Whitney & Elisa Dish: Lia Habel's Dearly, Departed

Zombies, futuristic inventions and kidnappings, oh my! This month's paranormal YA novel Dearly, Departed, by debut author Lia Habel, is full of all this and more. Get a look at Habel's captivating world, and her unsusual heroine, in today's special guest Dish!

Whitney: I’ll be the first to say it, this is a big book. I refused to put this book down as I was reading it — I even walked through the streets of Brooklyn with my nose between its pages! Although the story clocks in at 471 pages, it feels like you are involved in the story for much longer.

Elisa: It’s not a pick-up, put-down type of reading situation, Habel discusses heavy issues like race and segregation, conspiracies, fringe science and what makes someone human.

Whitney: And she skilfully weaves all of it into a really compelling story about zombies and the human race’s fight for survival. Habel just throws you into her world and and says, “Sink or swim!” Luckily, her worldbuilding is so good you’ll be swimming in no time, even if this is your first steampunk-esque story.

Elisa: Right, this futuristic tale falls outside of the boundaries of the steampunk subgenre, but you can still expect to see interesting inventions (some steam powered and some not) and Victorian conventions. The people of New Victoria, whose ancestors survived the collapse of the world as we know it, re-built society based on idealized Victorian ethics and manners.

Whitney: And now the Vics are involved in tons of border wars against the Punks, the group that succeeded from New Victoria because, unlike the Vics, they believe in the importance of human ingenuity and don’t rely on complicated machines.

Elisa: But what the Vics and the Punks away from the frontlines don't know is that fighting humans aren’t the only ones out there. Zombies also occupy the land. 

Whitney: And there are two very different camps of zombies, the “I’m gonna eat you” ones and the “I kill the ones who try to eat the living” ones. You can tell them apart because the good guys (and girls) — okay, the good zombies — wear red coats and they are part of Company Z, a secret part of the army.

Elisa: I thought that Habel did a really great job of illustrating just how complete this government cover-up was. She showed that not only was there a conspiracy, but that the media was involved in twisting reality in order to control citizens. This is especially evident when Pamela is narrating the story in the beginning of the book.

Whitney: Wait, wait, I think we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. There are actually four narrators for this story. There’s the heroine, Nora Dearly, her best friend, Pamela Roe, Captain Abraham “Bram” Griswold and Nora’s Dad, Dr. Victor Dearly.

Elisa: Normally I’m not a fan of switching narrators this many times but it really worked here, we got a lot of different perspectives and also it kept the tension level high.

Whitney: Habel is a master at perspective-hopping! And I like what a full view it gives the readers of each of the characters. First up, there’s Nora.

Elisa: She’s the teenage heroine and she chafes at all the restrictions that are placed on New Victorian young women.

Whitney: She’s supposed to be all weak and — literally — miss-ish, but instead she’s interested in watching holographic videos of the New Vic and Punk border wars. And her dad taught her how to shoot guns and encouraged her un-lady-like interests.

Elisa: She’s completely my kind of heroine. This is not a girl who is going to sit around and wait for life to happen. I didn’t connect nearly as much with her best friend, Pamela.

Whitney: Now see, I really loved Pam. She’s doing her best to be proper and has taken all the lessons that she and Nora learned at St. Cyprian’s boarding school to heart. She’s been Nora’s best friend since they were children, even though they are from different classes. It is through Pam that we get to see what is really happening in the city of Elysium Fields after Nora leaves. Although Nora is the heroine of this story, I think that Pam could have just as easily carried the book if things worked out a little bit differently.

Elisa: She sort of gets the short end of the stick because Nora and Bram are together for most of the story after he kidnaps her, so readers spend more time with the two of them, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I think it’s best to just say that Bram is a fine, upstanding young man who happens to be a Punk —

Whitney: And happens to be undead!

Elisa: But he’s the captain of company Z, the good zombies, and he only kidnaps Nora in order to protect her from the bad guys.

Whitney: Bram is a gentleman, and he illustrates this to Nora at every turn. I mean, besides the kidnapping thing, he lets her take his room at the compound (the only one with locks) so that she feels safe, he explains the situation to her even though it’s against his commanding officer’s orders and he even arranges a special Christmas celebration for her because he knows that she’s sad about it.

Elisa: Yeah, yeah, you want a Bram of your own, I get it. But I’d take hanging out with Victor Dearly over Bram any day. He used to be the head of the Department of Military Health and now he’s helping try to find a vaccine for the disease that is making people zombies. And on top of that, he encouraged Nora to be who she really was, not some stupid society girl.

Whitney: Right and when we meet Victor, Nora thinks he’s been dead for a year, but the fact is that he’s actually been a zombie for quite some time. And now he’s been kidnapped by the commander of the bad zombies, who is trying to get his hands on Nora to make Victor pay for inventing the disease that turned people into zombies. (Even though that’s totally not Victor’s fault.)

Elisa: Mostly, Victor reminded me of Dr. Logan from George Romero’s zombie film Day of the Dead, a scientist trying to improve the quality of life — or afterlife — of the undead. (And if I’m not mistaken, I believe Habel gives a shout out to “Bub,” Dr. Logan’s “domesticated” pet zombie from Day of the Dead, in her acknowledgements. Rad.)

Whitney: And that, folks, is how I got Elisa to pick up a book with a girl carrying a parasol on the cover!

Elisa: Oh Whitney, you had me at zombies. It’s no secret around here that I am a big fan of horror. I really appreciated Habel’s zombies, because I think as a genre fiction writer you should always pay homage to the storytellers before you.

Whitney: Not that she doesn’t put her own twist on these creatures — namely that there are two different kinds — 

Elisa: But, she still sticks to some essential aspects of zombie fiction. For example, she keeps the idea that to kill a zombie, you’ve got to aim for the head and use the proper weapons.

Whitney: Speaking of tradition, I loved the way that she explained how they moved, all disjointed and broken-seeming. When Nora first meets them she describes, “corpses pulled, leapt, slithered their way inside.” But then there’s that Habel twist when during Company Z’s impromptu Christmas party:

“A few of the guys threw down in a dance battle, popping and shimmying in ways living men just couldn’t, seeing as dislocating their joints would be painful, and not just another trick in their dance arsenals. [Bram]’d had no idea some of the ever tried doing such things, much less put in the practice that some of the obviously had.”

Elisa: While some rules are made to be broken, some should never be disregarded. Habel definitely did her zombie research. Lia, if you’re reading this, I appreciate your undead creatures!

Whitney: And I loved that all of the girls in this novel are loud and proud. And it’s not just Nora who can kick butt, from the zombie girl, Chas, to meangirl, Vespertine, and even the trying-to-be-proper girl Pam, these ladies are not afraid to get their hands dirty and protect the things they care about!

Elisa: Well isn’t that part of Habel’s point, it doesn’t matter if you are a girl or a guy, living or dead, each of these characters is human and deserves the same amount of respect.

Whitney: True, and even though things may be hard, like Bram and Nora’s seemingly doomed budding romance —

Elisa: Or the undead not eating the other humans (which keeps them from becoming the evil undead) —

Whitney: It’s really a story about how everyone deserves to have their voice heard — and no one should be considered a second class citizen. That is if anyone can survive the infestation of bad zombies in Elysian Fields and if Nora and Bram and company are able to rescue Victor before the rouge military commanders tie up the loose ends of the conspiracy by ordering all zombies — good or bad — to be eliminated.

To find out what happens to Nora, Bram, Pamela and Victor you can pick up your own copy of Dearly, Departed in stores now! And make sure to come back next week when Morgan and Whitney will be Dishing about Carol K. Carr's India Black and the Widow of Windsor.