Tomes of the Dead: Tide of Souls by Simon Bestwick. Originally published by Abaddon books, January 2011. Approx. 320 pages.
Over the past few years, I've really been enjoying these Tomes of the Dead titles that were released in 2010-2011 by Abaddon Books. And, with each new one I read, I can appreciate more how they tried to present innovative takes on the zombie genre - they struck when the iron was hot, and didn't cause more gridlock with the same old, same old. These books posit new origin types for outbreaks of the undead, or utilize different historical periods as settings. In short, they were a breath of fresh air.
Tide of Souls kind of got shuffled to the back of the Tomes reading pile for some immature reasons; first, the cover isn't as catchy as some of the other excellent ones (very unfair of me), and two, I have no problem trying new authors, but sometimes I hesitate when reading first novels (again, unfair and uninformed). However, once I did pick this story up, I tore through it with all the enthusiasm of, well, of a zombie at a brain buffet (forgive me that bad joke, please). Tide of Souls is an excellent story, and not just an excellent zombie yarn, for two primary reasons: one, it has the richest characters of any of the Tomes stories that I have read so far, and two, the zombie depictions are great (although the green eyes can be kind of off-putting).
The set-up of Tide of Souls is simple, but horrifying. Succinctly put, the icecaps melt and the world floods. And from these new depths emerge the "nightmares"; innumerable armies of the walking dead. Shambling, persistent creatures in various stages of decomposition with one constant: the glowing, green eyes. That, and a shared malevolence.
The events, as we bear witness to them, unfold in England. We see them through the eyes of a trio of first-person narrators, three central participants whose fates will intertwine and interweave as the truths are uncovered. Be forewarned; even though I try to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible, just going over the outline of how the book is put together will unleash some reveals. Feel free to scroll down a bit is that's an issue.
Bestwick does a superb job in structuring these memoirs. The first is that of Katja, a young Polish woman who fell victim to the human trafficking epidemic in Britain. Katja is a strong, intelligent woman, and very capable; as the daughter of a special ops soldier, she possesses critical survival skills. These are the only things that kept her sane and alive during her time as a prostitute; an experience so harrowing that "rising of the dead was....a godsend."
It is important that we see the first events through Katja's eyes. Like her, at this point, we are confused, and helpless. She has to piece together what is going on, and how she is going to survive, especially since she finds herself looking out for a young, fellow prostitute named Marta. The duo has to beat a hasty egress from flooded Manchester, all the while avoiding the undead horrors. Along the way, they fall in with a widowed survivalist named Derek, who reinforces the idea that kindness and goodness are two separate entities.
Katja's tales culminates with them reaching an island (well, a former hilly town), which is currently occupied by a detachment of soldiers.
Here begins the story of Robert McTarn. McTarn is a former standout soldier who gets called up for a special mission in the midst of this most unnatural disaster. As with most situations of this magnitude, the high-ranking government officials have enacted their contingency plans, while the populace, well, drowns. McTarn is charged with coordinating the extraction of a high-value asset along with the RAF. This particular asset is a mentally damaged scientist named Stiles, who just might have some sort of inkling as to what caused this mess; and, hopefully, can concoct an idea of how to stop it.
McTarn's account takes over from where Katja's leaves off; where everything was new and frightening before, it all becomes about survival now. As the original mission becomes impossible to complete, McTarn must rally his few soliders and the local townsfolk to stave off the undead hordes while they try to get a solution out of Stiles.
Stiles. To a degree, he might be the most important man on the planet at this point. And also a complete mess. Physically and emotionally broken, perpetually drunk and strung out on painkillers. What few utterances he makes are incoherent babblings. Somehow, though, Katja is able to strike up a semblance of a rapport with him. Will this yield enough information before the survivors are overrun?
After the action reaches a dynamic climax, with a possibility of some kind of resolution in sight, the third and final (and shortest) account begins. This is Stiles' own account. It is here that we finally learn the beginning, and the end.
Every zombie outbreak needs a reason, or a cause. What online criticisms I have seen of Tide of Souls consider this to be the weak link in the story. I totally disagree, but again, no spoilers here. Bestwick puts forward a solid, original idea here.
Stiles' account might just be the most intriguing of all. Where Katja's juggled notions of fear, strength, and even hope, and McTarn's flew by with the practical, clipped statements of military jargon, Stiles' tale is almost poetic in its own way. Where we had only seen a disheveled shell of a man for the past 150 pages, we now get to see the man that was. Young Ben Stiles was a passionate diver, accomplished marine biologist, and consummate ladies man. This was all until a diving accident left him crippled, and unable to submerge again: a diver who fell from grace from the sea. Soul crushed, and soaking in alcohol and opiates, the visions soon began. Who would have known that those visions were actually portents of the horrors to come?
Let's look at the components of Tide of Souls bit by bit:
Characters: As mentioned, true winners here. If you look at the three narrators on paper, they almost look like stock characters; the beautiful young lady who can kill you with her bare hands, the efficient soldier with a past, and the mentally unhinged scientist. But I can't stress enough how well-rounded these characters are. Katja knows well that the time may come when her womanhood is the only currency that will get her by, no matter how tough or resourceful she is. McTarn realizes that no matter what he tries or believes, there is more of his abusive father in him than he can handle. In fact, inheriting his mother's kindness only benefits him in allowing him to appreciate and hate his darker side. And Stiles, for all his realized passions and achievements, is flawed, insecure, and afraid.
The secondary characters are fleshed out enough for them to be memorable. Some of the soldiers on McTarn's team stay as just names; he only really gives consideration to the ones that stand out in a meritous way.
Pacing/Overall Writing: Tide of Souls flows by at a nice pace. It never lags, and there is nothing superfluous. Bestwick does the first-person POV's well, letting them stand as three very distinct identities. There is a nice 28 Days/Weeks Later vibe going on here, and, even being a native of the States, I could envision the British setting well.
Action: Tons of it. And this isn't a case of all action, no story either. There are no arbitrary action scenes inserted simply to pass time. Also, Bestwick has done his homework (the extent of which is shown in part in the acknowledgements) regarding gunfights; untrained firearms wielders like Katja do not simply become overnight headshot machines.
Zombies: Even though it took me a bit to get used to the green eyes, I absolutely love Bestwick's take on zombies. He describes their various states of decomposition in ways that are truly horrifying. On top of this is the fact that these zombies are operating under the influence of some kind of leadership structure. Some of their attack patterns seem....calculated. And later, it's almost as if they adapt and learn from past mistakes. Normally they shamble, but occasionally they can launch into bursts of speed. And also, how is it that these creatures can stave off decomposition when they are constantly marinating in salt water? At first glance, this seems like their portrayal is somewhat inconsistent; however, when we learn more of the cause of their awakening, it all becomes clear.
Fear Factor: Pretty high, to be honest. It's that combination of the genuinely scary depictions of the zombies, coupled with the fact that you honestly do care about the characters. The initial attacks, at the beginning of Katja's account, are examples of some of the finest zombie fiction I have read. There are no "safe" victims either; we see children being attacked, and we see them shambling with the rest of the green-eyed monstrosities.
There you have it. Tide of Souls is an excellent zombie title, guaranteed to give you some Halloween chills. Kudos to Bestwich for this being his first published novel (he already had a number of short stories under his belt). Grab a used copy of the out of print paperback or buy an ebook from the Abaddon website.
Here's what it is:
One of the accolades on Tide of Souls credits Bestwick's "emotional integrity". I'd like to add "emotional intensity". Strong characters, scary zombies. Win-win.
Not bad, but not up to snuff with some of the other Tomes covers. The green eye effect is well done. The color palette fits the tone of the story as well. However, occupying the center area with something reflecting the rising water/sea motif of the book would have been a better choice than a huge building. Especially since most of the action happens on rooftops, boats, and hilly villages.
Cover Final Score: