Fair warning – spoilers ahead.
Trigger warning: the story contains sexual assualt (including R), and will be discussed in this review.
WORSE THAN DEAD is a zombie apocalypse tale about Kelly and her brother-in-law, Robbie, trying to survive in a zombie-infested world. There’s a baddie that might or might not reappear, some awesome survivors that they meet along the way, and the mystery of whether or not Kelly’s husband is dead, lost, or worse.
Before I go into the review, I want to say that this is a fairly heavy critique. We all make jokes about me being an angry, bitter goat, who’s hard to please, and yeah sure, that’s true. But when I have criticisms, it’s not in the spirit of being mean but in the spirit of giving an honest and constructive review.
Also, I nit-pick. A lot. I criticised a friend’s choice of paint colour for his living room the other day even though I had, in fact, helped him pick out the colour the week before. So do with that information about me what you will.
Now, I have to say that I like the cover design. For a zombie book, it’s pretty perfect. However, I’m a bit confused about the placement of the title, because it obscures the cool artwork, which is a shame as it deserves to be seen in all its glory!
Before I get into the story itself, I have to criticise the formatting, but just a little. The right side of the paragraphs aren’t justified, giving it a wibbly sort of look, and for a book with these dimensions, the text is a bit too small. Also, new chapters really should start on a fresh page, which isn’t the case here, and there’s a lot of dead empty space where I think breaks may have been inserted for some reason. However, this is an indie book and I assume that Cal Brett formatted this, and I have to say, if this is Cal’s first time performing this task, it’s not bad. I definitely wouldn’t use this as a reason to not read the book, but it would be disingenuous of me in reviewing it to not comment on it. I did have a quick peak at the sequel and noticed immediately that the formatting significantly improves there.
Now, I have to talk about Kelly, the protagonist, because I have some serious issues with her. I’m gonna go ahead and preface this by saying I do not get the impression that the author is sexist because there are other (totally awesome) female characters in this book, but in my opinion, mistakes were made with Kelly.
Most significantly, rape is used as a plot device. This isn’t a subject that’s particularly triggering to me, but I do feel strongly that if you’re going to use a subject that heavy then it should at least be handled with sensitivity, or at the very least, emotional honesty. Kelly and Robbie are held prisoner by someone they initially trusted, who then goes on to assault Kelly (repeatedly, it is implied). Initially, both Kelly and Robbie are forced to strip. It is established that Kelly finds this humiliating, and then two paragraphs later, she’s looking at her body as she removes her clothing, and admiring her muscle tone. She even thinks something like, “it was typical that she was in the best shape of her life but there was no one around to notice.” I’m no expert, but I find it hard to believe that any woman, under these circumstances, would be having these sorts of thoughts.
We’re not with Kelly during the actual assault scenes, for which I was relieved, but they are eluded to in the before and after. During these sections, it’s implied that both Kelly and Robbie are concerned about their appearances and how attractive (or unattractive) they might look to each other. Moreover, neither of them really have any sort of reaction to what Kelly is enduring. There are no short term or long term psychological consequences, which I found quite unrealistic.
Later on, it is revealed that Kelly is pregnant – and again, there is no exploration or weight given to this, despite the fact that the pregnancy is a result of assault. I understand that this is a zombie novel and that perhaps the author didn’t want to make this the centre of the story, but if you’re going to use something this serious as a plot device then you have to address it. What Kelly does do is suddenly begin a sexual relationship with Robbie, so that he’ll think the baby is his, therefore ensuring that he won’t ditch her when he finds out she’s pregnant. Honestly, my jaw was on the floor. Besides the odd comment about them casting a favourable glance at eachother now and then, there really is no set-up for their relationship to take a turn like this. I think that’s a shame, because I would have been highly interested in a B plot about the inner conflict of both characters struggling to try to NOT fall in love with each other, due to them being in-laws. That would have made for compelling reading. Instead, what we have is Kelly suddenly abandoning all respect for Robbie and manipulating him in order to establish what may become a life-long lie. This is besides the fact that she has no qualms about sex, which realistically, she could have struggled with in the wake of what happened to her.
As well as decimating her character, Robbie was also called into question, because it made me wonder what kind of man he must be if Kelly is actually concerned that he’d abandon her. She’s his brother’s wife – basically family – and is pregnant because of assault, and she’s worried he’d decide she was dead weight and take off?
I sincerely believe that the way all this was handled was pure thoughtlessness on the author’s part, rather than intentional misogyny. As I previously mentioned, there are some great female characters in this story and it’s a real shame that Kelly’s experiences weren’t depicted more compassionately. Honestly, I do feel bad for slamming Brett over this as much as I have, but in the name of honest reviewing, I had to do it. Writing a protagonist of a different gender (or religion, or ethnicity, etc) to you IS challenging because in many ways, you’re trying to present someone whose experiences you can’t personally live. You just do your best and try not to f*** it up – and despite my complaints, I do think that Brett did his best. It’s just that… you know… things went awry with Kelly.
Story-wise, I thought it was standard zombie mania (and I love standard zombie mania) buuuuuut…. how to put this? Jolly Goat would say that they were a ‘little bit miffed’ by how it ended. I’ll just go ahead and say I was f***ed off with it. Not because Brett bombed the ending or anything, but because, for me, he left it way too open. I believe that this is because Brett already knew he was writing a series, and was reluctant to “end” things here. However, the biggest incentive for me personally to pick up the second book, is being satisfied with the ending of the first one. I like the central plot to be tied up with a nice pretty bow. An overarching story that carries on through several books is great, but if I don’t get a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end in each book in a series, I’m going to complain. As you can see. Whine whine whine. Actually, yes, wine. Hang on, I’m going to get some.
Okay, I’m back and I’m half a glass in. I don’t have wine or wine glasses so hello this is me with half a pint of straight spiced rum. Where was I?
Right, zombies! Brett must love zombie fiction (maybe even more than Goat Leader does). It’s evident in his writing that he has an impressive imagination for this type of scenario and setting. Many a night I have sat up, figuring out the details of my survival plan should the zombies ever come, and I feel like this is something that I have in common with Brett – though his vision of it is far more detailed than mine. The places and actions of the characters are described in such a way that it was almost like I was seeing it EXACTLY as the author was while writing it. That doesn’t happen to me a lot and I really enjoyed it here – it was almost a bonding experience.
I enjoyed Brett’s writing for the most part but he has a habit of describing something perfectly well, and then unnecessarily elaborating on it. This is by no means an enormous crime, and a lot of writers do it. I think it just shows a lack of confidence on the writer’s part that they’re painting the picture well enough. For example, when we already know that Kelly is being restrained by a collar attached to a chain, there’s no need to then add that it looks like a dog collar. The way it was described in the first instance was – to Brett’s credit – crystal clear, and the image is still burned into my brain. Brett’s attention to detail is superb, as is his ability to communicate it. I’d say the same for all the adverbs. I’m not one of those “adverbs are the devil!” people, but I do think that when using them, it’s worth double-checking whether they strengthen or weaken the sentence. A lot of the time, they’re redundant, e.g. “he shouted loudly”. I’m only nit-picking on these points because honestly, Brett demonstrates excellent communicative skills with the reader and doesn’t need to flesh out his descriptions – they’re wonderful as they are.
I think that in a few more novels time, Brett will go from being a good writer to a great one. All the ingredients are there already and in my opinion, if he just refines his style and tightens things up a little, the quality of his storytelling will shoot through the roof. I especially enjoyed descriptions like this –
“…he could feel the bruises yanking at the nerves under his skin.”
… and passages like this –
“The silence of the world was so great without the cacophony of civilisation that she often marveled at how small sounds travelled and stood out in this new world.”
I also really liked that people actually used the word “zombies” in this book. Oh, how tired and weary I grow of zombie novels in which that word is never uttered, not once!
My favourite thing about this book is the Baldwin sisters. Those are some badasses, right there. They have such a cool apocalypse set up, and I loved it when the story circled back around to them. I didn’t expect them to come back up after Kelly and Robbie left their home near the beginning of the story, so I was pleasantly surprised and excited when I realised that their story was not yet done.
Overall, I’d recommend this book to zombie fans (obviously). I think people who enjoy military tales might also enjoy it because of the host of characters that turn up in the latter half.
I’m swiftly moving on to the sequel – LESS THAN DEAD. More zombies are on the horizon…. they’re just over yonder… I can practically smell them.
Sidenote: all my rum is gone.
If you’d like to get your own copy of WORSE THAN DEAD, you can do so here:
You can find Cal Brett on social media, and if you’d like to check out more of his work, you can also find him on:
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