Shortly after I finished reading Rebecca Levene’s “Ghost Dance” a few weeks earlier, I looked online for other books by this author.
To my surprise, I learnt that Levene had written a book for Abaddon Books’ “Tomes Of The Dead” collection 🙂 This was a short-lived collection of zombie novels published during the late 2000s and they often used to be the highlight of bookshop horror shelves (anyone remember those?) back in the day 🙂
So, needless to say, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of Levene’s 2008 novel “Anno Mortis” and then… got distracted by other books. But, since I was going through slightly more of a horror fiction phase than usual, I thought that I’d take a look at it. And I’m so glad that I did 🙂
So, let’s take a look at “Anno Mortis”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
I read the 2008 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of this novel. However, I won’t include a scan of the book cover in this review, since part of it probably borders on being “Not Safe For Work”. Still, as a work of art, it is a really cool-looking cover that also uses both composition and visual storytelling in a way that hearkens back to novel covers of the 1980s (especially since, unlike a lot of modern book covers, it’s an actual painting too 🙂 )
The novel begins in Ancient Rome, during the cruel reign of the Emperor Caligula. On a hot summer afternoon, an enslaved gladiator called Boda steps into the arena for the first time. Being a fierce Cimbri warrior from the north, Boda shows no mercy after besting her opponent. Whilst the crowd’s reaction to this is a little bit mixed, and Boda doesn’t exactly make any friends with the other gladiators, the senator Seneca is pleased since it means another dead body for his mysterious plot.
Caligula is also in attendance at the games and, after his uncle Claudius is accidentally humiliated, Caligula decides to rub salt into the wound by taking ownership of Claudius’ slave Narcissus. Narcissus is forced to work in the accounting offices of the palace, where he discovers some irregularities with the cargo manifests of one of Seneca’s ships and decides to investigate.
Meanwhile, a young man called Petronius incurs his father’s wrath after he is caught indulging in a moment of hedonism. Incensed by his son’s gluttony and debauchery, Petronius’ father orders him to spend his days studying rhetoric under the stern tutelege of Seneca. Although Petronius finds this dull at first, he happens to notice a fragment from the Egyptian book of the dead amongst Seneca’s scrolls. So, when Seneca leaves the house, Petronius decides to follow him…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is like heavy metal music in book form 🙂 Seriously, this gripping dark fantasy thriller novel is epic in almost every sense of the word 🙂 This is a novel about Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Vikings (in all but name), gruesome zombies, evil cults meeting in dark catacombs, gladiatorial combat, epic mythology and lots of other dramatic stuff. Seriously, this is what fantasy fiction should be like 🙂
And, yes, you’ll notice that I said “fantasy” rather than “horror”. Whilst this novel does contain some really great horror elements, it is more of a fantasy novel than it initially appears to be. This mostly takes the form of magic, ancient mythology, Bangsian fantasy and supernatural creatures.
Although the novel’s fantasy elements do contain some small inconsistencies (eg: a character is suddenly shown to have the ability to use magical disguises, even though such an ability would have been much more useful during a chase scene several pages earlier), there is so much cool stuff here that these don’t really matter.
We’re talking about things like giant stone crocodiles, jackal-headed men, giant zombie elephants, mythical beasts, dark rituals, mysterious portals, evil scarab beetles, ancient gods/goddesses, the river Styx etc… But, all of this awesome heavy metal album cover stuff is also given a bit more depth than you would expect thanks to the characters and the plotting. Not only that, this novel has the kind of clever conclusion that is as capricious as an old saga and yet as emotionally powerful as one of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics. Seriously, the epilogue left me in floods of tears, in the best way possible.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. In addition to lots of nail-biting suspense, some tragic horror, some cruel horror, some gory horror, some occult/paranormal horror, some character-based horror and some psychological horror, this novel is also a surprisingly inventive take on the zombie apocalypse genre too.
The novel’s zombies are corpses whose skulls have been inhabited by possessed scarab beetles (and, yes, there is actually a good explanation for this). The more recently-deceased a zombie is, the more intelligent it is. Yet, even the most skeletal of zombies is still smart enough to do things like follow military strategies. But, at the same time, the zombies are also close enough to traditional horror movie zombies to still add a bit of classic-style zombie horror to the story 🙂
This novel is also an absolutely brilliant thriller novel too 🙂 In addition to all of the suspense that I’ve mentioned earlier, this novel contains some brilliantly dramatic fast-paced set pieces too. In addition to gladiatorial combat and several large and small scale zombie battles, this novel also includes a dramatic chariot chase through the streets of ancient Rome and other grippingly fast-paced things like this 🙂
The novel’s atmosphere and historical settings are really cool too 🙂 Whilst I haven’t studied the history enough to be able to say how accurate this novel is (then again, it has zombies in it), the Roman settings feel kind of like a cross between HBO’s “Rome” and “Spartacus: Blood And Sand” 🙂 This is also a novel that doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of Roman society (eg: slavery, cruelty, poverty etc..) too. Likewise, there are also a couple of interesting historical cameos, such as the main characters meeting a young Emperor Nero.
In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The main characters are a really interesting and sympathetic group of misfits, all of whom have personalities, flaws and motivations. Plus, although the novel’s villains do seem a little bit cartoonish (especially the cruel Emperor Caligula, who veers into the realms of dark comedy at times) even they are shown to have just enough redeeming qualities for you to both care about them and relish their satisfyingly cathartic demises.
In terms of the writing, this novel is really good too 🙂 The third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story flowing at a fast pace, whilst also including enough descriptions to lend the story some atmosphere and personality too.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 356 pages, it is refreshingly lean and efficient when compared to the average tome-sized fantasy or thriller novel. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is handled really well too. Whilst the story remains consistently gripping and fast-paced, there’s a really good progression from the suspenseful drama of the early parts of the story to the more action-paced and epic later parts of the story 🙂
All in all, this novel was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 It’s like heavy metal music in book form 🙂 It is a gloriously badass mixture of the thriller, fantasy, historical fiction and zombie genres 🙂 If you enjoy things like HBO’s “Rome”, “Spartacus: Blood And Sand”, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and the “Stargate” movies/TV shows but also wish there were zombies too, then read this book 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five 🙂