September 28, 2014
Review: Dead Reckoning
Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a most peculiar little book. Genre-wise, it's a young adult zombie steampunk horror western, five disparate tastes that you wouldn't think would blend together at all. It's to the writers' credit (the authors are old pros Mercedes Lackey, author of the seemingly endless Valdemar series, and Rosemary Edghill, also known as eluki bes shahar, author of the vastly superior Hellflower science-fiction trilogy) that it blends as well as it does. Still, sometimes I got the feeling that they pulled several popular genres out a hat and flung them against the wall, just to see what would stick.
The hero/ine is Jett Gallatin, born Philippa Sheridan, riding West in search of her twin brother, lost in the aftermath of the Civil War. Jett is disguised as a man. And not just a man--a gambler, cardsharp and gunslinger, to boot. She binds her breasts to hide them, although I couldn't help wondering how she hides her periods (maybe that's why she wears nothing but black) and the fact that she can't pee standing up. Oh, and she rides a black STALLION! (Do Lackey and Edghill know how many stallions react to the presence of a menstruating woman? Although Nightingale does a number of atypically equine things--so much so that I half expected him to be some sort of werehorse and was rather disappointed when he wasn't. Given this story, were-beings would have fit right in.) She's rather traumatized by what she calls the War of Northern Aggression, and makes snarky cracks about damnyankees throughout. This is problematic, to say the least--did she not realize just what the Rebs were fighting to preserve? There were abolitionists way back then, you know. She'd have made a much stronger character if she'd acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Lincoln had some justification for his war, even if her family's plantation burned down.
(Oh wait. Her family's plantation? In Louisiana? That's definitely the eight-hundred-pound cotton gin in the room. After all, we can't admit that our hero/ine's family owned slaves, now can we?)
(As you can maybe tell, I didn't like Jett much.)
The book opens with a pure cliche scene--the lone gunslinger riding into a dusty, remote Texas town looking for someone, and stopping at the saloon. Then, just as Jett is about to draw down on Mister Trouble, the temperature drops 50 degrees and the zombies (which Jett conveniently recognizes because she's from New Orleans) come crashing into the room. They're stinking and decaying, but they're a bit more lively than your usual classic zombie--they're actually wielding weapons. Jett escapes by the hair of her stallion's tail (which is why I thought Nightingale might be more than just a horse) and the two of them gallop wildly off into the night.
After this we're introduced to the other viewpoint characters, Wapeshk Wakoshe, aka White Fox, and the fabulous Honoria Verity Providentia Gibbons. The former is another cliche, a white boy raised Indian, and a poorly characterized one at that. Truth be told, the book could have done without him altogether. But Honoria, aka "Gibbons," to my mind, could have and should have been the star of the show. She's an eighteen-year-old scientist, inventor and suffragette, driving across Texas in an early steam-powered car she designed, built and named the Auto-Tachypode! (That name is so delicious.) She is blonde, curvy and blue-eyed, but everything else about her--her pugnaciousness, her scientific mindset, her insistence on logic, her rejection of the traditional feminine roles of the time (because of her mother's death in childbirth and her father raising his only child to have every advantage a son would have had) turns that cliche on its head. She's just great. When the book opens, she's driving across Texas by herself, searching out and exposing the charlatans, con artists and snake-oil salesmen of the era.
Then, as the three protagonists come together, Gibbons is drawn into the mystery of Jett's and White Fox's zombies. At first she insists they don't exist, and when she realizes they do, she tackles the problem from a scientific point of view, trying to figure out how they were created and how to kill them. (Which turns out to be--spoiler!--a high-pressure stream of salt water shot from the Auto-Tachypode.) The plot is rather convoluted, but in the end the zombies and their creator, the right cunning semi-insane Brother Shepherd of the Fellowship of the Divine Resurrection, are blown to holy hell by a combination of gunpowder and Gibbons-created nitroglycerin, leaving a huge smoking crater where their lair used to be.
At that point, the three go their separate ways, although Jett reckons she'll see Gibbons again. I certainly hope not; I've had quite enough damnyankee-in', thank you. Now, if another book were to focus on Gibbons' pursuit of science and charlatans, I would gladly read it. Otherwise, no.
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