Review of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
Published: 
7 August 2012
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
7/10

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.

Lily Herne’s Mall Rats are going to the UK!

The original Deadlands cover

I heard some great news via the Twitterverse last night – the Mall Rats series by Lily Herne (the pseudonym for mother/daughter writing duo Sarah and Savannah Lotz) has been picked up by Corsair Books and will be published in the UK in 2013. Corsair editor Sarah Castleton bought UK and Commonwealth rights to Deadlands and Death of a Saint, both of which were initially published in South Africa by Penguin and Puffin. The news was announced on The Bookseller and The World SF Blog.

Mall Rats is a post-apocalyptic YA zombie series set a decade after the infection hit South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. It follows a group of kick-ass teen rebels who fight against both the zombies and the corrupt government that worships the undead in a twisted theology of resurrection. Deadlands is set in Cape Town, while Death of a Saint explores the rest of SA. The final book will be The Army of the Left. If you’re interested, I posted my review of Death of a Saint yesterday, and you can check out both my review of Deadlands (I didn’t love the first book, but don’t let that put you off) and the joint review I did with Lu.

Deadlands and Death of a Saint, rejacketed by Puffin Books

I’m really happy for Sarah and Savannah, and it’s always exciting to hear about local genre fiction getting an international audience. I’m curious as to how the UK’s YA readers will react to the series. A glossary of SA slang will probably be in order, but I think readers will find the SA setting a fun and interesting break from the norm. Plus there’s loads of action and some great characters. Oh, and zombies. Lots of zombies.

Review of Death of a Saint by Lily Herne

Title: Death of a Saint
Author: Lily Herne (Sarah and Savannah Lotz)
Series: Mall Rats #2
Published: 1 April 2012
Publisher: Puffin Books, a division of Penguin
Genre: YA, fantasy, action adventure
Source: review copy from the publisher
Rating: 8/10

It’s been a few weeks since the final events of Deadlands. Lele, Saint, Ash and Ginger are camping out the wilderness that is Cape Town because it’s too much of a risk to return to either the mall or their hideout outside the enclave. When they save a family from the zombies however, they have no choice but to take them to the enclave, so they decide to use the opportunity to buy supplies. It’s a big mistake. Corruption has festered, security has become more brutal, and the Resurrectionst government is about to distribute Wanted posters with the names and descriptions of the four Mall Rats. Their days of raiding the mall and selling the products in the enclave are definitely over.

It’s clear to Ash that they need to get the hell out of Cape Town. It’s a difficult decision to make, but they’ll be able to get away from the institution that wants them dead and perhaps find other survivors to help them fight the Resurrectionists. They might even find some answers to the many secrets surrounding the Guardians.

So begins their road trip across a decimated South Africa. They find new companions and new reasons to be hopeful about the future, but mostly it’s a hard journey, and not just because of what the Rotters have done to the country. Some of the Rats are keeping secrets that could destroy their friendships. What they find tests their characters and their relationships, and puts their lives at risk. As it turns out, there are far stranger and more dangerous things than Rotters or even Guardians out there, and the Mall Rats will be sniffing them out.

Now, I didn’t exactly love Deadlands, but Death of a Saint is a book of another calibre. Everything that bugged me about its predecessor is no longer an issue. Firstly, it has a different style. Lele no longer addresses an audience, which she did for no apparent reason in book 1 (she didn’t seem to be recording her experiences, so who was she talking to?). There are no more super-short chapters ending in one-liner cliffhangers. The narrative of Death of a Saint is smoother, more focused and the writing is more refined. Chapters narrated by Lele are now alternated with chapters narrated by Saint, giving us two perspectives on the story. This new tactic can actually be a little confusing as there often isn’t much difference between the two (both characters speak the same way and are mostly in the same situations), but for the most part it wasn’t much of a problem.

I also think that the characters are better written, and the and their interactions are more interesting. The Mall Rats learn new things about each other, much of it unsettling. At the end of Deadlands, Lele learned why the Rotters don’t attack the Mall Rats, but she finds the secret so shameful, she can’t bring herself to share it with the others, even though she knows she should.

Ash and Lele were clearly attracted to each other in book 1 (forming a clichéd loved triangle with Thabo), but now the possibility of a relationship seems to be dying out. Ash seems to be taking Hester’s death harder than the rest of them, and he’s always moody. He might have been the sexy brooding rebel before, but now his attitude gets everyone down and is killing his relationship with Lele. As Saint puts it, “The angst act is getting old” (50). Lele even starts to wonder if Ash’s good looks are the only reason she still likes him, since he’s been such an unapproachable asshole lately. Then Ash’s mood changes when they meet a stunningly sexy girl who’s also immune to Rotter attacks. She’s perky, brave and endlessly nice so everyone instantly likes her (me included). Lele is instantly jealous, not only of the newcomer’s gorgeous curves (compared to Lele’s skinny frame) but of how much time Ash spends with her, talking and laughing. It’s sheer torment.

This may sound mean, but I think it was good that the authors made Lele suffer like this. In book 1 I found her too temperamental and troublesome. Now she seems to have calmed down a bit, and the way Ash keeps hurting her made me more empathetic – it’s a situation we’ve all been in.

Ginger, on the other hand, is a character I always liked. Lele describes him as “the only person in the world who can put a positive spin on a zombie apocalypse” (113), and his ability to crack jokes and think of movie references even in the worst situations easily makes him the series’ most entertaining and likeable character. He occasionally shows a vulnerable side though – unlike the others, he hasn’t had a serious romantic interest, and he’s lonely. It’s quite heart-warming then, when he adopts a baby hyena and gives him the ridiculous name, ‘Bambi’. Despite the name, Bambi is really cute and I can see him growing up to be Ginger’s bad-ass companion. For the moment though, he mostly just has ‘accidents’ in Ginger’s hoodie and gives him my favourite line in the book:

“Don’t shoot! I have a hyena!” (150)

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the characters that made this a great book. I really cared about all of them, and my feelings were like ropes wrapping around my limbs and pulling me into their world. To add to that, ‘the journey’ is my favourite type of YA plot. I like the way that strange new places and people constantly bring uncertainty, surprise, hope and danger to the story, even if that sometimes makes the book discomforting to read. I like the demands that journey put on the characters, testing their strengths, forcing them to face up to their weaknesses, or teaching them new skills. Then, when they find a sanctuary in the midst of all their hardships, you feel just as relieved and happy as they do. Journeys are a source of both delight and torment, sometimes at the same time, and Death of a Saint does this one perfectly.

I enjoyed the story so much that I didn’t mind that they didn’t really learn much about the Guardians or fight the Resurrectionists. This was one of my major problems with the first book because it seemed like the most important and interesting stuff was being ignored. It’s a different case in Death of a Saint. The Mall Rats face these issues at the beginning, but once they’re on the road it makes sense for them to deal with the many other problems that arise.

Zombies, oddly enough, aren’t really one of those problems. Most Rotters don’t attack the Mall Rats, so they seldom have to fight them. Instead, Lele and the others tend to show them compassion rather than hostility. When a Rotter wanders into their camp at the beginning, Ginger gently chases him away instead of chopping his head off. On the road, they find a zombie who’s been dangling from a bungee cord for the last decade, feel sorry for him, and cut him loose. It disturbs them when they see how humans have made some of the Rotters suffer, and there’s a growing question of whether the Rotters still have some humanity left.

Humans, on the other hand, are the ones who pose the greatest danger. As in most post-apocalyptic stories, the breakdown of civilisation has made many people savage and cruel. Or really, really weird. Everyone has to be ready for a fight, not just with the Rotters, but with people who’d rob you, rape you, or kill you. Some show kindness and generosity, but with scarce resources, no one is looking for extra mouths to feed.

There’s less action than in Deadlands, I think, but fans of the first book shouldn’t worry – there’s still plenty to get your blood pumping and anyway, I think this story is more exciting with its ever-present sense of danger and uncertainty. Plus the characters are more engaging and there are some new ones I think you’d like. The writing is better, the structure is better – honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel. My only disappointment is that they changed the cover from the cool creepy style of the Deadlands one, to this YA cliché. The title wouldn’t have been my first choice, but there are still plenty of surprises and a cliffhanger ending to whet your appetite for the final book – The Army of the Left. Kudos Lily Herne – you guys did an awesome job.

Buy a copy of Death of a Saint.

Lauren and Lu review Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author: Lily Herne
Published: March 2011, by Penguin SA 
Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult, Zombies
Source: Purchased copy for review
Plot Summary
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.
Please note that the following review contains minor spoilers
General Impressions
Lauren: This is one of those books where my rating was a toss-up between things I really loved, and things I absolutely hated. What I loved – the political and religious satire, and the fact that it’s set in Cape Town, where I lived for most of my life. What I hated – the writing, and the fact that the book more or less abandons some of its most interesting content (politics, religion, the mystery surrounding the Guardians) for random action scenes and raiding the mall. Not that I don’t like action and wouldn’t want the chance to raid a mall, but the book could have integrated all these things. For example, the action scenes could have been part of their attempt to find out who the Guardians really are, but the characters practically forget about this until they stumble across part of the truth at the end. So it’s not like the book didn’t interest me; rather it got me really interested in some things, and then wandered off in a different direction, with me going “hey, but what about the…”.
Lu: At first I thought that I might not like this book as zombies sound like a terrifying subject, but the author made it work! With just the right amount of horror, mystery and post-apocalyptic feel, you get drawn straight into the story and you will be delighted by the twists and turns.

You can easily visualize everything in this book and I think that it would make a terrific movie or TV series. I must say I liked all the references to movies, books etc. (the main character even donning a Team Jacob t-shirt at one stage). It made the world seem more real and some of the characters sound like someone you would know.

The ending leaves some unanswered questions and I really hope there won’t be a love-triangle in the future! I think any South African would appreciate its grittiness as well as the South African slang and references. The novel is exciting, fast paced and makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. The only complaint I have is that I felt like I have heard aspects of the story before.

Lauren: I think the reason it would make a good movie and that it often feels like you’ve heard this before, is that it was written with the movies it references in mind. When reading I thought that it played out like a YA action-adventure-horror movie that happens to be a novel. It was co-written by a teenager though, so that kind of makes sense.

Lu: So it’s true that the novel was written by a mother/daughter combo?

Lauren: Yes – it was written by Sarah Lotz and her daughter Savannah.

Lu: Very Interesting!

Writing
Lauren: In the opening chapter, a strange funeral is being held for Lele’s grandmother and Lele is both very sad and angry about this. The chapter ends with the line “I was trying not to think that somewhere, out in the Deadlands, Gran was getting up” (7). When I read that I was so impressed. I thought wow, that actually feels really creepy, while at the same time it gripped me emotionally because of the funeral that preceded it. I thought I was in for a really awesome read. But after that chapter the writing just disappointed and often irritated me. Practically every chapter ends with some lame, cliched line about what’s going to happen next. For example:
“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)

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.

Lele
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.

The Love-Triangle!
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.

Buy Deadlands

Find Lily Herne on
Facebook
Twitter


Lauren and Lu’s Reviews

Lu from A Muggle’s Magical Book Blog and I are very different readers. She’s easygoing, I’m demanding. She loves YA and paranormal romance, I don’t. I love sci fi and dark fantasy, she just dabbles. I want good writing and interesting ideas, while Lu is happy with a great story, interesting characters and a few twists. Together we’ll argue our conflicting points of view in joint reviews and you get the benefit of two perspectives instead of just one.

Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author:
Lily Herne
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: March 2011
Source:
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.

A.M. Harte: A Conversation and a Giveaway

A.M. Harte is a London-based, chocolate-addicted, passion-fuelled webfiction enthusiast and indie author. My first encounter with her work was a postapocalyptic biopunk story in the webfiction anthology Other Sides, and I recently relished and reviewed her collection of zombie love tales in Hungry For You. You can (and should) check out most of her fiction online, as she publishes it on her blog where you can read it for free.

Anna graciously subjected herself to my curiosity about her writing, the world of indie publishing, and the grossness of zombies. She’s also giving away one of the brand new print editions of her book, so without further ado, I give you the talented Anna Harte.

Zombies and love are a rather… strange combination. What possessed inspired you to write on that theme? Especially since you don’t actually like zombies?.
Funnily enough, I’ve actually included an afterword in the print edition of Hungry For You musing on the inspiration behind the collection. To cut a long story short, it’s all thanks to fellow author Lori Titus for introducing me to the Zombie Luv Flash Fiction Contest last summer. I thought it would be a fun challenge to take part in and it would push my limits as a writer since zombies terrify me; I never realised I would end up possessed by the idea.
I don’t particularly like zombies because of the gore factor (I have a weak stomach). But writing Hungry For You pushed me into thinking about zombies differently, as metaphors for loneliness, obsession, lust and desire. They stopped being mindless, terrifying machines to me, and I think that really shows throughout the collection.

Hmm, I actually found the intimacy just as gross as gore! Decaying people kissing, the zombie boner in the title story… shudder.
I thought the zombie boner was hilarious when I wrote it. 🙂 The bit that grossed me out the most was Michael’s nail ripping in “The Perfect Song”. Yuck!

The stories in Hungry For You and on your website are all on the shorter side of short story. What is it that you like about this writing style/format? What are the challenges?
I’m a commitment-phobe. If you compare writing to a relationship, short stories are the hot summer flings and novels are the long-haul relationships.
Writing a novel can be pretty lonely and frustrating; at some points you’re certain you’ll never finish writing and you begin to wonder why you’re bothering. On the other hand, writing a short story is very intense, exciting and inspiring, because it’s all crammed into a very small space. And, of course, in today’s world of instant gratification, it’s addictive to get that satisfied sense of completion so quickly.
Not to say that writing a short story is easy. It’s tough to cut down, to tighten your prose and make sure only the essential elements are included. In fact, writing short stories has improved my writing far more than any other format.

I’ll confess that “Arkady, Kain and Zombies” was my least favourite story. I was intrigued, but I also thought it was the one story that really did need a bit more development, as I didn’t understand the connection between the two main characters. However, I noticed that a book entitled Arkady and Kain is listed among the upcoming releases for 1889 Labs – are you planning to turn the story into a novel?
Argh! I was worried about that. As a matter of fact, my fellow 1889 Labs author MCM wrote Arkady & Kain (a full length novel) last year – the story follows longtime CIA agent Kain as he is assigned to protect and control air-headed celebrity Arkady, who is affiliated with a terrorist organisation. The novel was available to read online for several months, and was then taken down for revision/editing and eventual re-release. It was actually supposed to come out February, at the same time as Hungry For You, but the plan flopped somewhat!
I assisted MCM on the editing process, so his characters took over a small part of my mind. I began to wonder how Arkady and Kain would be affected by a zombie apocalypse, and that was that. So what you have left is… Err, well basically a piece of fanfiction with added zombies, for a novel no one can read yet. Oops?
I feel the story stands well enough alone to be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with MCM’s novel, but in either case the revised edition of Arkady & Kain will be coming out this year and I highly recommend it!

You have several other writing projects going on at the moment – the Above Ground postapocalyptic fantasy series, the Darksight horror serial novel, and various short stories, all of which are published on your blog. Can you tell us something about those?
I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve been neglecting my other writing! Eep.
The Above Ground series is set in a world where humans live underground and monsters live on the surface. The story follows Lilith Gray, a human girl who is trapped above ground and must learn to adapt… or die trying! DarkSight is a horror serial set in London about a small-town Irish girl, Maeve, who discovers that she can see demons, and they can see her. It’s a haunting, gory tale about possession, loneliness, and fighting against evil.

I’m an active member of the online fiction (or webfiction) community, a great group of writers who post their work online, often in instalments. Both Above Ground and DarkSight are serial stories in that way, posted chapter-by-chapter over on Qazyfiction. It’s a wonderful way to connect with readers — and many times the comments readers leave on each chapter influence the storyline! Of course, what is posted is very much raw and unpolished; I will eventually re-release the serials as edited ebooks.

I’m also a member of the #fridayflash community on twitter. On Fridays, authors post short stories (under 1000 words) on their blog and tweet about them using the hashtag. I don’t take part every week, but I do love the creativity of the community as well as the chance to test plot ideas in a small format. It’s also a great way to meet new authors and procrastinate at work on lazy Friday afternoons!

You’re an indie author, which basically means you do everything yourself, not just the creative stuff, but the business side of it too – selling, marketing, etc. According to your guest post on The Inner Bean, it’s a labour of love. I find that amazing – it shows such incredible commitment to your craft! But how do you manage it? And do you ever feel that “being a business” as you’ve said, can disrupt the creative process?
Oh, most definitely! Every now and then I realise that I’ve neglected my writing in favour of doing marketing work or admin jobs like formatting. Then I start feeling frustrated and become cranky, until eventually I realise what the problem is. It’s a constant juggling act, really — I write and write until I realise I’ve neglected my marketing, then I focus on that until I realise something else is slipping, and so on. I rather enjoy the challenge and variety, to be honest — I work best under pressure.

You’ve obviously found some kind of cure for sleep – are you willing to give up the formula/spell/recipe? Please tell me it’s all in the chocolate…
My cure is just oversleeping ridiculous amounts on weekends! And having no social life, ha. I always notice that the more I go out, the more my writing suffers, so I tend to write less during the summer when the weather is good. Oh, chocolate definitely helps too!

Most of your fiction is available for free online, and Hungry For You costs only $0.99. Clearly you’re not in this for the money, but that’s not a decision most writers would be willing to take; they’d want some kind of financial compensation for their efforts. So how is that you (and other webfiction writers) have had the determination to do it?
As you mentioned, writing is a labour of love. Whether or not I make money, I want to write — and for me the more important thing is to be read. I’d rather have thousands reading my books for free than ten people paying me to read it. Webfiction also has its own rewards: direct communication with readers, instant feedback, flexibility, a strong online community….
From a business point of view, however, offering free samples of my work is a great way to hook in readers and create an audience willing to eventually pay for something – Hungry For You is my way of testing the waters. 🙂

Hungry For You was published by 1889 Labs a publisher with some unusual initiatives, like Livewriting and allowing people to read all their publications for free online. Can you tell us more about them?
1889 Labs is an independent publisher dedicated to producing the best strange fiction conceivable by the human brain. Catering to a specific demographic of men and women between the ages of 3 and 97, they print everything from kids books to serious stories for adults.
I believe 1889 Labs is one of the most cutting-edge indie publishers around, willing to try new business models and experiment with the online format (livewriting being a prime example). I highly recommend checking out Dustrunners: Typhoon!

Hungry For You is being released in print this month – are there some extra stories exclusive to this edition?
Yep! As I mentioned earlier, there is an additional afterword which includes a little more insight into the stories, plus three extra stories which are all broadly more on the humorous side. We’ve also included a non-zombie story by 1889 Labs author MCM, which is drawn from his short story collection Kidney Disease Gave Me Brain Damage. So oodles of extra content!
It’s lovely to see my work in print. As much as I am a big fan of efiction, there are some things that only work in print, such as having cool stylized chapter headers and other formatting flourishes. I am actually holding the proof copy in my hands right now – it’s very surreal to have tactile evidence that I’m an author!

Congrats Anna, you certainly deserve the pleasure of seeing your work in print! And thank you so much for taking the time out for a chat 🙂

If you’re keen to see the book Anna’s so excited about and with which I was suitably impressed, then don’t miss your chance to win a copy of her unique zombie story collection. To enter, subscribe to Violin in a Void using either the email subscription or the WordPress one and leave a comment on this post. This giveaway is international, and entries will close on 28 March. Good luck!

Upcoming: reviews, giveaways, and an interview

As it turns out I’ll be departing for Ethiopia on April 15th, if all goes according to plan. That leaves me with very little time to read and blog, but that hasn’t stopped me from planning a few things for the next month and a half. Or two months. Maybe three. We’ll see how things go…

Upcoming reviews

I recently read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin for The Women of Science Fiction Bookclub, and am hoping to post a review soon. The problem is that it’s such an elegant, complex novel with which I was thoroughly impressed and now I feel pressured to write a review that does it justice (although I’ll no doubt settle for something less than that). What makes it worse is that there are so many things I want to talk about and a hundred lovely little details that I keep discovering, so I’m thinking of breaking up the review into a general one and a few posts on specific themes. Oh how over-ambitious I sound… But enough complaining about the anguish of reviewing brilliant books – at least I had the pleasure of reading it.

The March read for The Women of Science Fiction is The Darkship Thieves (2010) by Sarah Hoyt, which I’ll start reading once my copy arrives. I’ll also be posting my thoughts on a James Tiptree short story (read for the same bookclub) – “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”, from the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (2004). Tiptree is my favourite short story writer (sci fi or otherwise) and it’s high time I gave her some special attention.

In the meantime I’m reading Deadlands (2011)by Lily Herne, heralded by the publisher Penguin as “Cape Town’s first zombie novel”. So far it’s putting a fresh spin familiar tropes and, mercifully, it’s a very quick and easy read and thus can find a comfortable spot in my schedule. “Lily Herne” is the pseudonym for South African author Sarah Lotz and her daughter – or at least that’s what think I heard at a genre fiction panel featuring Lotz; someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

I’m on a bit of an SA fiction quest at the moment, so I’ll be reading and reviewing Exhibit A (2009), also by Sarah Lotz. I’ve just read a few pages so far, but it looks promising and I’m delighted at how funny it is.

Then, I’ve decided that it’s time to try out some lesser known South African speculative fiction. Most of the fiction I read is speculative or at least kind of unusual in some way, but to find sci fi, fantasy or horror from my own shores requires a little digging as publishers aren’t all that keen on it. Yet.

First up is the horror novel Shadows (2011) by Joan de la Haye.   I’ll be making my anxious way into the insane asylum of Shadows once I’ve gotten a copy from Smashwords. Thanks very much to Dave-Brendon for pointing me in the right direction for this endeavour.

An Interview

I was inspired to explore SA indie/self-published fiction by the London-based author A.M. Harte, whose collection of zombie love stories – Hungry for You (2011) – I recently reviewed. Next week I’ll be posting an interview with her, which will also feature a new giveaway – Harte is offering the brand new print edition of her collection, so please do join us.

And speaking of giveaways…

It’s about time I reviewed Lauren Beukes’s books Zoo City (2010) and Moxyland (2008). I haven’t done so because I read them both before I started blogging, but that’s not much of an excuse.  I also happen to have an extra copy of each book thanks to the generous people over at Angry Robot, and I’ll give these away with my reviews. Beukes is an amazing author and every speculative fiction fan deserves a chance to check out her work. Plus free books rock.

My first ever giveaway of I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore is still running, so head on over there, subscribe and comment to enter.