I don’t have to make up my mind until Wednesday morning, but I may be taking a poor man’s holiday this week, which consists of buying a weekly network bus ticket and riding around until I come to somewhere that’s worth getting off at.
And so, for the next ten or so days, you’ll be getting lots of filler content here, and after that have to put up with me blathering on about what I did on my hols.
The review that follows originally appeared in Black Static #10, and maybe read exactly as it does here, though there might have been an edit or two that I can’t be arsed to go check on.
Simon Bestwick: Tide of Souls
(Abaddon paperback, 328pp, £6.99)
The latest novel in Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead series has three narrative strands, which feed into each other like tributary streams into a river. In the first section, Manchester is flooded and there are dead people in the water, flesh eating zombies. Katja, a sex slave from Eastern Europe, escapes from the brothel in which she has been kept a prisoner, along with another girl, Marta, eventually finding her way to the Pendle area, where there is still land above water. In the second section, former soldier McTarn is co-opted for a special mission, the securing of Professor Stiles, a marine biologist who predicted the current crisis, previously thought mad, but now someone the authorities want very much to speak to. The search leads McTarn and his men to the Pendle outcrop, where they become stranded and join the locals in their fight against the zombies. And it’s also where his path crosses with that of Katja. In the third section we get the back and current story of Professor Stiles, in which an explanation for the flooding and zombies is forthcoming.
I enjoyed this book with reservations, but it’s difficult to discuss them without going too far into the land of the plot spoiler. The main problem is that Bestwick needs to give a reason for the flooding and the zombies, and the explanation he comes up with is one that feels curiously anachronistic, something that would have been okay back in a 50s B movie or during the heyday of the pulp magazines, but doesn’t quite cut the mustard in the noughties. Okay, a previous Tomes volume, I, Zombie had a similar pulp sensibility and I loved it, but that was a romp of a story, whereas this is a much more serious and downbeat production, and having a rationale for the zombies that leaves the reader struggling to avoid thinking about Plan 9 From Outer Space is not a good thing.
Aside from that reservation, and a few minor points consequent upon it, the book works very well indeed. Bestwick is good at drawing his main characters – the abused and brutalised Katja, who yet refuses to regard herself as a victim; McTarn, a man who looked on the army as his family, and had his convictions betrayed by it in the worst way; Stiles, the scientist who has lost the thing he wanted most and become privy to a terrible secret, finding refuge in alcohol and suicide attempts. Each one is broken in his or her own way, and Bestwick makes both their suffering and the ways in which they rise above it, despite hopeless odds, seem convincing.
Also to the good is his depiction of the military mindset, taking care to make the behaviour of the soldiers appear correct, with attention to the group esprit de corps and their borderline fetishistic attitude to weaponry and other kit. Admittedly, there are times when Bestwick seems to forget himself and go a bit too far, putting army jargon into the mouths of civilians, as with Stiles using the phrase ‘decommissioning weapons’ when he means putting an end to the zombies, but it’s minor. All this solid groundwork is to the good when the book’s action set pieces kick in, with frantic fire fights and retreats in the teeth of danger. The soldiers and the civilians stand together against a relentless opponent, using the lie of the land to their advantage and every trick of military strategy they can come up with. Bestwick makes it true edge of the seat stuff, as each move and counter move is played out, with the deaths of people we have come to know and care about, so that what we get is reminiscent of the most action packed tales in the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. But each victory is a pyrrhic one, and as the book’s end approaches it becomes obvious that the odds are overwhelming, with the zombies becoming more calculating in their attacks as the intelligence behind them adopts the tactics of its enemies
It’s then that Bestwick pulls a final rabbit out of his silk top hat, with a plot twist and sombre aftermath centred on the idea of sacrifice for the common good, and it is a powerful ending, even though in large part predicated on the earlier explanation for the zombie menace. To somewhat qualify my earlier criticism, it’s difficult to see how Bestwick could have reached this resolution without the foregoing contrivance, and it almost makes me willing to overlook that. Almost, but not quite.