Dearly, Departed is a book about love transcending death–and decay. It is set in the world of New Victoria, a post apocalyptic society that has gone back to the ideals of the Victorian age yet also has futuristic technology. It is a nice blend of old and new, but it’s a far cry from true cyberpunk or steampunk, which is why I’m confused about it being touted as a steampunk novel. There are small elements of steampunk thrown in, but I’d say it’s overwhelmingly Victorian, which is a different thing entirely.
Nora Dearly has just come out of mourning after the death of her beloved father. She and Pamela, an old friend, leave St. Cyprian’s School for Girls just as news of fighting on the border hits the newsfeed. This is nothing new; Punks and the New Victorians have been fighting for years. We follow Nora through the streets of New London to the home she shares with her aunt, and it is during this time that Lia Habel treats us to the world she has created. World building walks a very fine line of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Dearly, Departed veered into the exposition heavy area of world building, which was necessary, but at the same time could have been toned down. Much of what was explained could have been shown in the text and action later, which would have pushed the reader into the action early on instead of forcing us to read pages of slow explanations of why the world exists in the way it does. We understand that people formed a new society after catastrophic events eliminated many of the low-lying countries, but we do not need every single detail. Especially when these events remove you from the actual story line.
However, once the story moves away from this, it becomes quite exciting. Nora proves herself not to be a Victorian woman who folds under pressure–not unusual because she spends a lot of her time watching old battles play back on the war holo–but as a character who comes into her own. It’s not immediate, because that would have been unbelievable for the reader, but she grows into a strong character who looks at her new world with curiosity. Nora is one of the reasons that I enjoyed reading Dearly, Departed. She isn’t a limp noodle. Unfortunately, Dearly, Departed isn’t only about Nora. It is also about Bram, Pamela, Wolfe, and another member of the operation.
Now, if the novel had focused on Nora and Bram, the two clear protagonists, it would have been fine. However, the three other point of views that I had to read took away from the overall experience of the book. It was particularly frustrating when characters were included, but only had a maximum of two chapters in their point of view. Not only did it take us out of the primary point of views, but it also forced us to try and emphasize with the characters who were barely in the story. In other words, I didn’t give two licks about them. There wasn’t enough time in their heads to accomplish that. It would have greatly benefited Dearly, Departed if their story lines had been worked into the stronger story lines of Bram and Nora.
Nora and Bram’s story lines weave together perfectly, so it’s really too bad that they were broken up by the other three. Initially, Nora abhors Bram, because, well…he’s dead. Gradually she comes to trust him, and Lia Habel does this in a way that is not rushed and allows us to know more about the world and its characters. You are even able to forget that Bram is actually a zombie, albeit one that is higher functioning than the standard zombies after your brains. He is very much a gentleman, the kind that proper Victorian ladies should be courted by. Too bad that he’s dead.
Dearly, Departed was surprisingly good considering its slow start and flaws. Lia Habel did lovely research into the Victorian times, while also deftly weaving it with more modern conveniences. I did have a hard time believing that women would allow themselves pushed back into the confines of the home and be only worried about marriage, but I am also not a part of society that has survived several apocalyptic events. It’s a nice change from the zombies I’m used to, who are normally flesh hungry fiends, although the novel also contained some of those. I’m left wondering if Bram and the rest of his zombie gentry friends will prevail over their base natures.
[A note on Dearly, Departed: Although this is a trilogy, the series is currently on hiatus due to personal and publishing reasons. Lia Habel has written the second of the series, but I will probably hold off on reading and reviewing Dearly, Beloved for a bit because I will likely have to wait a very long time for the final installment. It may make me too bummed. Ultimately, I’d rather wait for something great rather than something forced, so I will keep my fingers crossed that everything works out for the best.]