Mar 29 2013 4:30pm

Undead, But Not Really All That Lively: Dana Fredsti’s Plague Nation

Plague Nation Ashley Parker Novel Dana Fredsti Book ReviewIs there any narrative structure more predictable than that of the classic zombie story? A small band of the few, the brave, the lucky fight to escape or to contain the mounting zombie threat. Our heroes’ numbers keep diminishing, and meanwhile, the shambling armies of the undead keep growing. Even if our heroes survive/clear/escape the quarantine zone, it’ll only be to discover that the zombie threat isn’t over.

Marry that to a shallow, mouthy college student protagonist, straight out of the wish-fulfilment school of character creation, whose on-again off-again love interest is dark, brooding, and intermittently an asshole, and you add the predictability quotient of pulpy urban fantasy to the predictability quotient of zombie plague.

Plague Nation is Dana Fredsti’s second novel from Titan Books, sequel to 2012’s Plague Town. Ashley Parker is a wildcard, one of a handful of humans immune to the zombie virus. After fighting off the infection, she’s stronger, faster, and has sharper senses than the general run of humanity. Recruited to a shadowy organisation dedicated to fighting the zombie menace, Plague Nation opens with Parker and her few fellow wildcards engaged in zombie extermination duties in the quarantined town of Redwood Grove, where the outbreak that caused Parker’s exposure occurred.

My problems with this novel didn’t really start with the pointless italicised prologue. But they did start on the second page. You see, the shadowy anti-zombie organisation has a Greek name. And as it happens, I speak modern Greek. Very badly, but I speak it. And I noticed that the Dolofónoitou Zontanóús Nekroús has a little case-agreement problem. Quite aside from the consistent mashing of tou, the masculine singular genitive article, into dolofonoi, killers (plural, masculine, nominative), zontanous nekrous, living dead, is an accusative plural. The phrase as it stands makes no sense. It should be Δολοφ?νοιτων ζωνταν?ν νεκρ?ν, instead, if you want the phrase to mean “Killers of the Living Dead.”

Native Greek speakers, please correct me if I’m wrong.

In the grand scheme of things, linguistic carelessness is a minor (if insulting) crime. But it’s a telling marker of the slipshod, slapdash approach to narrative coherence, characterisation, and line-of-direction taken by the novel as a whole. In place of characterisation, we’re given mannerisms and a constant, incredibly irritating name-dropping of geek-media-culture-cred (“Think the X-Files under the auspices of the U.N.,” “the ROTC’s answer to The Big Bang Theory,” and “‘Classic case of Pon Farr,’ he said. ‘Get him to Vulcan, stat!’” are the three examples which occur within the first four pages of the first chapter, and they don’t come noticeably less thick and fast thereafter); in place of narrative coherence, disjointed incidents separated by italicised interludes which recount events from the spread of the zombie plague outside Parker’s immediate vicinity.

When the Redwood Grove lab facility is attacked by a mysterious enemy and progress towards a cure for the zombie plague is destroyed, Parker and her band of the brave and the few are tasked with transporting a scientist (whose greed-inspired screw-ups led to the plague’s outbreak in the first place) to a secret lab in San Francisco. A city now under quarantine because the zombie plague has spread there, too. When sabotage downs their helicopters short of their destination, they have to fight their way across a city where the hungry dead are rapidly starting to outnumber the living, only to be ambushed on the very doorstep of their destination. Despite their losses, will they triumph over their mysterious enemy—and get Parker’s boyfriend back—in time to save the USA? Since the next novel’s entitled Plague World, I’m betting against it....

And, honestly, I could care less. There are bad books, and there are tedious books, and there are tediously bad books with a desperately sad lack of redeeming value or artistic merit. The best I can say about Plague Nation is that it aspires to be popcorn reading, a low-rent version of Resident Evil with more boyfriend angst and pop-culture quotes. It’s boring, folks. Go watch Zombieland again, or reread Mira Grant or Max Brooks instead.

It’ll be more entertaining.

Liz Bourke is a tired cranky youngish feminist. Find more crankiness at her blog and on twitter.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
You could care less, or you couldn't less?
Liz Bourke
2. hawkwing-lb
I could care less. But I'd have to work at it.
Dana Fredsti
3. Dana Fredsti
Thanks for giving it a read and sorry it didn't work for you. A friend with a background in languages translated the Greek for me, so... insult not intended. I swear, there's always someone who is an expert in something out there... :-)
Athena Andreadis
4. AthenaAndreadis
"Background in languages" perhaps -- but it clearly didn't include Greek past expat level. Stuff like that makes me immediately stop reading. A very loud warning bell for the rest of the work.
Dana Fredsti
5. Dana Fredsti
Athena, I understand. I have my own hot buttons that make me stop reading, like gratuitous animal torture. I have friends who are very sensitive about military weaponry details being spot on. I do know the Greek my friend was referencing was ancient Greek and not modern, but i have no real idea if that makes a difference or not in the case agreement problem and am willing to defer to the experts.
Dana Fredsti
6. mutantalbinocrocodile
No offense intended, but the grammar problem is also present in ancient Greek.

In all seriousness, if you want something else translated in future, consider phoning the front desk of a major university Classics department and seeing if they can rustle a grad student out of the lounge. Happens frequently and there's always someone who enjoys a little contemporary translation as a hobby. :)
Athena Andreadis
7. AthenaAndreadis
Dana: your save attempt implies that I don't know languages evolve and I'm ignorant of previous incarnations of my own.

I read homeric (this one with an effort), classical, alexandrine/byzantine, puristic and demotic Hellenic (Greek to non-Hellenes). I can assure you that the sentence in your novel is grammatically incorrect in all of them.

As for hot buttons, you are conflating issues of content (animal torture) with issues of research (describing scientific concepts, gizmos, using languages other than your own). The former are a matter of judgment; the latter are a matter of due diligence. You can legitimately differ on whether and how to depict torture. You cannot legitimately differ on whether the sentence in your novel is grammatically correct.
Dana Fredsti
8. NF
When a writer cannot check three foreign words they use in a book, it sends us a very clear message - they don't give a damn. Give me one reason why we should care about the book in question any further. Life is short, next.
Dana Fredsti
10. Dana Fredsti
MutantbinCrocodile, that's an excellent suggestion, thank you, and no offense taken.
Dana Fredsti
11. Dana Fredsti
Athena, no disrespect re: your knowledge of Greek intended. The first novel specifies ancient Greek and that the words are "loosely translated" and when I said I'd defer to the experts, I meant it. When I ask for help with research, I go to people who have backgrounds in areas I don't. I assumed the source of the Greek I used for the DZN was correct (NZ, if I didn't give a damn, I would have used BabelFish).

As for the hot button comment, while I appreciate the gist of the points you made, it's something I'll stand by. Regardless of whether it's an emotional response or a mistake in language translation or any other technical point, a hot button is still something that causes someone to stop reading or, at the very least, brings them out of the story.
I appreciate having the language issue brought to my notice as I do take reader responses into consideration. I've had some interesting and enlightening discussions with readers who are also weapons experts since writing Plague Town...

Dana Fredsti
12. sinn
It is obvious that you are an academic, and I am impressed by your Greek prowess. However, it is simply astounding to me that you can so easily tear apart another human being instead of their book. Granted, after reading the Aenid and The Heroides in the original Latin, reading language mistakes tend to make be angry. As the author graciously and kindly pointed out, she could have easily gone the BabelFish/Google translate route. Unfortunately, I have seen too many authors do that. And, if we're going to get technical, language and grammar does differ. Wishing to pursue advanced degrees in medieval literature, I am well aware of the fact that grammar was not finite. Even in the Classical Latin texts, grammar was willy-nilly and used differently. That is especially evident when you read things such as poems versus political texts. If you even look at your own language, people pick and choose what grammar to follow. It is astounding the things you will see when you work as an editor!

As it stands, I completely understand your review and opinion. In all honestly, I really did not appreciate the first book. The movie quotes were over the top for me, and the treatment of the academic world greatly upset me. That being said, there is a difference between disliking a book/tearing it apart based on those issues and attacking a person. The author was very gracious in her response to you.

To assume that the author doesn't care about her book because of three words is rather short sighted. Have you taken the time to read the book and formulate your own opinion?

Dana Fredsti
13. Amy Stoddard
This reads less like a book review and more like an attack on the writer and anyone who read/enjoyed the first book.

Honestly, I'm personally offended having read and enjoyed the first book because this review comes off so snooty and high brow. We're talking about a zombie book - did you expect some kind of avant garde new take on the genre? Zombie ala Fellini, perhaps?

Also, I question how I am to take as neutral a review on the website of a sci fi publisher than savages a book released by another publisher.
Dana Fredsti
14. Amy Stoddard
And thanks for the spoiler for a book I haven't read yet.
Liz Bourke
15. hawkwing-lb
sinn @12:

I think the native Greek speaker in this discussion is entitled to have strong feelings on the use of their language. Language is a key part of communication, after all.

Amy Stoddard @13 and 14

If you don't want spoilers, don't read reviews. Although if you've read many of the review issues in print publications, I think you'll find my particular brand of conceited and arrogant - that is what you mean by snooty here, right? - judginess weak tea in comparison.

(Oh, my highbrow tastes. Time for a re-read of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain books, or perhaps some Yasmine Galenorn, to reassure myself that I haven't been lead astray by Bachelard and Bakhtin...)

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