Review: “Vittorio, The Vampire” By Anne Rice (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a horror novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Anne Rice’s 1999 novel “Vittorio, The Vampire”.

I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book a few weeks ago, shortly after enjoying Rice’s “Pandora” and wanting to read the other novel in this short spin-off series from Rice’s main “Vampire Chronicles” series.

Interestingly, although “Vittorio, The Vampire” is a spin-off novel, it can still be read as a stand-alone novel – especially since even the opening chapters point out that it has little to no connection to Rice’s main “Vampire Chronicles” series, other than it is a novel narrated by a vampire. So, you can read this novel without having read any other Anne Rice novels beforehand.

So, let’s take a look at “Vittorio, The Vampire”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2000 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Vittorio, The Vampire” that I read.

The novel begins in rural Italy in the late 1990s. A vampire called Vittorio sits in the ruins of his ancestral castle and, at the request of some vampires that he barely knows from New Orleans, he decides to set his life story down on paper.

He begins with his idyllic childhood in the mid-15th century, where he was both a young scholar and a knight in training. His father was wealthy, his castle far from any place of strategic importance to any of the bands of mercenaries who fought wars between city states. Yet, in the midst of this idyll, young Vittorio begins to hear frightened whispers amongst his father’s friends and also begins to have nightmares about holding the severed heads of his younger siblings.

Shortly after Vittorio turns sixteen, there is a mysterious high-ranking visitor to the castle one night. Vittorio’s father meets him at the gate and sends him away, before rushing to the chapel and gathering his family around him. The night passes safely.

The next night, they are not so lucky. Vampires storm the castle and begin to massacre everyone. Vittorio hides in the crypt with his siblings, but cannot protect them. Furious, he tries to kill one of the vampires – a woman called Ursula – but fails. To his surprise, she persuades the other vampires to spare his life.

Alone in a castle filled with corpses, Vittorio swears revenge and begins a journey to find the vampires…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was much more of a horror novel than I’d expected 🙂

I’d expected something similar to the rich, sumptuous splendour of Rice’s “The Vampire Armand” and, whilst “Vittorio, The Vampire” certainly has elements of this, all of this novel’s beauty is also counterpointed by a decent amount of exquisitely creepy horror too 🙂 Plus, it is also a slightly faster-paced novel than I’d expected too 🙂

So, I should start by talking about the novel’s horror elements, and they are excellent 🙂 In addition to vampire horror, paranormal horror and a few moments of gory horror, this novel also includes lots of unsettling moments involving things like creepy places, moral horror, body horror, tragic horror, religious horror, sexual horror and psychological horror 🙂 Seriously, it is so good to see a gothic vampire novel that is actually scary 🙂

A lot of the novel’s creepiest horror elements revolve around themes of moral corruption and compromise, with the best examples of this probably being Vittorio’s character development throughout the story and a brilliantly disturbing segment set in a walled town that is just slightly too idyllic. If you’ve read dystopian sci-fi novels about flawed utopias, then you’ll probably know what to expect here, but the segment is still surprisingly creepy thanks to both it’s unexpected appearance in a historical gothic vampire novel and the very deft and subtle ways that the town’s horrifying secret is revealed to the reader.

Not only that, the novel’s horror also relies heavily on the contrast between beauty and disgust. But, unlike a 1980s splatterpunk novel, this isn’t achieved through the use of elaborate gruesome descriptions, but instead through the use of settings and places. As you would expect from an Anne Rice novel, this story is richly atmospheric and this is used to full effect here – whether it is a sumptuous castle populated by a court of satanic vampires or the contrast between the beautiful architecture of Florence and the deterioration of Vittorio’s mind, this novel uses the settings as a chillingly brilliant source of contrast 🙂

Another theme in this novel is the passage of time with, for example, the contrast between Vittorio’s outward youth and extreme age at the beginning of the novel or – even more dramatically – the fact that, during the progress and innovation of the renaissance, the main group of vampires in the story still lives like a medieval court and arrogantly assumes that this can continue forever. Given that vampire novels are often about the perks and perils of immortality, these background elements really help to add a lot of extra depth to the story 🙂

The novel also uses religion as both a source of drama and horror. Whether it is the “evil church” that the vampire court worships in, the fact that the ordinary church cannot protect Vittorio from the vampires, the religion-based inner conflict that rages in Vittorio’s mind for most of the novel, the way that the benevolence of a group of monks is contrasted with the evil of the vampire court or some unnervingly surreal psychological horror sequences featuring angels, this novel uses religious themes to brilliantly dramatic historical effect here.

Although I haven’t studied the history of renaissance Italy in great detail, the novel’s setting certainly feels complex, atmospheric and realistic enough, thanks to the excellent writing and a few well-placed references to various artists, the Medicis etc.. Interestingly though, this novel also sets itself apart from “The Vampire Armand” (which is also partially set in renaissance Italy) thanks to the fact that most of the story takes place in forests, castles and rural towns rather than opulent cities. This rural setting also lends the novel a slight medieval fantasy-style atmosphere too 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel excels 🙂 Not only does Vittorio have a lot of personality and character development throughout the novel, but he also feels like a realistically flawed person who suffers from the earnestness and emotions of youth.

The novel’s vampire romance elements are also handled reasonably well, with the relationship between Vittorio and Ursula being a complicated and conflicted one, with some creepiness added to it by the subtle, bizarre and/or sneaky ways that Ursula tricks or manipulates Vittorio at various moments in the story. Yet, for all of her evil, Ursula is also more of a complicated – and sympathetic character than she first seems. Likewise, all of the novel’s background characters also feel like realistic people too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s first-person narration is splendid 🙂 One of the cool things about this novel is that, at the beginning, Vittorio explicitly points out that he won’t be telling his story in some antiquated “historical” style (mostly because he has 500+ years worth of linguistic knowledge). What this means is that the novel not only contains the beautiful, sumptuous and descriptive gothic prose that you’d expect from an Anne Rice novel, but also more of an informal and “matter of fact” style too – which really helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace. The narration here is atmospheric, personality-filled and an absolute joy to read 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 339 pages (excluding the bibliography), this novel feels fairly lean and efficient 🙂 Plus, although the novel is relatively slow to start, it is much faster-paced than I’d expected 🙂 This is one of those horror novels that gets more and more compelling as it goes along, so expect to read more pages than you plan to whenever you pick it up 🙂

As for how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the historical setting, the story itself feels pretty much timeless – not to mention that the decision to mix more modern-style faster-paced narration with sumptuous, formal etc… descriptions means that this novel contains the very best elements of both modern fiction and slightly older fiction. Not only that, most of the novel’s horror still remains brilliantly creepy when read these days too 🙂

All in all, this novel is excellent 🙂 If you want an atmospheric, gothic vampire novel that also contains a decent amount of actual horror too, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for sci-fi, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting dystopian novel from 1959 called “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr. I first heard about this novel after watching this fascinating “Extra Sci-fi” video about it (SPOILERS) on Youtube and was intrigued enough to track down a second-hand copy of it a couple of days later.

So, let’s take a look at “A Canticle For Liebowitz”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1984 Black Swan (UK) paperback edition of “A Canticle For Liebowitz” that I read.

“A Canticle For Liebowitz” is a three-part novel, following life in a remote American desert monastery during three different time periods following a devastating nuclear war during the 1960s. The novel begins with a young novice called Francis performing a Lenten vigil in the desert, when he is greeted by a mysterious old pilgrim.

Whilst the two don’t get along very well at first, the old pilgrim finds him a stone for his improvised shelter – which happens to be the capstone of a fallout shelter containing some of the pre-apocalyptic “memorabilia” that the monastery strives to copy, hide and preserve in the violently anti-intellectual climate following the war. Of course, there are questions and doubts about the authenticity of these relics…

The second part of the novel takes place centuries later in a renaissance-like period of history, where America is split into several kingdoms (who are on the brink of war) and it focuses on a brilliant – but arrogant- scholar and scientist called Thon Thaddeo who reluctantly travels to the monastery after they refuse to send their “memorabilia” to him. Whilst there, he discovers that one of the monks has managed to build some primitive electrical technology and also ends up arguing with the abbot about matters of religion and science.

The third part of the novel is set in a more conventional science fiction future, with spaceships, voice-controlled computers etc… The monastery is still standing and now also carries out scientific research too. Yet, political tensions between east and west are gradually building in the background after a series of illegal nuclear tests. Will humanity once again repeat the mistakes of its past?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a well-written, intelligent and creative sci-fi novel that not only rightly deserves its status as an influential classic of the genre, but is also surprisingly timeless too. However, it is also an even more slow-paced novel than I’d initially expected. So, be sure to set aside some time if you want to read it. It’s worth the time, but don’t expect it to be “easy reading” in any sense of the term.

In terms of the novel’s science fiction elements, they’re really creative 🙂 For the most part, this is a literal science fiction novel – in other words, a novel about science itself. By focusing on humanity gradually rediscovering all of their lost scientific knowledge, this novel is not only able to capture the thrill and awe that this knowledge first evoked (seriously, the scene with the arc lamp is epic!), but also the fear that it evoked too.

One of the novel’s many running themes is that of scientific hubris, often shown in the novel’s many conflicts between scientific progress and religious tradition. Yet, in a brilliantly creative twist, the monks are responsible for preserving and interpreting the knowledge – yet find themselves worried when the secular scholars they have been preserving it for finally reach the level of intelligence needed to understand it.

This is also one of the earliest post-apocalyptic novels and it includes many tropes that would later become mainstays of the genre – such as violent bands of survivors, the ruins of civilisation and widespread genetic mutations. Interestingly, whilst the novel does include a few other dystopian features (eg: the harsh desert, the harshness of the monastery etc…), the most chillingly dystopian element of this novel is probably its main theme of cyclical history – of civilisation destroying and rebuilding itself over and over again. Although this is shown through large-scale events, it is also hinted at through a recurring character in all three segments of the story, similar tragic endings for all three parts and occasional references to characters from previous parts of the story.

It is also one of the few novels – the only other one I can think of is James Herbert’s “Domain” – that really shows the bleakness, horrors and consequences of nuclear war. Given that this novel was written during the early-middle part of the cold war, and just three years before the Cuban missile crisis, I’m guessing that it would have been even more chillingly topical back then. Even so, the novel is still one of the most powerful and harrowing anti-nuclear novels that you’ll read (it isn’t quite as bleak as an old TV show like “Threads“, but it certainly comes close at times).

This is also a novel about history too, with most of the novel’s backstory being deliberately vague, unreliable or ambiguous. Not only does this add a lot to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but it also helps to emphasise how far humanity has fallen when the only remnants of the past are things like incomprehensible document fragments, wildly exaggerated mythology, rumours and local folklore. It also shows how history is distorted, forgotten and/or re-interpreted over time too – such as when a drunken character’s glass eye becomes a revered relic several hundred years later or how the story of Francis’ unceremonious meeting with the pilgrim quickly morphs into a novel-sized tome, thanks to embellished re-tellings and speculation.

Another cool thing about this novel is how it manages to be both a large-scale and a small-scale drama at the same time. By focusing on life in the monastery during various time periods, the novel achieves a “close-up” level of intensity and humanity that really makes you care about all of the large-scale stuff that is relayed to the reader in a few short scenes, extracts from letters, dialogue segments etc… This blending of small and large-scale drama works really well and helps to add a lot of realism to the story.

Another main theme of this novel is religion. Although I’m guessing that you’ll probably get more out of this novel if you are a Christian (especially if you are Catholic), the novel uses religion not only to add atmosphere to the story but also to ask questions about humanity, science etc.. and to debate various topics. The novel’s presentation of religion is fairly nuanced with, for example, some of the monks’ questions and thoughts seeming valid and others seeming either dogmatic or cruel (such as Abbot Zerchi’s objections to euthanasia during one especially bleak part of the novel).

Likewise, despite the emphasis on tradition and the frequent use of Latin (not all of which is translated), one of the fascinating things about this novel is how a lot of the novel’s events end up being incorporated into the monks’ religious beliefs over time. With, for example, the patron saint of their abbey being a scientist from before the apocalypse, history being translated into religious stories etc…. This is either a nuanced comment about how people use religion to make sense of the world or perhaps an amusingly irreverent critique of things like religious traditions etc…

And, yes, despite the bleakness, this novel has a surprising amount of subtle and/or quirky humour in it too. Not only does this make the post-apocalpytic elements seem harsher by contrast, but it also adds a level of realism and humanity to the story in a way that you don’t always see in post-apocalyptic stories too.

As for the characters, this novel is really good. Although it covers a large sweep of history and therefore contains a fairly large cast of characters, all of them seem like flawed and realistic people who have a reasonable amount of emotional and psychological depth.

The writing in this novel is excellent, but challenging. As you would expect with a slightly older novel, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a slightly more formal and descriptive way than a modern novel. Whilst this allows for a lot of extra atmosphere, complexity and personality (seriously, this novel has a brilliant narrative voice), it will make the novel feel very slow-paced if you’re used to more streamlined modern fiction.

Another cool thing about this novel is that the early parts of the “futuristic” third segment of the novel are written in a vaguely beat literature/ modernist literature kind of style (vaguely reminiscent of parts of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“, James Joyce, William Burroughs etc..) – although this is only a short segment, this really helps to add a “retro future” atmosphere to these parts of the story.

However, this novel also assumes that the reader understands Latin – and, although I was still able get the basic meaning of many of these parts of the novel from the context, there are probably some subtle elements of the story I missed out on because I don’t know that much Latin.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good when you get used to it. At 356 pages in length, it may seem relatively short, but the slow pacing will mean that it’ll take you as long to read as a 500-700 page modern novel. Still, the slow pacing is a good fit with the story and it allows for a lot of extra depth and complexity too. Likewise, the novel’s three-part structure is absolutely genius and it really helps to add a sense of grand historical scale to the story.

As for how this sixty-one year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless 🙂 Not only are the futuristic post-apocalyptic settings pretty much timeless (evoking both the middle ages and classic sci-fi), but the novel’s characters, atmosphere, themes etc.. are almost all handled in a very timeless way too.

Plus, not only does this novel include a critique of some of the attitudes of the age (eg: with regard to genetics and racism) that seems slightly ahead of it’s time, but the novel has also been influential on several later sci-fi works (eg: a later episode of “Babylon 5”, the ‘all of this has happened before…’ saying in the modern remake of “Battlestar Galactica” etc..) and was also one of the first sci-fi novels to get mainstream recognition/respectability. Pretty much the only clue that this novel was written in 1959 is the slightly more formal writing style (and maybe some slightly dated/stylised dialogue from a vaguely Native American-style warrior character during a brief part of the novel’s second segment).

All in all, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic. Yes, it is very slow-paced and rather gloomy/pessimistic but, if you can get over this, then you’ll be richly rewarded with an atmospheric, complex and intelligent novel that has stood the test of time extremely well and had a major impact on the sci-fi genre as a whole.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “Twisted Metal 1024” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“A Canticle For Liebowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr ), because it has been nearly a month since my last “Doom II” WAD review and because there hasn’t really been much gaming-related stuff on here recently (I’d planned to finish and review either “Braid” and/or “Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure”, but got distracted by playing “Devil Daggers” again) – I thought it was time to review a “Doom II” WAD.

And, after clicking the “random file” button on the /idgames Archive a few times, I eventually found an interesting-looking WAD from 2006 called “Twisted Metal 1024“.

As usual, I used the GZDoom source port whilst playing this WAD – although I guess that it will probably work on pretty much any source port. It might even possibly work on the original DOS/Windows 95-8 versions of “Doom II” or “Final Doom”, but I haven’t tested this.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Twisted Metal 1024”:

“Twisted Metal 1024” is a small single-level WAD that also contains new MIDI background music too.

From everything I’ve read about it, it was created for a map-making contest where every map had to be no more than 1024 x 1024 (not sure of the exact units) in size. In other words, it is a fairly small level.

Not that you’ll really notice this all the time.

The main reason for limitations like this is to force level designers to be creative – and this WAD absolutely excels here 🙂 Seriously, if you want an example of well-planned, compact level design that makes the absolute most of the space available, then play this level.

It is filled with carefully-placed passages and walkways that intersect or even – sort of- pass above each other (thanks to the running jump feature of the original “Doom” engine), which not only make the level feel significantly larger than it actually is, but also allow for some really good level progression too.

This is also helped by some well-placed enemy spawns in previously-visited areas.

Progress through the level is achieved by pressing switches to open doors and/or finding skull keys. Although this adds a certain amount of linearity to the level, the fact that you often have to backtrack to find doors lends the level a feeling of non-linearity, whilst the compact size of the level also means that you don’t have to worry about getting lost or stuck in the way that you might do in larger levels 🙂

There are also a few other cool level design tricks that add length to the level whilst keeping the map size down, such as a fast-paced and claustrophobic corridor segment involving switches, walls and monster closets. Seriously, I cannot praise the design of this level highly enough 🙂

In terms of difficulty, this is a mildly-moderately challenging level that mostly features low-level enemies and a couple of mid-level enemies. Whilst this might not sound like much of a challenge, the claustrophobic rooms and corridors mean there is relatively little cover when encountering monsters, and the careful placement of several chaingun zombies can whittle your health down fairly quickly if you aren’t careful (and there are just enough health power-ups, but don’t expect loads of them here. Likewise, there’s no super-shotgun to make things easier). This results in a fun, and sometimes frantic, level that is more reminiscent of classic 1990s “Doom II” levels than more modern WADs.

And, yes, this was a bit of a surprise 🙂

As for the new music, it is the kind of fast-paced classic-style music that you’d expect to hear in a level like this. It really helps to add a bit of retro atmosphere to the level, although it probably isn’t quite as memorable as some of the music from the original games.

All in all, this is a really fun little level 🙂 If you want a short, classic-style level that also contains some excellent level design and planning, then this one is well worth checking out 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Stargate Atlantis – Reliquary” By Martha Wells (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for both sci-fi and thriller fiction, I thought that I’d take a look at Martha Wells’ 2006 novel “Stargate Atlantis – Reliquary”.

Although I hadn’t planned to read another “Stargate” novel after my slightly lukewarm reaction to a couple of “SG-1” novels I read last year, I ended up getting a second-hand copy of this novel after seeing it highly recommended in a comment below an online article about books. Plus, I was also feeling a bit nostalgic about the time when I watched “Stargate Atlantis” on DVD back in 2014/15 too.

Although this novel tells a stand-alone “Stargate Atlantis” story, I would strongly recommend watching the TV show before reading it – both to get to know the characters and, more importantly, to understand some of the series’ jargon, backstory etc… too. Some parts of this novel probably won’t make sense if you don’t at least have some vague memories of the TV show.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Stargate Atlantis – Reliquary”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 Fandemonium (UK) paperback edition of “Stargate Atlantis – Reliquary” that I read.

The novel begins on Atlantis, with McKay and Zelenka arguing with Ford and John Sheppard about what to do with a large new room that they’ve found on the ancient extraterrestrial floating city. John and Ford want to turn it into a sports pitch of some kind, but McKay and Zelenka are fascinated by a pillar-like device that they’ve found in the middle of the room. And, after some tinkering, it suddenly displays a glitchy hologram that contains a gate address.

After some discussion with Weir, they send a MALP probe through the stargate to the address – which shows an empty coastal region and some kind of building that looks a bit like one of the Ancients’ repositories. Thinking that it might contain technical information and/or some much-need zero-point energy modules, Weir authorises an exploratory mission to the planet.

When the team get there, they find that the repository is long-since deserted and notice signs of both vandalism and bomb damage. Although there don’t seem to be any life signs in the area, John begins to feel uneasy – as if there is something there. This feeling only gets worse when the team accidentally open the entrance to a gloomy underground bunker and John smells a mysterious odour of decay…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it wasn’t always as fast-paced as I’d hoped for, it’s a really good “Stargate: Atlantis” novel 🙂 Not only is it in keeping with the style and tone of the TV show, but it also contains the series’ classic mixture of sci-fi, humour, thrilling suspense/action and horror 🙂 In other words, this novel is kind of like a really good two-part episode of the TV show.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, not only does it contain all of the technology from the TV show but it is also a novel about the risks and misuse of genetic engineering and the dangers of bio-weapons. Although this is handled in a slightly stylised way, it allows for some interesting plot elements (such as John slowly mutating into a reptilian creature) and a few brilliantly creepy moments of horror too.

These horror elements include a really good mixture of creepily atmospheric moments, tragic horror, psychological horror, the macabre, monster horror, moral horror/scientific horror, character-based horror and body horror – which really help to add a bit of extra intensity to the story 🙂

But, more than all of this, this novel is a thriller novel. And, although it is sometimes a little slower-paced (due to descriptions, scientific explanations etc…) than a traditional action-thriller novel, these elements of the story work really well here. In short, if you’ve seen the TV show, then you’ll know what to expect. Not only is there a decent amount of suspense, a few fight scenes and a plot twist or two, but the story also includes numerous moments when the characters find themselves in dangerous situations and have to rely on their wits (rather than just brute force) in order to come up with a clever way of dealing with whatever is threatening them.

The novel’s thriller elements are probably at their very best in the mid-late parts of the story, which are a little bit like a version of “Die Hard” set on Atlantis. These parts of the story contain a really compelling mixture of suspense, action and clever planning/teamwork. Still, although the earlier parts of the story are a little slower at times, this does help to build atmosphere and suspense – not to mention that it makes the later parts of the story seem even more dramatic by contrast.

Plus, one cool thing about this novel is that it absolutely nails the TV show’s sense of humour too 🙂 This mostly consists of amusing dialogue and the occasional descriptive moment, but the novel also goes a step further and also includes a few well-placed pop culture references (eg: to “Alien”, H.P.Lovecraft, Monty Python etc…) which really fit in well with the events of the story.

Although this novel isn’t really “laugh out loud” funny most of the time – except for Teyla’s “World war two?” comment, which did make me laugh out loud – this subtle humour really helps to add a lot of personality to the story and also helps to prevent the horror elements from becoming too bleak too.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly accurate to the TV show – the point where reading this book almost feels like watching an extra episode or two of it. But, although you shouldn’t expect too much extra character development, the novel’s focus on John’s slow transformation into a mutant creature is handled in the kind of immersive way that only novels can do 🙂 This novel is also mostly focused on John and McKay, which also allows for a lot of amusing dialogue exchanges and/or arguments between them too 🙂 Plus, although the novel’s villain can be a bit cartoonishly evil at times, he actually has a reasonably well-written backstory and is also a suitably intelligent foe for the team to battle against too 🙂

As for the writing, it’s fairly good. The novel’s third-person narration is kind of a blend between more informal/”matter of fact” thriller narration and the kind of descriptive, formal narration that you’d expect from a sci-fi novel. It’s very readable, although the descriptive elements do mean that some of the more thrilling moments don’t always feel quite as fast-paced as you might expect from a traditional action-thriller novel or an episode of the TV show. Still, the writing is fairly good overall and these descriptive elements also add atmosphere to the story.

As for length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At an efficient 220 pages in length, there isn’t a single wasted page here 🙂 The novel is moderately-fast paced most of the time, with the pacing being a bit slower in the more suspenseful and atmospheric earlier parts, before increasing slightly in speed and intensity as the story progresses. But, whilst it isn’t exactly a “slow paced” novel, it may seem very slightly slower than you’d expect if you’re used to ultra-fast action-thriller novels (by authors like S.D. Perry, Matthew Reilly etc..).

All in all, this is a really good “Stargate Atlantis” novel 🙂 It really does feel like an extra two-part episode of the TV show, complete with amusing dialogue, creepy sci-fi horror and a good amount of gripping suspense/action. Yes, it wasn’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected, but it’s still a good novel and is also probably the best “Stargate”-related novel that I’ve read so far 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “The Affair” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, although I’d planned to review another hardboiled sci-fi novel next, the one I’d chosen didn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as I’d hoped it would be – and I ended up abandoning it after about ten pages. So, I needed to read another novel, a better novel. Quick!

And, since I was still in the mood for thriller fiction, I thought that it’d be the perfect time to take a look at one of the few Lee Child novels I hadn’t read before. I am, of course, talking about Lee Child’s 2011 novel “The Affair” (which I’ve been meaning to read ever since a family member gave me a copy of it several years ago).

Although this novel is both a prequel and part of a large series, it is – like almost every Lee Child novel – designed be read as a stand-alone novel. So, you can enjoy it if you haven’t read any other “Jack Reacher” novels before this one. But, if you have, then there might be a few familiar names and references that you’ll enjoy.

So, let’s take a look at “The Affair”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Affair” that I read.

The novel begins on the 11th March 1997, with a US military policeman called Jack Reacher arriving at the Pentagon for a meeting with a colonel called Frazer. As he goes through security, he expects to be arrested. No-one arrests him. But, as he heads towards Frazer’s office, he’s certain that there is a team of people following him. He has expected something like this. But, no-one follows him and he arrives at the office ten minutes late. Frazer asks Reacher for the name of the suspect he has found.

Reacher says that he has nothing. That the meeting was nothing but an elaborate ruse to draw the culprit out into the open. That he’d hoped someone would have tried to make a move against him before he arrived. Frazer asks if he’s a suspect. Reacher lies about the answer. Frazer laughs and points out that Reacher looks a bit dishevelled. Reacher says that he is supposed to look like this.

Then we flash back to five days earlier. Reacher has been summoned by his CO, Leon Garber, who criticises him for not meeting uniform regulations before pointing out that his scruffy hair is probably a good thing. A woman called Janice May Chapman has been murdered in a small town in Mississipi called Carter Crossing, a small town with a large army ranger base nearby. Although Reacher expects to be lead investigator on the case, the job goes to another officer called Munro.

Reacher’s role in the case is to enter the town undercover and keep tabs on the local police, in the hope of pre-empting or averting any kind of army-related scandal before it happens. So, he hitchhikes to the town, but the local sheriff – Elizabeth Devereaux – is a former military police officer and guesses why he’s there shortly after meeting him. Still, with only two deputies – and no trained detectives- in the town, she reluctantly agrees to let him help her investigate the case…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that this is a really compelling historical detective novel, with some thriller elements too. In other words, it’s probably closer in style to one of the more understated modern Reacher novels, like “The Midnight Line“, rather than the older novels in the series. And, as long as you don’t expect an action-fest or anything like that, then there’s a rather gripping mystery to be enjoyed here.

So, I’ll start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. This novel is a bit like a blend between a thriller, a police procedural and a hardboiled novel. Not only does the case quickly expand in size and scope, but there are a good variety of investigative elements too – including examining physical evidence, making deductions from clues, interviewing people and coming up with several clever ruses and schemes to catch the criminal.

In addition to one or two smaller side-mysteries, another thing that really helps to keep the story’s detective elements compelling is the fact that – right up until the late parts of the book – the reader is never entirely sure which one of the two main suspects are guilty, thanks to lots of red herrings and contradictory pieces of evidence (all of which are, of course, explained later). So, it’s one of those stories that will keep you guessing 🙂

Plus, there are also a few hardboiled elements too. Whether it is a clever twist on the idea of a “femme fatale” character, the fact that Reacher is a semi-official investigator (who is breaking orders and technically doesn’t have jurisdiction) or the fact that – instead of arresting anyone – he unflinchingly metes out rough justice to anyone he finds to be guilty of a serious crime, this novel definitely takes a few hints from the classic American crime fiction of the 1920s-50s. Even so, it isn’t really a “film noir” story.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly compelling too 🙂 In addition to a larger-scale sub-plot about Reacher trying to deal with a possible military cover-up, the novel also includes quite a few suspenseful moments and even a couple of fight scenes too. Still, this novel is more of a traditional-style crime/suspense thriller than the kind of action-thriller novel you’d traditionally expect from Lee Child. But, thanks to things like shorter chapters and a fast-paced writing style, this novel moves along as quickly as you’d expect from a modern thriller novel 🙂

The novel’s historical elements are a bit of a mixed bag though. When they are at their best, they reminded me of other modern 1990s-based crime/suspense novels (such as Laura Lippman’s excellent “Sunburn) which keep their 1990s setting fairly understated – with only the absence of things like smartphones etc.. – helping to create the historical atmosphere. This helps to lend the story a feeling of realism, in addition to allowing for more suspense too (thanks to the lack of modern technology etc…).

However, unlike many modern 1990s-set novels, there are a few moments where Reacher “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly about the 1990s in the past tense, as if he was re-telling the story in the present day. Although these moments help to clarify the historical setting, they will probably break your immersion in the story slightly at the same time. Yes, the idea of an older Reacher reminiscing about his younger days is an interesting narrative device, but this puts a certain amount of distance between the reader and the story.

As for the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. Not only is it really interesting to see a slightly younger version of Reacher (and one or two other long-running characters too), but Elizabeth is also a fairly complex and interesting character too.

The relationship between Reacher and Elizabeth is quite well-handled, and it manages to be both realistic and stylised at the same time (not to mention that, for a Reacher novel, it is probably one of the steamier books in the series too). Plus, the US military – with all of it’s foibles, rivalries, contradictions and complexities – is also pretty much a main character in this novel too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good too 🙂 Like with a couple of other Reacher novels, this one is written from a first-person perspective – which allows for a bit of extra characterisation and suspense. And, although Reacher’s occasional asides about the 1990s can be a little immersion-breaking, I cannot fault the actual writing itself. If you’ve ever read a Lee Child novel, then you’ll know that he’s an expert at writing fast-paced, precisely-engineered and streamlined narration that is kind of like a modern version of the hardboiled fiction of the 1920s-50s, and this novel is no exception 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. The edition I read (which had slightly larger pages) was 427 pages long, and this length seemed to be a good fit for the story. Although this isn’t the fastest-paced Reacher novel I’ve read, the story still moves along at a fairly decent pace – with lots of well-placed plot twists, mini-cliffhangers and suspenseful moments that help to keep everything compelling. Another cool thing about this novel’s pacing is the TV-style “cold open” scene, which adds instant intrigue to the story by giving the reader a tantalising glimpse of events that happen about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

All in all, this is a really good detective novel that also contains some gripping thriller elements too. Although I’d have liked to have seen more of an action-thriller story, this novel was still very enjoyable to read – with a (mostly) well-handled historical setting and a good mixture between investigation and suspense.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Tangled Up In Blue” by Joan D. Vinge (Novel)

Well, after planning to read three other books and then abandoning each of them after a couple of pages for different reasons, I needed to find something to read. And, when looking through one of my book piles, I stumbled across the second-hand copy of Joan D. Vinge’s 2000 novel “Tangled Up In Blue” that I bought shortly after reading Vinge’s “World’s End” and then somehow forgot about.

Interestingly, although this novel is part of Vinge’s “Snow Queen” series, it can be read as a stand-alone story. Still, if you’ve read any of the other novels (and I’ve only read “World’s End”), then you’ll notice a few familiar characters, background elements, places etc…

So, let’s take a look at “Tangled Up In Blue”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2000 Tor (US) hardback edition of “Tangled Up In Blue” that I read.

On the planet Tiamat, two Hegemonic police officers – Nyx LaisTree and his half-brother Staun LaisNion – are just finishing their shift, when they are accosted by a rather uptight “by the book” technican called BZ Gundhalinu who wants them to go to the royal palace for guard duty at a party held by the Snow Queen, celebrating a sucessful hunt of sea-creatures called mers that are used in a longevity serum available only to the ultra-rich.

After the guard duty, the cops go out drinking before slipping away to visit a warehouse. As part of the uneasy relationship between Tiamat’s monarchy and the Hegemony, Tiamat natives are not permitted to own advanced technology. Of course, smuggling is rampant and the Queen uses her political influence to keep it that way. So, both Nyx and Staun are members of an unofficial vigilante group who breaks into smugglers’ warehouses and smashes up the illicit technology.

But, during this latest raid, they stumble across a group of armed men who kill most of them. Barely alive, Nyx recognises one of the men as a fellow police officer. But, before the man can kill Nyx, he is distracted by a commotion. Gundhalinu, having picked up something suspicious on the police frequencies has shown up at the warehouse with his superior officer, Jerusha, to investigate the illegal vigilante activity. Soon, they both get involved in a frantic fight with the mysterious armed cops.

In the aftermath, Nyx is interrogated by a cruel internal affairs officer called Jashari before being suddenly released from hospital and suspended from duty. Racked with grief by his brother’s death and suffering from partial amnesia about the events in the warehouse, he decides to go out and get some answers and some revenge. Meanwhile, Gundhalinu begins to investigate unofficially until he is called in by Chief Aranne and told that Nyx is under suspicion of stealing a valuable artefact and that Gundhalinu will be responsible for following him and finding out more…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was much more of a thriller than I’d initially expected 🙂 Not only does it have all of the atmosphere that you’d expect from a novel in this series, but it’s also a reasonably-paced gritty film noir-influenced police thriller too. It is also a really cool blend of the sci-fi and fantasy genres too – think “Blade Runner” meets “Game Of Thrones” 🙂 Seriously, this is one of those books that just gets better and better as it goes along.

So, I should start by talking about the novel’s thriller elements. It’s slightly more of a traditional-style thriller, with a really good blend of suspense, mystery, mini-cliffhangers, secret societies, political/criminal scheming, spy stuff and a couple of dramatic combat sequences too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced action-thriller novel, this novel reads a bit like a cross between a more focused harboiled “film noir” novel, a gritty drama novel and a vaguely “Game Of Thrones”-style political intrigue thriller 🙂

The novel’s “film noir” elements are interesting too, with the story including the kind of complicated web of criminal intrigue that you’d expect from the genre, not to mention a grizzled detective protagonist (who has been suspended from duty and wants both answers and revenge), a certain level of moral ambiguity, a “Maltese Falcon“-style focus on several people trying to get hold of something, grim/gritty depictions of violence and a complicated love interest character (Devony).

Yet, at the same time, this novel feels a bit more focused than most classic 1920s-50s hardboiled crime novels do, with the story having enough complexity to fit into the genre without ever really becoming confusing (if you’re paying attention). Plus, it also includes a few elements from the buddy cop genre too, which are handled really well 🙂

Not only that, this novel is also at least slightly evocative of “Blade Runner“, whilst also being it’s own thing too 🙂 In addition to the noir elements and the gritty futuristic police-based drama, one of the coolest ways that this novel riffs on “Blade Runner” is probably how the novel’s setting is this wonderfully atmospheric mixture of fantasy-genre style ancient buildings and futuristic tech. Although this gives the novel it’s own unique atmosphere, it’s also a really cool and creative homage to the “used future” elements of “Blade Runner” too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re really brilliant 🙂 In addition to lots of backstory and vivid worldbuilding that is delivered in a relatively concise way, the novel’s futuristic technology is both a background thing and a central part of both the story’s main plot and the political drama sub-plot in the background. In short, this novel is as much about not having technology as it is about all of the cool things that technology can do. A lot of the novel’s background revolves around people being motivated by being denied technology for one reason or another (eg: political policy, history etc…).

Plus, although this novel is more sci-fi than fantasy, one of the cool things about it is how it blends both genres. In short, it is a sci-fi story that is set in a fantasy-influenced world, where things like monarchies, traditions, feudalism etc… still play a role. Not only is this reflected in the story’s slightly fantasy-influenced setting, but also in the novel’s political intrigue elements – which are wonderfully evocative of something like “Game Of Thrones” 🙂

Thematically, this is both a novel about death and also a novel about loyalty and honour too. Both Gunhalinu and Nyx are both mourning the loss of important relatives, and this has an effect on their actions and characters as the story progresses. The novel also focuses on how loyalty and honour can come into conflict with each other (eg: A secret society, a vigilante group, smuggling gangs, Devony’s torn loyalties, LaisTree’s loyalty to his brother, Gundhalinu’s “by the book” attitudes etc..). This topic is handled in a brilliantly nuanced way, with the story’s eventual conclusion being that the two things aren’t necessarily polar opposites of each other.

In terms of the characters, this novel is superb 🙂 Not only do all of the main characters (Gundhalinu, Nyx and Devony) experience a surprising amount of character development as the story progresses, but they also have a level of personal and emotional complexity that really helps to make them feel like realistic, flawed people too 🙂 In addition to all of this, the conflict and contrast between many of the characters is also a major source of drama and depth for the story too 🙂

As for the writing, it is stellar 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration is a lot more focused, faster, slightly more informal and more “matter of fact” than the formal narration in Vinge’s “World’s End” was, but without losing any of the atmosphere or depth that you’d expect from this series 🙂 This more focused narration is evocative of the hardboiled crime genre, but never turns into just a typical Chandler/Hammett pastiche. In other words, this novel has it’s own distinctive narrative style 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is better than I’d expected 🙂 At an efficient 235 pages in the hardback edition, it never really feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, thanks to both the thriller-style structure and the slightly more “matter of fact” writing style, this novel feels a lot more energetic and faster-paced than “World’s End” did 🙂

All in all, this was an even better novel than I’d expected 🙂 Not only is it a cool and creative blend of the sci-fi, film noir and fantasy genres, but it was also much more of a thriller than I’d expected 🙂 If you like films like “Blade Runner” or just want an imaginative thriller that also includes depth, atmosphere and interesting characters, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Area 7” By Matthew Reilly (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another thriller. And, after enjoying Matthew Reilly’s “Ice Station” a few weeks ago, I thought that I’d take a look at the other Reilly novel I happened to spot in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield last year. I am, of course talking about Reilly’s 2001 thriller novel “Area 7”.

Although this novel is technically a sequel to “Ice Station”, it’s a fairly self-contained novel that can be enjoyed without reading “Ice Station” first. But, if you’ve read “Ice Station” first, then you’ll see a few familiar faces again and get slightly more out of a couple of moments and small sub-plots.

So, let’s take a look at “Area 7”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2002 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Area 7” that I read.

The novel begins with a lecture transcript that discusses the role and history of the office of the US president, before showing an extract from a conspiracy theory magazine about the mysterious death of a US senator called Jerry Woolf.

Then, the story jumps over to Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. A former general called “Caesar” Russell is due to be executed for murder and treason. His last request is to watch the inauguration of the new president on TV and whilst he watches it, he muses about a scheme to secretly implant microchips into the hearts of important people. After this, he is taken to another prison and executed via lethal injection. However, a few minutes after his body is taken away, he is secretly revived using a defribrillator and hyper-oxygenated blood.

A few months later, several experimental plasma warheads are found hidden and fully armed in several major airports. Meanwhile, in the Utah desert, Marine Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is accompanying the president on a helicopter tour of several secret underground military bases in the desert. When the group arrive at Area 7, they are greeted by the elite masked commandos of the Air Force’s 7th Special Operations Squadron.

As the President descends into the base, Schofield and the other marines wait around in the hangar above. Schofield then notices that the troops from the 7th have suddenly taken up offensive – rather than defensive- positions around all exits from the hangar. Seconds later, they open fire on the marines and a battle ensues. Meanwhile, the President watches a demonstration of a new vaccine designed to protect against a bio-weapon. But the demonstration is suddenly interrupted by a video broadcast by Caesar, saying that he has taken command of the base…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 Yes, it is little slower to really get started than “Ice Station” was but – after about the first 80-90 pages or so – it’s nothing but grippingly thrilling non-stop spectacular ultra-fast paced action 🙂 Like with Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “Zero Hour“, this novel is one of the best action movies that you’ll ever read 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t going to win any literary awards, but if you want a book that is like an incredibly fun 1980s-90s action movie “turned up to eleven”, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

As action-thriller novels go, this one is really well-constructed – with a brilliant mixture of suspenseful mini-cliffhangers, cool gadgets, tense time-limits, claustrophobic underground scenes, several competing groups of villains, multiple plot threads, acrobatic stunts, large and small-scale drama, spectacular open-air chase scenes, numerous fast-paced combat sequences (including gladiatorial combat, helicopter duels etc… in addition to the usual gun and fist fights), spectacular set pieces and one of the best uses of Chekhov’s Gun that I’ve seen in a while too (seriously, when you see everything on the fourth floor of the facility, you’ll know what I mean).

Thanks to this immense variety of thriller elements, this is one of those rare thriller novels that can function at full intensity for most of the story without ever getting dull. And, in classic Reilly fashion, this novel is ludicrously and gloriously “over the top” in so many ways 🙂 The best way to describe this is to imagine a Michael Bay movie with absolutely no budgetary or practical limits whatsoever. Leaving aside the numerous spectacular explosions and gunfights, this also includes brilliantly clever location designs and numerous awesome set pieces that take place on land, air, water and… well, I won’t spoil it.

Whether you enjoy all of this or not will depend on how much you can suspend your disbelief. If you take a more “rational” or “realistic” view of this story, then it will seem extremely silly. But, if you can suspend your disbelief, then you’ll be rewarded with the kind of amazingly spectacular action-fest that, even almost two decades after it was written, can still easily surpass even the highest-budget Hollywood films. Seriously, if you want to see an example of how books can be better than films, then read this one!

And, continuing with the action movie theme, one of the cool things about this novel is that – although it was published in 2001 – it is actually more like a gloriously fun 1980s-90s action movie (think “Broken Arrow” meets “Die Hard”, but on steroids) than a more serious, topical and gritty 2000s one. A lot of this has to do with the fact that it was clearly written (and is set) before 9/11 happened.

Not only does this mean that there are a lot of spectacular aircraft-based scenes that would have probably been considered “too soon” if the novel was written a bit later that year, but the novel also deals with the topic of terrorism in a very pre-9/11 kind of way too – with the villains being various evil secret societies, fanatical right-wing groups etc… (with incredibly contrived evil schemes) rather than the religious extremist villains that would become more common in the genre later in the decade.

So, this novel is also a glimpse into the later parts of the more innocent age between the end of the cold war and 9/11 – where thriller writers couldn’t just use the news for inspiration and, instead, had to come up with unpredictable and creative plots for their stories. All of this results in a much more fun and “feel-good” thriller story than the gloomier, grittier and more “topical” thrillers that would characterise most of the 2000s.

In terms of the characters, they are the kind of stylised characters you’d expect in a story like this. Although there is a bit of characterisation for a few main characters and some of the villains, this is more of a plot-focused novel than a character-based one. In fact, in the author interview at the end of the edition I read, Reilly actually states: “I want to write about action and thrills and adventure, and if developing characters slow down the action, then developing characters get the chop!

Still, there is just about enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the main characters. Plus, one amusing thing about this novel is that – although the US President is never explicitly named – from a couple of physical descriptions, the publication date and some references to the time period the story takes place in (eg: mention of a Playstation 2 and Jar Jar Binks, and the most recent other president mentioned in the opening segment being Bill Clinton), he is most likely based on G. W. Bush – which makes the parts of the novel where he gets to be a bit of an action hero absolutely hilarious to read in a cynically ironic way.

As for the writing, it is a Matthew Reilly novel from the 2000s. In other words, the third-person narration is written in a fairly informal and “matter of fact” style that – whilst it probably breaks numerous stylistic rules and is unlikely to win any literary awards – adds a lot of extra speed and intensity to the novel. Yes, if you’re new to this author, then you might find his writing style to be a bit corny, awkward and/or immature at times, but it works. Don’t ask me how, but it works! Like with Reilly’s later novel “Seven Ancient Wonders”, this novel is one of the most well-written “badly written” books that you’ll ever read.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 Although it is a fairly hefty 565 pages in length, these pages flash past at incredible speed – meaning it’ll take you as long to read as a 250-300 page book usually would. And, although the story takes a little while longer to really pick up speed than “Ice Station” does, most of this book feels even faster-paced and more gripping than that novel did. Seriously, if you want a lesson in good, consistently fast action-thriller novel pacing, then read most of this one 🙂

All in all, this novel was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want to read something that is even more spectacular than even the highest-budget action movie, then you’ll enjoy “Area 7”. Yes, it takes a little longer to really get started than I’d expected (and the writing style may put some readers off) but, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with a gloriously intense and over-the-top 1990s-style action-fest of a story 🙂 Just remember to suspend your disbelief before reading it though.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.