Category Archives: zombies

Zombies Hate Stuff and I Love Them For It

Zombies Hate Stuff is stupid. Also, I loved it. These are not mutually exclusive things, obviously. After reading it twice – and “reading” is altogether an active verb for a book with 80 words and 56 pictures – I left it on the kitchen table, the way I do, and the kids picked it up. I spent the span of a salad preparation listening to my son read this out to my daughter – let me see! she’d yell, and he’d dip the pages – which he did twice before losing interest and wandering off. This left the girl, who is just out of kindergarten, sounding out a series of things zombies hate, or don’t mind, or really hate. For example, zombies hate kittens:

a zombie menaces two kittens

Zombies don’t mind magic:

a zombie being pulled out of a magic hat

But zombies really hate moon penguins:

moon penguins pointing a gun at a zombie

This is the kind of book I wish I had ALL THE IMAGES so I could show you my favorite, and then decide that wasn’t my favorite, and then show you my REAL favorite. For example, this might be the best:

a zombie spitted on the horn of a unicorn

Because I read the whole collection of Zombies Vs. Unicorns looking for a zed/uni combat, and I hate to say, I was disappointed. That someone has slaked my bloodlust on that front is worth something. Also, the author description of this book is hugely adorable: 

My history with the undead boils down to this: I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time in 2004 and thought it was really cool, so I started adding zombies to my paintings. Not gross, rotting ghouls like you see these days, but classy zombies who understand the importance of a good suit and tie. (The small amount of research that I did do showed that nine out of ten victims prefer being eaten by a professional living corpse who looks the part, versus some slacker zombie who thinks that it is actually okay to wear pajama pants in public.) Getting back to my incredibly enthralling artistic evolution: first I painted lone zombies wandering through pretty landscapes, then I unleashed the walking dead on a series of unsuspecting penguins, and finally I turned the ghouls against the entire world in a series of pieces entitled “Zombies Hate…” whatever. Eventually it occurred to me to organize all these random zombie hatreds into a book.

I mean, don’t you just want to hug this dude? I do. Unleashing zombies on unsuspecting penguins is the kind of genius that this country needs right now. 

So, I’m glad I got to work on vocab with the kids – you pronounce the qu like a k in mannequins - and I’m also glad I’m going to have nightmares about that outhouse zombie. It’s rule #3 after all. 

still from Zombieland

Day by Day Armageddon

When I was in the 8th grade, my English teacher pulled one of those Lord of the Flies-style writing experiments on us. I have this feeling that the background of this writing experiment had something to do with House of Stairs, which we read at about the same time. House of Stairs is an oddball little YA fiction which is about a group of children being ‘sperimented on by a totalitarian regime which includes, I believe, a taxonomy of personal ethical states which caused a fair amount of consternation. (I should really reread that, because a lot of it has drifted in the intervening *coughcough* years.) 

Anyway, the writing experiment had us pretending to be on a plane going on some kind of exchange program, but then the plane crashed and we were all stuck on a desert island without any adult supervision. We were split up into groups, or I think more accurately, we split ourselves into groups, and then went wandering off in search of food or shelter or whatever. The teacher would periodically lob pieces of paper with events scrawled on them – a storm, or an attack of bees or something – that we would have to incorporate into our teen survivalist narratives as we wrote furiously about how we found a pineapple tree so we wouldn’t starve tonight. (Editorial comment from the teacher: pineapples grow on bushes.) 

We never did split into factions and try to kill each other, at least within the confines of the survivalist teen story playing out in class, though I think it would be accurate to say we were already split into factions and trying to kill each other in real life. The teacher – whose name I’m struggling to remember – would explain certain things in her lobbed paperballs – like how we were all suffering from some kind of poisoning because we weren’t boiling our water, and then we’d duly figure out that we should be boiling our water and incorporate it in our stories. It’s kind of embarrassing how we just went for the most obvious physical solution to whatever trouble she tossed our way, totally ignoring the very real, very social-combat stuff we were living day-to-day, but then we were 13, and she was kind of a psycho for trying to get us to kill each other fictionally. The writing experiment ended with Zuckerman getting eaten by sharks after going mad, and then we got rescued. My frame narrative was that I was in a psych ward, having gone nuts after my experience on the island. I’m sure my story was hugely insensitive to actual mental illness, but then it doesn’t exist anymore, except as a half-memory, so I’m safe. 

I thought of this teenage writing experiment when I was reading Day by Day Armageddon, being the point of this anecdote. Our possibly unnamed narrator – though I wasn’t paying close enough attention to key on a name-drop – starts a diary on New Year’s Day after being sent back to San Antonio on leave from the US Navy. He chats a bit about Christmas with his folks in Alabama (or possibly Arkansas; I can’t differentiate between the two because I’m a sucky Northerner) then sketchy stuff starts happening in China, then the US. Narrator dude seems to have a preternatural sense of when to fortify the house, like someone were lobbing authorial information from on high, which he does with an outrageous attention to detail. I believe he even specifies the size of drill bit when he screw-guns some plywood up on the lower windows. 

Narrator dude – forthwith to be ND – hangs out in his house a lot, obsessively watching tv, trying to get through to his folks, and rationing his MREs. The walking dead start hanging around the house, so he dispatches them with fire in a way that seems like it would end in the neighborhood getting torched, but whatever. He eventually meets up with a neighbor – an engineer, you know – and then they picaresque around the zombie apocalypse hijacking planes from small airports and trying to find a safe place to be. ND and neighbor (Dave?) end up on an island for a while, which seems like it might be sweet, but then the island is big enough to have a shitton of walking dead on it, but too small to have much in the way of necessary foodstuffs and whatnot. 

So. Before I start and-then and-then and-then-ing like this novel, I should probably pull back and talk about some higher level shit. I read the first maybe third of this novel a half dozen years ago, when Bourne was writing it as a serial internet narrative thing. This book was one of the early Internet book phenomenons, back when such a thing was notable. (And I’m using the term “phenomenon” pretty loosely, but his blogging did result in for realz publication, which was something back in the day. Maybe it is still notable; I don’t know.) I didn’t want to go on with it at the time, because it’s so…hokey? straightforward? but then I recently decided to check out the really pulp edges of the zombie genre, and here I am. 

The shitty editing and overall bollocks of this novel can be chalked to its diary format, which makes me a little resentful of the diary format. Is it fair to give embarrassing grammar a pass just because the book is supposed to be a diary, and it’s not like people bother with grammar all that much when they don’t think anyone is watching? I’m going with no, because despite the cutesy intentionality of all the scribbles and underlining, typos is typos, and those are some fucking typos. That said, this was a delightfully wonky read written by someone who obviously knows his way around various hardware. I’m going to guess that Bourne himself is a military dude just like ND, and there’s a lot of really detailed descriptions of guns & ammo, and a refreshingly sensible take on how things might work, or not, in the zombie apocalypse. He calculates head shot radios and amount of ammunition left. He nerds out on tech. 

There are zero characters – not even ND, who is more a collection of MacGuyver-like skills than a person – but the narrative occasionally slips up into something like a voice. ND has ticks, like the phrase “no joy” when something goes wrong, but he’s pretty squeamish about emotions. Neighbor-possibly-Dave has to kill his wife, and starts bugging out emotionally for a while, and while ND notes this, he doesn’t do anything to correct it. It just sort of works its way out conveniently without any comment. Various chapters end with the question, “why am I living?” Which, good one, because other than a few brief moments where things aren’t shit, there’s not much to live for other than gun-cleaning and food-sourcing. Even the action scenes are bloodless, and often rushed to the point of not registering. 

So, this was fun to read on a hangover Sunday, but it’s not, like, good on any kind of technical level. Cool, arresting images are squandered, like the zombie on a crucifix thing which might be becoming a trope, and was dealt with insanely awesomely in Zombie in a Penguin Suit (Question: what’s black and white and red all over? Answer: AHHHHH.) A number of events parallel This Dark Earth, but that has a ton more style, and actually engages the diary format in one of its sections as a device. (But Wittgenstein’s Mistress blows everything out of the water in terms of post-apocalyptic diary format, not that it’s even fair to mention.) I don’t really care where this goes, because I have no one to invest in, but it was fun while it lasted. It’s almost refreshing to read something so little interested in the questions of what makes us human and how to construct a reasonable society in zombie fiction. I’ll just be here running the numbers and cleaning my guns.

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) - The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC. 

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

About halfway through Fiend: A Novel, I thought, fuck, what am I doing. I’d sworn off drug abuse fiction after Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Christ, already. I get it. Drugs are bad. (And before you go humorless on me, understand that I’m kidding about “drugs are bad” being the PSA of Requiem.) But good thing Greg sent me a message alerting me to the existence of this, because it’s also got zombies and it’s set in the Twin Cities, two things I pretty much adore when they’re done right. This does them right, in my humble, undead, Midwestern opinion. I always fucking knew St Paul was full of zombies. (Minneapolis might be too, but our heroes never venture to my side of the river.) 

Chase is coming off of a week-long tweak when a little girl tears the throat out of a Rottweiler, then attempts to eat his face off too. Being on the end of a meth binge, he’s not so sure she’s real until his friend Typewriter caves in her skull and sets the house on fire. Like 28 Days later or Rick in Walking Dead, Chase and Type have missed the zombie apocalypse in their altered state: turns out everyone died one night, and then the next day, a bunch of ‘em got back up. Following the odd, but mostly unbroken convention in zombie lit, no one calls them zombies. Because the zombies giggle – which is hugely ominous at points, all this soft laughter coming from god knows where, or loudly from behind a straining door – the band of survivors call them Chucks. For the chuckling, you see. And the really fun part: only people high on meth, and continuously high on meth, survive the zombie apocalypse. The tweak shall inherit the earth. 



Concentrations of meth labs in the US. 



The voice is first person, with a stripped down punctuation and almost stream-of-consciousness. I say almost, because its really more stream-of-highass-award. This sort of damaged-by-drugs narration can grate, I find, often taking the lazy way out when it comes to control of the prose or the tone. I found Stenson to be quite good at both, and he just did a masterful job of vacillating through the extreme highs and lows of the junkie. There was a lack of affect and incuriousness running through even the highest sections, so that it wasn’t too precious either (a problem sometimes in druggie lit, I think). Lots of body horror, juicy, yucky descriptions, and repellent metaphors. The horror went comic a lot too, because bodies are funny as often as they are gross. The lack of quote marks on the dialogue was cool, running it so that you sometimes can’t tell if Chase said it or just thought it real loud, and it’s not like he knows or anyone is really listening anyway. The obvious analogy to make here is The Road, but I think it’s much more like The Reapers Are the Angels in terms of use of dialect, idiom, and genre pulpiness. (Though this isn’t nearly as stagy or ponderous, for better or for worse.) Certain punctuation won’t survive the apocalypse, apparently; literacy is as cooked as the meth when you’re dealing with zombies. 

I also really liked the local setting, because I totally know those kids from White Bear Lake – called, uncharitably but accurately “White Boy Lake” around here – who come rolling in with their privilege and rebellion, and then acclimate to the leveling effects of a decade of being strung out. The Hmong cook certainly has some shit to say about Chase and his ilk, and the demarcations of the neighborhoods and landmarks comes from someone who hasn’t just googled that stuff. Locals, heed this passage:

At Summit, the apex of our shitty little town, stands the governor’s mansion with its slabs of imported stone and then the Summit Club, and I picture F. Scott sitting in there writing about Bernice bobbing her hair. From this elevation we can see West Seventh, the flats of St Paul, where we see poor white Chucks shuffle around, tiny as ants, each and every one of them unified in their singleness of mind. Beyond them, across the Mississippi, not really visible, streets like Chavez and Independence, the skin once again darkening. Our city: each neighborhood segregated, first by economics, then by race. Each neighborhood now hosting its own walking dead, its own hidden pockets of shit-smoking motherfuckers trying to find the next hit.

I almost has the fury of Colson Whitehead’s final pan of a zombie New York in Zone One, but St Paul isn’t New York, and Mark Spitz’s averageness is a different coping strategy than being fucked up. Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz could never get up to the grandiloquent bullshit of a junkie, the sine waves of hope and despair; Chase would never ruminate with such urbane disconnect. There’s no taxonomy of survival narrative, just a sloppy, ugly existence from one hit to the next. Plus, really, fury isn’t a Midwestern thing when you get down to it. These autopsies of cities are personal things, and I respond to that personality immensely. I can see my house from here. And it’s on fire.

I thank Netgalley heartily for the ARC, and apologize if I’m not supposed to quote. 

Nebula Nominees: The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I am going to begin somewhat uncharitably by making fun of the cover for Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Now, I know covers ain’t content, and usually authors have close to zero say in cover choice, so I’m not making fun of Ahmed here. However:

The cover for Crescent Moon, which has very cartoony looking D&D people looking boss

Seriously. 

I showed this cover to my husband and asked, “Where’s the Disney singing sidekick?” At which point he retorted, “Is that Mel Brooks?” But snarking hipsterism aside, the cover is kinda perfect, because Throne of the Crescent Moonfeels like very old school, summer vacation reading, sword-and-sandals fantasy, the kind of thing little Ceridwen would stay up reading past her bedtime because OMG, it’s the end of the world! and also maybe some fart jokes; lol; he said fart. The cover conveys that pretty well, as does the completely forgettable title which feels like it was spat out of the Random Fantasy Novel Title Generator. It’s just sad, is all, because the title and cover are so stock fantasy, and I think the book itself is maybe more interesting than the cover implies? Maybe not, because I can’t say I more than liked this, and I only read it because I’m trying to get through the 2012 Nebula nominees before May 18th when they announce the winners. (Kim Stanley Robinson: why did I leave your doorstopper for last?) 

So Doctor Aboulla Makhslood is the last of the ghul-hunters, a wheezy, fat old man with a cheerless, devout dervish apprentice. Abdoulla is definitely getting too old for this shit, but not so old he can’t enjoy giving his apprentice a hard time and opening up a can of whup-ass on some ghuls. The story starts with Abdoulla’s old flame asking for some help in the deaths of some of her kin, and Abdoulla saddles up the donkey and heads out. Abdoulla’s very much like your kinda racist teasing old uncle, who talks a lot of shit but is essentially a good guy. If only he would STFU about how much he loves living in New York. 

There’s a getting-the-band-back-together feel of the opening, which has Abdoulla and his dour dervish meeting up with a badass Cheetara vengeance girl, finding their purpose – we must find the ghul-of-ghuls! – and then chatting over tea with Abdoulla’s neighbors and friends, who just happen to be an alkemist and a mage. Wonder fantasy team activate! There’s a lot of street-fighting and Robin Hoody folk characters, dire magic, out of touch Khalifs and civil unrest, and everything winds up to a pretty perfunctory meeting with a Big Boss – zap! pflash! – complete with moral compromises and the like. Super fantasy friends to the rescue! Huzzah!

I told myself I wasn’t going to be a quipping jerk in this review, and I see I’ve failed at that completely. Let me start again.

There is a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon, the primary thing being its cranky old main character and his cranky old friends. It’s neat to see a fat old grouch grouse his way through a plot usually left to the young and beautiful, people like his pious apprentice and cat-changing-girl. He and his old friends score a lot of points off of their youthful exuberance, even if it occasionally seems unfair that everyone seems to be written to bear Abdoulla’s quips. It’s also too bad the dervish and the cat-changing-girl are so thinly written, especially the supposed sexual tension between the two of them. I believe that not at all, and none of the “conflict” the dervish experienced rang true to me. 

I also enjoyed the…how do I put this?…religiosity of the characters? Abdoulla and his old friends are cynical, urbane folk who have little faith in institutions or even human nature, and this rubs up against the youthful piety and certainty of the younger characters. But, Abdoulla still has a complicated and dynamic engagement with his religion and his faith, even while it’s kinda crimped and leftways. I’m not a believer in much myself, when it comes to your traditional monotheisms, but Abdoulla read to me like my Grandpa Ed, who for generational reasons could never come out and own his atheism (in the strictest sense), instead subsuming his wonder and prayerfulness into hymns and books. Abdoulla believes in things: his city, his friends, even the concept of duty (despite his constant bitching), and he calls those things God. Even the devil can quote scripture, but it takes a holy fool to make a fart joke and then quote scripture. Grandpa Ed would approve. 

I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t going to win the Nebula. Not only is Throne of the Crescent Moon a first novel – like any award, name recognition factors – but it also has a pretty stock fantasy plot, despite the slightly unusual main character. (I don’t think the cranky mentor is unusual, just to be clear, just that it’s unusual for him to be the main character. It’s like if Obi Wan were the protagonist of Star Wars, and also drank and farted more.) So, enjoyable little book that doesn’t set out to accomplish much, but does accomplish the small things it sets out to do. A younger version of me would probably like this more, as she wouldn’t be as jaded about fantasy conventions. I feel like maybe Ahmed was working out his fantasy tropes in this his first novel, and that will leave him open to muck around with convention more in later outings. That would be swell. I’d read ‘em.

Review: Walking Dead: Welcome to the Tombs

Man, I’ve really blown it posting the review for the third season Walking Dead finale, Welcome to the Tombs in a timely manner. Sorry. Here it is now!

I’ve never been much of a gamer, and I think some of this was the clumsiness of some of the earliest video games in their storytelling. I freely admit I haven’t engaged in the newer, more complex narratives – the barrier to entry in cost of platform and the games themselves is too high – so I’m going off of the oldschool stuff like LucasArts games from waaaay back in the day, Myst, and Mortal Kombat. I wanted to set my 386 on fire when, in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I had to pilot a fucking balloon over some fucking thing, and my clumsy letter-punching resulted in that balloon being on fire. Which, good. You be on fire, asshole.

The real problem was that, before the burning dirigible section of the game, Fate of Atlantis wasn’t really about flying a godamn balloon, but about poking around and having conversations and solving puzzles. Or take Mortal Kombat. I loved fighting my sister or my bff Suzy (who is a very serious gamer) through the game, trash-talking and trying to figure out the fatality sequence that would make that one dude suck your near defeated enemy’s bones out. That was fresh. I even went so far as to play against the computer, and made it all the way to the big boss.

The problem with the big boss (which may or may not be pictured above, as my googling skills are not great) was that he was so much unbelievably harder to beat than anyone ever. Johnny Cage? Girly-man. Sonja? Take that. Boss man? OMIGOD YOU HAVE SIX ARMS AND NOW I’M ON FIRE. There was no steady escalation of skills, no smooth leveling up, but fighting a bunch of people and then getting murdered. I never did beat that jerk, and I ended up resenting having to go back through a bunch of drudgery just to get to him and get murdered over and over again.
This season on Walking Dead has been a fair amount of drudgery and then getting murdered. On some level, I respect it. When the Governor turned his gun on his own people, absolutely destroying the possibility that the big conflict between Woodbury and the prison was ever going to take place, I did admire the balls it took to screw my expectations that hard. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor?) But I also felt like I was in that godamn balloon again, with it in on fire, wondering why a narrative that has been setting up this big boss conflict between two dudes would then make it about whatever that shit was about.
You could put it in the bank that Walking Dead would have an explosive finale, so I don’t even know what’s going on. Which is not to say I didn’t like aspects of the episode. Despite being frustrated by Andrea’s complete inability to multi-task – seriously, you can try to pick up that damn pliers while talking – the locked room conversation between Andrea and Milton redeemed her character some, and ended with a phyrrhic sadness that represents the best of the downbeat possibilities. They are all infected. We kill or we die. Or we die, then we kill.
I am still busy hating some characters though, like Hershel, who is, as my friend Rachel pointed out, the reincarnation of Dale. I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to view him as the moral center of the group, what with all the bible-readin’, but he’s a narc and dork. I didn’t read Carl shooting that kid in the face as a cut-and-dried murder at all. He told the guy to drop the gun. Reaching closer with the gun is not dropping the gun, and could switch to shooting you in the face in less than a moment. I also get the impression we’re supposed to see this as a counterpoint to the Governor’s zombie daughter – if I’d been like this, she’d still be alive, etc.
I also think the scene where Michonne openly forgives Rick for selling her to the Governor is serious white dude wish fulfillment bullshit.
However, the episode gave me some shocks, confounded a lot of my expectations, and sets up a much more interesting mix for next season. Now that all the fighter-types are dead, how are they going to manage the prison community? Much about the Walking Dead – end of the world and zombies aside – is really very conventional storytelling, with very conventional plots. Surprising me beyond the mechanical – omg, they’re killing Lori in episode four?? – takes something, and this episode was a surprise. Boo!
I am still mad about the flaming balloon though.
Sonja wins.

Walking Dead: This Sorrowful Life

This Sorrowful Life starts with a complete character disaster of epic proportions, and that it ended with something approaching an honestly emotional moment was really something. At first, literally all of the white men in the prison group sit around discussing the fate of the only black woman like she were property, and it is a violation on a number of levels that Rick was even considering turning her over to the Governor. Putting aside the repulsive sexual and racial politics of all these conversations – and I am right tired of Gandalf’s rheumy-eyed speeches – this is not a choice Rick would make. Sure, I get that they’ve been running all this grief insanity with him, but he has always and ever been a boy scout. Coming hard on the heels of their interactions in Clear (the last time they interacted on screen), it makes zero sense that Rick would pull such an about face.

Even while I loved the details of Glenn’s proposal to Maggie – “I hope he really washes that ring,” my husband said after Glenn cuts it off a walker – I kind of don’t understand what’s going on with the proposal at all. Glenn and Gandalf have been hugging and crying together a lot after Maggie was sexually assaulted by the Governor, which is sweet in some ways, but in others makes my right eye twitch. Why is it that every “choice” by a woman gets made beforehand by a couple of dudes? Why is it about how they’re so cut up by her assault? Why is the concept of marriage even a thing during the zombie apocalypse? But whatever, Americans are completely loony about marriage, in general, and my head has been exploding reading the Supreme Court’s oral arguments today. That Walking Dead, which has been completely crappy with gender largely and writing female characters specifically, has goofed an engagement plot is no great shocker. All that said, I will ship til the end of time for Maggie and Glenn. Hearts.

But even though the opening is seriously bad, once Merle and Michonne get on the road, things improve drastically. Some of the most successful post-apocalit is in the vein of the road trip novel – works like The Road or The Reapers are the Angels – with the enforced conversation of the travelers in their solipsistic bubble run against the pit-stop that draws dangerous (in)humanity around the principles. I’m still on the fence about how Gurira has been playing Michonne, though I admit most of it is how little actual character work she’s given, but I love her fierce physical competence in this episode. She, like Merle in some ways, is a pragmatist, though unlike Merle, she is unwilling to allow her pragmatism to be used by others.

While I don’t understand why Merle lets her go, his final blaze of glory is a sight to behold. I couldn’t figure whether this was a regular highway robbery location for Woodbury – is this just a place on the road where they waylay the living that Merle would know about? – or is it a pre-arranged place for Rick to drop Michonne? Either way, Merle’s assault was the kind of clever that only drew the lightbulb for me once he dropped out of the car and rolled. Before that, I was seriously wondering what was up with this cracker with his whiskey drinking and walker mob. Good tunes though, Merle. The musical cues have been great this season.

There’s a pretty wonderful eulogy for Merle over on Slate, and while I disagree with some particulars – mostly I think Merle was a shitty stereotype redeemed by the redneck grace of Michael Rooker’s performance – I am sad to see him go. Rick’s stupid choice to send Michonne to the Governor was meant to knock the white hat off of Rick’s head, and it was badly, baldly done. But the characters with no hats at all are always going to be more compelling. As a pragmatist, Merle has been speaking truth much more often than other characters, because the truth is the purview of the hatless.

You go on, give him that girl. He ain’t gonna kill her, you know. He’s just going to do things to her. Take out one of her eyes, both of them most likely. You’d let that happen for a shot? You’re as cold as ice, Officer Friendly. 

Amen, you asshole. Out of the mouths of the hatless, you have my problems with this show in a nutshell. You’re gonna write this character-voiding choice just for some frisson  just as a first act setup? In defiance of established character? That’s cold.

And poor fucking Daryl. When they bother to do character work, like they have intermittently with the brothers, that’s when this show works. So good on that. I don’t feel like I’m ready for whatever barn burning bs they’re going to pull for the finale next week, but it’s not like we’re ever prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Walking Dead: Prey: or Syke! Let’s talk about In the Flesh instead!

Heya. Looks like I dropped the ball on writing about Prey in anything resembling a timely manner. So here’s the quick and dirty about that episode: it’s totally fine, and managed to get me to stop hating Andrea every minute of my life. Like Clear  two weeks before it, the focus of the episode is on a smaller group of people and actually has a coherent beginning, middle, and end. This focus had been lacking in episodes previous, and the wheeling around all over Georgia checking in with everyone dissipated the stakes. Good on them for tightening up.

Andrea also shows some competence, which we knew she must possess to survive as long as she did, but shore wasn’t in evidence recently. (Although, how come she doesn’t steal the Governor’s car when she pulls the trick with the stairway zombies? I don’t get it.) The small character work between Georgia Gandalf and Milton last week paid off in a better understood Milton – he’s the one who torched the pit zombies, yeah? And altogether people seemed to have coherent actions. Neat.

But the biggest shift may be the Governor, who is *finally* acting like a really big psycho. My husband observed that he’s been like this all along: telling people what they want to hear about what he’s planning, and then tossing people in the “screaming pits”. (Have we seen those again? Since they were first mentioned? Or is that the pit zombies?) Morrissey has a lot of presence when you get him moving – he’s so damn tall, and there’s this sense of inevitability when he strides around – and it was great to see that in action, especially coupled with the slightly corny but still creepy whistling.

But I come here not to talk about Walking Dead, which I apparently did anyway, but to freak out about BBC’s In the Flesh, which is so amazingly good and doing just the weirdest things with zombies.

Kieren is a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer – god, I love these mordant acronyms I find in zombie fiction, like Colson Whitehead’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) – who has been rehabilitated from his flesh-eating state, and is preparing to be sent home to the community where he hunted and killed. His grim Northern English town is the center for the band of activist zombie hunters who helped stem the tides against the undead, and probably not that great of a place to return. Some of the townspeople came off as clumsy caricatures – and the sister rankled a bit – but lordy was that final scene with the old woman taking out her contacts and looking up at the mob come to kill her effective and brutal.

Obviously, the narrative goals of In the Flesh and Walking Dead are dissimilar, but I’m completely impressed with the way the zombie metaphor could stretch to be about rehabilitation and social conformity, disability and possibly even immigration politics. Many monster narratives end up boiling down to but the humans are the monsters OH DO YOU SEE. This is a perfectly fine stock message for justifying some bloodbath and great set-pieces, and one third season Walking Dead is relying on pretty heavily. But man is it cool when pretty much everyone is the monster, and the flinching, grainy remorse of In the Flesh really got me.

Review: Walking Dead: Arrow on the Doorpost

Well, it’s nice to see that Walking Dead, after the tense and almost claustrophobically personal episode last week, managed to get back to treading water until they waste a bunch of poorly drawn characters in a big barn burnin’ like the end of last season. Certainly, Arrow on the Doorpost was better structured than we’ve seen in the the latter half of the third season, where it seems like characters just bump around and have conversations until some walkers attack and then the whole business ends…for now. 

Despite a lot of growling and posturing, not much was accomplished by the meeting of the Governor and Rick. I actually started laughing when they framed Rick like a gunfighter on Main Street – subtly done, guys. Bravo. I haven’t brought up the comics in a while, because so much has diverged that it can be a bad comparison, but at this point we were getting a sense of an almost relaxed sense of home at the prison. They had planted crops, which were beginning to come to fruition, and were setting into a round robin of love triangles and stuff. They’d stopped clearing the yard because they were more inward focused, living their lives. They had driven in stakes, which was why there were stakes at all in their stand with the Governor. But this lot? I’m not seeing much invested there, short of constant gestures towards Judith.

While I still like Morrissey’s purring sociopath take on the Governor, I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t, um, wrong for the part? The man’s got so much gravitas and there’s something mountainously immobile about him, which sits in strange contrast with the jumpy long-haired meth-freak of the comic. The townspeople of the comic were obviously afeared of the Governor, held in check by fears of expulsion or worse. The comic Governor was a warlord and a despot, and I get why people were afraid of him. Morrissey’s Woodbury though? Not so much. Dude’s obviously batshit, but no more batshit than Rick, and possibly less so. Comic Gov’s people never would have been honking at the barricades to let them out; they were in the care of a madman and they knew it. It’s possible the writers could do something interesting with Morrissey’s soft sold approach…lol, no, it really isn’t.

I liked the sequence of their lieutenants chest-beating and then falling into soldiery camaraderie, as well as Gandalf talking stumps with Milton. But godamn it, Andrea! Here’s the problem: she’s totally right, as is Merle when he’s all like, I’ve got a gun in my room, let’s go cap him right now, but the writers are so damn invested in this big mano-a-mano dick-measuring situation between Rick and the Governor to the detriment of character. They have undercut the secondary characters, so hard, so far, that when Rick tells Andrea to get out because the men are having important men-talk, I just laughed instead of getting pissed off like I should. Such unbelievable gender bullshit.

Anyway, I don’t feel like I have a ton to say, partially because next to nothing happens in this episode. Oh, but I did make this lolGovernor that I’m pleased with. You’re welcome.

P.S. I’m glad Glenn and Maggie finally got laid again. Big hearts for those two.