Holiday of the Dead is a rather sizable volume of zombie short stories that mostly stick to the theme of being on holiday, though a few seemed to stretch that concept a bit. For us Yanks, a holiday means a day of festivities, while with the Brits it is what we call a vacation. There is a pretty healthy mix of both types of tales to be found here. It isn’t just a mix, but a mixed bag, with a few stories forgotten as soon as I finished them. Fortunately, quite a few others were memorable and demonstrated the author’s ability to have some fun with the theme and with zombie fiction in general. When you have a book filled with nearly forty short stories, things are going pretty well when you come away feeling that at least thirty were worth the price of admission.
Often I try to provide a mini-review of each story in an anthology, but not with a tome this size. There are far too many to recount in detail. Suffice it to say, you will get an assortment of traditional and inspired here. There are some very recognizable names in the table of contents, well know writers of zombie and horror fiction, including Iain Mckinnon, Eric Dimbleby, Tonia Brown, David Dunwoody, Eric Brown, William Meikle, Joe McKinney, and Wayne Simmons. A couple of special guests, John Russo and Tony Burgess, add tales of their own at the end of the book.
Perhaps Holiday of the Dead could have been pared down a bit, but overall it was an entertaining read with only a few minor speed bumps. The most inventive tales should more than make up for any issues you may have with the handful that don’t resonate. Stories like Change Is As Good As Rest, Naked Fear, Daddy Dearest, Home Is The Sailor, Home From The Sea, Burj, The Day The Music Died, Where Moth And Rust Destroy, and Crossover kept things popping, though quite a few others were just as fun to dive into.
Solidly entertaining zombie shorts with a few misfires, but more than enough undead goodness between its pages.
Holiday of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Dead-John-Russo-ebook/dp/B004XJ7HZK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=#navbar
It has been several years since I read the two prior entries in this trilogy of zombie books, so Dying To Live: Last Rites gave me some vague recollections of the four main characters reintroduced here when I started reading this one, but fortunately, this book in many ways is a standalone novel, separate from the other two books with the story it tells.
Two characters, Will and Rachel, are living, while Truman and Lucy are zombies who have worked to retain and regain elements of who they were in life-they can speak and interact with humans. Most importantly, they can refrain from giving in to their base urges to kill and devour the living. Truman more so than Lucy, who still loves to kill and revels in its purity, believing that most humans are selfish, despicable creatures, although she more or less tolerates and even respects Will and Rachel, especially due to the relationship they have with Truman.
The four have been banished from the community they lived in and have been traveling by boat on rivers in the wilderness the world has become. Rachel grows deathly ill and they find another community called New Sparta near the water that can help her, but only under certain conditions. The zombies are to be sold off and Will and Rachel will have to pay for the care she receives and the housing and food they will need. They’ve stumbled into a much more complicated, larger, and more “civilized” society than the one they are used to, with many of the perks of our modern world having returned including electricity, credit, regular jobs, etc. Of course, their objective initially is to get their two undead friends back to safety, but a myriad of distractions and enticements create some challenges for the two of them, while things are far worse for Truman and Lucy.
Once again, the author has created some interesting dilemmas like those that ran through his first two books in this trilogy. Dilemmas based on what it means to be human and also retaining what we call humanity, regardless of who, or what, you actually are-living or undead. It’s clear that the two sentient zombie main characters see humans as selfish and self-destructive beings, even those they care for. Many are far worse than Rachel and Will, but it seems as if this internal focus is ingrained in the living, almost by necessity, to keep the fragile spark of life alight. The undead, including the other zombies the two meet while enslaved in New Sparta, are not subject to this selfishness, or so they believe. But with sentience comes certain needs and desires, even if biological urges have been almost all eliminated. Love, connections to others, and an urge to understand their existence still remains, plus the desire to devour the living still remains…and in most there is no remorse for them either, especially since all memories of what the undead were before they passed on are gone.
Dying To Live: Last Rites may be the third book in Kim Paffenroth’s trilogy, but in many ways it stands on its own as its own examination of life, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The author has expanded the amount of the sentient zombies from beyond the first two books substantially and that may be a turnoff for some readers who are looking for zombies to mostly remain dim cannibal monsters. If this were a pure action/horror type trilogy the author could take things in some interesting, Planet of the Apes-type directions with the undead past this story, but these books have always been much more about the examination of the differences between being human and being humane. Those who have enjoyed the first two novels will likely enjoy this one as well.
Dying To Live: Last Rites can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Dying-Live-Rites-Kim-Paffenroth-ebook/dp/B004T334A2/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1466867283&sr=8-3
From the title of this book, Badass Zombie Road Trip, I had a vision of an apocalyptic ride across undead highways in a classic car (maybe a convertible Caddy or a hot rod like an old Road Runner). Even the picture used on the cover reinforced that vision. Alas, it was not meant to be. What I got instead was a tale of Jonah and Dale, best buddies, on the run to chase down a lost soul before the devil does them in. Not a bad trade off, especially when Candy, a beautiful hitchhiker, is added to the mix. She adds a bit of spice to the testosterone mix, especially since Dale, the Lothario of the duo, has his sights set on her as his next conquest, while Jonah, the meek and mild member of the pair, is falling hard for her in his own modest way.
The threesome has to make it cross country after a poorly thought out (and devilishly influenced) detour into California, where Dale soul is taken from him by Lucifer himself, collecting on a debt incurred during his childhood. To save his friend, Jonah ups the stakes and tosses his soul into the mix if Satan will give them a chance to reclaim Dale’s soul. Unfortunately for both of them, the Devil doesn’t play fair, so Dale is not only soulless, he’s lifeless too-though he can move around and talk…and he’s hungry for a bit more than junk food.
Jonah and Dale’s relationship is an interesting dynamic. Dale is overwhelming, loud, obnoxious, and a letch, while Jonah is quiet, intelligent, sincere, and innocent. They seem to fit together well, though Dale’s bullying tended to rub me the wrong way and I wanted Jonah to stand up for himself a bit more. And that is where Candy, the intriguing hitchhiker who gets the boys into even more trouble, comes in. She is beautiful, somewhat mysterious, and triggers strong interest from both of them. Plus, she adds her own brand of trouble to the story that keeps things hopping.
Overall, the journey is an entertaining one, though it grinds through a few scenes. Dragging a zombie across country that needs to feed on something…substantial…every now and then is definitely a cause for concern and plenty of misfortune. The Devil is cunning and likes to cause as much woe for our road warriors as possible, which keeps things popping. The dark humor here works and so does the relationship between the three main characters, who seem to mesh well, even when they’re causing each other major grief. This is a quick read, and a fun one.
Badass Zombie Road Trip can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Badass-Zombie-Road-Tonia-Brown-ebook/dp/B006ZAJ4M4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Mad Swine: Regeneration completes the trilogy with the aftermath of the journey of the surviving members of the Randall Oaks subdivision near Chicaog who chose to head to Finnegan Farms in the dead of winter. Lead by the narrator, Matt Danzig, those that make it to the farm work hard to establish a new life for themselves with the hope of going back to their suburban haven they left behind to retrieve those who stayed behind. But with one of the worst winters on record and the ‘crazies’ still out there, it isn’t a journey they will be able to make for some time to come.
My reviews of the two previous books categorized them as such: the first book was predominantly action-man vs. zombie and man vs. man. The second book focused more on character development, with Matt becoming less of a Rambo and more of an everyman doing his best to keep it together so those who are counting on him can do so as well. This final act blends both action and character development together better than the other two books managed to do, with a quick paced, action-filled completion to the story that also continues to provide the reader with more reasons to grow attached to Matt, his older brother, and the group of people he is responsible for both at the farm and back at Randall Oaks.
The infected/zombies in this book take more of a back seat than in the prior books, with the focus being more on the living menace that has been creeping around the periphery of the barricaded and sheltered places Matt and his group have called home. They are beginning to discover that they are far better organized and dangerous that anyone had assumed when those make a brazen assault on the farm. While I would say that once again, the author has not brought a lot to the table that makes this story different or unique compared to the rest of the zombie subgenre, he has continued to refine his writing skills and given the reader a sharper, more well defined and compelling set of characters with each book.
Of course, there are a few pieces of criticism to share as it relates to Regeneration. One in particular has to do with timing of Matt’s return to Randall Oaks. It is tremendously coincidental that he arrives mere hours (though it seems like minutes) before a surprise attack rocks the gated community. It seemed a bit rushed and a convenience to move the story forward at a quicker pace. Another frustration I had is with the lack of development of the main bad guy, who had potential to be much further fleshed out, especially based on the limited details shared about him. He seemed to be a rather twisted individual. The book could have afforded him a few more pages to shape him into more of a worthy opponent to Matt and his team and to move him away from a more generalized baddy.
Overall, Mad Swine: Regeneration is the most satisfying of the three books in the trilogy. It does a solid job of continuing the character development that made Matt more human and relatable in the second book, while at the same time sharing traits with the first book and its love of action. The author (or perhaps the publisher or his editor…) seems to like taking a few shortcuts when it comes to certain story elements. The battle between the neighborhoods never showed up except in synopsis in the second book and the main villain seems somewhat under developed here in the final book. It isn’t a major criticism, but worth pointing out. I believe that adding those components could only serve to enhance the story.
This was a satisfying zombie trilogy, in particular to watch and see how the author continued to grow and refine his ability to pull the reader in and give them a reason to grow attached to certain characters. The action and story is solid, and the pace is fast.
Mad Swine: Regeneration can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Regeneration-Mad-Swine-Book-3-ebook/dp/B011SJQ31Q/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8
Saint Pain wraps up the Zombie Ascension trilogy by Vincenzo Bilof. The saga is complete, though some of the story threads remain loose, or a bit frayed, by the end of the tale. Digesting it still, I’m not sure if that left me frustrated or content with how the author chose to close things out. Doors are potentially left open for more, though whether they should be shut for good or not is debatable.
The book starts a full year past where Queen of The Dead left off. Vega and Vincent are set up in a neighborhood with an old cop who doesn’t trust the ex-drug dealer. There are quite a few people with them, including Father Joe and an ex-pro football player named Bill. There are rumors of Vincent’s guns still hidden somewhere in the city (though he is not sharing any info) and stories of others in Detroit trading women and children for food and other supplies. While the living have been active, the undead seem to have become lethargic. Still, the harsh existence everyone faces has them questioning whether or not it is worth continuing to fight to survive. In the meantime, Jim Traverse has returned to Detroit, apparently to finish the annihilation of the human race that he started a year before.
When the undead rise back up due to some sort of unknown force driving them to kill once again, everything is stirred up and those that are alive are forced to choose whether to fight or give up. Vega wants another shot at Traverse while Vincent seems to be unsure of whether or not he wants to let go or to continue battling with Vega at his side. Only Bill, the football player, seems willing to fight to the bitter end and save whoever he can, regardless of the consequences. The reason why he is compelled to do so was one of the more poignant elements of this book, once revealed.
With all its supernatural elements and almost surreal quality to this story, where the author brings things home is when the humanity of his characters is revealed and/or demolished. The madness of some, the despair of others, and the resignation of those who know they are about to die but are still willing to fight…plus those who have already died and yet still fight on for some sort of redemption. These components to the story drew me in and kept me intrigued. The supernatural components of this story gives it a unique kink that will entertain those who crave something beyond the traditional zombie tale. There are layers of manipulation and control…by both the living and the dead…over the undead and those who have power over them. It is a twisty pretzel the author has created here and I am not ashamed to admit I was a bit confused in a few spots as to who was manipulating who.
With its heavy dose of introspection, this book did have a few parts that dragged a bit. Vega and Jim Traverse have always been interesting characters to me, with Vincent less so. His melancholia didn’t keep me intrigued every step of the way. I did enjoy the introduction of Bill, who seems like a character who you could root for despite his flaws. He seems the only person capable of holding on to some semblance of hope even when that seems pointless.
Saint Pain is a fitting ending to Vincenzo Bilof’s unique zombie trilogy. Though some of the characters are frustrating and despicable at turns, they were vividly drawn and draw you into their story, despite how dark, dank, and depressing it all becomes.
The Undead Ruins doesn’t pick up immediately after the second book in the trilogy, The Undead Haze, but about a decade after the start of the zombie apocalypse and years after Cyrus reconnected with Blaze near the end of the previous book. They have spent the past few years working for the leader of three rebuilt towns as mercenaries for hire, doing the tough jobs no one else wants, including executing those who have disobeyed the laws about hiding undead family members. As has always been the case, Blaze and Cyrus are aloof, not befriending many of the people they now interact with except for a select few that have a military background like Blaze. She still has every intention of finding her lost brother, the brother that Cyrus knows about and has kept secrets about since the events that took place in the prior novel. That isn’t the only secret he’s keeping from Blaze-secrets if revealed might mean his death at the hands of his closest companion.
At the start of this trilogy, Cyrus V. Sinclair proclaimed himself a sociopath. Much of the frustration with the author from the bulk of reviews I have seen have been with this proclamation. Either he is not a textbook definition of a sociopath or he softens in the second book to the point where even Cyrus is no longer sure what he is anymore. Whatever he truly is, since all three of these books were written in first person, we have only the narcissistic and egotistical Cyrus to rely on for his diagnosis. It would be fair to say that Cyrus liked the idea of being a sociopath and indeed has some of those tendencies, though even he had to acknowledge he has transformed into something else by the time the events of this book take place. Blaze, Cyrus’s companion and sometimes nemesis, is perhaps closer in definition to a sociopath, although the love she shows for her brother puts a chink in her armor with that designation. More important, Blaze would be unlikely to care what someone labels her. She is what the world has made her.
Things start out fairly calm at the beginning of this book, with Blaze and Cyrus dealing with grunt work no one else wants to do. They aren’t necessarily popular with most of the town folk due to the roles they take on, but they are needed and appreciated by the leadership. Unfortunately, with an attack on one of the towns, there are hints that the crazies they thought had faded into history have returned, stronger than ever and with a new and even more vicious leader. With this new turmoil comes the possibility that the lies that Cyrus has been telling Blaze to keep the peace between them will be revealed.
It is interesting how the voice of Cyrus has changed during the course of these books. A smug, unrepentant loner when we first meet him, he still remains aloof but has transformed in many ways. He still loathes cowardice and weakness, but has gained a respect for those who fight to survive and the necessity of civilization, even if aspects of it make him nauseous. The relationship between him and Blaze has gotten more complicated. They are not lovers, but soldiers who have been through wars together. They would fight and die for one another but at the same time it seems clear that one would kill the other if it suited their needs.
Overall, this has been an entertaining trilogy. The main character made a proclamation about himself early on that does not play out as he expected. If it had, this story would have run the risk of predictability. A criticism I had for the first book came back to haunt this one when the author slips away from first person for a brief moment-a chapter-near the end of the novel. It could be argued in both cases of the necessity of these diversions although I believe that the author could have found a way to keep on telling the story from Cyrus’ perspective and gotten the same point across. I had few other quibbles when it came to the writing itself. It was interesting that here in the third book about Cyrus that the story is as much about someone else, Blaze, as it was about him. It added depth to the tale and made their relationship that much more compelling.
The Undead Ruins can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Undead-Ruins-Situation-Book/dp/161868471X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-2&qid=1433201326