REVIEW: Land of the Beautiful Dead by R Lee Smith

He ascended from the darkness years ago—Azrael the Eternal, Azrael the Undying, Azrael Who Is Death—bringing with him the black rains, the fires, the souring of the sky, and the Eaters. Now he rules in the walled city of Haven with his favored Children and his dead court, while all that is left of the living struggles to survive in the ruins of a world that used to be their own. But even as extinction looms, humanity will never surrender to their monstrous conqueror.

For Lan, this brutal life has been the only one she’s ever known, but she still believes it can change. If the war can never truly end until the Eaters are ended, she will go to Haven, to Azrael himself, and demand he end them. To her surprise, she does not immediately die the hero’s death she expected. Instead, Azrael offers her a chance to convince him, and all she has to do is submit herself to the chill embrace of the lord of the Land of the Beautiful Dead.

Warnings: violence, mentions of noncon, mentions of csa, self harm, suicide, necrophilia

Category: M/F

Land of the Beautiful Dead is a post apocalypse supernatural romance novel. While certainly a melodrama, it is a compelling narrative and thoughtful look at the concepts of the nature of life and death and of good and evil, perspective and compromise, and it begs in the reader the question of what is truly ugly or beautiful. It’s a long, sweeping epic of a soap opera genre romance, a Beauty and the Beast style story about a young woman who learns to love a monster, and the monster that learns to love not only her but also himself, all set to the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse.

This book’s biggest strength, in the writing department, is in the author’s unique ability to write some of the most compelling conversations I have ever read. It’s around 80% characters sitting around and talking, which shouldn’t work as well as it does but somehow the author writes these thought provoking interactions with the artful attention of a classic painter. It never felt stagnating or slowly paced despite the lack of action, instead it’s questions on the nature of morality and it’s playing with perspective were all gripping and engaging. I was floored by how wonderfully it engages with the subjects of death and morality.

It’s a very thoughtful book, at the same time that it is also an incredibly over the top soap opera. If it has a flaw, it’s in perhaps being dragged out a little too long with an unending march of melodrama tropes. Lan and Azrael go through their relationship like conversations are open combat, and they fight and break up and get back together again too many times to count. The amount of times they have a spat that could have been avoided and then brood for a week could have easily been pared down to stop it from feeling quite so repetitive. That said, if you like those sorts of tropes, embracing the silliness of it all can only be to it’s benefit; it’s very fun melodrama, if you like that sort of thing and are ready for a soap opera ride.

This is an interesting piece, emotionally. The characters are all exceptionally interesting, and Azrael is especially a fantastic example of a byronic figure. He’s dark and broody, withdrawn and tortured, self reliant and embittered by a world stacked against him. He may be an archetype, but he’s an archetype done incredibly well, and you really end up feeling for him as Lan digs deeper and deeper into his world. Their relationship is one fraught with turmoil (it wouldn’t be a soap opera otherwise), but the narrative manages to develop it so sweetly and believably. They have fantastic chemistry.

All of that said, Lan herself is kind of a frustrating lead. She’s fiery and stubborn, and approaches everything like a bull in a china shop. She’s got an annoying case of “not like the other girls” and puts up a fuss about the dumbest things so it’s hard to really fall in love with her, even as on the other hand you do fall very greatly in love with her relationship with Azrael. This is assuaged a little bit by literally every character she interacts with dropping major truth bombs on her about her behaviour, but since she never really grows from it or changes, these passages can only be so satisfying.

The side characters are all a delight however, and Wickham was easily my favourite. Whether the side characters are being absolute assholes, or earnestly supportive, they are all entertaining and engaging and I adored them to bits. They went a very long way to making this world feel rich and populated.

A compelling picture of a post apocalypse world where zombies (called Eaters) roam the lands and an undead ruler has set himself up as king. What exactly Azrael is and how he came into being is never quite explained, but the lingering mystery gives the story more facets. He’s not technically undead, but he cannot die and he can raise the dead. He was born Death Incarnate. The war of his ascension to ruler of the world resulted in nuclear catastrophe, and the world we are presented in the present of Land of the Beautiful Dead is a world torn by nuclear fallout and roving zombies that he raised to keep humanity curbed and crippled. In the decades, human civilization has started to re stitch itself together in small townships trying to survive and eek out lives in the wreckage. For a post apocalypse setting it’s pretty creative while still maintaining common tropes of the genre.

There is a lot of reference to the hard lives that people live, and unfortunately that can at times come with some fairly anti sex work attitudes in the “oh its such a terrible world that women have to sell their bodies now just to survive” vein (not to mention uncomfortably mentioning often that this starts very young for most).

While not an extremely sexually explicit novel, this book does contain a handful of sex scenes that are a bit more flowery than descriptive, but nonethless are chilling in their depiction of necromatic sexual encounters. From the scene with the undead ferryman in the beginning to all the lovemaking with Azrael himself, the author makes absolutely no bones (hah) about the fact that Lan is engaging in sex with a monster beyond the scope of human experience. Azrael’s body is described as being horrifically disfigured, but what makes him truly monstrous is the way death lingers in his flesh. He is cold to the touch, clammy, his cock is dry and tastes like bone, his eyes are the colour of decay. I loved that the author did not shy away from this at all and in fact leaned all the way in to making sex with Azrael sound exactly as unpleasant as it should. And yet despite all of that, the passages are beautiful and convey very well Lan’s ecstasy in the experience. There’s an emotional sensuality to the scenes that was breathtaking to read, despite or perhaps because of their viscerally uncomfortable nature. There is also a fair bit of back and forth power exchange in their play, and Azrael at times can be incredibly frightening; there is one especially beautiful and intense near-murder scene that will haunt me forever.

Altogether, where Land of the Beautiful Dead can be a bit of a silly melodrama with an oh so feisty lead and an angst-muffin romantic interest, it is also a very thoughtful story that makes the reader see things from multiple angles. Multifaceted characters and some really interesting concepts, combined with absolutely gorgeous prose and raw sensuality make this a stunning read, even if it can be a bit of a soap opera. Mind the warnings, as there is much here that may be upsetting to some readers, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.

Have you read Land of the Beautiful Dead? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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