Thomas is thirty-two. He comes from the small town of Barkley. He has a wife there, Sarah, and a child, Mary; good solid names from the Good Book. And he is on his way home from the war, where he has been serving as a conscripted soldier.
Thomas is also dead – he is one of the Walkin’.
And Barkley does not suffer the wicked to live.
Your Brother’s Blood is set in the far future, about 900 years from now, but at the same time it feels a little like weird west fantasy, such as Lee Collins’ books. As such I found it hard to classify the book ending up at dystopian fantasy. Apparently this is a far more common thing than I thought – really, who knew? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things? – but to me this was my first encounter with it in this way and an interesting one it was too. Towsey mixes religion and zombies and a Western feel into an interesting amalgam that asks some pretty elemental questions of the reader.
Religion is always a tricky thing to tackle, but done well can shed some interesting light on the human condition. Towsey manages to do so, creating an almost fundamentalist Christian sect in the township of Barkley, which has adapted to the collapse of technology and the rise of the Walkin’ by having some pretty rigid limitations set on both life and death. Towsey seems to be seeing how far people will go along in a restrictive system of belief, before turning rebellious. It turns out that line is different for everyone, but the narrative also reveals that the outside doesn’t always show what is inside and there are acts of disobedience, large and small, all over Barkley. In Barkley any writing, other than the Good Book, and drawing are considered sinful and forbidden. One of the ways Mary, our teenage protagonist, rebels is by drawing in the mud, even if it ends up getting her hands caned. But it turns out that she isn’t the only one hiding art, there are several hidden art collections.
One of the main tenets of Leyist beliefs, named after J.S. Barkley the town founder and creator of their Church, is that the Walkin’ are spawn of the devil and that anyone who dies should be burned before burial. For the rise of the Walkin’ is one of the effects of the collapse of society. It’s not clear what exactly caused the advent of the Walkin’, but it is a genetic mutation that seems to have been caused by a medical innovation gone wrong. A Walkin’ will rise after death and be in essence a zombie, however they retain their personality and all their memories and they don’t need to eat, so no ravening brain-eaters here. However being a hereditary condition, it also means that anyone with a Walkin’ parent is considered tainted and should thus be saved through the pyre. It’s this last belief put into practice that creates the greatest discontent with Barkley’s religious laws, as people have a hard time reconciling themselves to this last fact. It’s also this last tenet that sets part of the plot in motion since it’s the reason Thomas takes Mary away with him.
Though thoroughly agnostic, I found the people of Barkley’s adherence to their rigid and restrictive religious beliefs understandable. If the dead started rising today, it’s a good bet that a lot of people would quickly turn their faith to such fundamental and conservative sects. While completely uncomfortable with their beliefs, I could see how they got there. But where they completely lost me, was when they condoned child murder because of the fact their parent was a Walkin’. This is also the point in the narrative that not just the outliers in the community, but the general population as well, seem to start perhaps not openly agitating against the church, but certainly performing acts of civil disobedience.
Putting all the religious angles aside, Your Brother’s Blood also shows what happens when the dead may Walk and that final farewell may not always be final. We see it in Gravekeeper Nathaniel Courie, one of the point-of-view characters in the book, whose first wife became a Walkin’ because he couldn’t bear burning her. He’s never managed to put his grief for her behind him, because he knows she’s still out there somewhere. Similarly, despite knowing better, Thomas makes his way home to see Sarah and Mary one last time and say goodbye. For those whose loved ones die away from home, such as Thomas and some of the other soldiers, there is always the uncertainty of not knowing whether they have risen or whether they’ve gone to meet their Maker in Heaven. Death is the one certainty in life and when that certainty is taken away, people do strange things.
One element I found problematic is the lack of exposition regarding the war that is going on in de background. It all remains rather vague and nebulous; we know it’s redcoats versus blue-coats, but as to the origins and reasons for the fight we get no explanation. Also it felt rather reminiscent of the US Civil War, which was a bit disorienting in a temporal sense, as the book is set in the future but feels as if it’s set in the past. Also there is the start of something in Barkley, a feeling that Pastor Gray should be watching his tail feathers as his flock might soon not follow him docilely any longer. However, we don’t get a resolution to this in the book. Then again, this leaves plenty of grist on the mill for a sequel and it looks like Your Brother’s Blood is the first in a trilogy – a fact I wasn’t aware of while reading the book – so there will be plenty of time to resolve that particular situation. Hopefully, we’ll also learn more about the war and the Walkin’ in any future books.
Not normally a zombie fan, I loved the Walkin’ in Your Brother’s Blood. They are an interesting re-imagining of what zombies could look like. The book is a thoughtful, intelligent debut from a talented author. And a book that made me think deeply about its themes and its characters. In addition, Your Brother’s Blood is well-written and a smooth read. I’m looking forward to returning to Barkley and discovering more of Towsey’s writing.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.