Author: Lia Habel
Title: Dearly, Departed
Series: Gone with the Respiration (#1)
Publisher: Del Rey (October 2011)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Love conquers all, so they say. But can Cupid’s arrow pierce the hearts of the living and the dead—or rather, the undead? Can a proper young Victorian lady find true love in the arms of a dashing zombie?
The year is 2195. The place is New Victoria—a high-tech nation modeled on the manners, mores, and fashions of an antique era. A teenager in high society, Nora Dearly is far more interested in military history and her country’s political unrest than in tea parties and debutante balls. But after her beloved parents die, Nora is left at the mercy of her domineering aunt, a social-climbing spendthrift who has squandered the family fortune and now plans to marry her niece off for money. For Nora, no fate could be more horrible—until she’s nearly kidnapped by an army of walking corpses.
But fate is just getting started with Nora. Catapulted from her world of drawing-room civility, she’s suddenly gunning down ravenous zombies alongside mysterious black-clad commandos and confronting “The Laz,” a fatal virus that raises the dead—and hell along with them. Hardly ideal circumstances. Then Nora meets Bram Griswold, a young soldier who is brave, handsome, noble . . . and dead. But as is the case with the rest of his special undead unit, luck and modern science have enabled Bram to hold on to his mind, his manners, and his body parts. And when his bond of trust with Nora turns to tenderness, there’s no turning back. Eventually, they know, the disease will win, separating the star-crossed lovers forever. But until then, beating or not, their hearts will have what they desire.
In Dearly, Departed, romance meets walking-dead thriller, spawning a madly imaginative novel of rip-roaring adventure, spine-tingling suspense, and macabre comedy that forever redefines the concept of undying love.” GoodReads’ blurb
Everyone has been talking about Dearly, Departed... and now I know exactly why.
When this book came out, there were a lot of sceptical folks around. Myself included. The first concern was about Bram, of course. How could a zombie make for a good love interest? My greatest fear was that, in making the male lead acceptable for the heroine, the author would have stripped him of anything remotely zombie-like, so that we ended up with yet another take of undead insta-love with little to no plot, and only the name of the supernatural creature being changed from the story that’s been retold one hundred times already.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Bram is a zombie. The real thing. There’s a whole team of doctors taking care of him, so he isn’t rotting away, but he’s dead. He can’t heal, so he’s full of scars putting him together for every time he’s suffered an injury. His skin is cold and leathery. His eyes can see just fine, but they still have the milky veil of death about them. He doesn’t eat brains, but he feels the urge to do so constantly on the back of his mind. And yet, I completely adore him.
In Dearly, Departed, as tradition dictates, zombie-fication comes under the form of a disease of sorts that spreads through bodily fluids, like blood or saliva. The disease kills the person, and then ‘reboots’ them. What’s new, what makes the real difference, is that Lia Habel provides a perfectly viable explanation for some zombies to awaken with their minds intact. Those zombies, who still hold their morals and their humor and their kindness, are the ones we will be cheering on. That’s the reason Bram is so easy to love.
In spite of his loveable nature, though, Nora won’t be falling for him all that soon. Probably neither will the reader. It’s the small bits told in his point of view, his conversations with Nora, his steady leadership, his sense of honor and duty and right and wrong that will make us, and her, fall in love. And that’s one of the best aspects: the characters are very well built, their reactions are genuine, their feelings natural and not forced to suit the plot, as I might have feared from a zombie romance... But the fact is that, by the end, I’d have happily kissed Bram. Dead guy or not.
The rest of the ‘good zombies’, Company Z, are all equally well developed and easy to sympathize with. From Chas, the tomboy who ends up being Nora’s friend, to geeky Renfield and his mad electronic skills, all of them are the kind of people I’d hang out with. The kind of people I’d trust, because even though they know the living fear them or hate them, even though they know they’re only weapons to fight their more irrational ‘cousins’, they still do their best. With a smile.
While I’m focusing a lot on the undead population of the novel, because they’re after all the main conflict and the greater novelty, the human cast cannot be overlooked. At the beginning, I’d have my doubts about connecting with Nora – I wondered whether she’d be too much the ‘rebel lady’. She wasn’t. She was surprisingly level-headed, and in spite of some ideas that might be contrary to what the upper class found ladylike, she still behaved as I’d expect a girl of her position and upbringing to, which made her specially real and likeable. Her friend, Pamela, is equally good in that she has layers to her, and evolves in bounds and leaps through the plot.
The plot itself is not too complicated, if you want to sum up the whole story in a paragraph, and it might feel like it takes a little to get it rolling –there’s a whole world to set up, after all-, but I found it tight and full of uncertainties about what would happen. By the time I reached the end, though satisfying, I knew I’d do well to keep those uncertainties around, because I suspect the sequel, Dearly, Beloved, is going to make me cry... But that’s something else. The point is that, while some things are obvious, the reasoning behind the action is a mystery, and I didn’t know until the end how it’d work out.
I reckon some people complained about this book being told in too many Points of View. Well, there’re a lot. There’re five. But, because of them plot I just mentioned, all five of them are needed. The author wisely adjusts the dosage, so to speak, so that most of our story is told from Nora and Bram’s point of view, and then the other three come up when we really need to know what is going on in their respective storylines. Which means Pamela gets a chunk of action, and the other two fellows just enough to keep the plot as tight as it is, and our interest (and our stakes) as high as they are. That said, and taking into account that the voices are distinctive enough that if you skimmed reading whose chapter it was you could still tell within a couple of lines, the diversity didn’t bother me at all. On the contrary, I found it necessary and well executed.
So, as you can see, Dearly, Departed turned out to be one of the most solid and original books I’ve read in 2011. Definitely at the top in Young Adult. It looked like a must-read before I grabbed it, and now I confirm it: you should read this book. I’m thankful I did. Not only for the characters and the world and the story... but, to pseudo-quote Lia Habel in her acknowledgments page:
I’m thankful because, when everyone is fixated on eternal life and perfect bodies, Dearly, Departed has taught me the beauty of tragic decay.