Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: Valley of the Dead by Kim Paffenroth

What if Dante’s Inferno was based on truth? What if in his life Dante faced such insurmountable horror that he wrote it all down but had to pass it off as fiction because it was just too unbelievable?

Well, that is the premise behind Kim Paffenroth’s new novel, Valley of the Dead.

From the back cover:

Working from Dante’s Inferno to draw out the reality behind the fantasy, author Kim Paffenroth unfolds the horrifying true events that led Dante to fictionalize the account of his lost years…

For seventeen years of his life, the exact whereabouts of the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri are unknown to modern scholars. It is known that during this time he traveled as an exile across Europe, working on his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. In his masterpiece he describes a journey through the three realms of the afterlife. The most famous of its three volumes, Inferno, describes Hell.

During his lost wanderings, Dante stumbled upon an infestation of the living dead. The unspeakable acts he witnessed – cannibalism, live burnings, evisceration, crucifixion and dozens more – became the basis of all the horrors described in Inferno. Afraid to be labeled a madman, Dante made the terrors he experienced into a more ‘believable’ account of an otherworldly adventure filled with demons and mythological monsters.
But at last, the real story can be told.

This may sound like another piece of classic literature being updated to include monsters like zombies (see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, its sequel and a ton of other reconstituted classics), but Valley of the Dead is different. First off, it doesn’t take the original text and warp it to fit the author’s goal. Instead, VotD is an entirely original work, and the only text used from the original epic Inferno are a few lines before each chapter. Author Kim Paffenroth delivers another original, stunning and exciting novel that weaves an epic journey through a zombie-infested landscape with philosophical leanings. Through his story, Paffenroth perfectly captures the sheer ruthlessness of the human race as well as showing their compassion.

The cruelties that the living humans inflict not only on the zombies but on each other are truly shocking. It seems that with each new page Paffenroth has Dante encounter some truly horrific stuff – an army slaughtering innocent men, women and children, rape, cannibalism, witch burnings and many more evil acts besides all the zombie slaughtering going on. However, contrasted against the chaos and depravity are the virtuous lead characters of Dante, soldier Radovan, pregnant peasant Bogdana and monk Adam.

I am not intimately familiar with Dante’s Inferno, so I can’t really say what scenes in Paffenroth’s book take their cue from the classic poem, but the scenes in VotD are truly horrific and quite hellish! I really enjoyed how Paffenroth created such a vivid picture of the surrounding countryside Dante and his companions must traverse to escape the zombies. It starts off with green fields and lush forests, but as they are forced to escape higher and higher into the mountains the landscape becomes more desolate and otherworldly…and yet it seems the undead dwell there nonetheless. Despite the hopeless evil that seems to surround Dante and his friends, they grimly continue on in hopes of escaping the zombies and I was rooting for them the whole way.

As in his previous novels (Dying to Live and its sequel), Paffenroth’s character development is extremely strong. We care for each and every one of the main characters and through their journey really understand who they are and what they stand for. This makes the horrors they must face all the more cringe-worthy and terrifying for the reader. The characters seem to always be in constant danger, whether from the undead, the approaching army and from the strangers they encounter. This creates a tension that makes the book hard to put down! And when the characters do have to stand their ground and fight (which they do plenty of times in the book) we are treated to suspenseful battles.

However, to balance out all the action is the somber tone that permeates the story. Like in Inferno, Dante laments the horrors occurring around him and is disheartened by all the violence. While it isn’t quite Hell in VotD, it’s damn close! The tone reflects this and is more thoughtful, pensive and philosophical. I think this restrained, downbeat tone works beautifully within the confines of the story and perfectly matches the appalling actions that Dante and his friends are witness to.

Valley of the Dead is another stunning novel from Kim Paffenroth that mixes philosophical meanderings with gruesome zombie action and a creative re-telling of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s inspiration for his most famous work, Inferno. Any fans of intelligent and sophisticated zombie stories will no doubt enjoy VotD!

Available from Amazon!

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