Book Review: Welcome to Deadland by Zachary Tyler Linville
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Nerdist/Inkshares (August 9, 2016)
Length: 350 pages
Welcome to Deadland is a zombie book, but it’s also kind of…not. The end of the world seems almost incidental in this novel pitched as Lost meets The Walking Dead, but in my opinion, its unique perspective also makes it a deeper, much stronger experience. Rest assured, readers will still get a good dose of the zombocalypse, but the predominant themes about growing up, coming out, and finding strength within yourself are what makes this one shine. If you’re in the mood to try a different sort of zombie story, you’ll definitely want to seek this one out.
The narrative focuses mainly on two major POVs: Asher, a college student from North Carolina, who with his friend Wendy have ended up in a post-apocalyptic Orlando theme park; and Rico, a drug-addicted teenager determined to see himself and his six-year-old brother Jayden to safety through a world strewn with death and destruction. In the “After”, all that matters is survival. But at least half—if not more—of the book also takes place “Before”, in the months leading up to the devastating effects of the zombie plague. With chapters alternating between the past and present, the story provides readers with plenty of backstory allowing us to follow the changes in the characters’ lives.
In the pre-apocalypse, everything changes for Asher on the night he meets Ellis at a house party. A spark immediately forms between the two of them, but there’s only one problem: Ellis already has a boyfriend. Add to that, Asher hasn’t actually told anyone he’s gay, but with the support of Ellis and his friends, he’s finally realizing he can let his secret go and be himself. For the first time in his life, Asher feels free and happy, but there’s also no denying the connection he feels with Ellis, who is already involved with someone else.
Meanwhile in another part of the state, a high school student named Rico is being arrested for drugs and disorderly conduct. As punishment, Rico’s father takes away his car privileges, but this simply becomes an invitation for the teenager to act out even further by skipping classes, dealing drugs, and going to all-night parties. Despite being a juvenile delinquent though, Rico is the hero of his younger stepbrother Jayden, and Rico loves the little boy in turn with all his heart.
Without a doubt, it’s the “Before” sections that constitute the meat of the story, which is why I described this book the way I did in my introduction. Zombie horror takes a secondary role to the trials and tribulations of real life, and just because the world has ended doesn’t mean that the past is erased. If you’re solely looking for the action and thrills of a pure zombie survival story, then this probably won’t be the book for you. There are scenes of blood, violence, gore and tension scattered here and there, but for the most part this one is a heavily character-oriented drama with the most interesting plot developments happening in the chapters before the zombie outbreak.
To keep things moving along though, Zachary Tyler Linville weaves together past and present, jumping back and forth between events that happened when the world was still fine and those that happened afterwards when everything has gone to hell. Still, while it was interesting and ambitious, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was the best structure for the novel because of the overall disruptive effect it had on the flow of the story. “Before” and “After” had a way of stepping on each other’s toes, and the plotting wasn’t quite tight enough to make me feel engaged with essentially four different storylines (pre- and post-apocalypse for both Asher and Rico). The POV switches were also distracting because I had to really make a conscious effort to remember what happened with each character when we last saw them.
Something had to give, and it was the “zombie chapters” that suffered, simply because I preferred the stronger, more compelling character development in the “Before” chapters. Framing it that way, Welcome to Deadland isn’t even a zombie book at all, but rather a narrative about human drama: family life, personal relationships, romance and sex, emotional conflicts, etc. Asher’s story almost had a “New Adult” feel to them, featuring themes like sexuality, leaving home, and college life. In the middle of it all is his relationship with Ellis, which is both a source of comfort and frustration to Asher. Much of his plotline involves Asher trying to sort out where he stands while Ellis carries on an emotional affair with him and then later becomes manipulative, playing with Asher’s feelings. Next, we flip over to Rico, whose story reads like a cautionary tale reminding us of the dangers of drug abuse among teens. The end of the world comes just as Rico hits rock bottom, and puts a whole new perspective on his life. With a young child in his care, Rico re-examines his habits and knows he has to be a better person for his little brother, so at least for him, the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining.
All told, I found Welcome to Deadland to be a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill zombie novel, though ironically, it was the non-zombie sections that really stood out for me. Despite the pacing problems and other minor issues like choppy writing and awkward dialogue, I really enjoyed the story overall and was amazed at huge amount of effort put into character development. That’s pretty unusual for a zombie story, and I found it very refreshing. It’ll be interesting to see what else this series has in store for our characters, because yes, Welcome to Deadland has all the trappings of a “book one”. Hopefully we’ll also learn more about how the infection started in the first place, since this was only mildly hinted at in the story. Ultimately, I rate this one 3 stars for being a solid debut effort with room to grow, and I genuinely believe Zachary Tyler Linville has a bright career in writing ahead of him.