Afterlife Battlefield is an engrossing tale of life after death or, more specifically, life after suicide and such a person’s role in the eternal battle between good and evil. In Holcyon, the world that author Johnny Ostentatious has created, committing suicide (whether by shotgun, razorblade, overdose, overwork, or taking a bath in a river full of crocodiles) means conscription into the army of Good, led by Anubis and Medusa. They are pitted against the forces of Evil, an army of indestructible demons led by a spindly alien from another universe, and the final battle is to take place at the intergalactic Nebula. The stakes: control over the whole of this universe. And where is God in all of this, you may ask. God is taking a nap.
This is an entertaining and inventive tale. One of the most difficult things that an author can do is to create a world divested from our conceptions of reality, to create an otherworld that is not merely plausible, but wholly believable. Ostentatious has done just this—the reader never doubts the veracity of the author’s picture of the afterlife because he effectively combines his own take on life after death with tidbits from various mythological traditions, creating a plausible blend of authorial concoction with general elements of familiarity and expectation that define pan-human conceptions of the Great Beyond.
While the setting has been very well stylized, Afterlife Battlefield does suffer from some significant defects. First, there is a lack of closure regarding nearly all the characters except that of protagonist Zack Fury. The reader has an investment in the fate of Zack’s comrades in the fight for the afterlife, and Ostentatious provides no indication of what becomes of them after the battle at the Nebula. While the primary focus is appropriately on the character of Zack Fury, the silence regarding the other characters— some believable and engaging characters at that—leaves the reader feeling a bit cheated and unfulfilled. This is not to say that Ostentatious should provide the reader with a neat, tidy package; such would be out of line with the purposely haphazard nature of the characters’ spirits. Yet one asks questions. For instance, what happens to the loveable dancing spider Basildon? He is a supporting character, to be sure, but in him Ostentatious realizes full character development; especially hard to do with a trickster figure such as he is. This reader wants news on Basildon, or any other character for that matter. All that is needed is an inkling, however brief, of what becomes (or is to become) of such characters when the tale is done.
However, the biggest problems in this novel are matters of character development. As believable as the world is that Ostentatious presents, Zack Fury (as protagonist, the reader’s main concern) seems to be an example of an author’s own self prohibiting the development of his character. Put simply, Ostentatious invests far too much time and space to emphasize that Zack Fury is, in fact, a punk rocker. Oftentimes Ostentatious scraps personal pronouns in reference to Fury, instead opting to refer to him as “the punk rocker.” While effective if used sparingly, this is a regular epithet for the character and, after two hundred pages, such references come off as unnecessary and even a bit patronizing. At that point we get it: Zack Fury is a punk rocker. Moreover, the character makes a multitude of references to bands and tunes that are quite obviously those that the author likes (this reviewer agrees that the Meatmen are one of the greatest ever), and combined with the ponderous weight of Zack Fury as “the punk rocker,” the novel begins to come off as a means for the author to show how punk he is. Economy in such references would be more effective as a means of subtly reinforcing the characterization of Fury.
As it stands, Afterlife Battlefield becomes a punk rock novel, a problematic focus because the theme is ostensibly the battle between the forces of good and evil and not punk rock, per se. Punk rock is not out of place in this tale, to be sure, but it would be more effectively used as a thematic backdrop that can enhance and underscore character development and, as a result, the story as a whole. Instead, this punk rock backdrop is forced to the forefront and removes focus from more subtle and complex development of both characters and storyline. Ostentatious uses punk rock as a means of defining characters (whether they’re punk or no) rather than developing them, and as a result some characters come off as flat and unengaging. For instance, near the end of the novel, Zack, an anti-authoritarian model throughout the novel, suddenly appears rather gung-ho and personally involved when fighting the final battle at the Nebula. While the reader does expect this development, based on the parameters of the otherworld logic that Ostentatious has created, the repeated focus on Zack as a rebellious and aloof punker renders this transformation startling and implausible since there are so few subtle shifts in his characterization that could foreshadow this development.
The final truth, however, is that Afterlife Battlefield really is an entertaining tale. I was satisfied as a reader but, to generalize my objections, I simply wanted there to be more to the novel. Make no mistake, I did enjoy reading this book and often forgot that I had other things to do besides follow Zack Fury in his post-mortem travails. I especially like that Ostentatious is able to expand our relatively insular punk rock world into something as all-encompassing as the Great Beyond. Some careful editing and economical emendation, however, would transform Afterlife Battlefield from a decent punk rock story dealing with the afterlife into a good novel, and, perhaps, even a great one. –The Lord Kveldulfr (Active Bladder, PO Box 24607, Philadelphia, PA 19111, www.ActiveBladder.com)