Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #13 - City of the Dead

I am three books behind in blogging which puts my grand total for the year up to 15. Only 10 more to go in the last 12 weeks of the year. This seems like a tall order and truthfully, it is. But if I read everything else as fast as I read Brian Keene's City of the Dead, it should be a snap. I started this book Saturday night, read 280 pages on Sunday and finished it after work on Monday. It was that good.

City of the Dead is the sequel to Brian Keene's Bram Stoker Award winning novel The Rising. I read The Rising a couple of years back after I picked it up at a used bookstore here in town. I knew that it was a zombie book, but I was hesitant. Zombie fiction is a notoriously tough nut to crack. Most of what little I have bothered to read has been dreadfully boring. Even World War Z didn't really do it for me, which is really saying something. But The Rising, simply put, rocked. It was gory and scary and intriguing and had a killer opening scene. It had zombified animals as well as humans. And these zombies were not your typical slow, lumbering Romero zombies, but they also weren't the Danny Boyle 28 Days Later fast zombies either. These zombies were smart. They could talk. They could drive cars. They could shoot guns. They broke ALL the cardinal zombie rules according to Dan. It was a recipe for failure that instead, served up something so delectable that I could hardly believe it.

City of the Dead picks up right where The Rising left off, and because it had been so long since I had read The Rising, I had to go read the plot recap at Wikipedia. With it all coming back to me now, I dove into City of the Dead. A group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse has made their way from West Virginia to New Jersey in search of Jim Thurmond's young son. By the time City of the Dead opens, the undead population outnumbers the living by a staggering proportion. However, these zombies are not what they seem. As it turns out, a particle acceleration experiment has ripped an interdimensional hole in the universe which has allowed a demon race known as the Siqqusim to enter our world and possess the dead. The fact that the reanimated dead are possessed by demons is a cool idea and goes a long way toward explaining the intelligence that the zombie hordes possess.

Surrounded on all sides in the suburban New Jersey home where they find Thurmond's son, Danny, they make a narrow escape (an absolutely thrilling series of scenes) that eventually leads them to lower Manhattan and Ramsey Tower. It's designer, billionaire Darren Ramsey, declares it to be completely impregnable and therefore, the perfect fortress against the 99.9% of the Big Apple that is now rotting and possessed by Siqqusim. Clearly, Ramsey has never heard of the unsinkable Titanic because the building is not quite as sealed off as it might appear, especially once the leader of the Siqqusim, Ob, starts rallying heavy artillery and tanks.

The chain of events in a novel like City of the Dead is completely predictable, but you're not there to be surprised by the plot. In the hands of a lesser writer, it'd be a tosser. But Keene has mastered this kind of writing. Instead of being bored by the predictable plot and characters that veer a little too hard into cliche at times, I was intrigued not so much by what-happens-next as by how what-happens-next happens. The smart zombies really work even though for me, they really shouldn't. Their intentions are clear (kill all humans by whatever means possible) and they really are pure and unadulterated evil. The writing is graphic and bloody and gory. So vivid are the descriptions of what's taking place in the novel that what's usually necessary to really seal the deal with zombies - the visuals - are rendered superfluous. You can see it in your head. And that is why good zombie fiction is so hard to find. Usually, you need the visuals. With Keene's zombie novels, you simply don't.

It's been a long time since I read a book this quickly - it really held my attention and interest. It's not great literature or anything, but who says a good book has to be? Fans of zombies and horror fiction in general will certainly enjoy both The Rising and City of the Dead. They are leaps and bounds better than some of the other mid-level horror fiction I've read and the best zombie fiction I've read. Of note, Keene has also written another unrelated zombie novel, Dead Sea, which features more traditional slow zombies which is a hell of a read as well.

I was originally supposed to read this book last summer when we were on vacation, but it disappeared part way through the trip and I couldn't find it. I found it under the driver's side seat when I was looking for my sunglasses. Clearly, we need to clean the car more frequently.

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