Sunday, July 20, 2014

Death Warmed Over

"You can rot in hell!"
"I'd prefer not to rot anywhere."
- Straight Edge member and Dan Chambeaux
     I have something of a checkered history with the books of Kevin J. Anderson. He first appeared on my radar with his New Jedi Academy trilogy of Star Wars books, a series of books that, while competently written enough, were incredibly silly and involved a new superweapon called the Sun Crusher. New Jedi Academy was, perhaps, not the weapons-grade atrocity that R.A. Salvatore and Michael Stackpole would later unleash unto the expanded universe, but Anderson's book is full of weird narrative choices and introducing a new character who winds up riding the Sun Crusher around and declaring open war on the remainder of the Empire, all of which gives one pause. His other major track record, also focused on ruining my teenage years, is the expanded Dune series, an expansion of a series that should have stopped at book one, maybe book two the first time. In short, recoiling at his name and finding a nice Stephen Hunt book to curl up in has always seemed like the best option. 

                                But, as I have said repeatedly, the only thing you have to lose when you pick up a book-- even by an author you don't like-- is the time you spend reading it*. So when my dad handed me a copy of Death Warmed Over, the first entry in Kevin J. Anderson's Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series, at first I looked upon it with mild apprehension, but then decided to give it a shot. After all, I had nothing to lose, and it would either give me another gleefully dissenting review, or a surprising success to write for all of you guys. And I was at least interested in the novel, considering it started out with the hero being stalked by a werewolf hitman so he could rescue a kitschy painting of zombie dogs for a ghost who seems modeled slightly off of Andy Warhol.

And, well, guys, I think it's "Caius Admits He's Wrong" month. Because while no one would ever think that Death Warmed Over is great literature, it's a tremendously fun read, and if this is what Kevin J. Anderson wants to do with himself, then I welcome it with open arms and I'll admit that I might be wrong about him being as horrible as the other expanded universe authors I mentioned above. It's a delightful, light book that reminds me of law-procedural dramedies, only with a heavily supernatural twist. And it's a great summer read, if nothing else.

More, as always, below. 

                            Death Warmed Over is the story of Dan Chambeaux, a private detective working for the law firm of Chambeaux and Deyer with his partner Robin Deyer. Chambeaux, whom several characters call "Shamble" as a mean-spirited joke, was shot in the head slightly before the events of the story. But due to an event called "The Big Uneasy", Chambeaux is back as a zombie and ready to reassume his case load, plus one more: Find out who murdered him. Between his ghostly paralegal girlfriend and his surprisingly vicious yet humanitarian boss, though, Dan has a lot of work ahead of him. A vampire is being harassed by anti-unnatural protesters. A mummy is trying to claim the rights to his own body, as the museum is none too happy about their exhibit wandering around and demanding his property back. A witch's sister accidentally turned herself into a pig using a misprinted spellbook from Howard Phillips Publishing (who also publish an annotated version of the Necronomicon endorsed by Abdul Al-Azred himself). And somehow this is only the tip of the iceberg in a city where trolls rent out disused crypts and a family's favorite uncle has come to live with them permanently after dying.Something deeper, something darker, is on its way through the city, and it's down to Chambeaux and Deyer to find out what that is. 

                                I suppose the main thing I like about Death Warmed Over is the effort put into the world and its inhabitants. Anderson clearly knows how all his systems work, and there are some interesting spins on concepts, such as zombies reanimating even after their bodies are completely dismembered and a host of vampires getting allergic reactions to shampoo infused with garlic. Morticians now work in beauty salons, and the local taxidermist is a cheerful woman who offers medical care to zombies, as she is used to working with things that are already dead. The world pops with each new detail and makes room to accept it, making it all the richer. It seems like something Anderson spent a lot of time on, and he wants the reader to take notice of it as much as anything else. And it works. The world enriches its colorful characters, and it makes the book that much more fun to read. 

                             Which leads me into my next point, the characters. Dan is an excellent lead, but the real star of the story is his partner, Robin Deyer. Walking the line somewhere between cutthroat and entirely by the book, she's easily the most interesting of the cast, a cast that includes two murder victims trying to bring their killer to justice, a nebbishy vampire who wants people over for fondue and cribbage, and a witch who tries to spin a spellbook litigation into a successful publishing career. The best moments of the book actually come when Dan, Robin, and their ghostly paralegal (and Dan's girlfriend) Sheyenne are hanging around the office and taking good-natured jabs at each other, or working out the negotiations between cases. It feels like a group dynamic that works well with each other, and they toss quips back and forth in a way that sounds natural. Reading this book, I wanted to be part of these people. I wanted to be around them and hanging out with them. And Robin being able to hold two publishers hostage in one moment, and then have a freakout because they hadn't paid admission to a museum in the next was an excellent part of that.

                              However, the main bone I have to pick with the book is that it would work a lot better if Anderson didn't try to put the plot together as one complete arc from beginning to end. The story works best when it's on display in episodic moments, and I think something closer to an episodic series of short stories tied together at the end, with callbacks and ending in a wrap-up of the overarching plot in the last section of the book (a la Callahan's Crosstime Saloon) would have served a lot better than the plot as it phases in and out of various cases, chasing a central thread but never quite catching it over the course of the book entire. When the plot finally comes together, it makes sense and ends in a very satisfying way. But until that point, until things start going wrong, it kind of just hangs in space, occasionally clearing its throat nervously to remind people that it's there. It also doesn't help that several of the key clues are beyond obvious, though this does make it easier to "play along". 

                          But a plot needing rejiggering is a small quibble in a book that's supposed to be a light read in the first place. Death Warmed Over is a bright, breezy read that reminds me a little of legal-procedural dramedies, albeit with more emphasis on comedy and astonishingly little darkness. What moments of darkness there are are used appropriately, and as far as summer reads about zombie detectives go (and that's not as narrow a superlative as it seems), you could do a hell of a lot worse than Dan Shamble and Death Warmed Over. So pick this one up from the library. Do an interlibrary loan if you have to**. All you have to lose is your time, and this is one of the more enjoyable ways to lose it. 

- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
- An interesting experiment known as "Sequential Epics Week"


*Unless it's George Mann or Lev Grossman or Rod Rees, at which point you're also sacrificing braincells or have stopped caring or have given up on life. Possibly all three
**Geek Rage/Strange Library does not condone the practices of libraries that charge money for interlibrary loans. If your library is one of the ones that charges for this service, lodge a complaint with your local township and ask why they do it. GR/SLMG also does not condone paying for a copy of Death Warmed Over if you don't have to. 

No comments:

Post a Comment