March 9, 2012

Sundered (Review)

REVIEW
 by Nicholas Strange

Sundered

By Shannon Mayer

2011

RATING:

3.5 / 5 zedheads



The copy of Shannon Mayer’s Sundered that I received for review features a cover that suggests trashy romance fare, a fact that almost made me overlook a well-written, well-edited, and original tale of a zombie-ish apocalypse. While romance does play a significant role in the novella, the foremost features of the tale are tension, strong characterization, and grim horror—at least for the most part.

The Romantic Cover
When the story begins, we meet Mara and her husband Sebastian as they hike a forest trail, looking to divert their minds from Mara’s recent miscarriage. They've moved to a new home and, while visiting a neighbor, Mara overhears a radio ad proclaiming a new drug called Nevermore that not only helps people lose weight but also wipes out certain diseases and increases fertility, the latter being an important concern for this couple. Mara tries to get it, but an allergy to the drug's main ingredient (scotch broom) leaves her unable to do so, which initially saddens her. Soon, though, that sadness turns to relief when she discovers that those who have taken the drug are gradually turning into savage flesh-eaters.

The zombie-like fiends featured here are quite a bit different than typical zombies, and they actually offer an interesting take on the mounting canon of zombie-related mythology. Like most good zombie stories, the cause is linked to human failing, and, in this case, that failing is an amalgam of human insecurities and fears about weight, disease, and infertility. These monsters aren’t really zombies, though, but rather humans stripped of their humanity, leaving nothing but an animalistic drive and a need to feed on the living. Their bite doesn’t turn a person into one of them, and they don’t rise from the dead. Their look is unique, featuring skin that takes on a yellowish tint with a faint tattoo-like leaf pattern beneath it. They have yellow eyes and a pack mentality, operating like hunting wolves. Occasionally, though, their former personalities peak out. Make no mistake, though, when these things attack, they tear the living to shreds.

As a whole, Mayer does a solid job of creating a tension-filled and bleak world. She puts a genuine relationship at the heart of everything, and she offers a central figure in Mara that is strong and capable of defending herself against not only the zombie-ish monsters, but also the still-human savages who invade her home attempting to abuse her. The pacing is brisk, and there are several plot twists along the way that serve to ratchet up the suspense.

It is at about the halfway point of this novella when the romance angle takes a firmer hold, and it does strain credulity a bit, threatening to ruin a well-paced and well-written story. When Sebastian confesses that he secretly took Nevermore and is destined to turn into a zombie-like monster, Mayer begins to posit a question to her audience—is this couple's love strong enough to overcome the plague’s transformative power? As the novel spirals toward its conclusion, it teeters on a fine line, almost suggesting that it is going to do to zombie fiction what Twilight did to vampires. As things progress, though, Mayer seems to pull back a bit from this angle, and there is at least some evidence that the sequel novella, Bound, will not go in this direction, even though the story does end on a cliffhanger that leaves this direction a possibility.

In the end, I found Sundered to be a mostly satisfying horror tale. Mayer proves that she understands what makes these types of stories work, offering plenty of scares, shocking moments, and original contributions to the lore. How effective she will be for horror and zombie fiction fans going forward will largely depend on how well she can balance the horror and romance in subsequent offerings.

Guest Reviewer Bio

Nicholas Strange is a life-long fan of horror and the operator of the horror blog Strange Amusements. There, he writes about all kinds of horror in a multitude of mediums—feature films, short films, fiction, television, and comic books. 

By day, Mr. Strange has held a variety of soul-sucking jobs, such as technical writer/editor, marketing director, and human resources manager. In the evenings, though, when he’s not spending time with his wonderful wife and son, he writes horror fiction in various formats and sub-genres, some of which will be released later this year for Kindle and other e-reading devices. To stay up to date with his various horror-related projects, check out www.strangeamusements.com and follow him on Twitter @nicholasstrange.