Friday, October 30, 2015

Tomes Of The Dead: Empire Of Salt

Tomes of the Dead: Empire of Salt by Weston Ochse. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2010. Approx. 301 pages.

I really enjoyed the two Tomes of the Dead that I read last year, Stronghold and Viking Dead, so it was a given that I would review at least one this Halloween season. The first one I tried (not mentioning the name now, I'll give it another go another time and maybe a review next year) was pretty difficult to get into, so I shifted Empire of Salt to the top of the pile. Weston Ochse has spent way too long on my "to read" list, especially since I've heard nothing but rave reviews of his work in both the military fiction and horror genres.

So, what was Ochse's take on the shambler trope? And how did it fare? Empire of Salt is, quite simply put, an excellent zombie yarn. It combines a fresh take on the often stale undead formula, mixes in a good amount of shoot-em-up action, and incorporates a solid young adult underpinning that is enjoyable, not annoying or cloying. This is no mean feat.

The titular Empire of Salt is, in actuality, none other than the actual Salton Sea, the man-made sea resort in California, which is now derelict, and almost vacant, its penned-in waters an acrid, rotten, beer colored body of water, yielding daily bounties of dead and decaying fish.

Into this faded resort rolls a broken family; teen siblings Natasha and Derrick, their alcoholic father Patrick, and their live-in nanny, Auntie Lin. They've been drawn West by an economy in shambles, and the inheritance of a restaurant on the Salton Sea (due to Patrick's father dying in a sudden, rather gruesome manner). They leave behind the relative domesticity of Lancaster County, PA, in search of a new start. This is all quite hard on the teens, especially since they recently lost their mother as well. So, they have to place all their eggs in one basket and hope for the best. At least there is the promise of life near the sea.

Of course, as mentioned before, the current state of the Salton Sea is, well, less than ideal. Living among the decrepit trailers is an oddball mix of resident leftovers and castaways. Those who were too stubborn to sell or leave when things literally turned sour, and those who simply had no place else to go.

But there is more. Always, there is more. In addition to the inherent weirdness of the area, there is a sense of danger and foreboding. Rumors. Cryptic warnings to "beware the green", whatever that means. Mysterious traffic in and out of the local desalination plant. And then, just when Natasha and Derrick's family opts to stay and try to keep the restaurant going, people start disappearing.

Then things get much, much worse. Well, you can guess that there are zombies involved, naturally.

So let's take a gander at the story elements and see how they gelled into a solid tale.

Setting the scene: Ochse brings the Salton Sea to life for the reader. Given its current state of affairs, I cannot testify if that is a good thing or not. Seriously, though, he has a masterful grasp on descriptive writing. And it's not just in the background painting. Actions have a genuine fluidity as well. But as for the environment, Ochse throws us headfirst into a warped postcard with a panorama of piss-colored water and rusty trailers, hollow shells of dreams that once were.

Characters: Very good. The dramatis personae are all fun. The characters are given a lot of respect in honest portrayals. Every one is flawed; and most very much so. But all characters have something noteworthy, or catchy. They work well as comic book standouts, or memorable folks from a great B-horror movie (honestly, I would love to film Empire of Salt as an 80's style VHS horror flick). The core group, however, especially the teens, are outstanding. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against teen leads, or YA fiction. It's just that it seems that much harder to do well, and maintain any semblance of authenticity. Oches does it here. In the acknowledgements, he mentions using his own kids as source material. He must have really been paying attention to what they said and how they acted, because he nails the teen portrayals.

Pacing: Pacing is good. We get a satisfying kill early on, that a good chunk of introduction before things take off. Some of the character interplay does not work as well as it should here. These folks are fleshed out well enough to carry the scenes, but it seems more written in a way to endear them, with all their individual quirks, to us.

There is no lagging in the middle of the narrative. The climax redefines breakneck. And brutal. Plus, even though the book ends in a somewhat open manner, it is a satisfying conclusion.

Action: Plenty. And it is some of the best described action you'll read in this type of book. The military sequences ooze authenticity. The zombie scenes play on all the potentials for horror these creatures bring to bear. There are some real tense moments, some scenes that made me jump a bit. That doesn't happen all too often, and it happened a few times at the end here.

Zombies: So what does Ochse do to make zombies, which some may think are stale and oversaturated, something unique and fresh? First of all, he crafts his scenario to explain why the zombie outbreak here is a localized, contained threat, and not an epidemic. He also creates a unique backstory for the existence of the zombies, and this gives him room to play with appearance. These guys are pretty frightening; green, mottled skin, glaring yellow eyes, and physical capabilities on par with there condition at the time of infection. Plus, they are pretty hard to put down. Ochse does not do them the disservice of having them drop like ragdolls with any old glancing blow to the noggin. No, it takes a dead-on shot right through the brain (and Ochse also knows that that particular money shot is not always obtained on either the first, second, or even third shot). In short, these zombies are winners.

Fear Factor: Yeah, there are some scares here. You really expect some levity based upon the fun back and forth early on. It doesn't last. Then you realize that Ochse doesn't wear kid gloves when he writes for his characters. Absolutely no one is safe here. And that gets scary after you spent fifty or sixty pages getting to really like people too.

All in all, this particular Tome of the Dead comes highly recommended. Only in general release in ebook format right now, you can still get a paperback copy in the secondary market (although the price tag is sometimes a little higher due to Ochse's name value). I got my copy pretty cheap on eBay, and I think that it most have been an early edition that didn't go to market, because there are a bunch of typos throughout. Some pretty glaring ones too. Or maybe that's in all editions. If anyone has a copy and sees them, please let me know.

Anyway, grab Empire of Salt. Definitely great zombie reading.

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Cover Score:

That's a great cover. Look at the color scheme and rot effects on that zombie. Plus, this is one of the few times where you do get the cover scene in the book. Most of these Tomes of the Dead books have solid covers, and this is one of the top ones.

Cover Final Score:


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