“They don’t call this the Land of Beautiful Personalities.”
I’ve read three R. Lee Smith books – Last Hour of Gann, Heat and now Land of the Beautiful Dead. In each book, she gives us a non-human hero and a human heroine, set with extremely complicated circumstances, and gives us a HEA that challenges us, and makes you fall in love all at the same time. Her books sometimes make me look away in horror, they make me feel extremely uncomfortable, push my boundaries and make me come back for more each time – all because she creates a unique love story that completely fascinates me.
Dare I say, of the three books I’ve read, Land of the Beautiful Dead is the tamest of all. The sex is consensual. The violence didn’t make my stomach turn (don’t fool yourself though, there is horrible torture, but not as horrible as I was expecting). And the love story that unfolds has a very solid and beautiful HEA (you never quite know with this author).
Blurb: 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.
Mandi – Who is the villain? That’s the big question — As usual, R Lee Smith gives us a world at first glimpse with a good side (humans) and a bad side (the zombies/undead). But, but, but. Her worlds are never that simple. When Azrael ascended, he was seen as a threat, because he wasn’t human. When he made undead for his companions, he was immediately attacked and his new, innocent children slaughtered. Should undead beings be roaming the earth? Do they have claim to the soil as humans do? This is all explored. Azrael wants to live in peace. He wants to live and be left alone – but the humans wouldn’t let that happen so he had to take extreme measures (creating eaters) and now the earth is desolate. The radioactive rain and dark skies is not due to him, but the weapons the humans let go trying to kill him. Is it his fault? There are a lot of murky areas in this world. The humans are losing due to one man and R Lee Smith explores all of these grey areas.
Lexxi – R Lee Smith is an absolute genius at world building.I love the way she introduces us to this bleak post apocalyptic landscape through Lan’s eyes.We learn how his ascension destroyed the world leaving the rest of England to eek out an existence. But all that is turned inside out when Lan’s confront Azrael and we start to learn everything is not what it seems. The slow reveal of what has really happened to the world is brilliant. Azrael’s court is especially well done. It’s what I imagined Henry the VIll’s court must have been like. There’s plenty of food, running water, the lights work and there’s even a library filled with books Lan can’t read. No one wants for anything but everyone lives and dies based on Azael’s whims. And on a whim, Azrael shocks everyone by not immediately killing Lan allowing that slow reveal of what really happened and the society he’d created in Haven (London).
Azrael was the God of all that remained of this world, God and Devil both. His was the only power. His was the only law. He was immoveable, impervious, eternal.
Mandi: First thing first, Azrael is NOT a zombie. Yes, he is undead and immortal. He is God and the Devil all wrapped into one. He can create undead, his children. He can create “Eaters” – zombies. But he himself is not a zombie.. I know that is a big turnoff for a lot of readers. He is scarred, hideous looking even. Bones jutting out, no real nose to speak of, riddled with bullet holes and other torturous things done to him. For every horror the humans have done to him, his body has not died, but the scars remain.
“All this, but I do not die. I have been burned, beaten, starved, crushed, stabbed, torn. Do you know, little one, the exquisite pain of drowning? Not for moments or even minutes, but for years? I have felt ice forming in my blood and smelled the smoke of my own flesh. I have worn chains until they rusted through!” He caught hers in his fist, gave them a derisive shake, then flung them at the footboard of his bed.
“When at last they thought of entombing me, I embraced my captivity, though it meant aeons in the lonely dark, eternally dying of hunger and thirst, enduring the damp and the cold and the deafening silence, so tell me, o unhappy human, what is your suffering to mine?”
I came to love that face, and his hardened, cold body because above everything – above the torture he makes his enemies go through, beyond the strict rules everyone must live by, beyond it all, Azrael is lonely. He just wants to be loved. He makes Undead Children so he can have companionship, but even they turn on him because in essence, they are forced and made to love him. All Azrael wants is to live in peace, and all he gets is war and hatred. This is where are very stubborn heroine comes into play.
Lexxi: I think Azrael has actually replaced Wrath and Acheron or he has at least joined their ranks of ancient all powerful yet strangely vulnerable heros that I adore. Unlike Wrath he doesn’t heal quickly and sometimes not at all. Unlike Acheron he can’t magically change his appearance. He uses masks to cover his face. The masks break my heart because at some point you start to wonder why he bothers with them. If he’s this ultimate evil tyrant why does he care what anyone thinks of his face.
I like that Smith never tells us exactly what Azrael is and I suspect he doesn’t know. We get bits and pieces of a horrific childhood starting out with his mother being murdered shortly after his birth. He brings her back from the dead to hold him and he remembers all this. It’s just heart breaking. His entire existence has been one torture after another. He is lonely but he just wanted to be left alone.
Mandi – Lan is one of the most stubborn heroines I have ever read. Her main goal in life is to convince Azrael to end the Eaters. Humans don’t stand a chance to fight off Eaters. They come in hordes. When a human dies, they turn into one unless their back is broken and they are burned. Entire towns are getting wiped out – and Lan wants it to end. It’s her only reason for traveling to Azrael’s castle and becoming his “Dolly” or mistress. If he gives her just an inch, she asks for it, much to his frustration. Azrael knows if the Eaters go away, the humans will be on his doorstep ready for more war. Lan falls in love with Azrael but even then – she will sacrifice a lot – And I mean A LOT – to convince him to end the Eaters. It’s heartbreaking and stressful and I could barely stand it.
Lan reminds me a lot of Amber from Last Hour of Gann. Headstrong, independent, but she is more stubborn and has a bigger attitude. Azrael demands that she have manners (she eats with her hands) that she is tutored (she can’t read or write) and that she know how to play an instrument (good luck with that, Azrael).
She stands up to Azrael when no one else does. She isn’t afraid of what he will do. She is so determined for him to stop the Eaters, she isn’t afraid of the consequences of her actions
“With all that is at stake, why are you in the library, of all places, rather than apologizing to—”
“Oh fuck that!” Lan exploded. “If he wants me, he knows where to find me, and whatever he wants me to say when that happens, I’ll say it, but I’m not crawling back just to give his ego a stroke. I may be his dolly, but I’m not his fucking dog, so there!”
Lan was harder for me. She was so focused on her end game that she couldn’t see what was going on around her. She did remind me of Amber but Lan had never had the family Amber did. So she’s got harder edges. She’s very much a loner and she’s been an outcast for most of her life. She’d also very young although I’m not sure we ever get her age. It was hard to watch her make the mistakes especially when you knew what was coming.
But after finishing the book I looked back and realized we’re told this story from Lan’s point of view but we experience it from Azrael’s perspective. He had to let Lan take her journey. We have go along for Lan’s journey. And everything we know she is doing that will only hurt herself in the end, gives us even more insight into Azrael.
I plan to read the book again because I think I’ll like Lan better the second time around. I spent most of this book screaming NO at her.
Mandi – This is one of Smith’s more solid HEA books. These two really fall in love and you root for them to find a way to live happily ever after – and Smith definitely delivers that for us. But there are a lot of bumps along the way. While the sex is consensual, Lan starts having physical relations because she needs to stay at his estate to convince him to end the eaters. Since Azrael is undead, his flesh and ….other manly parts…are cold and just different from a human.
He is rough but – Lan loves it. And since all of Azrael’s other amorous partners have always faked it, he doesn’t believe her at first when she is truly turned on. But eventually he comes to trust her and he falls hard.
“You are my Lan and you are radiant.”
Azrael has a hard time saying the words, “I love you” but after one special love-making session, he responds with actions instead:
“Did you hear me?” he whispered, there against her lips.
(Mandi died from this)
The HEA…sigh. I’m still in shock that she pulled it off. I’m still trying to get my head around it. So serious spoiler warning:
[spoiler]A major turning point in the story is Lan’s attempted suicide. She tries to kill herself when she realizes that Azrael loves her. She slashes her wrists when she’s alone thinking they won’t find her in time and she’ll come back as an eater. She wants him to know what it feels like to have someone you love come back as the hungry dead, basically what she experienced when her mother died. She believes he’ll end the eaters and she’s right. But not because brings her back, because he finds a human doctor and they give her blood transfusions. Azrael does not want to bring her back as one of his dead because he’s she’ll hate him the way his children did.
Ending the eaters is a huge sacrifice for him, because the eaters are the only thing keeping the human population from trying to destroy him. But at the moment he thinks Lan is going to die he promised to end the eater if she lives. She does live and he keeps that promise but kicks her out of Haven. It doesn’t take long for rebellions to grown. Lan leaves England for France because she knows Azrael will brutally put an end to the rebellion. He crushes the uprising and kicks the rest of the humans out of England.
Some time passes and Lan returned to England. She finds that Azrael is missing and she helps two of his trusted Dead find him. They travel to Geneva to the cave he’d been buried alive in before his ascension and she finds him. He’s exiled himself because he can’t face what he is anymore. Lan convinces him that she loves him and to come back to England.
And they live happily ever after? Not so much…
After all, he is still immortal while Lan will grow old and die. He refuses to kill her and bring her back. She certainly not going to try to kill herself again. So the best we can hope for is a happily for now.
Except Smith is a genius. The cave in Geneva that he returned to is still radioactive from the nuclear weapons the humans dropped on him. He and Dead are impervious to the radiation. Lan is not. In “rescuing” Azrael, she has also signed her own death warrant. So neither Azrael nor Lan is responsible for her dying. And Lan does die. In Azrael’s arms. It is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful things I’ve ever read.
Of course, Azrael brings her back but he brings her back with free will and she is largely unchanged and there is a happily ever after that you can believe will last.
Mandi – There are three main characters that stand out. Serafina is the undead maid assigned to Lan, and Serafina hates her with a passion. Serafina was made to serve someone else, so when she is abruptly put on Lan duty, she doesn’t handle it well. Lan doesn’t like her either, and their banter had me rolling in this book
“Yeah, every morning, I’d wake up and think, ‘What can I do that will annoy Serafina the most when I see her again?’ And then I’d go soak my whole body in lye.” Lan held out her arms to demonstrate her whole-body soak, then executed a double-take of surprise.
“Wow, I’m really pink! No fooling now, the water’s too hot!”
“It has to be hot to get the dirt off. I swear you grind it in with a wheel. What on Earth does he see in you?” Serafina grumbled and went to work paring and shaping Lan’s fingernails.
“He says I’m beautiful.”
“You aren’t,” Serafina said flatly.
Then we have Wickham, Lan’s tutor who has the patience of a saint and becomes almost a brother/father figure to her. He opens her mind and Lan goes from hating lessons to tolerating them. He was a very warm and wonderful character.
And finally, Deimos, Azrael’s second in command. The undead that Azrael trusts the most and he serves without question. Towards the end, Deimos and Lan form a special bond and I really enjoyed it. Deimos takes everything so literal, that there are times when Lan is being sarcastic and Deimos doesn’t get it that made me laugh and laugh.
Lexxi: I also loved the tutor Wickam that Azrael assigned to educate her. I like that he knows bits and pieces about himself because when he was alive he wrote his names in his clothes.
I’m sorry that Deimos doesn’t get a lot of page time until the end. The fact that he keeps the portrait of his family despite not being sure what their names are.
The details Smith draws into the secondary characters in this book are just amazing.
Mandi: I’m always itching for everyone to try this author. Her books are different – violent, erotic, thought-provoking. I know her voice isn’t for everyone, but if you ever want to take a chance….
Lexxi: All the A’s and Stars EVER. I just hope she’s almost finished with her next book.