Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: Swords of the Dead

"Swords of the Dead" by Danke S. Kaus is a novella about a small town that is invaded by... wait for it... Zombie Ninjas. Mike and his EXTREME fighter friends are hired by Dr. Eva Stratmore to take care of the abnormally acrobatic undead that are literally chewing up her small town.

"Swords of the Dead"  is soon going to be made into a movie. I was contacted in October by the author and asked to review the book, which is based on the now sold movie script. Of course, I said yes, thinking that it would be at least somewhat of a decent book to read because it has such wonderful reviews written about it. Boy was I wrong.

"Swords of the Dead" isn't funny, brilliant, exciting, nor any of the other pretty words used by the quoted reviewers; which can be found here.

I tried to read the novella through a constructive critique lens-- and found myself utterly abhorred by what I read. Not because it is shocking or brutal or anything like that. But because it was written so poorly. The novella is drowning in cliches and the writing style is jarring; making it impossible to enjoy what has the potential to be a cult classic; B-film grade; horror comedy.

For example, here is an except from page 1, the format has not be altered in anyway, just italicized to denote quotation of the text.

Forty-two but in great shape, Knowles still enjoyed the company of his wife. He was eager to end his nightly patrol as he drove past the closed stores. He chatted on his cell phone, hardly paying attention to his driving.
“I’ll be done in about an hour,” he said. His hand cradled the phone to his ear.
“Yeah?” He liked what he heard.
“Oh yeah? Maybe I can wrap up early. No, wear the red one.” He laughed with anticipation. “Yeah, that’s the one."
    An indistinct figure appeared in front of the car. Knowles slammed on the brakes but the patrol car hit whoever it was with a sickening, muffled thud of metal meeting flesh and bone. Whoever it was disappeared under the front of his cruiser.
 “Oh, my god!” he heard himself yell.
 “Call you back,” he said. “No, nothing,” he said into the phone, but certain he had just killed or maimed someone. He switched off the cell, threw it on the passenger seat, and pushed the button to turn on the pulsating blue and red lights atop the official cruiser. Knowles grabbed his flashlight and jerked open the door.

When I first read this opening sequence, it didn't make any sense to me at all. After I thought about it for a while, as I kept reading and then I realized just what was wrong; each dismally short chapter of "Swords of the Dead" is literally a different scene from a movie script.

My suspicions were confirmed in Chapter 15 on page 44.
Here is an excerpt, as written and read on the page (sans the italics, which are to indicate a quote from the manuscript):

He ran to the hall but was blocked by yet another zombie. The young wannabe
fighter had an idea. He overcame his fear and pulled out a cheap pen then stabbed the
monster in the left eye. It shrieked and stepped back into the living room.
“We got more trouble in the hallway!” Fred yelled.
Eva finished crying and wiped her eyes. She listened to the commotion above her
then ran to a desk near the stairs. She yanked open a drawer and pulled out a chrome
plated, short-nosed revolver. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dead man get off
the table. He began to shuffle toward her.
“Now the stuff works,” Eva said to herself.
She opened the cylinder of the pistol to see six empty chambers.
The fight continued in the living room. Fred’s zombie was attacking him, the pen
still protruding from its eye. Fred fought back as well as he could, but took more blows
than he gave.
Mike pushed his zombie back out the window only to see the one with the sword
crawling back in the other open window.
Jupiter and the Chang Brothers kicked and punched at the throng of zombies
attacking them. The men were able to punch and kick them backwards, only to have the
undead creatures advance again.
Eva searched through the papers in a desk drawer, found a box of cartridges. The
former soldier in the basement advanced stiffly toward her.

See those lines of stars? That's an indication of a scene break within a novel manuscript, or in a movie script, as the case may be it's a different camera shot. One cannot simply remove the names from the start of a character's lines in a script and insert them either in the middle of the character's dialogue or at the end of what they say and make it a good, readable story. A movie script has less substance to it than a book, which is why a book is always better than the movie adaptation of it.

For something that is supposed to be tongue in-cheek ridiculous, (I mean come on, it's zombie ninjas) it's not very funny at all. The novella reads like a poorly done Trauma films production movie script. Which is not to say that Lloyd Kaufman's films don't have any merit; at least his movies are funny.

There is a conceit amongst comedians that repetition and a build up of a concept while telling a story makes the punch-line hilarious. Repetition of words in a sentence can be used to build up emotion or suspense, or even humor.

This paragraph taken from page 14 is an exercise in how not to do it:
She wished she hadn’t broken up with Sean a couple of months back. Not that she missed him, but he was big. He had played tight end on the high school football team. Second string, but he was big. Just not fast. Except in bed. She didn’t miss that part. Still, she wished he was here. She wished she hadn’t skipped all those classes. If she’d gotten into State, she’d be a junior now. At least then she could live in a dorm. Away from this burg and that boring job at the drug store.

That was supposed to be funny. Note the poor attempt at a sex joke in there? Yeah.
The pacing in this paragraph is atrocious. Short terse sentences are those reserved for rapidly conveying information to make a point and convey emotion, say during an argument, a fight scene or when the killer is running up the stairs after the buxom teenage girl. And I'm sorry to say, this is as good as the comedy gets.

"Swords of the Dead" starts out with a sheriff flirting on the phone while driving on patrol; the reader will never know who he was talking to or what was said to the cop because whoever is on the other end isn't even important enough to be given dialogue. 

The sheriff hits someone standing in the middle of the road, gets out of the car, looks around and is then attacked by... a figure. That is never described. 

It's not until half-way through the story that the zombie ninjas are even remotely described, and all we get is that they have rotting heads, glowing blue eyes and chant in a strange language. However, the leader of the zombie ninjas, Karak, can speak perfectly good English.  Huh...

The only good description we get of a zombie attack is on page 38:
"The street light cast a pale illumination on the door. Joan saw the reflection of about half a dozen hooded zombies behind her. She could smell their stench. She turned around and sprayed mace in their rotting faces. They yanked her away from the door and started sinking their teeth into her. She howled in agony. They continued biting and ripping away parts of her. She felt teeth sink into her left thigh, pull the flesh right off the bone. A mouth enclosed her right ear."

This is good because the author uses descriptions that include the senses: smell their stench. Sinking their teeth into her. Ripping away part of her. Too bad the rest of the action in the novella isn't so fully realized and given meaningful important words, like adjectives and adverbs. You know, the words that describe stuff, like physical appearances of people and objects, and how actions are done? The crucial words that can make or break a scene? Those words.

In addition to lacking proper descriptions, "Swords of the Dead" suffers from having no real point-of-view per scene; there is no single perspective to follow as the story unfolds. Not the narrator's, not the character's, not even the ninja zombies--which probably would've been funny if done right.

Throughout the novella, numerous paragraphs start out with a point-of-view from one character and ending with another. It's not just switching perspective between more than one person in a single scene, this is done within one paragraph!

This is a big fiction writing no-no and common with beginning writers. Most of what I read seemed  like randomly jotted down thoughts, as though it's assumed that it's a brilliant work of art that doesn't require anything like editing or continuity before it goes out to market.

For example on page 3 we have the paragraph:

“Don’t make me hurt you,” Mike said. Someone backed into Striker. Mike turned to see a tall white man with a back full of oriental tats. Mike popped him in the back of the neck with the base of his hand. The tattoos decorated the floor. Mike turned his attention back to the twenty-something Fennel.

Who is Striker?
Is that Mike's last name?
Who backed into him for that matter?
How did the tattoos decorate the floor?
Were they just stickers on the man's back that fell off the minute Mike hit him in the back of the neck?
Just what is going on here?

As you can see, this is just one of the plethora of tell-tale signs of a lazy writer that popped up while I was reading "Swords of the Dead." Names of people are dropped at random throughout the fight, and the actions are not given in any sort of way clear way as to provide visual clues to the reader.

The novella is full of paragraphs that are written so poorly that it is hard to follow what is happening, and to whom, at any given moment. I found myself having to reread paragraphs because by the time I got to the end of one, I couldn't remember who was doing what to whom.

Even worse than the atrocious writing is the way the characters are portrayed. Each character in "Swords of the Dead" is a stereotyped cliche. There is absolutely no character development, no true emotional engagement,  and little to no physical description of them.

Just like everything else, they are lacking adjectives. *Sigh*

The characters are two dimensional, card-board cut-outs with little to no personality and no real sense of emotion to carry themselves when they appear in the book.

The main characters are Mike, Eva, Fred, Jupiter, and the Chang Brothers. Yeah. You read that correctly. One of the characters is named Jupiter.

Mike- his last name might be Striker. Maybe.  I'm still not sure on that one. Mike is the "bad ass" of the group. He is an EXTREME fighter, you know, an idiot of a backyard brawler that fights with furniture, the kind that you can find on YouTube. He has "rippling muscles" and is so-o-o cool that everybody likes him, even his supposed enemy Jupiter. Mike isn't the brightest of men, at least he isn't written that way, until he comes across the town's local rednecks, then all of the sudden he can talk circles around a guy. For a main character, the way is he portrayed is utterly inconsistent, to the point that it could give a person whiplash if they tried to keep up.

Fred Fennel- the alliterated man. Fred is "young kid", a weakling who is the butt of every single joke of the scenes that he appears in. This little weasel serves to made Mike the "bad ass" look even cooler, and more awesome than he already is. Mike suckers this kid, who apparently can't fight for beans, into joining his battle against the highly nimble zombie horde.

Jupiter- the tower of muscle and big dumb lug loves eating food and drooling over Eva. When he doesn't have a mouthful of food, or is making lewd sexual advances on Eva, he does nothing. Jupiter is utterly useless, to the point where he doesn't even need to be in the story. For someone who was set up in the first fight scene and beat Mike "the bad ass," this guy couldn't be more lazy, complacent or cowardly.
Who needs to fight? I was eatin' over here. 

The Chang Brothers- consists of one Asian guy and one Latino-African American. Who are mute. Because one mute assassin on your side is cool (Snake Eyes from GI Joe anyone?) then two is AWESOME! Even better, the mute assassins fight Bruce Lee style, complete with the vocalizations... So they are only mute when people try to talk with them. When fighting they start screaming "Hi-ya!" So, something that is supposed to be cute and funny, two mismatched "brothers" that are so close they apparently communicate telepathically, but only with each other, turns into a tragic example of how to not give minorities a voice. Way to go buddy.

Eva Stratford- oh yes. Sexy, sexy Eva. The Tits McGee of the story. Her boobs are so amazing that they transform any man she is in front of into a drooling, horny idiot. Yay!

Yep. The lone female protagonist is treated like eye-candy and her only worth (because her being a doctor is second string to everything else, especially during a zombie invasion) is her wondrous bosom. It is such an ample bosom that it needs to be constantly referred to by every male character in the story, as though they are 12 year old boys stuck in men's grown bodies.  (Boobs. Heh.)

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with sexy characters. They can be as sexy as they want. Women use their sex appeal all the time. But, she is supposed to be a doctor, not a Playboy Bunny. So why wasn't she written like one?

Even though Eva is supposedly an intelligent woman--which must be the case if she is a doctor, that works for the military-- the only quality the author felt was important to mention, over and over again to the point where it becomes eye-rolling annoying, is that she is a sexy, sexy woman.

Who needs subtlety when you can bash an idea into someone's head?

On page 42 Eva reveals that she is a doctor that worked for the government on a super top secret project that was meant to create immortal super soldiers. (Another zombie cliche. Yay.) Yes, the walking boobs is smart enough to be at the head of human experimentation for the Army.

Here you can read as the supposed "medical doctor" describes a failed experiment without using medical terminology that she has to define to the people she is speaking with.
From page 42:

“I was trying to cure him,” she said. “I was trying to find a cure for …”
“A cure?” Mike said, incredulous. “Is all that’s been going on a disease? Are we all going to turn into—that?” He pointed at the corpse.
“No, it doesn’t work that way,” Eva said. “At least I don’t think it does.”
“You don’t think it does?” Mike’s rage was growing. “Great. So how does it work?”
Eva hesitated again. “It was a project for the government.”
“Figures,” Mike said.
Eva continued, conciliatory, trying to persuade Mike.
“The idea was to make a super fighter, one that was highly skilled, ferocious, deadly, healed quickly.” Eva hesitated again. “And wouldn’t die. We made a combination of cells from several candidates. We injected him and …”
“Let me guess,” Mike said. “It didn’t work.”
“It worked for about an hour,” Eva said. “Then his heart exploded.”
“Guess you could just call that a side effect,” Mike said. “They should put a warning label on the bottle: Caution, may cause drowsiness and heart explosion. Consult your physician.”

Her technical explanation: His heart exploded.

Hoo-kay. If you say so, Dr. Stratford.

Not once, in the entirety of the novella does Eva speak in medical terminology that she has to dumb down for the other characters and explain in simple terms what she is talking about. Maybe she just calls herself a doctor, like those self-titled herbalists that try to sell you things that don't work...

It's pretty clear that she's just around for the boobs and the sex scene, oh, and to make dinner. Because that's where a woman belongs. In the kitchen. With ALL of the KNIVES. 

Swords of the Dead" could've been expounded upon and enriched when transferred from script form to novella, instead of copy-pasted, as it appears to be, and the story would be somewhat entertaining. Cheesy. But entertaining. Like Trauma Films. (See? Short sentences are used here to make a point.)

I suppose if you aren't looking for anything interesting to read that you can actually follow and you like cheesy cartoon villains, endless cliches and briefly glossed over fight scenes, you might like it. For the rest of you sane people, you're better off avoiding this little nightmare like the plague.

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