Brian Keene,
City of the Dead
(Dorchester/Leisure, 2005)

It's fast becoming a habit with me to pick up books that are either a sequel or part of a series, and not realize it until it's too late. I've looked all over the front and back covers and inside pages, and there's nothing there to tell me this is a direct sequel to Brian Keene's The Rising.

But does that matter? In the case of City of the Dead, it turns out to be something of a plus. All the build up, backstory, breakdown and plotting of the first book are in the past by the time the first few pages fly by (although some backstory, problems and unresolved issues do crop up in later chapters) leaving the reader with just "the payoff" -- an outright battle between the teeming masses of the dead and the remaining few of the living.

The largest plot point from the previous book -- the quest to find Danny -- is resolved early on, and from that point on Danny becomes dead weight. He's just along for the ride, adding nothing to the story -- in fact, it must be a bit of a dissapointment for Danny to turn out to be nothing more than just a normal kid. Having not read The Rising, I'm sure much of the book was eaten up by Jim's quest to find his son at all costs. To have him just be part of the background now is a waste. I kept thinking that had Danny been older, been able to handle a weapon (although he does wield a baseball bat very well) or had some kind of story of his own he might have helped to move the story along a different track.

As it is, this is a very linear story filled with often brutal violence and gore that we've all come to expect (and even to love). Some novel twists abound in the book and you get what you pay for -- Action! Action! Action!

But in-between all the action(!) there's still something of a story to tell ... and for the most part it falls flat. Pretty much everyone is made from the same torn and gore-stained cloth laid out by Romero's Dead series. We are given a central zombie here to "boo and hiss" at by way of Ob, and he chews up the pages pretty much the same way he does people -- he's over the top, too broad, boastful, loud and self-assured -- nothing we haven't seen before in these kinds of books (or movies), but Ob does stand out from others that have come before him (such as Flagg from Stephen King's The Stand) by doing one thing and doing one thing very well. While most Zombie Lords or Elder Gods would waste their time (and yours) talking you to death, Ob manages to not only talk you to death, but takes action as well. He acts, reacts, moves, organizes and actually achieves his goals. The book ends on a serious down note here people -- but at the same time a kind of high as well since we do have a clear-cut victory. Great work there, unexpected and much appreciated on this end.

In the end there are some great moments (some lifted directly from Dawn of the Dead -- you'll know it when it happens -- and a tone and feel found in John Skipp and Craig Spector's works; there is a The Bridge vibe going on by the end of the book. I think there is also a homage to a short story by King called "Home Delivery" as well), and if you're a fan of zombies, action(!), gore and dark endings, then City of the Dead has a room ready and waiting for you.

by T.E. (Bob) O'Sullivan
30 July 2005

Briane Keene's City of the Dead suffers from Deep Space Nine syndrome, an ailment that omits the former excitement of "boldly going" somewhere and, instead, boldly sits still and waits for something to happen.

While Keene's previous book, The Rising, was a fast-paced and frantic journey from West Virginia to New Jersey through countryside littered with zombies, City plops our surviving heroes down in a Manhattan skyscraper and, well, waits. Certainly there is plenty happening outside, as intelligent zombie armies mass for an attack on the impregnable fortress, but without action the narrative is much less engrossing.

Also, Keene has developed some new problems with characterization, dipping into stereotypes and 2-dimensional cutouts to flesh out the population of this shining tower. The billionaire industrialist who runs the place is, of course, insane, with a tiresome messiah complex that drives him to "save" everyone and be worshipped for his deeds. Then you have the tough-as-nails security chief, the sadistic doctor and, if you ask me, far too many sexual perversions for so small a population. Keene has developed an apparent delight for writing about masturbation, and I think he probably enjoyed those bits more than his readers will.

Even standing characters -- such as The Rising's hero dad, Jim, and former hooker Frankie -- have been reduced to cardboard here. Meanwhile, Ob, the demon lord who leads the zombie hordes, is more dreary than eerie. It's bad enough he wants to kill everyone in the world; does he have to talk about it, too?

As for the conclusion ... I'm half convinced Keene was nearly done writing this book before he realized he'd written himself into a corner. Throwing up his hands, he resolved to be as bleak and as gross as he could until the story lurched to an end. His characters (and his readers) deserved better.

I still recommend The Rising, but I'd encourage readers to stop there.

by Tom Knapp
27 October 2007

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