This was another in the pile of freebies I got at the World Fantasy Convention last fall. I pulled it out of the ‘to read’ pile when I was in the mood for some light reading, and light reading is what I got. That said, just because you don’t plan to win the Nobel Prize for Literature doesn’t mean you can abandon sense when writing a story. Even a story called Jailbait Zombie.
What do you expect from a book with a title like that, combined with a cover that has a silhouette of a slender female in a graveyard, carrying handcuffs? You expect a pulpy romp with some racy bits, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, a feeling that you’re on an amusement park ride and the conductor is having a wonderful time. There’s some of that here, but I get the feeling that our guide in this weird world, Mario Acevedo, pulled his punches. This is not the sort of narrative that benefits from subtlety.
The protagonist, Felix Gomez, is a vampire. He’s a newbie, quite naïve about many elements in the vampire world, yet for some reason he’s an enforcer – it’s like hiring a 12-year-old on a bike to be a sheriff’s deputy. Anyway, we join Felix as he’s being treated for a zombie bite. Apparently he and his buddy have already cornered the zombie in a construction site; we were not treated to that action. Another vampire comes along, is an asshole, burns himself to death, and that’s it for that character. Huh.
Gomez is charged with finding out who is behind the zombies, and while he’s at it, find the source of some crazy psychic disturbances in rural Colorado. There are some interesting parts as he does his detective work — strange things happen, he gets mixed up with some unsavory characters, some of those characters disappear, and he winds up in the company of a young, distraught, dying girl who wants to become a vampire, and who also happens to have some amazing psychic mojo.
There is chasing, vampire mayhem, zombie dismemberment, tough scrapes, old friendships renewed, and quite a bit of good storytelling. It just seems that at key moments the author could go a little farther. Like with the sex. There’s sex in there, but it’s not visceral. It seems wedged in to allow the publisher to check off ‘racy’ on the marketing form. There’s not enough passion to it, no sweat and desperation and futility and hope. It’s just mechanics. Pulp fiction can’t be afraid of making a mess.
How would you react to watching someone you really don’t like burn to death? Probably a really weird mix of conflicting emotions, right? His screams making your hair stand on end even as some dark thing inside you prevents you from helping? The stench of his flesh turning your stomach. The reminder that even if you’re a vampire you’re not immortal. Seems like a great chance to really get inside the head of the main character. Only, in Jailbait Zombie this scene seems to be constructed only to demonstrate that our main man has no feelings at all — which makes him a lot less interesting. We learn soon after — and several times after that — that Gomez is guilt-ridden over something he did in the past, and that’s a start, but the author flashes back to that one event over and over, while passing up fresh opportunities right in the narrative flow.
There is, however, one totally awesome plot twist. “Wow!” I said when I read it. “Never saw that coming!” I’m willing to forgive a lot for a good surprise like that.
My biggest gripe from a storytelling standpoint is the complete idiocy of the mysterious organization that sent Gomez on his mission. Am I to believe that they simply forgot to tell him the crucial information that made his job harder and led to disaster, or is it that they chose to withhold that information? Either way, Gomez’s bosses (I forget what their mysterious cabal was named) are repeatedly guilty of being really bad at their jobs. Bad enough that I simply couldn’t accept that they would ever be bosses.
Maybe that becomes clearer as the series progresses.
Ah, yes, the series. The main reason I’m writing this review is so I can discuss series with all of you. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.
Remember how I said it seemed like a significant chunk of action had already happened when I started the story? That’s because for all practical purposes, this book began on chapter two. Whither the erstwhile chapter one? At the end of the previous book. And guess what happens at the end of this book? Yep, Everything is wrapped up, Gomez relaxes, and then we are treated to chapter one of the next book. It’s like they dropped the proofs at the printer’s and got the covers in the wrong places when they put everything back together.
Sure, the cliffhanger has been a staple of series since the dawn of time (I imagine Homer wrapping up an evening of oration with Odysseus in some terrible bind), but if you’re going to put chapter one in the previous book, at least have the decency to mark it as such and also put it in the next book, as chapter one, where it belongs. There were enough flashbacks in this thing without also having to explain what had just happened before the story started. (Homer’s hypothetical cliffhangers would have occurred within a story told over episodes; no one in the audience thought they were going to hear the end of the Odyssey that night, and he could count on people being up to speed when he began his next performance.)
This is not to be confused with the honest “here’s the first chapter of the next book” sections that many series use. Those pages come after the current episode has been wrapped up and the reader already knows that what they are reading belongs to the next story. And if anyone picks up the second book without reading the first, they get to read the whole thing. The last two books I read that were parts of series did an excellent job making sure the covers of each volume contained an entire story. I consider it a contract with the publisher that I will get an entire story between the covers of a book unless otherwise noted.
None of those gimmicks are going to work anyway, unless we’re already nearly sold on reading the second volume based on the power of the first.
You may have already heard me rant about books marketed as a series when in fact there’s only one story that spans all the volumes. It is a series of one, split into many pieces. This is especially common in high fantasy, where “epic” now means “no pretense whatsoever at putting a complete story between the covers of each volume.” To me it also means “wait until all the volumes are published before you start reading.” Only then can you read a full, satisfying story from beginning to end (and you know ahead of time what you’re getting into).
Done properly a series is a good thing, giving a skilled writer an easy sell on subsequent books, and giving a reader a chance to explore more deeply characters that develop over an extended time. Everybody wins. Just make sure that within the series each episode can stand on its own.
Back, then, to Jailbait Zombie. It wasn’t bad, misplaced covers aside. It could have been better. It needs to more fully embrace what it is to really shine, and it needs fewer really stupid people in it.
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