Not Dead Yet – Books I & II
1859 – The zenith of the reign of Queen Victoria, and of the British Empire that is ruled in her name. It controls a quarter of the globe, and the sun never sets on it – indeed, it seems like nothing can threaten its might. Apart from the hordes of the living dead that are currently decimating Ireland, Scotland and large swathes of England, of course. In its greatest time of need, the people of Britain look to the redcoats of the British Army to keep them safe from the undead, and in particular the greatest hero that the Army has produced since Wellington – Captain Jack “Strappy” Strapper. Hero of the fight against the undead hordes, lone survivor of bitter fighting in both Ireland and Scotland, if anyone can turn the tide and save Britannia, then it must surely be the gallant Strapper?
Unfortunately for Britain, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Far from being a saviour, “Strappy” is an unrepentant coward, a man who only joined the Army because he didn’t have a choice in the matter, and has only survived the apocalypse thus far due to the efforts and sacrifices (the latter often the direct result of Strapper trying to save his own skin at the expense of anyone else) of far better and braver men and women. His entire reputation is an utter sham, and ensuring that it isn’t exposed, and his privileged life ruined, is Strapper’s only goal in life. Well, that and not being eaten by the living dead.
I have a huge weakness for books with protagonists that are rogues and anti-heroes, particularly if said anti-hero is written in the first-person, breaks the fourth-wall to speak to the reader, and is actually a coward or weakling that is trading on an undeserved reputation. My bookcases are filled with the likes of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers (by far the greatest of the archetype), Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns and Prince of Fools, and by far my favourite, the Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell. These are all brilliantly written books with well-rounded characters, and in my opinion I think that Strapper and the Not Dead Yet novels deserve to sit alongside them.
Each of the characters in the above-mentioned stories have at least one likeable or redeeming trait, no matter how slight; Flashman is hugely witty and entertaining, Jorg in Prince of Thorns has a great line in cynical observations, and Commissar Cain is actually highly competent and well-liked by the soldiers he leads, despite his own doubts. It says a lot about the skill of the author that by the end of the two novels, I came to like Strapper immensely and rooted for him during the last stands in Scotland and Ireland, despite the fact that he is an utterly horrific human being, and one who has no real redeeming qualities. He lies, cheats and defrauds – as is common for the type of character – but also frequently uses human shields, tries to blackmail people almost by default, begs for mercy whenever the situation turns against him even slightly, and is generally a terrible soldier who can barely lift a sword, let alone hold his own in a fight.
Strapper is therefore a well-written and engaging character, despite his multitude of flaws, and the rest of the novels are of the same quality. The supporting characters that feature in both books are often stereotypes, but entertaining nonetheless, and the time period is also well described – the author has obviously done more research than briefly reading a few Wikipedia pages for mid-19th Century Britain. There’s plenty of fighting in the two books, all well described, and in particular the battle scenes outside the walls of Edinburgh, as elements of the British Army mount a desperate defence against a million-strong zombie horde, are vividly written and reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books in quality.
In fact, I think that these battle scenes may well be the most promising part of the series. Apart from the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mashup and its sequels, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of Napoleonic/Victorian zombie fiction, especially not one with a military focus. As such, Not Dead Yet is exploring a mostly untapped area in the zombie apocalypse genre, and as such shows a huge amount of promise. If the follow-up novels in the series can continue to marry a well-written protagonist and good plotting with more large-scale battles against the undead (I’m imagining a panic-stricken Strapper caught in a Waterloo-style battle outside London and my mouth is figuratively watering at the thought) then I think this series will go far.
The first book in the Not Dead Yet series is currently only 99p on Amazon, and is well worth a read if you like well-written zombie apocalypse stories with a 19th Century-twist, and populated with a cast of entertaining characters, and a protagonist who becomes agreeable despite being an utter blackguard.