Book review: Dead Boys by Gabriel Squailia

Dead Boys is a book I would have never picked up on my own. I’d never heard of it, nor its author, and a quick glance tells me it probably isn’t my sort of thing. But out of the blue one day I got an email from the publisher, saying there were review copies available, so I figured I’d go ahead and take a chance. By the next day, I had it loaded up on my Kindle and dove in.

I initially figured it was a book about zombies. I haven’t really consumed a lot of zombie media, so I don’t really know if I truly dislike it, but at the same time I have absolutely no desire to really try out the genre. But this book isn’t actually about the undead. It’s about the dead dead.

Dead Boys is a very surreal look at the afterlife, where the dead wash up on the shores of the River Lethe having lost the memories of their prior experiences in the living world. The zombie parallels begin and end with the dead’s physical forms: their bodies are in a constant state of decomposition, senses are dulled, and movement is slow and time-consuming. But the dead are always conscious, aware—essentially immortal in their new mode of existence. Squailia put in a lot of effort constructing the ground rules for the post-death life, and then spends the bulk of the book pushing that groundwork out to its logical conclusions.

Our main protagonist is Jacob Campbell, ten years a corpse, who’s on a quest to return to the living world. In death, Jacob is a well-regarded “preservationist”. In Dead City, the sight of bone is abhorrent, and as the dead’s physical forms are constantly decaying, Jacob and other specialists like him perform the services of keeping a body lifelike: filling deflated body cavities, replacing worn away flesh and skin with wood and leather, and similar cosmetic modifications. Jacob quickly picks up a handful of fellow travelers (the titular “Dead Boys”) and the quest begins in earnest: they must find the Living Man, rumored to have gained entrance to the Land of the Dead without having died himself, and who (Jacob hopes) holds the key to returning to the Land of the Living. That is, of course, just the beginning of their travels. Revelations await, and before anyone can regain the life they once lost, they must first come to fully embrace their new state of existence.

I definitely enjoyed Dead Boys. It’s not a particularly long book, and I read it in about a week. Jacob is an enjoyable protagonist, but is upstaged by almost all of the secondary characters, which is fine. It adheres very closely to the classic quest formula (travel to Place A, meet character B, travel to place C, meet D, etc…) of which I’m not a huge fan, and the plot stalls out for a bit in the second section, but overall it moves along at a nice clip. Some of the more surreal elements (of which there are a number) felt a little goofy to me, but there was a lot of neat stuff mixed in as well.

In the end, I think my expectations were a little off; I would have preferred a slightly deeper, more thoughtful or insightful novel. This book does have some good emotional beats, and obvious care was put into the characters and worldbuilding, but in the end it’s a fantasy quest story with a unique and interesting setting. Certainly there are a lot of readers out there who’ll fall in love with it. It’s by no means brilliant, but I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I took a chance on it. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

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