Abbadon Books, £6.99, ISBN 978-1-905437-85-6
Sometimes, when I need a break from romance, a book promising a story of ravenous zombies munching on hapless humans seems like the fix I need to recharge my batteries. The cover of Anno Mortis catches my eye since we have a scantily-clad female gladiator posing with a sword dripping with gore. The back cover synopsis promises what seems like Gladiator meets Night of the Living Dead. Okay, I’m sold. Despite knowing little about UK horror publisher Abaddon Books or this Tomes of the Dead imprint that this book belongs to, I’m giving this book a try.
The actual story is different from what is advertised by the packaging though. It is 40 AD and Rome is ruled by Caligula, whom I’m sure we all know is as completely insane and amoral as can be. The heroine on the cover art, Boda, is a Pictish warrior woman captured by the Romans and she now serves as a gladiator for the amusement of the Patrician Romans. But she is just one character in an ensemble cast here. We also have Petronius, a spoiled and useless son of a Patrician Roman who is content to take advantage of his station in life to enjoy a life of decadent leisure, until his disgusted father tosses him out of the house and orders him to work for the rhetorician Seneca. We also have the slave Narcissus, who serves his master Claudius until Claudius’s nephew Caligula takes a fancy to that slave.
What happens here is that Boda, Narcissus, and Petronius independently realize that something sinister is going on. A ship is bringing in a mysterious cargo on a regular schedule, but nothing shows up on the official records. Dead gladiators are being cut open and processed in a manner that the reader may recognize as the method of ancient Egyptians to prepare a corpse for mummification. Seneca is harboring a banned book of ancient Egyptian rites in his house. What is going on? Of course, we all know from the packaging that zombies will eventually show up for the all-you-can-eat human buffet. How this story brings about that is a big part of the fun.
On the bright side, when the story kicks into high gear, it really does ramp up the pace. Boda delivers very well in the kick-ass department and this book is very easy to read in a single sitting. Or throughout a very long and boring train ride, in my case. I also love how the author easily combines Asgardian and Egyptian mythology in a manner that makes sense. I didn’t anticipate the author’s way of resolving the story, but I quite like it. The way the author handled the mythology in this story makes Anno Mortis a very memorable story.
Now, on the flip side, this story is, disappointingly, not as violent or gore-drenched than I’d have liked, sigh. Also, the characters are all cardboard thin, even the main characters, and Boda stands out only because of her gender. The author also inadvertently dips into comedy territory. Some of the later scenes in the book have me laughing. I especially laugh out loud when dead animals start rising from the graves to attack people. Those scenes come off way more comedic than the author intended.
But the biggest problem of this story lies in the moral dissonance of the tale. Imagine watching a horror movie where the most useless, whiny, pathetic, and hapless character ends up not only surviving but also being rewarded beyond his wildest dreams. Yes, that’s what happens here. Petronius is easily one of the most loathsome characters I’ve come across because for a long time he’s a cowardly selfish piece of dung who can’t do anything right.
And yet, by the last page, Boda considers him a better person than she is because he hadn’t killed as many people as she did. Mind you, she was fending off Celtic invaders, and later, Roman invaders in her home land and, even later, trying to survive in the gladiatorial ring when she racks up her body part. In the meantime, Petronius is sleeping with his father’s slaves who can’t say no to him, when he’s not abandoning people to possible deaths while trying to save his own skin. Boda also loves him, despite the fact that he has done nothing much in this story other than giving her trouble. Worst of all, he eventually takes in the kid Nero, despite being warned that the kid will grow up to become even nuttier than Caligula, and at the end of his life, he admits to Boda that he pretty much stood by and let Nero tyrannize the people. Boda’s response to this is to make Petronius immortal so that they can be together forever. There is not even a gentle chiding, just a declaration of how the world is more enjoyable with him around. And she’s a Goddess of Love by that point! WHAT THE HELL?
Like all tales of zombies eating people, Anno Mortis tries to give a reason to the gore by trying to use the whole zombies-come-back thing as a symbol of how we are being consumed by decadence, a life devoid of love, blah blah blah. Fine, but given how this book then rewards Petronius for the very same things the author is wagging her finger at, I get a serious case of conflicting messages here. The moral dissonance is amped to the highest degree because the message and the treatment of characters that violate the message behind the story are complete contradiction of each other. I end up befuddled by what Ms Levene is trying to say here.