Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative.
This book is ridonkulous and I don't mean that in a good way.
I was hoping I'd enjoy The Last Bastion of the Living because I've found Frater's other zombie work to be highly entertaining. But whereas those books were entertaining enough to overcome their flaws, the flaws in The Last Bastion of the Living are its undoing. Any issues I had with As the World Dies were turned up to 11 here. It's not that it wasn't entertaining at all, and had it been a movie I might have been able to turn my brain off enough to just enjoy it. But as a book it's something of a hot mess, weighed down by awkward writing (an overload of dialog tags, too many adverbs, etc.), poorly defined characters, and plot "twists" that were either completely predictable or completely absurd.
It opens with what has to be one of the single most incompetent military endeavors in the history of mankind. It felt like no one prepared for a damn thing; certainly no one prepared for the battle plans to go tits up, and you should always plan for that because it happens a lot. So of course the battle does go tits up and our heroine, Maria...barely manages to scrape herself and her future love interest out alive, in the meantime losing her ovaries and stuff to some stray shrapnel from a grenade that some panicking idiot dropped at our heroes' feet. Yeah, real organized, this lot. I really found myself missing Torin Kerr from Tanya Huff's Confederation series. She'd just be like "Marines! I don't care if you have to rip the limbs off those zombies and beat them to death with them! Get the job done!" And they would. But then there'd be no setup for the rest of the book, so completely incompetent military it is, then.
We then jump a year forward, to where Maria is having a secret affair with Dwayne, her superior, the guy she rescued, and also yet another of Frater's nauseatingly perfect, disgustingly sweet and wonderful love interests. Blah. Boooooooored. What time in the book isn't spent on the absurd plot is spent carrying on about how perfect Maria and Dwayne are for each other, how great they are together, how much they understand each other and fit together and everything is perfect and sunshine and daisies and rainbow-colored unicorn farts. Even when it turns out that the so-called vaccine that would make Maria "immune" to the zombie virus actually turns her into a thinking but otherwise dead zombie, Dwayne barely bats an eyelash. No offense to my husband, but I'd have serious moments of doubt in that situation.
So Maria is recruited for a top secret mission to get rid of the zombies, which involves among other things a special vaccine that keeps people from turning into zombies themselves. And like, the fact that there is an all too convenient (and of questionably scientific validity) reason why they're not just passing this vaccine out to the citizens of the Bastion really should have alarm bells going off in Maria's head. But no, the entire situation is so fishy you could open a sushi restaurant and it still takes our entire cast forever and a day to figure out that this is not on the up and up. Even after they understand what the "vaccine" really does, Maria and her fellow zombie-busting crew still believe the scientists have an antidote and can cure their zombiefied states. Hello, if they had a fucking antidote, wouldn't they use it on the zombies? This is not rocket science, these people should have been able to tell well in advance that they were being fed bullshit.
Many of the plots convolutions require spoiler tags to even get into, and most of them a reader could see coming a mile away anyway. It's as obvious as broad daylight. The only "twist" that isn't obvious, that comes as any sort of surprise at all, only manages to do so because it takes a sudden sharp turn onto What the Fuck Street. It was one of those literal so bad it's hilarious moments, when it turns out that the disease that created the zombies was found in an alien space pod! And people didn't know what it was, so they just messed with it! And it got turned into a biochemical zombie weapon! But actually the aliens were our special benefactors and also massively stupid, so they printed instructions on how to use the chemical in a weave of cloth rather than on paper as they should've been aware we tend to do things! And it's really not a zombie disease at all but the recipe for immortality! But the original formula was basically gone and the attempts to recreate it produced thinking zombies that degenerated into flesh eaters, and that's what will happen to Maria and her crew, so they all have to be eliminated! Rocks fall, everyone dies! But wait! Maria was actually given the only remaining dose of the original immortality serum that one of the scientists somehow got her hands on, so while everyone else is blown to bits, Maria escapes! And she becomes an immortal being, forever immune to the zombie virus and free from danger from them because they recognize the serum in her and won't attack her, and her ovaries grow back so she can have bebies! And Dwayne joins her and all she has to do is kiss him, which she does, which turns him into a special immortal zombie-protected non-zombie! And they walk off into the sunset to kill zombies and live happily ever after with their special immortal bebies! No, I'm not fucking with you, that is really what happens. Twilight The Last Bastion of the Living means never having to say you're kidding.
As mentioned, a lot of the problems I've had with Frater's writing in the past where here in full force. She's terrible about adverbs, overloading sentences with them, and she is especially in love with the word "slightly." People "slightly shrug" or "slightly smile" or "slightly whatever" all the time. Her style is far too often more tell than show, meaning you get painful bits of description like this:
The handsome man with the killer looks and wide grin that was so pleasing to the public fastened a glower upon the commandant that was far removed from his public face.
She also really can't let go of special dialog tags. When a writer uses dialog tags, somewhere between 70-90% of them need to be simply "said." (The ratio depends on a lot of factors, and I have read exactly one author in my life who had the skill to use "said" 100% of the time and manage to still communicate the tone of every single line of dialog.) But Frater uses a constant barrage of other dialog tags which do little to convey real tone, convey the wrong tone, or in other ways fail to add to the tone of the writing. For example:
"I hate being in the dark," Dwayne complained.
"I will attempt to remedy that," Petra vowed.
"You really are a tenacious creature," Dwayne mused.
Like, obviously Dwayne is complaining in the first line. His words say as much clearly. Vow is a strong word for Petra's line, but you can still recognize a promise there, even if the words themselves are awkward. And I'm not sure why the word "mused" is used in the last line, as that seems more like a statement or a remark. Each one separately would have been less of a problem and their use would have bothered me a lot less had they not been stacked one atop the other, but that's how Frater does it. The dialog is like this throughout. As well, she often has her characters speak without any contractions, which comes across even more awkward, and really sticks out.
Then of course there are some issues with how she presents PoC. I've had some hesitations about this aspect of her work for a while now, and then we get stuff like this:
The big, beautiful black man with the wonderful smile threw out his arms to welcome the tiltrotor crew.
Now, maybe you're thinking "Gosh, the writing is terrible but that seems otherwise innocuous." The thing is, it's sort of stacks atop the problems I already had with her other zombie books. Black men never make it out of Rhiannon Frater zombie books alive, for one thing (black women have a much higher ratio of survival, but it's important to point out that there are issues there as well, like one of her black female characters being a stereotype of an overweight woman with attitude). But in said other zombie books, there's a part that really stuck out to me. The two main characters of As the World Dies (Katie and Jenny) talk about one of the black male characters like...well, they talk about how gorgeous he is, like a black hero from a movie, and how because he's such a hunk that totally means he's going to survive to the end. Not shockingly, he does not. He doesn't even survive that far into the book, all told. It's a little hard to explain the full vibe without the relevant quotes, but instead of feeling inclusive, it all comes off stereotyping and fetishizing. Surely there's a way to show that white people are not actually the standard of beauty and that PoC are plenty attractive too without it coming off quite so creepy.
There's also this, the explanation Maria gives for how the virus began:
"The first incident was in India. The Inferi Scourge appeared and ravaged the country. Within days the Scrags had the upper hand. Pakistan fired their nuclear arsenal on India claiming that they had to protect themselves. What remained of India's government fired back, and the area was decimated. The world thought that the Scrags had been destroyed, and then they appeared in Israel a few months later. Israel's government initiated a kill order. Anyone infected was immediately destroyed. The Arab nations attempted to invade while Israel was dealing with the Scrags; Israel used their nuclear arsenal on their enemies." Maria furrowed her brow, trying to recall the details. "I believe that is when the world started an embargo against the Middle East."
I really hate the "zombie virus as terrorist weapon" plot because I'm from the Western world where we're convinced that the word "terrorist" only ever applies to brown people. It's icky that in this book, that's what you get. Frankly, when you add up white colonialism/imperialism and the greed of the Western world that causes it even now to place/keep in place dictators in such regions of the world (all while speaking against said dictators, nice hypocrisy), well, let's just say I'm really not afraid of brown people unleashing the zombie apocalypse on the world. Also, "the Arab nations"? What in god's name does that mean? Which nations? Am I really the only person skeeved out by the way she just homogenizes multiple cultures based on their ostensible ethnic background? And then goes "Wahh, the evil Middle East attacked poor innocent Israel!" She shows no awareness of or sensitivity towards the complex geopolitical issues at hand. She just stereotypes the hell outta everything.
She also whitewashed the cover. I know, Maria is supposed to be undead at the time, but 1) she is still Latina and described as having tan skin early in the book, and 2) anyone reading the book won't know that right away, so there's no reason for Maria to look like a German whose melanin has filed for divorce.
My final beef: I'm always getting lied to about Frater's main characters. First it was Katie, who supposedly uses her brilliant analytical mind for great things in The First Days except she does not. Emphatically does not. She never once does, she isn't clever or brilliant at all and isn't in any way a real asset to the remaining survivors. She's just there, being boring and having a boring relationship with a boring man. Similarly, everyone (including various reviewers and Maria herself) talk about what a badass Maria is, but what does she do that's badass? What? Hint: "She goes out and fights zombies!" is not a valid answer. Some 40 people go out to fight zombies in this book. This is 2013. A woman fighting does not automatically qualify her for badass status.
I'll tell you what Maria does: Nothing. She does nothing that separates her from any of the other characters in the book. She does not solve problems, she does not use her brain, she does not manage to save anyone but herself and the man she loves. She's not the one who uncovers that something suspicious is going on. She is merely there, killing zombies and wallowing in her emotions and largely being swept along by events. That. Is. Not. Badass.
There were some other problems with the book, like numerous inconsistencies, but if you really still want to read it after all that, I'm sure you'll find them yourself. They're not exactly easy to miss.