Review: “Aliens: Music Of The Spears” by Yvonne Navarro (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for another sci-fi novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Yvonne Navarro’s 1996 sci-fi horror/thriller novel “Aliens: Music Of The Spears” that I’d originally planned to read a year or two ago. Although I couldn’t really get into this novel when I first tried to read it back then, it suddenly became more readable when I tried again a couple of days before writing this review – which was really awesome πŸ™‚

Although this novel tells a very self-contained “Aliens” story (apart from one brief reference to the movies), it is probably worth watching the films first in order to get an understanding of the series’ famous alien creatures. Even so, this isn’t really strictly necessary and this novel probably works well as a stand-alone sci-fi horror novel.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Music Of The Spears”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 Orion (UK) paperback edition of “Aliens: Music Of The Spears” that I read.

Set in Manhattan in the 2120s, the novel begins with a mysterious scene showing a man called Jarlath Keene meeting a woman called Mina in a gloomy apartment. He has paid a lot of money for this meeting and wants her help with some kind of revenge plot. Although she eventually agrees, he somehow still feels like he’s got the worst end of the deal.

We then see Jarlath at work. He’s one of about forty mid-ranking VPs at monopolistic record company called Synsound, who are bitter rivals with the nearby MedTech corporation after one of their sterilization fields accidentally damaged Synsound’s precious collection of master discs. Jarlath isn’t happy with his life and is taking it out in various passive agressive ways on his long-suffering secretary when he learns that Damon Eddington wants to meet with him.

Damon is an experimental musician who is treated as more of an annoyance by Synsound, since they only hired him to show that they support “the arts”. Friendless and bitter, he has recently announced that his next album will be called “The Symphony Of Hate” – an expression of protest and fury at his employers. Naturally, they saw his earnest anger as a good publicity stunt and let him make the album. He has decided to visit Jarlath because his album is missing a certain something. The screaming of an alien, to be precise. A sound that Damon feels perfectly fits the undiluted hatred he wants to express for Synsound.

Keene suggests just using a recording, but Damon points out that the few military recordings in existence lack the sound quality he needs. He also refuses to even think about using computer simulations. Although Keene is about to refuse, he suddenly has a sneaky idea. After all, MedTech is rumoured to have several aliens in their facility and Keene’s boss – Yoriko – has several covert agents who could probably get hold of an egg. It would be a blow for MedTech and might also help to further some of Keene’s other plans too. So, eventually, Keene agrees to Damon’s request. What could possibly go wrong?…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was better than I’d initially expected. If you want a genuinely creepy and suspenseful slower-paced sci-fi horror thriller that is also filled with lots of 1990s nostalgia and cyberpunk atmosphere, then this one is well worth reading. Likewise, if you enjoy “Aliens” novels – like Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” – that differ from the usual formula, then you’ll enjoy this one too.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a lot creepier than I’d initially expected. Although the novel includes a few gruesome moments, most of the horror here is slightly more on the subtle side of things and it works absolutely perfectly. Not only does this novel make excellent use of suspense, but it also relies very heavily on the idea of moral horror – of watching helplessly as the main characters gradually become more and more evil in pursuit of their goals. Add to this some wonderfully dystopian locations, some cruel moments, some moments of drug-based horror, a large dose of cynical 1990s nihilism and lots of creepy characters and this novel becomes significantly more creepy than you might expect from an “Aliens” novel πŸ™‚

As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re really cool. If you love cyberpunk, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. This novel is set in a classic-style cyberpunk dystopia, with powerful mega-corporations and lots of atmospheric urban locations filled with rain, snow, flying cars and glowing lights. Yes, there isn’t really any cyberspace or hacking here, but this novel is good supporting evidence for the theory that “Alien” and “Blade Runner” take place in the same universe πŸ™‚ Seriously, many of the city locations really wouldn’t be out of place in “Blade Runner” πŸ™‚

Another cool thing is that the novel features an updated version of 1990s technology and culture too – everyone still listens to music on physical media, popular musicians from the 1990s are re-created as robots and, instead of smartphones, people use “VidPhones”. Seriously, if you love the 1990s and the cyberpunk genre, then this novel is an absolute joy to read πŸ™‚

One other interesting thing about this novel is how it reflects the social changes that have happened as a result of human contact with aliens. Not only are aliens kept in research labs on Earth and occasionally used as bloodhound-like sniffer dogs by corporate security, but someone has also managed to synthesise a highly addictive drug called “Jelly” from the aliens too. Although this allows the novel to comment about the dangers of hard drugs, it also allows for some cynical satire of unethical corporations when it is revealed that a powerful medical company are using “Jelly” distribution as a secret way to experiment on humans.

The novel’s thriller elements are really well-handled too. In short, this is slightly more of a traditional slower-paced suspense thriller than the “action movie” style stories that are more common in “Aliens” novels. Yes, there are some fast-paced scenes, but most of the novel focuses more on building gradual suspense in a variety of ways. There are small cliffhangers, an ominous feeling that things won’t end well, obsessed characters, secret corporate plots and even some mild detective genre elements that all help this novel to become more and more gripping until the dramatic climax.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In essence, it is a novel about obsession, loneliness and/or meaning. Almost every character lives a slightly “empty” life in one way or another – not only lending the novel a rather nihilistic and creepy atmosphere, but also allowing for the exploration of emotions like alienation and bitterness too. Likewise, Damon’s obsession with his symphony quite literally ends up destroying him psychologically, morally and physically.

As you’d expect from a cyberpunk novel, this novel is also a brilliantly scathing satire of capitalism too. In addition to featuring the usual evil mega-corporations, this novel also shows that one of the reasons why Damon is so bitter is because Synsound has a virtual monopoly on all music sales and recording (buying up smaller studios whenever they appear). He is only employed by them as a token “arts” musician, with their main focus being on more “commercial” music. And in this age of superhero movies and micro-transactions in videogames, this criticism of how large media corporations inhibit actual creativity – for the sake of profit -has never felt more relevant or refreshing than ever.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good too. As mentioned earlier, almost all of them are lonely, bitter or obsessive in some way or another, which really helps to lend the novel a rather creepy and nihilistic atmosphere. Not only that, this novel also includes a reasonably good amount of characterisation that helps to make the story’s many unsympathetic characters feel realistic and compelling too. Like in the best horror fiction, you’ll probably find yourself both absolutely hating Damon and yet somehow wishing for him to succeed at the same time. Like in Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger“, this novel gets the tension between sympathy and revulsion absolutely right πŸ™‚

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is better than I’d expected πŸ™‚ Yes, Navarro’s narration is often slightly on the formal side of things (eg: ‘Mina didn’t have to laugh for Keene to sense that she was more than slightly amused at his clumsy verbiage’) but it still often feels “matter of fact” enough for the novel’s thriller plot. Whilst the writing style may take you a little while to get used to, the added formality is often used to great effect when building atmosphere and – although it can slow down the pacing a little – this actually works here, thanks to the novel’s horror elements and old-school suspense thriller plot.

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a fairly efficient 279 pages, the novel doesn’t feel too long. And, although you shouldn’t expect the kind of fast-paced “Aliens” story that you might expect from other series authors like S.D.Perry, this novel’s pacing is really well-handled. Not only are there a few faster moments to keep the reader on their toes, but the slightly more moderate pacing of the rest of the story allows for a lot of extra suspense and horror than you’d find in a faster-paced “Aliens” novel. As long as you expect a traditional-style thriller, rather than an action movie in book format, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel’s pacing.

In terms of how well this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged better than you might think. Yes, this novel is very 1990s in a lot of ways, but this often feels wonderfully “retro” rather than dated. About the only moments that might startle a modern reader are probably a couple of references to the World Trade Center. Still, for the most part, the “1990s sci-fi” atmosphere of this book just feels reassuringly retro in a really fun and cosy kind of way. Plus, not only do the plot and characters still remain compelling to this day, but some of the novel’s themes are also fairly timeless too.

All in all, this was a better book than I’d expected πŸ™‚ In addition to being a wonderful slice of 1990s cyberpunk nostalgia, it’s also a surprisingly creepy sci-fi horror novel and a reasonably gripping moderately-paced suspense thriller novel too πŸ™‚ If you want an “Aliens” novel that is different to the usual formula, then this novel – and possibly Robert Sheckley’s “Alien Harvest” too – is well worth reading.

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

Review: “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night” By K. W. Jeter (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a thriller novel next, I was more in the mood for sci-fi (and for reading slowly too). So, I thought that I’d re-read a book that I’d originally planned to review last November. I am, of course talking about K. W. Jeter’s 1996 novel “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night”.

This was a novel that I first read in 2011. However, I lost my copy of it and didn’t remember that much about it. So, when l I happened to find a copy of both this novel and K. W. Jeter’s “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield in 2018, I was eager to re-read both of them with the hope of posting reviews of them in November 2019 (for reasons any fan of “Blade Runner” will understand).

Of course, I only got round to reviewing the previous novel and Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” back then. So, this review is long overdue.

But, before I begin, I should probably point out that you need to have watched the first “Blade Runner” film at least a couple of times – in addition to having read P.K.D’s “Electric Sheep” and also Jeter’s “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” too before reading this novel in order to get the most out of it.

Even then, you’ll probably still need to pay attention and take notes whilst reading. So, yes, this is very much a novel for die-hard fans rather than people new to the franchise. Likewise, ever since the release of “Blade Runner 2049” in 2017, this novel is no longer considered canonical.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 Orion (UK) paperback edition of “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night” that I read.

The novel is set several weeks or months after the ending of “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”. Rick Deckard and Sarah Tyrell are living in a hovel on Mars under assumed names. Although there are rumours that the U.N. will resume transport to the outer colonies, the colonists are stuck on the planet and are slowly deteriorating psychologically from stimulus deprivation (something only staved off by either an expensive cable TV subscription or illicit religion-based hallucinogens called “dehydrated deities”).

Running low on cash, Deckard has agreed to be a consultant for a film adaptation of his career. Filming is taking place on a space station near Mars. The novel begins with a re-creation of his encounter with Leon, performed by an actor who looks identical to him (thanks to the wonders of CGI). However, when “Rachel” shows up and shoots Leon, Deckard happens to spot that the Leon replicant has actually been killed. Furious about this, he goes to find the director to get some answers. Or at least to beat some answers out of him.

Meanwhile, Dave Holden shows up at the station with a talking briefcase. He sneaks around for a while, trying to find a way to approach Deckard without getting noticed. One of the production crew mistakes him for the actor playing Dave Holden and insists on a rehearsal. Dave goes along with it, only to be shot and killed by another Leon replicant. A man called Marley then shoots the replicant just as Deckard arrives. After a scuffle and an argument, Deckard quits the job and storms off of the station. But, just as he’s leaving, a production assistant hands him the briefcase. It has his initials on it.

Back on the surface of Mars, Sarah Tyrell is alone at home. With the events of the past weighing on her mind and only a talking clock and calendar (both of whom are probably distant relatives of Talkie Toaster) to keep her company, she isn’t in a good place psychologically. She has recently bought an illegal gun and two bullets. One for Deckard and one for herself…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was an absolute joy to read πŸ™‚ Yes, the plot does get a little convoluted but – as a whole – it is very true to the tone and style of the original film whilst also adding lots of interesting new stuff too πŸ™‚ In fact, some moments are even “More ‘Blade Runner’ than ‘Blade Runner’“, if this makes sense πŸ™‚ Seriously, if you love the atmosphere of the film, then you’ll love this book. Plus, although this novel is non-canonical these days, it goes into a lot more depth about some of the stuff that eventually appeared in “Blade Runner 2049” too πŸ™‚

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although this novel includes a few things which you probably wouldn’t expect to see in anything “Blade Runner”-related (like time distortions, “dehydrated deities”, morphogenic fields, memetic idea-weapons etc..), all of this “out there” stuff is very much in keeping with the weird 1960s science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Not to mention that all of this weird stuff is also there for important plot-related reasons and to add a bit more depth to the “world” of the story – even if it might seem a bit out of place at first.

As you’d expect from anything “Blade Runner” related, this novel is absolutely brimming with intellectual depth too πŸ™‚ In addition to further exploring some of the central themes of the original film (eg: authority, humanity, moral complexity etc…), the novel also adds a few interesting themes of it’s own. In addition to further exploring the P.K.D-inspired concepts of simulacra and artificiality through several meta-fictional scenes that reference the original film and the idea of people becoming addicted to cable TV and religion-based hallucinogens, the novel is also a much more introspective story than you might expect.

Although this novel does have a complex and gritty “film noir”/conspiracy thriller-style plot, the main focus is on introspection and personal discovery. Both Deckard and Sarah go on weird inner journeys via hallucinogens or time travel. These are often heavily focused on their memories, which not only allows the novel to explore how the past affects the present day, but also to explore the concept of unreliable memory too. Not to mention that this also links in with the theme of memories from the original film too.

And, talking of the films, “Blade Runner 2049” probably took a lot of inspiration from this book. Whether it is the “rep-symps”, pro-replicant rebels who are only glimpsed in “Blade Runner 2049” but play a very large “off screen” role in this novel or the dusty desert landscapes or even the idea of replicants being able to reproduce, it’s fairly obvious that someone involved with the second film has probably read this book πŸ™‚ Yet, at the same time, this novel is also very different from the second film πŸ™‚

Plus, like with Jeter’s “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”, this novel also includes a few creepy horror elements that are in keeping with the style of the series. In addition to a few moments of gory horror and some creepy locations, this story focuses quite heavily on psychological and character-based horror too – which really helps to add a bit of unsettling darkness to the story πŸ™‚

As for the characters, they are excellent πŸ™‚ Not only is Deckard very true to the grizzled, rough and morally-ambiguous character that you’ll know from the films, but Sarah Tyrell also gets a lot of extra characterisation too. She’s this wonderfully complicated character who is both very sympathetic and extremely unsympathetic at the same time. In addition to the return of a few familiar faces (eg: Roy Batty, J.F. Sebastian etc..), the malevolent ghost of Eldon Tyrell also seems to lurk in the background (via his past actions and effects on the characters) too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough πŸ™‚

The writing in this novel is absolutely stellar too πŸ™‚ Jeter’s third-person narration is written in a style that is both hardboiled and highly-descriptive at the same time. Whilst this slows down the pacing of the story a bit, it means that many scenes – especially those that reference the original film – are actually more “Blade Runner” than the original film. Although the main plot may be set on the dusty colonies of Mars, there’s still plenty of time for lots of beautiful, poetic descriptions of the “neon-veined” streets of future L.A and they are blissful to read πŸ™‚ Seriously, the writing in this novel is an absolutely perfect fit with the film that inspired it πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. Although it is a fairly efficient 309 pages in length, the highly-descriptive writing style, ultra-complex plot, very tiny print and heavy focus on introspection mean that this will be a much slower-paced novel than you might expect. But, surprisingly, this isn’t a bad thing here.

Slow pacing is one of the strengths of the original films, giving the audience time to think and to drink in the amazing atmosphere and lavish visual details. It’s also an antidote to the rapidly-edited ultra-fast films that are so common these days. And it is great to see that the novel recognises this and uses it to full advantage – even if it means that this novel will take you longer to read than you might expect (and you’ll also have to pay attention and take a few notes to make sense of the plot too).

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. On the one hand, the novel’s descriptions of things like CGI and the opioid epidemic feel eerily prescient, not to mention the fact that the characters and writing are timelessly exquisite too. Plus, given how much of an inspiration this novel seems to have been on the modern film sequel to “Blade Runner”, it’s also ahead of its time in this regard too. On the other hand, you should also expect to see a few slightly dated and/or “politically incorrect” descriptions or moments every now and then.

All in all, although this novel’s plot can get a bit convoluted and also contains a few fairly “out there” sci-fi elements, it is a worthy sequel to “Blade Runner” πŸ™‚ It is dripping with atmosphere, is true to the tone of the original film and is just an absolute joy to read πŸ™‚ If you’ve seen the films and you want to learn more about their intriguingly mysterious futuristic “world” and the characters who live within it, then you absolutely need to read Jeter’s spin-off novels.

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

Review: “Keeper Of The Bride” By Tess Gerritsen (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still extremely hot after I finished the previous novel I reviewed, I needed another “easy reading” thriller novel that I could enjoy in this dreadful weather.

Luckily, a week or so earlier, I’d been looking online for second-hand books when I happened to notice that Tess Gerritsen had written several stand-alone thriller novels before she started her famous “Rizzoli And Isles” detective series. Intrigued, I bought a copy of Gerritsen’s 1996 novel “Keeper Of The Bride” (which, surprisingly, was actually cheaper when bought as part of an omnibus).

So, with the weather being what it was and the novel being both a thriller and a short novel, it seemed like the perfect time to take a look at it πŸ™‚

Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Harlequin MIRA (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the copy of “Keeper Of The Bride” that I read.

The novel begins in a church in Portland, Maine. Nina Cormier is hiding in one of the back rooms, stricken by disbelief at the fact that her fiancee – Robert Bledsoe – has called off their wedding at the last minute, leaving her there with lots of gifts to return and lots of money wasted on a wedding dress. After sending her sister away, Nina eventually meets the priest and asks him to give her a lift home. They sit in the car outside the church, whilst he tries to give her a reassuring talk about how unexpected things happen and that fate can be a mysterious thing. Then, the church explodes.

Meanwhile, local bomb squad detective Sam Navarro is getting an angry lecture from the D.A. about the death of a rookie cop in a warehouse blast sometime earlier. Luckily for Sam, the chief has his back and is able to get the D.A. to back off for a while. However, none of the bomb squad have any real leads on the latest spate of bombings, other than physical evidence that suggests that the culprit may be a copy-cat attacker who is following in the footsteps of a recently-deceased bomb-maker called Vincent Spectre. Then, a few minutes later, Sam gets a call about the church.

When he arrives there, he questions Nina and examines the crime scene. None of it makes any sense, the previous attacks having all taken place in warehouses and places like that. Sometime later, Nina is run off of the road by another car and survives the crash with only minor injuries. When Sam hears about it, he rushes to the scene and discovers a bullet hole in the car window. Someone is trying to kill Nina and it is up to him to catch them before they do…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really enjoyable suspense thriller, with fairly good detective and romance elements too πŸ™‚ Yes, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything like that, but if you want a fun, relaxing “feel good” thriller novel that is vaguely reminscent of TV shows like “NCIS” or a slightly more “realistic” mid-budget version of the movie “Speed“, then this one is definitely worth a read πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s thriller elements. Although there are a couple of brief car chases, this is much more of a traditional suspense thriller than an action-thriller novel, and it works really well πŸ™‚ The plot moves at a decent pace, with the constant threat of an unseen killer lurking in the background, some mysterious criminal intrigue, several perilous situations and a nail-biting time limit or two. All of this stuff works fairly well and ensures that there aren’t really any boring moments here. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the novel’s focus on bomb defusal and a game of cat-and-mouse between a detective and a criminal also reminded me a little bit of the movie “Speed”, which is never a bad thing πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re also fairly good – although they take a slight back seat to the story’s thriller and drama elements. Sam interviews people, examines crime scenes, makes deductions from physical evidence and also comes up with theories occasionally. All of this stuff feels fairly realistic, in a “police procedural” kind of way, and helps to add a bit of extra intrigue to the story. But, as mentioned earlier, this is more of a thriller than a traditional “whodunnit” – with, for example, the criminal’s identity being revealed about two-thirds of the way through the novel and the emphasis shifting to trying to stop him before he sets off another bomb.

The novel’s romance elements are also really well-handled too πŸ™‚ Initially, Sam and Nina are reluctant to get too close to each other because they have both recently been through failed relationships. Likewise, much to Nina’s consternation, Sam is also torn between his duty as a policeman and his feelings for Nina – which he wants to spare because he knows from experience that relationships forged in the middle of cases rarely last long afterwards.

Not only does this add a lot of extra drama to the story, but it also means that the few steamy trysts that the couple share feel a lot more passionate and impulsive because they both know that they will regret it the next morning. All of this stuff helps to add a bit more intensity and realism to the novel’s romance elements and prevents it from feeling too much like a “traditional” romance, whilst also still allowing it to fit easily into the genre too.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Both Sam and Nina come across as fairly realistic and “good” people, who are filled with conflicting emotions and enough flaws to make the reader care about what happens to them. Both also get a reasonable amount of characterisation and backstory too. Although many of the background characters feel very slightly stylised, this actually works quite well – since it gives the novel a vaguely movie/TV like atmosphere. Likewise, although the novel’s main villain can be a little bit cartoonishly evil, this is handled in a wonderfully dramatic way that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-budget 1990s movie πŸ™‚

As for the writing, it is really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a mildly informal and “matter of fact” way that not only helps the story to move at a decent pace, but also helps to add a slightly stylised “police procedural”/mid-budget film atmosphere to the story too πŸ™‚ Reading this novel feels like relaxing in front of the telly and watching a random detective show πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is superb πŸ™‚ At a gloriously efficient 251 pages in length, there isn’t a single wasted page here and this is one of those satisfyingly short novels that can be enjoyed in just a few hours πŸ™‚ Likewise, the pacing is really good too – with lots of dramatic events, intriguing mystery/uncertainty and suspenseful moments that mean that the story never really slows down too much or gets boring. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast novel, this one certainly moves at a fairly decent speed πŸ™‚

As for how well this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well πŸ™‚ For the most part, it pretty much feels like a modern novel – with only a few tell-tale details (like car phones instead of mobile phones) and the vaguely “Speed”-like atmosphere cluing the reader in to the fact that this is a novel from the mid-1990s πŸ™‚ But, even so, this is a pretty “timeless” novel πŸ™‚

All in all, this is a really fun suspense thriller novel that is perfect for when you just want to relax with a compelling “feel good” novel πŸ™‚ With a good combination of suspense, crime, thrills and romance, this is a novel that never gets boring and manages to be both nostalgically “1990s” whilst also being timeless enough to feel modern. Yes, it doesn’t do anything too new, but if you enjoy TV shows like “NCIS” or movies like “Speed”, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Star Trek: Voyager – Bless the Beasts” By Karen Haber (Novel)

Well, due to hot weather at the time of writing, I found myself in the mood for a relaxing “feel good” novel. So, “Star Trek” seemed like a good choice. And, after looking through my collection of second-hand “Star Trek” novels (from when I went through a phase of reading lots of them in 2010-13), I ended up choosing Karen Haber’s 1996 novel “Star Trek: Voyager – Bless The Beasts”.

Although this novel tells a stand-alone “Star Trek: Voyager” story and also includes some character introductions, it is probably worth watching at least a few episodes from the first two seasons of the TV show (most of them are also fairly self-contained) just to get a better impression of the characters and the premise of the show. Even so, you could probably still just about understand this novel if you haven’t seen the TV show.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: Voyager – Bless The Beasts”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: Voyager – Bless The Beasts” that I read.

The novel begins with the Starfleet spaceship U.S.S Voyager – stranded thousands of light years from Earth – continuing its long journey home. However, a problem with the dilithium in the ship’s warp core and several other sudden technical malfunctions threaten to leave them dead in space. Captain Janeway orders scans for any dilithium in the local area and, after messing around with the sensors a bit, Ensign Kim manages to find a planet called Sardalia – populated by bird-like humanoids- that has the resources they need.

But, there is a problem. Sardalia is a pre-warp civilisation, not yet advanced enough for first contact under Starfleet rules. Janeway is still considering whether the situation justifies breaking this rule when the Sardalians suddenly contact Voyager. After some initial misunderstandings, she is invited to an elaborate formal dinner hosted by Lord Councillor Kolias, the leader of a city-state called Vamorra. He is happy to help out with the ship and provide the resources needed.

Whilst Chief Engineer Torres is a little bit annoyed by both the quality of the minerals and the incompetence of the Sardalian engineers she has to work with, things go well enough that Janeway reluctantly allows the crew to take shore leave on the planet. Tom Parris finds Harry Kim preparing to take scientific equipment down to the planet in order to conduct biological and geological research and insists that he leaves it all behind. Shore leave is meant to be fun, right?

A little while later, Tom and Harry meet a local woman called Marima in a bar. She invites them to a “harvesting” with some of her friends. Tom is eager to attend, expecting some kind of rural party or dance. But, when Marima leads them to a boat, it soon becomes apparent that “harvesting” involves poaching whale-like creatures called Darra. Not only that, their boat soon comes under attack from another craft owned by the neighbouring city-state of Micaszia and begins to sink…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ Although the writing style has a few small flaws at times, it is well worth sticking with this book because not only is it like an ultra-atmospheric two-part “lost episode” of the TV show (with about three times the location, special effects etc… budget) but, to my delight, it was also much more of a thriller novel than I’d initially expected πŸ™‚ And, of course, it is also a Tom Parris and Harry Kim-based novel too πŸ™‚

Although this novel certainly contains all of the sci-fi stuff that you’d expect from “Star Trek”, this is slightly more of a background element here. Instead, the main focus of the novel is on gripping survival drama, compelling political intrigue and moral/philosophical debate. Even so, the novel’s sci-fi elements are still very well-written and are very much in keeping with the general style and tone of the TV show. The only technical error I noticed was that Tom and Harry were still able to talk with Marima after they lost their comm-badges (which contain a translator module, if my memory of the show is correct).

Interestingly, this novel is also – by virtue of being from 1996 – set during the earlier seasons of the TV show, which not only allows for Kes to make an appearance but also means that the novel still contains some lingering remnants of the slight unease between the ship’s Starfleet crew and the ex-Maquis members who have joined them.

Anyway, as mentioned earlier, the main emphasis of this novel is on its thriller elements and they are absolutely excellent πŸ™‚ Scenes of suspenseful and/or fast-paced survival drama are expertly counterpointed with slightly more complex scenes of political intrigue, spy drama and/or ominous mystery. Both of these parts of the story complement each other absolutely excellently, keeping everything gripping throughout the story πŸ™‚ Seriously, it’s really good to read a “Star Trek” novel that manages to balance the more complex, intellectual and social elements of the TV show with its action/adventure elements in a way that makes both of them equally interesting to read.

These thriller elements are also enhanced by the use of relatively short chapters, a formal but fast-paced writing style, a couple of sub-plots, some mysterious elements and the use of mini-cliffhangers. All of this stuff really helps to add some momentum to the story and also ensures that you’ll probably read at least a few more pages than you’ll expect to whenever you sit down to read it πŸ™‚

In terms of themes, this novel mostly seems to be about conservation and technological ethics. Some extra nuance and complexity are also added to the story thanks to the fact that the Vandorrans are poaching the Darra because their blood contains an enzyme that can treat a deadly congenital disease they are suffering from. This causes political tensions with Micaszia, since the Vandorrans want to hunt the Darra to extinction rather than carefully farm them in a sustainable way.

All of this nuance and complexity helps the story to makes a few points about various topics without becoming too preachy (despite Harry’s opinionated comments during some moments). Yes, all of this moral and social complexity is wrapped up in a rather convenient way in the later parts of the story, but it’s still good to see a “Star Trek” novel that doesn’t preach at the reader too much πŸ™‚

The novel also grapples with the “prime directive” too, with this rule against sharing technology with less-advanced civilisations allowing for a lot of dramatic moments and complex dilemmas – which are, of course, resolved with some creative interpretation of the rules. Even so, this plot device allows the story to show how differently the Starfleet and ex-Maquis crew members see things during the earlier parts of Voyager‘s journey.

As for the characters, I initially worried that they were written in a fairly bland way but, as the story progresses, they gain a lot more personality and depth πŸ™‚ Although most of the main characters get a fairly decent amount of characterisation and/or their own story arcs, this novel is very much a Tom and Harry-focused one πŸ™‚ This novel gets the contrast between Tom’s impishly gleeful, bold and gregarious personality and Harry’s more cautious and sensible personality absolutely right and the scenes involving both of them are an absolute joy to read πŸ™‚ Not only does this add a lot of subtle comedy to the novel’s more “serious” moments, but it also adds a bit of extra suspense and drama to a few scenes too πŸ™‚

Interestingly, Janeway is a slightly angrier character in this story, with several of her clever schemes to deal with the Sardalian politicians also being a bit on the morally-ambiguous side of things too. Although this slight character change will probably annoy “Voyager” purists, it comes across as a fairly realistic reaction to the situations that Janeway finds herself in and also makes her seem like a more complex and compelling character too – in addition to hammering home the fact that Voyager is completely alone, stranded light years away from Earth.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is better than it first seems. During the first chapter or two, I was ready to write this novel off as “badly-written” thanks to a few things like the frequent use of adverbs and lots of “telling” descriptions. However, once I got over this, I found that I really enjoyed the writing style in this novel. It is written in a slightly formal- but fast-paced – style that not only helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace, but also allows for a lot of atmosphere too (and there are some fairly cool-looking/interesting locations here too πŸ™‚). Seriously, don’t judge this novel by the writing in the first couple of chapters, it is a more well-written and enjoyably readable novel than it might initially seem to be.

As for length and pacing, this novel is superb πŸ™‚ At an efficient 274 pages, not a single page is wasted. In addition to all of the compelling thriller elements that I mentioned earlier, one cool thing about this novel is the sheer amount of sub-plots that it manages to cram into just 274 pages – without ever really slowing down the story or distracting from the main plot either. I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough πŸ™‚

In terms of how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well πŸ™‚ Thanks to the futuristic setting, compelling pacing and fairly readable writing style, this could pretty much be a modern novel πŸ™‚

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ Yes, the writing style isn’t always perfect, but it is a really gripping and atmospheric “Star Trek: Voyager” novel that contains excellent pacing, plotting and settings. This novel literally feels like a “lost episode” from the earlier seasons of the TV show and is also the kind of book where you’ll probably end up reading more pages of it than you expect to every time you pick it up πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Idoru” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was still in the mood for some 1990s sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru”. This novel is the second novel in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” (you can see my review of the first one here) and, like the rest of the trilogy, it is a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I found it in a second-hand bookshop at least a decade ago.

Interestingly, although this novel is the second novel in a trilogy, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, a few familiar faces from “Virtual Light” appear as background characters and there are a few brief references to stuff from that novel but, for the most part, this is a self-contained cyberpunk novel that can probably be enjoyed without reading “Virtual Light”.

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

This is the 1997 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Idoru” that I read.

Set in the near-future, the novel begins with ex-security guard Rydell passing on a job offer from a company called Paragon-Asia Dataflow to a talented data analyst called Colin Laney who is staying at the same hotel as him. When Laney flies out to Tokyo for the interview, he ends up meeting a sociologist called Yamazaki and a burly, scarred Australian man called Blackwell. Moving between various bars and restaurants, Laney tells the two men the story of how he came to be fired from his previous job at an unscrupulous gossip site called Slitscan.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, several teenage members of the American fan club for ageing rock band Lo/Rez are meeting up to discuss rumours that one member, Rez, has decided to marry a famous A.I. construct called Rei Toei. After some discussion, one of the members steals some of her father’s frequent flier miles and hands them to another member called Chia, who is dispatched to Tokyo to find out more….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric story that is also ridiculously ahead of it’s time too. Plus, it is also more of a cyberpunk novel than “Virtual Light” was, albeit with a slightly more understated and realistic atmosphere than in any of Gibson’s classic 1980s cyberpunk novels (like “Neuromancer”). Seriously, this novel is really cool πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although there’s all the classic cyberpunk stuff like virtual reality, nanotechnology, A.I. etc.. the most interesting “futuristic” part of this novel is how accurately Gibson predicted a lot of stuff about the modern internet.

Whether it is the novel’s cynical depiction of internet journalism, how the internet has affected fame, the way old music still seems “current” thanks to the internet, scenes involving something similar to the dark web, lots of stuff about privacy and big data or even a scene where a character is blackmailed with something very similar to a modern “deepfake” video, this novel often reads like a brilliantly cynical satire of the modern internet… that was first published in 1996. Just let that sink in for a minute. 1996.

Like with “Virtual Light”, this novel is also something of a thriller too. But, unlike the slightly more action-packed storyline of “Virtual Light”, this is much more of a tense suspenseful thriller that gradually builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and unease. There are lots of mini-cliffhangers, scenes where characters find themselves “out of their depth” and scenes where characters are followed by ruthless villains. In a lot of ways, this focus on suspense reminded me a little bit of 1990s horror novels by Ryu Murakami like “Piercing” and “In The Miso Soup”.

I cannot praise the atmosphere and locations in this novel highly enough πŸ™‚ If you enjoyed the atmospheric settings of either of the 1990s Ryu Murakami novels I mentioned earlier, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. Although Gibson’s fictional version of Tokyo contains some futuristic elements and is presented from more of a tourist’s perspective, it is a really fascinating and vividly-described location that really helps the novel to come alive.

Literally my only criticism of the settings is that the novel’s most intriguing location, a hidden virtual reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, only appears during a few brief scenes and isn’t really described in the level of detail that I’d expected (and it’s probably more there as a metaphor for the benefits and drawbacks of online anarchy). Given how fascinating photos, videos etc… of this demolished city are, it is a bit of a shame that such an intriguing location doesn’t get more time in this story. Still, the very fact that it is there is incredibly cool.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is – like in “Virtual Light” – written in a slightly more understated version of Gibson’s classic writing style. In other words, the narration in this novel is a brilliant mixture of more hardboiled, flowing, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and lots of vivid, detailed, slow-paced and atmospheric descriptions πŸ™‚ Seriously, I love how Gibson is able to write in a style that is both fast and slow-paced at the same time and which is also both pulpy and intellectual at the same time.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. They all seem like fairly realistic people and the novel also handles characterisation in different ways for several characters too. With Laney, the bulk of his characterisation focuses on his backstory. With Chia, the bulk of her characterisation focuses on her music fandom, her friendships, her impressions of Tokyo and how she handles various dangerous situations. With Blackwell, we get a few tantalising pieces of backstory but most of his characterisation is done via actions, descriptions and dialogue. I could go on for a while, but this variety of characterisation types really helps to add a lot more intrigue to the characters.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At a fairly efficient 292 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted here. As I hinted at earlier, this novel is both fast and slow-paced at the same time, with the suspense, multiple plot threads, writing style and premise keeping this novel gripping, but with lots of slower descriptive moments that really help the story to come alive. On the whole, this novel’s pacing is really good – with the story gradually building in suspense and scale as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel’s internet-related satire is ridiculously ahead of it’s time and the story also still remains very compelling when read today. Yes, there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments and some elements of the story do seem a bit ’90s – such as a possible ’90s computer game reference (eg: a rock band called “The Dukes Of Nuke ‘Em”) but, on the whole, this novel is very much ahead of it’s time.

All in all, this is a really cool novel πŸ™‚ It’s an atmospheric, compelling and intelligent cyberpunk thriller that is also very far ahead of it’s time too.

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

Review: “Barb Wire” By Neal Barratt Jr. (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a film novelisation that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a decade and a half. I am, of course, talking about Neal Barratt Jr’s 1996 novelisation of “Barb Wire”.

If I remember rightly, I first learnt that there was a novelisation of this film when, during my teenage years, I happened to see a copy of it (along with the novelisation of “Eraser”) in either a HMV, MVC or Fopp store (anyone remember those?). Although I’d seen the film on late-night TV a year or two earlier, the idea of a “Barb Wire” novel just seemed hilariously awesome, so I ended up buying a copy.

Then, I forgot about it. However, after chancing upon a fan-made trailer/ music video for the film on Youtube, I thought “I should watch this film again for a laugh“. But, since I’m not really going through a film-watching phase at the moment, I remembered the novelisation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it anywhere and, at a guess, I must have sent it to the charity shop during a clear-out I had in late 2017. Luckily, after a bit of searching, I was able to find a cheap second-hand copy online. So, this book review has been a long time in the making.

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

This is the 1996 Boxtree (UK) paperback edition of “Barb Wire” that I read.

The novel is set in the dsytopian future of 2032. After a military coup led by far-right elements in the US Congress, America is in the middle of a second civil war. Well, except for the city of Steel Harbor, a UN-administered demilitarised zone that is filled with low-lives, gangsters and crooks. It is also home to the Hammerhead Bar & Grill, a late-night establishment run by an ex-soldier called Barb Wire.

The novel begins with Barb Wire blowing up a generator facility using both motorbike-mounted missiles and grenades. Then, we see a senior officer in the Congressional Directorate – Colonel Victor Pryzer – cruelly torturing a resistance member for information about a fugitive scientist called Dr. Cora Devonshire and the whereabouts of a very expensive pair of contact lenses.

Whilst Cora and a man called Axel Hood try to sneak into Steel Harbour, Barb finds that she is running low on cash. So, she decides to spend the evening doing a spot of bounty hunting. The fugitive is called W.R. Krebs. One spectacular gunfight later, Barb hands Krebs over to a dodgy bail bondsman called Rhino. However, she later gets a visit from the local chief of police who is looking for Krebs. To Barb’s surprise, the chief tells her that Krebs was a member of the resistance….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was better than I’d expected πŸ™‚ Although the early parts didn’t really wow me, it turned into a much more atmospheric, compelling and thrilling novel than I’d expected. In fact, it was actually better than what I remembered of the film. If you like 1990s-style edginess with a hint of cyberpunk, a hint of film noir and a decent dose of dystopian fiction, then this novel is well-worth reading. Seriously, why didn’t I read this when I was a teenager?

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s thriller elements, which are a good mixture of thrillingly fast-paced action scenes and more suspenseful moments. Surprisingly, the emphasis is slightly more on suspense, with a vaguely Chandleresque plot involving various factions within the city and a few scenes where characters have to hide from the authorities or deal with the local criminal underworld. All of this suspense also means that, when the novel’s action-packed finale eventually roars into view, it seems even more thrillingly dramatic by comparison.

The novel also includes a few well-placed horror elements too πŸ™‚ Whether they are descriptions of life in the city (where rats are ever-present and many people live in grim poverty), some grisly moments, the war horrors relayed during the backstory segments or pretty much every scene involving Pryzer, this novel definitely has a rather chilling undercurrent to it which really help to add some intensity,darkness and atmosphere to this adaptation of a cheesy late-night movie.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, there’s relatively little in the way of futuristic technology (other than a creepy mind-reading machine, some high-tech contact lenses and numerous fictional weapons) and the focus is more on the story’s dystopian alternate future. The novel goes into this in a lot more detail than the film does, with “excerpts” from a history book of the time appearing in between chapters of the story. Not only does this help to make the novel feel a bit more like a “serious” work of dystopian fiction, but this is also beautifully counterpointed by the atmosphere of the story too.

Seriously, this novel has the kind of sleazy, run-down, hedonistic, mildly cyberpunk and vaguely post-apocalyptic atmopshere that you only ever seem to see in films from the more hedonistic days of the 1980s/90s, and it is an absolute joy to behold here πŸ™‚ A fair amount of the story takes place on dangerous streets, in Barb’s bar, in ominous abandoned buildings etc… and, thanks to the novel’s descriptions, these places feel like more than just film sets.

One interesting difference between the novel and what I remember of the film is that the novel’s dramatic final scenes take place in the dead of night rather than in the middle of the day – this is a small change, but it really helps to add both extra suspense and coolness to these spectacular action scenes. Likewise, it is implied that the novel takes place sometime around 2032 whereas- looking online – the film apparently takes place in the distant future of 2017. So, the book’s setting is a little bit more believable than the film’s.

In terms of the characters, this novel is surprisingly good. Thanks to the fact that this is a book rather than a film, there is a lot more focus on characterisation here. In addition to giving the villain more of a chilling backstory and adding extra complexity to Barb’s character (eg: her past with Axel, her desire to remain neutral in the war etc…) whilst still allowing her to be the kind of badass anti-hero that you’d expect from a 1990s movie, the novel also adds a bit more characterisation to many of the background characters too – which adds extra drama to the story, since you actually care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, this novel is better than I’d expected. The novel’s third-person narration mostly consists of the informal, hardboiled, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration that you’d expect from an action-thriller novel, but this is also paired with quite a few brilliant descriptive moments and gloriously cheesy ones (eg: ‘The sun was a scabrous orange, draining its venom into another day’) that help to add extra atmosphere.

This novel also has a few mildly experimental flourishes too, such as a film-script style dialogue scene, a few vaguely cyberpunk-influenced narrative moments and numerous “excerpts” from a fictional history book. Amusingly though, for such an “edgy” novel, the dialogue is surprisingly polite (with, for example, characters saying “friggin’ ” rather than the word you’d realistically expect them to use).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 267 pages, it never outstays it’s welcome. The pacing is reasonably good too, with most of the story being moderately fast-paced (with the pace kept up via dialogue, suspense and occasional action scenes) and the final segment being slightly more fast-paced and action-packed. This contrast makes the ending seem even more thrilling and it works really well.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged weirdly. The plot is still compelling, the locations are still atmospheric and the characters are still interesting. Yet, this novel really does feel like something from a different era – an era where people were a bit more hedonistic, where gloomy dystopian cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi was a more popular genre (seriously, it even turned up in the music video for “Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls), where “edgy” anti-hero characters were popular etc… And I kind of miss it. Yes, some parts of this book haven’t aged all that well and there are a few “politically incorrect” moments. But, these aside, this book is a wonderfully nostalgic slice of late-night 1990s nostalgia.

All in all, this novelisation is much better than what I can remember of the film it is based on. On it’s own merits, it’s a reasonably fun, well-written, cheesy and very 1990s “edgy” dystopian sci-fi thriller novel that is compelling and atmospheric. Yes, it isn’t anything too groundbreaking, but it’s a far better book than I’d expected it to be.

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

Review: “The Skin Palace” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read a Jack O’Connell novel. After really enjoying O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and “Box Nine” about six months earlier, I ended up buying all five of his “Quinsigamond” novels. Then… I got distracted by other books.

Still, after the previous novel I read really amazed me, I needed to read another high-quality book. And, after searching through my book piles, I found the second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1996 novel “The Skin Palace” that I’d planned to read several months ago.

Interestingly, whilst this novel takes place in the same fictional city as O’Connell’s other “Quinsigamond” novels and even contains a few references to events and locations from “Word Made Flesh” (eg: Maisel, The July Sweep etc..), it is a self-contained novel that can be read on it’s own or, as I did, out of the correct “order” of the series.

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

This is the 2016 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Skin Palace” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious description of a teenage boy watching a silent film in a cinema. During the film, a bereaved woman enters the theatre and sits in front of the boy. She breaks into tears during the film. The boy mistakenly believes that she is profoundly affected by what she is seeing on the screen.

Three years later, a couple called Sylvia and Perry are having a romantic evening at a drive-in theatre when Perry, a lawyer, mentions that he’s got a raise and wants to buy Sylvia something. Sylvia has seen an advert for a used high-end camera and, being an amateur photographer, she suggests it. Although Perry isn’t keen on the idea, he agrees. The next day, Sylvia visits a dilapidated camera shop in one of the more run-down parts of town and sets into motion a bizarre chain of events.

Meanwhile, local mob boss Hermann Kinsky wants his eighteen-year old son Jakob to join the family business. Although Jakob’s sociopathic cousin Felix has fit into mob life really well and seems to be the logical choice of successor, Hermann wants his nerdy film-obsessed son to be his protege…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a little slow to start and it probably isn’t for everyone, it is amazing. It is this wonderfully surreal, vivid, compelling, atmospheric and unique “film noir”-themed drama novel that somehow manages to be both extremely high-brow and yet rebelliously “edgy” at the same time. This is the kind of novel that makes you think “THIS has artistic merit!“.

Seriously, this book does so much clever stuff. Whether it is the brilliant irony of a story about cinema and photography being told purely through text, or the novel’s many points about the power of images, or the beautiful narration, or the elaborately bizarre locations that you’ll really want to visit, or the fact that you’ll feel like you’ve gained 20 IQ points (and doubled your thinking speed) after a reading session, or the ultra-deep characterisation or even some of the novel’s brilliantly cynical political satire, this surreal hardboiled drama novel is a lot more “high-brow” than you might think πŸ™‚

One of the major themes of this book is the power of images, and this is explored in all sorts of ways. Whether it is a character who was pretty much raised in a cinema, scenes that show how the audience determines the meaning of an image, scenes involving mysterious photographs, a blue movie director with high artistic ambitions, film script-like narrative segments, a bizarre version of “The Wizard Of Oz”, an almost religious focus on traditional film-based cameras etc… This is the kind of book that really makes you think about the hundreds of images we all see every day.

This book is also just as atmospheric as you’d expect a Jack O’Connell novel to be too πŸ™‚ Like in the other O’Connell novels I’ve read, this story takes place in a vaguely New York/New England-style city called Quinsigamond. It’s this slightly run-down, modern film noir city filled with garish neon and quirky old buildings. It really feels like a real place πŸ™‚ Seriously, I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to visit Quinsigamond πŸ™‚

Plus, as befitting settings like this, the novel is also something of a crime/mystery thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, this story has enough suspense, mystery, elaborate criminal schemes, plot twists, cleverly connected storylines etc.. to compare fairly well to traditional hardboiled crime fiction. Even so, the crime-based parts of the story are more of a sub-plot (with the bulk of the novel being about Sylvia’s bizarre detective-like quest to find the original owner of the second-hand camera she found, rather than Jakob’s experience of life in the mob).

The novel also contains some wonderfully cynical political satire too. One sub-plot revolves around two fanatical (and thoroughly hypocritical) political campaign groups trying to shut down an adult theatre. Both groups are, of course, on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum to each other. The fights between these two fanatical political groups and, ultimately, their chilling similarities, is a brilliantly daring and cynical piece of political satire that feels oddly timeless and yet very much of the 1990s at the same time.

In terms of the characters, this novel absolutely excels πŸ™‚ Not only do many of the characters get an astonishing amount of characterisation, but they’re all both realistic enough to be relatable, yet stylised enough to appear dream-like or larger than life. Seriously, the characters are one of the major reasons why this is such a compelling story. One of the best examples of this is how Sylvia and Jakob’s character arcs parallel each other, yet feel different and distinctive enough to really add variety to the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is exquisite. Although the novel’s use of the present tense might take a little bit of getting used to, it really helps the story’s many descriptions flow in a way that feels hyper-vivid. Seriously, some descriptive parts of this novel are almost poetic. Best of all, these elaborate descriptions are paired with a more “matter of fact” hardboiled style that helps to keep the story feeling solid. In essence, this novel reads a little bit like a mixture of Dashiell Hammett and William Burroughs or something like that.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things. At 414 pages in length and with a lot of focus on descriptions and characterisation, don’t expect a quick read. Yet, even though this book is a bit slow-paced, it won’t really matter because the story is so vivid and compelling.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Whilst the focus on non-digital cameras and cinemas dates the novel a bit, it also lends it a surprisingly timeless “film noir”-like quality. Likewise, whilst this novel does have a small number of rather dated “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a scene that seems to conflate drag queens and transgender people. And don’t get me started on the violence and pronouns in this scene…), most other parts of the novel have aged fairly well and still remain very compelling to this day.

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent novel. Yes, a few parts haven’t aged well and it isn’t for everyone but, if you want an intelligent hardboiled novel with a brilliant atmosphere, a touch of surrealism, fascinating characters, beautiful narration and a story that will actually make you think, then you need to read this novel πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun” By Christie Golden (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still extremely hot, I still only really felt like reading shorter and/or “easier” novels. So, after remembering that I still had quite a few unread “Star Trek” novels left over from when I used to read these books more often (in 2011-13), I decided to take a look at Christie Golden’s 1996 novel “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun”.

Whilst this novel tells an original and self-contained spin-off story that takes place sometime during the events of the first or second season of “Star Trek: Voyager“, it is probably worth watching at least a few episodes of the TV show beforehand if you want to get the most out of this novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun” that I read.

The novel is set in the distant future – aboard the United Federation of Planets starship U.S.S Voyager, which has been stranded in a distant region of space called the Delta Quadrant for the past few months and is trying to find a way back to Earth.

Anyway, it is two in the morning and Captain Janeway can’t get to sleep. So, when she gets an urgent message from the ship’s bridge, it is a welcome distraction. Voyager’s sensors have just picked up both a mysterious wormhole and a warning beacon from a spacefaring empire called the Akerian Empire threatening anyone who strays into their space.

Initially, the wormhole seems to be a potential way back home. So, after some thought and discussion, Janeway crosses the boundary. However, it soon becomes obvious that there’s something off about the wormhole. It is leeching hydrogen from a nearby sun. This threatens to wipe out the inhabitants of a nearby planet called Veruna Four. But, before Voyager’s crew can study the phenomenon too much, they soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Akerian Empire and Veruna Four…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is excellent πŸ™‚ During some parts of the novel, it almost felt like I’d returned to the Sunday evenings of my childhood when I used to watch “Voyager” on TV every week. This is to say that this novel is basically like an extended episode of “Voyager”, but with a bit of extra depth/character/atmosphere and a larger special effects budget πŸ™‚

It is also a perfectly balanced novel, expertly mixing science fiction, character-based drama, political drama, suspense and thrillingly spectacular action scenes. Although the novel’s story takes a little while to really get started and there are a few slow-paced “treknobabble“- filled scenes earlier in the story, it soon becomes a very gripping story πŸ™‚

In addition to several well-placed epic space battles, this novel also remains compelling in lots of more subtle ways too. For starters, one of the story’s sub-plots involves the Voyager’s crew trying to uncover information about the history of both the Akerians and the inhabitants of Veruna Four. Likewise, there’s a lot of tension about how much assistance Voyager can offer Veruna Four whilst remaining within the limits of Federation law etc… Seriously, this is a brilliantly compelling tale.

Yes, some elements of the story are a little bit stylised and will seem familiar to fans of the show (eg: a corrupt militaristic empire vs.a peaceful spiritual civilisation etc..). Likewise, one of the novel’s dramatic plot twists is teased at least twice but, when all is eventually revealed, it will come as no surprise to people familiar with “Star Trek” storylines. Even so, this novel still remains surprisingly gripping, compelling and immersive.

The novel’s science fiction elements are as good as you would expect too and, in addition to the usual futuristic technology (eg: gravity weapons, starships etc..) and a few long-winded scientific explanations, there’s also other interesting stuff too such as a scene which shows how an alien society with a tradition of oral storytelling experiences less linguistic change over time when compared to languages that rely more on writing.

As you would expect from a “Star Trek” story, this novel also covers a variety of real-world topics – such as colonialism, the US’s treatment of Native Americans, militarism, the environment and prejudice. Although these themes could have been handled in a more subtle (and less lecturing/preachy) way, this never really distracts from the story too much and is in keeping with the TV show it is based on.

In terms of the characters, they are absolutely stellar. In addition to a reasonably well-written cast of background characters (from both Veruna Four and Akeras), the novel focuses heavily on Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay and Tom Paris too – with Chakotay and Paris each getting their own sub-plots too. Likewise, although the main characters are reasonably similar to the TV show, this novel adds a bit of extra emotional depth and personality to them too πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. In addition to being very readable, Golden’s narration strikes a really good balance between descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and action, which really helps the story to flow really well. If you’ve read other “Star Trek” novels from the 1990s before, then the narration is fairly comparable to these.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is excellent πŸ™‚ At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, the novel manages to tell a full story (with a couple of sub-plots) without ever feeling bloated. Likewise, although the story gets off to a little bit of a slow start, the pacing is absolutely superb and most of the story is really gripping. The highlight has to be during one of the mid-late parts of the story, where Golden expertly juggles several story threads (with mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter) before suddenly speeding things up by focusing on just one dramatic story thread.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although there are possibly a couple of mildly dated descriptions, the story is just as gripping, atmospheric, nostalgic and dramatic as an episode of the TV show it is based on πŸ™‚ Plus, since it is a book, the “special effects” and location design during many scenes look just as impressive today as they did back when “Voyager” was still a modern TV show.

All in all, if you’re a fan of “Star Trek: Voyager”, then you’ll enjoy this novel πŸ™‚ It’s like a totally new episode of the show, but with deeper characterisation, a more complex plot, more atmosphere and better special effects πŸ™‚ Yes, some elements of the story are a little bit clichΓ©d/predictable and the story also takes a little while to become really gripping, but this was a really enjoyable novel to read πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Aliens: Rogue” By Sandy Schofield (Novel)

Note: Due to scheduling reasons, the “making of” line art post for my recent webcomic mini series won’t appear here until tomorrow. Sorry about this.

Well, although I’d originally planned to read something a bit more “high brow”, I was kind of in a stressed out mood and just wanted to read something fun. Something like the kind of novels I used to read all of the time when I was a teenager.

Then I remembered that I still hadn’t read the second half of a two-novel “Aliens” omnibus (that contains Robert Sheckley’s 1995 novel “Aliens: Alien Harvest” and Sandy Schofield’s 1996 novel “Aliens: Rogue”) that I’d bought second-hand a few months ago. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity πŸ™‚

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Rogue”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Aliens: Rogue” I read.

The novel begins with the crew of a civilian spacecraft, captained by Joyce Palmer, emerging from suspended animation after a long voyage to a remote asteroid facility called Charon Base. The spacecraft is carrying a passenger called Mr.Cray to the facility, since he seems to have some kind of classified business there.

Meanwhile, in the former penal colony mining tunnels near the facility, a detachment of space marines are trying to catch an alien specimen for Professor Kleist, the ZCT Corporation scientist who runs the facility. Unfortunately, the experimental technology the marines are using to stun the deadly aliens doesn’t work perfectly and one of the marines is killed – prompting another marine to blast the alien to smithereens with his rifle. Watching on CCTV, Kleist is absolutely horrified…. about the death of one of his alien specimens.

After a brief meeting with Kleist, Joyce and her crew stay at the facility for a few days. Although Joyce is happy to meet her occasional lover, Hank, she soon starts hearing news of mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the facility’s crew and decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t anything particularly new, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ Although the basic premise (an alien-filled research facility run by a mad scientist) is pretty much identical to S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, the novel does a few interesting things with this premise.

This novel is as much of an action-thriller novel as a sci-fi horror novel, with the general tone and atmosphere of the novel reminding me a lot of the original “Red Faction” computer game.

In addition to lots of desolate mining tunnels, a lot of the novel focuses on several groups of characters (both civilian and military) who start a resistance movement against Kleist and his henchmen. So, in a lot of ways, this is also a dystopian novel too πŸ™‚ Yes, the “plucky band of rebels” thing is a well-worn sci-fi/fantasy trope, but it’s handled in a really thrilling way in this novel, which will really have you cheering for the rebels.

Seriously, although it contains nothing especially new, this novel is the perfect blend of dystopian sci-fi, thrilling action and macabre horror fiction πŸ™‚ Reading this novel is like watching a really fun late-night 1980s/90s B-movie, like “Fortress” or something like that.

As for the horror elements of this novel, they’re pretty good. Although this novel isn’t that scary, it certainly has a rather ominous claustrophobic atmosphere, in addition to lots of grisly moments of gory horror, creepy alien-based moments (including a giant genetically-engineered alien king) and plenty of scenes featuring Kleist’s evil experiments too. These horror elements complement the novel’s action-thriller elements really well and not only add more atmosphere and tension to the story, but also give it a bit more depth by allowing for more moments of human drama too.

As for characterisation, this novel is reasonably decent, with several of the civilian and military characters receiving enough backstory and emotional moments to make you care about what happens to them. Likewise, the space marines are also shown to be an efficient, courageous and resourceful team too. However, the evil Professor Kleist and his security guard henchmen don’t really get much in the way of backstory and mostly just come across as cheesy, melodramatic “villain” characters (which is kind of fun in a “corny B-movie” kind of way, though).

In terms of the writing in this novel, it’s reasonably good. This novel’s third-person narration is descriptive enough to be atmospheric whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to not only keep the story moving at a decent pace, but also to make it reasonably relaxing to read too. Even so, in the edition I read, the editor missed a few basic mistakes (eg: misspelling Cray’s name as “Clay” once, spelling “gel” as “jell” once etc..) to the point where these errors actually became noticeable.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. In addition to being a fairly efficient 288 pages long, the pacing in this novel is fairly good. It starts off in a suitably ominous way before gradually building into a more traditional thriller (where chapters jump between two or three groups of characters, with lots of mini cliffhangers etc..) which remains fairly gripping throughout.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it’s aged really well. Although the story has a fairly “1990s late-night TV” kind of atmosphere during a few moments, this just adds to the story’s enjoyably fun “cheesy B-movie” quality. But, like with S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth”, this novel is pretty timeless thanks to it’s distant-future setting (which still comes across as reasonably futuristic).

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t really do anything new, it is still a lot of fun to read. So, if you want to relax with the literary equivalent of a great late-night movie from the 1990s, then this novel is well worth checking out. Likewise, if you want a dystopian sci-fi horror thriller novel, then this is definitely one of the more enjoyable ones.

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

Review: “Osiris” (WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book I’ll be reviewing (“Nefertiti” By Michelle Moran), I thought that I’d review another “Doom II” WAD. After all, it’s been a few weeks since the last one. And, since I was in an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood, I decided to check out a rather cool WAD from 1996 called “Osiris“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. However, interestingly, the WAD also comes with an installer program – so it will probably work with the original DOS/Win 95 versions of “Doom II”. I’m not sure if it’ll work with the original Win 95 version of “Final Doom”, but – if you use a source port – it is compatible with the “Final Doom” IWADs.

So, let’s take a look at “Osiris”:

“Osiris” is an eight-level WAD that includes new sounds, textures, skyboxes, sprites, music and a new weapon. One of the first things that I will say about this WAD is… wow! For a WAD made twenty-three years ago, it is as impressive as a more modern WAD. Not only that, it was also inspired by the movie “Stargate” too – which just makes it even cooler πŸ™‚

Woo hoo! Seriously, I love Stargate-themed WADs πŸ™‚

And there are even “Stargate” computers too πŸ™‚

Where do I even begin with this WAD? The level design is ’90s level design at it’s very best. All of the levels are wonderfully non-linear and there’s a really cool mixture between tense claustrophobic levels, epic levels set in multiple locations, the occasional switch-puzzle based level, an arena battle or two – and at least one level which has a vaguely “loop”-like structure (eg: you end up near the beginning at the end of the level). Plus, one other cool thing about the level design is that the beginning of each level looks like the end of the previous level.

There are also lots of cool little flourishes and tricks. For example, there’s one area where you stand on an unstable floor and it collapses. Ok, it’s just a one-way lift. But, the speed of it and the accompanying sound effects really make it seem like the floor has suddenly collapsed. Plus, all of the new textures mean that many of the levels look absolutely spectacular too πŸ™‚

Yay! Ancient Egypt πŸ™‚

And THIS is like something from Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave” album too πŸ™‚

Which brings me on to the sound design. Normally, I don’t talk about the sounds and music until later in a review, but the sound design in this WAD really blew me away. Not only do all of the weapons sound ten times as thunderous, but there are also more intense monster sounds, lots of cool sound effects, even some voice acting in the background (eg: an ominous voice) and some truly excellent music – which is a brilliantly fitting mixture of “Ancient Egypt”-style music and 1980s/90s-style rock music πŸ™‚

In terms of the monsters, there are some really awesome sprite replacements. The best ones are probably the fact that the imps have been replaced by Anubis-like creatures and, even better, the pinky demons have been replaced by hooded scythe-wielding zombies with glowing eyes:

Seriously, this guy needs to appear on a heavy metal album cover πŸ™‚

It’s bark is worse than it’s bite, I think.

My only criticism of the monsters, and this might have been because of the source port I was using, is that there’s a really hilarious glitch. Basically, if you gib either the zombieman or the shotgun zombie, then ammo drops will keep spawning from their bodies in a vaguely fountain-like fashion.

Well, at least I’m not going to be running out of ammo any time soon…

One interesting thing about this WAD is how it achieves it’s difficulty. Although experienced players will find this WAD to be mildly-moderately challenging at most, one innovative trick is that many of the levels are filled with hit-scanning monsters. Whilst this does lead to some rather cheap moments (eg: monsters sniping you from a distance), it really helps to ramp up the drama and suspense of many of the game’s battles.

Plus, there are a lot of chaingun zombies too – which also adds to the difficulty as well πŸ™‚

In terms of the weapons, they’re fairly interesting. Although the fist, chaingun and plasma rifle get some rather interesting-looking sprite replacements, the rocket launcher is replaced by a flamethrower. This is a weapon that can actually be used at close range, although the trajectory of the shots means that it doesn’t always work as well at longer ranges (which helps to balance it slightly).

In the words of Rammstein, feuer frei!

All in all, this is a really impressive WAD πŸ™‚ Not only is it thrillingly fun, but it also gets the “ancient Egypt” atmosphere absolutely right. In other words, it feels as gloriously dramatic and stylised as not only the original “Stargate” film, but also other ancient Egypt themed FPS games like “Killing Time“, “Serious Sam: The First Encounter” and “Exhumed” too πŸ™‚ The level design is splendid and both the sound and sprite replacements are really cool too. As I said before, this is as impressive as a good modern WAD and it was made in 1996. Seriously, this is awesome πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five πŸ™‚