Dearly, Departed (Dearly #1)
by Lia Habel
Dearly, Departed is one of the most enjoyable steampunk novels I’ve ever read, as the author skillfully puts Victorian customs down in a futuristic setting and then throws the crazy addition of zombies into the mix! It is, unfortunately, also a very frustrating novel in many ways, mainly because it has major flaws that stand in the way of a really terrific story.
In the year 2195, Nora Dearly is just coming out of a period of mourning for her father, who was a noted scientist, when her home is attacked by living corpses. She’s rescued by Captain Bram Griswold, a dashing young man who turns out to be not quite alive himself. There’s a difference between Bram’s brand of zombie, however, who have technically died but have retained their memories and personality, and those who are just mindless, violent cannibals.
There are a number of well-plotted action sequences, mostly involving escaping from the bad, flesh-eating zombies called Greys–there’s a particularly fantastic one involving a parasol being jammed into a, ahem, vulnerable part of an attacker’s face. I liked the explanations as to why the zombies crave fluids and proteins (their bodies are drying out and their own body tissues don’t rebuild on their own), as well as the fact that the author thought through the sicknesses and the “cures.” I also appreciated that there were attempts to explain why Victorian attitudes and customs were adopted again after hundreds of years, as in the rebuilding period after catastrophic world events, Nora’s ancestors viewed that era as a model of civil behavior, order, and prosperity. While you have to accept a certain amount of implausibility when you read any steampunk novel (okay, and any zombie novel, too), most of them don’t even try explore why the world might be the way it is.
I really loved how the author advanced technology in a way that also blended it with a punky, Neo-Victorian sensibility. In New Victoria, citizens are fitted with ID chips upon birth, they use pearly styluses with their digital diaries, there are flat screens mounted inside carriages, people use the Aethernet, and the world has been shaped by terraforming and holographic technologies. There are also polite nods to historical fact, including St. Cyprian’s School for Girls, observing a mourning period, coins in puddings, bustled gowns of “emerald faille with a fashionable ruffled hem that whispered upon the grass,” Elysian Fields, yellow journalism, various names of import including Alencar and Evola, the propriety of calling cards and visiting customs, taxidermy, china dolls, and so on and so forth. A lot of steampunk or novels with 19th century settings aren’t very well-researched, but this one does a fantastic job of imagining a possible future steeped in historical detail. One of my favorite touches was the ladies’ parasols with miniature electric gas lamps, whose color indicated her marriageability, including green for “a woman who wasn’t keen on men at all, but whose head could be turned by the sight of a pretty skirt.”
I’m also prone to get a little fussed over Victorian novels that have a faulty ear for the language–but somehow the author manages to combine surprisingly funny, modern dialogue with more formal speech and mannerisms in a convincing and winning way.
…I found little bottles of shampoo and soap and a toothbrush and the like, as well as a tiny brown glass vial of perfumed oil. It smelled of violets and chocolate.
Yeah, like I needed the zombies to find me any more delicious. That’d be like a cow wearing eau de gravy.
So why is this book rated in a more middling fashion? It has a few major flaws, and unfortunately the flaws are a serious impediment to the story. There are a number of characters who are too broadly drawn, including the improbably named Vespertine Mink, as well as the rather cartoonish villain; the zombie action also slows down considerably as the book wears on. The biggest issue, however, is the inclusion of FIVE first-person narratives, which severely detracted from the flow of the novel and pulls the reader in too many different directions. Focusing the book on just Nora and Bram would have tightened things up considerably, and we would not lose so much of the urgency of the action, especially since the additional POVs add nothing of particular value to the story. I mourn the missed opportunity for fixing these issues during the editing process, because this could so very easily have been a truly excellent book.
The parts of the book that were good were really entertaining, however, so I’d say that if you’re interested in steampunk, it’s definitely worth a read if you can borrow a copy, as long as you keep your expectations in check. I’m hoping that the next installment of this series will find a much more streamlined story that won’t alienate readers with a distracting and unnecessary framework–because this is an author with a lot of fantastic ideas who deserves an audience. Fingers crossed that Dearly, Beloved (Dearly #2) will be everything that Dearly, Departed almost achieved.
Rated 3 out of 5 stars
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.