This is going to be part-review, part-rant, and if you think you might be interested/amused, read on...
This isn't going to be very organized, but I'm going to try.
Our latest book is Land of the Beautiful Dead by R. Lee Smith, an author we've read a few times before--bug sex, lizard sex, disturbing rape in sci-fi worlds. I'd read she was coming off the wild success with The Last Hour of Gann (lizards on another planet), and so this was her attempt to keep the flow going. Rainey and I strangely enjoyed Smith's other novels (Cottonwood, etc.), even though it felt strange to do so. I figured it would the same with this book, so I bought it with a strange mix of queasy trepidation and confused excitement.
What. The. Fuck. Happened.
Way before finishing the novel, I made a statement to Rainey that I stick by now that I've completed this waste of time.
This is like Twilight written by a serial killer on LSD.
I'm not implying Smith is a serial killer. Not really. I'd just forgotten how casually she blended sex with violence. But that wasn't even the problem. The problem was that the plot was so fucking thin that I actually started hoping something explosive would happen in the third act to redeem such a gigantic mistake. Potential villains were swept aside like meaningless gnats. Smith focused instead on the pointless back and forth arguments between the heroine, Lan, and the Hero, Azrael. Yes, you read that right. Azrael.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The novel is set in a dystopian future where a mysterious figure some call Death, some call the Devil, has ascended and brought forth havoc and poison rain. Oh, and Eaters aka zombies. And the beautiful dead, all risen without memories and, apparently, without personalities. They are empty vessels for Death (Azrael) to fill with his intentions, and then they wander around with only the mission he's given them. Every dead person in the novel is miserable, which is hilarious to me.
BY THE WAY, Azrael? Yeah, he's not quite dead but he IS immortal... and he's covered in injuries that won't heal. He has no nose. Tissue and tendons and black blood ooze from his... body. He wears an assortment of masks, which struck me as the kinds of masks you hear involved in weird cults and sacrifices. He's constantly itching his face and applying ointment to his wounds.
Lan is a determined girl who has come to Haven (Azrael's little paradise where the dead, who no longer hunger but have grand feasts set before them that they pretend to eat and then throw up later, all for Azrael's pleasure) to ask Azrael to end the Eaters, damn it! See, we find out that Lan's whole life has been avoiding Eaters and then killing them when people in her little village die. Blah blah blah.
Azrael is like, "No, bitch, I ain't killing my Eaters." They essentially protect him from getting attacked by humans.
So the best part, to me, is that Lan's mom dies and Lan is like fuck this and heads to Haven. It takes her two months to get there (though in reality it's not that far, a point that is needlessly made again and again and again). She sneaks in, gets in front of him (in spite of the hundreds of guards he has) and is like, "Bro. End the Eaters, you monster."
And he laughs. I don't blame him.
She states multiple times that she had no plan for once she got there. She just had planned up to the point of getting to Haven. Bitch had TWO MONTHS to figure out what she was going to do when she faced what everyone called Death, and she had no plan. We never totally figure out what he is, by the way. He refers to himself as Death for most of the novel, but Rainey and I wondered after finishing if he was the Devil, too.
So naturally she accepts becoming his concubine (he has others for the whole novel, btw) so that she can keep asking him to "end the Eaters", while he says he's never, ever going to change his mind. Most of the novel focuses on this never-ending, pointless argument. I kid you not. He gets her a manners tutor and a tutor to give her lessons on everything ever, because she's super uneducated and illiterate.
He also kicks her out the first time they have sex because she orgasmed.
The thing I didn't get is, after we hear about his reputation and meet him when she confronts him, why the hell he didn't kill her? What intrigued him enough to keep her alive, and even better yet, want to have her as his consort? I said to Rainey that for his character to work, Lan should have come in with fireworks blitzing from her vagina or something. It made no sense. We also find out he's not responsible for the poison rain... humans are! I would have had a little more respect for him had he lived up to his reputation. Just because he randomly puts people on pikes and everything doesn't mean he matches his reputation, or what we've been told to expect. And not in a good way.
We also get hit over the head with the fact that this is taking place in what used to be England as Lan suddenly starts using a dozen slang words any time we forget that. We're also hit over the head with the fact that mankind sucks and is self-destructive to such a degree that I began wondering if Smith is working on a nuclear bomb in her basement to wipe us all out. Anyway, Azrael becomes humanized. Lan becomes demonized.
I kept checking how much more of it I had left.
I admire the fact that Smith writes novels about imperfect, flawed and even ugly characters. She doesn't shy away from the hideous parts of humanity. Her world-building is amazing.
She missed the mark this time, however. With her other books, no matter how fucked up or weird or gross her characters and plots were, I felt a strong compulsion to finish. At their very least, her books were well-written. I mostly walked away finding myself enjoying them.
This one? IDGAF that he doesn't have a nose. We have dealt with bug sex with bug prostitutes, lizard sex, intergalactic rape. The worst part about Azrael is that he has no personality. That's the biggest offense. Lan arguably has one, though it sucks.
In the end, it feels like a crappy historical romance novel with just enough violence and disturbing touches to make it a R. Lee Smith novel. What happened? I don't know. Someone on Goodreads wondered if it was the pressure to meet the success of The Last Hour of Gann. I'd buy that.
This book sucked. I didn't walk away from it like I normally do from of her novels, feeling a sick sense of satisfaction and a shade of enjoyment. I closed my iPad and could only think "what a waste".
Give me bug sex any day. This book was dead, and not in the way R. Lee Smith intended.