Ed. — Once more we welcome Chris Smith and thank him for reviewing for us. Barb’s been fighting a sort of pneumonia/bronchitis/flu for the entire summer (a whole world of suck there) while I’ve been slacking off on my reviews. So thank you, Chris, for filling in admirably. Good reviewers are not easy to come by; especially the funny ones.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you may have noticed the fairly large amount of zombie related entertainment in today’s market. For the rock dwellers, welcome! It’s the year 2013, the country is still in a recession, Obama won a second term, and zombies are extremely popular these days. Oh, and still no flying cars or hover boards. (Personally, that stings the worst.)
Now that everyone is caught up…
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, zombies still seem to be going strong. Books, movies, comics, TV shows, even ammo- they’re everywhere. Funny, since Romero’s original use of the monster was to satirize American consumerism. I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ George was praying for death, so he could get started on the ‘spinning in his grave’ process.
What is the appeal? Hard to say, as there are many different, and reasonable answers. Zombies represent an unstoppable force of destruction; They’re the embodiment of the faceless masses, a collective of unthinking, uncaring and insatiable consumers, able to overcome individual free thinkers with sheer numbers and mindless determination; An excuse to use creative killing techniques on something you don’t have to feel guilty about. (My favorite, oddly enough. Redneck and proud, baby!)
Here’s my problem with the genre: In general, there can be no smart people in zombie fiction. Why? Because the smart people wouldn’t have an issue with the zombies. They’d hole up, figure out the best course of action against the monsters, and get down to the business of survival. This is my main issue (and the reason I scream at the TV) with ‘The Walking Dead’. In ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Zombieland’, we are supposed to laugh at the idiots/tropes and go along with poking fun at them. It works, because it’s a huge nod and wink at the genre. ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Romero remakes (not the originals) are meant to be taken seriously. That’s what makes the huge, glaring mistakes so difficult to stomach.
Here is my short summary of ‘The Walking Dead’:
“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaahhh!”
“Om nom nom”
“Oh thank God, we survived! That was terrible and unforeseen!”
“Yes, thank God it’s over. Let’s continue on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that it will never happen again,”
“AAAAAHHHH! Walkers! Aaaaahhh!”
I realize the characters live in a world where zombies were unknown. However, we start the series three months into the plague, and are following a group of survivors. They should know the threat, and more importantly, know how to DEAL with the threat. Apparently, the writers decided that, to move the story in its various dramatic arcs, the characters needed to be completely incapable of making consistently good decisions. They make the same lousy choices time after time. It’s frustrating.
Which–finally, right?– brings me to Under a Graveyard Sky (UAGS from now on).
I like this book. I have recommended it to as many people as I can. This book does zombie apocalypse right. No, wait, let me rephrase that: This book does ZA SURVIVAL right.
We focus on the Smith family (no relation)– Steve, Stacey, Sophia, and Faith. Dad, Mom, older sister, younger sister. They are smart, prepared, and capable. This is a group of folks that would be odds on favorites to survive ANY major disaster, short of the Sweet Meteor of Death. And even then, they may pull through.
Steve is ex-military, and fills the role of team leader. Stacey falls into a mostly support role, but isn’t portrayed as though she is less important than Steve. She is equally important, and vital, to the group’s morale and cohesiveness. Sophia is the team’s medical officer. Then there’s Faith.
Oh, good God, there’s Faith.
If this were a D&D party, Steve would be a Ranger, Stacey a magic user, Sophia the team’s battle cleric/healer, and Faith would be the fighter/berserker. (Roll a 2d-20 for a geek save. If you have 2d-20, you passed it.)
The ‘zombies’ in UAGS are bio-type, much like ‘28 Days Later’. They’re still human, infected with a rabies-like virus that degrades brain function down to a feral animal type level. The first act of three concerns the beginning of the infection, allowing us to follow along as the Smiths make their preparations to survive what’s coming. It does bounce around a bit, giving us several viewpoints, but does a good job of adding depth to the universe. This is the more technical section, providing info as to how the virus works, how it was spread, and how it affects the infected. This doesn’t slow anything down, however, as the tech info is worked smoothly into the story with the action, humor, and tension. While all the Smith family members are well represented throughout the section, the focus begins to shift towards Faith at roughly the halfway point. She has the best lines and scenes, and is generally the center of the action. (I still chuckle about her disarming before entering New York-think Mad Max as played by a thirteen year old girl.)
Act two takes place just after the plague has spread, following the Smith’s as they scavenge the seas for supplies. Here we begin to encounter other groups of survivors, setting up the “well, now what?” question. This is the pivotal point that sets the tone for the rest of the series. Steve’s decision to not just survive, but to fight back and rebuild, separates UAGS from most of its contemporaries. We also see groundwork laid for possible future conflicts, as various personality types come in contact.
In something like ‘The Walking Dead’, these conflicts would be met with some hand-wringing “we all have to get along, because TOLERANCE” attitude, until it became a major distraction/threat. Dealing with the distraction would be the perfect time for “AAAHHH! Walkers!” and the inevitable death of the source of the conflict. Until the next time.
In UAGS, Steve deals with potential problems immediately, before they become a threat to the group’s survival. This is what normal people refer to as “smart.” It goes a long way towards establishing the credibility of the book. The characters will deal with issues in a realistic fashion, display the necessary mindset to make the difficult decisions, and the intelligence to handle things before they develop into obstacles. Random and consistent good luck will not become a major plot device. This is a good thing.
Act three has the most action, as the now named Wolf Squadron has grown significantly. Switching the mission from simple survival to search and rescue means clearing larger and larger vessels. More action doesn’t mean less character development, however, even if it is mostly centered on Faith. Beneath the ‘kill ‘em all’ exterior, there is still an innocent thirteen year old, dealing with the reality of her ‘kill, or become lunch’ world.
Be warned, while it wraps up neatly (figuratively speaking- there was nothing ‘neat’ about the big fight scene) UAGS ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.
All in all, it is a well thought out, well written and, most importantly, fun novel. As with other works in the genre, I can see potential for future novels to get bogged down. Concentrate on the politics of rebuilding society, and it gets boring quick. Throw in a lot of zombie killing, and you run the risk of “been there, done that, got blood on my T-shirt” type action. However, as long as the series continues to build on the personalities of the characters and the strong human element of the story, the desire to see Wolf Squadron succeed where others have failed could override any problems.
—Reviewed by Chris