Tomes of the Dead: Stronghold by Paul Finch. Originally published by Abaddon Books, August 2010. Approx. 324 pages.
I had picked up Stronghold back in 2010 on the basis of two merits: firstly, it truly has a "cover that sells the book", and secondly, my interest was very piqued at the concept: a zombie horde terrorizing British knights in 13th century Wales. This seemed a very fresh idea in what is becoming a glut of zombie media. I don't know why it has sat on my shelf for the past few years, but I figured now was the time to give it a whirl (actually I am pretty much interested in most of Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead titles).
In the end, however, how does Stronghold fare? I can honestly say that there are some truly great things here, some solid things, and a few minor quibbles. Let's dissect this zombie yarn:
The year is 1295. A contingent of British forces under the leadership of Earl Corotocus (an infamous elector count and enforcer of Edward Longshanks) has completed subjugating a pocket of Welsh resistance and is moving on to claim their prize; the impenetrable Grogen Castle. However, this subjugation involved a particularly brutal method of brokering: all rebels that have just laid down their weapons are systematically slaughtered. There is a good reason that Corotocus has such a reputation that precedes him; he has solidified it with bloody swathes of brutality across all of his travels.
With the last batch of rebels put to the sword, Corotocus sends the local Welsh royal, Countess Madalyn, back to her people, keeping her recently violated daughter Gwendolyn as a hostage. As the Earl and his small army head to their bleak, yet formidable fortress, Madalyn seeks out to enact a retribution as complete as the treachery her people had suffered.
This retribution takes place, of course, in the form of an army of shambling zombies. This is what was promised on the cover and in the blurb, and it is delivered in spades. Stronghold is indeed about an army of the undead laying siege to a medieval castle (a literal siege, more on that later).
Going in to reading Stronghold, I wondered what device Finch was going to use to initiate the rise of the dead. I should have figured it out when I saw that the action was taking place in Wales (especially for someone who grew up loving the Prydain books so much). In seeking recourse, Madalyn goes to a secretive enclave of druids, who use an enchanted cauldron to revive the many dead bodies that pepper the Welsh lands. This cauldron is of course based on the Pair Dadeni, which featured in the Mabinogion, although here the cauldron is called the Cymedai.
Unfortunately for the Countess, the druids, led by one Gwyddon, have an agenda of their own.
What we have here are some unsavory types calling the shots from both ends of the chessboard, with war-weary knights and restless undead in between. So who do we have to root for in this story?
Our main protagonist is a young knight named Ranulf FitzOsbern, who, along with his father, is an indebted knight in the Earl's employ (a turn of horrid luck left their family destitute, and they entered into a ten year contract to erase their debts). Ranulf is a solid character in Stronghold, while he has a strong set of moral values, he also has a strong sense of duty. He is not a seemingly magically gifted fighter, but a battle hardened veteran of many historical campaigns. Ranulf's interactions with some of the supporting cast (especially some spirited scenes with the captive Gwendolyn) are high points as well.
So now that we've gone over some of the basics, let's examine what elements work and which ones don't:
Overall writing style: This is my first read by Paul Finch, and I really dig his style. It's a rough and tough, blue collar laborer by day/bare knuckle boxer by night style. He seamlessly infuses historical fact into this horror fiction; significant events, people, places, lifestyles, dress, cuisine, etc. He has obviously done his homework regarding the logistics of castle defenses, as well as siege tactics. What could have ended up being a standard zombie tale shoehorned into a random period is elevated by this knowledge.
Characters: Well, as mentioned, there are a lot of unsavory types, but that doesn't mean they are cardboard cutouts. Corotocus is not simply a Snidely Whiplash villain; he is a consummate tactician and commander, who utilizes his resources with the full knowledge that resources are to be depleted in the attainment of a goal. The druid Gwyddon, although intentionally presented as steely and unreadable, reveals the depths of his hatreds through commands relayed to the horde. There is also some great interplay between the Earl's head priest, Father Benan, and his surgeon, Doctor Zacharius. Personally, I would have loved to have seen some more discourse between these two, as they are both committed to saving lives in manners which are polar opposites. For the doctor, the theological tenets must seems fantastical, while for the priest, the new horizons being broach by medicine must have seemed near heretical. Still, what we get is good stuff. There are a few given tropes here though; from the Earl's unctuous, conniving banneret, to his twisted, deformed champion.
Battle Scenes: Excellent. Finch has medieval fighting techniques down pat, and that isn't limited to swordplay. All types of melee weapons are employed, as well as a vast array of siege weaponry (including the many types of projectiles utilized by these early weapons of mass destruction. There is a lot of action here as well. The zombies show up early and are there for the whole book, causing unholy havoc. Speaking of zombies.....
Zombies: Now we get to the meat of the potato. The audience showed up for the creatures, so how were they presented? We all know that there are various methodologies for presenting zombies, and none can really be considered "wrong", but, and I apologize for veering off course here, I have a personal preference for their presentation:
- A virus manifests itself in deceased humans, reanimating them for the purpose of being a delivery package in spreading the virus.
- The delivery protocol is through mock eating; the virus itself is already delivered in the bite; it is just the base amount of reinvigorated motor skill that prompts an "eating ritual".
- The speed and strength of a zombie should be in direct correlation with the remaining musculature, although with limited motor function the articulation would be jerky. Therefore, a zombie could conceivably run, if enough leg muscles were present, but without the presence of mind to focus on maintaining it, they'd probably fall flat on their face. However, a bite should be as strong as the maximum psi capable in the remaining anatomy.
- Zombies aren't people anymore; they aren't going to talk, evolve, or craft new social structures.
The zombies we get in Stronghold are not these traditional types at all. They are a horde controlled remotely by a "hive mind" (I've seen this a bit in Warhammer Fantasy stories with Vampire lords as the controlling force). Bottom line, they are reanimated by sorcery (the Cauldron), and they are controlled and directed for revenge.
What throws me off is that they are given quite specific tasks, such as assembling and utilizing siege weapons, building siege towers, operating battering rams, and employing missile weapons. None of this is presented poorly, so I can't say it's bad. It just takes a while to get used to.
Another thing about the zombies that threw me is that they all seem to have the same capabilities of strength (which is pretty formidable, by the way), regardless of the individual states of decay. They are also nearly unkillable; that's right, no easy headshot kills, the can still move after being burned, etc. This leads to a problem which I will address in the "quibbles" section.
But on the plus side, Finch portrays these shambling monsters in a truly frightening manner. All types of gruesome depictions are used to convey some of the horrendous wounds these things suffered in their lifetime and now.
Fear Factor: For a horror novel, rather low. There are extremely tense scenes throughout, and there are many moments of potential insurmountable odds where you the despair of the characters becomes palpable. And yes, there are one or two scary scenes.
And now, onto my few minor quibbles:
First of all is something that occurs quite often in books with pitched battles of this size. I'm talking about a force that is near impossible to keep track of the size of. We all know that Corotocus took a sizable force into Grogen, but since the moment the zombies show up, they consistently and repeatedly get their rear ends handed to them. And the way Finch describes it, you get the feeling that with each shot fired by a mangonel, at least 5% of their force is being put out of commission. Then, at one point near the end, they still have over forty men capable of fighting on hand. Maybe I wasn't keeping a proper mental tally, but it just doesn't seem to add up right.
Second, there is an inconsistency problem with zombie endurance. All throughout, it is beaten into our heads how indestructible they are. Lifelong warriors deal killing stroke after killing stroke, and they still get demolished by the walking dead. And yet, when Ranulf needs to get through a cluster of them, he can dispatch half a dozen at a time with a good stroke. Ok, I know he is the hero, and sometimes he needs to get from Point A to Point B. But these moments defy the logic laid down from the start.
Lastly, and this doesn't come up until near the end, is the sudden introduction of zombie longevity. All throughout Stronghold, we have reanimated corpses that run the gamut of recent dead all the way back to things that are little more than skin like parchment hanging off of bones. Yet, they all have comparable endurance. Towards the end, however, Gwyddon has to take into consideration how long they can last, for they may rot away over the course of the next few weeks. Wait, what? Some of these warriors were in the earth rotting for a darn long time, and if the same sorcery is in play in a few weeks, why is deterioration suddenly an issue? This didn't make sense to me. In the end, it takes nothing away from the story at large, but it did make me raise an eyebrow.
Stacking all the positives against a few minor quips, you can see that what you'll get in Stronghold is a very strong zombie/fantasy/historical revision epic written with a bruising, hard style. And with that, you can't go wrong.
Here's what it is:
King Edward's brutal enforcers get a true taste of the horrors they have been dealing out in a grand zombie vs. knight epic.
A few last notes:
I know I often describe books and stories that have a certain kind of pacing, and with battle scenes with a certain kind of flow, as having a "cinematic quality" to them. Stronghold is one of those. Wasn't I surprised when a quick search revealed that the rights to make a movie based on it were optioned back in 2010. Alas, as there are no recent updates, I guess it's not happening now. More's the pity. Done right, it might've been one for the ages.
Also, after reading this wonderful book featuring a legendary Welsh cauldron that reanimates the dead, why not enjoy some cauldron-themed tunes? Until next time, cheers!
Skip to 17:10 for the excellent Pair Dadeni. Or just listen to the whole album. It's a win/win.
Oh, isn't that a beauty? Look at the detail on those creatures. Sure, they seem more monstrous or demonic that zombie-ish, but it is a great cover, well arranged. I know that some volumes have an alternate cover:
Nice, but I like the one I got a lot more.
Cover Final Score: