"River of Souls" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Trepidatio Publishing
Written by T.L. Bodine
2019, 216 pages, Fiction
Released on 23rd August 2019
Like many other reviewers, I suffered serious zombie-fatigue with the sheer number of novels published in recent years featuring our undead friends and have given them the swerve unless it was a friend’s hot tip. However, I’m pleased Tiana Bodine’s River of Souls managed to lure me out of early zombie-review-retirement with her refreshing and alternative take on a familiar story. Do not expect much flesh-munching, high-powered action sequences or Walking Dead-inspired story lines, it is not that kind of zombie tale and is all the better for it.
Several years before the story begins there was a zombie uprising and when the first recently deceased person came back to life, his was initially seen as a miracle. However, this ‘miracle’ was soon to become an epidemic of unimaginable proportions as the sheer numbers of revivals spiralled out of control. Bodine, very cleverly, does not provide the reader with large information dumps; alternatively we are given flashbacks to the ‘Reanimation Event’ from the point of view of leading character David Montoya. This style works very well with nuggets being dropped here and there as the plot moves along.
The story is told in a first-person narrative and David is an engaging character to spend some time with. He is trying his best to financially keep his family afloat, having dropped out of school to look after his teenage sister Zoe after a family tragedy. David’s mother has been dead for several years and his more recently deceased father has returned as a zombie. As part of the backstory it is revealed that the revived tried to return to their old lives and after the development of the Lazarus drug many were able to do so; this cocktail of steroids and hormones eases the symptoms of being undead and blocks the urges to eat living flesh. I enjoyed the many clever observations the author makes in a world where zombies might not be actively employed, but still stand in line for their security cheques and have to ‘live’ with other restrictions, such as access to areas where there are lots of kids.
David is the main character, but the story is also seen from the point of view of a zombie when it comes into the second half. This is not so common in fiction, with the best-known example being Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies series. David is responsible for medicating his zombie father with the Lazarus drug, which inhibits the desire to kill. The family dynamics works very well and even with the medication David does not truly trust his father with his sister and is disturbed by his ramblings of constantly believing he hears rats in the walls.
Tiana Bodine skillfully adds layers to the world she has created, set in Los Ojos, New Mexico, from the undead identification cards to the Undead Registration Act. Whilst in the background the nation agonises over the rights of the dead. David’s sister Zoe plays a key part in the plot, running a successful YouTube channel which debates the future of the zombies. I enjoyed this level of quirky detail and the name dropping of zombie non-fiction, including “Secrets of Lazarus: What Do We Really Know About the Reanimation Virus?”, which are very nice touches.
The plot of River of Souls is not quite as strong as the world-building aspect of the story. Early in the novel the dead-for-18-months dad, Ignacio Montoya, is offered a place at an undead care facility. David is very much surprised to hear that this help with “this difficult life transition” is free and although this is not quite the main plot, it ends anticlimactically. A second major sequence involves the black-market drug dealing of Lazarus and, once again, the ultimate direction this takes is slightly underwhelming. On the other hand, the positives more than outweighed these gripes. For example, with the very recently deceased, if they reanimate almost immediately, how long can they hide the fact they are dead? Good question!
I really enjoyed this deliberately low-key approach to a slightly more civilised zombie holocaust. Perhaps ‘holocaust’ is the wrong word? However, a sense of threat does still lurk in the background; for example, David reveals a zombie who did not take Lazarus ate her child from the feet upwards so she could hear the baby scream. Nasty.
It is very difficult to come up with something original when it comes to zombie fiction, but Tiana Bodine has made a commendable attempt. Different aspects of River of Souls brought other novels to mind. Zombies returning to their own homes is probably best dealt with in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead and giving the undead rights is a major theme in YA series Generation Dead by Daniel Waters. To the public at large, World War Z by Max Brooks is undoubtedly the best-known example, but many genre lovers would probably name-check Brian Keene’s The Rising as their favourite. However, all pale in comparison with my favourite EVER zombie novel, Alden Bell’s masterpiece Reapers are the Angels. If Cormac McCarthy was to write a zombie novel, it might be something like this stunning piece of fiction.
Sadly, for Tiana Bodine, River of Souls has probably come a number of years after the peak of the literary zombie holocaust to pick up the attention it merits. Avoiding blood and gore is a nice touch, David Montoya is an engaging central character and the background surrounding the Reanimation Event and the Lazarus drug is well developed. If you think you have the stomach for another zombie story, this one is well worth breaking your fast on.
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