*Thanks to the lovely people at Random House, who provided me with a copy of Dearly, Departed via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I've had my eye on this book for a while now. It would be hard not to: the cover is gorgeous. But as most of you know, I try to avoid judging my interest in a book based on that. Not only does Dearly, Departed have a totally pretty cover -- it has an awesome premise as well. Kick ass heroine + "new" Victoria + steampunk + zombies ... Yeah. Sign me up.
So I was both shocked and scared when after reading the prologue and first two chapters had me kind of cold. I actually tweeted about it, I was so frustrated. Fortunately, I did decide to keep going with the book and it picked up from pretty much that moment on and totally didn't let go. (To clarify, it was chapter two that bored me -- but I'll get to that.) Dearly, Departed is a fresh idea with memorable characters and a great romance. It's a heavy contender for book of the month.
The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)
Love can never die.
Love conquers all, so they say. But can Cupid’s arrow pierce the hearts of the living and the dead—or rather, the undead? Can a proper young Victorian lady find true love in the arms of a dashing zombie?
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.
In Dearly, Departed, romance meets walking-dead thriller, spawning a madly imaginative novel of rip-roaring adventure, spine-tingling suspense, and macabre comedy that forever redefines the concept of undying love.
There is a lot to take in here, but for the most part Lia Habel does a good job of letting the reader get their bearings as she moves from one part of the plot to the next. I liked how the story, while it did not take place over months or anything, moved in a natural feeling way that let me get to know the various characters and feel that not only was I taking part in their problems alongside them. I was getting to know them, as well.
The way that social structure, military training, romance, history and more were combined into such a well told story is impressive. There is something here for everyone and this is likely a book that I will be recommending to family and friends. It is fresh and quirky, but it takes great care to let the reader test the waters.
There are quite a few pov characters in this book and I think that Lia Habel did a fantastic job at making sure we know who's eyes we're looking through. Each character was distinct and had an interesting storyline so there was no one that I was like "Oh, great... It's a (name) chapter." over. This is the first time I've ever seen this many first person povs in a book. I felt that it was gutsy and that it paid off in creating a rich, braided plot that could not have otherwise happened.
My one big gripe, that I was talking about in the opening, is that Lia has one chapter near the beginning where she has Nora working on a history report. The chapter -- and the report -- serve as an excuse for the author to tell us all about the world she has built. This really didn't work for me. It was flat out exposition and what we generally call an "info dump" in most writing communities. I understand that she felt that the info she was trying to share was important. And there was some that was useful or important. But a better form of execution should have been chosen -- I base how I read off of a book's opening chapters and this book came dangerously close to being a DNF.
That would have truly been a shame, as my review score indicates.
I was pretty neutral on Nora at first. This likely has more to do with how I felt about her first couple chapters. As the story went on I did come to like her. I found her ability to handle shocking changes both in her situation and in the concept she must have of "reality" to be admirable. I also found that she handled things with a mix of strength and vulnerability that felt real and honest. Watching her go from being someone who watched battles to someone who participated in them was also interesting. I like the fact that Lia Habel did not magically have Nora become some type of super hero. She is very much 'in training' and there are times when Bram has her stay back for various reasons. I also like the fact that these situations did not become great big bawl fests (I hate that!) and that Nora was smart enough to know when to argue with Bram and when to listen to him.
Generally speaking, Bram was worth listening to. Both for Nora and also for the reader. Bram was far and away my favorite character in the book, and considering how awesome the cast was, that's saying something. He has a great sense of humor, an interesting and unique code of ethics and (as a Zombie) a unique perspective on pretty much everything. I also feel that he cares deeply and genuinely about Nora without ever going into the waters of "creepy, territorial stalker guy" that is so often popular with fantasy and paranormal heroes. In fact, Bram is their polar opposite because he is definitely not a pretty boy. Bram's strength is his personality and that makes him really fun to read and really easy for me to root for.
I loved the dynamics between the members of company Z (well, all of the zombie characters, really)... The situation with Tom and Chas. The way that Ren was pretty much a futuristic computer and tech geek, the way that things happened with Samadi and Dr. Chase, the zombie priest (can't quite recall his name) who felt that God had not abandoned the zombies because little animals did not fear him. Each supporting character had their own little thing that made them shine, something that is really important if an author is going to have such a large cast.
I must also commend Lia Habel for Pamela's role in the story. Every step of the way something seems to be going wrong for her, and every time that it does Pam rises to the challenge in some notable way. (Spoiler: I think my favorite part was when she pushed Michael into the water at the end. I was like "YES!") Pam deals with some pretty heavy situations throughout the book and I look forward to seeing how they will play out in future stories. (I saw #1 next to this on GoodReads, so I am optimistic.)
Nora and Bram are one of my favorite couples ever. They have so many interesting things going for them. The whole human / zombie thing. The fact that before they were thrown into their current situations that they were on opposing sides. The fact that Lia Habel actually makes them take time to tolerate, befriend and then fall for each other.
Yes, you read that right. There is no "OMG insta-love" here. But there also isn't a real sense of "I hate you!" or "I'm taking over your life" either. These two characters actually get to know each other, and learn to accept, and then eventually trust and care for each other. It's beautiful, heartwarming and real. (Well, as real as a Zombie romance could be...) As I (think I) said before, Bram is not a pretty boy by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that Lia Habel had me rooting for them to get together and weeping when they were forced apart is commendable. (Do they stay that way? I'm not telling.)
Lia Habel made me fall in love with Bram right alongside Nora. Considering that Bram is a zombie and that this is not something she sugar-coats, I am thoroughly impressed.
Once it got going, Dearly, Departed was an absolute joy to read. From the start of Chapter 3 on I read the book in two sittings, which is rather impressive since it is 480 pages long. I only stopped because I needed sleep, and I could not wait to continue. The pacing is solid, the braiding of the multiple pov and storylines is well handled. I loved some of the music references that Lia used, especially "Sixteen Tons" which I use to listen to with my grandfather. The music choices put me in mind of Fallout 3 or Bioshock (for any of you gamers out there), which fit extremely well because of the way that the world was built.
If you haven't read Dearly, Departed yet, what are you waiting for? This book is original, has great characters and will take you on an interesting adventure. The combination of romance, political issues, action and humor (Oh yes, there is humor!) is pitch perfect. This is a book that deserves it's place on the shelf. It's also a book I know I will be reading again. Highly recommended!