I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected to. Perhaps what endears me to this story is its blatant disregard for genres. Zombie horror and apocalyptic sci-fi are common bedfellows, but Jaqueline Druga’s Sleepers also dabbles in Christian fiction, family drama, and more traditional sci-fi elements, though these are introduced later on in the book. Despite claiming one of the most inept narrator-protagonists I’ve come across so far, the ideas behind this story make it a fairly enjoyable read.
As usual, prepare for spoilers after the break.
So, what’s wrong with the novel, then? As I said, many of the ideas behind the novel are good ones. What suffers is characterization and pacing. It is difficult to describe the protagonist, Mera, any way other than useless. She is forever making terrible decisions that endanger herself and others, to the point that not one but four different characters die defending her. At some point, one must ask why anyone would risk themselves on Mera’s behalf given her track record. They certainly aren’t blind to her foibles. Her opinions are often dismissed out of hand, and even her teenaged son takes every opportunity to admonish her. Frustratingly, Mera seems to accept the group’s derision most of the time but goes right on putting herself in harm’s way. It is possible that Druga intended to create an antihero or everyman in Mera: a bumbling average Jane who doesn’t magically become a heroine when faced with adversity. Unfortunately, she takes it too far. Mera’s one redeeming act is the discovery of a newborn child who miraculously survives within the womb of a Sleeper, and she manages to get herself knocked out in the process.
The other major issue here is pacing. The first 15% of the novel is spent describing the events leading up to the outbreak of the “sleeping sickness”, an illness of unknown origin which sends the infected into a fever-induced coma, leaving them in a zombie-like state when they awake. Because Mera and her family are cut off in a strangely isolated suburb, we only see the Event’s effects on a local scale. Eventually her son Danny arrives home from military school to save the day and illuminate the reader. His disrespectful attitude is probably realistic given that he is a juvenile delinquent trying to save his family in the face what he believes to be the Biblical Apocalypse, but I still spent the entirety of this section wishing that Mera had more self-respect and less self-righteous companions.
Mera, Danny, and their neighbour, Bill, eventually decide to leave their suburban home which is rapidly filling with Sleepers and go in search of Mera’s college-aged daughter, Jessie. Thanks to Mera’s apparent inability to lie, the three eventually end up in a military-run refugee camp where they meet other survivors who decide to tag along on the quest. What follows is a series of pit stops and skirmishes, as the survivors debate the origin of the apparent apocalypse and learn all they can about the Sleepers. What does not occur is the revelation that one of the party members knows exactly what is happening and why. That comes a good four fifths of the way through the novel. This is where the aforementioned science fiction elements come into play in what is either going to be your favourite or most hated element of the novel. A veteran of zombie stories might expect a genetically altered virus or even alien bacteria, but Druga goes with time travel and strangely, no one seems skeptical about this.
The last fifth of the novel is decidedly different from the rest. Jessie has been found, the origin of the Sleepers revealed, and suddenly the story goes into expository mode, explaining things that probably should have been introduced or at least hinted at around the half way mark. The first time travelers travelled back to Mera’s time, inadvertently carrying the sleeping sickness with them. Modern humans lacked the genetic immunity of their descendents, which meant a high rate of infection and outrageous symptoms. In the now altered future, Mera’s newborn foundling would become the object of neo-Christian worship: a saviour, born from the womb of a Sleeper but killed before he could reach his potential. Randy, the time traveller, had been sent to rescue the child because time travel had proved so helpful the last time.
This is a clever origin for Druga’s zombies, but it needs elaboration and really ought to have been introduced earlier. As it stands, we never really get to see what the characters make of the grand revelation, or how they react to the knowledge that time travel is possible. You can’t just throw time travel into a zombie apocalypse plot and expect people to accept it. Likewise, you probably shouldn’t make your protagonist entirely hopeless unless you’re doing it for comedic effect. Regardless, I enjoyed Sleepers and would probably pick up the sequel if there was one, just to see how Druga handles the time travel elements.
Overall Rating: 3/5 Logically I should go lower, but like I said, I enjoyed Sleepers.
Recommended if: You enjoy novels with mix’n’match genres and don’t mind a little Christian rhetoric in your zombie story.
Skip it if: You think that a writer’s execution is more important than their ideas.