Deadlands is Cape Town after the zombicalypse. Or at least, that’s the premise, but there’s more to it than a rehash of The Forest and Hands of Teeth for the South African market. And while it has the same feel as its YA contemporaries like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games and Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, it has a pervasive political wit that shimmies along underneath, poking fun at giants and wanna-be giants alike.
It is gritty and ugly – the Cape Town it paints is not the Cape Town we like to sell to the tourists, and Herne has done an admirable job of world-building a Capetownian dystopia I can believe, drawn from shacks and shanty towns and the bureaucratic Divine.
Deadlands is also the story of a girl, Lele de la Fontein. She’s just this kid, yanno, as all the best books seem to be about. She’s out-of-place, bitter about the death (and subsequent zombiefication) of her grandmother, bitter about her father’s marriage to the Mantis (Lele has a way of reducing people to faceless entities, although this changes a little as she realises that there are also people behind those adult masks). She’s bitter about her new school.
Mostly though, she’s bitter about zombies, and the cattle-like state that humanity has been reduced to.
Enter a bizarre zombie cult, a shadowy menace, a blackmarket in Nikes and Levis, a lottery of sacrifices, a rebel group, and you have the seeds of a fun South African take on the zombie dystopia. And when things seem like they’re finally starting to get together for Lele, that she’s being grudgingly accepted at her new school, that she’s even met someone, that her family seems to be chugging along almost harmoniously, then things go horribly and utterly wrong, and Lele ends up on a side she never even knew existed.
It’s a fast read, and I loved following Lele around on her discovery of who the key players were, and what they are doing. Things develop quickly, and the tension racks up throughout. If Lele comes across a wee bit mary-sueish in the beginning, trust that the novel resolves this nicely with a decent, and somewhat disturbing reveal.
There were two parts where the novel stumbled for me: I found the fight scenes a tad cartoonish, although I feel this may be have been intentional on Herne’s part, as a sly nod to anime (pop culture references abound). The other, somewhat bigger problem, is that although I could fully identify with Lele (hey, been there done that! Not the zombie-killer part, the being a wangsty teenager part) and relate to her as a character, indeed fall a little in love with her, I just did not buy the romantic subplots.
They were there, they were square (well triangular) but they felt shoe-horned in, as if Herne herself didn’t really buy them and felt that they needed to be there to make the book more appealing to teens.
The novel is definitely set up for a sequel, and we’ll see how those issues work out in the second installment. And I really hope there is one, because I’m fully invested in the world Herne has created, and I need to know what happens next.
ETA: Deadlands is not currently available outside South Africa, although that should change. Until then, the booklounge in Cape Town will ship internationally. You can email them at booklounge at gmail dot com.