19) Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I'd been anticipating this novel tremendously since I'd first heard it was coming out. I had it on pre-order months before it came out. Then it came out, I started reading, and... ten months later, I finished it.
I cannot come to you with as enthusiastic a review as I'd hoped. It's a very strange book that works by its own internal logic. I did really like it. But I had to move my head into its headspace in order to read, and I found that process to be very slow going.
Zone One is Colson Whitehead's zombie novel. If you're at all familiar with Whitehead's other work, stylistic novels on the boundary between Modernism and Post-Modernism like John Henry Days and The Intuitionist, this might surprise you. But hell, every literary novelist worth his salt is following Chabon and McCarthy into the genre ghetto these days, so it's not really all that surprising, though one review that went viral when the novel first came out compared a literary novelist writing a zombie novel to "an intellectual dating a porn star." As a lover of genre fiction, a lover of postmodernism, and a lover of mashups, I was looking forward to seeing how Whitehead would achieve his synthesis.
Zone One is the story of the "season of encouraging dispatches", a period of time where the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, struggling with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD) and still unsure where their next meal will come from, gather together under the banner of a new government in Buffalo and try to fight back and reclaim the world for humanity. Calling themselves the "pheenies" as the representatives of the American Phoenix, risen from the ashes with good old fashioned American try-hardness and gumption and hope as their only assets, they launch a major offensive in 'Zone One', the lower Manhattan region from the Battery up to Canal Street. They build a wall across the island at Canal Street and go street to street clearing out bodies and 'stragglers'- infected people who stay in one place and don't attack, unlike the true zombies that are actually offensive threats.
Whitehead's writing is beautifully delicate, full of his classic wry metaphors. Time is distorted and distended beyond recognition in his prose, which nests flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, sometimes all within one paragraph, so that the novel's slow movement forward through the three days of present time are constantly disrupted with journeys back to the time before, both into life before the zombies came and into the stories of how Mark Spitz, the protagonist, and his compatriots survived the Apocalypse.It was this that caught me up. The distortion of time made the novel sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to get into a reading flow for. I found it lacking the constant movement that keeps a zombie novel ticking. I'd frequently read five or ten pages in a sitting, enjoy the setting and Whitehead's clever, pop culture tinged humor and genuinely like the characters, and not feel any urge to continue or even find it a struggle to motivate myself to continue.
By the time I'd finished, I did enjoy it, and I moved through the second half of the novel a lot faster than the first half. But there's something hard to explain about the novel that was hard to negotiate for me as a reader. In reflecting on it now, I think negotiation is the right word. Whitehead has a story here that he wants to tell in a certain way, and I as a reader have expectations of both a zombie novel and a Whitehead novel, and I had to enter into a negotiation with the text to find a way forward we could both find agreeable.
At its core, this is a story about a new kind of loss and memory. It's about dealing with loss on a scale that seems newly comprehensible in the wake of the 20th century. When the Black Plague struck Europe, it was just as disastrous as Whitehead's zombie plague, but the difference was that existence was often much more local back then. You barely knew anyone outside your village: if everyone in your village was wiped out, everything you'd ever known was gone, that hundred or two people that were your universe. But with the flattened world, with the information technologies that Whitehead litters through the novel as zombified relics, a catastrophe like this is global and feels global. Suddenly Mark Spitz is reduced to his urb, suddenly Zone 1 is all of his existence and anything beyond is Buffalo, a vague pheenie rumor of a better place. How do you deal with knowing that your whole known world is lost, when your whole known world is billions of people?
20) The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Seriously, this was the most interesting fantasy novel I've read in years. I'd been anticipating it since I read "Where Virtue Lives", a short story by Ahmed featuring the same characters which serves as an excellent prologue to the novel. The book is set in a fantasyland medieval Arabia, where ghuls and other creatures from Arabic folklore wage battle against mages and demon hunters and dervishes as people around them struggle to live ordinary lives.
It's hard to avoid the comparisons to Tolkien, because everyone's in quest of the great non-Tolkienian fantasy, but this really feels like fantasy that's barely aware of Tolkien. It borrows particularly from Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and takes inspiration from other early 'sword and sorcery' type fantasy novels, with exciting fantasy cities and characters of strong independence and individuality forming hesitant bonds of friendship to band together against a dangerous world. But its lack of anything even remotely resembling Norse mythology makes it feel like its own thing at a deep level.
It's possible Ahmed could have written women better. He is constrained by the quasi-Arabic world he is writing, which has clear ideas of women's roles (which are not the same as women's roles in the present-day Arabic world, nor the same as medieval Western civilization, but they are in their fashion constraining), and he does write two really interesting female characters (plus a third we don't see much of), but they are interesting because they defy expectations, not because they're interesting within their context, especially Zamia. There is admittedly a nice trope inversion in Zamia shyly pursuing Raseed while he tries to resist.
But together the trio of Zamia, Raseed, and Adoulla are the best kind of ass-kicking, monster-killing badasses. And I want as many of their adventures together as possible, which is awesome because this is a fantasy series, so I get sequels!