Empire of the Dead, by David Wake
I absolutely loved this book! So much so that, in a strange twist of fate, I'm struggling somewhat to produce a review that isn't simply me writing 'buy this book!!' in 78 point font.
Empire of the Dead is a steampunk zombie proto-apocalypse set during the height of British Imperialism. The novel takes the reader from snowy Switzerland, across Europe and back to London, meeting a whole cast of fascinating and sometimes downright horrible characters along the way.
While Empire of the Dead can certainly be described as a 'romp', an 'adventure', and at times even a 'horror', Wake does a fantastic job of keeping the various influences and subplots in check, so that at no point did I feel confused or overwhelmed by what was happening. That in itself is a testament to the writing. There is a lot of world-building to be done here, but Wake manages it with easy panache. Having said that, I can imagine that for some readers this mix of genres might be jarring, but as a writer who also likes to play fast and loose with categories, it was very much to my taste. Still, I have to say that although I admire Wake's skill as an author, this isn't the reason why I loved this book so much.
So why am I finding myself all giddy over this novel? The characters.
I am a reader who can get along with most any genre, if I can connect with the characters. I don't even have to like them. As long as they are interesting and layered, I'm pretty much guaranteed to like the book. In Empire of the Dead, we are introduced to the Derring-Do sisters, Earnestine, Georgina and Charlotte Deering-Dolittle, as they endeavor to save Britain from a horde of zombies.
Earnestine, Georgina, and Charlotte are at loggerheads when we meet them. Stuck away in a Swiss boarding school for girls, eldest sister Earnestine has flatly refused to allow herself or her two younger sisters to go on any adventures. So it is something of a shock to the incredibly sensible and somewhat severe Earnestine to find herself traipsing through a forbidden part of the school, on the lookout for mysterious foreign men.
It is while Earnestine is thus pre-occupied that zombies attack the school, casting the three sisters adrift. Earnestine finds herself kidnapped by Austrian mystery man, Pieter; Georgine is rescued by an adorably drippy Brit, Merryweather; Charlotte sneaks aboard a zeppelin and winds up impersonating a princess and marrying a... well, the less said about who she ends up married to, the better.
It may seem from the above that this is a story about women - no, girls - being rescued or kidnapped or married off, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. All three sisters are fiercely, wonderfully independent, determined and capable. Earnestine, in particular, has my heart - she is a perfect representation and subversion of the stereotypical British lady of old, with her focus on manners and etiquette and being seen to do the right thing, right up to the moment when she has to do something 'unseemly', like jump across carriages on a speeding train, or fight soldiers in a zeppelin, or fall in love. Then we get a glimpse of the woman behind the upbringing, and she is exceptional. There is a space somewhere between Buffy Summers and Esme Weatherwax, and that is where you'll find Earnestine.
Georgina and Charlotte, however, should not be overlooked. Georgina is in many ways much more sensible than Earnestine (though I wouldn't like to be the person to put that supposition to her). Georgina lives in the real world and in the now; she is in touch with her emotions and uses them to guide her and - more often than not - to save both herself and Merryweather. Charlotte is perhaps my least favourite of the three as she is by far the most clueless of the sisters, but then she is also the youngest and one suspects is desperate to rebel against her strict oldest sister, so I think her behaviour can be forgiven to a degree. That isn't to say, however, that there weren't moments when I wanted to give her a very serious dressing down.
The characterisation is this novel is very well done, not just in terms of their actions but also in the way the world changes when seen through each sisters' eyes. The 'Empire' - which of course we know as a hugely shameful part of British history, with its colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and arrogance - is both lauded and derided. Equally, a major plot point in the novel centres around the concept of birth and heritage, and that if one were only born of the right family (or manages to marry in) the world would be theirs for the taking by dint of their natural superiority. There is critique and satire here, but it is very lightly done and naturally managed. Certainly, at no point did I feel I was being 'taught to', but rather by the end of the novel I found myself thinking a lot about this world the Deering-Dolittles inhabit.
Finally, this novel is incredibly funny! Laugh out loud funny. The humour comes in most cases from the characters, which is my favourite kind, but there are some wonderfully staged pieces of comedy as well - again, another neat trick that displays Wake's talents.