I won a copy of the Elements Of The Undead omnibus through the Goodreads FirstReads program. My review is in no way influenced by this fact, except that I doubt I ever would have read this otherwise. This omnibus is, I think, largely intended to get people ready for the fourth book that is coming out in the near future. I reviewed each individual story on Goodreads, but this is a review of the omnibus as a whole. I say a lot of the same stuff in the individual reviews, but am more specific and don’t worry about spoilers for previous books as much. Read or ignore at your leisure. Links to the individual reviews are as follows: Fire (***)/Air (***)/Earth (****).
Also, the Kindle version of the first book is available for free from Amazon at the moment. Not sure how long that will last….Get it here. (If it’s no longer free when you click there, leave me a comment and let me know.) The second story is $.99, the third $3.99, and the collection is $4.99. So you don’t really save any money by getting them individually, but with the first one free you can check it out without spending anything. Bottom line: this is far from being high-quality literature, and nowhere near the best of the genre, but it is decently entertaining and probably worth the five bucks to get it for your Kindle.
Book One: Fire is a pretty standard zombie survival story. We meet our characters as the world falls to pieces, then pick them back up as each arrives in the Tuscon suburb that is the setting for the second half of the novel. There’s Megan, a prostitute until the infected sweep the world. Now she’s one of the leaders of the little post-apocalyptic community she helped to found. Jack is a loving husband and father at the beginning of the book…but can he protect his family from the walking dead? Kevin is a drifter, with no ties to anyone. Will he find his place in this new world? Or will he wind up just another zombie-snack? Mike is a womanizing airline pilot stuck in the air when the plague hits. He’s not saying how he managed to survive that situation, but he has definite ideas about how the community should be run and who should be running it. With these and other characters knocking about, the first book is definitely intriguing and moves fast. I only wish the pacing had been as good on the back half as it was to begin. The quality goes from good in the first half to mediocre/decent in the second half, with a building conflict that inexplicably short-circuits as if the author hit his word count and decided to call it a day. I was frankly disappointed, after the quality the book started with.
Book Two: Air is more accurately a novella, a bridge between the other two book-length tales. The good news is that it made none of the mistakes of the previous chapter. The bad news is that it was too short to be all that compelling on its own. So long as you’re not reading it out of the context of the series, it serves mostly as a prologue to book three, introducing a character that becomes important near the end of Earth.
Book Three: Earth closes out the omnibus, but I understand that there’s a fourth book coming out soon. This is good, because the ending of Earth is really not a satisfying end to the series. The author is clearly trying to stoke your appetite for more. Did it work? You tell me. I would read the next one, provided I could do it for cheap/free. This was the best of the three stories in the collection, and Esmont is definitely improving his game as he goes along. The book would benefit from a more cohesive antagonist or conflict (see my individual review for this book, linked above, for details), but on the whole it was a solid story.
Zombie fiction, like most subgenres, has its rules. You can tweak them, you can bend them, but you had better not break them because these rules are all that allow us to suspend disbelief and believe the impossible. “Zombies aren’t real, but if they were they would act like this….” When they don’t, it jars you out of the story and forces you to reconsider your choice of reading material.* For example, you always go for the head. Destroy the brain and the zombie is no longer a threat. Running zombies? That’s a new(ish) thing. I personally side with Max Brooks on the issue–slow zombies make more sense, at least so long as we’re sticking with reanimated dead folk. If we’re doing a virus that doesn’t kill but instead manifests with zombie-like symptoms (Zombieland, 28 Days Later) I don’t have as much of a problem with zombies running. But that’s a contentious issue among the zombie-lovers, and I’ll leave it alone from here out except to say that Esmont’s run just fine. People reanimate really fast here, especially in the opening phase of the plague. One character watches a guy go down, get munched on for a minute, then stand up and join attackers, all within two minutes tops from infection to reanimation. Seems to me that if it worked that fast the world would go to hell even faster than it usually does in these stories…. Origins of the plague? Most of the time this is left alone, but the idea is that it started somewhere and is spread from there by travellers. It works, unless your characters are either responsible for or combatting the source of the plague. Here, though, the plague itself makes little sense. Or rather, most of the time it’s not an issue, except that a quarantined and bedridden old lady with no contact with anyone save her uninfected family inexplicably gets zombified. Was I jarred out of the story? Yes, yes I was. Was there a good reason to do this? Nope. There wasn’t even any payoff to that scene–it ends in an unresolved cliffhanger. We meet the relevant character again, but no mention of how he escaped his zombie-mom is ever made. Could such a turn of events been explained, had Esmont tried? Sure. I can think of at least three methods off the top of my head, but the point is that without making up your own explanation it makes no sense. Even more inexplicable is the scene where a character battles a severed hand and forearm ala Evil Dead 2. That’s not how zombies operate–if that was the case destroying the brain would be useless! Unless the zombies are telepathic, in which case we’re all screwed. That could be an interesting story too, but that’s not the story we get. We get a standard zombie tale with a couple of inconsistent bits of worldbuilding. Meh.
I’ll admit that I was a little annoyed with the way Esmont portrayed Christians in Fire. One character is a young, charismatic Christian whose entire youth group is excited about the zombie apocalypse, because they believe it’s the Rapture. Only, you know, with more biting. Idiots. I would have liked to get back inside the character’s head later and see how he was dealing, but was never given the chance. That whole element disappeared from his character anyway, aside from one mention of him reading a Bible while on guard duty. Yet another inconsistency. Less annoying was an undeniably positive Catholic character, though even the author admits the character is more Buddhist in outlook than he is Catholic.
Sex: One of the protagonists begins the story as a prostitute, thus there is some explicit sexual content related to that. There is also some that has absolutely no connection to that fact, some of which is a little disturbing. Frankly, I found this a little off-putting.
Violence: Umm….Zombies! What did you expect? Gruesome and gory violence throughout.
Other potentially offensive material: Some use of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. The Marijuana by a protagonist, the harder drugs by the villains. Some use of painkillers, but given the fact that the character involved had just lost an arm I think it was justified….
*I know, sometimes it pays to break such rules. If done properly, such a change can reinvigorate the whole concept. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened here.