J.L. Bourne’s cycle of zombie apocalypse novels feature a stilted, blunt writing style, virtually no dialog, and an awkward “journal entries” narrative gimmick. Yet, inexplicably, I can’t get enough of them.
I will probably never again write a book review in which I say so many terrible things about the work in question, then finish by telling you how much I loved it and can’t wait for the sequel. I was given Day By Day Armageddon as a gift at the recommendation of a high school student. The protagonist is a U.S. Navy officer stationed in Texas when the world goes all purple, rotted and shambling. He sees that the base is a deathtrap, secures his home from zombies, and holes up to survive, writing up his experiences on a website for as long as the Internet still works (switching to a written journal eventually).
In the first book, Mr. Protagonist (he’s mentioned by name so rarely I’ve forgotten it) meets up with some other survivors, is forced to flee seemingly safe locations several times, and ends up somewhere that seems like the ultimate place to hide from zombies. His military training provides some unique possibilities in terms of the plot, especially his ability to pilot aircraft. If you’re accustomed to Walking Dead style survivors who blunder from place to place without any kind of serious survival plan, you’ll be in for something new.
The second book, Beyond Exile, picks up immediately from the end of the first. It features a tighter focus on the military aspect, as Mr. Protagonist meets up with some surviving U.S. Marines, then suffers an incident on a scouting trip and is forced to make a long, dangerous journey back “home.”
The military angle makes sense considering that the author is an active duty naval officer – in fact, it seems like book three will be delayed somewhat, as he’s currently deployed in the Middle East. All that military experience informs a lot of the writing style of the books. There’s a certain bluntness of expression, a very direct way of constructing sentences, and a heavy reliance on military jargon and catchphrases. What’s funny is how you’ll find yourself talking the same way when you spend time reading these books. I don’t recommend asking your wife, “What’s the sitrep?” when you want to know what’s for dinner, is all I’m saying.
In any case, I don’t point out Bourne’s military tendencies as a criticism, but it’s a style not everyone may enjoy, particularly if you have little tolerance for lots of talk about guns and military buzzwords. Bourne does seem to violate pretty much every rule of good writing, though. He seems terrified to describe the characters in any kind of emotional terms. Other than Mr. Protagonist, everyone else ends up feeling like background clutter. They’re treated like next-door-neighbors, not vital people who’ve endured harrowing experiences together.
This includes Mr. Prot’s love interest, a girl he saved from zombies. Over the course of two novels, they apparently gradually fall in love and begin sleeping together. I say apparently because almost all of it happens off-screen. Tara has no dialog, and Mr. Prot never interacts with her other than the occasional mention in the journal (“I suppose Tara and I could be considered ‘an item’ now…”). He even hilariously dodges their first sex scene by saying, “Well, it finally happened, but I don’t want to cheapen it by writing about it here.”
The lack of dialog mystified me until later, when he attempted some, and I realized Bourne was better off giving dialog a wide berth. Here’s what Tara says to Mr. Prot when he returns from a months-long absence:
“I can’t believe you are here in front of me. I missed you so much. You were bringing back what they took away from me.”
You’ll find less stilted and awkward lines in 50s sitcoms. I’m not even sure from the context who they are – the zombies, presumably. The only convincing dialog is when someone in the military is giving someone else orders, and even then they seem to start every sentence with, “Shall we say…”
Now that I’ve finished trashing these novels in every possible way, let me tell you why I devoured them and will buy the next in the series the instant it’s released. Bourne’s pacing is masterful. Every time the characters get settled in somewhere safe, he throws new complications at them. It’s not a non-stop insane action flick – there are moments of quiet punctuated by bloody, terrifying battles. Things never get bogged down in one boring place (like, say, a farm) for too long – people drive and boat and fly planes and helicopters all over the remnants of the shattered U.S.
Despite their weird non-descriptiveness, the characters end up feeling so everyman and everywoman (and everydog) that you get freaked out when they’re in jeopardy. Plus, Bourne is weirdly inventive, coming up with startling settings and situations at every turn. The books are not predictable.
At the expense of a more detailed look into the feelings of the characters, Bourne instead lets Mr. Protag ruminate on the bigger picture. He worries about his parents, but knows they’re probably dead. He contemplates the loss of the luxury and safety humans had been accustomed to. He considers the new world that’s been created and how it affects people’s reactions, and what it might take to rebuild some semblance of normalcy. There are also some poignant moments where he deals with the symptoms of PTSD, an all too real problem in a world that doesn’t even have any zombies in it.
I also found intriguing Bourne’s ideas on zombie ecology. What happens when nuclear weapons massively irradiate zombies? What happens when a large enough group of zombies forms and starts marching? What are the raw numbers when you start to think about actually clearing out all the zombies and rebuilding the world? There are some interesting and startling answers.
It’s honestly a little bizarre to review a series that has so many apparent flaws. I can’t entirely explain why I like these books so much, but I do. For one thing, you can get pretty far chalking the style and awkwardness up to being a realistic depiction of actual journal entries written by a military protagonist. I don’t know what else to say other than to wish Mr. Bourne a safe deployment and a speedy return home.