What do you call a novel that contains the Civil War, steampunk, zombies, and Godzilla? In most cases, I’d say “a hot mess” but in Odd Men Out Matt Betts pulls elements of all these genres and more together into a tight, engaging story. This review will contain spoilers.
Odd Men Out
“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life.” – book jacket description of Odd Men Out
Reading the above description of Odd Men Out, it seems like a pretty straightforward zombie book with a historical backdrop. But the book isn’t like that at all. The chapters alternate between stories of three sets of characters: a transport crew trying to make a buck, a zookeeper and his henchman (who is also a saboteur with the Sons of Grant), and the Odd Men Out–an international peacekeeping force. The transport crew falls victim to the Sons of Grant and is rescued by the Odd Men Out. The transport crew then joins up with the O.M.O.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. This book is packed with information and action (everything I outlined above takes place in the first 50 pages) and at times I was seriously lost–especially when it came to the Civil War and that the Sons of Grant were the bad guys. So although this book is filled with action and a lot of fun, don’t read it too quickly.
Instead, take some time to appreciate the relationships between the characters which are surprisingly well developed for a book this size with so many characters. Let the situations wash over you–in the first few pages of this book, I went from feeling like I was inside Serenity or Firefly to experiencing echoes of BioShock. It’s awesome and fun.
But What about the Zombies?
Although the description makes it seem like the zombies are a big deal in this book, the “chewers” are really more of a complication. And I loved that about them. Rather than the rushing World War Z hordes, there were just enough zombies to keep the characters on their toes. It felt like the zombie situation, though not yet under control, would soon be.
By the time the giant lizard shows up and starts destroying the harbor, it really should be too much. Except that it isn’t. I don’t know exactly how Betts gets away with this amount of excess, but it works. And there are dirigibles and “The Turtle” a machine that reminded me of an AT-AT walker. Perhaps it’s precisely the excess that makes it work. If Bowie had shown up dressed as Tesla, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised or perturbed.
Is this the Start of a New Trend in Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction isn’t new. Some of our greatest literature, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to The War of the Worlds, can be sidelined into the genre category. I say “sidelined” because there’s a tendency for literary types to look down their noses at genre fiction’s plot-driven texts and in response, genre writers often consider the literary folks snooty as they write about the innermost feelings of everyone and nothing really happens. But great writing and genre writing are not mutually exclusive and in the 1960s a host of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin showed us how to create gorgeous new worlds with equally stunning language and characters.
What does seem to be new, at least relatively so, is this wild blend of genres. To be fair, most zombie stories have an undercurrent of either dystopian fiction or comedy and many steampunk novels are based in either a dystopian or utopian world. But there’s a difference between pairing two genres with a similar feel and mashing together two disparate types of stories. The first time I saw it done was in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which married Jane Austen and the undead.
What about Movies?
This genre mashup is happening in film too. Last night I watched The World’s End without really watching the trailer. What I thought was going to be a buddy drinking movie turned out to be a midlife crisis movie. With robot aliens (who really don’t want to be called robots). It’s brilliant and it surprised me by how well these elements came together.
The same is true for Matt Betts. I don’t have any idea what he has planned next, but I look forward to finding out.
If you’re looking for a steampunk/zombie/sci-fi/dystopian mashup, pick up a copy of Odd Men Out from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.