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If you can’t get enough zombies…

I found a fun new zombie series this week: RG Bullet’s The Caldecott Chronicles. My review is over at my official blog.


Hellforged – Nancy Holzner

Following up a well-received debut novel is always a bit tricky, but Nancy Holzner doesn’t miss a beat with the second book in her Deadtown paranormal series.

Last year, Deadtown introduced us to Vicky Vaughn, a shapeshifter demon hunter, who lives in the quarantined area of Boston that’s now home to the city’s resident zombie, vampire and werewolf population (the Deadtown of the title).

It gave Holzner the chance to set up her fully formed world – complete with paranormal politics – in an action-packed story peppered with wry humour.

In Hellforged, the action picks up again in Boston, where Vicky is continuing to ply her extermination trade while dealing with the repercussions of binding herself to the demon who killed her father.

But she has a few other things on her mind: as well as some troubling political changes in the wind, there’s a series of gruesome zombie murders in Deadtown. And when Vicky realises she may have a connection to the macabre crimes, she heads to Wales to learn more about her family’s shapeshifter heritage.

There, she resumes training with her enigmatic Aunt Mab and meets a “cousin” with a dark agenda. Ultimately, Vicky must face her demons – figuratively and literally – and learn to use a new weapon known as Hellforged to save Boston’s zombie population. Not to mention save herself from a fate worse than death.

One of the things I liked most about Deadtown was the social justice sub-text, where zombies and other paranormals were struggling for equal rights alongside their human counterparts.

There’s still a flavour of this in Hellforged – in fact the checkpoint scenes reflect restrictions imposed by an oppressive regime in a certain part of the world today – but Hellforged also delves deeper into Vicky’s story. The focus enables some interesting plot development and world building, with Holzner introducing more Welsh mythology into her Deadtown universe.

By moving a large part of the story to Wales, Holzner is able to create a new atmosphere, which keeps things fresh. But there’s still plenty of non-stop action and tension.

Supporting characters from Deadtown return, including zombie teenager Tina (slightly less annoying this time around), good guy cop Daniel, and werewolf civil rights lawyer Kane, who finally gets out of the court room and flexes some muscle.

It’s a good addition to the series, resolving a couple major plot issues, and setting up at a few new ones for the next instalment.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan

With so much parody and comedy associated with zombies these days, it’s easy to forget they can still provide effective horror fodder.

Having said that, Carrie Ryan’s 2009 novel (with one of the coolest book titles of recent years) is less a classic horror story and more a bleak, brooding tale of survival and perseverance in the face of relentless death.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set in an isolated village, surrounded by a forest filled with zombies – infected humans known as the Unconsecrated, who moan and push at the protective fences day and night.

The village is ruled over by the Sisterhood, an order of nun-like authoritarians who dictate a lifestyle and customs akin to Puritan times. (For the first 50 or so pages, I kept picturing the M Night Shyamalan film The Village, but Ryan’s story soon establishes itself as something far more menacing.)

Teenage villager Mary wonders what might be beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth, but doesn’t begin to obsess over it until her Mother – who has always told her stories about the ocean – becomes infected and Mary is forced to join the Sisterhood.

She discovers the Sisters have kept secrets from the village and starts to turn herself inside out wondering what really exists beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

When the village fence is breached and the unspeakable happens, Mary is forced to choose between continuing the life the Sisters have set in place, or risking her life – and the lives of those she loves – to find the truth.

Ryan’s world building is excellent, as is the slow revelation the Sisters may not been entirely wrong in their intentions to create a new way of life in the aftermath of what is known as The Return.

Ironically, the hunger Mary has to know the truth and find the ocean is not all that different from the driving hunger of the Unconsecrated, to the point it taints everything in her life – including the two brothers who compete for her affection.

Not all questions are answered in this first novel, and given the sequel, The Dead-tossed Waves (now out), is set quite a few years after this one, they may never be.

By the end of this dark and often tragic opening story, the main question left hanging is: is it better to live a life of restriction, ignorance and peace, or one of freedom, truth and suffering?

Kelley Armstrong – Darkest Powers

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These days, there are a growing number of quality paranormal/urban fantasy writers catering to both the adult and young adult markets.

One of the most prolific and popular is Kelley Armstrong.

After a dozen books in her “Women of the Otherworld” series, Armstrong released The Summoning in 2008, the first in her “Darkest Powers” young adult series. The Awakening followed in 2009, and last month (April 2010) The Reckoning hit the shelves.

The series centres on a group of teenagers who discover they not only have supernatural powers, but that they’ve been genetically engineered.

Without giving too much away, The Summoning provides the set up, The Awakening further develops the characters and the threats they face, and The Reckoning is the big showdown.

The series is definitely big on action, with serious character development kicking in he third book. In fact, The Reckoning is the pay-off for series for fans, on many levels.

The best scenes involve increasingly self-reliant necromancer Chloe (the narrator) and ill-tempered werewolf Derek. Their erratic relationship effectively drives the third book, even more so than the plot developments.

Armstrong is clearly aware how easily a story like this could fall into clichéd territory, and provides a nice variety of twists and inconvenient moments for her characters to avoid that fate.

She also ups the tension in The Reckoning, with more blood, ghosts and zombies than the previous two books combined.



While the third book provides closure on a number of fronts, it definitely leaves plenty of room for future stories.

The “Darkest Powers” series is aimed squarely at teen readers looking for an action-packed paranormal read. I’ve got two novels from the “Otherworld” series waiting on my shelf, and I’m keen to have a read and see how Armstrong delivers her stories when writing for a more adult audience.

Politics of the paranormal in Deadtown

Nancy’s Holzner’s Deadtown is not just another tale about a sexy demon fighter in leather pants (although the cover does feature pretty cool cover art of our hunter in leather pants, brandishing a smoking semi-automatic rifle and a flaming sword).

While it ticks all the usual boxes – zombies, vampires, werewolves, bad ass demons, witches, sorcerers et al – it also has a social conscience.

Like the vampires in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and the mutants of the X-men, the assortment of paranormals in Holzner’s world are struggling for equal rights.

Ever since a virus turned a large chunk of the city’s population into zombies (or “previously deceased humans” as they’re known in politically correct circles), life in Boston has changed dramatically. The zombies, and the paranormals who emerged to deal with them when the humans could not, are now quarantined in a part of Boston nicknamed Deadtown, where only those with permits are allowed to leave – and even then under strict conditions.

Among them is Vicky, a shape-shifter, who makes a living hunting demons. She shares an apartment with a centuries old vampire, occasionally goes bump in the night with a white collar werewolf, and is shadowed by an annoying teenage zombie who wants to be a slayer.

She also has a creepy geneticist trying to turn her into a lab experiment, a sister ashamed of their shape-shifting bloodline, and a nasty hellion out for her blood. It’s a complicated and occasionally frustrating life.

Almost as frustrating are the politics the paranormals’ presence has created, which have a habit of interfering with Vicky’s love life. Her workaholic werewolf’s role as a lawyer/paranormal rights activist has turned him into a political animal (the scariest beast around…), and an upcoming election has him fully pre-occupied.

Deadtown has enough action, wit and snappy dialogue to stand out from the crowd and Holzner has created a world that’s cleverly and logically constructed, complete with politics and social agendas.

The author is already busy working on a sequel, and given the warm reception this book has already received online, there’s clearly an eager audience waiting for the next instalment.

(I had to order this in specially at my local bookstore, so let’s hope Deadtown gets the exposure it deserves here in Australia.)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Originally posted on Great stories, 27 November 2009

The idea is promising: weave a zombie plot through a Jane Austen classic.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith inserts zombie references and action throughout one of the most loved and recognisable stories in the English language.

The altered classic opening line certainly captures the mash-up idea: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”.

In Grahame-Smith’s version, Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are renowned Shaolin-trained warriors, roaming the countryside to cut down zombies – much to the disdain of higher bred women such as Mr Bingley’s sisters. Mr Darcy is also a zombie slayer of great repute and his clashes with Elizabeth are no longer just verbal…

The set up for the zombie plot is actually all there in the original: the constant presence of militia, the threat of disease and the horror associated with breaches of social etiquette.

I laughed out loud the first time I heard about this book (and then again when I found it shelved in the classics section at my local book shop).

It promises to put familiar characters in unfamiliar territory (fighting the trashiest of all pop culture supernatural baddies), and comes complete with a tongue-in-cheek study guide at the end. It should be clever. It should be fun.

And it is, for about 50 pages. Then the zombie references and B-grade-worthy fight scenes become a distraction from the real story: the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy.

Around 80 per cent of the original text remains intact, and that’s the problem. Austen’s writing and original plot are so strong, it makes the new scenes completely superfluous. It would have worked so much better if Grahame-Smith had actually re-imagined the story, rather than just inserting a few lines here and there in the original text.

Actually, the best bits for me are the sketches scattered through the pages, perhaps a sign the mash-up idea would have worked better as graphic novel.

The book’s success (which has led to other hybrids, including Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) proves there are enough people with eclectic reading tastes to create a market for this type of literary bastardisation.

And I have no issue with the concept, I just wish this one had offered something more because, by the end, I just wished I’d read the original.

(According to Wikipedia, due to the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith has been contracted to write two follow-up books, one of which is reported to be titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.)

Update: Apparently Natalie Portman has signed on a for a film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which actually could work much better than the book – and something I’d definitely go and see.