means that most of the suspense must be generated externally, and it must compete with the introduction of the Blades, the Heirs, the zombi and its origins in Caribbean vodou, Steampunk accoutrements, Magic more generally, and let’s not forget the romantic development. I give Archer a great deal of credit for not imparting all of this foundation as infodump, but at the same time, the limits of the novella make it difficult to create both breadth and depth in the story. And here, breadth exceeds depth to the point where I just didn’t feel a great deal of suspense in the chasing of Broadwell or the fate of Sam and Cassandra.

Further, I felt some of the moves were too predictable. For example, Sam and Cassandra race away from the mob, only to come upon an abandoned barn. Time for the first sex scene! Later, they arrive at a safe house. Time for another sex scene! Plus there is a magic hoo-haw moment that I really wish could have been avoided (if anyone wants a spoiler, pose the question in the comments, and I will answer it).

All of this was a shame for me, because the writing was thoughtful, nicely-worked, and sophisticated, and the setting interesting and intricately imagined. I just did not feel emotionally engaged in the story or in Cassandra and Sam’s developing relationship. I am, however, very interested in the Magic and Steampunk aspects of the upcoming series. Also, I think the mid-Victorian setting is ideal to explore the inter-relationships among magic, national power (imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, jingoism, etc.), and moral/spiritual balance, and this novella hinted at the richness of all this, hopefully to be explored more fully in future books. So while The Undying Heart was a C read for me, there were enough seeds sown for the rest of the series that I will definitely be picking up Archer’s upcoming full-length Blades novel.

In an unexpected and delightful transition, the second novella, Simon Says picks up in contemporary times, but with the tie-in of a military theme: Simon Blackwell has been bitten and scratched by some creature, and he is certain he is not going to make it out of his mission alive. Unbeknownst to Simon, though, he has a unique immunity to the venom of these monstrous beings, which makes him a perfect covert operative against them.

As a small band of zombies wander the land around Quantico Marine base, threatening both the enlisted and civilians living on and around the base, Simon hunts them every night, systematically eliminating these mindless, encroaching creatures. And in addition to his loyalty to the military and his special immunity, Simon has an additional investment in his mission: his former flame, Dr. Mariana Daniels, lives in the woods around Quantico. Except she has no idea Simon is back, having said an abrupt goodbye to him three years ago, thinking he was merely going on another mission, never to see or hear from him again. So when Simon limps into her clinic, his flesh torn and suffering significant blood loss, Mariana is understandably shocked. And when Simon’s wounds start healing within the hour, she adds curiosity to the shock, even as she grapples to tamp down the hurt she still feels at what she interprets as Simon’s cold rejection three years ago.

Simon has much that he cannot tell Mariana, but seeing her again in such close proximity makes all his feelings for her newly acute. Lust and respect and a belief that she is The One all impair Simon’s impartiality, compelling him to tell Mariana enough to make her more, not less, curious about why Simon is the way he is. He is also forced to blow his cover as the silent forest zombie hunter when one of the ragtag bunch ventures too close to Mariana’s house, frightening her with its inhuman face:

A second later she saw it, coming from the woods. It looked like a man in tattered camo fatigues, but its face … its face was … horrible.

Streaked with a grime that didn’t look like camo paint, bits of flesh hung off his jaw and gouges were taken out of his hollow cheeks. His eyes were vacant, staring. His jaw locked in position, seemingly unable to move.

Mariana stared. Her rifle lay in her arms, but she was unable to lift it – or even to think – as the thing came toward her.

Once it’s clear that Mariana is in danger, Simon’s inability to remain invisible and unknown disappears, and he feels the need to protect her must more personally. If she gets bitten by one of the zombies, she won’t simply die; she will become one of them, and Simon would have to destroy her, an absolutely incomprehensible possibility. And because Mariana is not one of those women who can manage a rifle in one hand and a machete in the other — that is, because she is unused to supernatural phenomema and is logically freaked out by what’s going on around her — her ability to protect herself is not at all guaranteed.

Where The Undying Heart is somewhat weighted down with mythology, magic, romance, and suspense, Simon Says is more straightforward and streamlined, even as it offers a creative take on the phenomenon that has created the zombie problem. Simon wants Mariana to move onto the base – to greater safety – until he has eliminated the zombie problem around her home. Mariana cannot imagine leaving Simon to fend for himself and possibly be destroyed himself, especially after being separated from her for three years. Consequently, the rest of the story is constructed within a horror-romance framework that propels both the relationship and the external conflict forward.

In many ways I think Simon Says is better suited to the novella format, although where the first novella seems chock full, this one feels a bit thin in some parts, leading me to question certain choices in the story. For example, Simon agrees readily to allow Mariana to remain in her isolated house, even though it should be obvious to anyone, especially Simon, that such an option is keerazy. That Mariana is not supernaturally endowed or bionically powerful is one of the more interesting things about her character (i.e. how does a normal person deal with phenomena beyond their experience?). And it’s also a little crazy for Mariana to be so certain she wants to remain, especially after she comes face to face with one of the zombies and has a very natural, very understandable, paralytic response. And beyond Mariana, why not evacuate the area in which the zombies are wandering? Certainly that could be done without alerting the population to the real reason for the move, especially since the land borders a military base.

Then there is the question of why Simon is fighting these zombies alone. His immunity makes his solo presence on the ground understandable (we are treated to an opening scene that brings home the horrors of falling victim to the zombies), but why aren’t there military personnel circling the area in helicopters, especially given the means by which Simon destroys the zombies, which would be available to someone hovering over the ground in a helicopter. There just seem to be certain orchestrated moves in the story that artificially perpetuate the suspense and the conflict, and which, ironically, undermine the horror of it all. For example, there are only a handful of zombies left, allowing for the possibility that Simon can actually handle the situation, but lessening the magnitude of the threat. And despite the need for secrecy, I felt that the safety of civilians was being genuinely and consistently threatened, such that I had a difficult time being afraid for anyone.

There are also some issues with descriptive language that frustrated me. For example, when I most wanted a scene to be drawn out, suspense to be building, it seemed truncated, and when I craved brevity I got extensive telling. Take this scene describing Simon’s destruction of one of the zombies:

He had to have shot the zombie in the back while it was still out in the yard. His rifle had a much longer range than her small pistol. He’d taken the shots from far out, maybe while running to her rescue. Her darts hadn’t had enough time to work. Simon’s darts had been there first, in the creature’s back, doing their job in the nick of time. Thank heaven.

Capping off what should be the most suspenseful and cathartic scene in the novella, this passage reads to me like a police report.

While on the other hand, some of the romantic language struck me as effusively clichéd:

They came together in a shower of passionate sparks that set them both aflame with rapture, flying higher and higher than ever before. Together. Forever.

If fate allowed.

As with The Undying Heart, Simon Says offers a creative interpretation of the zombie myth and blends it with genre Romance without invoking ridiculousness or provoking a total unwillingness to believe in the story and the characters. However, I had a similar response to Simon Says as to the first novella, which was an intellectual interest in the story without a strong emotional engagement. And ultimately, I found the story, and thus the volume as a whole, occupying the same grade range – C.

~ Janet

This book can be purchased at Amazon (affiliate link) in trade, Kindle, or at BooksonBoard or other etailers.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

20 Comments

  1. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 04:47:38

    “Get it through your undead head,” she gritted, “I'm not leaving you.”

    I wouldn’t mind if heroines and heroes gritted roads (that would be quite helpful given current weather conditions in many parts of Europe), or even their teeth. But I really wish that heroes and heroines would cease “gritting” when it’s not made clear what they’re gritting.

  2. DS
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 06:27:44

    Please spoil me on the Magic Hoohaw. Please!

  3. Moth
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 06:40:58

    @DS: seconded.

  4. AnimeJune
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 09:37:00

    One word, ladies: ZomBoners.

    I was a bit harsher on this book than you were, but I see we agree on much of the same points. There were interesting parts of the Blades of the Rose worldbuilding, but I think so much of the focus was spent on building up future books that the worldbuilding in the novella itself led to some major inconsistencies – such as the magic hoo-haw moment.

    **spoilers** While the story establishes early on that zombies have no blood circulation, Cassie is just so darn hot that Sam still gets a zomboner (along with increased nerve sensitivity and body temperature). Maybe it’s rigor mortis?

    I really disliked the last story, however – again, I just had a stronger reaction to the problems you mentioned, i.e. telling over showing and lazy writing.

  5. Sarah Frantz
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 10:08:43

    I get that zombies are the next logical progression in the paranormal march, but I can not, will not read about a zombie lover, either male or female. Seriously: gross. Just yuck. Vampires don’t decompose, after all. Zombies as lovers is just disgusting, no matter what you do with the myth. Ew. Sorry.

  6. Jane
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 10:13:10

    @Sarah Frantz What you said. Do not understand the zombie as a lover thing. Rotting, decomposing flesh? Um, no thanks.

  7. DS
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 10:32:48

    That is some Magical Hoohaw alright.

    I was trying to decide why I can accept vampires (most of the time) as romantic heroes, but zombies squick me out. I have seen vile looking film vampires (both the silent and the more recent Nosferatu) and encountered sympathetic zombies– the musician Ash (?) in P. C. Hodgell’s Jame series.

    But when I think of zombies I still have Night of the Living Dead flashbacks. I don’t think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would have helped even if I had got around to finishing it.

  8. Robin
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 11:47:15

    As I suggested in the review, my big issue with the first novella is that once you take away the signature zombie characteristics — rotting, putrid flesh and maker mind control — what’s left that’s unique to zombies? It seems at some level there’s a choice to be made between cleaning up the zombie enough to make him a romantic protagonist and keeping him authentic but decidedly un-romantic.

    Vamps, even at their most horrific, seem surrounded by a whole history of romantic imagery and connotations. Zombies, not so much. Which makes it a good thing, IMO, that the rest of Archer’s Blade books WON’T be zombie-focused.

    Also, to extend a bit the spoiler [SPOILER! SPOILER! SPOILER!] @AnimeJune offered, Sam’s body temp remains high after he and Cassandra have sex. So she basically re-animates him. Also, he seems capable of ejaculation because of her, as well.

    While it all may be a sign of True Love, and while I suspect Archer meant to imply that such was a different, competing type of Magic, it came across to me more as Romance cliche than as nuanced metaphor.

  9. Maili
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 12:22:55

    my big issue with the first novella is that once you take away the signature zombie characteristics -’ rotting, putrid flesh and maker mind control -’ what's left that's unique to zombies?

    Likewise with vampires if you take away their signature characteristics – stinking flesh, an intense blood thirst and sometimes, mind/will control.

    I think some forget that vampires are essentially re-animated corpses. Their hearts don’t beat. Their organs are dead. They can’t produce children. The only thing that keeps them ‘alive’ is their victims’ blood. Also, historically, they stink to heaven, and have no soul and morals and also, cannot resist cannibalism [according to the East European folklore if anyone wants to know].

    Furthermore, zombies aren’t usually corpses. There are two major types – those who are revived after death, and those who are controlled through a means, usually a spell or hypnotism. Their will power is temporarily robbed or controlled by someone else, basically. But yeah, it still doesn’t make a good hero material. :D

    The flesh-eating trait originates with the films, not the traditional folklore. A bit like that sun-can-kill-a-vampire myth as this originates with films as well.

    Anyroad, it’s a shame Half Past Dead doesn’t seem to meet my expectations. I was led to believe the novella I was interested in was a steampunk novella. But it seems to be a straightforward paranormal historical romance novella. And magic? Not my thing at all. I think when I’m dead rich, I’ll get a copy anyway. :D Thanks.

  10. Robin
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 12:56:44

    @Maili: I see most literary representations of vampires to be related directly to Stoker’s version, which, although not by any stretch original, certainly popularized the imagery and catalyzed a long literary love affair with the living dead.

    So while I agree with you re. vamps and zombies and the realities of the undead body (as well as their origins in folklore and myth), I think that the hysterical eroticism that swarms through Stoker’s text has endowed vampires with a sexual allure (aka taboo) that is partly responsible for their ongoing cultural popularity, especially among Christianity-dominant populations.

    The sex-blood-death-damnation-unnatural creation mixture is connected to the popular literary tradition of vampires in ways that the zombie just can’t match, IMO. That is, as a literary symbol zombies are bereft of the sexual/spiritual connection that “animates” so much vampire literature. Which, I would argue, extends to Romance’s liberal use of the vampire as part of its fascination with the “erotic-exotic.”

    Although I think you could write a great deal on the way Romance has utilized the vampire mythology. ;D

    As for the Steampunk thing, I get the feeling that the full-length novels will have stronger Steampunk elements; TUH had limited Steampunk imagery, and my sense is it might be intertwined with the Magic stuff, but that’s merely a guess. I might be completely wrong (i.e. ask Zoe Archer, lol).

  11. Zoe Archer
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 13:13:26

    @Robin Thanks for the review! Though zombies don’t really play a part in the Blades of the Rose series, I think that the novella gives a good introduction to the overall world, which will involve a lot of high adventure and fun.

    I knew I was taking a chance by making the hero of the novella undead, and some of it seemed to have worked, while other aspects didn’t. As they say on Star Trek, I knew the risks that came with the uniform. So long as I’m not a redshirt, I’m pretty happy.

    @maili I wouldn’t characterize the books or series as overwhelmingly steampunk, per se. The analogy I’ve been using is that the steampunk devices (which are not magical in use or origin) function similarly as James Bond’s gadgets. They make appearances and definitely come in handy, but by in large, they are an additional element but not the series’ raison d’etre.

  12. Janine
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 13:31:46

    @Sarah Frantz & Jane: I also have a hard time imagining how zombies could be romantic. The concept is pretty creepy. I may still try Zoe Archer’s series when the first full-length novel comes out, though, because I have heard good things about the author and I want to see if a zombie romance can be pulled off.

  13. katiebabs
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 14:15:15

    Why do I have the feeling that with possible future zombie romances, authors may try to ignore the zombie’s taste for human flesh and leave out their decomposing body and make them more like a vampire, but one that doesn’t crave blood?

    I can’t get passed the possibility that a specific body part of the zombie may fall off in the middle of that tender love scene. O.o

  14. DS
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 21:42:39

    @Maili:

    I think some forget that vampires are essentially re-animated corpses. Their hearts don't beat. Their organs are dead. They can't produce children. The only thing that keeps them ‘alive' is their victims' blood. Also, historically, they stink to heaven, and have no soul and morals and also, cannot resist cannibalism [according to the East European folklore if anyone wants to know].

    Have I run into someone else who has read Montegue Summers’ books on vampire lore?

  15. Maili
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 21:59:23

    @DS:
    Have heard of him, but never read his books (only snippets found in others’ books). That bit above was from three books. I could only remember one: Vampires, Burial and Death by Paul Barber.

    Are Summers’s books any good? I was warned off his books, but am willing to give them a try if you thought they were good.

  16. SonomaLass
    Jan 12, 2010 @ 00:00:57

    I had a more positive reaction to “The Undying Heart”, I guess. I liked the different take on the zombie mythos, where the zombie was not rotting, but was in a suspended undead state (like a vampire, but without having to suck blood OR eat brains). It allowed some exploration of the conflict faced when a living character loves an undead one, without having to deal with bloodsucking. (I know that some readers really like that about vampire romance, but I just can’t get past the predator-prey dynamic.)

    I found “Simon Says” to be less unique, and a couple of the things you mentioned strained credibility for me as well. I got invested in the main couple, though, and caught up in the zombie-killing action. The thing that kept irritating me was **SPOILER**

    the unending supply of condoms available to an isolated couple, neither of whom had any intention of having sex. The story is quite specific that they have both been celibate for years and plan to remain so, but he’s got at least one condom in his pocket and she has the Mother Lode in her nightstand! I’m all for safe sex, but it really took me out of the moment when they were both so well prepared for something they were convinced would never happen.

    I was glad I read both of these pieces, and I’m really looking forward to the Blades of the Rose series.

  17. JessicaP
    Jan 12, 2010 @ 02:49:07

    Why would a zombie need a condom? Habit? They couldn’t have known beforehand that the sex would somehow reanimate him. They both know he’s undead. I’m surprised he could get a zomboner (love that!) at all. Does he eat? Pee? Fart (not counting rotting flesh smell)?

  18. Janine
    Jan 12, 2010 @ 05:02:20

    @Robin & @Maili: What I find most disappointing about the depiction of vampires that I have read in the genre is the way they have been largely stripped of moral ambiguity.

  19. DS
    Jan 12, 2010 @ 20:51:09

    @Maili: I read them years ago when going through a folklore phase. As far as I remember, his books worked best as compendiums of vampire lore through the ages and in various cultures. He also wrote a similar book on Werewolf lore.

    He professed to believe in the existence of vampires and werewolves and advocated the killing of witches.

    Looks like Google books has a full view text of Summers’ Vampire: Kith and Kin if you want to check it out.

  20. QWMichael
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 20:43:01

    No. But now i will. Thanks for that.

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