Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel
I think that one of the trickiest love stories is one between the living and the dead. Zombie romances are starting to appear on the shelves, although not in any great quantities. And these tales have now migrated to the young adult section. Lia Habel’s Dearly, Departed explores new territory with a story set in a possible near future of humanity.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“The year is 2195. The place is New Victoria—a high-tech nation modeled on the manners, mores, and fashions of an antique era. A teenager in high society, Nora Dearly is far more interested in military history and her country’s political unrest than in tea parties and debutante balls. But after her beloved parents die, Nora is left at the mercy of her domineering aunt, a social-climbing spendthrift who has squandered the family fortune and now plans to marry her niece off for money. For Nora, no fate could be more horrible—until she’s nearly kidnapped by an army of walking corpses.
But fate is just getting started with Nora. Catapulted from her world of drawing-room civility, she’s suddenly gunning down ravenous zombies alongside mysterious black-clad commandos and confronting “The Laz,” a fatal virus that raises the dead—and hell along with them. Hardly ideal circumstances. Then Nora meets Bram Griswold, a young soldier who is brave, handsome, noble . . . and dead. But as is the case with the rest of his special undead unit, luck and modern science have enabled Bram to hold on to his mind, his manners, and his body parts. And when his bond of trust with Nora turns to tenderness, there’s no turning back. Eventually, they know, the disease will win, separating the star-crossed lovers forever. But until then, beating or not, their hearts will have what they desire.”
I have to praise Habel for her worldbuilding. It’s an interesting choice to have our world come out of a turbulent time with the idea that Victorian ideals and sensibilities should be the model for society, but it does work. It allows for a culture that is at once advanced in technology and old fashioned in everyday life. The supposed disasters also give rise to different societies that eschew technology—not a new idea in genre fiction by any means—and the culture clash is an undercurrent to the zombie incursion.
I also liked that the author has given some thought to a scientific explanation for an intelligent zombie, and for how such a being might think and act and preserve its capacities. Oddly enough, this led me to occasionally forget that some of the characters were indeed dead. My mental picture of them wasn’t always accurate. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, as the whole point of the novel was the interactions and relationships between the living and the dead.
This novel uses five different points of view: Nora, the main character; Bram, a dead teenage boy; Pamela, Nora’s best friend; and two others that I won’t name for fear of being spoiler-ish. I think that the last two viewpoints could have been eliminated, or the content in them dealt with in a different way, because the various narrative events take place fairly far apart. There’s enough of a disconnect between where Nora and Bram are, and where Pamela is, that more points of view make the story feel a little cluttered.
In fact, it’s Pamela’s point of view that I found the most interesting. She and her family are trapped in the underground complex that serves as living facilities for over three hundred families. The limited space allows for some thrilling zombie encounters in places like a museum, and it also breaks from the more military aspect of Nora’s storyline and brings in civilian victims of the virus. While I certainly enjoyed reading about Nora and Bram, I did find myself looking forward to Pamela’s chapters just a bit more.
Given that there’s so much going on in this novel, and that there are so many plot points vying for the reader’s attention, it might have served the story better to have broken the narrative lines apart a bit more. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure how that would work, but I get the feeling that the structure might have been improved upon just a bit.
This in no way diminished my enjoyment of the novel. Habel has done a wonderful job of portraying a love story between a girl and a zombie boy, and the backdrop is rich with detail and history. Habel shows great talent and promise as a writer, and I will eagerly pick up the sequel (which I believe is going to be called Dearly, Beloved) when it comes out. Whether or not you’re a fan of zombies, Dearly, Departed is a novel that shouldn’t be missed. With touches of humor and warmth mixed into the shambling hordes of undead, Habel’s debut should rank up there with the best that the young adult genre has to offer.
Also by this author: Dearly, Beloved
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on November 1, 2011.