Almost two centuries from now, the human race endures, broken but not beaten. After a laundry list of disasters—floods, famine, plagues, nuclear war, super volcano eruptions—what’s left of humanity has clawed its way back from the brink of extinction, setting itself up in new tribes, and new societies. Down in Central America, the Territory of New Victoria thrives, mixing the technology of the future with the idealized fashions and morals of the past. Computers and holograms exist side-by-side with genteel manners and high fashion, creating a unique blend of old and new. Unfortunately, while it might be something of a new golden age, it’s not perfect. New Victoria’s been at war with the so-called Punks for years, pitting their military might against the rag-tag rebels who’ve rejected the aristocratic system and its inherent corruption.
Enter Nora Dearly, a young woman whose interest in military history and war documentaries sets her apart from her status-obsessed peers. She has little to look forward to beyond being married off to help secure her family’s dwindling finances and mounting debts. That is, until she’s kidnapped by zombies.
Wait, what? Zombies? In what’s clearly a post-apocalyptic pseudo-steampunk neo-Victorian tale? Yes, zombies. The future has a dirty little secret, and it’s fighting out there in the Border Zone where civilized folks won’t ever have to learn the details. It seems a nasty little virus got out of hand a while back, and the infected dead have a disturbing tendency to get back up. Most are mindless shamblers, the sort that exist just to feed and terrorize. But some retain their humanity and self-determination. New Victoria has turned these unfortunates into an army, and sent them out to fight the mindless zombies and the Punks. And now Nora Dearly is in their hands, but only because the enemy wanted her first.
Under the watchful eye of the dashing (yet dead) Captain Abraham “Bram” Griswold, Nora slowly gets to know her hosts, even as she discovers why she’s so important and how her supposedly-dead father factors into things. It’s not long at all before the strong-willed Nora seizes control of her own destiny, setting out to kick some zombie ass. It’s good timing, too, because things are about to get really messy. It’s not just her new friends among Company Z who are in peril, it’s everyone she’s ever known and loved.
Dearly, Departed, is strange and wonderful and unexpected. Lia Habel takes a wide variety of elements and throws them together in a way that somehow, miraculously, works. It’s a rare talent that can put zombies, steampunk, and romance in the same room and not have it come out as overkill or unbalanced. However, Habel succeeds on every level, maintaining the perfect ratio of action, characterization, plot and setting.
Part of the success must be credited to Nora herself. While she’s just one of numerous narrators, she drives the story with her forceful personality and unstoppable attitude. Here’s a young woman who, when first presented with zombies, is quick to grab a gun and start shooting. Later, when dropped headlong into the midst of Company Z, she works quite hard to hold at least something of an advantage, until she’s put at ease through questions and answers. This isn’t a heroine who will ever sit around waiting to be rescued, not when she can take care of things herself. Sure, she’s not perfect—she has moments of fear, overreacting, and drama—but she’s good in a fight and loyal to a fault.
Then you have Bram, the zombie soldier who manages to hold on to his humanity even as he accepts that someday, he’ll lose it and have to be put down for his own good. He’s remarkably down-to-Earth and well-adjusted under the circumstances. As love interests go, Nora could do a whole lot worse, even though they both understand just how impractical and ultimately unfeasible their romance is. The chemistry is slow-burning but visible, and makes sense under the circumstances.
Honestly, I also really enjoyed the bits of the story told from the viewpoint of Pamela “Pamma” Roe, Nora’s best friend. At first, she comes off as the typical best friend/second banana, there to provide comfort and moral support when the heroine gets in trouble. However, once things get messy, she proves quite formidable and adaptable, traits which come in handy along the way.
The rest of the supporting cast, from the eccentric bunch at Company Z, to Nora’s father, to the distastefully snooty Vespertine Mink, all help to keep things interesting. Habel lends each member of the sprawling ensemble a distinct voice and reason to be present, from Doc Samedi (he of the removable head) to the fiercely independent Chas (don’t call her Chastity).
There’s a strong, sly sense of humor running through this book, helping to lighten the otherwise dark themes and situations. It’s not something that can be easily picked out and identified; rather, it manifests in turns of phrase, surprising moments of levity, unexpected quips and character viewpoints. One minute you’re contemplating the inevitable (final) death of the zombie characters, the next you catch yourself chuckling at a zombie using the phrase “nummy, nummy tofu.” It’s the sort of humor that sneaks up on you.
The setting is fascinating. Okay, so maybe the list of problems befalling the human race between now and then, in order to get us from now until then, is a tad overkill. Flooding + killer influenza + nuclear war + the Yellowstone supervolcano? It’s a wonder anyone survived! But Habel’s depiction of a society that embraces all the superficial elements of the Victorian age, while willfully blinding themselves to the dark side of that period makes perfect sense in context. It’s both a coping mechanism for a people absolutely devastated by disaster, and a subtle jab at today’s steampunk culture, which loves gadgets and goggles and ignores the cultural implications of the era. (But I’m not here to get into that. Discuss amongst yourselves if you like.) The blend of futuristic technology and idealized manners is clearly fertile ground for some fascinating stories, especially once we start to see the cracks in the façade.
I could go on. I could talk about the action scenes, or the fun bits in which today’s culture survives in unexpected ways, leading to the creation of music forms like “gangstagrass.” I could talk about the social commentaries, the musing on life versus death, or the beautiful cover. But I fear I’m already running long. So let me just point out once again that Dearly, Departed is a wonderful book, with strong writing and memorable characters. It’s one of the best YA books I’ve read all year, and that’s saying something for me. With its combination of humor, adventure, romance, and “awesome stuff,” it’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend. I can’t wait for the sequel.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at www.michaelmjones.com/wordpress.