Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Brian Keene
Published by Leisure Books
Keene’s got a talent. Actually, he has quite a few of them but, as an author, I’ve found his strongest skill is his ability to breathe life and real feelings into his characters. It worked very well in both The Rising and his other recent publication, Terminal, helping give depth to the central characters and giving the reader a reason to care about what happens to them.
Unfortunately, be it because of deadlines or just the way the story is told, that’s what is severely missing from City of the Dead. The story begins right where The Rising left off with Jim, Martin, and Frankie coming upon the house in the Mew Jersey suburbs where Jim’s son, Danny, has been holed up since the start of the zombie invasion. The rescue attempt goes relatively well, though there are some losses (don’t want to give away too much…), and they end up with one other survivor.
Pretty much the first half of the book is nothing but solid action; then we’re introduced to Ramsey Towers and its owner/creator/builder, Darren Ramsey. In Keene’s fictional world Ramsey is a bit of a Donald Trump, who spared no expense after 9/11 building the most structurally sound edifice he could, just in case the terrorists (or in this case, zombies) decided to attack the city again. Since the start of the “rising,” he’s been collecting survivors from all over the place thanks to the use of a helicopter and some very able-bodied security staff members. The entire building is built to withstand everything from fire to a plane crashing into it (literally), so at first it seems like the perfect place to wait out the apocalypse.
Jim and crew are picked up and deposited at the Tower, which at first seems ideal. Soon the cracks begin to appear, however, and the great and powerful Ob shows up yet again to cause more problems for the humans.
The main issues with the story begin when they reach the Tower. Once inside, we’re introduced to a slew of characters very quickly: a nurse, a pregnant girl, a tough guy, a Canadian, an ex-hippy, etc., and then we’re thrown back into chaos as the zombie army, lead by Ob, lays siege to the building. We’re forced to try and keep track of a lot of new characters that we haven’t had time to really get to know while the ones we do, Jim, Frankie, etc., are more or less pushed to the side for a good piece of the action.
I understand why this was done as it was important to set up those secondary characters in certain situations in order for the story to unfold as it does, but what would have benefited City of the Dead greatly would’ve been an expansion of the overall story by about 100 or so pages. It’s rare I think a book should be longer, and in this instance I’m not sure it’s the best solution, but more should have been done with these people if they were going to take up so much of the narrative.
One could make the argument that what happens to them is of really no great consequence since they all pretty much die, but if you’re going to center a good chunk of your story around secondary characters, it’s best if the reader is able to identify with them as much as possible to keep the story real to them.
So what does City do right? Pretty much everything else. The zombie action is still intense and fast-paced — and still vicious as hell. People are torn to shreds, eaten alive, and just messed up all over in general by the walking dead. The story shifts back and forth between our human characters and Ob, who finds himself in a new body pretty much right away and begins to assemble his army. Along the way he manages to go into some exposition about what his race is doing on the Earth, why they were cast into the Void in the first place, and what’s next for the planet. None of it is good, of course. Credit has to be given to Keene for his ideas throughout, as they certainly lend a new spin to the zombie craze Romero began in the late 60’s.
Despite the action slowing down for a while once the Tower is reached, Keene keeps City moving along at a good clip from beginning to end, which does help keep some of its flaws under the surface until the conclusion, as you’re too wrapped up in the moment (if you’re anything like me) to notice the issues.
All in all City of the Dead is a fun zombie book that at times feels a bit too forced, almost like Keene may have painted himself into a corner with the cliffhanger at the end of The Rising and wasn’t too sure where to go with it. To be honest though, it goes along so quick you’ll probably barely have time to notice it.
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