Review: Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Genre: western, horror, steampunk
Series: N/A as of yet 
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected June 5, 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Jett is a girl disguised as a boy, living as a gambler in the old West as she searches for her long-lost brother. Honoria Gibbons is a smart, self-sufficient young woman who also happens to be a fabulous inventor. Both young women travel the prairie alone – until they are brought together by a zombie invasion! 

As Jett and Honoria investigate, they soon learn that these zombies aren’t rising from the dead of their own accord … but who would want an undead army? And why? This gunslinging, hair-raising, zombie western mashup is perfect for fans of Cowboys vs. Aliens and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

I had a lot of unexpected fun with this quick-moving tale of zombies in Texas - even when the steampunk aspect came in unexpectedly I was more than game for a late addition. I'm not one much for reading western novels in general; I grew up with a Louis L'Amour and Tony Hillerman-novel-guzzling dad and though he and I can find common ground on fantasy and science fiction (less so on contemporary YA romances, though I can't imagine why..), I rarely stray into his most beloved genre. I'm glad I took a chance here with Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill - sure, their version of the Wild Wild West has zombies and steampunk also going for it, but at the heart of it, Dead Reckoning is a darn good Western with gunslingers, smart women and barfights. I have read numerous other novels by Mercedes Lackey, though they are usually of the fantasy (Valdemar series, etc.) and fairytale retelling ilk (The Five Hundred Kingdoms series). This is a marked departure for her and I can't help but cast Ms. Rosemary Edghill as the beneficial influence - which is just a long-winded way of me saying that I enjoyed this novel of Lackey's far more than the previous eight by her I'd read.

In 1867 West Texas, "Jett Gallatin" is a gunslinger "someone who lives and died by the gun" working her his way further and further West. Most of what is surface about Jett is utterly false - he is a she, and not even an adult. What is real about her is her talent with her guns, her independence and her own brand of knowledge. Her stated goal is finding her missing brother "Jasper" but several other factors added up to the 17-year-olds exodus from her original home in Louisiana. In this alternate version of America, not only is steam-power the new technology and hope for advancement, but the victorious North of the Civil War is definitely an antagonistic force for Jett  personally. Fleeing the sack of her home and the razing of her town by the Union forces, Jett possesses some unfavorable views about "bluebellies" and "Union tyranny" but the strength of her personality overrides any distaste for her personal politics. Jett has a distinct dialect all her own ("Wonder if throwing my beer in his face will cool him down peaceable-like?") - on the whole, it might be a bit cliched but it fits for the persona Philippa Jett has created for her own safety. I appreciated the restraint the authors showed with regards to Jett's personal history. It isn't just handed out on a platter in an infodump, but is slowly revealed, piece by piece, memory by memory.

An immediate point in Dead Reckoning's favor is that it doesn't wait around and stall for action. There are zombies present and wreaking havoc by page thirteen of chapter one (in the ARC version at least) and there's an implicit promise for more zombies and death later on. The first fight is quick and bloody affair and one that leads to a chain of events stretching back two years, leading Jett into a deadly mystery and the two odd fellows she falls in with. While unfortunately the zombie action didn't stay as constant as the intial contact had me hoping and did drop off for a while during the mid-part of the novel, the different methods and ideas for the "zuvembie"/reanimated dead themselves were nicely thought out. The antagonist of the novel might suffer from the most extreme case of Syndrome Syndrome (a term I culled/created from The Incredibles to use whenever a villain conveniently explains his nefarious plans to the hero before killing them) I've ever read seen, but his methodology, reason and modus operandi were at least fun to try and unravel.

Honoria (any M*A*S*H fans out there? No? Just me? Ok) Verity Providentia Gibbons, she of that unholy mouthful of a name and a similarly perpetually running mouth, is a thoroughly clever and unusual young woman for the days and customs in which she lives. While this book is rather light on steampunk (and that's a relief after the mess that is The Steampunk Chronicles), the few additions shown in Dead Reckoning used are used sparsely and, most importantly, believably. As an independent investigator of all things paranormal, Honoria ventures alone into what some might call 'fool-hardy adventures' but girlfriend comes prepared with three Gatling guns. She's also the mind behind the slight steampunkery evident in the novel as the "Auto-Tachypode" comes across as a steam-powered, whirligigged "horseless wagon" or proto-car. Honoria is a multi-faceted character - she's smart ("Science first. Then vapors."), protective, and loyal above all. She also is a prime example of how brilliant people aren't above being occasionally, thoughtless brainless for Science! There are a lot of similarities between her and Jett, once they get past the outer, major discrepancies. They are both two women who have had to work hard and against all convention to get what they want, and be where they want. There's an easy rapport despite the occasional bickering - even third character White Fox doesn't detract from the camaraderie in the cast. He actually rounds the gunslinger and the talkative inventor both, in very different manners. In fact all three are fish out of water - White Fox, as a white man reared among a native tribe, feels that he doesn't belong to either world. The three characters complement each other well, all without adding an unnecessary romance, or heaven forbid, a love triangle into the fray.

Despite being a bit short on the murdery death I thought I would be getting, Dead Reckoning is a winner. Don't let any of the labels attached to it scare you off, be it "western", "steampunk" or "zombie" - this is a quick-moving and fantastic read for a few hours. The steampunk part of the novel doesn't come off as mere convenience for the plot but is nicely enveloped into the tale, adding a further level of atmosphere and interest to the world Jett, Honoria and White Fox live in. The ending is final for the main plot of the book, but there are hints that more in this vein/series could be coming. Several ideas are left open for further exploration, and I hope there is demand for such. I want sequels.

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