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Kaia

Kaia

Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative. 

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The First Days: As the World Dies

The First Days: As the World Dies - Rhiannon Frater Ah, zombie novels. For months now, I've been searching for a zombie novel I could truly enjoy, without much luck. Then along comes The First Days, a zombie apocalypse novel originally self-published by the author, Rhiannon Frater. It's always interesting when a self-published work gets scooped up by a big publishing house. One inevitably wonders what quality it could possibly have that would attract so much attention, big publishers like Tor would be interested. Well, I can only speak for myself. I enjoyed The First Days because it has something most modern zombie novels seem to lack:Zombies!I've been frustrated to no end by the shambling, ineffectual hordes of zombies in most of the books I've read. I'd gotten so sick of zombies that only appear like twice in five-hundred pages Newsflesh zombies, I'm looking at you that I'd given up even trying to read more zombie books. But on a strange whim, I picked up The First Days and ended up enjoying the hell out of it. It is unquestionably flawed, but at the same time, it's hella fun and exciting, with plenty of zombie action.The book was originally written as a series of vignettes, and it some ways that's helpful to it. The pacing is excellent, swinging from one epic zombie showdown to the next with only just enough time for the reader to catch their breath. On the other hand, it's detrimental in a few areas, too. Some character details feel like they were slapped on later on in the process, and those haven't been smoothed out by the editing work done by Tor. For example, there's Katie. I was pretty excited to find out that there was going to be a lesbian protagonist, but about halfway through, it's revealed that she's actually bisexual. Considering how much we learn about the characters, you'd think that would have come up before then, that there would at the least be hints. Yet there's absolutely no signs if it. Whether Frater thought it was unimportant or whether she lacks the skill for such subtly, I don't know. Now, the thing is, as a bisexual woman myself, I should be jumping for joy at this development (even if I'm pretty sure there's still more bisexual characters in speculative fiction than lesbians, or does that not count because Jacqueline Carey wrote 60% of them herself?) but...when Travis shows up and he and Katie have what can only be termed an insta-love moment, the cynical part of my brain thought "Oh, that's convenient. We never get to see her interact with her wife, who's zombified when the book begins, and now it ends with her totally digging a dude. Anything to make it heteronormative!" This is maybe not fair of me, but I can't help it. That's how I feel. (If you've read the blurb for the book here on Goodreads, that spoiler isn't much of a spoiler, in the end.)Similarly, Jenni suddenly picks up a Mexican heritage when she meets her designated love interest, Juan (who, if you can't tell, is Mexican himself). It's odd that we never get wind of this, since it was supposedly one of the things her abusive husband abused her with. Yet somehow we hear every insult he used against her but that. I'm less bothered by Jenni's case, and really, I love the character of Jenni. Jenni is strong, fragile, crazy, broken, and learning to be whole, all at once. The zombie apocalypse killed her children but also her abusive husband, and for her at least, it's a new lease on life. The conflicts that causes within her are interesting, and her spirited nature is a relief in comparison to some of the drippy females that can be found in zombie novels. Overall, the characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Jenni and Juan have delightfully fun chemistry together, and secondary characters Ralph and his wife Nerit (a former Israeli sniper!) are made of awesome and win. But Katie is a complete one-dimensional snoozefest who actually contributes very little. There's some nonsense on the back of the book about her using her "analytical mind" for blahdy blah blah, but that never happens. The most she does is make some of the early decisions when Jenni is too messed up to do it herself. Likewise, granola-wholesome nice guy Travis bores me to tears, and it's worse because I know, by the way he's written, that we're supposed to like him and root for him. Blech.One thing the characters are, though, is smart. Way smarter than in the average zombie novel. The enclave of survivors that Katie and Jenni fall in with are huddling in a town called Ashley Oaks, where Travis, Juan and their construction team are still in the middle of a construction project. Those materials and the construction workers are immediately put to use making a wall to keep the zombies out. They also use cranes to drop large supply crates on zombie heads and to position said crates as a corral to keep the zombies shut up, so survivors can get past them. They think about ammo conservation and make careful plans to expand their safe zone. They even--get this--they even go on a mission to the library to get books on survival, medicine, weapons-making, war, and other things that could help them survive. There are some stupid characters who rear their heads, of course--they promptly get their faces gnawed off by zombies, though. Another thing I liked about the book is that Rhiannon Frater doesn't try to throw lots of bad science at me. It's just "the undead have risen, the zombie apocalypse is nigh, grab a gun and let's go", which is a nice change of pace. It's not that I don't like science in my zombie books; the problem is that every author attempt I've seen has failed horribly. Bad science, bad research, bad everything. It's actually much easier for me to suspend disbelief in a book like The First Days, which draws no attention to anything to do with science, than it is for me to deal with a book that throws so much bad science at the problem that I can't stop ranting about it. Naturally, YMMV on this particular factor. The plot is one area that could be a bone of contention for potential readers. It doesn't have a strict beginning, middle, end structure and ends at a sort of abrupt, awkward spot. This isn't because nothing is happening, however; plenty happens, pretty much all of it relevant to the zombie apocalypse going down. It seems more like originally these were written as one whole work and were cut apart, leaving behind these problems. Happily for me, I don't necessarily need books to follow a structure so long as something as happening, but I can see why it would frustrate other readers. There's some other flaws as well. There seems to be some leaning towards stereotypes, for one thing. As of the first book, I chose to reserve judgment; however I intend to talk more about this in my review of the second book. The prose is fine and sometimes even really good, but there's a quality to it that, well, if a reader doesn't connect with it immediately, they probably won't at all. Which means, unfortunately, they won't connect with the book. If you don't get caught up in it immediately, the characters, while entertaining, are not good enough to pull you in regardless. The dialog is iffy at best, and starts out downright painful, without a contraction in sight, making everyone speak in the same stilted voice. It smooths out a bit as the book goes, but it also brings to light another flaw: the copy-editing is inconsistent and at times even a bit lazy. There's a number of small errors, and one page on which Katie is referred to as Kate numerous times. I'm kind of used to that sort of thing in Tor's books, which is maybe why I was able to ignore it. There were enough flaws that, even though I really enjoyed it (so much that I hurried out to buy the next one) I can't justify giving it more than four stars. And in the end, it's not the kind of book where I can say "I think people will like this." I can't honestly say that I do think that. I can, however, say this: If you're tired of your zombie novels lacking in hordes of the undead, The First Days is worth taking a shot on. One thing it is not short on is zombies getting their heads blown off.