Finally, there comes a novel that deals with the one victim of a zombie apocalypse that few ever consider: Death, the Grim Reaper, the dude with the big scythe. Just imagine, you're doing your job well for untold years - with nary a vacation day, I might add - and then suddenly all those dead souls you're supposed to collect just start falling off the radar. Over a century after the outbreak began, Death finally takes it upon himself to get up close and personal with the undead. While he may not be the central character in David Dunwoody's post-apocalyptic vision, Death does make for the most interesting one. Most of the action, however, centers around a small population of living survivors in and around Jefferson Harbor, Louisiana.
The year is 2112, and America has changed drastically in the 105 years since the zombie outbreak began. In the nation's increasingly shrinking borders, a state of proverbial martial law exists, with power centralized in a permanent body of Senators who are basically implementing a retreat and fortify campaign against the undead. Louisiana is among the territories now being abandoned by federal troops. Of course, some people refuse to leave or cannot leave for reasons beyond their control. Among these are a cop who sees it as his duty to try and protect those who remain, members of a rock group on a USO-like tour for the troops, a photojournalist, and several denizens of a homeless shelter. Then there is Baron Tetch and his "brothers and sisters" residing in a fortified manor house in the swamps outside Jefferson City. The swampland has special properties that make those reborn into death there somewhat intelligent, and Tetch has worked to train and control these special zombies to do his bidding. He dreams of a new empire built upon the ashes of the old civilization, to be ruled by himself and Lily, a teenaged girl he has raised and protected since she was a child. Of course, Lily is just blossoming into a woman and begins to have ideas of her own, and it is she who will forge the link between Death and these disparate other characters as the story plays out.
Dunwoody tends to jump around between different character groups, which was a bit disconcerting early on, and the fact that some minor characters tend to come and go rather quickly made it even harder to keep some of them straight in my mind. Also, particularly toward the end, transitions between different sections of chapters were not always identified, which became a little annoying. On the positive side, these pages are filled with violence and blood. A regular old mindless zombie is bad enough, but zombies who can use weapons and coordinate their attacks to some degree guarantee that many a character you meet along the way will not survive until the end. All in all, Empire is a great read and quite an impressive entry in the zombie genre. It's great to see someone besides Terry Pratchett include Death as a character, and I really liked that angle and the unusual viewpoint it provided. Zombie fans should eat this one up.