The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby
It’s remarkable how fast time flies. So fresh is it in my memory, it seems only a few days ago that I read The Corpse-Rat King. This was my first chance to meet Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick, as they perhaps got their just deserts by being caught on a battlefield, stripping valuables from the bodies of the dead. Not surprisingly, the surviving comrades of the fallen do not take kindly to battlefield looters and tend to despatch them summarily. Under normal circumstances, my meeting with this pair would have been somewhat fleeting, their deaths following swiftly upon their capture. But, by one of these accidents of fate, Marius had just picked up the crown of the fallen king and the dead were looking for a king so, in spirit, this was the ultimate case of mistaken identity. From their point of view, the dead headhunted the right person in the right place at the right time. Except Marius didn’t really want to be a king so he made a deal. He would find the body of the most famous king there had ever been and bring him to his new kingdom. Thus began what was clearly one of the better fantasies of 2012. It managed to balance traditional fantasy tropes against an absurdist sense of humour with resulting mayhem and considerable hilarity. So, not unnaturally, I had a standing order with my bookseller for the sequel, The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2013).
This picks up some four years after Marius had fulfilled his part of the bargain. One king, freshly unpacked from his box, had been delivered within thirty minutes of the scheduled time. With the deadline met (sic), our hero could then retire to the countryside with the love of his life. Yet, as you would expect, the course of true love never did run smoothly. Not only was Marius bored rigid (good for sex but not much else) but the king he’d found proved to be damaged goods and the Underworld decided the delivery failed to meet the specifications. The dead therefore came back for Marius and, to encourage him to adopt an appropriate work ethic, they carried off his true love — yes the dead really do believe in blackmail as the most efficient means for getting things done. To keep our hero company, they returned his sidekick and the latter’s dead Granny as companions on a quest to depose the king not fit for purpose and find a less shop-soiled replacement. On paper, this resumption of the quest should involve much further hilarity. Except, it’s a little disappointing. This is always the risk when I pick up a book with hope levels high. As a reviewer, it’s all part of the day’s work and a relief when I find something better than average. The problem here is repetition.
The first book has our hero wandering far and wide. Indeed, in terms of settings, he’s collected the complete set of T-shirts for having been there and suffered being the butt of all the relevant jokes based on geography and local environments. So having him walk the same ground without there being new jokes to tell is not going to be a success. Worse, we’ve also done all the main hero and his sidekick jokes. Introducing Granny as a second-string sidekick is less exciting. Hence the author is forced to fall back on the plot as the primary driver. This is at best interesting even though it nicely exploits the philosophical problem inherent in the role of religion. This world has seen a succession of different gods over the centuries. Much like our own world which has seen the development of various mono- and polytheist religions, this world has had difficulty in holding to one set of beliefs. In a sense, this is just a business opportunity for temples and other places for religious observance. As beliefs shift, the people running each place match the sale of relics, indulgences and other money-spinners to each new set of gods. So long as there’s no concrete evidence as to which religion is superior, wealth can flow consistently into the hands of those who run the worship businesses.
It’s therefore somewhat embarrassing when the dead won’t stay lying down and insist on an explanation if not their money back. Imagine a magnificently hypocritical rich man who has spent a small fortune on indulgences guaranteed to open Heaven’s gates. When he wakes up underground and learns there don’t seem to be any gates, pearly or otherwise, to gain entry to the promised afterlife benefits, he comes back to the church/temple in not the best of moods. Confronted by this evidence, what’s the church or temple to say? There are also some deliberate parallels between the status of the dead and slaves, and the inevitable temptation of the humans to recruit more dead slaves by terminating life. So there’s plenty to chew over as we meander through this world trying to devise a strategy for toppling the king of the dead and putting everything back the way it was. Except, of course, the genie is out of the bottle. The human world has seen proof positive that there was no paradise waiting for family and friends who went before them. Religions are therefore going to fall on hard times. More humanist beliefs are needed unless this current mess can somehow be sold as a temporary aberration with normal service resumed once the old king of the dead is removed.
Putting all this together, we have The Marching Dead as good but nowhere near as good as The Corpse-Rat King. If Lee Battersby has any sense, there will not be a third book in this series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Corpse-Rat King.