It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors live in heavily walled enclaves, while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombies still lurch. No one is trying to wipe them out or find a cure, because the zombies are worshipped in a disturbing new religion. Every year a Lottery is held and a few teenagers are chosen as offerings to the mysterious Guardians, cloaked figures who live in the Deadlands and have power over the zombies. Lele de la Fontein is a feisty 17-year old who sees through all this crap. Her grandmother has just died, and she and her brother leave the rural part of the enclaves to live with their father and stepmother in the urban section. Lele hates her stepmother, her new school, the religion, and the increasingly dictatorial politics of her new home. But she gets given an escape route she doesn’t want to take, when she’s chosen for the Lottery and sent out into the Deadlands with the Guardians.
It reached a point where I just wanted to scream at the book every time a chapter came to an end. The chapters are also all extremely short (often just 2 or 3 pages), so you read one of those lines every few minutes and it was infuriating. I didn’t like the short chapters either; it made the narrative feel very jumpy and disconnected.
Lu: I love short chapters! It makes for easy reading for me. I didn’t have a problem with the writing, but I wondered how some authentic SA words would go down with overseas readers
Lauren: SA slang might be confusing for overseas readers, but some meanings can just be deduced from context. At any rate, Deadlands is not available outside of South Africa (yet). It really should be though (with a glossary and perhaps a few footnotes) – I think this is the kind of novel that would be very popular (zombies are in right now) and I’ve seen quite a few non-SA readers showing interest in it. Plus, Lauren Beukes’s Arthur C. Clarke win no doubt inspired some international interest in SA speculative fiction.
Lu: I do hope it gets released in other countries!
Political and Religious Satire
Lauren: My favourite thing about this book. What I particularly like is its take on religion. The zombies are seen to have ‘cleansed’ Cape Town of violence and corruption. Believers are called Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated, and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. The afterlife is now a certainty – once you die, you’re given to the zombies and you rise from the dead to become one of them.
To me, this reveals the function behind religion – it’s designed to make sense of people’s lives for them, especially when life seems cruel and senseless, thereby giving them comfort. But it’s absurd too. I mean zombies! They’re so gross, with barely a semblance of humanity or intelligence, but that doesn’t stop Cape Town’s survivors from making them part of their belief system and actually worshipping them. No doubt it takes a lot of propaganda and mental acrobatics for everyone to accept that, but then again, religions can make people accept the most bizarre things.
Deadlands also gets really bold with its politics. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the Embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. I also have to say that I though the idea of an educational institution with the name Malema was hilarious, but disturbingly plausible. Like the ANC, the Embassy is also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.
Then there’s the ANZ – the anti-zombians – a rebel faction that’s more like the ANC of the struggle years, although they’re criticised for their violent methods, which sometimes get innocent people killed. The Embassy is of course trying to shut them down, much like the real ANC’s increasing hostility towards dissent and opposition, as they turn away from their own revolutionary ideals towards the racism and small-mindedness that characterised the oppressors they once fought.
Lu: Well you are not going to get any argument about what you just said. I fully agree and I found it so fascinating! Haha I also loved the name “Malema High”, I thought it was brilliant!
What I also found interesting was how most people pretended to believe (probably even more than we know) for fear of rejection and fear of the Guardians. Which totally defies the point of religion. I think most people know there is something going on with Guardians, they are just too scared to rock the boat. And why should they? The ANZ is doing it for them, even if they use questionable means.
I think this shows just how society really functions. Most of us are happy to sit back and let someone else fight our battles for us. Even if we see corruption and blatant wrong-doing, we would rather say nothing for fear of being criticized.
Lauren: On the contrary, I’d say that fear is a big part of religion – fear of punishment, fear of God, but also religion as a way of dealing with fear of the unknown and the fear that comes from your own lack of power. What’s interesting about the Resurrectionists is that they use the source of fear – zombies and infection – as a means of comfort and structure in the face of fear.
I agree with your point about how society functions. And because the societies in the enclaves lack the gross inequalities of South African society today, it’s much easier to bully people into complacency.
Lauren: I thought Lele was a bit of a brat. It’s great that she’s feisty but she takes too it too far sometimes, to the extent that she’s simply moody and uncooperative, and I disliked her for it.
Lu: I didn’t dislike Lele, but I also didn’t like her. I didn’t like it that she threw her toys each time something didn’t go her way, such as when she walked away from Ash and Saint just because she was moody. She does all of this to her disadvantage and she makes people’s lives difficult.
But she was ‘real’. I hate it when characters are written to be so pure and ‘can do no wrong’. In real life people act childishly in situations (mostly difficult and unpleasant situations) when being a bit considerate would have gone a long way. Which makes me think that the authors wanted Lele to be realistic.
Lauren: I remember the scene with Ash and Saint because it really irritated me too – she’s out in the bloody Deadlands with zombies wandering around but she buggers off on her own just because she doesn’t want to play nice?
But I agree, it is better that she’s more realistic; you can form some kind of connection with a bratty character, even if you don’t like them, but perfect characters can be inaccessible.
Lu: I don’t like Thabo, but I thought Ash was pretty cool. But please please for the love of pie I don’t want a love triangle in the sequel.
Lauren: I liked them both, but at the end I preferred Ash too. I think it’s largely because Thabo is aligned with the ANZ while Ash is a Mall Rat. The ANZ is a bit shady. The reader’s favour is more likely to lie with the Mall Rats – I mean, they’re basically a group of teen action heroes who live free, raid malls and kill zombies, as opposed to being tied to a hardcore political faction (not exactly romantic) that never actually touches the zombies. Also, Ash has that angsty-mysterious-guy appeal. Initially, Thabo is attractive because of his confidence and rebellious attitude, but he chooses the wrong faction and his character deteriorates, while Ash softens and becomes more empathetic. And of course, Lele is able to spend much more time with Ash, while seeing Thabo can be difficult.
Lu: Agreed, Thabo’s character ends up looking like he’ll do whatever it takes even if it is hurting other people.
Lauren: I thought you’d enjoy a love triangle though…
Lu: I have recently read way to many love triangles. I think for some authors it a cop out because they can’t think of a decent plot.
Pop Culture References
Lu: So you must have been a fan of the “Team Jacob” t-shirt ? or the Twilight novels being used as weapons?
For some reason it felt like the book was trying to be Ninja Turtle-ish. Or is that just me?
Lauren: Lol, I don’t have much of an answer here. I have no interest in either Jacob or Edward, so the T-shirt was just one reference among many. Ditto the books. I really hate Twilight, but by the time I read this it was out of the limelight and I was tired of talking about it, so the novels being used as weapons wasn’t a big thing for me either.
Ninja Turtles? I didn’t watch much of it when I was a kid (never had M-Net), so I don’t know. However, I can say that at times the book felt like it was trying hard to be like all the action and horror movies it referenced.
Lu: I don’t remember much about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But like the Mall Rats they lived underground and had a master to train them in martial arts and whatnot. But I might just see it like this because Ginger mentioned at points.
Lauren: Oh yeah, that makes sense. I liked all the pop culture references, mostly because I’d seen/read or at least heard of almost all of them. Not sure how good it is for the book in general though; that many references can be alienating if you don’t know what they’re talking about, and some could date very quickly.
Would you read the next book in the series?
Lauren: From some of the tweets I’ve read, Sarah and Savannah are working on book two. And yes, I would read it. The things I liked about the novel make me feel optimistic about the next one, and the things I disliked are not so bad as to dissuade me. Plus, I really do want to know more about those Guardians. I know from reading Exhibit A that Sarah is a great writer. Savannah needs more experience, but that just means she has lots of potential.
Lu: I would definitely read the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens with all of the characters! This is my first time reading a novel by these two authors, but I am excited to read their other works.
Find Lily Herne on