Epeolatry Book Review: Island of the Dead by Brian Keene

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Title: Island of the Dead
Author: Brian Keene
Genre: Horror, fantasy
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Publication Date: 15th August, 2024

Synopsis: Einar, an enslaved barbarian, plots his escape from a war galley transporting troops and a mysterious weapon to far enemy shores. But when an apocalyptic storm at sea leaves Einar and his fellow captives shipwrecked on a strange, uncharted island, friend and foe alike must band together against a steadily growing horde of the undead … and even worse dangers.

Not even death is an escape from the Island of the Dead!

I grew up as the only girl in a family with two brothers and all boy cousins. So, in my household, my early years of movie-watching included action and thrillers. Think Jean-Claude Van Dame, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the like. I sat up late at night watching Predator, Alien, Over the Top, Die Hard, and many more.  

As an adult, this trend continues in some ways. Specifically, I never miss the opportunity to watch a zombie movie or TV series. Even if it means, at times, I walk from room to room to dissipate the tension and the inevitable slaughter. Or shield my eyes haphazardly to watch and not watch simultaneously.  

I’m not sure why I have this body-wrenching allure to zombies. It could be the survival factor. The unthinkable act of eating living flesh. Or the shred of hope at the main character making it out alive. And there’s the grotesque turn from dead to the undead, and how exactly did it all happen – science, magic, an illness, an act of God? 

I wonder what Keene’s pull is in writing zombies since he’s written several books about them. I’d love to pick his brain. Without eating it, in a completely normal, conversational way. And so, of course, I wanted to read his book. 

Keene’s main character, Einar, is a reluctant hero, a loner who believes he has no friends yet will fight to the death for those loyal to him. He’s a leader, which is perhaps a trait Einar wouldn’t give himself, though he’s forced into the role throughout the book. Einar always keeps his word, for better or worse. Don’t test him. He’s a man’s man yet has an open point of view – which caught me off guard for this character. 

The author hooked me with his opening scene. The protagonist sets about solving his problem instantly. Nothing can hold Einar down. I routed for him in almost impossible stakes. When the main character is willing to help others in the same situation, any reader’s engagement will level up. 

Aboard the ship, we get a taste of what’s to come: a mystery inside a locked crate guarded by very apprehensive soldiers. Once on the island, the crate’s contents trigger a chain of events. 

New stakes and dangers are introduced while the crew traipses about the island. For me, these new stakes seemed a bit out of place and abrupt. This may seem silly to some, given we’re already reading about supernatural zombies. Certain character’s reactions to new information also threw me, taking me out of the book and off the island while I paused to re-read. Maybe a tad more character development earlier on could have helped me here. Though Keene’s synopsis holds true, there is another obstacle Einar, and his squad must face on the island besides zombies. Catapulting us into heightened conflict and more of the undead, there is plenty of gore and horrific scenes to satisfy any zombie aficionado. Many times, I scrunched my nose, imagining the smells coming from this novel. With apprehension, I squirmed in my seat and gasped at the bodily destruction with which Einar dispatches the living and the undead. 

I liked Keene’s take on zombies, their form, and their blind pursuit. It reminded me of the type of zombie in the Walking Dead series. If Keene writes a sequel, I’d be interested in more of the why and how.   

Even if I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked, fans of Keene will appreciate this tale in its action-packed form of sword fighting and gruesome, horror filled survival.

/5

Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

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