Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

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Blood of the Four – The Antagonist Protagonist

y450-293An interesting stand alone found its way into my lap this month, courtesy of the lovely people at Harper Voyager. The Blood of the Four, a joint work by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, tells a story of dark fantasy, people large and small, and a nefarious queen with a secret agenda. The book has a huge multitude of POVs that follow royalty, slaves, priests, and artists – each with a small piece of the story. The weird and interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t really a protagonist in the story – other than the antagonist. The division of narration falls 50% on the antagonist, Phela, and 50% on a number of other bit characters. Spending so much time with a woman that you desperately want another character to murder was a strange experience, but it certainly was memorable.

The book takes place in the kingdom of Quandis, a fantasy city state founded on the bones of four godlike sorcerers. Unfortunately, the magic of the four is no longer around – but the legacy of power and splendor that they established is still going strong. The city is led by a group of royals, pampered aristocrats who have their every whim indulged. Far below the royals and normal folk are the Bajuman. Forced into a slave like existence despite their huge numbers, the people of Quandis are taught at an early age to ignore the Bajuman no matter what. Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. However, Princess Phela’s desire for power and flagrant disregard for others is changing everything as she makes a bid for godlike power.

The characters of the book are its selling point. As I mentioned, the really unique thing about Blood of the Four is that its protagonist is sorta the antagonist. Phela manages to both be extremely dislikable and still captivating to read, which is a very rare combination. She does this through excellent exposition, with the authors revealing just enough of her plan and thoughts to keep you interested in what she will do next. Besides her, there is a litany of other bit pieces that you will come to know. For how little time we get with each, I was surprised how much I quickly got to care about the small characters. A mild spoiler is that a major theme of the book is that, while all the small bit pieces seem unrelated at first, you will quickly begin to realize that they have a lot more overlap than initially realized and that many of them know each other. The fusion of the many small POVs into a larger group POV is seamless and beautifully done.

As a mild warning, the book is extremely graphic in both sex and violence. My other contributors like to claim I am basically a puritan inquisitor when it comes to sex in novels, but I actually didn’t mind the over the top scenes in Blood of the Four as they felt like they fit the intense voice of the novel. I also really appreciate the choice to make Blood of the Four a standalone book, as Christopher and Tim use a number of character narrative tricks and surprises to keep the book exciting – but that wouldn’t work well in a longer series. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate the culture and world building.

I have never actually read a book before and disliked the culture, so this is a weird topic for me. I brought up briefly before that the Bajuman, a slave like race of people, live in the lowest rung of society in Quandis. They play a major role in the story and their cultural standing is a major part of the driving force that moves the plot along (i.e., they are treated terribly and several characters want to stand up to Phela to stop this). My main issue is that Blood of the Four claims that this is a world where the Bajuman are SO looked down on, that it is so ingrained to ignore these people, that many cannot even get their brain to recognize that Bajuman exist. There are multiple scenes where Bajuman are literally invisible because royals have been conditioned to ignore them so much. It is a weird over the top recurring plot point, and I found it pulled me out of the story immediately every time that it happened. This, plus the fact that the plot is not the most original I have read, dampened its otherwise really positive character and narrative qualities.

Blood of the Four is a unique read for both its strengths and its weaknesses. I recommend you check it out just to experience the weird prantagonist. The intense prose and strong characters of Christopher and Tim make me want to check out their additional work, but the offputting worldbuilding in Quandis makes me glad that this is just a stand alone. Overall though, I had a pretty good time with Blood of the Four and think you might too.

Rating: Blood of the Four – 6.5/10
-Andrew