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In the Flesh, You’ll Find Plenty of Brain Food

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With her debut novel In the Flesh, K. L. Zolnoski presents readers with a post apocalypse of a different stripe, as her novel fuses elements of fantasy, steampunk, and good ol’ allegorical science fiction into a coherent and entertaining whole.

Thousands of years before the novel’s chronological era, humanity nearly destroyed the earth and all life living on it through its endless war, greed, and pollution. Humanity presents with technology and cultural levels ranging from Medieval to Victorian, and superstitions of monsters and magics are common. Belief in monsters isn’t exactly unjustified either, as nature is teeming over with dangerous, often hideous wildlife, long ago genetically damaged by the blundering idiots who caused their own destruction millennia before, now evolved into far more strange and deadly forms.

Among humanity, a number of heroes bearing strange symbols on their bodies and wondrous innate superhuman abilities are gathered together to undertake a quest to uncover and explore what may well be one of the last and most critical settlements at humanity’s disposal before the cataclysm.

Will the heroes find technologies able to help their own desperate world, or answers that will allow them to avoid the fate of these bygone elders themselves? Or is there something darker looming there, waiting for an opportunity to wake up?

Much the way Stephen King’s The Gunslinger told a dark fantasy tale by dressing it up in spaghetti western characters, costumes, and settings, much of Zolnoski’s science fiction debut comes in a shell of adventure fantasy, particularly in early, action-heavy set pieces involving a long, arduous escape from enemy armies and pursuing predators dense in a seemingly endless forest region, and late in as the novel’s protagonists set to sea in a Steampunk-style sailing vessel to contend with sea monsters on their way to their fabled destination.

But to assume the work to rest on something as mundane as rescuing the girl or saving the world from the latest watered down wannabe Sauron or Morgoth is not what Zolnoski had in mind. A reader and fan of classics of the science fiction genre for most of her life, Zolnoski carefully weaves in plot elements involving issues such as sociology, relative ethicality and morality, ecological stewardship, and even innate species memory.

As Zolnoski approaches the novel’s climax and conclusion, the work begins to take on thematic elements of it being merely a tiny, but crucial, moment in many such moments leading to these events throughout history, many of which were either pre-ordained to occur or optimized on astatistical plausibility of occurring. Such is the sort of storytelling arc conceptualization we saw with Asimov’s Seldon crisis concept throughout his Foundation series, and the millennia-long genetic breeding programs eventually resulting in Paul Atriedes in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Zolnoski works with the conceptual brain food of the classics, while delivering it in a package of epic fantasy adventure.

Zolnoski’s prose is largely fluid and easily accessible and her characters are interesting and relatable. They tend to be somewhat archetypal of their various specialties in interest in skill, but this is hardly a detraction to the proceedings as the novel itself justifies why they function in this way. A strange way to relate this notion, I know, but readers will know exactly what I mean when they experience the novel themselves.  As a premiere novel from a first-time novelist, though, In the Flesh is not without its issues. Those who see adverbs in literature in the same light Gordon Ramsey might see cockroaches on a serving platter full of food are going to come across a few every now and then. On occasion Zolnoski also goes into perhaps more detail than she needs to in regards to character affectation, gesture, or expression.

One might find themselves wondering on occasion if the woodsman, soldier, and healer could find their way out of the dreaded woods a little sooner… but such sequences are wisely intercut with chapters detailing action elsewhere, and those dealing with the adventures of the enjoyable and far more whimsical sailing duo of the Persi brothers are well-balanced to keep the novel’s tone varied and bouyant, and the introduction of an introverted chemist, brash, self-righteous engineer, and quiet Zen practitioner along the way keep the exchanges varied in viewpoint.

K. L. Zolnoski’s debut novel is classical mode speculative/allegorical science fiction tale given outlet in a world that, while not high fantasy, is definitely epic, with a surprisingly thought-provoking ambition that proves particularly satisfying in its final act. In the Flesh is a real achievement for an extremely talented first-time novelist.
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  1. Jeremy Webster of F5 Reviews In The Flesh for The Geek Girl Project - M31 Publishing - […] Check out the whole review at The Geek Girl Project. […]

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