It would be a lot easier to write a coherent review for Dearly, Departed if I hadn't been up all last night reading it. This is the first book in the “Gone with the Respiration” series by Lia Habel and the plot starts slow but once it really kicks in, WOW.
Dearly, Departed is a YA novel with steampunky Victorian science fiction and zombies and a rebel group called “punks” and a great romance tying everything together. I have to admit that in general, my love for Warm Bodies aside, I'm really grossed out by the whole concept of zombie/human romance and I wasn't sure this book would work for me. I'm pleased to say that I was wrong. It's an exciting and original and touching story and I loved the romance.
Here's the plot description as provided by the author's website:
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 disease 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.
So, let's just get this whole “I'm in love with a rotting dead guy” thing out of the way, because it tends to be a deal-breaker for me. People infected with the Laz virus can awaked in two states – either the feral, brainless state we associate with zombies, or a more lucid state that can be maintained by a high protein diet (any protein will do and tofu is quite popular), daily intravenous fluids, medication and maintenance (repair of injuries), and mental exercise. They are extremely pale, they look gaunt, and any injuries they incur can be repaired but not heal, so many of them have prosthetic parts and permanent stitches. They aren't smelly but they aren't cute, either. They're very dead.
Nora's initial reaction to the zombies is one of fear and revulsion, and as a reader I shared those feelings. I could not imagine how the author would get me to accept the romance. It's not so much their injuries that bother me as their basic, inescapable deadness. As the book progresses, Nora sees the zombies less as zombies and more as people, and I did to, until by the end of the book, it seemed completely natural and desirable for Bram to kiss Nora.
I was very impressed with the author for being able to take the reader on the same emotional journey as Nora. Bram's friends have varied personalities and feelings and motivations and they are just people, albeit people who sometimes carry their eyes around in their pockets to use only on special occasions (eyes wear out quickly).
It doesn't hurt that Bram and his friends work so hard to help Nora adjust to them. Nora stays in Bram's room (minus Bram) because his is the only door with a lot of locks (seven) and the zombies want her to feel like she can lock herself in and them out. Bram spends hours outside her room and eventually strikes a deal with her – she can ask him any question she wants, and if the answer makes her feel safer, she will unlock one lock. I like that the deal isn't just that he answers the question – she doesn't have to unlock the lock unless she actually feels a little safer.
It's also typical of their relationship. Bram offers her the truth as often as he can, even when forbidden to do so by others. I'm a sucker for truthfulness and I liked that he gave her the full story, as much as he could, even when the answer made a lock stay locked. Bram has enormous respect for Nora and eventually she gains a huge amount of respect for the courage he has to draw upon to face even the most routine day.
In addition the solid characterization, I was very impressed by the strength of the world building. Nora's culture is one that has survived various dystopian, almost apocalyptic events, and they are drawn to re-create the fashions and more of the Victorian Age out of nostalgia and a craving for order and civility. Putting the steampunk stuff in a futuristic context allows for some nice twists and variations on the genre, which sometimes gets trapped in the “just put some gears on it” world of cliché. The mixing of gears and holograms works well, and because there is a cultural and psychological underpinning to it it's more interesting than your basic Victorian Era steampunk. Also, there's a scientific explanation for how zombies work that, while I doubt it's totally solid, did not make me start slamming my head into my table. Kudos!
There are some traits to this book that make it not for everyone. I loathe it when people say they won't read YA because they don't want to read about teen angst, because not all YA is about teen angst. However, this book definitely had its share of angstyness. Both Nora and her best friend are capable of some truly whiny angst attacks. The story is told with first person narration and switches between multiple narrators. I don't consider that to be a flaw, but I recognize that it's a style that drives some readers up the wall. I didn't mind it and I thought each narrator had a distinct voice. I did think that the existence of not one, but two cartoony villains was pretty sloppy.
Although the book ends with a lead into the next book, it does manage to tie up the main parts of the first book's story. I just finished the second book in the series, and I didn't find it to be that engaging. There are even more narrators, and none of the characters really gets to shine. There were some parts that I liked very much, but for the most part it was a dutiful slog instead of a fast, exciting read. Despite the let down of the second book, I still recommend Dearly, Departed as a solid stand-alone romance. I'd suggest skipping the epilogue, which only exists to set up the next installment, and leaves the reader on a bit of a cliff. Based on it's own merits, Dearly is a great romance and a good read for sci-fi, dark fantasy, and steampunk fans.