Kate’s Review: “Deathless Divide”

38124119._sy475_Book: “Deathless Divide” by Justina Ireland

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The sequel to Dread Nation is a journey of revenge and salvation across a divided America.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother.

But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodermus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880’s America.

What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears – as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her.

But she won’t be in it alone.

Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive – even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.

Review: A couple years ago, Justina Ireland wrote the YA horror/historical fiction book “Dread Nation”, a novel about the zombie uprising during Reconstruction in the U.S. Her main character, Jane, was a black teenage girl being trained to be a personal bodyguard for upper class white people, as after the zombies came Black and Indigenous people were recruited to protect the white people of society. It ended with an overrun town and Jane, her frenemy and fellow attendant Katherine, her old flame Jackson, and a group of refugees deciding to head West to California, as Jane was hoping to find her mother. When I heard about “Deathless Divide”, the sequel to “Dread Nation”, I was anticipating another zombie horror novel with the usual apocalypse themes. What I got was something completely different. This time, we get a horror historical fiction novel with distinct themes of a Western, and the lonesome redemptive attempts that come with that genre.

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Spoiler Alert: It does. (source)

“Deathless Divide” picks up right after the end of “Dread Nation”, and almost immediately it gets turned on it’s head as to what I had expected from the narrative. For one thing, we are not only getting Jane’s POV, we also get the POV of Katherine, the high strung, prim, and incredibly talented classmate and sometimes friend of Jane. I wanted to know more about Katherine in “Dread Nation”, so when we got to get inside her head in “Deathless Divide” I was overjoyed. Katherine always intrigued me the most from the first book because I loved that she is unabashedly feminine, and is still an incredible fighter, perhaps the best in the book. Too often we see women characters who are made ‘strong’ at the expense of having their femininity stripped away. This is fine, of course, as there are lots of ways to write female characters, but women can fight and kick butt in a corset if they want to, dammit! I also liked getting a deeper exploration of Katherine and the issues that she has to contend with as a very attractive woman who is constantly underestimated, and who, as a woman who passes for white, doesn’t always feel like she has her identity all figured out. Getting to see more of Katherine was delightful. 

The other unexpected shift in the narrative was, as I mentioned before, the fact that it has a distinctly Western theme about it. Usually as a rule I am not a fan of Westerns, as the themes usually don’t grab me AND so many of the Westerns that I think of feel imperialistic. But in “Deathless Divide” Ireland does a really good job of taking the theme of the lone gunslinger and applying it to Jane as her journey progresses, especially since the usual trope of that is a white man. I loved the role for Jane, as she has endured so much trauma and loss and violence because of her race and the fact that Black and Native people have been used as protectors and bodies to protect the White people in a zombie ravaged society. It’s no wonder she would become morally ambiguous as she travels the west looking for revenge. It makes the idea incredibly tragic. And it’s just another of many ways that Ireland once again explores themes and issues of race and racism in America, and like in “Dread Nation” it works very well. From POC being used as guinea pigs to further scientific research to race and class relations in urban settings and capitalism to colorism, “Deathless Divide” shows that some times don’t really change much, and that we still have a long way to go. 

As for the zombies, not much has changed from the first book, and they aren’t as centered this time around. But that said, we do get to delve into the ideas of potential cures, and how different science experiments can bring different outcomes when it comes to the zombies and how they interact with their potential prey. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but just know that Ireland still manages to make the zombies feel fresh and interesting even when they aren’t at the forefront. After all, like in all good zombie stories, it’s the humans that are the bigger threat.

(note: As I mentioned in my review for “Dread Nation”, there had been criticism of the Native characters in that book. I’ve not seen anything in that regard about this book, and I don’t think that I as a white woman can say if Ireland has been more responsible this time around. We do get a more complex and deeper dive into the character of Daniel Redfern, however. If anything changes on this front I will update this post.)

“Deathless Divide” is the end of the road for this world and characters (at least for now; Ireland has said that it COULD happen that more gets written, maybe), and I think that it’s a great follow up and completion. I’ll miss Jane and Katherine.

Rating 8: A satisfying ending with a bold new genre take, “Deathless Divide” wraps up a world of zombies, racism, and empowerment for Black women.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deathless Divide” is included on the Goodreads Lists “Black Heroines 2020”, and “LGBT SciFi and Fantasy 2015-2020”.

Find “Deathless Divide” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “River of Teeth”

31445891Book: “River of Teeth” by Sarah Gailey

Publishing Info: Tom Doherty Associates, May 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

Review: The fact that this novella is based on a true consideration undertaken by the U.S government, importing hippos to the U.S. to be used alongside cows in meat production, was all it took to land it on my TBR list. The fact that the cover features several characters riding hippos moved it quickly to the top.

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And if the finished result wasn’t all I had hoped it could be, there’s still no denying the pure fun that is delivered with such a unique concept as hippo-riding outlaws!

First for the parts I did enjoy. As I said, the pure genius of this concept is spot on. I mean, who knew about the late, great hippo plan? If anything, this proves that the U.S. government was just as capable of thinking up ridiculous plans back in our earlier days as country as it seems to be now! But Gailey doesn’t just rest the historical wackiness of this plan, she brilliantly conceptulizes what this plan would have looked like if implemented.

The Louisiana territory is largely converted to extensive marshland, as hippos can only travel so far out of water. Various breeds of hippos have emerged, beyond the ones simply raised for meat. Some are faster than others, some larger, some more capable of managing longer distances on dry land. They are imagined to be a combination of a horse and a cow: close traveling companion in some cases, purely a form of meat production in another.

But, let’s not forget, hippos are very much NOT cows. They are strong, faster than they look, and fully capable of enacting their tempers on poor, unaware people who may get in their way. And, like all good plans, the great hippo importation quickly got out of control in this case, leaving wide range of the Mississippi river chocked up by an out-of-control feral hippo population, one that the notorious riverboat crime lord, Mr. Travers, has fully made use of to create his own scary, little kingdom.

Enter our heroes, tasked with a government funded mission to clear out the feral hippo population, once again opening up the river to commercial traffic. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Travers is not on board with this plan.

As I’ve said, the setting and creative use of the hippos was spot on in this story. So, too, the pacing is strong, reading like a charming classic Western adventure story, but with hippos. It’s easy to see these influences play out in many scenes, and in many ways the writing reads like a screenplay for what would surely be a super cool TV mini series.

But this strength is also a weakness. It almost reads too much like a screen play with a few beats hitting just slightly off target. There are moments when the dialogue veers a tad too close to the cheesy, and the descriptions could also seem pedestrian at times, lacking the detail and cohesion.

Which leaves us with our cast of characters. And there are many. We have the leader of our little troop, a man with a dark past tied up with Mr. Travers. A con woman. An assassin. A poisoner/munitions expert. And a man who knows the Mississippi region like the back of his hand. This is a lot of characters, all with big personalities, to be jammed into a short novella that also has a lot of story to tell. Characters would come and go so quickly that the fates that awaited them never really struck any chord. See you later, I barely knew you, I guess?

Further, Bailey attempts to right in a romantic story line, as well. And while I applaud her for her representation of this couple, their romance feels rushed to the point of unbelievability. And, in many ways, this relationship is used as a driving force for the decision-making of several of our characters, which just plays all the weaker for being given so little time to develop.

So, while I loved the conceptualization and adventure of this story, I was left wanting in a few areas. The writing style seemed to slip at points, and the numerous characters often overwhelmed any attachment I could develop for any single one, leaving some of the more important story beats to land flat. However, being a novell, this is a low stakes read, time-wise, so if you’re looking for a fun, quick adventure story unlike any other you’ve probably come across, I’d still recommend checking out “River of Teeth.”

Rating 6: An overwhelmingly large cast and some writing slips prevented me from fully committing to the Western adventure romp.

Reader’s Advisory:

“River of Teeth” is still relatively new and is on only one relevant Goodreads list “Alternate History in 2017.”

Find “River of Teeth” at your library using WorldCat

 

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “The Cold Eye”

28962896 Book: “The Cold Eye” by Laura Anne Gilman

Publishing Info: Saga Press, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: In the anticipated sequel to “Silver on the Road,” Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory.

Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss—better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect them. Here in the Territory, magic exists—sometimes wild and perilous.

But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. In the next installment of the Devil’s West series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.

Review: After reading and loving “Silver on the Road,” I was excited to pick up this prequel. In the first book we were introduced to the unique, re-imagined West that is ruled by the enigmatic Devil who has sent out 16-year-old Isobel to travel the territory as his own brand of magical justice. In many ways, this book simply doubled-down on the same elements readers were presented with in the first novel, in some ways to its benefit and in others, less so. But ultimately, the “freshness” of the story/world/characters pulled through, leaving me with favorable impression of this second book in the series.

As before, the atmospheric world of the West was one of the biggest appeals with this book. The story starts out with Isobel traveling alone, and through her eyes we once again get to experience this strange, untamed landscape that effortlessly blends the ruthlessness of nature (with some added teeth from the magical elements) alongside the stark beauty of the rolling plains. Of course, there would be no story if something wasn’t amiss, and Isobel’s “sixth sense” leads her down a path of darkness and mystery.

While I enjoyed Isobel’s independent moments in the story, I was also very happy when she was reunited with Gabriel, as their friendship/mentorship was one of my favorite parts of the first book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book also continued down these relationship paths without any addition of romance. Each respects and admires the other, but, if anything, they read as siblings on the page. It is refreshing to read a story about a 16-year-old female protagonist that proves you can draw an interesting tale and create viable and intriguing relationships without the need to insert romance into the equation. Believe it or not, teenage girls are capable of forming other types of relationships with those around them.

I did have a few frustrations with the story, however. And, like the pros to the tale which all built upon elements I loved from the first book, the negative aspects came from the same quibbles I had with the first as well. Namely, the pacing and the magical system. While the slow and meandering travels allow readers to fully immerse themselves in the world that has been built, it can also deflate the story from the brief action sequences that can be found, leaving readers wondering just how many descriptions of dusty saddles are really necessary. The last third of the book involves some high stakes and challenging moral considerations (of the kind that really make you wonder about the Devil’s thinking in sending out an untrained, teenage girl to deal with the forces at work in the Territory), but it takes a long time to get to this point, and I wish there had been a way to tighten up some of the storytelling of the first two-thirds.

And lastly, the magical system. I love the uniqueness of the magic that is set up in this book, especially that which is connected to the animals (the buffalo’s herd magic, and the speaking snakes). But as far as Isobel’s own particular brand of power, it is just as frustrating as it was in the first book. She does things, but never knows how she is doing what she is doing. And more often than not just lead into an action by an undefined “feeling.” I understand that she is learning what her role is as the Left Hand, but that means she must actually learn. Just discovering that something worked without any explanation or knowledge of how/when/in what circumstance she could hope to repeat the process, at a certain point simply feels like lazy writing. And a bit boring.

But, as I said, at this point in the series, the uniqueness of the world and the appealing nature of Isobel and Gabriel and their friendship is enough to keep me interested. But don’t take my word for it! Check it out for yourself and enter to win a hardcover copy of “The Cold Hand!”

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 7: A strong sequel that builds on the elements I liked from the first, but also, sadly, doesn’t improve on my original quibbles either.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Eye” isn’t on any relevant  Goodreads lists but it should be on “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories. “

Find “The Cold Eye” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously reviewed: “Silver on the Road”

Serena’s Review: “Silver on the Road”

20748097Book: “Silver on the Road” by Laura Anne Gilman

Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.

Review: You know you read a lot of a specific genre when you begin to recognize cover art artists! So, while I would like to say that I first looked at this book based on its amazing premise, the truth is that the cover artist has also done covers for some of my other favorite fantasy reads, so those books just immediately leap out at me whenever I’m browsing through lists. But, books are not their covers and all of that, so the unique premise was ultimately what landed this one for me as worth checking out. And, while there were a few frustrations here and there, all told, I very much enjoyed this book as a refreshing change of pace for fantasy fiction.

Honestly, with so much of urban fantasy and historical fantasy starting to feel tired and weighed down by too many tropes, it’s shocking that the concept of alternative Western fantasy hasn’t struck home more fully. What an untapped setting and part of history! And this alternative American Wild West was really the major strength of the book.

In this version of history, the West (essentially anything that would have been gained in the Louisiana Purchase in true history) is literally wild, kept in check only by the mysterious and half-fabled Devil who rules the Territory. The true essence and character of the Devil is never fully explored, whether he is the actual Devil from a Biblical sense, or whether this is a name he has acquired from magic-fearing folk who don’t know what else to call him. At a certain point, I simply began associating him with the type of Devil character you hear/read about in folk tales (like the  Devil in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”)

But this is a good example of the type of “go with it” mentality that is necessary for this book. There are many questions raised and very few answers given. This could be frustrating at times, particularly when I got to the end and realized some of them would be left unanswered completely. But with the world-building itself, it was easier to simply stop trying to over-analyze and simply enjoy immersing oneself in it instead.

Izzy, a young woman who has worked at a tavern alongside the Devil her whole life, is recruited by him to travel the Territory as his Left Hand. Here, too, there was not a lot of clarification. Izzy is simply set out into the world alongside Gabriel, a travel-worn companion who knows the hidden paths and pitfalls of the Territory and who has stuck his own mysterious bargain with the Devil (more unanswered questions!). What she can do, how she can do it, and even when she should do it are all unknowns to her and us.

I very much enjoyed these two characters and their expedition, however. This is a very slow burn novel, and much of the page time is spent with these two on the road, basically wandering from one place to another. Only towards the very end of the book do the small plot points that have been stumbled upon really begin to come together to form any type of unified conflict and arc. For those looking for a more tight story with a more natural progression of learned information, this book may be a struggle. I was able to attach myself strongly enough to the character development of Izzy and Gabriel that most of this was ok by me. I also, personally, very much enjoy hiking and discovering new parts of the world around bends in roads. So, for me, the meandering approach to storytelling that was largely just a roadtrip on a horse was appealing.

I very much enjoyed this book. However, for some it may read as slow and the unanswered questions could be frustrating. I had a fairly laid back approach to this, knowing there was a sequel that was just published, but even I found myself frustrated at times. Izzy’s powers are so undefined, even at the end, that while I know that progress was made in this book (a conflict was resolved and all), it still felt like Izzy herself had very far to go. And Gabriel’s past is still very much a large question mark. But I’m on board enough to want to read the next one where hopefully some of this will be answered!

Rating 8: What could be a slow, frustrating read, was saved by a truly unique setting in a fantastical, alternative American West.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silver on the Road” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Fantastic American West” and “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Find “Silver on the Road” at your library using Worldcat!