I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.
I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.
Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.
Okay, let’s begin.
Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.
This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.
When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.
Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.
Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.
So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.
Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.
Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.
This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!
Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.
Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.
Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.
PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!