Author: A.M. Toumala
Format: Trade Paperback, 314 pages
Publisher: Candlemark & Gleam
Publication Date: Sept. 20, 2011
Genres: Fantasy, Literary Fiction
Reviewer's Note: I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
As I began reading this book, I was instantly drawn into a unique other world, described in mesmerizing prose. It was strangely compelling reading. I felt I was right there in Achane's cottage, as she recited her prayers to her goddess, as the rain beat incessantly in the background, and incense wafted sweetly up into the rafters...
That was when I realized, with a sudden jolt, that I was reading a story with a zombie in it. (Toumala, however, spells the word "zombi".)
Now, I normally don't read anything whatsoever having to do with zombies (whichever way you spell the word). I totally detest the creatures! I made an exception in the case of Die For Me, by Amy Plum, because the zombies in that YA novel look and act like normal people in every way. Furthermore, they are known as 'revenants' instead.
After my shock wore off, I read a few more pages, but then stopped reading for several days. However, I did pick up Erekos again, attempting to go on to the end. Alas, I must confess that I could not finish the book, despite the author's masterful prose style...
Shabane is the zombi in question, and she has been raised to quasi-life by the spells recited by her very devoted sister, Achane, who is a healer as well as a 'swamp witch'. I found their story to be very poignant -- in fact, even painful to read. Achane finds it so hard to let her sister go, and tries her best to restore her to life. This is understandable. It is a basic component of human nature to want to keep loved ones around forever, even if this is realistically impossible. So it hurts to see Achane try, only to have her sister's soul inhabit her body in such a horrible way -- although Shabane can walk, she can't feel her own feet as she moves. Although she can 'see', she no longer has eyes... I tried to go on even as I was repulsed by the author's graphic description of Shabane's body, which had reached a certain state of decomposition.
Achane takes her sister to the temple of her goddess, seeking help for Shabane. Surely the priestesses of Terichone will be able to restore Shabane to normal life. However, the priestesses cannot help her, either. In fact, they advise Achane to allow her sister's spirit to fully depart. Meanwhile, poor Shabane is thinking that she would like nothing better than to sink into the earth, becoming part of it.
Still I continued to read. On their way back to their cottage, Achane is captured by King Milaus, ruler of the Erekoi, and taken to the capital city against her will. She tries to escape, desperate to be reunited with her sister, but is unable to. The king has heard that Achane can raise zombis, so he decides to enlist her help in raising a zombi army in order to fight against a rival country -- Weigenland. He hopes to win a centuries-old war over the borderlands between the two nations, which are rich in coal mines, so crucial to Erekoi's economy.
While the sad story of the two sisters is going on, we meet other major characters -- Erlen, a scholar/healer well-versed in the ways of the Erekoi, though he is a Weiger himself, and Jeiger, a borderlands hunter famed for bringing down the legendary white stag that killed his father. They, too, become part of the war effort against the Erekoi.
Toumala has created a world with a mixture of different cultures and ethnicities, as well as ancient and more modern elements. Steamboats travel along this world's many rivers, while horses and horse-drawn carriages are used on land. This gives the book a 19th-century feel, although the magic used by the characters lends a medieval air to it, at the same time. In other parts of the story, a more primitive atmosphere prevails. There is a tropical feel to the area where the two sisters live; Achane prays to Terichone, the goddess of the alligator palms, who walks the world of Erekos like any human, and is described as a woman who is beautiful precisely because of her great age. There are other gods as well -- Loukaros, god of storms, who creates havoc at a moment's notice, the nameless goddess of the sea, and others. Their legends are interwoven into the main story.
The plot unravels slowly, and the book is written in a breathtakingly beautiful prose style. This is what kept me reading as long as I did. I may yet return at a later date to finish this novel, which has a strange pull on me even as I remember that it features a very sad tale of a decomposing zombi in search of the sister who brought her back to a life that is not life...
When and if I return, I will try to finish the book. For now, I cannot do so. Shabane is not the typical flesh-eating zombi (zombie) found in horror novels, which I will avoid at all costs. Her plight, however, is too much for me to take. It twists at my insides, making me wish that I could enter the story, wield the proper sort of magic myself, from where, I don't know...and restore Shabane to a life that was torn from her in such an untimely fashion, after living with sickness from the time of her childhood.
I could care less about the war, about King Milaus's horrible plans for his undead army. All I care about is the story of Achane and Shabane, of how the love of two sisters has created something neither wanted -- a horrible existence for one of them. All I care about is seeing the sisters reunited, of someone in the novel being able to help them, someone being able to heal Shabane, so that she and Achane can live the remainder of their lives in peace, unsullied by disease.
As usual, I want a happy ending. I don't want sadness or despair. I don't want to see the cruel, unbending twist of an undeserved fate. Since I fail to see such an outcome in this book, I can't bear to continue reading it...
There are two things that put a novel in the category of literary fiction, in my opinion. One of them is the prose style, which must attract because of its lyrical beauty. The other is its unflinching portrayal of the world as it is, with all of its suffering and cruelty, and without the guarantee of a happy ending. This novel, in spite of being in the fantasy genre, also qualifies as literary fiction. It may well become a classic, but if so, will only be acclaimed by literary critics.
I can't say I hate this novel entirely. Neither can I say that I love it. So I must end up by saying, quite honestly, that, although it's beautifully written, it was also difficult for me to read because it almost constantly tore at my heart.