Raised by a father who expected him to toe a very straight and incredibly narrow line, Erick always subsumed his true queer identity. Ethan, his older brother, provided a modicum of moral support. Truth be told, Ethan’s blatant disregard for their father’s wishes took some of the scrutiny off Erick. When his brother perished in a car accident, Erick lost the drive to please his father—and decided to indulge his dream of going to a place where he could truly be himself: Club Zombie. Having dispensed with the falderal of the “good boy,” Erick lets loose his inner femininity by donning a cheerleader outfit, a pair of heels, and a dash of make-up. When the outside finally matches the inside, he steps into the club for the first time, unaware everything was his life is about to change.
For so long, Cassidy has been engineering the happiness of others while resigning himself to being forever flying solo. It’s not exactly difficult for him, a true zombie—one that depends on male “essence” to survive—to get by. But it also pales in comparison to the security of finding his one true mate. Plagued by the same nightmare that plays on his fears of abandonment, Cassidy tries to lose himself in the glamour of Club Zombie’s drag night. Except this time, he lays eyes on a cheerleader who sends his blood alight. He’s stunned by the strength of his attraction, but refuses to believe anything more than a romp could come of it. For all that he and this Erick look of a similar age, the fact is Cassidy’s zombism stopped him from aging for decades and what are the odds his one mate would just happen to come along now?
Things get complicated when Erick runs into someone from his past. Even as Erick explores his new freedom of expressing his full gender identity, and with the full support of the handsome Cassidy no less, Erick is struggling. Struggling to understand what he is learning about his family and struggling to understand why Cassidy is sending such strong mixed singals.
I have had a run of “this isn’t the first book in the series, but it can be read alone” stories lately. Zombies Coming, it turns out, works just fine as a standalone and, for those who are into this portrayal of zombism, offers two previous books that I believe focus on Ethan’s stories.
I chose this title for the Diverse Books Week of the 2018 Reading Challenge Month. In particular, Zombies Coming focuses on gender identity and expression and has a couple of thoughts zing through the MCs minds about orientation. For me, I found it worked particularly well that Allora focuses on just Erick’s expressions at the start. We watch him transform from the straight-laced college student into the cheerleader and it just reminded me of the kind of relief I feel after having to dress up in fancy clothes I don’t usually wear and get to be myself. Allora conveyed the excitement and newness of it through Erick well. Conversely, when we see Cassidy going through his own prep for the evening, he conveys a strong sense of “been there, done that” resignation. Personally, I thought the overt “do not fit in one box” qualities felt stronger for Erick than they did for Cassidy initially, but as we progress through the story, the characters open up about how they think and feel about themselves. I also thought it was interesting that, especially towards the end when Cassidy and Erick have established their connection to one another, they begin to discuss frankly intimate details about what genderqueer may entail for them…thoughts of possibly shifting to transgender (and what that could mean for a relationship with a zombie), to moments where one or the other acknowledges their “male” side or their “female” side as being the more prominent.
In addition to this very meat-and-potatoes kind of exploration (i.e. how the genderqueer characters we are rooting for identify themselves), Allora goes the extra mile to include a lengthy scene where Erick, Cassidy, and Ethan attend a support group for LGBTQ types and their families. On the one hand, representation matters. On the other hand, this scene was largely done for the benefit of the mostly unaccepting Ethan character. Fans of the earlier books in the series would probably enjoy watching this part of Ethan’s journey, but in this one volume…I kind of felt like we were covering old territory. Not to mention that I was sort of annoyed the Ethan character sort of steals the show for this little bit—all because he can’t or won’t try to understand Erick. Granted, Ethan’s blase disregard—which later turns into not-so-benign, but not exactly flat-out cruel intolerance—does take a big toll on Erick and is the primary driver of pushing Erick closer to Cassidy initially, I wasn’t really invested in seeing Ethan come around as much as I wanted to watch the drama unfold between Cassidy and Erick.
That drama, by the way, centers almost entirely around the obvious fact that we know Erick is 200% Cassidy’s mate, but Cassidy is too scared to admit it. Cassidy’s embracing the “can’t miss what you never had” mentality when it comes to his attraction to Erick. On the one hand, it was so blatant that these two end up together. The reader knows it, the supporting cast knows it, Erick knows it—or is at least willing to be with Cassidy unless or until Cassidy finds a “true” mate. So while there weren’t any surprises there, it was kind of fun to watch these two waffle with their own raging hormones and conflicting emotions…no one wants to fall in love with someone who is unavailable, or could be soon. If you really enjoy that sort of thing, this quality continues even after they decide to go for it. There was a particular scene where Erick decides to go home, with Cassidy, to come out to his parents that is chock full of the high melodrama you’d expect an overbearing control freak of a patriarchal figure to have when his youngest son comes out.
On the whole, this was a quick, easy read. I liked our two heroes, but felt like we didn’t get to know Cassidy as much as we did Erick. This is, afterall, Ericks coming out story—but Cassidy’s clearly got decades of history. Allora does not offer much of in the way of detains on his backstory, so we only have glimmers of how and why Cassidy suffers such deep-seated abandonment issues. With large chunks of the book focused on the Cassidy/Erick will-they-won’t-they issue, the writing did feel a bit underdeveloped and the emotions somewhat immature to me. I also wasn’t super excited about the decision to introduce an LGBT support group to bring Ethan around in lieu of incorporating more of the existing supporting cast. Ethan has three other mates, none of whom seem to have any issues with Erick’s and Cassidy’s gender identities or how they express them—but the mates are largely scenery, gophers during the brief scenes when Ethan and Erick actually do share space. There does end up being a connection with the leader of the support group and one of the Zombies, so maybe that was a bit of foreshadowing and ground work for a future book—but as a stand alone, I didn’t think the support group added any dimension or helped Ethan understand anything deeper than “sometimes the book doesn’t match the cover.”
Regardless, Allora’s characters spend about as much time discussing and expressing their queer identities. I certainly appreciated that we have both main characters on the queer spectrum and that their descriptions don’t stop at what they’re wearing (though clothing does play a significant role in how they characters choose to identify themselves), but includes how they feel—emotionally and physically—about the person they are. The romantic drama is through the roof, if a bit predictable. It’s the kind of angst you know is going to be resolved. There is not much in the way of graphic representations of sex, but still some racy bits. I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in a sort of romantic fantasy, a bit of a slow burn mixed with Erick quibbling over unrequited love and, of course, anyone who is a fan of Allora’s series.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Diverse Books Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of our amazing diverse books prize packs. Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by Dreamspinner Press (a Kindle Fire filled with Dreamspun Desires/Beyond books, plus a 3-month subscription!). You can get more information on our Challenge Month here, and more details on Diverse Books Week here, including a list of all the books in this week’s prize.