Rebecca Levene – Tomes of the Dead: Anno Mortis
It’s a while since I reviewed anything from British genre publisher Abaddon Books (see here), and indeed since I read anything from them. I’ve got a certain measure of admiration for what they’re trying to accomplish but the fiction I’d read from them to date had not exactly blown me away. However, I didn’t count on a friend pressing this book into my hands and insisting that I must read it. “I thought it would be rubbish,” she said. “But it has zombie elephants!” She did, originally, pick it up on the basis of the barely-clothed “barbarian” woman on the cover (check out that underboob – now that’s what I call a literary quality, phnarr phnarr).
I think these two facts tell you just about all you need to know about the unique selling points of Anno Mortis.
Oh, sarcasm aside it’s fun enough. Here’s how it goes: in the age of Emperor Caligula (casual mass murderer and serial fucker of all things with holes), the barbarian warrior Boda (as in Boudica, get it?!) is brought to Rome to fight in the coliseum as a gladiator. She quickly gets caught up in some shady business involving dark rites and the bodies of dead gladiators. Around the same time, the feckless playboy and wannabe playright Petronius is forced into the apprenticeship of the Senator Seneca, who it turns out is involved in some shady business involving dark rites and the bodies of dead gladiators. I hate to spoil it for you, but they toootally end up sharing some adventures and unlikely chemistry!
One thing that is quite pleasant is that the book’s key players do bear some relation to their historical counterparts, even if zombies don’t seem to have been recorded in the key literary and oral works of the period. Here’s Seneca the Elder (who was a rhetorician around the time of Caligula) and Petronius and the servile Claudius (whom Anno Mortis‘s Caligula enjoys psychologically tormenting). I’m fairly sure that Boda is indeed supposed to be Boudica, though I don’t think mention is ever made of her being any kind of leader. Anyway, it’s nice that the book does bear some relation to historical perspective, even if it’s at level of depth more akin to BBC/HBO’s Rome than a ‘srs business’ historical novel. Blood! Sex! Death!
It’s the sort of book for which the term “romp” or the phrase “rip-roaring adventure” was coined. Levene does actually succeed in walking the fine line of camp between the outright daft and po-faced seriousness (which was, in fairness, one of the two chief failings of Green’s Unnatural History – see the link above). It’s clearly quite camp and written with a tongue firmly in cheek, but at the same time it’s never knowing, as in an actor winking and smiling at the audience, sharing a joke about how silly the whole affair is. It also includes a succession of protagonists who aren’t preternaturally competent (the other chief failing of… etc.). Boda is a strong warrior but doesn’t know Rome at all, especially its lethal politics; Petronius is clever and possesses a silver tongue, but he’s also a lazy coward. At least at the outset all of this is true, anyway, because the characters discover themselves as the novel goes on and hidden depths of character are revealed and yada yada yada.
There’s nothing special or unique about this book but as a bit of lightweight adventure it’s an awful lot of fun. Even its setpieces (including a chase scene with zombie-driven chariots through the streets of Rome, and the city being laid siege to by millions of zombies complete with undead tigers, lions, wolves, boar, and the aforementioned elephants) are entertaining rather than tiresome. So, for all my sarcasm and piss-taking, I do actually recommend this book.