Last Resort: A Zombicide Novel
I can’t really think of a better trio to blend together than one of my favourite publishers (Aconyte Books), one of my favourite authors (Josh Reynolds) and the board game I am most interested in owning and eventually reviewing one day (Zombicide). So you can perhaps imagine just how excited I was when the advanced review copy for Zombicide: Last Resort became available to download from the publisher’s page on NetGalley. The combination of publisher, author and source material alone would have had me champing at the bit to get reading and reviewing, but the cover art and back-cover blurb only increased my frenzied excitement. Taken together, they embody the frantic, action-packed and often tongue-in-cheek nature of the Zombicide board games. As the zombie apocalypse starts, veteran criminal Westlake is looking for a legendary hidden mafia hideout from which he can ride out the end of the world. Nearly overrun by the undead in the process, he’s saved by an old acquaintance – an FBI agent leading a group of survivors. Forced to give up his destination, Westlake finds himself having to navigate the endless hordes of zombies, tripwires, minefields and numerous other dangers just to get to the entrance to “the villa”. But even if they can get to the hideout, someone is already there – and they don’t want to share. It’s a fantastic setup for a novel, and the appearance of a luchador wrestler on the cover art only made me more intrigued to see what gore-soaked craziness Reynolds had in store for me.
Last Resort opens in the sort of memorable style that is one of Reynolds’ signatures, with Westlake cuffed and bruised in the trunk of a car, at the mercy of two mafia enforcers who plan to execute and bury him for turning witness for the FBI. But fortunately for Westlake – if not the world as a whole – they’re interrupted by several undead corpses who rip apart the mafia enforcers and allow Westlake to escape unscathed. Fast forward a few months, and as the world burns around him, Westlake is gathering supplies and clues to the location of the Villa, where he can hole up for as long as necessary. Ambushed by a horde of the undead as he makes his way towards the isolation offered by the Adirondacks, he’s saved thanks to the intervention of a small band of survivors led by former FBI agent Estela Ramirez – someone who is very familiar with Westlake and knows exactly how dangerous he is. However, when he offers to work with Ramirez and the rest of the survivors locate and take over the mysterious villa – supposedly a secretive mafia fortress somewhere in the mountains – an uneasy alliance is formed between Westlake and Ramirez with the goal of creating a permanently secure camp for those few humans left in the region. Westlake and Ramirez, accompanied by a paranoid survivalist, a Luchero wrestler and a motley collection of other survivors, venture into the mountains in search of the Lodge – only to discover that there are those who wish to get to it first and will do anything to ensure they are not followed; and that the inhabitants of the Lodge are not what they seem.
Reynolds manages to deftly capture the feel of the boardgame that the novel is adapted from, readily translating the fast-paced, chaotic action and somewhat tongue-in-cheek humour into a cohesive and thrilling zombie apocalypse narrative, while also adding in his own characteristic brand of engaging characters and brutally vibrant action sequences. Taken all together, that makes it an incredibly fun and entertaining novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, polishing off the entire novel in the course of just two reading sessions over a single day. Much of the appeal comes from the small but potent cast of characters that Reynolds has assembled, which simultaneously manage to stick to the character archetypes found in the boardgame while also developing their own personalities and character flaws. Westlake is a rather endearing protagonist calm, self-assured, cocky even; a villain for sure, and yet not a particularly violent one, which frankly makes a pleasant change when it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction. Instead we find that he’s a born conman and thief, someone who works better with getting results through charisma and misdirection rather than his fists or a knife, and much of the novel’s narrative and direction derives from the hidden goals Westlake has in locating the hidden villa and the prize at the heart of it that he longs for. Even his motivations for that prize, once revealed towards the end of the novel, make a twisted sort of sense and tie in nicely to the rest of the narrative. The counterpart to the roguish anti-hero is former FBI agent Ramirez, attempting to lead her group of survivors to some form of safety despite ever-decreasing supplies and ever-increasing number of undead, and I liked her stolid, unshakeable determination and frustrated relationship with Westlake that slowly morphs as they approach the villa and its occupants.
But perhaps the best character in the entire book is El Calavera Santo, or the Holy Skull, a brilliant creation of Reynolds and perhaps one of the greatest characters he’s created across all of his published works. Santo is a Luchero wrestler who treats the zombie apocalypse little differently to pre-undead times, artfully destroying zombies with his bare hands to cheers from an audience of survivors, and doggedly moving forward with the unassailable belief that he is protected by a patron saint overseeing his work. His character carefully teeters on the edge of surrealism, the sort of the thing that the Zombicide games revel in, and yet Reynolds manages to ensure he doesn’t come across as too ludicrous, even managing to give Santo an air of quiet respectability as he crushes zombies and goes toe-to-toe with some of the largest and most powerful zombies around. And speaking of the undead themselves, the different varieties found in the boardgame mean that Reynolds has free reign to play with them and make them stand out in comparison to the Romero-style undead that so often infest the genre. Each of the different types of zombie are imbued with an inherent sense of menace and danger despite their unusual nature and appearance. There are running zombies, bloated zombies, gigantic zombies, and even floaters; these last kind are particularly sinister and unsettling in the way they float through the water, only moving when they hear or feel movement, and there’s a scene moving through a lake that Reynolds turns into something incredibly tense and unsettling through their use. There’s even a human character who studies and analyses the different types of zombies, allowing for some intriguing discussions about their evolution and ability to remain a threat months after death, which again is a rarity in genre titles.
There’s always a quiet confidence to stories written by Josh Reynolds that means you can get right into reading them regardless of genre or setting, and Last Resort is no exception to this rule. This is a streamlined, action-packed and gore-soaked tribute to the Zombicide setting that you’ll devour almost as fast as one of its zombies devours a screaming human survivor, populated with imaginative and three-dimensional characters that stay with you long after the novel has ended, with Reynolds making excellent use of the different zombie types in the boardgame to create a chilling and nightmarish scenario for Westlake, Ramirez and the other survivors. I’d love to see some of the surviving characters from the novel return in another adventure; but even if they don’t, I’d absolutely love to see Reynolds be commissioned to write another novel (or novels plural) in the Zombicide setting, as I’m intrigued to see what else he can do with it. The Last Resort is thoroughly recommended for anyone who likes the Zombicide boardgame, like myself, or just wants to read a high-quality zombie apocalypse novel.