Condemned 2 (Sega, 2008)

Nominally a first-person-shooter, Condemned 2 could be more accurately described as a first-person-mystery-survival-horror-homeless-person-beat-em-up-with-occasional-gunplay. Which just goes to show that accurate description acronyms don’t roll off the tongue as easily as FPS.

As former Serial Crimes Unit investigator and now homeless alcoholic Ethan Thomas, you are press-ganged by the SCU into hunting the killer of your former colleague, Malcolm Vanhorn. This generally involves exploring dimly-lit buildings armed only with a torch, and soiling your underwear every time a homeless guy jumps out and proceeds to bludgeon you to death with a rusty pipe, which has much in common with survival horror games such as Resident Evil (replacing ‘homeless guy’ with ‘brain munching zombie’).

Every once in a while, you come across a body or a blood trail that must be examined using your array of forensic gadgetry that includes a UV lamp and a sound spectrometer. Multiple choice questions are asked that must be answered based on your examination of the crime scene. Whilst this occasionally requires more knowledge that can be reasonably expected of a non-CSI addict, this is a surprisingly fun part of the game. Accurate assessments are rewarded with upgrades such as brass knuckles for additional melee damage, or a flak jacket for protection against bullets, though irritatingly there is no opportunity to retry a failed investigation short of restarting the level.

Guns do feature, but ammunition is often limited and soon you’ll have to fall back to Condemned 2‘s main violence dispensing mechanic – melee combat. Melee techniques are now de rigeur in FPS games, usually consisting of a single attack. Condemned 2 however features a complex system involving left or right punches, kicks, blocks, and devastating combos that can be used to stun, knock down or finish off an opponent with a Mortal Kombat-esque fatality. In addition, a wide variety of weapons can be picked up and wielded or thrown, ranging from bricks and baseball bats to more esoteric choices such as prosthetic arms and even toilet seats.

The learning curve is steep and even seasoned gamers may find themselves dying frequently until they become accustomed to the timing necessary to block and counter-attack effectively. There is an unfortunate level of inconsistency in the amount of effort required to down an enemy – some glass-jawed enemies can only take a couple of punches, whilst others seem to shrug off attacks from a sword! Nevertheless, the hand-to-hand combat is visceral and strangely enjoyable, as is the addition of “environmental kills” as quick time events, whereby Ethan can finish off an enemy by throwing them head-first into a television or through a window.

There is a palpable feeling of tension as you explore the urban decay of Ethan’s nameless city, and the game’s developers use every opportunity they can to freak out a player, from having monsters hanging on the ceiling that grab you, to enemies rushing you from behind an unexplored door in a seemingly empty room. This is one of those games where having the lights on could be considered acceptable.

Naturally multi-player gametypes are included, playable online via the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, and supporting up to eight players. The usual suspects of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are present and correct, as well as Bum Rush in which a team of SCU agents have to defend against the Influenced (ie the enraged homeless guys) for as long as possible. The fourth gametype is Crime Scene which again pits the SCU agents against the Influenced. The Influenced have to hide two cases of evidence which the SCU agents must find and scan before their time limit runs out. Unfortunately, latency makes a mockery of the combat system to the point where blocking becomes meaningless and the entire multiplayer aspect feels it’s been crowbarred into a perfectly adequate single-player game.

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable game. Well, assuming one gets used to the combat system, is prepared to forgive the overly cryptic puzzles that crop up every so often, doesn’t mind not being able to jump (which leads to some absurb situations where progress is blocked by a one-foot high cardboard box), and can accept the frankly bonkers SF angle that the game takes in the last few levels. That might sound overly critical, but Condemned 2 could have been a truly excellent game rather than just very good. A word to the wise: the playable demo available on Xbox Live is not a good indication of the game as a whole. Try renting the game first if you weren’t convinced, as it does get a lot better when the investigations kick in.

This review originally appeared in slightly modified form in the Herts & Essex Observer (May, 2008)


The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011)

After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.

Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:

A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”

There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.

The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.

Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.

In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.

This review first appeared in Vector #269 (February, 2012)

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011)

To echo Perfect Answer’s opening recap, childhood friends Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) meet by chance, die in an accident and are resurrected by a mysterious black sphere known as Gantz to fight in a secret war against aliens hiding on Earth. Gantz awards its unwilling recruits points based on performance and those that survive to make 100 points can choose to be set free with their memories erased or to resurrect a deceased comrade. Thus when Kato dies in battle, Kurono vows to to bring him back.

Five months on and Kurono has become an alien killing machine close to reaching that 100 point score. He’s had to lie to both his girlfriend Tae Kojima (Yuriko Yoshitaka), and Kato’s younger brother Ayumu (Kensuke Chisaka), but that’s all going to change. For the worse. Former star Eriko Ayukawa (Ayumi Ito) is murdering human targets on the orders of a miniature Gantz ball, whilst a group of black-suited individuals are after that miniature ball as a means to get to Gantz itself. Meanwhile an unnamed detective (Yamada Takayuki) is investigating the scores of dead people whose bodies keep on vanishing and occasionally reappearing as if nothing had happened. All of these groups are on a collision course with Kurono and his buddies, with the fates of Kojima and Gantz hanging in the balance.

Perfect Answer is a prime example of the slow motion car crash that frequently occurs when a film attempts to adapt a manga that has either not yet concluded or one that is too complex to summarise easily. The filmmakers are forced to make things up to fill in the gap, often with appalling results. In this case, director Shinsuke Sato decides on a middle path that adds some new elements to the fray with a seemingly random mash-up of plot from the manga and the anime. What ensues can only be described as balls.

After a slow burn start that sets the principals in motion, the film peaks during an action set-piece in which all parties converge on an unsuspecting Kojima in a crowded subway train. The black-suited aliens gun down hapless civilian commuters before materialising swords from their hands and duelling with Kurono and company in the narrow confines of the train carriages. It’s a superbly handled scene that only serves to make the events that follow look weak by comparison.

The film’s one new contribution, the premise that Gantz is re-recruiting its most successful participants (those who reached 100 points and chose to be set free) by having them murdered is a sublime touch that is cast aside in favour of the black-suited alien revenge plot. Well, there’s also the sub-plot about Kato’s evil twin but that’s not worthy of discussion, since it’s painfully obvious to the audience that it’s not the real Kato and furthermore no attempt is made to explain why the alien leader takes his form nor why any of the other aliens don’t do the same. It’s as if the very thought of having a star of Matsuyama’s stature absent from the bulk of the film was inconceivable to its producers; casting taking precedence over story.

Perhaps the film’s greatest crime is that it lacks a suitable level of emotional depth. With the earlier film having done the dirty work of character building (it tried to at any rate), we come to care about Kurono and Kojima but everyone else gets short shrift, especially the new members of the team who are introduced briefly, thrown into the mix and then are killed off one by one. The intra-team disputes and self-sacrifices thus become meaningless in the face of banging out a protracted chase scene, a less well executed sword-fight and a senseless point-blank range shoot-out finale.

Scratch that. What is worse is that the film suffers from catastrophic imagination failure. Considering the first film ended with Kurono taking down a giant Buddha statue and the manga has featured everything from rampaging dinosaurs and a full-scale alien invasion to a character blacking up and going on a shooting spree in downtown Tokyo to rejoin the ranks of Gantz’s unwilling army, the lack of creativity in Perfect Answer is painful to behold.

There’s some dodgy CGI in the mix too, which is a shame when the first film did it so well, but by this point I was gaping more at how internal consistency goes flying out of the window leading up to and including the sickly sweet epilogue in which everyone but Kurono comes back to life, and Kurono’s reward is to wind up inside Gantz, leaving the stage open for further films.

In conclusion, both Gantz films have combined forces to form yet another manga adaptation that fails to pass muster. The source material may well be a sex-obsessed, long-winded (and as yet unfinished) gore-filled epic, but it’s still a damn sight better than both its anime and film versions.

Roil by Trent Jamieson (Angry Robot, 2011)

I won a copy of Roil in a recent giveaway sponsored by Erik Lundqvist and thought that I should read and review it1. Erik was very positive in his review, but I’ve been burned by Angry Robot before. Of the five Angry Robot books I’ve read this year, one was good, one was poor (Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets – it’s on the TBRASP pile) and the rest were rubbish so let’s see if Roil can do any better.

The book opens with seventeen year-old David Milde witnessing the murder of his father and being forced to go on the run. It’s not a particularly original opening but David happens to be a drug-addict which makes for an interesting spin albeit one that results in a protagonist that spends the majority of the book running from place to place being told what to do and unable to think for himself. Moving on, our next protagonist is Margaret Penn, the daughter of the world’s most famous scientists and on a quest of vengeance after the Roil destroys her home of Tate.

What is the Roil? A superstorm full of monstrous creatures hungry for flesh and heat that is slowly but surely devouring the world of Shale. Ingenious endothermic weapons have held off the Roil’s advance for a time but the only thing that can stop it for good is the Engine of the North, a mythical device that Margaret intends to activate. Enter John Cadell, sent by the allies of David’s father to protect him, and one of the eight Old Men who built the Engine over four thousand years ago. He activated it once before to stop the Roil, but fears what may happen if it is activated again.

Roil is not an easy book to get into. The first half is made up of David getting high and whinging about being dragged around by Cadell whilst Margaret attempts to escape the Roil in a steam-powered car that goes at about two miles per hour. Jamieson switches between his three protagonists so frequently that it’s difficult to form an emotional attachment to any of them, thus in an attempt to get a grip on the book one must concentrate on the world itself. Shale is an intriguing creation but damn do you have to work hard for it. What eventually amounts to a surfeit of ideas is parcelled out somewhat meagrely in the form of the epigrams that open each chapter, made up of a mix of past and future histories alongside political memoirs, folk rhymes and other such miscellany. A few of these are effective but the majority add a confusing layer of detail, spoil the coming chapter or are just hilariously bad, such as the Quarg Hound riff on Blake’s “The Tyger” or the quote taken from a book titled “My Brother The Verger” which sounds like a Jerry Springer Show episode.

Other gaps in our knowledge are gradually filled by Cadell in his exchanges with David. That is before Cadell lays it all out for him. And when I say “all”, I mean all. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Jamieson decides that a third of the way into the book is a great place for a spectacularly clumsy info-dump on a par with the end of an early Alastair Reynolds novel. It’s around a page of exposition that still makes me wince when I think about it, but confirms to the enquiring reader that Shale is a colony planet and that Cadell along with the other Master Engineers terraformed the planet and inadvertently created the Roil.

The epigrams and occasional info-dumps aren’t the only things that hurt the world-building. It’s also hampered by a severe lack of description of, well, anything. We only get a decent idea of what David’s home of Mirrlees looks like near the end of the book when he passes over it from the air, even though it is Shale’s main city and where most of the political skullduggery occurs. And what of the Roil and its Roilings/Roilbeasts? One can take a reasonable stab at what a Quarg Hound looks like, but what about Endyms (they fly and have large eyes and leathery wings), Vermatisaurs (it’s big and flies but does it have six mouths or twelve? Your guess is as good as mine because the author wasn’t able to decide) and Hideous Garment Flutes?

This brings me to a more general problem with the writing. It’s an apocalypse so exaggeration is par for the course, but the prose in Roil is grandiloquent to a fault. People constantly howl (there’s even a “vast architectural howl” on page 100), soldiers and iron beams crash by Remic-style, Aerokin (living airships) possess flagellum that twitch in “ceaseless hungry jactitation”2 (p15), noise is characterised by “hums and tintinnabulations” (p279) and thunder is “deliquescent” (p280). It’s as if Jamieson thought that breaking out the thesaurus every so often was a quick way of improving his prose. Of course there is a preponderance of Places And Names Beginning With Capital Letters, a trend in genre fiction that is bloody irritating and no substitute for actually telling us what these places and things look like.

Two days ago a bullet-shaped balloon drone flew over the Jut and the wall, passed beneath the Four Cannon of Willowhen Peak and vast and twisting buttresses of the Steaming Vents, and landed on the forecourt of Tate’s Breach Hold Chambers, meeting place of the Council. (p18)

Then there’s the issue with the actual names that Jamieson uses. Well, two actually. The first is a personal thing, in that I think that genre novels should avoid using real world names, although I’m willing to make an exception for the use of famous scientists and sf novelists to name ships, cities and colony worlds. On Shale we don’t have Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, we have epigrams by a chap named Deighton, Downing Bridge, the town of Mirrlees 3 and Magritte Gorge. I appreciate that coming up with names for people and places can be difficult but this kind of thing ruins any sense of immersion. The other problem is that there are numerous quality control issues, what with the aforementioned Hideous Garment Flutes and a portmanteau created from “door” and “orifice” that is enough to make anyone who likes the English language fly into a rage (an educated guess should suffice, but it’s on page 247 if you must know as I refuse to type it out4).

Once David and Margaret finally meet, the plot actually starts moving but it’s at this point that more characters get thrown into the mix. Medicine Paul (clumsy naming strikes again – he’s a former surgeon turned politician) and Stade take their turns at the narration helm and their addition is detrimental to the focus of the novel. Cadell is subsequently bumped off, passing on his nanotech powers on to David, and thus David gains some agency at the cost of the book’s most interesting character, but not before Cadell gets his Crowning Moment of Awesome whereby he jumps out of an airship with a rope around his waist and proceeds to take out another by punching out the windshield of its cabin. Jamieson then does his best to undermine this achievement by setting up a love triangle between David, Margaret and airship pilot Kara (Jade – not to be confused with Mara Jade Skywalker) which just screams “I’m a shit YA trope”.

Night’s Engines is set to complete the Nightbound Land duology and with the first novel cack-handedness out of the way, it could potentially build on Roil‘s strengths and finish the series well, even with the niggling feeling that the story could have easily told in a single installment if Jamieson had binned the epigrams and trimmed the other POV characters. At any rate, the GOOD-BAD ratio for Angry Robot is slanted heavily towards BAD and I’m going to have to be much more cautious about their books in future.

1 Hush those of you muttering about the Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve actually read Zoo City so that’s on the to-be-reviewed-soon pile, as opposed to the to-be-reviewed-at-some-point pile, the to-be-read-then-reviewed pile or worse yet, the to-be-read-and-reviewed-when-I-find-the-damn-book pile.

2 To save you looking it up, it’s a medical term that means “the restless tossing of the body in illness”.

3 In the extras at the end of the book, Jamieson explains how he originally named his cities after authors he admires (Tate was originally called Bishop after K.J. Bishop) but left Mirrless because he thought that a city should be named that. It’s a nice thought but still a bad choice.

4 Oh all right, it’s “doorifice”. I hope you’re happy now.

Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010)

At one stage or another, many of us have drunk too much and woken up with no memory of the previous night. Few though have woken up with horns and the power to know a person’s deepest desires and to influence their behaviour. That is the situation that Ig Perrish finds himself in following the anniversary of the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin, an unsolved crime that most of his hometown believes he committed.

Fearing for his sanity – for the horns are only visible to Ig – he finds that a mere touch compels people to confess their sins to him. This leads to the discovery of some uncomfortable truths about his friends and family, and eventually the identity of Merrin’s killer. Thus enlightened, Ig embarks on a course of vengeance, but soon discovers that justice for Merrin may come at the cost of his own humanity.

I’m in two minds about Horns. On the one hand it’s a very readable gothic fantasy with (mostly) superb characterisation. On the other, it’s a bad fix-up of its genre premise with starkly different mainstream novellas, features a ludicrously over-the-top antagonist and lacks a proper exploration of Ig’s transformation into a devil.

Hill paints a vivid picture of small-town America and is deftly able to get to the heart of a character with minimal effort. The novel starts off with a bang as Ig’s unwitting use of his newfound powers leads to an early reveal of the killer but then into a very mainstream segment (entitled ‘Cherry’) which lays the foundation for the triangle between Ig, Merrin and their best friend Lee Tourneau. Providing emotional depth for Ig and Merrin’s relationship, ‘Cherry’ is a well-written rite of passage tale albeit a very different beast to the main narrative. We return to Ig’s revenge quest briefly before turning to ‘The Fixer’, a flashback told from the sociopathic perspective of the story’s villain. Again a style shift ensues but here the greater crime is that Hill, in an effort to make Ig’s devil antihero look good by comparison, deploys such a density of evil clichés that the novella undergoes a kind of literary gravitational collapse.

My other concern with the book is that whilst it sets up an interesting premise in Ig’s transformation, it fails to torment him with any morally questionable decisions, nor explore how Ig feels about the choices he does make. Kicking his grandmother down a hill is probably the most evil thing that he does and that happens near the very beginning – everything else he does seems quite agreeable and thus Ig’s path is never really in doubt.

Still, as previously stated, Horns is an enjoyable tale if you can ignore the stylistic bumps and not delve too deeply into its theological arguments.

This review was originally published in Vector 268 (November 2011)

Werewolf vs Nazis: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon (Pocket Books, 1989)

There is a simple formula that describes this book and it is this:

James Bond + werewolves + Nazis = AWESOME

If that isn’t enough for you, the book also features Hitler, a mad scientist, a henchman named Boots (so named because he kills people with his iron-cleated footwear) and the main character is the son of Rasputin. Sadly, Rasputin does not appear in the book and neither is he is a werewolf which are pretty much the only ways in which this book could have been improved.

Werewolf with a soul Michael Galladin is a British commando/spy who is given the jobs that ordinary men can’t accomplish, such as stealing vital plans for Rommel’s advance across North Africa. Alas, when he spends the night at the home of a wealthy and beautiful woman in Cairo he unwittingly unleashes the Bond Doom Cock on her and blames himself when she is assassinated in his place.

For the next three years he holes up in a remote part of Wales and takes no further part in the war, but the Allies have need of his rather unique skills once again. A spy in Paris has sent word about a dastardly Nazi plan that could ruin the upcoming D-Day landings and Galladin is the only man for the job. He reluctantly accepts the mission to make contact with the agent and to discover more about the Nazi plot named “Iron Fist”. Action, bad sex scenes and flashbacks ensue.

McGammon interweaves the main story in 1944 with Galladin’s backstory as Russian boy Mikhail Gallatinov, how he becomes a werewolf and learns to control his bestial side. Being a master lover as well as a master spy, Galladin invariably shags every woman he meets with some eye-wateringly lucid descriptions which are partly offset by graphic descriptions of his Russian werewolf pack slaughtering animals and men alike, as well as some more harrowing “present-day” scenes set in a Nazi concentration camp.

Alekza made good her promise to dry him off, using her tongue. She began at the south and crawled ever so slowly northward, licking dry his skin, slowly lapping the water that beaded on his shivering skin.
She came to his blood-gorged centre and there she displayed the true quality of an animal: the love of fresh meat. (p361)

From a critical point of view, The Wolf’s Hour is a mess. The prose is awful, with McCammon cramming all manner of wolf or animal related phrases whenever possible, often with unintentionally comic results (see quote above) and the narrative is occasionally confusing as it will merrily switch viewpoints mid-chapter and even mid-scene. And yet it tears along at a furious pace and out-Bonds Bond at times. The werewolves are just the icing on the cake.

The book was written over twenty years ago so I doubt it will happen now, but I’d love it if McCammon wrote a sequel to this book, possibly featuring Gallatin discovering a Nazi solar cannon project (mentioned in passing by Hitler at the end of the book) – Werewolf vs Nazis IN SPACE! I’d settle for werewolves versus ninjas (preferably set in Japan), or even simply werewolf ninjas – the possibilities are endless!

Eat Slay Love by Jesse Petersen (Orbit, 2011)

“Since August, I’ve fought zombie therapists, killed my own sister-in-law, matched wits with both a mad scientist and his annoying child, and trekked across the zombie wasteland that is the South and Midwest. And I’ve done all this to keep my marriage together.” (p185)

Having survived the zombie apocalypse, saved their marriage and worked as zombie exterminators, Sarah and Dave find themselves on a quest to save the world. The pair have a cure for the zombie plague in their hands, one that they know works because Sarah had to use it on Dave at the end of Flip This Zombie. He’s remained human so far but that hasn’t stopped Sarah from having nightmares about being chased by zombies led by Dave.

Every time I look back over my shoulder, it seems like they’re right there. Their feet pound on the pavements, their clawing fingers (complete with long, dirty, dead-person fingernails – um, manicure people!!) reach for me, trying to give me one scratch, one bite, one nick that spells certain death… er, living death… for me.(p2)1

Rumours persist about a Midwest Wall that splits the uninfected USA from the Badlands and the pair have decided to take the cure to the people who could potentially synthesise it and distribute it more widely. En route they stumble upon former “stalkerazzi” Nicole Nessing and then promptly get captured by yet another bunch of nutjobs. The leader of said nutjobs decides to throw Dave in a pit of zombies and let the women go to spread the word about not messing with Bumfuck-Nowhere, Oklahoma. Petersen shows off her geek credentials here albeit with each and every reference explained which negates the effect somewhat.

“I love you,” I shouted.
He looked at me evenly and then he smiled. “I know.”
I blinked, and for a moment the tension faded. “Are you quoting Empire Strikes Back? At a time like this you’re geeking out on me! Seriously?” (p56)

Dave survives because carbon-freezing isn’t fatal it turns out that he’s developed zombie-like powers after being cured, like being invisible to zombies. He breaks out of the pit, along with the zombies, and in the ensuing chaos our heroes flee to the nearby town of Plainspark to hunt for supplies. Instead they find drug-addled British rocker Colin McCray (note to authors: Google your character names to avoid embarrassing phonetic clashes with actual celebrities) in the hospital where he and his band checked in for rehab. Eventually they all make it to the Wall, or rather an electrified, barbed-wire topped fence complete with armed guards who are there to shoot any uninfected who get too close. There’s been a cover-up and the official story is that no one west of the Wall survived the initial outbreak. It’s going to make getting the cure over the Wall hard but rest assured that the dynamic duo prevail.

After reading the previous books in the Living with the Dead series and concluding that they were lacking both romance and comedy in a purported zom-rom-com2, along with any hint of characterisation, here I am with the third installment. I am clearly a masochist. Perhaps I should have “Will read shit books for your entertainment” tattooed on my forehead for future reference.

As before the writing is light and not particularly offensive, but with this book’s extended length the lack of any substance becomes more significant. Aside from the ongoing fashion-related humour that is completely wasted on me, it feels like a lot of the supposedly comical banter between Sarah and Dave is based on Petersen’s own married life and thus completely wasted on everyone else. I for one play a fuck-tonne of games, including the oft-mentioned Halo, and I don’t find any of the gaming references remotely amusing3, let alone the overly-explicit film references.

When considering the romance angle again, it struck me that this aspect has generally been underplayed and indeed quite sanitised4. The series is clearly not aimed at a YA audience (unless marital bickering is the new big thing) and yet it is all very chaste, consisting of warm, fuzzy feelings from Sarah when Dave gets all protective and Sarah getting petrified whenever Dave is in trouble. Whenever they are separated and reunited, there’s some kissing but that’s about it. I think sex is hinted at once in Flip This Zombie but that’s about it. I’m not expecting Richard Morgan levels of detail but a little could have gone a long way.

This prudishness also extends to how the pair react to other characters. Earlier in the book, Nicole explains how she used her “feminine wiles” to get across the Mexican border to which Sarah expresses horror (but inwardly sees how it might have been necessary) whilst Dave is silently disillusioned by his gossip reporting heroine having to trade sex for favours. Sympathy might have been more appropriate for a woman on her own without a gun or a husband to provide alternative choices of action, but it’s not the first time Sarah has come across as an utter bitch (although it is for Dave). Nicole employs a similar tactic to retrieve her camcorder after the group are captured and once again, we get shitty responses from both Sarah (“Standards, Nicole!”) and Dave (“Ew!!!”). To top off her judgemental stance, Sarah asks whether Nicole filmed what she did with the guard. Amazing.

At this point I decided that I really didn’t want to know any more about such a pair of arseholes, and it seems as though the author was willing to accomodate me. After three books it’s clear that Petersen has no intention of delving deeper into Sarah and Dave’s relationship and its history, which is sensible given that she’s defined Sarah and David’s pre-apocalypse relationship as arguments spawned by Dave being an unemployed bum who plays games until 3am (I can relate to this) and Sarah having to work a shitty job for the two of them, whilst their post-apocalypse relationship consists of Dave always being right and Sarah getting turned on by Dave acting like a caveman. Some depth here would be nice but when you’ve got one-dimensional characters there’s not much left to explore.

In short, there’s a clear divide between what I want these books to be and what they are, so I’m going to call a stop here and not bother with any future installments. I think I’ve used up my shit books quota for the year (eight at last count, and reviewing those last few is going to be painful) and it’s not like I haven’t got other (better) books to read and review. Unsurprisingly I’ve developed a backlog of books I want to review for the site, including some books I actually liked! Shocking I know.

1That quote is a pretty good test of whether you’re going to like this or any of the other Living with the Dead books. Evidently I’m not in the target demographic as I found it a terrible joke, but if you did then knock yourself out, although you might want to start with the first book Married with Zombies. I’d just like to note that Never Slow Dance with a Zombie is much better and in the absence of a review from me (I’m working on it), go and read Hannah Strom-Martin’s review for Strange Horizons or better yet just buy the book.

2 I appreciate that this is about as likely to stick as “sexy zombie” as a substitute for “zombie romantic comedies”, but with zombies currently the big thing in YA novels a short name for the sub-genre would be useful.

3 Incidentally, the idea that playing a FPS game gives you the ability to operate a real-life rocket launcher is ludicrous. The Gantz manga/anime/film shows a more realistic view of what would happen when the untrained are presented with the unfamiliar.

4 “White-wash” may be a better, more general term for the series when one considers the complete lack of POC characters. Or indeed a complete lack of GLBT characters too5.

5 Let’s just pretend the Bechdel Test doesn’t exist6.

6 I know. Footnotes for my footnotes is a bit too Pterry.