Review:The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Vol. 1: At the Edge of Empire (The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch #1) by Daniel Kraus

zebulonMay 7, 1896. Dusk. A swaggering seventeen-year-old gangster named Zebulon Finch is gunned down on the shores of Lake Michigan. But after mere minutes in the void, he is mysteriously resurrected.

His second life will be nothing like his first.

Zebulon’s new existence begins as a sideshow attraction in a traveling medicine show. From there, he will be poked and prodded by a scientist obsessed with mastering the secrets of death. He will fight in the trenches of World War I. He will run from his nightmares—and from poverty—in Depression-era New York City. And he will become the companion of the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.

Love, hate, hope, and horror—Zebulon finds them. But will he ever find redemption?

Ambitious and heartbreaking, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Volume One: At the Edge of Empire is the epic saga of what it means to be human in a world so often lacking in humanity.

“Fiction, like any art, can be divided between the living and the dead. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF ZEBULON FINCH is unequivocally and furiously among the former. A splendidly rendered, macabre picaresque, muscular and tender, imaginative and grotesque, cynical yet deeply moving. I was appalled one moment and laughing the next. Don’t be fooled by the premise. This tale may be told by a dead man, but what’s rendered here is life itself in all of life’s absurd glory.”
– Rick Yancey, NYT bestselling author of THE 5TH WAVE

I can’t remember exactly how I first came across Zebulon Finch, but Yancey’s recommendation, the wonderful cover, enticing blurb, and the fact Kraus had previously collaborated with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (it’s called Trollhunters and is soon to be a movie by DreamWorks) left me desperate to read it. Naturally it was the first book I picked up upon finishing exams despite my wish to ease myself back into reading with something light. And I couldn’t put it down. I sped through its 642 pages faster than I’ve read books half its size. Simply put, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch is a brilliant book.

“Let us begin with this: I am seventeen years old. And also this: I have been seventeen years old for over a century.”

It is hard to review a book such as this without some minor spoilers surfacing, but I promise I will reveal nothing major. Forgive me too if the review is long, there is much to say about this epic of a novel.

What exactly is evil? Or more precisely, who is an evil person? This is one of the central questions the novel poses and leaves for you to answer. We begin with Zebulon as a teenager committing despicable acts for the Black Hand. Yet, as the novel progresses, we are introduced to a whole host of unsavoury characters and are forced to ask ourselves exactly who the villain(s) of the novel really are. From the hunter to the hunted, Zebulon’s life is turned on it’s head. You come understand their motivations and desires and are left wondering about the evil so central to humanity. The evils that every person commits through the course of their lives to save themselves or those they love.

Zebulon is convinced he is the devil incarnate, undeserving of kindness or forgiveness. Yet, you are forced to consider whether he really is that bad or whether he is just a person who, like us all, doesn’t have as much control over his life as he wishes. For despite the fact that this is Zebulon’s story,  you are the one to judge his sins.

The people Zebulon encounters are a diverse crowd, but make no mistake, they are not chosen at random. Each serves as reflection of a stand of the fabric that is humanity. Some are good, some are bad, some are in-between, but each has a strong personality that reveals something new about human nature. From the ultra poor to the uber rich, from gangsters to poets, from movie stars to prostitutes, the characters are as diverse as the people of America.

And Zebulon. If the people he meets reflect the variety of people living in America, then he is America itself, affected and altered by all those he meets. As Kraus says in an interview on WinterHaven Books:

If you’re going to have a character that more or less sums up the rise and fall of America, then you have ask yourself, “If America was a person, what kind of person would it be?” The answer is not encouraging: he’d be male, white, rich, power-hungry, and uninterested in the plight of the less fortunate. So now let’s kill him, let’s make him see what it’s like to be everyone else, and let’s see if it makes him a better person.

Zebulon begins as an arrogant, narcissistic teenager, and despite being stuck forever at 17, with a lack of impulse control, his experiences allow him to grow up and begin to think like an adult. His transformation is subtle yet it is obvious that the Zebulon we meet at the start of the story is not the same as the one we end with. He is trapped in a body that will never age apart from the unavoidable fate of decay, yet that doesn’t mean that he can’t still grow. He is a unforgettable and impossibly complex character. Yet, no matter where he goes, he is always trapped whether literally or figuratively, as everyone is. Trapped by ideals, people and places, no one is revealed to be as free as they really think they are.

In this way, Zebulon Finch is quite unlike any zombie/immortality book I’ve read before. Zebulon cannot be killed (well, that may not entirely true) but his body will eventually decompose. He quite literally watches his body die before his eyes in a way that no one else can, despite the fact that death comes to all. Thus, the novel explores the fate of death in an extremely complex way. Zebulon watches all those around him die and knows that the same fate will come to him one day and there is nothing he, or anyone can do, to stop it. He is left stuck between life and death, forced to navigate a world filled with the promise of life but also the certainty of death. It is thus a fascinating study of the cycle human life.

Yet, life is not the only thing that evolves, so too does society. Zebulon is in the unique position to watch the decades fly by in the unrelenting march of time and see prices rise, city swell and technology overtake. Jazz replaces classical music, manners change along with science. It is to this that the title At the Edge of Empire I think refers. Zebulon, forever young, is able to experience each decade to the fullest and the novel is an exploration of the history of America. From Chicago in the Victorian Era to WWI to the golden age of Hollywood, no corner of history is left unturned.

Finch’s narration brilliantly achieves a sense of timelessness. He was educated in a formal manner and he never fully adopts more modern conventions, giving him a unique voice. Writing in the future, his narration is all-knowing, yet maintains a youthfulness to it. It is truly the narration that carries the weight of the novel and holds it all together. The story is given to you exactly how Zebulon wrote it leaving you wondering, as with all books of this nature, how different the story would be if experienced first hand rather than through the lens of many many years.

The last thing I wish to talk about is the element of horror in the novel. This book is undoubtedly gorey. It made me squeamish at times and I am usually not so bothered by these things. It is also horror in the sense that it examines the horrors of daily life and the horrors of the human soul. There is also a fair amount of sex. So please be advised that this novel may not be for everyone in this regard.

Like others, I am baffled as to why this novel is marketed as young adult, for it is much more adult in nature with respects to the problems Zebulon faces and the content of the story. Despite being stuck at 17, he is more mature than that in many ways. So please don’t be thrown off by the young adult classification, it is a truly phenomenal book that I most highly recommend.

Do yourselves a favour and read this glorious and genius novel. I am most desperately looking forward to the concluding half. If you have already read this novel, I can offer a few recommendations for future reads. If you enjoyed the horror elements and the exploration of the nature of the human soul, try The Monstrumologist quartet by Rick Yancey. If the epic nature of the novel, its look at history and humanity appealed to you, you would like The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing duology by M.T. Anderson. (Two of my all time favourite series by the way).


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