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Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel
Gone With the Respiration #1

Del Rey 2011
E-book galley
467 pages
YA Paranormal Romance; Horror; Science Fiction: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction; Steampunk

It’s 2195 and the world is a very different place. Climate change has driven the surviving human population to the land on the equator, and in New Victoria – where Mexico used to be – society has reverted to old social mores of politeness, proper behaviour and corsets while maintaining and increasing their technological savvy. Those who rebuffed the tech left New Victoria for southern lands, becoming “Punks” who utilise steam-driven power. Fights on the border persist, and the New Victorians are sold the line that all Punks hate what they are and are the enemy.

Nora Dearly has finished not just another year at St Cyprian’s School for Girls but also a year of mourning for her father, Dr Victor Dearly, who left her an orphan in the care of her Aunt Gene. Against social proprieties, Nora walks home into the high-tech underground neighbourhood of the Elysian Fields; not far from her front door she is accosted by a hooded man who claims to have known her father. A glimpse of his face is enough to send fear from her, and the cops help her home. A couple of nights later, though, her home is broken into by a host of skeletal men with missing bits of flesh intent on kidnapping her.

Rescued by a secret army of “good” zombies led by Captain Abraham “Bram” Griswold, Nora discovers that the Punks aren’t the real threat after all. The highly contagious infection causing people to die within six hours and then reanimate, sometimes with their sanity intact but often without, is a danger to both sides of the border. Nora and her new undead friends are fighting not just rabid zombies but also prejudice against the “sane” undead.

I found that summary ridiculously hard to write without giving too much away; with a book that covers Romance, Science Fiction and Horror, where do you even start? How about we look at them separately.

On the Romance front, this is a sweet and also bitter-sweet love story between a mortal girl, Nora, and a zombie boy, Bram. Bram is one of the sane ones: his mind – and emotions – are intact and in that respect he’s the same person he was when alive. Their blossoming feelings for each other provide a nice human story to balance the tech and horror aspects; it’s also a story of looking beyond the surface issues and overcoming prejudice, a cross-class, culture and, in a way, race love story. Bram was definitely my favourite character, though Nora’s best friend Pamela Roe had her moments of stealing the story. More on Nora and Bram later.

The novel is clearly Science Fiction in premise and setting – and no, I would not call this dystopian. It’s past time we stopped calling every YA Science Fiction novel “dystopian” just because it sounds better. I found the futuristic premise intriguing – a new ice age drives everyone south to the equator (or north, I guess, depending on where you started); the North Americans who fled south decide to establish a society based on the Victorian era – but with high-tech digital technology. A bit of a weird mix, but okay. I like original. The Punks, on the other hand, have the same Victorian ideals but with the steam-driven technology; we get very little of the Punks however, so the steampunk aspect was minimal. It also presents a very interesting scenario, having “sane” zombies: some people reanimate with everything intact except for their slowly disintegrating bodies. It makes me wonder: is such a life worse than death?

And thirdly, on the Horror front, we have some pretty tense action scenes that move fast. When the zombies break into the Dearly home and Nora races for her father’s gun cabinet, that was pretty thrilling. Later, when the infection is let loose in the city, there is a general sense of fear and chaos and confusion – Pamela’s neighbours, the Delgados, are particularly sad and tragic. Then there’s the more high-octane run-for-your-life dash through the city, with zombies hot on your heels.

So that should hopefully give you a sense of how this book weaves together the different elements, which it does do well – to a degree. I felt that, while strong attempts were made to flesh out the setting and solidify the life of a young woman in New Victoria – the expectations, the social calls and chaperones – I still found it difficult to picture this world, both geographically and visually, in my imagination. It wasn’t described in any great depth, from the houses to the climate, the terrain to the people – I just couldn’t picture it. I was often confused over where they were and the distances between places – Bolivia is mentioned several times, and a mix of sea and air voyages, but where the army bases were in relation to anything else I don’t know. I was also confused over how New Victoria was established, in terms of a flood of (predominantly) white English-speaking people into land already occupied. Certainly Victorianism and Colonialism go hand-in-hand together, but this wasn’t present, making the set-up for this city less believable. I’m the kind of reader who really needs to get a sense of place and time as a solid foundation for the story, and here I felt it was lacking. It was too light on descriptions, tending towards a story made up of dialogue, action and a bit of thinking.

Which brings me to the characters. While Nora is undoubtedly the common thread that brings the different narrators together, she is not the only person who narrates. Bram, Pam, Nora’s father Victor Dearly and Captain Woolf, living leader of the zombie army, all take turns to narrate. This threw me a bit at first but it worked well, narratively and structurally. However (yeah you’re starting to expect these “buts” aren’t you?), their individual voices weren’t distinguishable from each other – and I’m not looking for obvious quirks or anything here, but when you got Pam, Nora and Bram in a scene together, I often forgot who was “I” in the chapter and floundered, and I sometimes hated leaving a scene for a whole new one and a new character, which interrupted the flow for me. To be fair, though, a lot of readers will probably find that the chapters and changing perspectives move smoothly one to the other and work for better flow and pacing. We all read differently.

And the pacing was good: steady, fairly fast, didn’t linger overmuch on “boring bits”. It was easy to get caught up in the action, and the interactions between Bram and Nora are really quite lovely and endearing. I’ve no idea where their relationship could possibly go, and while I could believe that Nora could fall for a zombie – he really is a wonderful character – I still found it hard to believe that a living person could find a dead person attractive, physically. I’ve never before found myself blanching at a kissing scene until I read this.

One thing that the story touches on throughout that I really appreciated was an ethical and “racial” debate regarding the sane undead’s place in society. We get Woolf’s unabashed prejudice from the beginning, which gets us thinking and juxtaposes Bram’s obviously intact humanity; by the time we get to the end where the idea of the living and the undead co-existing becomes a real issue, Dearly, Departed is touching on some real social issues and leaving it open to further exploration.

There’s definitely lots to enjoy here, especially if you take it less seriously than I did, and the series has great potential. But for such a long book, I was disappointed at the lack if setting, and I found it rushed at times – especially the epilogue, which rather ruined things. It’s just that, at the end of it I found myself wondering where that word count had gone. What made up this story, really? Bottom line is: I’m not hugely fond of Habel’s writing style, and while she has some fantastic ideas I wish they’d been better fleshed out. Still, if you want a new take on the zombie story (and let’s face it, they’re long overdue for one – zombies are pretty dull creatures, being mindless!), this could be just the thing.

My thanks to the Random House and NetGalley for a copy of this book.

______________________________

Other Reviews:

“It was enthralling from the first page and so many things happened that I didn’t want to put this book down for even a minute.” Endlessly Bookish

“In addition to the excellent plot and character development, the thing that makes Dearly, Departed really work is that Habel successfully walks that fine line between not taking her story too seriously but also taking it just seriously enough and it just works.” Refracted Light

“What made this book a winner for me overall was the humour, the characters and the premise.” What I Read and What I Thought

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

4 comments to Review: Dearly, Departed

  • I love your review. And I agree I felt a bit uneasy with the kissing too 😉
    Thanks for quoting me.

    Nimue

    [Reply]

  • The novel is clearly Science Fiction in premise and setting – and no, I would not call this dystopian. It’s past time we stopped calling every YA Science Fiction novel “dystopian” just because it sounds better.

    I like the term Futuristic Fiction, myself, when the SF element feels more like window dressing and the story still takes place on Earth. But having not read this book, I have no idea where I’d fall on the categorization of it. 🙂

    But I love, love, LOVE this freakin’ cover!

    Yet you aren’t the first review I’ve read that’s given this book middle-of-the-road ratings. The way you describe the writing style makes it seem like I would nitpick it to death (though five narrators in a 467 page book doesn’t break my POV rule TOO badly)… I doubt this is something I’ll rush out to get, but if I ever find it super-cheap and I’m in the mood for giggles, I might give it a shot.

    I still found it hard to believe that a living person could find a dead person attractive, physically. I’ve never before found myself blanching at a kissing scene until I read this.

    Unless flesh is obviously rotting off or their brains/flesh in their teeth, how is kissing a zombie any different than kissing a vampire? Technically, both are dead. 🙂

    I guess, though, that authors work hard to make their readers forget that vampires are actually dead. 🙂

    I’m not hugely fond of Habel’s writing style, and while she has some fantastic ideas I wish they’d been better fleshed out.

    Pun intended? 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Shara White (Calico Reaction), Five narrators was manageable, just, but in the beginning it really upset the rhythm and made me wonder just how many people would be getting their own POV? It’s good to have just a couple of people to through your energy behind.

    Re: the kissing of a zombie, it’s hard to say exactly what they looked like because I found the descriptions seemed to avoid clearly and aptly describing them. There was a quick, brief description of Bram having the skin of his face stitched together, and a couple of times when some character was explaining the Lazarus etc., they made mention that their science could keep the sane zombies relatively together, but some of them were missing limbs, and Nora herself refers to Bram’s cold dry skin and I just had this horrible image of tongue kissing – surely their tongues would just be dry lumps of flesh, no saliva, no warmth, ugh yuck. Surely it’s a good thing to be turned off by the idea of kissing a dead man?!

    It’s funny that you mention vampires, because it did occur to me although it depends who’s writing them, they’re not always dead and I’m no vampire purist – their defining feature I think is drinking blood, while for zombies it’s being dead. Not much you can do with that really. Meaning, that I like the stories where the vampires aren’t “dead”!

    Ha ha I didn’t notice that at all when I wrote it! I’m amazed this has any coherent sentences in it at all, actually, considering how many interruptions I had while writing it.

    [Reply]

  • Excellent review, though admittedly skimmed because I hope to read it eventually. Setting is important to me, as well. Curious to see how well I navigate through this one.

    [Reply]

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