Review: “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox” By Christa Faust (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for sci-fi, so I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand novel I found online a few days earlier. At the time, I was looking for film novelisations when I happened to notice that there were three spin-off novels based on a brilliant sci-fi/detective/horror/thriller TV series called “Fringe” that I watched on DVD in 2012. Surprised that I hadn’t heard of this novel series before, I decided to get the first one in the trilogy – Christa Faust’s 2013 novel “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox”.

Although it is theoretically possible to enjoy this novel without having watched “Fringe” (since it is a prequel to the TV show), I’d strongly recommend watching at least a couple of seasons of the show first. Several references, concepts and moments throughout the novel will probably make less sense if you don’t have any knowledge about the show. Likewise, if you aren’t used to the style and atmosphere of the TV show, this novel will probably seem very, very weird.

So, that said, let’s take a look at “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2013 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox” that I read.

The novel begins in America in 1968, with a feared serial killer called Allan Mather lurking in the woods near Reiden Lake. He has set his sights on a young couple making out in a nearby car and is already anticipating the shocked headlines when their bodies will be found. On another shore of Reiden Lake, two twentysomething scientists called Walter Bishop and William Bell are preparing to experiment with a hallucinogenic chemical that they have developed.

Allan approaches the car, so confident in his plan that he has even taken a tab of acid beforehand. But, when he gets close, something is wrong. The young couple in the car are actually undercover detectives. Soon, a police airship appears out of nowhere and Allan is fleeing through the woods, chased by cops and search dogs. Meanwhile, beside another Reiden Lake, both Walter and Bell experience some kind of psychic connection with each other before having a shared hallucination of a tear in the fabric of reality hovering above the lake.

When Allan makes it to the lake, the cops catch him and try to drown him. He breaks away and suddenly sees some kind of portal ahead of him. With nothing to lose, he jumps through it and lands in a parallel universe – our universe – and collides with Walter and Bell. Suddenly, Walter is assailed by psychic visions of death and horror. But, by the time the drug wears off, the mysterious man has fled and both scientists write the whole experience off as a vivid hallucination.

Meanwhile, Allan steals a car and decides to return home, unsure of what has happened to him. When he gets home, everything is different. Another version of himself is living there. He kills his doppelganger and begins to work out what has happened to him. He is in another world where the cops know nothing about him. He begins to plan another killing spree.

The story then flashes forwards to 1974. Walter and Bell are at a scientific conference in San Francisco, when Walter happens to overhear two women talking about a newspaper article. They tell him that it is about someone called the “Zodiac Killer” who has been terrorising the city. It doesn’t take Walter long to realise who that is…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Not only is it a really interesting blend of the thriller, horror, sci-fi and detective genres, but it also captures the general atmosphere and quirky tone of the TV show absolutely perfectly too – whilst, thanks to the historical setting, also being it’s own thing too.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they are the kind of weird “fringe science” that you’d expect from the TV show – with a lot of these parts of the story revolving around hallucinogens, psychic phenomena, unusual types of radioactivity, biofeedback machines and parallel universes. These elements are left mysterious enough to be intriguing, whilst also relying enough on the reader’s knowledge of the TV show to feel concrete and realistic. Combined with the historical setting, this gives the novel a vaguely old-school atmosphere reminiscent of “weird fiction” by early 20th century authors like H. P. Lovecraft, but with more emphasis on the scientific method, ethical dilemmas and 1960s/70s counterculture.

As for the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good too. They mostly consist of a chilling blend of suspense, psychological horror, the paranormal/unexplained, character-based horror and a few moments of gory horror. Although the novel is probably more of a quirky historical thriller than a horror novel, these horror moments are brilliantly effective and really help to add an extra sense of atmosphere, intensity and urgency to the events of the novel.

Likewise, this novel works very well as a thriller too. Although it is probably slightly more of a traditional suspense/ amateur detective thriller than an action-thriller novel, there’s a really good blend of suspenseful moments, chase sequences, fights, time limits, mini-cliffhangers, mysteries and spy stuff that really helps to keep this novel compelling 🙂 All of this is complemented by a slightly faster-paced writing style and a quirky historical atmosphere that really helps to set the story apart from a typical “catch the serial killer” thriller story.

And, yes, I really loved the historical atmosphere of this novel. It is often understated enough to make you feel like you’re watching some kind of low-budget film from the 1960s/70s. And, like in a lot of US TV shows/films from this time period, the 1970s setting really does feel like a slightly faded and more muted version of 1960s America. In fact, there’s even a moment – evocative of the “wave speech” from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” – where Walter laments the death of the idealism of the 1960s. And, in a lot of ways, this is a novel about the lingering remnants of the 1960s hippie counterculture in 1970s America.

Plus, this is one of those spin-off novels that contains familiar references – but sometimes in brilliantly unexpected ways. I’m wary of spoiling some of the later ones but a good early example is the police airship in the early parts of the story. Just a brief mention of this is enough to make any fan of the TV show suddenly understand where the scene in question is taking place. Not only is it a really cool moment, but it’s a way of referencing the TV show that doesn’t feel distracting in the context of the story.

In terms of the characters, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only are the younger versions of Walter and Bell very accurate to the older versions of them on the TV show, but the novel also includes a younger version of Nina Sharp too – who probably has slightly better characterisation/ character development compared to the TV show. She’s less of a mysterious and powerful CEO and much more of an intelligent “action hero” kind of character here. Plus, the novel also reveals a bit more about the complicated relationship between Bell and Nina too.

Not only that, Allan is also a brilliantly chilling villain too – we get to see enough of his mind, personality and backstory for him to feel like a credible threat to the characters but he is also kept mysterious enough to make him feel like a chilling, unexplainable monster too. Seriously, as “realistic” sources of horror go, he’s one of the creepiest villains I’ve seen since I read Tess Gerritsen’s “The Apprentice“.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good 🙂 It is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story flowing at a decent pace, whilst also being descriptive and quirky enough to add atmosphere and humour to some scenes and chilling horror to others. Plus, although this novel isn’t experimental beat literature, this genre was probably a mild tonal influence, given how well-written and fascinating the counterculture and hallucination-based scenes are 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good too. At 355 pages in length, this novel feels a little on the longer side of things, but not too much so. This is probably thanks to the excellent pacing, with lots of clever uses of suspense, a fast-paced writing style and a gradually rising sense of drama and tension that really helps to make this novel gripping 🙂

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you’re a fan of the TV show, then this is like a really awesome extended “lost episode” that gives you an intriguing glimpse into the backstories of several characters. Not only does it work well as a thriller novel and a horror novel, but it really sets itself apart from the crowd thanks to it’s wonderfully quirky and countercultural 1960s/70s setting too 🙂

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

Review: “Shadow Warrior (2013 Remake)” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book that I plan to review (“The Sinner” By Tess Gerritsen), I thought that I’d review a computer game I’ve been waiting quite a few years to play. I am, of course talking about the 2013 remake of the classic 1997 first-person shooter game “Shadow Warriror” 🙂

When I first heard about this remake back in 2013, I was really amazed. After all, growing up in the 1990s/early-mid 2000s and being a fan of FPS games, the original 1997 “Shadow Warrior” game evokes a lot of nostalgia for me (even if, by modern standards, some elements of that game haven’t aged well). However, back in 2013, I had a very old and low-end computer and I was uncertain about whether it could run the modern remake of “Shadow Warrior”.

Of course, about three or four weeks before I prepared this review, I got a modern refurbished computer and, since “Shadow Warrior (2013)” was on special offer on GOG at the time, I had to get a copy. To my delight, it still ran fairly well and also looked good on medium to low graphics settings with my computer’s integrated Intel HD 2500 graphics.

However, I had problems taking gameplay screenshots using my usual method (eg: using “print screen” and pasting the image into MS Paint didn’t work [Edit: And, no, I didn’t know what the Windows 10 “Game Bar” was when I prepared this review]). So, apologies about the lack of screenshots in this review.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Shadow Warrior (2013)”.

The game begins with a mysterious animated cutscene about demonic creatures in another world. Then we see Lo Wang, a top assassin for a powerful man called Zilla, rocking out to some classic ’80s hair metal whilst he drives through the forest to meet a man called Mizayaki.

Mizayaki has an ancient sword called the Nobitsura Kage and Zilla wants it. So, Lo Wang makes Mizayaki an offer, two million in cash or death. Mizayaki, of course, chooses the third option – commanding his henchmen to kill Lo Wang. Needless to say, this doesn’t end well for the henchmen. But, when Lo Wang confronts Mizayaki, he is captured after Mizayaki summons a mysterious supernatural creature.

After escaping, Lo Wang decides to get revenge on Mizayaki and his henchmen. However, there is just one problem, the henchmen are already dead and the surrounding area is filled with hideous demonic monsters….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, even though it’s a bit different to the 1997 classic, it is still a hell of a lot of fun 🙂 In essence, this game is like a “Shadow Warrior”-themed version of something like “Painkiller” or “Serious Sam” – with much more of an emphasis on fast-paced combat than on exploration or puzzle-solving. Even so, this game still keeps a lot of what made the original game enjoyable, whilst also adding some more modern features and drastically improving both the story and characters too.

As mentioned earlier, the gameplay focuses heavily on fast-paced combat – with Lo Wang having to clear arena-like portions of each level before he can progress. This combat is a really cool mixture of the original game’s combat (eg: you can carry lots of different weapons, battles are ludicrously gory, you can use some monster body parts as weapons etc..) and some more modern innovations.

In addition to being able to upgrade your weapons (eg: alternate fire modes etc..) and/or melee attacks with bonuses/coins you find in-game (no micro-transactions here 🙂 ), there is also a lot more emphasis on melee combat than in the original game. Lo Wang’s katana becomes more powerful throughout the game and remains a surprisingly useful weapon in even the later levels – plus, you get a higher score after each battle if you use it.

In addition to this, there are a few “standard” FPS game weapons (eg: shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher etc..) and some creative 1990s-style weapons like a crossbow, throwing stars, magical abilities (that require button combos), a flamethrower and a couple of monster body parts. Plus, the basic pistol reminded me a little bit of Deckard’s revolver from “Blade Runner” too 🙂

Given the more combat-focused nature of the game, a lot of effort has been put into this part of the game. Many battles will be frenetic, crunchy and blood-drenched things where you’ll be dodging, healing and fighting in equal measure. Not only does the game help you out with generous ammo caches (and the option to “buy” ammo with coins you find in-game), but it also has a really cool health system too.

In addition to finding 1990s-style health kits lying around and being able to take health from some defeated monsters, you can also replenish health at any time using a special ability. However, to avoid the unfair boredom of *ugh* regenerating health, this ability actually requires skill to use.

In other words, you have to tap a button combination and hold the right mouse button to heal. Doing this quickly in the middle of a fast-paced battle can be a challenge in it’s own right and is made a little bit more forgiving by the fact that Lo Wang can still fight (with reduced accuracy etc..) whilst healing. Likewise, Lo Wang’s attacks also become more powerful when he drops below a certain health percentage. It’s a really good middle-ground between the mercilessly unforgiving health systems of old and ludicrously over-protective modern ones.

The game also keeps the constant combat interesting via a fairly decent difficulty curve and – more crucially- excellent monster variety too 🙂 In classic 1990s style, there are several types of low-level monsters with different attacks, there are teleporting and shield-bearing mid-level monsters and there are also about three types of larger monsters that pose a serious challenge to the player. The toughest of these are stone creatures that can only be harmed by shooting a weak spot on their back. They only appear in about four or five moments in the game, but each one of these moments is practically a boss battle in it’s own right.

And, yes, there are boss battles too. In the style of a game like “Painkiller”, the bosses are absolutely gigantic – and, in true 1990s fashion, they have to be defeated in a very specific way too 🙂 Yes, the game tells you what to do and keeps feeding you a steady supply of ammo, but it’s still really cool to see this style of boss battle in a modern FPS 🙂

As for the level design, it is very linear – to the point where most of the “secret areas” are practically in plain sight. After each battle, the game will quite literally tell you where to go next via glowing doors/gates. Although it’s sad to see a remake of something like “Shadow Warrior” succumbing to this dreary modern trend, this is mitigated quite a bit by the “Serious Sam”-inspired gameplay.

In other words, the game uses linear level design as a way of placing the player in lots of fun fast-paced arena battles. Not only that, the levels all look really beautiful and have a decent variety between urban, rural, industrial, snow and hell-like areas to keep things interesting too. Seriously, it’s so nice to see 1990s-style visual variety in this game 🙂

Following on with my comments about how this game balances 1990s and modern features, the saving system is a really strange mixture of the dreaded checkpoint saving and the proper “save anywhere” system that should be mandatory in FPS games on the PC. Although you only have one save file per profile and the game will auto-save after every level segment, the game’s menu includes a “save” button that functions a lot like the quicksave feature in many older games.

Best of all, in true 1990s FPS fashion, this game actually has personality and a sense of humour 🙂 Unlike the 1997 original, the game’s humour is a lot more sarcastic and, although some of the things that Lo Wang will shout during battle seem a bit generic, there are still quite a few funny lines, a few pop culture references (eg: I’m sure I heard Eddie Izzard’s “cake or death?” referenced at one point 🙂 ), easter eggs and loads of comedic dialogue exchanges.

And, in true modern fashion, this game actually has a story and characterisation. Although Lo Wang’s character arc is the classic “a badass becomes even more of a badass” one, he is more of a “realistic” character than he was in the 1997 game. He also spends most of the game accompanied by a supernatural character called Hoji – who has a much more complex and interesting backstory that is slowly revealed throughout the game. Not only does this make Hoji a more complex character, but it also means that the events of the game end up taking on a truly epic level of drama and significance too 🙂

The voice-acting is really good and fits in well with the characters, giving them personality whilst also being much more “realistic” than the cartoonish/stereotypical voice-acting in the 1997 game. However, the game’s background music is the kind of ambient instrumental music that you’d expect from a modern game. It adds atmosphere to the levels, but isn’t really as memorable as the more distinctive tunes (eg: Doom’s E1M1 music, Duke 3D’s “Grabbag” theme etc..) that used to be a mainstay of the FPS genre in the 1990s.

As for length, this is a full-length game consisting of about seventeen or eighteen levels. And, in terms of actual gameplay time, it didn’t differ that much from a re-play of the original 1997 game. Of course, your mileage may vary, but this is still a decent medium to long game. Plus, things like a survival mode and an unlockable “Ex mode” (where you can start the game with everything you ended it with) also add some replay value to the game too.

All in all, even though there are some major gameplay differences, this is a really great mixture of the old and the new 🙂 Plus, it’s great to see a modern FPS that has been designed primarily for PC gamers rather than ported over from a console. Yes, it has more in common with something like “Serious Sam” or “Painkiller” than the original “Shadow Warrior”, but if you want a modern FPS game that contains things that used to be standard in the 1990s (eg: personality, creativity, fun, humour, ludicrous gibs etc..) then this one is well-worth playing 🙂

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

Review: “Gone Home” (Computer Game)

Well, I thought that I’d take a very short break from book reviews to review a computer game that I’d planned to review about two years ago.

Back then, I happened to notice that the game “Gone Home” (2013) was on sale on GOG and since I’d heard that it was set in the 1990s and since it used something that looked like the Source Engine (in reality, the game uses Unity), I decided to get a copy… only to find that the vintage mid-2000s computer I was using at the time didn’t have enough VRAM to run it.

But since, for various reasons, I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer (eg: Core i5-3570, 8gb RAM etc.. Which, by my standards, is practially futuristic) the day before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered this game and decided to re-download it and take a look at it.

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

“Gone Home” is set in 1995 and begins with university student Kaitlin Greenbriar returning home to her family’s new house in Oregon after a gap year in Europe. However, when she gets back, she finds that no-one is there. So, she has to search the house for clues about what has happened….

Surprisingly, despite the gloomy atmosphere, this ISN’T a horror game.

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, whilst it has a few flaws, it’s a really interesting narrative game. If you enjoy exploration, ominous mansions and/or anything 1990s-related, then it’s worth taking a look at this game.

Since this game is the classic example of a “walking simulator”, the main types of gameplay here are exploration, detective work and a small amount of puzzle solving.

In short, the game involves searching the house for clues about what has happened and for audio logs from Kaitlyn’s younger sister, Sam. As an interactive story, it works really well – with the game’s story being this bittersweet tale that will probably make you cry at least once or twice and will linger in your imagination for a while after you’ve finished playing.

The exploration elements of the game are really cool too, with lots of interesting background items to examine, atmospheric lighting, “ordinary” 1990s rooms and even a few secret passages. Seriously, I absolutely love the idea of a game that revolves around exploring somewhere (that isn’t a mostly-empty open world). Seriously, this is a game that is very much about place, atmosphere and subtle retro nostalgia 🙂

And there’s some awesome 1990s-style lighting too 🙂 Of course, when you turn the lights on, it disappears…

And, I vaguely remember seeing THESE word processors in shops when I was younger too. Nostalgia 🙂

VHS and audio cassettes 🙂 Yes!

Literally the only complaint I have about this element of the game is the movement speed. Yes, it might be because I’m used to older FPS games, but the movement speed here can best be described as “glacial”, which can sometimes make the interesting exploration feel like a bit of a chore and/or a way of padding out the length of the game.

But, this is worth putting up with given the sheer amount of background details, quirky notes, subtle humour, retro technology, 1990s punk music etc… that you’ll find. Seriously, if you’re a fan of 1990s US TV shows/movies, then it’s really cool to see a game that focuses on this period of American history 🙂

The truth is out there!

Likewise, the fact that the game is set in an ordinary house (albeit a mansion-sized one) allows for a surprising level of realism that will probably evoke a small amount of 1990s nostalgia (even if, like me, you grew up in 1990s Britain rather than America).

Another cool thing about this game is that most of the game’s documents are handwritten, which gives everything a lot more personality than typical in-game text 🙂

Seriously, whilst the game’s “walking simulator” concept is very different to a traditional game, it’s really cool to see a game that focuses so much on subtle, “realistic” 1990s nostalgia 🙂 Even if, as I mentioned, the movement speed is a bit on the slow side.

As mentioned earlier, this game also contains a few *ugh* puzzles too. Since I’m not really a fan of puzzle games (and am terrible at them), I eventually had to resort to a walkthrough for many of them.

And then was astonished that I missed an obvious clue like this one!

Even so, the puzzles are solvable if you are willing to search, think and examine everything. Plus, the 1990s was a decade when even first-person shooter games included puzzles (it was the “crafting system”, “permadeath” etc.. of it’s day), so it’s good to see that they have got this nostalgic element of the game right 🙂

In terms of the story, atmosphere and characters, this game is really brilliant 🙂 Although Kaitlin is the player character, the main character of this game is her sister Sam, whose story the game tells.

This is a surprisingly poignant, bittersweet and emotional tale that is relayed through audio logs, realistic notes/scribbles (social media wasn’t really a thing in the 1990s) and it really adds a level of humanity to the game that you might not expect. For a character who you never actually meet, Sam is one of the most well-written game characters I’ve seen in a while.

Not to mention how the location design in this game also adds a lot of extra characterisation and personality too.

Thematically, the game is a story about love, about the grinding conformity of 1990s suburbia, about secrets, about the awesomeness of discovering punk music when you were a kid in the 1990s (in the game, this is “Riot Grrl” style punk. But, it still reminded me of the first time I heard The Offspring, AFI, Sum 41 etc..), about dysfunctional families etc… So, yes, this game is a bit more complex and intelligent than you might think.

In terms of the atmosphere, this game is wonderful. In addition to lots of subtly realistic 1990s background details, there are also quite a few ’90s pop culture references (and a few punk songs too), lots of wonderfully gloomy lighting and some wonderful rain/thunder sound effects too.

Although this game isn’t a horror game, this gloom really goes well with the game’s bittersweet story and helps to add a lot to the game. Not to mention that creeping around gloomy mansions is always fun (and very ’90s too – I mean, just look at “Resident Evil”, “Alone In The Dark”, the ghost house levels in “Super Mario World” etc…).

Yes, seriously, this ISN’T a horror game.

In terms of length, this is a famously short game. Using a walkthrough for most of the puzzles, I completed it in about two hours and fifteen minutes. But, if you don’t use a walkthrough, then it’ll probably take you a little bit longer.

Even so, this game is about the right length for the story it tells. It’s the computer game equivalent of a novella or a longer short story. But, it’s probably best to wait until this game goes on sale before getting it (since a lot of the anger about this game’s length probably comes from people who paid full price and had full price expectations).

All in all, whilst this game has a few flaws, I really love the concept of it. It’s a 1990s nostalgia game that involves exploring a gloomy mansion 🙂 It’s quirky, bittersweet, atmospheric, poignant, occasionally funny and it has a level of realism and humanity to it that you don’t often see in games.

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

Review: “Plague World” By Dana Fredsti (Novel)

Well, since I’ve read both the first and second parts of Dana Fredsti’s “Ashley Parker” trilogy, I thought that it was time to take a look at my second-hand copy of the third novel – “Plague World” (2013) today 🙂

Although this novel contains enough recaps to theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel, it pretty much picks up where “Plague Nation” left off. As such, you’ll get a lot more out of this novel (especially the later parts) if you read the previous two books in the trilogy first.

So, let’s take a look at “Plague World”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS for both this novel and “Plague Nation”.

This is the 2013 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plague World” that I read.

After a short introductory scene showing the zombie virus spreading to London, the story moves back to San Francisco and picks up where “Plague Nation” left off. The elite “wild cards” team of zombie fighters is stranded in a zombie-infested medical facility and missing several members.

Once they find a way to safety, Ashley Parker has several things on her mind. Not only does she have to prepare for a daring rescue mission but she is also threatened by one of the team’s sleazier new recruits and also has to find a way to track down vital medication for Lil too….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, even if the novel’s main story takes a while to truly hit it’s stride.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good 🙂 In additional to the kind of splatterpunk-like ultra-gruesome zombie horror that you would expect, this novel also contains some brilliantly creepy moments of suspenseful horror, tragic horror, character-based horror, apocalyptic horror, disturbing horror, taboo-based horror etc.. too. Like in the previous two novels, this novel also includes at least a couple of brilliantly disturbing moments of story-based horror where the situation itself is the main source of horror.

One cool feature of this novel is that it also contains short chapters showing how the zombie virus affects different parts of the world. These segments contain a really good mixture of thrills, tragedy, irreverent dark comedy and/or cynical nihilism. And, although the main story improves as the novel progresses, these short side-stories remain consistently good throughout the novel and really help to keep the earlier parts compelling 🙂

In terms of the novel’s action-thriller elements, they’re especially good during the later parts of the novel 🙂 In short, whilst this is a fairly action-packed novel throughout, the early-middle parts of the main story tend to focus a bit more on things like character-based drama, heavy subject matter, small-scale suspense etc… which can detract from the story’s gripping action-thriller elements a little bit.

But, it is worth reading earlier parts of the story just to get to the awesome final segment. In addition to some brilliantly epic action scenes (involving explosions, a biker gang, a secret base etc..) there are also loads of dramatic plot twists, some brilliantly disturbing moments of horror, some excellent satire and a couple of wonderfully heartwarming moments. This is one of those novels where I was reading it very slightly reluctantly during the early parts, but was absolutely gripped during the later parts.

In terms of the characters, they’re pretty interesting. Although there is lots of character-based drama and characterisation, some of this can get in the way of the story a little bit. Even so, it adds depth to the story and also serves as a recap for new readers too.

Still, the best character-based moments appear in the later parts of the novel, where a couple of good and evil main characters turn out to be a bit more morally-ambiguous than previously thought. Plus, there is also a wonderfully heartwarming character-based scene in the last few pages of the novel that will probably make you cry with happiness 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is as good as ever 🙂 Like with previous novels in the series, this novel uses a combination of first and third-person narration. This is clearly signposted to the reader via both titles and italic text, which prevents the perspective changes from being confusing. The novel’s first-person segments are also written in the kind of gloriously informal, pop culture reference-filled way that you would expect and they are really fun to read 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At 308 pages, this novel never really feels too long. Plus, even though the later parts of the novel are more gripping than the earlier parts, the whole story is written in a reasonably fast-paced way. Even so, I wish that more of the novel was like the truly excellent later segments.

All in all, this is a good conclusion to a really good trilogy. Yes, I preferred the later parts of this novel to the early/middle parts of it, but the story is still a rather compelling and dramatic one. If you’ve read the previous two books, then this one is well worth reading for the scenes set around the world and the brilliantly gripping final parts of the main story.

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

Review: “The Arrivals” By Melissa Marr (Novel)

A couple of weeks earlier, I heard about a really intriguing genre called the “Weird West” genre (eg: the western genre, but with supernatural, horror, sci-fi etc.. elements).

So, after looking around online, I found a couple of second-hand books. But, since one of them didn’t interest me as much as I’d initially expected, I ended up reading the other one – Melissa Marr’s 2013 novel “The Arrivals” – instead.

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

This is the 2013 Harper Collins (UK) paperback edition of “The Arrivals” that I read.

The novel begins with a gunfight in a monastery in the middle of a bizarre wasteland in an alternate dimension. One of the possessed monks has just shot a gunslinger called Mary and her friends (Jack, Kitty, Edgar and Francis) want revenge. After a battle, the monk is killed and the gang carry Mary’s body back into the surrounding wasteland. In the wasteland, dead people sometimes return to life after six days. Sometimes they don’t.

When they don’t, a person from our world who has taken a life appears in the wasteland to replace them. When a new arrival appears, no-one can be certain of their loyalties. They could side with Jack and his band of honest outlaws or they could be seduced by a powerful, cruel man called Ajani who wants to turn the wasteland into part of the British Empire…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it seemed a little bit random at first, it quickly became a lot more atmospheric and compelling than I had expected 🙂 This is an interesting moderately-paced thriller novel that is filled with intriguing characters and a fairly atmospheric and well-developed fictional world too.

Seriously, I love how the fantastical elements of this story follow a clear set of rules but are also kept mysterious enough to be intriguing. Likewise, this is also one of the most original fantasy novels that I’ve read recently.

Everything from the mysterious mechanics of life and death amongst the arrivals, to the bizarre etiquette of the novel’s vampire-like creatures, to the relatively few magic-based scenes to the array of mysterious creatures (eg: wingless dragons called Lindwurms, plagues of giant insects etc..) are really interesting. Not to mention that the weirdness and originality of these elements really helps to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a mysterious alternate world.

Although this novel is a thriller novel, don’t expect it to be a wall-to-wall action-fest. Although there are several well-placed fight scenes, the focus is more on character-based drama, the atmosphere of the wasteland and the politics of it. Since these three things are handled really well, the story still remains really compelling – even if it is very slightly less of an action-thriller novel than the dramatic opening scene (which reminded me of the computer game “Blood“, which is never a bad thing 🙂 ) might lead you to expect.

Thematically, this novel is pretty interesting too. It is a story about loyalty, friendship and family as well as being a novel about how power corrupts. The more democratic and egalitarian band of outlaws is contrasted well with Ajani’s cruel hierarchy and his imperial ambitions. Although this element of the story isn’t explored quite as much as I would have liked, it still helps to add some depth to the story. Likewise, this is also a story about moral ambiguity, bereavement, love and redemption too.

Still, the best parts of this story are probably the characters and the atmosphere. This novel has the kind of desolate, gritty wild west atmosphere that you would expect and this really helps to immerse the reader in the story 🙂 Likewise, although this is one of those stories where the main characters spend more time arguing with each other than fighting the bad guys, the main characters are a really intriguing bunch of people from different periods of history who all have interesting personalities, complicated backstories and dramatic flaws.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is fairly good. It is written in a fairly informal, but descriptive, style that really helps the story to flow well in addition to being a really good fit with the gruff, harsh world of the wasteland too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At a wonderfully efficient 274 pages in length, this novel never feels too long. Likewise, although this story is a bit more moderately-paced than I’d expected, the atmosphere, setting, characters and plot really help to keep it compelling 🙂

All in all, this novel is a really interesting version of the western genre. It’s an atmospheric, dramatic and compelling tale that is set in an intriguingly mysterious world and populated by some rather interesting characters (even if they do spend quite a lot of time arguing with each other).

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

Review: “Plague Nation” By Dana Fredsti (Novel)

Well, after reading Dana Fredsti’s awesome “Plague Town” a while ago, I eventually found a reasonably-priced second-hand copy of the 2013 sequel “Plague Nation” online. And, since the weather had cooled down a bit, I thought that it was finally time to actually read it 🙂

Although this novel is a sequel, it contains enough recaps for you to theoretically read it without reading “Plague Town” (but you’ll get more out of it if you read that novel first). However, I should point out that “Plague Nation” is also the middle novel in a trilogy too. In other words, don’t expect it to be a fully self-contained story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Plague Nation”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS for both this novel and “Plague Town”.

This is the 2013 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plague Nation” that I read.

“Plague Nation” begins shortly after the events of “Plague Town”. The team of “wild card” immune survivors are clearing out the remaining zombies from the isolated California town of Redwood Grove. However, thanks to the contaminated flu vaccine, there are small-scale zombie outbreaks in other parts of America.

Not only that, things start going wrong in Redwood Grove. The team’s leader – Gabriel – seems to be even more of a self-righteous ass than usual, an attempt to rescue a survivor goes horribly wrong and it also seems like someone is out to sabotage the secret research lab in the town’s university…….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a story of two halves. One of the things I’ve noticed about modern zombie sequels (Jonathan Maberry’s “Fall Of Night” springs to mind too) is that they often tend to start with the slower-paced physical and emotional aftermath of the previous novel. In other words, the first half or so of this novel is more of a drama (with occasional moments of action, suspense and horror) than the kind of thrilling zombie-fighting adventure that you’d expect. Of course, things pick up again as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re reasonably good. Although the first half of the novel is a little bit more understated and slow-paced, this is where the bulk of the story’s horror can be found. Although the whole story contains the kind of splatterpunk-style ultra-gruesome zombie horror you would expect, the first half of the novel contains many of the story’s truly disturbing moments of horror. In addition to a shocking character death, there’s the disturbing return of a character from the first novel and several other exquisitely tragic, gross and/or horrific scenes too.

Plus, in true splatterpunk fashion, the novel is peppered with short chapters about other random characters in other locations being faced with the zombie outbreak too. These chapters help to add a sense of scale to the story, whilst also helping to add moments of horror to more slow-paced segments of the story too.

As mentioned earlier, the novel turns into more of an action-thriller story as it progresses. The slower first half of the story helps to build up the suspense and set the scene for a gripping “edge of your seat” mission to the zombie-infested streets of San Francisco. And, this part of the story is where the novel really hits it’s stride and becomes the kind of epic, badass zombie apocalypse thriller that the first novel will have led you to expect.

In terms of the characters, they’re as good as ever. The zombie-fighting team are a slightly stylised band of misfits, who receive a reasonable amount of characterisation as the story progresses. Plus, although the story starts off with lots of arguments and other such things, the characterisation remains consistently good throughout most of the novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel uses both first and third-person narration. Although this might sound confusing or annoying, it actually works well since the third-person segments are clearly signposted via italic text. And, like in “Plague Town”, the first-person perspective parts of the novel are narrated by Ashley Parker – a wonderfully cynical, irreverent and badass zombie fighter who is never short of a pop culture reference or two. These parts of the story are written in a fairly informal way and they really help to add personality and humour to the story, whilst also keeping things moving at a decent pace too.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is reasonably good. At 318 pages in length, it is both long enough and short enough. Likewise, the novel begins in a relatively slow-paced way, although this is mostly to set the stage for the more fast-paced later parts of the novel. Even so, the informal narration and several well-placed moments of horror and drama help to keep the beginning of the story compelling enough.

Still, this novel is the middle part of a trilogy. So, like with watching a “to be continued” episode of a TV show, the pacing and drama builds to such a point near the end of the novel that you’ll just know that everything won’t be resolved in the remaining few pages. Yes, there is a little bit of resolution at the end of the novel but there are quite a lot of mysterious unresolved background details and a bit of a cliffhanger ending.

All in all, this is a really good zombie novel. Although it is a little bit slow to really get started, it is still a decent follow-up to “Plague Town” and, if you liked that novel, you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Yes, I preferred the second half of the novel to the first, but both are really good. Still, just be aware that this novel is the middle part of a trilogy.

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

Review: “No Time Like The Past” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still annoyingly hot, I thought that it was time for me to read Jodi Taylor’s 2013 novel “No Time Like The Past”, since I was lucky enough to find an affordable second-hand copy of it online a couple of months ago and had been saving it for an occasion like this.

This is the fifth book in Taylor’s excellent “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series and you can find my reviews of the previous four “St. Mary’s” books here, here, here and here.

Plus, although this book is the fifth in a series, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone novel, thanks to a lot of recaps throughout the story. However, a few scenes will have more emotional impact and/or make slightly more sense if you’ve read the previous books.

So, let’s take a look at “No Time Like The Past”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “No Time Like The Past” that I read.

The novel begins about a year after the events of the fourth novel, and the disaster-prone time-travelling historical research institute of St.Mary’s is pretty much back to normal. The story begins when oafish security officer Markham claims to see a person falling past one of the windows on several different occasions, yet a body is never found. So, naturally, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) is curious.

After a calamity-filled trip back to a Civil War-era version of St.Mary’s in order to investigate, the mystery is solved. However, there’s a lot more stuff for Max to do.

Not only does she need to organise a peaceful, uneventful and disaster-free (yeah, right…) trip to 1851 for most of the institute’s staff, but there’s also the matter of another treasure-grabbing trip to placate the institute’s sponsors, not to mention that several old enemies have turned up again and… worst of all… Max also has to plan the institute’s annual open day too…..

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that this series just keeps getting better and better. If you’ve never read a “St. Mary’s” book before, then the series is a little bit like a cross between “Doctor Who“, a more grown-up version of “St. Trinian’s“, a military sitcom called “Bluestone 42” and the comedy of Terry Pratchett and/or Douglas Adams.

Plus, not only does this instalment in the series have a more well-structured story with a brilliant balance of comedy, thrilling action and serious drama but it also does a few other interesting things too.

The most interesting of these is probably the opening segment of the story – which is almost a self-contained story in it’s own right. Seriously, the first 50-60 pages of this book could easily be a stand-alone novella and, far from being a distraction, this works perfectly. Not only does it get the story off to a reasonably strong start, but it also serves as a really good introduction to/recap for the series too – with the beginning containing all of the elements that make the series so great.

Seriously, this is one of those books that gets the story density absolutely right. Although there are quite a few sub-plots in this story, they are all linked together and follow on from each other in a logical way – with the emphasis firmly being on just one at a time, which helps to ensure that the story never loses focus. This is the kind of book that feels like watching an entire season of a TV show, whilst still being less than 300 pages long. Now that is good writing!

The novel’s comedy is even better than usual, with a really excellent mixture of eccentric humour, a couple of new running jokes (eg: Markham’s knowledge of classic literature), some well-placed slapstick comedy/farce, some cynicism (eg: Max’s comments about a variety of topics), lots of character-based humour, some brilliant pop culture references (eg: not only does the movie “Tremors” make an appearance, but there’s also a deliberately vague reference to Leon getting a fancy new screwdriver too) and a few other things like that.

The time travel/sci-fi elements are pretty cool too. The novel contains at least three wonderfully suspenseful parts where the characters either have to avoid causing time paradoxes and/or damaging to the timeline. Likewise, the novel also contains a good repertoire of historical settings that include a Civil War-era version of St. Mary’s, the great fire of London, The 1851 Great Exhibition, 15th century Italy and Ancient Greece.

The story’s moments of serious drama work really well most of the time too. Although a couple seem either a little bit over-dramatic or a bit under-dramatic, most of them work really well. However, some of these scenes will have a lot more emotional resonance if you’ve read the previous books in the series. Likewise, Max and Leon’s argument-filled relationship might seem a bit random or bizarre if you don’t know the characters well.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is as good as ever. Max is one of the funniest, most unique and most gleefully irreverent narrators I’ve ever read and this book is no exception. Plus, like in the other books in the series, the narration is informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re as good as ever. If you’ve never read the series before, then expect lots of hilariously eccentric characters 🙂 Interestingly, although this novel does focus on Max and Leon’s relationship during several parts of the story, there’s a lot more focus on Markham (of all people) in this book than I expected. Plus, a couple of familiar villains also make a return too – and, although they don’t really appear for as long as I would have hoped for, both scenes are pretty dramatic.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Not only does this novel manage to cram a lot of story into a gloriously efficient 291 pages, but the story’s pacing is a lot better than some earlier instalments in the series too. In other words, whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, the story moves along consistently at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is another great instalment of a great series. If you want a short, but story-filled, sci-fi novel that also contains lots of comedy, drama, thrills and cups of tea, then this one is certainly worth reading 🙂 Seriously, this is one of those book series that should be adapted to television, but would probably lose a lot if it did (since the narration is one of the major reasons this series is so good). So, if you want something that is like a great TV series, but better, then this book is worth reading.

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