So with my latest read, I mixed it up and went with something with a bit more horror than I usual with By the Blood of Heroes by Joe Nassise. This book has been on my radar since it showed up on a Scalzi Big Idea last spring. When I nabbed it from an actual bookstore, (Holy crap! Actual bookstores!) the covers made it look like the PR guys didn’t really know what to do with it. The front is all “Zombie Red Baron! And more Zombies!” and the back is all “Behind enemy lines!” In a world where mixing genres is like alchemy, that’s not going to raise a red flag. I’ve read plenty of subgenre mash ups and some of my own writing falls into difficult to define, but a book that seems pulled into different directions is definitely a yellow flag. But the Big Idea was a great hook and the back of the book, while different from the front, has some more hooks in it.
Bam! Time for that back of the book!
At the tail end of 1917, the Germans introduced a new type of gas to the battlefield, T-Leiche, or “corpse gas,” and changed the face of the war by resurrecting the bodies of the dead, giving the enemy an almost unlimited source of fresh troops.
When the American ace Major Jack Freeman – poster boy for the war against the Kaiser’s undead army of shamblers – is downed over enemy lines and taken captive, veteran Captain Michael “Madman” Burke is the only man brave and foolish enough to accept the mission to recover Freeman. Burke assembles a team of disparate members, from his right-hand man, Sergeant Moore, to big-game hunter turned soldier Clayton Manning, who funds the mission for an opportunity to confront the most dangerous zombie game, to professor Dan Richards, one of Tesla’s top men and the resident authority on all things supernatural. With the help of a highly advanced British dirigible war machine to infiltrate enemy territory, the team faces incredible danger as it struggles to reach the prison camp and strike at the heart of the enemy.
But they are pitted against th emost deadly enemy of all: Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Having risen from the dead with his abilities enhanced but his mind on the brink of madness, Richthofen has plans for victory that give no quarter from soldiers or civilians.
See what I mean? Back of the book is much more alt-history than zombie. Heroes ends up being a mash up of the two. I’m ok with this. As the subtitle of the book is “The Great Undead War: Book One” the act one set up kind of stuff takes a bit to get through. We’ve got to establish Burke as a bit of a bad ass and Freeman ending up in Stalag 113. Burke gets himself a clockwork hand which is how we meet the professor. Our Captain gets tapped by the hush hush guys in the Army because of his dust up in chapter one and is handed his behind enemy lines mission. I don’t want to drop a spoiler but there’s this Burke-Freeman connection seems a bit “Oh by the way, it’s a really small world out here on the Western Front.” Burke gets handed his team and one of them might as well be wearing a redshirt. Groan.
All of the … quirks, of the first act are quickly forgotten though once Burke and his team go behind enemy lines. This part of the book reads more towards alt-history rather than the zombie parts. If it wasn’t for the occasional appearance of the shamblers, as straight up historical fiction. The pacing works in the book’s favor, the constant tension of getting caught is there and had me tearing through the pages. There’s some really intense scenes with a zeppelin.
I should hope I’m not actually surprising anyone by saying they spring Freeman. Not in any way they planned, clusterfucks make for much better reading, but from the outset we knew that was going to happen. The shamblers play more of a roll on the escape and said escape thoroughly and satisfyingly raises the bar on all the action. They actually bookend the action, appearing mostly in the beginning and end. Heroes creates a solid zombie mythos and holds to it while letting the zombies grow. They never feel overpowered while the dangers keep escalating.
There were a couple parts of the book that were way too over the top for my tastes, total shock value that didn’t really add to the story. It involves some German officers that don’t even play a proper roll in the narrative beyond the shock. “Hey! This is gross and evil! These people are really bad! Told you so!” That’s all I really got out of it and it seemed a bit cheap. I’m sure when you get to it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If it was integrated into the plot more than it was, I don’t think it would have bothered me a bit. In the end, it wasn’t a pattern that reared its head again and again in the book so I wrote off the incident as a zombie book trope and moved on. Zombie books aren’t something I read tons off so I’m not that versed in their conventions.
I liked the ending of the book but I disliked the epilogue. I know that Heroes is a Book One and as such, there has to be some prep for the next book. I would have much preferred to leave some open ended questions rather than dangling the bait right in front of our noses. I understand wanting to throw out Book Two’s hooks in the epilogue of Heroes but I think it would have served better as the prologue for Book Two leaving Heroes with a more satisfying ending. And the actual ending really was satisfying. The climax of the book is where the author mixes the alt history and the zombies together most effectively.
In the end, I would recommend this book. It’s flawed, but really, what isn’t? The flaws of Heroes don’t detract from its positives. The hardcore alt history guys and the mega zombie guys might not like this book as it keeps the tropes of each somewhat light. This is a genre mix that works very well together though, especially since it’s WWI when most of this type of thing gos for WWII instead.