Dead Boys by Gabriel Squailia
Genre: Adult fantasy
Release date: March 10 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A folktale-like story with an odd cast of dead characters, lots of humorous moments, but not enough of a plot to keep me interested.
While reading Dead Boys, I realized after only a couple of chapters that I wasn’t going to agree with most of the glowing reviews I’ve seen for this book. And I’m not sure why. It’s got all the elements for a successful story: a fantastical setting, interesting characters, and writing that (while not my favorite style) is well done. Perhaps it was the silliness of the set-up—a dead man named Jacob is a “preservationist” in the underworld, stitching up and fixing the decaying bodies of the dead. Or it could have been the language itself, a very formal style that often felt like something right out of a Shakespearean play:
“Thy doom drops from above, body-robbers!” cried the head, bouncing past Remington’s feet. “Draw near, that I might gnaw thy hated ankles.”
(Seriously, the entire book was written this way.)
But mostly, it was the absurd humor and a plot that I quickly began to lose interest in, that had me skimming chapters near the end. Dead Boys is the story of a journey, and yet it felt as if the characters were never getting anywhere. And I’m disappointed because I really thought I was going to love this book.
Imagine this, if you will: Jacob Campbell is a corpse who lives in Dead City and patches up the decomposing dead, corpses that wash up on the banks of the Lethe river. But as much as he’s more or less happy being dead, he’s heard tell of a “Living Man” who was still alive when he crossed into Dead City, and Jacob is anxious to find him, in the hopes of someday reaching the land of the living himself.
He’s joined on his journey by a boy named Remington, who has a bird nesting in his skull, and a dubious character named Leopold who may or may not be trustworthy. Together they navigate a strange and decrepit landscape, full of armies of attacking corpses and huge, shifting piles of debris. Not to mention plenty of dead body parts falling off or getting hacked off and put back on again. Yep, this is one crazy book, people!
Now, I did enjoy parts of Dead Boys, especially the way Squailia describes the world of Dead City. The river Lethe runs through the city, washing up bodies of the newly deceased. Everywhere are piles of garbage and detritus, mostly composed of bones and decomposing flesh. Jacob’s vocation is interesting, although disgusting and ridiculous! His job is to try to make the dead appear more alive, by fixing their parts that are coming off, a sort of taxidermist for the dead. I found the idea both hilarious and disturbing at the same time, and believe me, it just kept getting weirder the further into the story I got.
My favorite character was young Remington, so named because he shot out the back of his skull with a gun (OK, I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I think it went like that!) Remington has a little black bird that has taken up residence in his empty skull and acts as Remington’s eyes when he flies. As strange as that sounds, I adored Remington and his little bird companion.
Most of the characters are missing body parts, like a headless couple dubbed “Adam and Eve.” And then there’s Etienne, the Living Man of legend, who is now no more than a head tacked to the wall of a tavern. And in the middle of it all, Jacob is there to help the dead regain some of their dignity by repairing their broken parts. There are a lot of body parts being lost, and then reattached, and then lost again. One particularly disturbing scene deals with a penis swap (yes, you read that correctly!). Why the dead still have penises is anybody’s guess, but I think you have to appreciate a special brand of humor in order to laugh at things like this. (And I know those readers are out there, in fact, I’ll bet some of them are reading this review right now!)
And so the characters trudge through a dangerous land that could resemble a Bosch painting. Somewhere among all the heads and limbs and penises flying around, is a story. But for me, it was buried too far under all the bones of the dead to make sense. I know one thing for sure: when I die, I certainly hope I don’t wind up here. The dead in Dead Boys are a sorry lot indeed, roaming through a dismal landscape and barely getting anywhere. For those readers who appreciate absurdity, gross humor and an author who delights in playing with language, this may be just the book for you.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
Final rating: 6/10
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