What does it take to make a zombie novel fresh and intriguing? Dozens of authors have tried to answer this question over the past few years, as the zombie wave swelled into a zombie glut. But few have deconstructed the genre with the heart and soul David Towsey has in Your Brother's Blood. First published in 2013 in Towsey's native England, this debut novel is finally seeing the light of day in the U.S. It's about time; not only is it one of the finest tales of the undead in recent memory, told in a grit-crusted, Old West style that belies the author's British origins, it all but corners the market on the literary zombiepocalypse Western.
Unlike your typical, near-future, zombie Armageddon, Your Brother's Blood takes place hundreds of years from now, in a land that resembles some indeterminate part of the American West. Technology (or "mechaniks") is a relic of the so-called Automated Age; people have resorted to a life that might as well have been plucked straight out of the 1800s. In the small, strictly religious town of Barkley, a shopkeeper named Sarah McDermott and her daughter Mary are mourning the loss of their husband and father, Thomas. A civil war rages across the countryside, and Thomas is just one of its many casualties. That is, until Thomas awakes in a mass grave. As it turns out, he's become one of the Walkin', those who inexplicably return to life — unable to sleep, dream, feel pain, or ever die again (unless they're beheaded or burned). Now Thomas is faced with a choice: What does he do with his newfound second life?
Immortality as a shambling, slightly decomposed wreck of his former self isn't Thomas' only problem. Barkley was founded in the staunch anti-Walkin' doctrine laid down by the town's founder J. S. Barkley, a mandate carried on by the fiery Pastor Gray and his eerily zealous young acolyte Luke Morris. When Thomas limps back into Barkley, he's forced to confront a hideous possibility about the nature of his new affliction — and his family gets caught up in a clash between warring ambitions, ideologies, and worldviews, one that's brought into poignant focus when Thomas' brother Samuel is pressed into a posse tasked with hunting Thomas down.
Your Brother's Blood excels at meticulous, mysterious world-building as well as inverting so many familiar zombie tropes, but those aren't the book's only strengths. Towsey's cast of secondary characters is achingly compelling, from the unsettling Luke to the guilt-ridden gravekeeper Nathaniel, who's trying to make a second marriage work after his first wife Lydia became a Walkin'. What makes the story soar highest, though, is the way Towsey portrays his zombies; graceful, dignified, and enlightened, even as their bodies are decayed husks, they've formed a civilization of their own centered around a mythic stronghold called Black Mountain — a place hinted at but that may exist only as a myth.
Which is as it should be. Your Brother's Blood is the first installment of The Walkin' Trilogy, and Towsey is careful to unspool the secrets of his world with maximum suspense and mystique. One of the most tantalizing hints of things to come is the occasional mention of the existence of magic, both in Earth's past as well as its horrifying present. There's far more to Your Brother's Blood than a boilerplate zombie kill-a-thon, and Towsey — with rich characterization, starkly beautiful language, and philosophical depth — is just getting warmed up.
Jason Heller is a senior writer atThe A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.