The zombie genre is so overcrowded these days that if your story is not really special and unique, it is very difficult to stand out from the crowd. Author Jason Kristopher tries to do just that with his debut novel, The Dying of the Light: End, but unfortunately, he does not quite succeed. This is not to say that the book is bad, because it’s not. It’s just horribly mediocre, and will most likely appeal to only diehard fans of the genre, especially those who are not very discerning about what they read or watch. Everyone else can skip this one, and not feel like they’ve missed out on anything. Unless, of course, they enjoy stiff prose, terrible dialogue, clichéd characters, and shifting points of view.
The story opens in the small town of Fall Creek, Colorado, which has been overrun by zombies in the space of two days. The lone survivor, David Blake, is rescued by a secret U.S. military unit known as AEGIS, and is taken to their headquarters. One year later, Blake joins up with AEGIS, and is assigned to Alpha Squad, which is made up of a group of characters that is very blatantly inspired by the Colonial Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens (or quite possibly, the most recent iteration of Battlestar Galactica). Alpha Squad is dispatched to different locations across the United States in order to combat the zombie outbreak, which is starting to spread out of control. It’s not long before they discover that the zombie plague is caused by a biological process, and that there is no way to cure anyone who has been infected beyond destroying their brains and burning the bodies. Meanwhile, AEGIS is assigned a new government liaison in the form of Henry Gardner, a stock villain who wandered in from the set of some mad scientist film. He orders Alpha Squad to change their mission from one of elimination to retrieval, as he wants to study the zombies in order to use them for biological warfare or something (it’s not totally clear, except for the fact that Gardner is EVIL). Soon, though, it becomes evident that this outbreak can no longer be contained, and the government reveals they’ve built 10 huge underground bunkers that can sustain up to 10,000 people each for 20 years, and only the world’s best and brightest are going to be allowed inside (this includes the members of Alpha Squad, natch). Now, with riots breaking out among the remaining citizenry as the zombies overtake the surface, the lucky few hunker down underground, and wait for the plague to burn itself out.
The Dying of the Light: End (which is sort of a terrible title, by the way) is a first novel, and it shows. Kristopher has come up with a compelling story, but it is completely undone by the writing. It’s similar to late-period Stephen King, in that the book itself is almost compulsively readable, despite the fact that the prose, dialogue, and characters are all subpar. It’s a frustrating situation, because if Kristopher had spent as much time developing those aspects of the novel as he did the actual story, this could have been something really special, and would have helped him stand out from a very crowded field. With a little more effort, this could have been the next World War Z, but instead, it feels more like one of Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil movies. And no, that’s not a compliment. At the end of the day, the whole thing feels unnecessary, and adds nothing original or interesting to the zombie genre. Thus, it will appeal to only the most hardcore fans, and even then, they’ve already got so much to choose from, there is really no reason to seek this one out.
The book’s biggest weakness comes in the form of its characters. They are all gung-ho, supremely confident military types who seem to have a backup plan for any situation, and outside of one scene toward the end in which a member of Alpha Squad is bitten, there is really no tension to be had. In fact, the fetishizing of the military is more than a little obnoxious, especially since all the characters who aren’t soldiers are either incompetent or flat out evil. The villain is especially awful, as he is little more than a complete stereotype that exists solely to cackle and rub his hands menacingly. Kristopher tries to subvert this convention by constantly commenting that the character is a “spy movie villain,” but simply pointing out that your character is a total cliché doesn’t excuse him from being a cliché. All the characters are clichés in one form or another, and while this is somewhat useful in helping the reader get to know them in an efficient manner, it makes them less interesting in the long run. Worse, most of them aren’t even drawn out all that well despite being total stock characters, and it becomes difficult to empathize with their plight. They just go through the motions, and the reader feels nothing.
The problems with the writing don’t stop there, though. Kristopher couldn’t quite decide if he wanted to write his book from a first or third person perspective, so he just sort of uses both whenever they are convenient. This isn’t bad in and of itself, as other writers employ this tactic often, but they have to be very skilled to make it work. Here, it just lends a bit of a schizophrenic feel to the book, and only serves to take the reader out of the story. It doesn’t help that the narrator falls into a coma about two thirds of the way into the book, and the POV switches to the other, less interesting characters. It seems as though Kristopher wanted the best of both worlds, but based on the end result, he should have just stuck to one point of view or the other.
Upon reflection, this review is probably making The Dying of the Light: End sound a lot worse than it actually is. It is far from terrible, and the story is compelling enough that it is worth a look for zombie enthusiasts. Ultimately, it’s a decent enough horror story, but it is not essential or necessary in any way. The Dying of the Light: End is yet another story about the zombie apocalypse that feels a lot like every other story about the zombie apocalypse that has come out in the last decade or so. If you’re a fan of the genre, you could do a heck of a lot worse than this. On the other hand, though, you could also do a lot better, so there’s no real reason to go out of your way to seek this one out.
Final Rating: 5/10
CBR Break Down:
Page Count: 399
Price Bought at: $14.99 at Amazon.com