Writer's View: Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

From Goodreads: Love conquers all, so they say. But can Cupid’s arrow pierce the hearts of the living and the dead—or rather, the undead? Can a proper young Victorian lady find true love in the arms of a dashing zombie?

The year is 2195. The place is New Victoria—a high-tech nation modeled on the manners, mores, and fashions of an antique era. A teenager in high society, Nora Dearly is far more interested in military history and her country’s political unrest than in tea parties and debutante balls. But after her beloved parents die, Nora is left at the mercy of her domineering aunt, a social-climbing spendthrift who has squandered the family fortune and now plans to marry her niece off for money. For Nora, no fate could be more horrible—until she’s nearly kidnapped by an army of walking corpses.

But fate is just getting started with Nora. Catapulted from her world of drawing-room civility, she’s suddenly gunning down ravenous zombies alongside mysterious black-clad commandos and confronting “The Laz,” a fatal virus that raises the dead—and hell along with them. Hardly ideal circumstances. Then Nora meets Bram Griswold, a young soldier who is brave, handsome, noble . . . and dead. But as is the case with the rest of his special undead unit, luck and modern science have enabled Bram to hold on to his mind, his manners, and his body parts. And when his bond of trust with Nora turns to tenderness, there’s no turning back. Eventually, they know, the disease will win, separating the star-crossed lovers forever. But until then, beating or not, their hearts will have what they desire.

In Dearly, Departed, romance meets walking-dead thriller, spawning a madly imaginative novel of rip-roaring adventure, spine-tingling suspense, and macabre comedy that forever redefines the concept of undying love.

The Writer's View:

I was super exicted when I heard about this book. I love the idea of a romantic interlude with a zombie, a fantasy trope that is traditionally pretty unattractive and, as far as I know, never romantisized a-la Edward Cullen. I also love the concept of the setting--futuristic high tech in the confines of Victorian social values and etiquette. (Reminds me a little of the Vickys in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age.)

These aspects of the Dearly, Departed do not disapoint. I was completely swept away by this totally new take on zombies. There's lots of cool tech that goes along with preserving their bodies--daily siline injections, enzymes to help them digest food, etc. And the zombies themselves are a cool mish-mash--metal plates to replace a missing jaw and teeth, or a piece of foam that helps keep a loose eyeball in place. I could see this book translating into a really cool graphic novel.

Unfortunately, there was one major aspect of this book that really detracted from the rest of it, at least in my opinion.

Deciding where to start a story

This is a key element for all writers, but I think it's especially important when it comes to speculative fiction. Often times, there's a lot of important backstory/worldbuilding in speculative fiction, and it's up to the writer to figure out where to start the story to maximize the worldbuilding and minimize distracting info dumps. It's a very fine line to walk, and one I myself often struggle with.

I felt this was a key weakness to Dearly, Departed. The first two chapters are major info dumps. The first chapter is a school paper. Readers get to actually read an entire essay as the MC pens it. The essay is all about the founding of this futuristic Victorian society and the current state of the union. And though it was effective in terms of communicating important worldbuilding concepts of Dearly, Departed, I found the method a bit lazy. But it was early in the book, so I didn't worry too much about it.

Unfortunately, the info dumps continue. Chapter 2 is a long flashback about the death of the MC's father. Although the situation was very impactful to the MC, the long drawn-out death scene flashback so early in the story detracted from the story itself. I didn't need all the dramatization (at least not that early in the book) to know the death hit the MC pretty hard; it was evidenced very well in her reluctance to change out of mourning clothing and anger at her Aunt for rushing back into the social scene the day after the allotted grieving period.

There's a slight peak in the story when the MC is captured by zombies, but as soon as she is settled into their military base, the info-dumping and flashbacks begins anew. There are two very, VERY long narrations in which the Love Interest reveals all the secret history of the zombies to the MC in a gargantuan flashback.

I'm about 2/3rds of the way into the book, which I bought through Audible. I got so frustrated with the never-ending info-dumps and flashbacks that I finally switched to another book yesterday. I'm not sure if I'll finish this novel or not. As much as I love the creative society and uber-cool zombies, I found the structure of the book is too distracting. I keep wondering when the actual story is going to start. I'm not sure I'm willing to slog through another 8 hours to find out.

As I sit back and analyze my reaction to the story, it occurs to me that perhaps the author did not start this story in the right moment of her fictional timeline. If the first 2/3rds of the book needs to be devoted to flashbacks and info-dumps, perhaps the story should have started several years--or even a decade--earlier. Or perhaps she should have written a prequel as a novella, something I have seen other authors do.

I'm not against flashbacks. (See my review of Marie Lu's Legend for details on a flashback method that I thought worked brilliantly. I also think Suzanne Collins is a master of the flashback, which I plan to write about next week.) I'm not even against info-dumps. I realize that there is some amount of info-dumping that is necessary in speculative ficiton, although my preference is for them to be as short as possible.

What do you guys think about flashbacks and info-dumps?