I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ty Drago before, but I’ve had my eye on this middle grade/young adult series for a while, featuring a very different type of zombie. So, to kick off our Halloween Week 2012-style, I’m thrilled to have a double feature review of books 1 and 2 of Drago’s Undertakers series.
Title: The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses
Author: Ty Drago
Genre: Horror, Middle Grade/Young Adult
Publication date: April 2011
Paperback: 480 pages
“On a sunny Wednesday morning in October, a day that would mark the end of one life and the beginning of another, I found out my grouchy next door neighbor was the walking dead. When you turn around expecting to see something familiar, and instead see something else altogether, it takes a little while for your brain to catch up with your eyes. I call it the ‘Holy Crap Factor.'”
Forced to flee his home and family, twelve-year-old Will Ritter falls in with the Undertakers-a rag-tag army of teenage resistance fighters who’ve banded together to battle the Corpses.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in The Undertakers series
How did I get this book: Bought
Will Ritter seems like your average twelve-year-old – he has a loving mother and younger sister, and even though his father has recently passed away, things seem to be heading back to normal for Will. That is, everything seems normal, until one day he notices that his crotchety next door neighbor is a zombie.
Well, not a zombie – because that implies a slow, mindless, reanimated body driven by a singular hunger for human flesh. Will’s neighbor is actually a Corpse; an intelligent, alien entity possessing a dead human body, and hell-bent on domination of the human race. And Will’s neighbor isn’t alone. Will discovers that Corpses have infiltrated schools, the police force, the local news, and even local politics. The good news is, Will isn’t alone either – he’s one of the few children who develop the Sight (the ability to see the Corpses for what they are, instead of the human masks they project to the rest of the world), and is rescued from certain death by Helene, an undercover student at his middle school. One of a covert group called the Undertakers, Helene takes Will to join this secret contingent of twelve to seventeen year olds, all of whom possess the Sight and have banded together to fight the Corpses.
Will also learns that his late father was the actual founder of the Undertakers, and his death was caused by the Corpses. Taking up the mission started by his dad, Will quickly rises through the ranks of the Undertakers and vows to make sure that the Corpses are stopped, once and for all.
The first thing that came to mind when I started reading Rise of the Corpses was John Carpenter’s film, They Live (you know, OBEY CONSUME THIS IS YOUR GOD and a sweet pair of glasses). The Undertakers is built on a very similar premise, but involving a much younger crowd of protagonists. This isn’t so much a zombie book per se (even though it technically does involve the reanimated dead), but more along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or They Live – there is an invasion happening, from creatures beyond the realm of the Earth, and though they wear human skin, their intentions are anything but benevolent. It’s a familiar premise, but one that is unique and gripping enough, because of the added twist of the need for the invaders to wear cadaver flesh (gleefully disgusting), and because of the youth of its protagonists.
In fact, this latter point is really what is so effective about the book. As children, we place trust in adults and authority figures, but as we grow up, that unquestioned trust is tarnished. In Rise of the Corpses, this principle is taken to the extreme as these children absolutely cannot trust the adults who will think they are crazy, or worse, who will try to kill them. These children – especially Will – are forced to grow up, or die. And that is all kinds of scary.
From a characterization perspective, this distrust pervades Will’s actions and choices – he’s forced to accept the unbelievable, and on top of that must deal with his father’s secret legacy; a reality that Will grapples with when he learns that his dad not only formed the Undertakers, but shared this part of his life with two other children whom Will never even knew existed. Will is angry, and I can understand that completely. As our hero, Will comes across as the genuine article and is a believable twelve-year-old boy whose world has just been turned upside down. That said, he’s perhaps a little too special and too adept at his new life (and everyone is happy to tell Will how adept and special he is), which is frustrating. Still, he’s not infallible, and there are plenty of other characters that feel more layered and genuine to bridge the gap. Helene, the girl that saves Will, is a fantastic female counterpart, as is Burgermeister (I LOVE Dave Burger!). And, of course, there’s the fearless leader Tom and his sister Sharyn – both of whom are the eldest of the Undertakers at seventeen, and add a nice layer of plausibility to the groups organization and effectiveness at fighting the Corpses.
Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and immediately upon finishing it was eager to dive into Queen of the Dead. Totally recommended, for older middle grade readers, young adult readers, and heck, adults like myself.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From Chapter 26:
The radio didn’t work.
“It’s basically just a cheap Walmart watch with some generic cell phone parts built into it,” Steve had cheerfully explained during one of tech lectures. “But don’t get your hopes up. This phone dials only one person: our on-duty Chatter. All you have to do is press this little silver button on the side.”
Well, I’d pressed it like crazy and—nothing. Not even static. Had it broken sometime during the fight in First Stop or maybe when I climbed into the Dumpster?
Either way it was bad news.
I struggled to stay calm. By now there could be twenty Corpses out there looking for us, and we had no way to call for help!
The others were all watching me. Maria was quietly crying. Harleen had an arm around her. Ethan’s mouth moved wordlessly, as though in prayer. Beside me, the Burgermeister stood almost at attention, regarding me as if I was his undisputed commander.
I’m no leader! I don’t want this!
“Busted?” Dave whispered, pointing to the watch.
I nodded glumly.
“It’s broke?” Maria exclaimed too loudly. Beyond the Dumpster’s high gray walls, the police sirens had gone silent. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.
“Nobody panic,” I said softly, holding up the watch. “These things have trackers in them, remember?”
“GPS locators,” Ethan corrected absently.
“Whatever. It means that they can find us. There’ll be a squad of Angels here before you know it. We just got to stay put and keep quiet.”
“Yeah,” Dave immediately agreed.
Maria started trembling. “I can’t stay here!” she suddenly wailed. “They’ll find me again! I can’t! I can’t!”
“Hush, Maria,” Harleen cooed, doing her best not to sound scared. “Nobody’s gonna find us.”
“Shut her up!” Dave hissed.
I raised my hand, demanding silence. Amazingly I got it.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Title: The Undertakers: Queen of the Dead
Author: Ty Drago
Genre: Horror, Middle Grade/Young Adult
Publication date: October 2012
Paperback: 432 pages
Twelve -year old Will Ritter and his rag-tag army of teenage resistance fighters may have triumphed over the Zombies (alien-possessed corpses) last time…but that’s the thing about the dead- they keep coming back. A new Corpse leader has crossed the rift and taken command of the invasion: The Queen of the Dead is even more brilliant and ruthless than her predecessor, and her ambitions are even deadlier. Will and the crew must somehow rescue his mother, prevent an assassination, and show FBI Agent Ramirez the truth about the Corpses-and the danger the world faces.
But how do a bunch of kids prove to a grown-up that monsters are real?
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in The Undertakers series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Queen of the Dead begins a few months after the dramatic conclusion to Rise of the Corpses – namely, after Will figured out by freak accident how to kill Corpses once and for all. With Kenny Booth’s highly public death, there’s a power vacuum in Philadelphia and a new boss steps on the scene in the form of Lilith Cavanaugh, who is every bit as charming and personable as Booth, but even more vicious. Lilith, the Queen of the Dead, has one goal – to wipe out the meddlesome Undertakers and to ensure that the invasion of her people (the Malum) proceeds smoothly. Of course, with Will and his buddies now capable of not only incapacitating Corpses, but also killing them indefinitely before they can transfer to another host body, Lilith’s job isn’t so easy. And as the stakes grow higher, with the involvement of the FBI, with Will’s family and the lives of his closest friends in the balance, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to stop the Queen and minions before it is too late.
The second in the ongoing Undertakers series, Queen of the Dead is just as fun – if not more fun – than its predecessor. Personally, I love the character of Lilith Cavanaugh and her more cruel and manipulative approach to power. She’s less cheesy than Kenny Booth, and far more vicious, ordering the torture of those who have failed her, and the deaths of young women whose bodies she longs to wear after the skins she dons inevitably start to decompose. I also appreciate that Will’s remaining family (his worried mother and younger sister) are drawn into the fray in this second book, as his mother is desperate to get her son home after she receives a present from her late husband.
This book also starts to broach some tougher topics than Rise of the Corpses – now that the children can actually kill the invaders, does that mean that they should? Will is older in this book, but feels far more mature than his now-thirteen years. He struggles with the orders and decisions of his leader, Tom, and has to find the balance between playing the hero and playing the martyr. Though he’s still a little too good to be true in this book, I do like that he makes mistakes and is forced to pay for them in Queen of the Damned. His relationship with Helene in particular strengthens in this book, as does his friendship with Burgermeister (who proves his mettle, and is so much more than just a large bully now). And then of course, there’s the paternal/older brother figure of Tom and his relationship with Will which grows more nuanced in this second novel (believe me when I say that this relationship is one of the strongest – and most heartbreaking – in the book).
There’s some craziness that goes down in the book’s climactic final act, and I wish we had more answers than we are given. That said, there is so much room for more and it’s clear that The Undertakers are just getting started in their fight to save Philadelphia (and the world). I’m eager for much more.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
The Queen crossed the Void between worlds on Halloween, and the dead welcomed her.
She arrived without escort, emerging through the Rift without form-an entity of seething dark energy.
Her minions were already assembled, dozens of them, as many as would fit into this arched, windowless chamber. Being here was, of course, a tremendous honor-and only the most highly ranked had been invited. They stood at patient attention, a vanguard for the Army of the Dead, lit only by the Rift, which resembled a wide, fiery crack in the chamber’s rear wall.
This “crack” did not close once the Queen’s “Self” had fully entered this human realm.
The Rift never closed.
In the midst of the welcoming dead, resting atop a steel hospital gurney, lay the body of a young woman. The cadaver was the freshest available, as suitable a vessel as the legions could find. For the occasion, she had been dressed in tailored clothes and adorned with gold jewelry.
No expense was spared.
Nor was time wasted. No sooner had the Queen emerged from the Void than her dark energy leapt into the waiting body. This is essential, as their kind couldn’t exist in this world without a host.
The eyes of the woman on the gurney, which had been respectfully shut, snapped open. She sat up, moving stiffly with muscles that had begun to decay, and gazed down at her hands. In life, they had probably been long and delicate. Now they appeared purple, the fingers stiff with rigor mortis.
Seeing them, the Queen felt disgusted but resigned.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading next: Break My Heart 1,000 Times by Daniel Waters
Buy the Book:
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Rise of the Corpses:
Ebook available on kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo, sony & apple
Queen of the Dead:
Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo, sony & apple