This book review is actually long overdue. It’s honestly not my fault this time. You see, when we receive a good zombie book for review it usually disappears. Someone picks it up, flips through it and then borrows it. Then coworkers lend it friends and family and so on. I can always tell when I’m going to enjoy a review copy of a zombie book when I have to track it down to repossess it, or purchase another copy. Such was the case with This Dark Earth.
I was giddy with zombie delight when author John Hornor Jacob’s publicist emailed us offering to send a copy of his zombie novel, This Dark Earth, for review. Well, I should be completely honest here. It was a mix of delight and dread. You see there are a LOT of zombie books out there. There are also a LOT of authors seeking a review of their zombie book. We receive many requests from authors asking us to review their best zombie literary efforts. Some of them are great. Many of them aren’t. There’s always a smattering of fear that you’re going to get stuck reading a horrible zombie book. Worse yet, there’s the fear you’ll have to publish your negative review online for all to see. Fortunately both fears were totally unfounded with this book. To my relief, This Dark Earth is actually a great read. With that in mind lets’ get to my thoughts on this zombie novel.
One of the the first things I noticed about this book was the cover art. It’s not amazing but I really like it. Maybe it’s because I usually expect the worst. Zombie books are notorious for having terrible cover art. Fortunately this was a paperback copy from a well known publisher so the cover art has to have some innate level of competency. Check it out below:
The cover definitely doesn’t take the “in your face” approach that many zombie novels do. Aside from the phrase “A Zombie Novel” in small font on the cover you’d probably have no idea this was even a zombie novel at first glance. The low key cover art would make it very easy to pass over this book if you were a zombie lover just browsing at the book store. That would be a shame.
Fortunately there’s a good balance of bland and bold with this cover. Despite it’s simplicity (or perhaps because of it) something about it drew me in. The title “This Dark Earth” intrigued me. The wonderful grey skull on the cover lacks a mandible. Something about this eerie skull commands your attention. Upon closer inspection I noticed there’s a a lightly colored likeness of the United States within the skull. Here at ZombieGift.com we’ve affectionately named it a sklobe. (A skull globe.) In addition to the skull you’ll notice you a machete and the baseball bat with nails. Then you see the bones. Finally you see the tag line mixed within those elements. “GRAB YOUR HEADKNOCKER AND GET READY FOR SOME WET WORK IN THE MURDERHOLE.”
That was enough to peak my curiosity. While I had a pretty good idea what a headknocker was used for (it is a zombie novel afterall) I still had to know what a murderhole is all about. My initial thoughts were it was a place to kill zombies. Why call it a murderhole though? Is there something more sinister to a murderhole? Does this term mean something more ominous in this new world, this Dark Earth? You’ll have to read the book to find out! Or at least read until the end of this review.
While I do discuss a major overview of the plot and some major plot details I wouldn’t worry. I don’t post any major plot spoilers that would affect your enjoyment of the book here.
So what about the plot? The main plot is honestly nothing special or unique. It’s really just the time tested post-apocalyptic zombie plot. The same old zombie virus outbreak survival story. I guess that’s why I enjoyed the book so much. It’s believable. There’s nothing too far fetched or so far out of the realm of reality that you cringe in disbelief.
Here’s the plot synopsis from the back cover:
The land is contaminated, electronics are defunct, the ravenous undead remain, and life has fallen into a nasty and brutish state of nature.
Welcome to Bridge City, in what was once Arkansas: part medieval fortress, part Western outpost, and the precarious last stand for civilization. A ten-year-old prodigy when the world ended, Gus is now a battle-hardened young man. He designed Bridge City to protect the living few from the shamblers eternally at the gates. Now he’s being groomed by his physician mother, Lucy, and the gentle giant Knock-Out to become the next leader of men. But an army of slavers is on its way, and the war they’ll wage for the city’s resources could mean the end of mankind as we know it.
Can Gus become humanity’s savior? And if so, will it mean becoming a dictator, a martyr . . . or maybe something far worse than even the zombies that plague the land?
On the most basic level this book is about a somewhat cold and anti-social physician/pathologist named Lucy, her son Gus, and a kind-hearted (but not to be messed with) trucker named “Knock-Out”. We follow their struggle to survive while clinging to some small sense of community and society.
The book doesn’t waste any time getting started. It opens in a hospital emergency room waiting room. Many residents of the community come to the hospital seeking relief for strange conditions and illnesses. Their odd neurological conditions rapidly deteriorate before Lucy’s eyes in the waiting room. Of course the scientist within Lucy has to figure this out. As a reader you can feel her pain and frustration. She wants to diagnose and cure these patients. So much so that as a reader you’re sucked into thinking perhaps the first half of the book will be about Lucy working with the CDC in a stark lab somewhere before it all goes terribly wrong. Things move much more quickly than that.
The reader quickly discovers this is some sort of serious outbreak of pandemic proportions that the government seeks to contain. So much so that they don’t have time to worry about doing it discretely or quietly. Soldiers storm the hospital and began shooting the infected and those exposed. Lucy escapes with a coworker and they flee in his SUV in an attempt to get to their homes. It’s not that easy.
Lucy’s partner doesn’t quite make it. It seems the government has helicopter gunships ready to mow down anyone that tries to flee. Lucy watches her colleague and friend disappear into a pink mist due to helicopter gunfire. She escapes and proceeds on foot. It doesn’t take long to know this outbreak is serious. As a reader you quickly come to terms with the fact that you don’t know what caused the outbreak and probably never will. With all the action going on you don’t have time to worry about the etiology anyway.
Lucy manages to avoid being chewed up by machine gun and helicopter mini-guns. She eventually meets a brawny trucker affectionately named “Knock-Out”. He helps Lucy get home to her young son, Gus. The remainder of the story outlines how this trio eventually meets a group of surviving soldiers and their Captain who isn’t always a nice guy. Instead of shooting Lucy they decide a medically trained physician in their group could be beneficial.
After one of the members of decides to end the Captain’s life in a slow and painful poisoning (you’ll have to read the book to know how and why), we start to see the prodigal nature of Gus. After burying the Captain in the median of what used to be Interstate-540, the group holds a make shift memorial service the best they can. A young 11 year old Gus looks up at a bridge overpass in the distance. He tells Knock-Out they need to talk to the lieutenant because he has an idea. You just know the young man has something good in mind and something bigger in store.
Young Gus has an epiphany and realizes this part of what used to be Arkansas would make a perfect place to set up camp. It turns out he’s right. The group forms “Bridge City”. It’s part fortress, part zombie safehouse and the last resemblance of community and safety in this new world. The remainder of the book tells the tale of how Bridge City came to be and outlines the ups and downs of the struggles Lucy, Gus, Knock-Out and their community experience. The reader learns just what murderholes are and how they’re used to contain, control, and exterminate the undead.
How does this community cling to humanity? What safeguards do they have in place to ensure the dead don’t devour them in their sleep? How does an 11 year old boy end up coming up with Bridge City and eventually grow into the leader that is essentially humanity’s last hope? You’ll have to read the book. In a post-apocalyptic world everything good and safe comes with the danger of rogue survivors that want to take it for their own. This book ends with an army of slavers launching an all out attack to bring down bridge city and the valuable resources it holds. Do Gus, Lucy, and the family and community survive? Just what becomes of Bridge City? You’ll have to pick up a copy of This Dark Earth and find out for yourself. The book ends with issues partially resolved. It’s a situation that leaves the reader begging for a sequel!
What I Liked:
Like I said, the basic plot is nothing new. It’s the standard tale of how humanity survives after an apocalyptic event. The heroes, villains and the struggles Mr. Jacobs have penned are nothing revolutionary. That’s not to say this is a boring book however. Far from it. The real beauty of this book is in the details.
– This book is extremely well written. The plot is engaging. The characters are well thought out and the reader can really identify with them.
– Perhaps more importantly, proofreaders and editors did their job on this one. You have no idea how important that is. I’m certainly not perfect. This post likely has more than a few mistakes. Trust me when I say it still can’t rival the modern amateur zombie novel. Some of the zombie books and e-books we receive are so riddled with errors, typos and mistakes they border on unreadable. This Dark Earth stands in stark contrast. It is so well written and eloquently composed I’d like to send a copy to aspiring zombie authors. Perhaps they could use it as an example for what a well written zombie book looks like from both a literary and technical standpoint.
– I really enjoyed the way John Hornor Jacobs frequently switches point of view. It’s just often enough to keep you engaged and interested while being properly executed so it all doesn’t confuse the reader.
– Believe it or not I actually have a background in healthcare. That’s one reason I was sucked in early. I really enjoyed the opening chapter. It’s loaded with medical jargon and terms that many readers may have trouble pronouncing, let alone understanding. It isn’t so technical that it’s distracting, but it certainly shows Mr. Jacob did his homework when writing the opening chapter. I think it serves to make the whole zombie virus outbreak scenario more believable. When you’re presented with actual names for actual conditions that produce conditions and symptoms similar to those infected in this story, it makes it all seem much more credible and tangible.
– Ultimately I enjoyed This Dark Earth because it examines an age-old question. When the stuff hits the fan would there be enough good left in the world to continue humanity on the right path or would the desperate need to survive turn our planet into a dark and savage place? I really enjoyed the way this book explores all aspects of humanity and the challenges we’d face as a society trying to survive during a zombie apocalypse. Society is a balance of good and evil and any event of apocalyptic proportions will only serve to magnify those two events. This theme rings true in This Dark Earth and it’s probably one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. This story isn’t so much about zombies as much as it is about mankind in general. The events in this book could just as easily have been brought about by any catastrophic event: an earthquake,terrorism, a natural plague, famine or floods. Little separates our comfortable and controlled daily lives from utter chaos. Sure we have laws, law enforcement and moral codes to help keep things in check. What happens when some apocalyptic event strips those barriers away?
What’s Not So Great:
I honestly enjoyed reading this book, but it wasn’t perfect. I do have a few complaints. None of them are serious flaws and honestly, none of them offer any reason to NOT check out this book. That being said I always give my honest and complete opinion on zombie products when asked to do a review…so here we go!
– There are a couple of plot details and story arcs that just seem a little out of place. They generally aren’t too distracting but they feel either incomplete or forced. While well written and enjoyable to read, I’m left with the impression that they just didn’t need to be in the book. One example is part of the story where Gus and some other members of the community go to procure a steam locomotive.
Now if I recall correctly the main idea was to get the train, strap a tank to it and defeat the army of slavers that is bothering them one and for all. Perhaps my first problem with this chapter was believing it. While the thought of a zombie apocalypse isn’t something I have trouble believing, for some strange reason I have dfficulty believing this group of men could manage to fire up a steam engine and figure out how to get it rolling before every walker in the area showed up and had them for lunch. Then again maybe I have trouble believe a group of men smart enough to actually do this would actually be dumb enough to attempt it.
The other problem I have with the chapter is it doesn’t work. Tiny spoiler alert here: the train ends up crashing. Gus’s partner on this excursion, Klein, dies and turns into a zombie. The chapter ends with Gus coming to. He vows to kill himself before he ever allows himself to become a shamble but first he hints that he must shoot Klein to end his short time as a zombie. It ends there and the next chapter is the final chapter of the book. That chapter starts with Gus helping to prepare Bridge City for the final battle with the Slavers. We’re left to figure out on our own that Gus survived the whole train ordeal. Just how or why is left to us. Don’t get me wrong it’s an entertaining chapter to read, but it just doesn’t really need to be there. In my humble opinion it does little to nothing to advance the story. The entire chapter just doesn’t fit well with the book as a whole.
I think the whole train chapter would have been much better had we seen some epic struggle by Gus to escape and make his way home. Even better if it all could have tied in to the main plot in some important way. Instead it ends flat and unresolved. I was left scratching my head wondering why that part of the book wasn’t simply scratched completely. Maybe I’m dense and missed something in the mix. Could be. Although it didn’t seem vital to the plot, this chapter did serve a purpose for me. It got my guard down and my mind thinking on a completely different track so to speak. By now the reader knows this final battle with slavers is coming. I was expecting it. However, I wasn’t expecting it to be on the pages immediately following the train chapter. The very next chapter thrusts you into the heart of a final war and the conclusion of the book. It is all a little confusing, but still effective.
– Another unexplained gap is my other main complaint about this book. As a reader you jump from Gus’s comments about having an idea for Bridge City to the next chapter where he’s older and the City has long been established. It happens at about the halfway point and it’s a tad confusing. In a movie this would be the perfect spot to cut to black and then show “Several years later…” on the next scene. It takes a few minutes to realize we’ve made the jump. It also leaves you feeling like you were cheated out of part of the story. Some of the details of how Bridge City cam to be are revealed later in the story so in the end it doesn’t feel as chopped up or unresolved as it sounds.
– I have one final complaint. This book ends and leaves you hanging. The possibility of a sequel is definitely there!
I really enjoyed This Dark Earth and highly recommend it. No it isn’t a revolutionary new take on the zombie genre. It has some of the same old clichés and expected plot elements. It is also a well written and engaging story that is about as believable as a zombie novel can be! It isn’t perfect and few books in this genre are. What it IS is a zombie book that is a pleasure to read and certainly worthy of any zombie fan’s time. I’m left dying to know what happens in the future! I gave it 4.5 out of 5 brains because of the 2 minor complaints I had.
About the Book:
Get your own copy here:
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Gallery Books; Original edition (July 3, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1451666667
- ISBN-13: 978-1451666663
- Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
Read or listen to an excerpt here: http://www.johnhornorjacobs.com/this-dark-earth-excerpt/.
About the Author:
John Hornor Jacobs was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for his debut novel, Southern Gods, which The Onion AV Club called “sumptuous” and proclaimed “beautifully probes the eerie, horror-infested underbelly of the South.” Having worked in advertising for the past fifteen years, John is also an artist, a musician, and the author of This Dark Earth (2012 Gallery/Simon & Schuster) and The Twelve-Fingered Boy (2013 Carolrhoda Labs/Lerner Books). He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnHornor and on facebook. Be sure to read his lively ramblings at www.JohnHornorJacobs.com.