Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Lily Herne
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: March 2011
Purchased copy for review
My Rating
: 5/10

Buy a copy of Deadlands

It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors have established a new but distressingly familiar kind of order in heavily walled enclaves while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombie hordes still lurch. But no one is trying to wipe them out; instead, they’re worshipped.

It’s a brillint, unique twist on the zombie story – zombies are the new religion, revered for ‘cleansing’ Cape Town of its violence and corruption so there could be a better life for all (who survived). Believers are known as Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated (dissenters just call them Rotters), and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. There’s no question now about whether or not there’s an afterlife, because it’s right there in the Deadlands, moaning for your flesh.

Lele (Leletia) de la Fontein sees right through all of this crap. She’s a feisty, rebellious 17-year old, although at times you can be forgiven for calling her a brat. But on the other hand, she’s no doormat and most of the time I admire her spunk. She’s just lost her grandmother, not only to death but to the Guardians, who who take all dead bodies to the Deadlands where the zombies will attack and reanimate them. Now Lele and her brother have to stay with their emotionally distant father and their stepmother, who Lele can’t stand. She also has to go to a new school where, in classic YA tradition, she becomes the free-thinking outcast amidst petty, small-minded popular kids who make fun of her. Like any teenager, Lele thinks that her life couldn’t get any worse, but then she gets selected for the ‘Lottery’ – every year the Guardians choose a few teenagers from the enclaves and take them away, for reasons unknown. And that’s when Lele’s real adventure begins.

Now because Deadlands is the first zombie novel set in Cape Town, my home town, I really wanted to like it. Lily Herne is a psuedonym for SA author Sarah Lotz and her daughter, and as a South African I’m proud to see that SA writers are starting to get published in my favourite genres. At the same time however, my review ethic is to be honest even when I’d rather not be, but more importantly to not be condescending by setting lower standards for certain books as if the authors are mental inferiors who can’t really be compared to their peers. South Africa’s education system is doing that to the country’s youth. I hate it, and I’ve never wanted to do anything similar here. Which in this case means I wanted to like Deadlands, and I think it could have been the novel I was hoping for, but at the end of the day it was disappointing.

There are some really cool things about it nevertheless. Deadlands has an awesome political snarl, particularly in the beginning. 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. Like the ANC it’s 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.

Admittedly, I’m not as well versed in politics as I should be, but I can’t deny that it gives sci fi and fantasy the edge that makes for truly fantastic, memorable reads. Unfortunately Deadlands isn’t all that interested in its own political and religious satire. Once Lele gets chosen for the Lottery and leaves the enclave, Deadlands becomes a more conventional action-adventure novel. She meets a group of rebels known as the Mall Rats who turn her into a teen action hero, and the mystery, religious satire and political intrigue gets left behind. The action-adventure bit is the main part of the novel, but for me it was the most boring and it drags on for quite some time.

What I really wanted was to know more about that zombie cult and the Guardians. Who are they? What are they? And what are they up to? These are some of the most interesting and exciting questions in the story, but the answers are predictable, disappointing or just not good enough. It’s not hard to guess why the Guardians are taking teenagers, but you have to wait until the last few pages of the novel for this to be revealed. Having waited so long you expect the secret to be epic; instead my final thoughts for the novel were “that’s it?”. It would have been so much better if Lele had discovered at least part of the truth about the Guardians early on and then gone up against them in the remainder of the story. This could still have allowed for a sequel-ready ending, which is what we get anyway, with a lame line: “this is the end of my story, but somehow I’ve kind of got the feeling that it could actually just be the beginning” (293).

Speaking of lame lines, there are A LOT of them. Almost all of the chapters end with cliched attempts at intrigue:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

To make things worse, there are many, many chapters, most of them bluntly ended with lines like these. Deadlands is only 293 pages long, but it has a whopping 69 chapters. On average they’re just 2 or 3 pages of well-spaced text long. It makes the story feel choppy, and as far as writing goes it seems lazy.

I also feel like the Guardians, the politics and the religion receded from the plot because the author(s) got bored this complex material and wanted to get to the bit about the cute, sexy rebel chick kicking zombie ass, raiding the mall, and trying to decide which of the two hots guys falling for her she can trust. Of course Deadlands is a YA novel so that’s exactly what the target audience wants, but there doesn’t have to be an ‘either or’ toss-up between story and substance. A better novel would have integrated the mystery and social satire with the action and romance.

It would also have sewn up some of the plot holes. Like the mall raids. These are pretty common teenage fantasies – having unlimited access to an empty mall so you can take all the cool stuff you want. For reasons only revealed at the end (very very thin reasons) the Guardians have kept Century City mall up and running, even after destroying all other buildings in the city, and the Mall Rats go there to scavenge for books, toiletries and clothes. There’s a HUGE plot hole here. As far as I could tell, the Guardians don’t restock the shops in the mall (how could they?), but the Mall Rats go there perhaps once a week to fill orders from the enclaves. It’s a big mall, but there’s only so much underwear on the shelf at Woolworths; there’s no way they could still walk in there with a shopping list and get everything on it. I got really, really annoyed when they did a book run at Exclusive Books. I worked at that branch for 3 years and I never, ever saw a copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry or Rustum Kozain’s poetry collection This Carting Life. The Norton is too academic and expensive for a commercial store, and poetry collections are pretty scarce because they don’t sell. Nevertheless, Lele finds both easily, and it’s the first time since she was 7 that she’s even been in a bookshop.

There are other gaps. Unless I missed it, there’s no mention of what happened to the rest of South Africa or the rest of the world. I can only assume that the zombie epidemic was global, given that there is no mention of help from anyone outside of Cape Town. As I said before, it’s not hard to guess what the Guardians do with the teenagers, but apparently no one in the enclaves has tried. I don’t even want to get into the implausibility of the Guardians keeping a mall as large as Canal Walk open, lights, escalators, cameras all running.

But, as I keep having to remind myself, this is YA and many fans of the genre probably won’t mind the glitches, the way the social critiques give way to action, or the short chapters and sloppy writing. I couldn’t shrug off the fact that I do mind these things, but I also have to admit that there were parts of the novel that I admired. So if Lily Herne produces the sequel implied in the closing lines I won’t hesitate to buy a copy, but I hope it’s a better read than this one.

11 thoughts on “Deadlands by Lily Herne

  1. Pingback: Aw – our first bad review |

  2. Hmmm ……, I feel that review was not as objective as I would of liked. I was hoping to get real insight into the character of the book, which I did in the beginning but perhaps the review drifted off into a ‘personal taste issue’ toward the end.

  3. Mmm… I agree, personal taste does play a massive role in the fiction we enjoy. It’s too political; it’s not political enough. It’s too shallow; it’s too intellectual. I won’t belabour the point.

    I’ve read the novel, and I must say my sentiments are the precise opposite of those expressed in the review. The focus is on Lele, not politics, not social issues, not religion. It is written in the first person, and that person is a teenage girl. It seem appropriate that the limits of the story-telling remain within the confines of her awareness and interests. Besides how many teenagers in this country are even remotely as socially critical as Lele? To make her more sophisticatedly critical would make her less believable.

    Anyway… personal taste.

  4. Well, yes, my reviews are very subjective, and that’s the way I prefer to frame them. We inevitably bring our own experiences and preferences to the books we read and it’s important to me to make those clear. To compensate I always try to explain my views, so that readers can judge for themselves whether or not they might feel the same way I do and thus decide if the review is useful to them. So you can read my appraisal of Deadlands and feel that you might also be unimpressed by Lele’s story, or disagree with me completely because you think it sounds cool and you prefer zombie fight scenes to politics.

    You make an excellent point JG – the focus is on Lele, rather than the politics or religious satire or perhaps even the mystery of who the Guardians are, so her level of engagement with those things makes sense. However, in reading the story I was simply more interested in those other topics than I was in Lele herself, hence my disappointment (very much a matter of personal taste). And despite the fact that she’s a teenager, she’s still forced to deal with the circumstances in which she finds herself – the Guardians, the embassy (via the Mantis) and the ANZ (via Thabo) are part of her life, whether she’s interested in it or not. So, as I said, if she’d found out about the Guardians earlier, or maybe taken on the embassy or explored the mysteries of her past, and the novel’s action grew out of that, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

    CQC, I contemplated discussing Lele and the other characters in more detail, but I didn’t want to make the review too long, so I stuck with the topics I felt most strongly about. To the novel’s credit however, the characters are nuanced and distinct, each making a clear contribution to the narrative. I particularly liked Ash, Saint and Ginger. I admire Lele’s strength, but she also irritated me, especially in terms of narrative style – I wasn’t too keen on the writing and because it’s first-person narration everything is attributed to Lele. And who exactly is she addressing? And why?

  5. Your review was brilliant – I read the book, trying to look at the text as YA would, too. I found Lele’s first person narration a bit bizarre – somewhere between teenage chic (with some Black and Afrikaans references) and, almost, as omniscient (read: white) middle-class narrator. Somewhere the set-up failed – it wasn’t (for me) as “honest” as Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (now, quartet) or Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I am in the process of trying to determine what adolescents are reading – and so read YA literature from two vantage points: that as adult reader; that as a potential YA reader. The book is gripping; it has many positive attributes – such as the shorter chapters. But I did find that I had to suspend disbelief too consciously. Like you, I’d rate this work with 5/6 stars, but also not be dismissive. So GOOD to have an honest review. In terms of “post-apocalyptic SF” genre, not bad …. I hope the sequel starts to give greater coherence.

    Thanks – I like your style, too, and agree with lots of the content.

  6. Thanks Philip!
    Lele’s narration struck me as odd, not so much because it’s first-person but because she seems to be speaking to the reader, and there’s no reason for that. I mean, it’s not a memoir or record of events that she’s making. I’m not sure what you mean by the association between white and omniscient narration though?

    I haven’t read the Blackman or Collins books, although I might check out The Hunger Games soon, as it’s a book club read for next month. Everyone in my group seems to love it, although most of them read more YA than I do.

    Did you like the short chapters? They actually irritated me; I thought they kept interrupting the story. On the other hand I didn’t have to suspend my belief much, except in the mall! I just wish they’d made an effort to investigate the Guardians or find out more about the twin thing.

    Anyway, thanks for dropping by; I’m really glad you’re enjoying my blog 🙂

  7. Yes – what struck me as odd about the text was that, in this post-apocalyptic world, mercifully showing a race-free South Africa, some characters such as Thabo and Lele use dialect that is not common to “black” characters – a lot of the dialect is (understandably) reminiscent of white, middle class – the word “kak”, for example is not part and parcel of “black” language.

    But as I’m replying to you, I wanted to give weight to my assertions and asked a (black) colleague – I think, maybe, my response should rather have been informed by sociology rather than race!

    I wasn’t mad about the short chapters, but given the low literacy scores in South Africa and the reluctance of adolescentst to read, I think the length (or brevity) of the chapters, while jarring to readers, is very manageable for YA readers.

    The Hunger Games trilogy is great: my students (1st year teaching students) have reacted favourably to the book.

    Take care.


    • To me the speech seemed mixed rather than white middle class, although I guess you could see it as the latter, peppered with general South African words and slang. The post-apocalyptic setting could explain this though. Cape Town is probably the most diverse of SA’s cities, and I think the white population is higher there than elsewhere. So after the zombie apocalypse, everyone is just mixed together and the kids especially would be affected by the various speech patterns they come into contact with. English would be the most useful language of communication.
      Honestly though, I don’t know how the other SA languages would fare. Should they be more prominent, or would they begin to fade?

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