Joseph Nassise,
The Great Undead War, Book I:
By the Blood of Heroes

(Harper Voyager, 2012)

I remember the first time I played the "Nazi Zombies" bonus game on my son's Call of Duty: World at War X-box package. It was fun and creepy and a little scary, and I remember thinking, wow, putting Nazis and zombies together was someone's great idea.

Author Joseph Nassise takes a similar tack one generation earlier with By the Blood of Heroes, the first book in his The Great Undead War series. Instead of World War II, the novel is set in the trenches of occupied France during World War I, but the zombies are still German, and they're ruled by a sinister figure from German history: Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron.

In the book, Germany developed a "corpse gas" that reanimates dead soldiers into mindless shamblers at the close of 1917. That tactical advantage -- since German and Allied troops alike would rise and attack the troops in the trenches -- prolonged the war by several years, driving a boom in war-time technology as well. That means, besides zombies, the novel incorporates some elements of a post-steampunk era, such as the clockwork-driven left arm of the protagonist, infantry Capt. Mike Burke, and, of course, zeppelins.

While most shamblers are little more than hunger-driven corpses, a few rise with their intellects intact. One such revenant is von Richthofen, whose military genius and ambition continues to vex Allied defenses.

When the Red Baron downs America's ace pilot, Major Jack Freeman, Burke and a select crew of specialists are assembled to infiltrate enemy lines and rescue -- or kill -- him before he can be used as a lever against the U.S. president.

Here's where the story bogs down a little bit. Freeman, it turns out, is the president's bastard son. And the best man to lead the rescue, Burke, is Freeman's half-brother, via their mother. Oh, and they hate each other, because of an incident involving Burke's fiancee several years before.

It's not the only succession of coincidences that mars the storyline. Burke, for instance, meets the perfect addition to his rescue team just moments before he learns of his mission. And he's given a cache of special steampunky armaments -- not standard issue on the front lines, of course -- by a Q-like Allied scientist and, just like in a James Bond flick, they all are the perfect solution at various points in the story to extricate the team from disaster. Too, you can usually predict who will be killed when, simply by noting whose special usefulness to the team has already been exploited.

Coincidences aside, this is an entertaining read for anyone who enjoys a World War I framework along with zombies and a steampunk mindset. Granted, I thought the post-steampunk technology was overused, and I thought the gritty atmosphere of WWI trench warfare was underutilized ... but I'll give Nassise the benefit of the doubt and assume he might dig into the trenches more in future volumes. (The conclusion of this book, however, does suggest he'll be pulling back and placing his next novel in an entirely different setting.)

It has its flaws, but By the Blood of Heroes is a good start to a promising series.

book review by
Tom Knapp

21 July 2012

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