Path of the Dead by Timothy Baker [review]
As you guys must know by now, I’m somewhat obsessed with zombies. I’ve seen basically every zombie movie in existence, eagerly watched all four seasons of The Walking Dead and have played more Resident Evil than probably anyone at Capcom has. I own multiple copies of all the George Romero movies (even the crappy ones). Hell, I’ve even played zombie tabletop RPGs with my friends.
With all that experience, it can be pretty hard for a piece of zombie fiction to surprise me these days. In many ways, the zombie-apocalypse genre has become over saturated and cliched. Even for someone like me, who’s obsessed with the concept, there’s a limit to how many times the same story can be told before it becomes boring. The formula is the same every time: zombies ruin Western civilization; a group of plucky survivors take shelter in a mall/prison/bunker/whatever; they begin to fight, someone fucks everything up and they all die.
If I were to describe Timothy Baker’s debut novel in one sentence, it would be “Dawn of the Dead with warrior monks”. While Path of the Dead basically adheres to the time-honoured conventions of the genre, it shakes up the formula with a location and character archetypes rarely seen in a typical survival horror tale.
Path of the Dead is the story of Dorje, a Buddhist monk who journeys into the Tibetan village of Dagzê to find that the dead have mysteriously begun to rise. Before long, Dorje joins up with his old mentor and an entourage of bodyguards, who have come to Dagzê to investigate the impending apocalypse. Things promptly go from bad to worse and soon Dagzê becomes Hell on Earth, leaving Dorje and his companions with the not-so-simple task of escaping with their lives.
For the most part, what follows is a pretty standard Romero-esque zombie story, complete with gory action scenes and desperate last stands against the undead. What makes it unique is how it lends a new perspective to the zombie apocalypse, and how a non-Western society responds to a horror typically reserved for American city-dwellers. The characters in Path of the Dead are not the archetypes typically seen in zombie fiction, and their attempts to justify what is happening to them in the context of the Buddhist faith add something new and exotic to the formula. It’s like trying a new flavour of your favourite food; seeing how zombies take on a new meaning in a society where belief in reincarnation (for example) is so prevalent makes them somehow seem fresh again.
Most of the time, Timothy’s writing is superb. Path of the Dead’s prose seems strangely poetic and surreal for a zombie novel, but I think this seems appropriate given the setting and themes of the story. Some passages are a little too descriptive (there are quite a few places where it seems as if nothing is actually happening), but most of the time I appreciated the flavour woven throughout the novel and thought that Timothy did a great job of establishing a sense of place. Aside from some slight pacing problems in the calmer sections of the book (the action scenes, by contrast, are exciting and tense), it seems that Timothy Baker has done well for a first attempt, and his writing style will definitely improve in subsequent installments.
One main criticism I have with this book is that the characterisation needs a little work. Path of the Dead is definitely no Walking Dead (well, perhaps the rather average TV show, but not the excellent video game), which is a shame, because the characters are unique and have a lot of potential. The parts of the novel where characterisation happens seem a little forced in ways and I felt that there were certain places that would have worked better with minimal dialogue, or without any dialogue at all. Some of my favourite zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead, particularly) actually make do with very little deliberate characterisation — I’m sure Path of the Dead would have flowed much better if done in a similar way. That said, Timothy does do a good enough job of making the characters seem like real people, and I did find myself becoming attached to them and hoping that they would all make it to the end.
So, what did I ultimately make of Path of the Dead? It’s definitely not the best piece of zombie fiction I’ve read, but it’s still an excellent survival horror story with some interesting twists to the old Romero formula. It has more substance than any zombie movie I’ve seen lately and it’s a great effort for a debut novel. If you’re looking for an interesting new take on the zombie-apocalypse, check it out.