Jews Versus Zombies edited by Lavie Tidhar & Rebecca Levene

Read: 1 October, 2017

This is a wonderfully “niche” anthology, for that handful of people interested both in Judaism and zombies. Only two of the stories are the kinds of zombie stories you might find in Best New Zombie Tales, though even those have a very particularly Jewish flavour to them. The rest more explicitly use the undead concept to explore philosophy and Jewish identity.

I found that most of this collection is way over my head, and many terms are used that I’m simply not familiar with. This was clearly not compiled with a gentile audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading as a gentile, however – even when I don’t feel like I really grasped a story, I still found something to enjoy in every single entry.

“Rise” by Rena Rossner

This story is essentially “12 Dancing Princesses,” except that the princesses are yeshiva students, and their partners are the corpses of holy rebetzin. While they dance, the zombie partners teach the boys about theology and philosophy. The eroticism and physicality of the learning reminded me quite a bit of some mystic cults.

“The Scapegoat Factory” by Ofir Touche Gafla

The central joke of the story is that all things are temporary – even death. A group of scientists use this assumptions to bring a group of dead back to life as zombies. Only, these zombies can’t simply return to their old lives, and they can’t die either. At the same time, there’s this whole other joke about a company called the “Scapegoat Factory” that supplies willing scapegoats for cold cases, to give the families a sense of closure. The story is very funny, but perhaps has a bit too much going on. The whole Scapegoat Factory bit could be written out entirely without affecting the story much (though, I suppose it would need a new title…).

“Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith” by Shimon Adaf

I think this one went a bit over my head. There are two stories: In one, a woman is chatting with an artificial intelligence when it “dies”. Meanwhile, a midwife is delivering demon babies. These two stories are related through the letters that two characters write to each other. It’s a bit odd, and I had a hard time separating what was reference and what was fiction.

“Ten for Sodom” by Daniel Polansky

The first real “zombie apocalypse” story in the collection, a lapsed Jew grapples with this faith as he faces the end of the world. While short and much more similar to the zombie stories I’m familiar with, this still offers an interesting and uniquely Jewish (albeit lapsed Jewish) perspective on the genre.

“The Friday People” by Sarah Lotz

The zombies are more ambiguous in this darkly amusing entry. The titular Friday People are the younger generation who meet briefly on their weekly visits to their older relatives – many doing so in the hopes of a future inheritance. Except that their relatives just won’t die, no matter what.

“Tractate Metim 28A” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A lot of this one went right over my head, but it was still extremely amusing. A group of rabbis argue over matters pertaining to the purity of the undead. I’ve seen similar types arguments on the internet, and they are just wonderful.

“Wiseman’s Terror Tales” by Anna Tambour

A young man wants to design rockets, but seems destined to design bras instead. The zombies (again, somewhat ambiguous zombies, who seem far more explicitly metaphorical than they usually are) try to persuade him to choose a career. I enjoyed elements of this story, but something about it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps because the imagery, that would have worked better as a subtle pattern in a novel-length story, was too condensed, too thrown together. The final reveal went a long way to endear me to the story as a whole, though!

“Zayinim” by Adam Roberts

The collection ends with another ‘typical’ zombie story – this time we have some alternate history where Hitler wins WWII and gives everyone except the Jews an immortality drug. When the immortals’ minds degrade and they become zombies, the only true humans left are Jews. It’s an interesting consent, and a novel spin on an old idea. It didn’t hurt that the characters were fairly interesting as well.

The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Read: 17 July, 2015

Sixteen years after Leviticus Blue undermined the city’s banks with his Russian-commissioned Boneshaker machine, Seattle is a very different place. The boring caused a gas to be released from deep underground, corroding whatever it touched and raising the dead as “rotters.” A wall has been built around the city to keep the gas in, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes spilling out.

In the meantime, Blue’s son, Zeke, ventures under the wall, into the Blight, hoping to find the truth about his father. After an earthquake traps him inside the city, his mother comes in the hopes of rescuing him.

With airships, fantastical machinery, and zombies, it’s hard to see where Boneshaker could go wrong. Unfortunately, there were a few key issues that prevented me from really liking the book. The first was the over use of coincidence. I can ignore it if it’s used only very occasionally, or if it gets the ball rolling, and it works in a series like The Wheel of Time where it’s explained by the world-building (in that case, it’s the pattern weaving itself toward certain outcomes). But in Boneshaker, major aspects of the plot were directed by coincidence – an earthquake that blocks an exit just when a character goes through a tunnel, an airship crashing into a tower just when a character happens to be inside it, another airship that just happens to be repaired and ready to take off when the characters need to escape, etc. Far too much of the plot relied on these big coincidences, and it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief.

Overall, it gave the impression that Priest was writing on the fly, coming up with the plot as she went. Sadly, I found the characters suffered from the same problem; I found them very underdeveloped. They are always reacting, getting thrown about the city by circumstances as though they’ve paid for the tour. I was often confused by a decision, which seemed out of what I’d been able to construct of their character, until I realized that it was necessary to get them to the location of the next adventure, or to show us a new area of the city. (SPOILERS: Even the ending, when Briar and Zeke appear to decide to stay in the city where they’ve been miserable and have spent the last few days in a constant state of almost dying, seemed the author’s romanticised vision of the setting rather than anything the characters themselves would have chosen.)

Many of the side characters seemed interesting at first, until they stuck around long enough for me to realize that Priest had chosen one interesting image for them, and that was it. They had cool armour, or an interesting look, or an implied backstory, but no depth. In fact, the only character that seemed to have any real personality was the setting. Which leads me to the book’s real strength: Seattle.

There were some anachronisms, but the alternate history provided some cover there. I still always enjoy it when books have a sense of place, and the landmark details certainly did that. Priest also clearly put a good deal of thought into how the city might look in the Blight. The ambiance, with the need to wear gas masks and the moaning of the rotters, was fairly well done, and Priest certainly did a reasonably good job of building tension, except that I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. As long as I could tour the setting along with someone, I found that I really didn’t care much if it was Briar/Zeke, or if they were switched out midstream for some other “guide.”

The mechanics of writing were mostly solid, but there were some very odd word choices that threw me. One that stood out in particular was the use of the word “for” instead of something more conventional, like “because.” It’s oddly archaic, and stands out from the text around it. I noticed the same thing in Huntress, and it bugged me there, too.

My final gripe is about the ending. The plot structure is what could be described as an “onion” plot, in which the real goal is the discovery of a piece of information – in this case, what happened with the Boneshaker machine. The question is raised at the very beginning, with a reporter approaching Briar for information, and it is finally answered at the very end. Unfortunately, the answer that had all the characters guessing, and at least one character risking his life and the lives of others to uncover, was almost immediately obvious. I read the whole book knowing the ending’s big reveal, and my disappointment was dampened only by the fact that Priest seemed to care as little about it as I did. Sadly, it came with a missed opportunity, as I think that much more could have been made of the connection between Angeline’s daughter and Briar, if only the characters had had a little more depth to them.

I found this to be a fun fluff book, and the setting is certainly interesting enough to make it worth reading. It could have been a lot better, though, and it’s a shame that the characters and plot weren’t able to better complement the location.

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The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Ray Bonansinga

Read: 11 June, 2012

Rise of the Governor is an add-on to the Walking Dead graphic novel series, chronicling the journey of the eponymous character. If you’ve read the graphic novels (or, shortly I am sure, seen the TV show), you’ll know who the Governor is. If not, he’s the ruthless leader of a small town of survivors, and the antagonist of books #6-8. In the comics, he appears as a fully formed Bad Guy™, so this novel gives some of his backstory and an explanation (such as it is) for how he came to be that way.

Though a different medium from the graphic novels, Rise of the Governor is clearly part of the same series, and shared all the same weaknesses. In my reviews of the series, I’ve often complained about the editing issues, and these are present in the novel as well. Words and phrases are repeated close together in a way that sounds awkward, or a not-quite-right word will be used (a car is rolling down a hill: “The weight of the vehicle is building inertia.”). All problems that could have easily been solved by the use of a good editor.

There were also problems in the way that the narrator related to the characters. Or, rather, in the way the narrator doesn’t relate to the characters. The characters are blue collar guys, and it’s frequently pointed out (derisively) that one had attended college. And yet when a character starts turning into a zombie and begins to move, this is described as being: “like the typical residual nerve twitches that morticians might see now and again.” The killing of zombies is described in very clinical terms (“He hears the THWACK of another axe blade outside the closet, smashing through the membrane of a scalp, into the hard shell of a skull, through the layers of dura, and into the pulpy gray gelatin of an occipital lobe”). Why on earth would a a story about a couple blue collar guys from Georgia be narrated in this kind of way?

My last gripe is with the character exposition, which suffers terribly from what I like to call Dollar Bin Syndrome. The books in the dollar bin of a store have more differences than similarities – some are romances, some are murder mysteries, some are historical fictions, some have female leads, some of male leads… but all share one trait in common: They are universally terrible at introducing new characters. We see this in Rise of the Governor, where every new character is introduced with an emotionally dissociated laundry list of traits (usually physical, although sometimes the “twinkle of the eyes and salt-and-pepper hair” betrays some profound temperamental facet, or whatevs). It reads more like an eHarmony profile than an engaging novel.

But for all that, it did keep me interested and the character development was reasonably well handled. The Governor is a very difficult character to live up to, but I found his backstory to be executed satisfactorily. The twist at the ending was fairly gimmicky, but it fit in with the narrative and it did work.

If you’re into zombie stories / apocalyptic fiction / survivalism, or if you’re a fan of the Walking Dead series, Rise of the Governor definitely wouldn’t be a waste of your time. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s worth reading.

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The Walking Dead #5-6: The Best Defense & This Sorrowful Life by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 29 March, 2012

In The Best Defense and This Sorrowful Life, we continue with the survivors’ stay in the prison. When Rick sees a helicopter going out just a few miles away, he takes Glenn and Michonne to see if anyone survived the crash. But what they find instead is a whole town of the living, reminding us once again that the greatest danger in a zombie apocalypse isn’t the zombies.

These two issues suffer from most of the same problems as the others, namely the shoddy dialogue. The pacing does seem to have slowed down considerably, and we actually get something resembling an arch. We start off nice and slow with the short term goal of getting the prison’s generator running, which requires leaving the safety of the fence to syphon gas from nearby cars, and then we move into the hope/trepidation over the helicopter. The actual encounter with the living doesn’t begin until quite a ways through The Best Defense.

There are other classic storytelling elements that we haven’t really seen prior to these volumes. Rick is now given a foil, known by his followers as the Governor. He is the Rick that might have been. If you’ve recently finished watching Season 2 of the AMC show, one might say that the Governor is the Rick that Shane wanted him to be.

But these two volumes are incredibly brutal. The series has always been fairly graphic (it is a zombie series, after all), but these volumes have crossed the line between violence as a necessity for survival to violence as sadistic pleasure. It’s necessary to the story and character development, so I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have been included, but D and I both agreed that it didn’t need as much panel time as it got. And oh boy, major trigger warning!

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The Walking Dead #4: The Heart’s Desire by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Read: 23 February, 2012

The story picks up at the cliff hanger from Safety Behind Bars, and continues to cover the survivors’ stay in the prison. Zombies make very few appearances in this volume and are, for the most part, just background scenery to the real story taking place among the living.

Unfortunately, the greater focus on interpersonal relationships brings to the forefront Kirkman’s weakness in writing dialogue. Overall, I’ve found the writing in this series to be rather bland and, at times, suffering from the kind of awkwardness that an editor might easily have fixed. From a character standpoint, we meet Michonne who seems like she has the potential to be an interesting character, but she behaves erratically- alternating between character and caricature at the flip of a switch. She clearly has a history that I hope will be exposed in future volumes, but I found in frustrating that the survivors took very little interest in who she was, how she had survived for so long, or how she came to have two zombies following her around on a leash who “stopped trying to attack [her] a long time ago.” Seems like the kind of thing the survivors ought to want to know more about…

Closing the issue, we have a rather lengthy speech from Rick Grimes about survival in a zombie apocalypse that was, frankly, cringer-worthy. While it had all the markers of “the badass teaches everyone a little something about their darker natures” speeches that we get in the movies, it suffered from all the failings of these sorts of monologues – superficiality, a lack of logical consistency, and an awkwardness that turns the characters into mouthpieces for authors who want to sound cool.

This was by far the most difficult volume of the series to write so far because it had so little action to carry it through and, unfortunately, I didn’t feel that Kirkman is capable of handling the interpersonal complexities that were needed. That being said, he and Adlard’s artwork did convey some sense of psychological breakdown – that the immediacy of survival had been keeping everyone’s heads together, but that sustained (relative) safety is highlighting the cracks.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I may not be impressed with The Walking Dead, but it’s still an interesting series and I’ll be reading volume 5. It’s pulp, but it’s a very quick read and the illustrations make for a different experience than I’m used to.

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The Walking Dead #1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

Read: 1 February, 2012

I’m enjoying AMC’s The Walking Dead TV show, so I thought I’d give the graphic novel a try. The beginning of Days Gone Bye is very similar to the beginning, although differences do start to creep in.

The artwork is gorgeous. Tony Moore’s work is at once realistic and expressive. The zombies are rendered in far more detail than the living, making their grotesqueness stand out from the page. Injuries, rot, flies burrowing under skin, all is meticulously drawn for maximum effect. Walking Dead isn’t a “jump out and get you” horror, but the artwork adds a creepiness to the zombies that drew me in to the story and to the fear felt by the main characters.

I was a little disappointed by the lack of depth. The TV series gives far more time to each episode and allows for more character exposition, while the graphic novel seems to glide through at a much faster pace. As a result, I’m not feeling like I know the characters the way I did while watching the show.

It’s a good series and I’ll definitely be reading more.

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