In the year 2195, the world has collapsed and been reborn. Basically, the story is thus:
In the early twenty-first century – some 150 years before the start of our novel – global warming has melted the ice caps, plague and famine have overwhelmed the populace, and the Americas are invaded by refugee Canadians that carry the superflu that wipes out 1 in every 4. The USA falls into a second Civil War (presumably because of the influenza plague? It’s never explained why this happens), which escalates to nuclear war and subsequent fallout. The US ceases to be…but that’s not all! A supervolcano explodes under Yellowstone Park (so we’ve got nuclear fallout AND volcanic destruction to deal with), and the survivors make their way to Central and South America, carving out some land that eventually becomes christened as New Victoria. These former American survivors are incredibly conservative alarmist types and looked to the Victorian era as a model for civility, order and prosperity.
One hundred and fifty years after the NUCLEAR WAR, the SUPERVOLCANO, the SUPER PLAGUE, and the MELTING of the polar ice caps – this is where our story begins.
A century and a half after all this catastrophic, apocalyptic devastation, the world’s ecosystem is somehow in working order and society, rife with hi-tech gadgetry, has been restored…albeit this is a society that emulates Victorian England. Nora Dearly comes from the equivalent of a titled family in the new world order, though she doesn’t have much in the way of family finances following the death of her father (and the lavish lifestyle of her aunt, who has sucked the family coffers dry). After leaving her preparatory school and gearing up for her societal debut in which she must find a wealthy husband in order to keep her family afloat, Nora finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving her late father and a handsome, charming, undead officer named Bram. And he’s a ZOMBIE. Did I mention there are now zombies?
Every DNF I encounter, I take as a personal loss. I truly, honestly try to finish every book I pick up, even if they are mediocre or underwhelming…but every so often a book comes around and I simply have to accept the inevitable. Such was my experience with Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel. There were three main issues that I couldn’t get my mind around with regard to Dearly, Departed, resulting in the unfortunate DNF.
First, there’s the problem of excess. Dearly, Departed is not just a Victorian era steampunkish novel – no, it is a hideous amalgam of some of the most popular trends in YA fiction right now. It is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, pseudo-Victorian, purportedly steampunk, paranormal YA novel with ample romance and, oh yes, ZOMBIES. This is not exaggeration; this is the foundation of the novel. Unfortunately, none of these elements are actually executed well or convincingly. The excessive apocalypse is patently ridiculous, and apparently has no long term consequences because a mere 150 years later the world is totally fine, capable of producing sustainable crop yields and has a peachy keen ecosystem free from the nasty effects of volcanic ash or nuclear fallout (seriously, why not throw in an alien invasion in there or some kind of asteroid impact/massive solar flare while we’re at it? Maybe that’s the cause of the zombiism? Who knows!). More importantly, I couldn’t buy the New Victorian aspect at the heart of the novel. Lia Habel’s premise is that alarmists and conservatives – American alarmists and conservatives, mind you – have taken over and have decided to emulate Victorian England in aesthetic, mannerism, and societal values. WHY Victorian England? Of all the eras in all the world, why would conservative Americans choose Victorian era England as their template? The name of the series is an eye-gougingly bad play on Gone With the Wind (“Gone with the Respiration”); why then wouldn’t the new society choose to emulate the antebellum south, or puritanical New England, or any other time period more in keeping with the people, the mindset, and their history? The New Victorian aspect of the book feels shamelessly exploitative, and lacking in both integrity and logic. There’s the supposed steampunk angle for the book, too, which is entirely manufactured by the folks that have packaged and sold the novel because while there are some gaslamps around and there is the general Victorian aesthetic, there is nothing remotely steam or punk about this book. And then, hand in hand with these trends of course come the zombies – and to be honest, by the point the zombie virus came around, I’d had enough so I’m not entirely sure where the walking dead fit in or how the story progresses from that point onward.
The second major block for me was that of the jarring technology and aesthetic of Dearly, Departed. The juxtaposition of modern technology (tablet computers, holograms, digital cameras and the like) – technology that relies on electricity, namely – against the Victorian aesthetic is an interesting idea, but it never really clicks. Why would a society so technologically advanced as to create immersive holographic TV (and one that is at the very least as advanced as our own society with email, the internet, and electric powered vehicles) completely base its technological appearances and society on that of Victorian England? Too, Nora’s home seems to have both gas-powered gaslamps, but why when everything else is electric? Where does the electricity come from to power these many devices? Technology is magic in this book, and while that’s fine and dandy, it seems so haphazardly and excessively cobbled together, with no actual reason, restraint, or competency.
The third problem for me lay with the writing of the novel. Not only was the phrasing awkward and character reactions and dialogue stilted and painful (the first snippy fight between Nora and a popular girl at her school is excrutiatingly bad, ending with the *crushing* put-down: “Tell me…is Lady Mink less or more catty than you generally are? I like to be prepared for my first meetings with people – especially people who pretend to be important.” What a witty bunch, our characters.).
There’s the problem that the general speech oscillates wildly between the Victorian vernacular but then also tossing in some lovely phrases like “facepalm” and at one point, “unicorn fart”.
There’s the problem that the entire backstory of the world and the history of the apocalypse is given to readers point-blank in a history paper (that ends with “The End”, I kid you not).
There’s the problem that character perspectives shift from chapter to chapter, jumping not only from hero to heroine, but also to at least two other secondary characters. I am not a fan of the alternating hero to heroine character perspectives in a paranormal YA novel with a love story. In this particular novel, however, I think I would have preferred the dual narrative, as cliched as it is, because the other character chapters thrown into the mix are frankly bizarre, ineffective, and ultimately distancing. The romance itself felt trite and mind-numbingly familiar. Though I did not get far enough into the novel to discern the full nature of the love story between Bram and Nora, I got far enough to see it start down that oh-so-familiar path – with Bram marveling at how tiny and beautiful and fiesty Nora is, with Nora admiring his handsome countenance. I did not care to continue down the path.
For all these reasons, I must admit defeat. Dearly, Departed simply did not engage my interest and holds the spot as my first DNF of the year.(less)