I've said over and over that zombie books just aren't for me, so it just figures that R. Lee Smith would be the one to prove me wrong. Smith is a relatively recent discovery for me and quickly became a fast favorite, because honestly, how can you NOT fall in love with an author who can convince you that demons, insect-men, lizard-men, and zombie men can be romantic leads?
LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD is a post-apocalyptic book set in a grim world where a man named Azrael has taken over England and raised the dead. Zombies (called Eaters) wander across the landscape, eating the unwary, and providing a living, crawling fortress for the heart of his realm: Haven.
Humanity has all but destroyed itself - and the land, and the sky - in a failed attempt to destroy that which does not die. Our heroine, Lan, has yet another idea. She plans to go to Haven and demand an audience, to persuade Azrael to destroy the Eaters.
She ends up becoming his mistress instead.
LAND OF THE DEAD is a difficult book to rate, because there were things I loved about it and things I didn't. One of the things I loved was the supporting cast. One of Smith's strong points is that she breathes life into ALL of her characters, not just the leads. Batuuli, Solveig, Serafina, Deimos, and Wickham were all wonderful characters, and I liked them a lot more than I did the two main characters, which was unfortunate - especially since at least one of these characters never makes it to end credits.
I also loved the world-building. It felt unfinished - especially since we never fully understand what Azrael is or how humanity crumbled - but it was imaginative and original, just like all of Smith's other works. I saw another reviewer saying that she wished she could live in Smith's head for a day, and I can't help but agree. Her stories are truly unique, and she knows how to turn a phrase. The best way to describe her work is to say that she's like if Stephen King wrote fantasy/horror romances.
Lan was something I felt ambivalent about. Ditto Azrael. Their characters were well fleshed-out but I was so tired of them arguing over and over. Especially since most of these arguments were just repeats of the last arguments. Here's a quick synopsis. Lan: "Kill the Eaters." Azrael: "No." Lan: "Please." Azrael: "No." Lan: "Pretty please." Azrael: "No." Lan: "I hate you." Azrael: "K." Lan: "Let's have sex." Azrael: "K." Lan: "And afterwards, maybe you'll kill the Eaters...?" Azrael: "NO, ME-DAMMIT." *flips table*
By the end of the book, I do think their relationship had evolved past that, but Azrael changed a lot more than Lan did, and he sacrificed far more, in my opinion. His choices actually won me over because they showed how much he had grown from the beginning of the story. Lan, on the other hand...did not. Although I did appreciate the fact that she wasn't beautiful and was also illiterate and crude. That was a refreshing change from the usual line-up of impossibly beautiful and clever heroines that line the fantasy and science-fiction shelves.
The constant arguments and inconsistent pacing make this book feel a lot longer than SCHOLOMANCE or LAST HOUR OF GANN. I found myself wishing I was reading those books instead at several points during this book, because LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD felt like a less cleanly executed meld of those two stories. It's a great story, but it's not one I would suggest to readers discovering Smith for the first time and I think people who aren't fans of Smith or her verbose writing style will be frustrated with the rambling length of this massive tome.
I enjoyed LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD but I do consider it a step down from some of her previous works. That said, I'm still very interested in reading more of her work, and I hope that her next WIP is just as original and disturbing as all of the other books of hers I've read.
3 out of 5 stars.