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Friday, August 19, 2011


Author: Rhiannon Frater
Plot Type: Zombie Chick Lit
Ratings: V5; S3; H2
Publisher and Titles: Tor:
     The First Days (2011)
     Fighting to Survive (11-2011)
     As the World Dies: Untold Tales, Vol. 1 (2011) (three novellas set in the world of the series)
     Siege (4/2012) (FINAL)

     This blog entry was revised and updated on 6/15/12 to include a review of the third and final book in the series: Siege. That review comes first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of books 1 and 2:

     BOOK 3:  Siege     
     In the final book in this trilogy, the citizens of Ashley Oaks must deal with several major problems. Early on in the story, Blanche, the witchy trophy wife of the richest man in town, causes even more trouble than she did in the first two books. In an effort to retrieve her Hummer, her possessions (which have been added to the community storehouse), and a few servants, she tries to kidnap Jenna and then shoots Juan, leaving him on the verge of death. Seeking surgical supplies needed to save Juan's life, two groups of volunteers, including Jenna, head out to a hospital in a near-by town. Just as they are making their escape from a zombie horde at the hospital, the truck carrying Jenna and Bill is hijacked by soldiers who grab them up and take them to a mall in which a power-mad U.S. senator is planning to forcibly take over the Ashley Oaks fort because the mall is in danger of being overrun. The first 2/3 of the book follows the Ashley Oaks folks as they deal with the meglomaniacal Senator and her troops

     The final quarter of the story focuses on yet another zombie threat. Tens of thousands of zombies are headed straight for the fort, shambling along at a persistent, if unsteady, pace. Travis and his people attempt to deflect some of them and terminate the rest, with the expected casualties. In the midst of all of this action, don't forget that Katie is due to have her baby. Also, the Vigilante is still loose within Ashley Oaks, and in this book we finally learn that person's identity

     This plot line is much stronger than book 2 (which is the weakest of the three). Unfortunately, though, there are some problems, foremost of which is the use of the ghosts of dead friends as seers of future events. Where have these ghosts been hiding during the previous two books? All of a sudden the good guys and gals are getting warnings and sentimental banalities from Lydia (Katie's dead wife), Ralph (Nerit's dead husband), and others who die in this book. Here, Lydia gets platitudinous with Travis, "The heart loves without boundaries. It is the mind that can trap the heart with cages constructed by society's rules." (p. 149) Here, she gets melodramatic with Katie: "You are standing on the brink of a new world...You are the new Eden. You are the new beginning." (p. 301) And then, just like that, the ghosts vanish for good. Lydia explains, "It's time for us to move on, we who are lingering between the worlds. We've done what we can." (p. 301) So where did they come from, why didn't they come before this, and why are they leaving before the final battle? The whole ghostly visitation aspect of the story appears to be an authorial contrivance to move the plot along in places where Frater needed someone to add a sentimental moment or, especially, to warn characters of imminent danger that they otherwise wouldn't have any way of foreseeing. In addition to the apparitional encounters, we have a new character who is a medium. Rune rides his motorcycle around the deadlands, never staying long in one place, because the dead keep calling to him. So...for two books, we have had a relatively straightforward zombie apocalypse story, but now it turns into a ghost story

     Some of the same inconsistencies of the previous books are evident in this one. For example, the people of Ashley Oaks are still living the good life, with clean clothes, buttered biscuits, jogging paths, and plenty of electricity and fresh water. This book begins five months into the zombie plague and takes the group up to its first anniversary, so how can the electrical and water utilities still be fully and uninterruptedly operational? When the zombies attack in the final climactic scene, the good guys have built hidden gas jets into the ground that are set to flame up and burn the zombies. How can the gas lines still be running? Remember, the cities were all overrun on the first day of the plague, so who is keeping the the grid up and the reservoirs clear of decaying bodiesAnd where is all that butter for the biscuits coming from? Ashley Oaks gets a few cows halfway through the book, but not enough to provide butter for hundreds of people. And here's one more inconsistency: Travis and his people are unable to access the military radio frequency, but crazy old Calhoun has no problem at all. Once again, this is an improbability that is dropped into the story to give the author a chance to stretch out the suspense a little longer.

     Just in case you missed it, Frater has one of the characters explain several times that the action in this story closely mirrors the action in George A. Romero's film, Dawn of the Dead (e.g., the mall, the blonde pregnant heroine, the black hero, the helicopters). I'm not sure what the point is, but the author isn't at all subtle about drawing the comparison. 

     Except for the ghosts and the illogical life style at the fort, the story line is compelling, with the dual invasion threats creating suspense and action. If you've read the first two books, you'll probably want to read this onedespite its weaknessesjust to see who survives. Warning: You should be ready to face the fact that some of the important characters don't make it

     If you're looking for more zombie fiction, click HERE to go to the CREATURE SEARCH page on this blog. Scroll all the way down to the bottom to ZOMBIES for a list with links to my reviews.

     This series was self-published in 2008 and has now been revised and published in its new form by Tor. The primary claim to fame for the series is its innovative use of two strong female protagonists—it's as if Thelma and Louise went to Zombieland. 

     In this world, a zombie plague has rapidly descended on the world, and no one knows its cause. In fact, the people who seem to know the most about the zombies are the ones who have watched the most zombie movies. Yes...really. Within 24 hours, most communications and transportation systems are down, and TV stations are looping the same misinformation over and over again. People in cities are perishing overnight by the tens of thousands, so survivors are seeking refuge in rural areas and small towns, but even out in the country life is dangerous. The series is set in the Texas Hill Country, where two very different women have fled, both of them having lost their loved ones to the zombies. Jenni watched her abusive husband turn zombie and attack her two young sons—one just a baby. Katie saw her lover, Lydia, become a ravening monster. Katie was a partner in a gay marriage—a new twist on the usual horror heroines. The zombies in this series can be very strong, and when they're fresh, they run very fast—unlike the usual shambling wrecks of zombie fiction.

     BOOK 1: The First Days     
     As the story begins, Katie saves Jenni from being eaten by her zombified oldest son, and they take off for the country in an old pick-up truck, shooting and running over masses of zombies along the way—all in glorious, gory detail. Eventually, they find two survivors—Ralph and Nerit Toombsa married couple who own and live over a hunting supply store—and the two women briefly stay with them. But Jenni feels compelled to try to rescue her stepson, Jason, who is at a campground hours away. Again, we follow Katie and Jenni as they truck across the zombie-infested countryside. After a harrowing rescue effort at the camp, they go back on the road again in an attempt to get back to the Toombs' store, but wind up instead in the small town of Ashley Oaks, where a large group of survivors have built themselves a fort-like safety zone. The rest of the book focuses on that tiny society as they appoint their leaders, reinforce their perimeters, and deal with (i.e., destroy) the zombies who were formerly their friends, neighbors, and family.

     A few of the supporting characters are well developed, particularly the Toombs and two male characters in Ashley Oaks: Travis and Juan, who become the love interests. The rest of the townspeople fall into stereotypical roles: the red-neck bigot, the ineffective mayor, the young but courageous policeman, the misguided naysayer, etc. 

     Although the story is compelling (I was always holding my breath over who was going to bite the dust next) I do have a few quibbles. First, the lack of a zombie mythology leaves a big hole in the series, at least in book 1. We never learn what caused the plague in the first place—if indeed it is a plague. All we learn is that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is referring to the zombies as "the reanimated." Also, the fact that an entire metropolitan area could be overrun and wiped out in just one day is a bit hard to swallow. In a related issue, there is no rhyme or reason to the way that the zombies deteriorate. Sometimes, a relatively new zombie will be skeletal and bald, while older zombies are ravaged but intact. The author needs to tighten this up and kick in with some world-building skills.

     An additional problem comes with characterization, particularly with Jenni, who goes from a shell-shocked, abused, suburban housewife and mother to a cold-hearted zombie killer to a dependent, whiny, adolescent all in one 24-hour period. No wonder Juan nicknames her "Loca." You never know what to expect from Jenni, as she goes overboard on her buddy relationship with Katie, and then goes man-crazy over Travis and then Juan. Unlike Katie, who grieves endlessly for Lydia, Jenni doesn't look back very often. After the first day, she seems mostly to forget about those grisly baby fingers that hypnotized her in the opening scene. It was impossible for me to believe that in less than one week, a mother could put aside her children's horrible deaths and have romantic thoughts about two different men she has just met. Here is a quotation from a scene that takes place on the second day of the zombie plague. Remember, Jenni saw her husband eat her baby son just the day before:
     "Katie looked at [Travis] and then at Jenni. Jenni smiled at her, her gaze flicking to Travis, then back to Katie. It was obvious that Jenni was enamored of Travis....Jenni felt special, walking with Travis's arm around her shoulders. His voice was like fine leather against her skin, and she felt herself blushing even hotter." (p. 127)

     The zombie action scenes are frequent, naturally enough, but sometimes they cry out for a graphic artist for clarity. In particular, the scene where the townspeople wipe out the local zombie population is hard to follow. Also, if the urban populations are wiped out, how can the power grid and the water supply still be holding up? These people are dealing only with the zombies, not with the survival issues that we would normally expect in a situation as catastrophic as this one. All in all, I give this series an A for its fresh take on its heroines, but a C for plot and characterization.

     BOOK 2:  Fighting to Survive     
     Jenni and Katie are still ensconced in the town of Ashley Oaks, where a motley band of survivors has managed to fortify a good-sized section of the town adjacent to a hotel. The first half of the book follows them around on their day-to-day tasks, which are mostly related to security since both Jenni and Katie have become excellent zombie killers. Two sets of villains complicate their lives, one of whom is left over from book 1—Shane, along with his buddy, Phillip. Shane is the bigoted, lesbian-hating bully who beat up Katie when she killed his buddy, who had been bitten by a zombie. In this book, he goes after her again. The second group of bad guys is a bunch of looting, raping bandits who are crisscrossing the countryside, wreaking havoc along the way. Both of these plot threads are resolved by the end of this book. One more plot thread involves a mysterious vigilante who is disposing of trouble-makers within the Ashley Oaks fort. That thread is left unresolved until book 3. 

     This book suffers from many of the same authorial and editorial problems that were rampant in book 1, including many grammatical and usage errors (e.g., using the word "nefarious" when she meant "notorious"). Although this is supposed to be a trilogy, there is no real over-arching plot line. There is also no tension in the conflict, which results in a static story line that never raises the emotional level to a point that triggers emotional involvement on the part of the reader. The first half plods along, with pages and pages of mundane activities and not much action. Even the zombie fights that occur when they clear out the hotel are so repetitive that they quickly cease to be interesting. Mostly, though, the problem is with the characters, who are so thinly drawn that we can't really engage with them. Jenni has a meltdown at one point as she imagines that her abusive dead husband's ghost is trying to lure her into zombie death, but after a day or two of moping around, she just decides that she won't let Lloyd ruin her life, and that's that—not a realistic or interesting way to solve what amounts to a PTSD type of problem. Similarly, Katie, who spent book 1 in an endless display of grief, finds it relatively easy to ditch the frowning ghost of her former lover after she decides to hop between the sheets with Travis. Although she was introduced in book 1 as a deeply grieving lesbian widow, she simply turns Lydia's ghostly frown upside down and calls herself bisexual. So...once more, we have a neat and tidy—and  kind of boring—write-off to a situation that could have been much more interesting. I have read many, many paranormal fiction novels filled with eloquently written, painfully explored emotional experiences, and this book just doesn't hold a hold a candle to them—not at all. We don't feel Jenni and Katie's pain; we just read an emotionless narrative that follows them around as they traipse through their days. Supporting cast members are little more than cardboard characters. The only quirky, somewhat interesting one is the crazy old electronics expert who shows up midway through the book.

     Just a couple of more things: First, the whole concept of Nerit's take-over of the fort's security force is ludicrous. She was allegedly a sharpshooter during the Israeli war for independence back in the mid-1940s. At this point, she has to be at least in her early 80s, and after more than 60 years, she's still an expert military strategist who has supposedly maintained her never-miss, long-range shooting skills perfectly. I don't think so. And finally...these people are not dealing with any real survival problems. They're still wearing crisp, clean clothing; eating full meals—with multiple desserts, no less; enjoying air-conditioned comfort; and taking long hot showers with lots of shampoo and soapy suds, for heaven's sake! It's like they're living normal lives—except for those pesky zombies and bothersome banditos. Why aren't they rationing their food? How can the electrical grid still be up? What's wrong with this picture? The worst chapter comes near the end when we suffer through four pages of wind-up summaries told in the voice of Jack, the German shepherd dog. (I'm guessing that it was meant to be cute—NOT!)

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