So you think you know the bible by heart? Stant Litore has a slightly different side of the story to tell. He takes the references to unsettled or unclean dead in these ancient tales quite literally, and crafts beautiful and heart-aching stories from the dust. The Zombie Bible is an anthology of 5 books at the time of this review, and I can only hope that there are more to come.
What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, the second installment in the anthology, takes place during a particularly contentious era of Rome’s heyday, when the rich thrived and the poor literally starved in the dust down the hill from their neighbors. Litore tells the story of Polycarp, an early Christian saint who was martyred somewhere between 155 and 167 AD. The historical figure was important in the development of Christianity, as his writings are some of the oldest to survive to be passed on to later followers of his faith. The account found between the pages of the Zombie Bible is an exquisite mix of fact and fiction as saints and monsters come to life on the page.
The world is incredibly detailed and immersive. Litore is a marvelous worldbuilder, and it shows in this story. I could imagine myself walking the cobbles of Rome’s Subura, smell the smells of urine being tossed from the windows and the unrestful dead lurching in the street. He captures both the charm and simplicity of the time and the callous realities of slavery, filth, and rampant wealth inequality that plagued the empire. If history textbooks read more like Stant Litore, I’d be a history buff for sure!
My favorite thing about this book is that while yes, there are literal zombies in the streets, the zombies are also a metaphor for the classism and corruption of their living world. Polycarp confronts Caius, the Dominus of Rome, about how the dead rise to consume the living because so many of the living are starved; starved for food, starved for equality, starved for common human decency. Let me preface this by saying I am not religious at all. Even so, I found Stant Litore’s investigation of the roots and original message of Christianity to be surprisingly moving at times. When the now billion-strong religion was a small cult called the Brothers and Sisters of the Fish, they discarded slave linens and patrician togas for humble and equal garments, shared food with starving neighbors, nursed the sick, and loved the destitute. I think Stant Litore is doing some interesting and timely work in these stories, and look forward to devouring the next few installments.
Plot: 3/5. The actual storyline drags a bit. While the world is immersive and beautiful, the whole story takes place over the course of only a few days, and that’s spread a bit too thin over the novella’s 156 pages. While the action was very engaging, the characters do a lot of internal monologuing, soul-searching, and completing frequent cycles of doubting then returning stronger to their faith. I enjoyed this method of storytelling, and it works for him, but it could have been trimmed a little to stay focused on the motion of events and keep the less fastidious reader more engaged.
Characters: 5/5. Each character we see into is complex and interesting. Regina Romae, a pleasure-slave-become-deaconess, is a simultaneously comforting and powerful woman who finds herself at Polycarp’s side, standing up for what she believes in. Caius is the Dominus of Rome, ruling in the Caesar’s absence, mourning the undead son he keeps locked in his ancestral tomb. Polycarp himself is a serene and driven father figure who truly embodies what I think Christianity can be when stripped of its exclusionary modernizations. All felt like real people with timely and timeless concerns and desires, and all surprised me in one way or another during the course of the 156 pages of the novella.
Style: 5/5. I love Stant Litore’s writing style. Beyond the excellently robust worldbuilding, the prose itself is rich and vibrant and peppered with poignant imagery. It is excellent all around, and truly beautiful to read.
Originality: 5/5. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like any of Stant Litore’s work, in the best possible way. He is fiercely feminist and non-euro-centric in the best ways, and every story is a refreshing new perspective from the mainstream.
Overall: 4.5/5. If more had happened in this story, it might have been the very first 5/5. But, I’ll give you a spoiler—his other series will be!
As a personal fan of Stant Litore (whom I have met and chatted with at several Steampunk conventions; he is an absolutely lovely man) I urge you to go check out more of his work at his website. I will be reviewing some of the other novellas in the Zombie Bible, as well as the Ansible Series—which I highly look forward to re-reading—in future posts.
“And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” ~Jeremiah 19:9