Welcome to Deadland: Nerdist (Inkshares), August 2016, 398 pages, cover design by David Drummond. Welcome to Deadland is a zombie novel set in the South, the author's home. (New writer Zachary Tyler Linville went to school in Florida and now lives in Atlanta.) After a very brief prologue showing us that someone deliberately spread the plague that turns nice people into disagreeable zombies--no clues offered as to why--the opening 25 pages consist of chapters before and after the apocalypse, from the points of view of young men Asher and Rico. After, Asher wields a baseball bat to defend a girl named Wendy from a zombie. Before, Asher was working at a college café where he met a pretty redhead named Stacey. Stacey invited him to a party, where she had too much to drink. Before, Rico got arrested during a drug-aided hookup in a parked car, to be bailed out by his divorced father, whom Rico deeply resents. After, Rico and a boy named Jayden find shelter in a boat floating just off the coast.
Phantom Effect: Night Shade, February 2016, 285 pages, cover design by Diana Kolsky. Michael Aronovitz has penned two previous novels and two short fiction collections from small publishers. Phantom Effect is a ghost story in which a serial killer is haunted by one of his victims. In the opening 25 pages, our antihero Jonathan Deseranto has just killed and dismembered a young woman, Marissa Madison, but his car has a blowout before he can dispose of the body. When a policeman stops to investigate, Deseranto kills him too, then promptly crashes his car fleeing the scene. As he gets out, the trunk pops open and, impossibly, one of the victims emerges. Deseranto sprints to an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished Motel 6.
The Battle: We begin the Battle of the 2016 Books with a contest that illustrates what the first round of BotB is all about. To make it through the first round, you need to grab my attention right out of the blocks. Seize my interest with sparkling writing or strong characterization or an intriguing storyline.
Welcome to Deadland may ultimately turn into a satisfying adventure, but the opening 25 pages didn't much grab me. Linville attempts to do that in two ways. First, he shows us the perils of life after the apocalypse, as Asher and Wendy are attacked by a zombie in the opening chapter. It's a decent scene, but doesn't carry much impact, since zombie attacks have become so commonplace in books and media the past several years. I believe that by now it now takes some humor or irony to deliver a line like, "Thank you for bashing his skull in."
Second, Linville tries to draw in his readers by contrasting his dangerous future with the everyday lives our main characters used to live before the apocalypse. But to my tastes, those lives were a little too everyday and a little too similar to each other: Asher and Rico are two young men hanging around parties hoping to get laid. Flipping through the book, I see that Wendy becomes a viewpoint character around page 80. It might have been a good idea to give us her point of view sooner.
Meanwhile, Phantom Effect started to pull me in from the opening line: "I ain't scared, asshole."
The line is spoken by 6' 5" Jonathan Martin Delaware Deseronto, a man who finds satisfaction in killing young women who remind him of his mother. I like Deseronto's tough-guy voice, because it starts to break down almost immediately.
As the book opens, Deseronto ain't scared that a flat tire has interrupted his rainy midnight drive to dispose of the dismembered remains of his latest victim, Marissa Madison. But he starts to feel scared when a police cruiser stops to help. Then he's a little more scared as he crashes his car, now with two victims in the trunk, into a pit at a construction site. Then he's seriously unnerved when he starts hearing noises from the trunk. Could the policeman have survived? And as he scrambles away from the totaled car toward a deserted Motel 6, slipping in the mud, although he doesn't say so, this is the point when the reader knows damn well Deseronto is terrified:
There was a noise, and Deseronto looked back over his shoulder.
Marissa Madison was crawling out of the trunk.
She had already evicted the dead cop, a rumple and twist in the mud, and she was pulling up now, fingers curled around the edge of the lid, the other on the bottom lip, head bent with exertion, long hair hanging in front of her face like a sodden veil. There were hash marks where the body parts had been put back together, and some of them were affixed backward, insectile, sewn with what looked like the fishing line he'd kept in there on a wooden spool, the rough stitching cut off in stingers and barbs. The shoulders flexed and the joints angled in, the spider poised to emerge from the sack.
Deseronto pushed to his feet and turned toward the motel.This, dear reader, is a hook.
THE WINNER: Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz
Phantom Effect advances to the second round to face either The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau or Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams.
To see the whole bracket, click here.