Dear Ms. Archer and Ms. D’Arc:
When 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.