BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Entertaining and fast-paced Civil War era alternate history mashes up steampunk, zombies, and pop culture references.
PROS: Amusing pop culture references are smoothly and slyly put into the narrative; the story is wildly imaginative, yet feels plausible; dialog is fun and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
CONS: Light on world building and characterization; short chapters made it hard to keep track of everything that was going on; final action sequence was predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun and entertaining mash-up that’s not without a few issues, but shows that the author has plenty of potential.
In Matt Betts’ debut alternate history novel, the Civil War never exactly ended. The Union and Confederacy suddenly had a much bigger problem on their hands – an outbreak of zombies. Quarantined by the rest of the planet, Americans can only safely live in the coastal cities. The entire center of the continent has been overrun by chewers. Those needing to travel from one coast to the other can spend their entire life savings on a fast and luxurious airship, or spend months in the belly of a metal Turtle. Information has resurfaced about an amazing weapon, something that could end the war in one day. But there was a reason the information was hidden.
Part alternative history, part contemporary pop culture mash-up, Betts effortlessly blends steampunk and civil war history with ultra-modern responses to zombie outbreaks and monsters. One scene that had me laughing out loud had a Jurassic Park feeling to it, with a sly Jaws reference, yet the story takes place in the 1860’s making it even funnier because the characters have no idea why the reader is laughing.
The plot gets going very quickly, with Cyrus Spencer minding his own business trying to get his rusty, passenger filled Turtle across Northern California. Due to a massive flood, he and crewmember Lucinda are barely rescued in time by Cashe’s airship. Lyle Cashe introduces himself as a leader in the OMO, the Office of Military Operations for the United Nations of America. They’re the official peacekeepers. But it’s a strange, mixed crew on Cashe’s airship, the Yankees sit on one side of the dining table, the Confederates on the other. With little direction or instruction from the OMO leadership, Cashe’s crew have begun calling themselves the Odd Men Out.
While Cyrus and Lucinda are getting their air-legs, and Cashe is trying to decide how much of the truth to tell them, Tom Preston is busy stealing from his boss. Tom is a leader in the terrorist group the Sons of Grant, and he funds the group by embezzling money from his boss, Umberto Cantolione, the famed circus man and airship fleet owner. His eyes always on the next big act, the next amazing thing he can charge circus goers for, Cantolione is blind to what’s happening around him. Tom can’t say no to his boss, and the sometimes childlike Cantolione is a very easy man to steal from. Working for Cantolione also provides Tom with the perfect alibi. If something goes horribly wrong when the Sons of Grant raid an outpost holding a secret weapon, no one can blame Tom, because he was traveling with Cantolione to a deserted Pacific island known for its lizard population.
There is a lot to keep track of in Odd Men Out. The very short chapters jump back and forth between the independent storylines of Tom Preston, Lyle Cashe, and Cyrus Spencer as they join forces, split up, find zombie infested airships, attack outposts, discover monsters, jump out of perfectly functioning airships, and have one hellavu showdown on the Pacific coast.
Matt Betts probably got to have more fun than most debut novelists. The action-heavy story deals with serious subject matter, but the dialog is light, and there is less on-screen violence than one might expect. Since the story takes place in the 1860’s, Betts could have easily made his cast of characters all male, or offered us a few token helpless women, and instead he gives us strong but secretive women, and poor Cyrus, who is a product of his times, makes a fool out of himself every time he tries to be the protective man (which is nearly all the time). Luckily, both Lucinda and Bethy find this personality trait to be childishly endearing, rather than annoying. Characterization for the most part is fairly light, with Cyrus, Lucinda, and Cashe being the best developed characters. Lucinda is mostly in the background until she reveals her didn’t-see-that-coming secret at the end. Focused mostly on the action, there just isn’t time for much character development, world building, or an opportunity to flesh out the political situation.
In the introduction, it’s mentioned that Odd Men Out is designed for “today’s short attention spans. With short chapters and quick cuts…” And this where the novel didn’t work as well as it could have for me. The chapters are shorter than short, and jump between multiple characters in very fast paced plot lines. As soon as I got invested in one scene, I was pulled in a different direction, giving many portions of the story a disconnected and scattered feeling. Everything happens very quickly, and too many times I chose to reread entire sections, skipping around so I could read a handful of Cyrus chapters all in a row, or a handful of Tom Preston chapters all in a row.
Betts succeeds in breaking all the “rules” of steampunk, alternate history, and zombie action stories, but I feel the novel would have worked better had he slowed down the pace a little, given everyone a chance to breathe, and offered more world building and background into the politics of the world. Odd Men Out didn’t work for on all levels, but the imaginative Betts shows a lot of potential, and I’ll be watching to see what he comes up with next.