Monday, February 10, 2014

Women in Horror: Dead Set

* spoilers *

Zoe's life is in turmoil. Her father just died and her mother dragged her to a big city to start a new life. Unfortunately, their place is small and in a much poorer area than she lived before. Money is tight due to her father's life insurance paperwork being lost or filed wrong. Her mother struggles to find a job and isn't home much, leaving Zoe alone to dwell on the past and escape in her dreams to spend time with her brother Valentine. Coincidentally, something sinister invades her dreams at the same time as she finds a strange record shop with a hidden room featuring souls for sale rather than records. The proprietor isn't interested in money for her father's soul and asks for a lock of hair, then a tooth, then some blood. Her father's soul leads her into Iphigene, a world where souls stagnate and are stuck for eternity. Can Zoe help the souls of Iphigene or are they doomed to stay there forever?

Richard Kadrey writes wonderful dark fantasy novels with a healthy does of horror and I couldn't wait to read his first young adult novel. Dead Set tells the transitive story of Zoe. When we first meet her, she's stuck in many ways. Her mother is struggling to get a job and her father's insurance is in limbo due to misfiled paperwork, so she's stuck financially and with her relationship with her mother. They don't have time to have a real relationship because they only see each other in passing if at all. School passes by in an unmemorable blur. The only two small shining moments are Zoe's biology class with a fun, enthusiastic teacher and a tentative friendship. All of these things are overshadowed by Zoe's father's death. Her entire life stands still and she's close to being overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, depression, and sadness. Her whole life has been turned upside down and she's lost interest in living and moving forward. Her only solace and voice of reason is Valentine, her brother who visits her in her dreams.

Then Zoe turns self destructive. She finds the record store with her father's soul and barters to see through her father's eyes in the past and then meet him. Consumed with the need to see her father, Zoe ditches school many times, blows off her new friend, and doesn't think about Amut the proprietor's motives or the effects of her behavior. She's so desperate to see her father that she doesn't stop to think about anything else. After stumbling into Iphigene, the city where the dead should be moving on, Zoe finds it dilapidated and broken down. The inhabitants are as stuck as her because of Hecate, the terrible ruler who took away the sun and prevents the souls from moving on. Iphigene is a frightening place in constant darkness, filled with desperate, broken souls, hungry creatures, and refuse.

Iphigene acts as the liminal stage for Zoe and embodies of her mental state. It also allows her find out who she really is, overcome her obstacles, and move forward with her life. She consistently does what she thinks is right, even if it isn't the easiest thing. Her resourcefulness and fighting spirit allow her to be independent and she doesn't wait around for someone else to save her. Her kindness and compassion also guide her and lead her to help those who would otherwise be cast aside. Her decisions lead her to release the sun, defeat Hecate, and restore Iphigene to its former state as a passing point for souls rather than an eternal purgatory. Her trial doesn't come without sacrifice as she was bitten, attacked, and shot in the chest with an arrow along the way, as is typical for rites of passage. She also restores her own life by ensuring her father's and brother's future so she can move on and make her own future. When she returns to the real world, things get back to normal. Her two week disappearance starts a dialog and she's finally honest and open with her mother. Her mother gets a job and the insurance finally goes through. She looks at the world through different eyes, understands her peers better, and stands more confident and self aware.

I love this story. It's a dark, twisted hero's journey with a dash of Egyptian mythology, magic, and horror. Iphigene is a singular place that Kadrey filled with glorious details that set it apart. I was surprised and pleased by how much horror was in the novel. The flying snake creatures and wolves that serve Hecate were particularly disturbing. The journey is exciting and kept me interested throughout. I also like that Dead Set is a complete story in itself, unlike so very many young adult books. I highly recommend Dead Set and all of Kadrey's other works.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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