Review: “A Closed And Common Orbit” By Becky Chambers (Novel)

Well, a couple of weeks after reading Becky Chambers’ excellent “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“, I was in the mood for more of this awesome series and decided to splash out on a second-hand copy of the 2016 sequel “A Closed And Common Orbit”.

Although this novel is technically a direct sequel to “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet”, it almost certainly works as a stand-alone novel too because it focuses on a different group of main characters. Still, it is probably worth reading the previous book before this one since it’ll fill you in a bit more about all of the awesome background details of this series’ fictional “universe”.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “A Closed And Common Orbit”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (including for book one).

This is the 2017 Hodder (UK) paperback edition of “A Closed And Common Orbit” that I read.

The novel begins with a document listing the Galactic Commons’ laws against housing sentient A.I in realistic robotic “body kits”. Then, on board a shuttlecraft travelling away from the interstellar tunnelling ship Wayfarer, the ship’s recently rebooted A.I. core, Lovelace, is still getting used to her new artificial body. She is helped out by a freelance technician called Pepper who is doing a favour for Lovelace’s former partner, Jenks. They are headed for Pepper’s home planet of Port Coriol. But, getting used to living in a single, disconnected human body is difficult enough for Lovelace, let alone blending in as a human. Pepper says that she is willing to help, given that she was raised by an A.I.

Meanwhile, there are flashback scenes – set twenty years earlier- following a cloned girl called Jane 23 who works as a child labourer in a scrap reclamation factory run by cruel robot overseers called “Mothers”. After an accident in one of the sorting rooms blows a hole in the wall, Jane sees the sky for the first time. She decides to escape with the help of her bunk-mate Jane 64 and, although things go well at first, the two are separated and Jane 23 finds herself chased through a giant continent-sized scrapyard by a mutated dog. Suddenly, a voice calls to her and tells her to hide in a nearby doorway. It is a derelict shuttlecraft, the only occupant a lonely A.I. program called Owl.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that although it is just as well-written, atmospheric and unique as “Angry Planet” is, it was often slightly less of a “feel good” novel than I’d expected. Still, it contains some of the most realistic characterisation and worldbuilding that I’ve seen in a while and the story gradually becomes more and more compelling as it progresses. It’s a powerful and often serious small-scale character-based drama, with a dystopian flavour to some parts of it. Still, it’s one hell of a well-written one!

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements, which carry over from the previous book. The story is set within a planetary alliance called the Galactic Commons, peopled by several species (Alueons, Harmagians, Aandrisks, Laru, Sianat, Humans etc…) who all come across as very creative and realistic. All of the usual sci-fi stuff (eg: space travel, A.I. etc…) is there too, but with this novel’s unique style. This is one of the best, most immersive and most well-thought out sci-fi universes I’ve seen in a while and it is an absolute joy to revisit it. Although, again, you’ll get more out of the setting if you’ve read “Angry Planet” first.

Interestingly, although this novel still contains some focus on the importance of culture (with, for example, a segment about the important role a holographic TV show played in both galactic relations and on the development of one character) and the story contains some of the most complex, realistic and well-written emotional drama I’ve seen in a while, it is a slightly more tech-based story than “Angry Planet” was.

A lot of the story focuses on Lovelace’s experiences of the world as an embodied A.I. and how she gradually works out how to adapt to life and rewrite herself into something more human. Not only does this give the story an interesting cyberpunk flavour (vaguely reminiscent of something like “Blade Runner 2049”, the TV series “Humans”, a game called “Dreamfall: Chapters” or Annalee Newitz’s “Autonomous), but it also links in to a lot of the novel’s themes too.

Not only is this a novel about being an outsider in an indifferent, uncaring and/or hostile place (which can be seen as a metaphor for a lot of topics), but the novel’s scrapyard scenes also comment about the dark side of capitalism too (and it’s interesting to think that this story was written before “Blade Runner 2049”). The story is also very much one about finding and defining your own idenity, in addition to the usual stuff about the value of friendship and a wonderfully subversive theme of thinking for yourself when confronted with stupid/badly-written/ideological and/or outdated rules. All of these themes are handled a bit more subtly and confidently than in “Angry Planet”, lending the novel a more mature – and less preachy- tone 🙂

And, although the novel focuses more on technology than “Angry Planet” does, this is still very much a “humanities”-focused sci-fi novel – with decent amount of emphasis placed on things like experiences, emotions, social situations, friendships, creativity etc… in a way that you don’t really see that often in the sci-fi genre 🙂 Seriously, this alone is one reason to read this series. This is, of course, backed up by some absolutely stellar characterisation too. Not only do all of the characters feel like real, flawed people with genuine emotions and backstories that shape their lives but the interactions between them are also a lot more realistic and nuanced than you might typically expect in the sci-fi genre. This is a novel where you’ll care so much about the characters that it is nearly impossible not to cry during one later moment.

In addition to the scenes showing the limits of Jane 23’s early education and her quirky mother-daughter relationship with Owl, another absolutely stand-out character moment is how Lovelace experiences the world. Busy social situations overload her senses, leaving her confused and uncertain about what to do. Every piece of body language feels awkward and contrived (especially since her robot body does some of it automatically) and not being connected to the internet or an array of ship’s cameras makes her feel claustrophobic. I cannot overstate how well-written these segments are and, if you’re even vaguely introverted or awkward around people, then she’s probably one of the most refreshingly relatable characters since Rosa from “The Blackwell Legacy“.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is as great as ever 🙂 It is informal enough to add intimacy and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to make everything feel “real” too. All sorts of things are described expertly and the story also has a fairly distinctive narrative “voice”, which also helps to add more personality to everything. Although this novel’s narration isn’t the most fast-paced you’ll ever read, it is probably some of the most immersive that you’ll see these days.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 364 pages in length, it is neither too long nor too short. As you might expect from this series, the story’s pacing is mostly on the slower side of things – with the atmosphere, the writing, the characters and a few moments of suspense keeping everything compelling. As as the story progresses, the tension and pacing ramp up a little more – with a more focused single storyline gradually beginning to emerge. I’m probably not doing the pacing justice here, but if you go into this story expecting a drama rather than a thriller, then you’ll probably appreciate the pacing more.

All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a little different in tone to “Angry Planet”, but it still contains many of the things which made that novel such a great and refreshingly different piece of science fiction. If you want interesting realistic futuristic characters and locations, and the kind of powerful and profound story that doesn’t appear all that often, then this one is well worth reading 🙂 Likewise, if you enjoy the TV show “Humans”, the “Longest Journey” game trilogy and/or possibly “Blade Runner 2049”, then this book won’t be entirely unfamiliar 🙂

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

Review: “Devil Daggers” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“Ice Station” by Matthew Reilly), I thought that I’d take a look at a computer game that I’ve wanted to play for a while. I am, of course talking about an indie game from 2016 called “Devil Daggers” (V.3, I think), which I happened to notice was on special offer on GOG several days before I prepared this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Devil Daggers”. However, I should probably warn you that this review will contain some mild gameplay SPOILERS and some (unrealistic) BLOODY IMAGES.

“Devil Daggers” is a minimalist 1990s-influenced first-person shooter game and, in true ’90s tradition, there isn’t much of a story. You play as an unnamed person who finds a mysterious hovering dagger in a gloomy room. When you pick it up, you are transported to an arena in hell where skeletal monsters constantly attack you. There is no end, no victory. Only survival until cold, inevitable death.

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it is a hell of a lot of fun 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of 1990s/ early-mid 2000s FPS games then you’ll really enjoy it. Not only does it do some innovative stuff with a familiar formula, but it is also a game in the truest sense of the word. In other words, like a lot of great classic games, the emphasis is very firmly on the actual gameplay.

: Image of a hand shooting magical dagger-like projectiles at a group of floating skeletal monsters in a dark, blood-spattered arena. Text in the upper left corner reads New High Score.

Yes! Gameplay! In a modern FPS game! Who would have thought it?

And what gameplay it is! In essence, this game is a stripped-down version of a classic ’90s shooter, with the player only having a small number of attacks (eg: a continuious fire mode and a shotgun-like blast attack) at the beginning of the game – both of which are accessed via the same mouse button. These attacks become more powerful after collecting a certain number of crystals dropped by fallen enemies (and there’s an incentive to stop shooting occasionally, since they float towards you when you do).

In the classic fashion, you can also run and turn very quickly. You only have one health point. Various skeletal monsters keep spawning endlessly (in a predicable, pre-set fashion that you’ll have to learn). There is no way of “winning” and, instead, you are scored on how long you managed to survive. At the time of writing, my personal best is 149.7742 seconds.

This took me way too much practice. Not to mention decades of playing old FPS games before finding this game.

All of this adds up to an incredibly fast-paced, frenetic, thrilling and streamlined game that also feels a lot like learning a skill 🙂 It is a game where, every time you fail, you’ll want to pick yourself up and practice some more. Not only do you need quick reflexes but, like in many of the classic FPS games of the 1990s, there are tactics and strategies you need to learn in order to stand a chance.

Whilst avid 1990s FPS gamers will probably be very familiar with some of them (eg: circle-strafing etc..), each of the game’s monsters have different weak points, attack patterns etc… that you’ll need to learn if you want to do better than you did last time.

Image of a hand shooting magical dagger-like projectiles at the middle of a giant floating eight-legged skull creature. A smaller skull, the creature's weak point, is glowing from being struck by the daggers.

For example, you need to hit a very specific spot in order to harm this monster.

For example, one of the game’s monsters is a horned skull. After you’ve died a few times, you’ll realise that if you don’t see one of these on screen then it often means that it is right behind you and you have less than a second left to live! So, you need to fight these horned skulls before fighting other types of monsters.

:  Image of an outstretched hand in front of a horde of levitating skeletal monsters. A horned skull looms large in the close foreground.

Yes, this is actually a good thing. It’s when you can’t see the horned skulls that you have to worry.

Plus, since you only have one health point, literally all of the game’s monsters are a serious threat to you – although this is balanced by the classic “bullet hell” technique of giving the player a tiny hitbox. All of this brilliantly replicates the suspenseful and challenging fun of old FPS games like “Blood“, where every battle actually feels like a genuine struggle for survival.

Like in a classic FPS game, there’s a really good variety of monsters too. Like in “Doom” and “Quake”, most of these have a skeletal, hellish and/or Lovecraftian theme to them. And, as mentioned earlier, they all have different attack patterns, weak spots etc.. that you have to learn too. This really helps to prevent the game from becoming monotonous and also sets it apart from famous horde-battle games like “Painkiller” and “Serious Sam“, in that mindless shooting won’t really get you very far.

Although this game doesn’t have a saving system, it doesn’t actually need one. Since you are scored on how long you survive, the game only needs to save your highest score. Plus, like in old-school FPS games, there is a very fast iteration time too (which helps prevent your numerous deaths being too frustrating). Once you die, you can just click “retry” and start a new game less than a second later.

Of course, this can easily lead to a fairly bad case of “just one more go…” where a quick five-minute session can turn into half an hour or more without you even really noticing or caring. So, yes, this game is a serious time-guzzler – which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

The game has a lot of options too. In addition to a field of view slider, you can also enable/disable various flickering effects etc… and even better, you can actually choose to play as a left-handed character. It’s a tiny thing, but is still really cool to see (given that I’m left-handed) and it also places the game in the tradition of the original “Doom”, “Quake II” (you have to choose it in the options though), the old “Zelda” games and a few others 🙂

Image of an outstretched left hand, the thumb little more than bone, in front of a giant hovering centipede like creature made out of bones.

Seriously, it’s so cool to play as a left-handed character 🙂

One of the cool things about the DRM-Free GOG version of this game I played is that it actually contains an optional “offline mode” 🙂 So, if you believe that single-player games shouldn’t require an internet connection and that the best form of competition is against yourself, then the GOG version of this game is well worth playing 🙂 I haven’t tested the online mode but, from what I’ve read, it seems to involve competing for a place on an online leaderboard.

In terms of the graphics and art style, this game is very heavily influenced by both the hellish atmosphere of the original “Doom” and the creepy Lovecraftian aesthetic of “Quake”, whilst also being it’s own thing too. The game contains deliberately old-school 3D models that still somehow manage to look cooler, creepier and just generally more awesome than the most “realistic” modern “AAA” graphics. Seriously, the moment where the giant skull-spider appears for the first time is something that you’ll never forget. This game is a work of art, and proof that a distinctive aesthetic beats hyper-realistic graphics every time 🙂

An image of the game, but the colours are bright, highly-saturated yellows, reds and pinks.

Plus, whenever you gain a weapon upgrade from collecting crystals, time slows down for a second or so and this cool effect plays.

Plus, like in a lot of great older games, there is a lot of emphasis placed on lighting too. Whether it is all of the various glowing projectiles or the fact that the game tells you that you’re getting dangerously close to the edge of the arena (which, of course, has a bottomless pit behind it) by how dark the floor is, it is so awesome to see a game that uses light and darkness in such a conscious and cool-looking way 🙂

In terms of the music and sound design, this game is really good 🙂 The sound effects are all suitably crunchy, which really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and weight to the game. The music is the kind of ominous, creepy ambient soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in the original “Quake”. But, whilst this certainly adds a creepy atmosphere to the game, it is slightly at odds with the fast-paced and frenetic gameplay. So, after a while, I just went through my music collection and put some heavy metal music on in the background instead.

All in all, this is a really cool tribute to classic 1990s/early-mid 2000s FPS games like “Doom”, “Quake”, “Blood” and “Painkiller” 🙂 Not only is it enjoyably challenging and incredibly thrilling, but it also sticks to the traditions of innovation and creativity that used to be standard in the FPS genre. It is both very similar and very different to the classic games that it takes inspiration from. It is unique. Just don’t expect to get anything productive done after you’ve installed it though. It’s a time-guzzler, but in the best possible way.

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

Review: “Hard Reset Redux” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“The End Of The Day” by Claire North), I thought that I’d review a rather cool-looking “AA” cyberpunk first-person shooter game from 2016 called “Hard Reset Redux” (made by the same people who made the modern remake of “Shadow Warrior) which I’ve been meaning to play for ages, but only ended up getting a few weeks before writing this review when it went on special offer on GOG.

Interestingly, this game is an altered/expanded version of another game from 2011 called “Hard Reset”. Since I haven’t played that game I can’t really compare the two properly but, from what I gather, the “Redux” edition includes a new katana-style weapon, possibly an integrated expansion pack and at least one new enemy type.

So, let’s take a look at “Hard Reset Redux”:

Neon lights? Flying cars? Sprawling mega-city? THIS looks interesting 🙂

Set in a neon-lit cyberpunk future, you play as an official CLN operative who has been tasked with protecting the sprawling metropolis of Bezoar City from evil robots and cyborgs who want to gain access to a database of stored consciousnesses in the centre of the city. Of course, in a shocking twist, the robots break into the city and the game begins….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, although the gameplay isn’t anything too surprising, I was absolutely gripped during the early-middle parts of it. If you’re a fan of the film “Blade Runner” and thought that “Deus Ex” didn’t include enough fast-paced combat, then the early-middle parts of this game will absolutely astonish you. It’s basically “Blade Runner, but a FPS game” and you have no clue how long I have been waiting for something like this 🙂

Oh my god! YES!!!!

And, yes, there is a “Blade Runner” reference or two 🙂

You’ll notice how I’ve only mentioned the early parts of the game so far. This is because – although I have completed the game – this awesome “Blade Runner” style aesthetic, lighting and location design fades slightly as the game progresses, with everything becoming a bit more grimy, industrial and/or post-apocalyptic in a way vaguely reminiscent of early-mid 2000s FPS games like “Quake 4”, “Killzone”, “Red Faction II” and “Doom 3”. This is really cool, but I’d have loved to see the really cool cyberpunk cityscapes appear more consistently throughout the game. Even so, I can’t praise the general style and atmosphere of the first half or so of the game highly enough 🙂

Although this isn’t to say that there aren’t some cool-looking places later in the game too.

Even so, the later parts have much more of a post-apocalyptic look to them (probably due to the “Redux” edition also containing an expansion).

But, visuals and location design aside, what about the actual gameplay? If you’ve played the “Shadow Warrior” remake, you’ll know what to expect here. This is a “Serious Sam“/”Painkiller”-style FPS game where you have to fight waves of monsters in an arena-like room/area before moving on to the next one to do the same (and so on…), with the occasional boss battle to spice things up. This results in lots of thrillingly fast-paced and frenetic combat-focused gameplay that is also a lot more streamlined than the traditional FPS games of the 1990s.

However, one side-effect of this is that the level design is a lot more linear than you’d expect in a traditional 1990s FPS. Yes, the game does try to compensate for this by having a few “hidden” areas (though easily-findable by 1990s standards) where you can find extra stuff, not to mention that there were at least a couple of moments where I had to spend a minute or two working out where to go next. But, since this game is heavily combat-focused and is part of a well-established (and very fun) sub-genre of FPS games, I can’t criticise the linear level design here too much.

Yes, the levels are fairly linear but thanks to the fact that this game focuses almost entirely on intense, frantic combat , the level design actually sort of works here.

In terms of the combat, it is kept interesting by a good variety of small, mid-level and large monsters in the way that you’d expect from an old-school FPS game. Some of these monsters have different behaviours or attack patterns, which helps to add a slight element of strategy to the combat. Likewise, whilst you’ll rarely be fighting giant “Serious Sam”-style hordes, the monsters still attack in good enough numbers to keep the combat feeling suitably fast-paced and badass.

The design of the cyborg enemies is also strongly reminiscent of the Strogg from the second and fourth “Quake” games, which helps to add an extra level of 1990s/early-mid 2000s nostalgia to the game 🙂 But, that isn’t even the coolest part! There are also “Doom 3”-style zombies too 🙂 Seriously, cyberpunk sci-fi and zombies, it doesn’t get cooler than this 🙂

Woo hoo! Zombies! In a cyberpunk game 🙂

The boss battles are fairly interesting, although they don’t really follow a consistent difficulty curve. The first and second bosses that you encounter are “Painkiller”-inspired giant monsters that, like in the “Shadow Warrior” remake, require you to shoot their weak spots between battles against waves of smaller monsters.

These two bosses present a formidable challenge and, when you begin getting lots of hints and foreshadowing about the final boss, you’re ready for a truly epic battle… Only to fight a smaller robot that, whilst there are a couple of extra puzzle elements (eg: you have to get it to swallow barrels in order to lower its shields), isn’t anywhere near as much of a challenge to defeat. Yes, the final boss battle took me 10-15 minutes to complete, but I didn’t even die once during it! Again, this could be due to the “Redux” edition also including an expansion, but it still ruins the pacing/progression a bit.

This giant, towering behemoth is the first boss. And, yes, he presents quite a bit of a challenge.

This little tin can isn’t the first boss. It’s the final one. Expect a long, but not that challenging, battle 😦

In terms of the weapons, you only get three – an assault rifle-style gun, an energy weapon and a futuristic katana. However, this limited roster of weapons works surprisingly well, because you can collect in-game items (and there are absolutely no micro-transactions here 🙂 ) that allow you to choose and unlock upgrades and/or numerous alternate fire modes for two of them (the katana isn’t upgradable, and isn’t really that useful. But it looks cool) and for your character too. What this means is that the game actually includes something like 11-20 selectable attack types, which makes this game much more like a classic 1990s FPS than a modern-style two-weapon shooter 🙂

The katana looks cool (and is a cool reference to the “Shadow Warrior” remake too), but don’t expect to actually bother using it that often.

However, once you get the “Smartgun” upgrade (and its alternate fire modes) for the energy weapon, there really isn’t much reason or point to using anything else. So, for the later parts of game, expect to stick to just this one weapon almost all of the time.

Another cool 1990s-style element is that, like any proper computer game, you can save anywhere 🙂 Yes, the game auto-saves too and you only seem to get about one quick-save slot per segment/area of the game (and these quick-saves didn’t always load on my computer, although it was cool to see a proper loading menu where you could go back to some older saves). Even so, it is still very refreshing to see a proper “save anywhere” system in this miserable age of console-centric checkpoint saving 🙂

Likewise, another cool thing about this game is that it doesn’t fully use the dreaded regenerating health. Yes, your character’s armour and ammo regenerate slowly to an extent, but this is a game that requires you to actually find health and ammo. But, although the fact that these are dropped by fallen monsters encourages you to play in a more fast-paced and aggressive way, there is also no shortage of random health/ammo items just lying around. So, don’t expect to run out of either that often (compared to, say, a challenging 1990s FPS game).

Yes, this element of the game is wonderfully retro and helps to make things a bit more fast-paced and fun. But, on medium difficulty at least, don’t expect quite the same level of enjoyable challenge here though.

As for music and sound design, this game is pretty cool. In addition to the kind of fast-paced futuristic music you’d expect from a cyberpunk game, the sound design is fairly good. Yes, some of the weaker weapons deliberately sound a bit weedy, but this is probably an intentional design choice. Plus, in the earlier parts of the game, there is also lots of hilarious robotic dialogue from the many random vending machines that you’ll walk past. Seriously, it’s always good to see actual humour in a FPS game.

In terms of the game’s story, it is “so bad that it’s good” in the best 1990s-style way. There are some rather cool comic book-style cutscenes between segments of the game and, not only do these feature lots of gloriously cheesy and over-the-top moments, but the dialogue also uses a hilariously large number of four-letter words (in a way that comes across as immature/ “edgy” in the most ’90s way possible 🙂 ). And, yes, the actual story itself is generic as hell… But, this just adds to the 1990s-style charm.

And, yes, the cutscenes also include comic book-style titles and speech bubbles too.

As for length, this is probably a medium-length game at the least. Although I wasn’t really timing how long I was playing for, it wouldn’t surprise me if it took me at least 8-13 hours to complete it. Like with FPS games of this style, it is at its most enjoyable in relatively short 1-2 hour sessions. This game has a reasonably decent number of levels (again, I wasn’t counting. But, at a guess, probably at least 10-15, if not more). In other words, this game still felt like a full length FPS game, albeit one that was slightly shorter than the classics of the 1990s.

All in all, whilst this game is just another “Serious Sam”/”Painkiller”/ “Shadow Warrior (2013)”-style game, it’s still a really cool one. It has a really awesome aesthetic that is inspired by things like “Blade Runner” and mid-2000s FPS games, which is always awesome to see 🙂 The combat is reasonably fun, even if there are some difficulty curve issues with the bosses and the level design is (as you would expect) fairly linear. Still, for what it is, it is really cool 🙂

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

Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

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

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Doom: The Golden Souls 2 Portable” (WAD For “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ “GZDoom”)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel (“Idoru” by William Gibson) and playing the next full-length game (“Dex”) that I plan to review, I thought that I’d take a very quick look at an absolutely awesome joke WAD (well, technically a “.pk3” file) for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” that was released on April Fools’ Day in 2016, but which I somehow only discovered recently. I am, of course talking about “Doom: The Golden Souls 2 Portable“.

This WAD is, as you may have guessed, from the creator of the excellent “Doom: The Golden Souls 2” – and, it is well worth playing that WAD before playing this one.

Like with some of my recent WAD reviews, I used the GZDoom 3.4.1 source port whilst playing this WAD since the original “Golden Souls 2” requires a relatively modern version of GZDoom and the forum post for this WAD suggests something similar. However, there is no accompanying text file for this WAD (since it is downloadable from Mediafire rather than the traditional /IDgames Archive download you’d expect).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doom: The Golden Souls 2 Portable”. Needless to say, this review will contain some joke SPOILERS.

Oh my god, the nostalgia 🙂

This is a single-level joke WAD that shows what “Doom: The Golden Souls 2” (a “Doom II” WAD inspired by the classic SNES game “Super Mario World), would look like if it was ported to the original Game Boy. In keeping with this theme, the level’s music and menu are based on the classic “Super Mario Land 2” Game Boy game. And, if you ever played this game back in the day, then it is a nostalgia overload.

Once again, oh my god the nostalgia 🙂

During my childhood, I sometimes used to wonder what a FPS game would look like on the original Game Boy and when I found the closest thing to this that was available in the local second-hand shop (a submarine/battleship-themed game that used a side-scrolling first person perspective), I thought that it was really cool. Almost as cool as when I first saw that the Game Boy version of “Chessmaster” had a spoken intro.

What I’m trying to say is that, if you grew up in the 1990s, then this WAD is like a cool Game Boy cartridge that you heard rumours (actual traditional rumours, none of this modern internet nonsense) about, but could never find anywhere.

Seriously, if only this actually existed in 1996….

Anyway, the WAD itself is a Game Boy style version of the first level of “Golden Souls 2”. However, in addition to new graphics, sound effects and music, there are also a couple of interesting gameplay changes too. The most notable of these is that both the pistol and shotgun now fire projectiles (which make them better long-range weapons, albeit balanced out slightly by the spread of the shotgun’s projectiles) and thanks to the slight scarcity of ammo in this version of the level, the Doomguy’s fists are also slightly more powerful too.

Plus, like in “Doom II”, the shotgun only seems to fire both barrels at once. This is also a really cool nod to the limitations of the original Game Boy too.

Another cool thing about this WAD is the fact that the background music is similar to “Super Mario Land 2” (seriously, so much nostalgia!) and the monster sprites have also been redesigned in order to look like actual Game Boy sprites too. Seriously, this is so cool.

Seriously, it’s so cool to see low-res versions of all the familiar monsters 🙂

In terms of the actual gameplay, the level is a mildly challenging one that involves a decent amount of rather forgiving first-person platforming. If you’ve played “Golden Souls 2”, then it will be very familiar. However, in a really hilarious touch, the game actually “runs out of battery” just before you finish the level. If you ever played an original Game Boy back in the day, this will both make you roll your eyes and laugh at the same time.

I’m not going to spoil the rest of the ending, but this alone should bring back lots of nostalgia.

All in all, this WAD is a really fun, creative and funny piece of modern 1990s nostalgia. If you grew up in the 90s, then you’ll have a lot of fun with it. But, as well as being an awesome joke, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into what could have been if someone had somehow managed to make a FPS game for the Game Boy in the 1990s. Yes, it’s short and silly, but it is also one of the best joke WADs I’ve ever seen 🙂

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

Review: “And The Rest Is History” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, although I’d planned to read this book a couple of weeks ago, I thought that I’d take a look at the eighth novel in Jodi Taylor’s amazing “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series today. If you’ve never heard of this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, a late-night BBC3 sitcom, Terry Pratchett, “St. Trinians” and a punk comic.

Anyway, this novel – “And The Rest Is History” (2016) – was part of a birthday present that I got a couple of months earlier and am carefully rationing, since there are only a couple of other “St. Mary’s” books left to go.

However, although this novel does contain some recaps, you need to read the previous seven novels before reading this one. A lot of the novel’s drama will only really have the emotional impact that it deserves if you’re already familiar with the characters and backstory. Likewise, this story picks up where the previous book left off. So, read the previous seven books before this one. You won’t regret it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “And The Rest Is History”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “And The Rest Is History” that I read.

The novel begins shortly after the events of “Lies, Damned Lies, And History”. At the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or Max for short) is still getting to grips with the fact that she now has a baby son called Matthew. Surprisingly, there have been no major disasters either.

However, during a jog around the grounds of St. Mary’s, Max runs into her old enemy Clive Ronan. To her surprise, he hasn’t travelled to St. Mary’s to kill her. In fact, he has grown tired of life as a fugitive and wants to work out some kind of peace agreement with St. Mary’s. As such, he gives Max a set of temporal co-ordinates and requests a more formal meeting.

After some discussion, Max agrees to go – with her husband Leon staying behind to look after Matthew. And, after jumping to a remote part of the Ancient Egyptian desert, the meeting starts out well. Even a freak sandstorm that engulfed an entire army doesn’t get in the way and, if anything, engenders a grudging respect between Max and Ronan as they help each other to survive it.

Then, completely out of the blue, the Time Police show up. Needless to say, Ronan thinks that Max has betrayed him. Fleeing the desert, he swears cruel vengeance against both Max and everyone that she loves…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really solid “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂 There’s a really good mixture of comedy, action/adventure, time travel, historical horror, sci-fi and sombre emotional drama. Plus, if you’re a fan of the mythos of the series, then this novel has all of the classics 🙂 Ronan, the Time Police etc… You name it, it’s there 🙂 Seriously, I don’t know what to say about this novel that I haven’t said before. If you’re a fan of “St. Mary’s”, then you’ll love it 🙂

With every novel in the series, everything gets a little bit more refined and this one is no exception. This is a novel that will both make you laugh out loud and feel numb with shock (especially when you see a new twist on a familiar catchphrase). This is a novel that can be hilariously funny sometimes and grimly bleak sometimes and, somehow, both of these things fit together absolutely perfectly.

It is also a novel that is as much about what isn’t shown as what is, with the most dramatic sub-plot (eg: Leon chasing Ronan through time and space) taking place almost entirely “off screen” and, yet, it still works perfectly.

It is a novel that is able to make you feel nervous and uneasy when nothing goes wrong for the characters. Seriously, it’s a testament to how well-written this series is and how much Taylor knows her fanbase that the absence of chaos and catastrophe can be an extremely notable and suspenseful part of one of these novels.

Seriously, I absolutely loved how this novel was structured 🙂 Although I don’t want to spoil too much, there are some stunningly dramatic twists and turns here and, even if you can predict how some of them might turn out, they remain very dramatic nonetheless 🙂

Seriously, this novel gets the balance between thrilling adventure, dramatic suspense, fascinating sci-fi, grisly history, hilarious comedy (including a sneaky hat-tip to Terry Pratchett too. You’ll know it when you see it) and poignant, bleak emotional drama absolutely right. This is a novel that is like an excellent season of a TV show, but three times better 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are the heart of this story and they are as brilliant as ever. Not only is Max’s relationship with Leon and the fact that she now has a son a huge part of the story, but there is a lot of drama involving the other characters too. In the traditional fashion, this is a novel where the characters feel like old friends and you’ll really care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, it is also as brilliant as ever. Like with the other novels in the series, this one is narrated by Max and the incredibly readable, informal “matter of fact” punk narration allows for thrillingly fast-paced scenes, bleak moments of tragic drama and some absolutely brilliant comedy too 🙂 Seriously, like all of the other books in the series, this one has a lot of personality 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a little different. At a whopping 426 pages, it is longer than previous novels in the series. In fact, the increased length was why it took me a couple of weeks to work up the enthusiasm to read it. Even so, the novel is just as compelling and well-paced as you would expect 🙂 There’s a well-handled mixture of suspense, thrills, emotional drama, time travel and hilariously random comedy too.

All in all, if you’re a fan of this series, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 This is a novel for “St. Mary’s” fans and it absolutely excels 🙂 If you’ve never read a “St. Mary’s” novel before, then start with the first one and work your way towards this one. Seriously, it is even better if you’ve read the other books first 🙂

If I had to go through the formality of giving this novel a rating out of five, it would get the usual five.

Review: “The Empty Ones” By Robert Brockway (Novel)

Well, shortly after I’d finished Robert Brockway’s punk horror thriller “The Unnoticeables” about a month earlier, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of the sequel – “The Empty Ones” (2016). Of course, I got distracted by other books and only got round to reading “The Empty Ones” a month later.

“The Empty Ones” was, after all, the book that had got me interested in the series after I’d read about it on an online list of recommended horror novels. Annoyingly though, copies of the third novel in the trilogy (“Kill All Angels”) were still a bit too expensive at the time of writing.

Since “The Empty Ones” is a sequel, it is recommended that you read “The Unnoticeables” first. Yes, this novel does contain a fair number of recaps – but it’s best to witness these moments first-hand and to get to know the characters (and the series’ mythos) before reading “The Empty Ones”.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at “The Empty Ones”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Empty Ones” that I read.

The novel begins in Peru in 1984, with a brief scene showing a character called Meryll transforming someone into some kind of strange monster. Meryll then muses about being God.

The story then jumps to London in 1977. After the events of the previous novel, New York punk Carey has travelled there to check out the music. However, during a Ramones concert, he happens to spot an unnoticeable – a not quite human person who is instantly forgettable and who does the bidding of even worse creatures. Needless to say, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be having much of a holiday here.

Meanwhile, in 2013, ex-stuntwoman Kaitlyn is in Arizona with Jackie and Carey. Ever since the events of the previous book, the unnoticeables have been chasing her. Whilst spending a sleepless night in a motel, she happens to see an interview with Marco – the inhuman movie star villain of the previous book – on TV. He is heading to Mexico to film something. Determined not to run any more, Kaitlyn decides that she needs to travel to Mexico and deal with Marco once and for all….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is better than “The Unnoticeables” was 🙂 In addition to having some wonderfully grotesque horror elements, it is more of a focused and action-packed thriller story than I’d expected. The novel also keeps the punk attitude and humour of the previous novel too 🙂

As for the novel’s horror elements, they mostly consist of gory horror, paranomal horror, monster horror and/or body horror, with a bit of suspenseful horror thrown in too. Although the novel also contains a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and a few uncanny not quite human characters, there is slightly less of an emphasis on horror in this novel than in the previous one.

The novel’s thriller elements are a lot more prominent though. Not only are there quite a few fast-paced fights with and/or escapes from monsters, but there’s also a fair number of interesting mini cliffhangers, short chapters, dangerous situations and other stuff like that. One cool thing about the novel being set in several time periods is that it allows for some intriguing plot twists too (eg: In 1978, Carey really likes one of the people he meets. But, when he sees her again in 2013, they are enemies etc..).

Like with “The Unnoticeables”, this novel also contains a fair amount of humour too. Although most of this consists of subtle, irreverent and/or puerile humour, there are also some hilarious moments of physical comedy too. Whether it is a chapter narrated by Marco where he suddenly decides that the most efficient way to chase Carey is to literally crawl along the streets of a city, or a hilariously gross mutation-based scene set in a hotel in the 1980s, this novel can be pretty funny at times 🙂

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it expands a little on the mythos established in “The Unnoticeables”. For example, we get to learn why Kaitlyn’s sixth finger is so important, how to defeat the seemingly invincible “empty ones” etc.. Another cool thing about this novel is that, when Carey travels to London, the punks there have different names for the monsters (eg: faceless, husks, sludge and flares) than the NY punks do. Not only that, there are a lot more of them in the crowded streets of London too.

Although most of the novel takes place in both 2013 and 1978, there are also a few brief scenes set in the 1980s and 1990s that help to add atmosphere and characterisation. Like in the previous novel, the 1970s scenes are the best in the novel – filled with fast-paced drama, punk stuff, weird characters and atmosphere. Even so, the scenes set in 2013 were a bit more fast-paced and gripping than I had expected.

In terms of the characters, the main characters get a reasonable amount of characterisation whilst still being very recognisable to readers of the previous book. Another cool thing is that, in the scenes set in London, Carey seems even more like Vyvyan from “The Young Ones” than usual. The novel also introduces a couple of new characters too – such as a crusty old man called Tub and a punk called Meryll. Meryll has a really fascinating character arc and she also takes part in some of the novel’s most badass fight scenes too.

In terms of the writing, this novel uses a similar style to “The Unnoticeables”. In other words, although it uses the dreaded multiple first-person narrators, both the narrator and the year they are living in are usually clearly signposted (so, it isn’t too confusing). Likewise, the novel is also written in the kind of informal style that you’d expect from a punk thriller novel 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At a fairly efficient 284 pages, the story never feels too long. Likewise, the story’s pacing feels a lot more consistently thrilling than in “The Unnoticeables” too 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun thriller novel that is even better than “The Unnoticeables” was 🙂 Yes, there was slightly less horror than I’d expected, but it’s still a really cool mixture of the punk, horror and thriller genres 🙂

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

Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

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

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

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

Review: “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Ever since I got several of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels for my birthday several weeks earlier, I’ve been carefully rationing them out.

So, since a little over a month has passed since I read the sixth novel in the series, I thought that I’d read the seventh – “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” (2016).

Although this novel is the seventh novel in a series, it contains a fair number of recaps near the beginning. However, you will get a lot more out of this novel if you’ve read the previous six books first.

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

This is the 2016 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” that I read.

The story begins in the mid 21st century at the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s. Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) has made a huge mistake and is in a hell of a lot of trouble. Not only that, so is St.Mary’s too.

The story then flashes back to sometime earlier. Since Max is pregnant, she’s been restricted to less hazardous time jumps (if such things even exist). And, after seeing the coronation of King George IV, she makes another time jump to Wales to examine a hill fort. Of course, this being St.Mary’s, it isn’t long before Max’s team find themselves hiding in the fort after a Saxon army begins to advance towards it.

Luckily, King Arthur shows up to save the day. Even so, things are fairly close. After Arthur wins, he presents the fort with a ceremonial sword – symbolising his protection- that is placed in a nearby cave. Realising that this could be a major archaeological discovery, Max and her team return to St. Mary’s and report the sword to the University Of Thirsk, who dig it up and get all of the glory.

However, one of the team members (Roberts) who has family near the cave starts telling Max about a sudden series of terrible events that have happened in the area after the sword was removed. Needless to say, it isn’t long before Max has secretly assembled a team and begun planning a sword heist….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that the series is very much back on form 🙂 It never really left it, but this is another way of saying that book seven is better than book six. This is one of those awesome novels that feels like a giant, intricately-plotted epic storyline crammed into a small book 🙂

And, did I mention the heist? In addition to including elements from the sci-fi, comedy, drama and horror genres, this novel also includes the heist genre too 🙂 There is something absolutely hilarious about stories featuring “good” characters pulling off elaborate heists – and Max is in good company here, given that none other than Sherlock Holmes established this particular sub-genre of heist fiction (yes, the Holmes story was inspired by E.W. Hornung’s “Raffles” stories, but Raffles wasn’t exactly a “good” character).

Although I sort of mentioned this in yesterday’s article, one of the great things about this book is the sheer sense of progression. This is a novel that expertly jumps between genres and sub-plots so well and so often that it feels like a considerably deeper and larger story than you might expect 🙂

Plus, even though this novel tells a fairly self-contained story, it also manages to squeeze in a few elements of the series’s over-arching storyline in a way that felt slightly lacking in the sixth book.

Even though the novel’s time travel elements take a little bit of a back seat in this novel (there are lots of jumps, and even a battle, but most of them just involve fields and castles), the main focus of this story is on the drama taking place in St.Mary’s and, to my delight, the novel not only pulls this off well but also manages to make it really compelling. Whether it is Max’s fall from grace and her inevitable redemption or the battle of wits between Max and an obnoxious coffee-drinker called Halcombe who briefly takes over St. Mary’s, this novel is wonderfully dramatic, suspenseful and gripping.

Plus, the comedy in this novel is as great as usual too. Seriously, from a pet ringworm called Oscar to the mathematical formulae needed for cleaning products, this novel absolutely excels itself as a comedy novel. Although most of the story’s irreverent humour is as low-key and understated as usual, there were slightly more “laugh out loud” moments in this novel than I’d initially expected 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re as good as ever. Not only does Max have to deal with being pregnant, but she also has to find a way to make up for all of the trouble she has got St. Mary’s into during the earlier parts of the novel too.

The other characters are as well-written as usual, with the historical figures (eg: mostly various kings) also being portrayed in the series’ usual idiosyncratic and/or cynical way. Not only that, Halcombe is the kind of wonderfully cartoonish villian who you would absolutely love to see get his comeuppance too 🙂 Plus, talking of villains, long-running villain Clive Ronan makes a brief appearance in this novel and is actually a lot creepier and more evil than you’d expect too.

In terms of the writing, this is a St.Mary’s novel. So, it is excellent as ever 🙂 If you’ve never read a novel in this series, then the series’ gloriously informal and frequently irreverent first-person narration is a thing of beauty. I’ve probably described this series as punk literature before, but it’s a reasonably good description. This is a novel that has a lot of personality 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is stellar. The story’s 315 page length may initially feel slightly too long but, considering the amount of stuff that happens, it’s a miracle this novel is only 315 pages long. Needless to say, the pacing is really good too. There’s a brilliant mixture of slower and faster-paced scenes, not to mention that the clever segues between different genres (eg: suspense, time travel, drama, comedy, thriller, heist etc..) help to keep the story really compelling too 🙂

All in all, this is a really excellent instalment in the “St. Mary’s” series. If you like drama, comedy, sci-fi, history and thrills, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Try Before You Die” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

Well, since I’m still in the middle of reading a rather long C. J. Sansom novel (is there any other type?), I thought that I’d take the chance to review a “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD today.

After all, it’s been at least a couple of weeks since the last WAD review and, despite playing an older version of “Reelism” occasionally, I was worried that I was getting out of practice.

So, after clicking the “random file” link on the /idgames Archive a few times, I eventually found a rather interesting-looking WAD from 2016 called “Try Before You Die“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. According to the accompanying text file, this WAD is designed for ZDoom-based source ports – so, it will probably work with ports like GZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at: “Try Before You Die”:

“Try Before You Die” is a medium to long single-level WAD which revolves around a demonic invasion of Earth.

With Earth in ruins, humanity’s only hope is for the Doomguy to complete some kind of infernal trial in order to rid the planet of hell’s forces. So, yes, pretty standard stuff really.

Well, what were you expecting? A romantic comedy?

One of the first things that I will say about this level is that it’s pretty cool. Not only is the level design the kind of interesting non-linear level design that you’d expect from a classic 1990s FPS game, but the gameplay is also suitably challenging too 🙂

And, in keeping with the 1990s style of the level, this is also one of those modern levels where jumping is disabled by default (although the level is designed with this limitation in mind, so it isn’t really that noticeable whilst playing).

I should probably start by talking in more detail about the level design. In addition to containing a reasonably good mixture of claustrophobic corridors and arena-like areas, this level is also divided into two distinctive areas. There’s a ruined city area and a demonic fortress area (with four sub-areas you can teleport to in any order you want) – and, considering that this WAD only uses the standard “Doom II” textures, both areas look pretty cool.

Woo hoo! Gloomy post-apocalyptic landscapes 🙂

And THIS area almost looks like something from “Final Doom” too 🙂

This is also one of those awesome non-linear levels where you’ll often find yourself having to explore, in addition to finding new routes back to earlier areas of the level. Although the level is reasonably large, it’s still small enough to make exploration interesting rather than frustrating. In other words, it probably won’t take you too long to work out where you’re supposed to go next.

Likewise, this level also contains some fairly interesting, but solvable, puzzles too. For example, if you step through a teleporter in one area, you’ll quickly get torn to pieces by imps when you emerge on the other side. As such, you have to find where the teleporter exits and then use a nearby window/hole in the wall to deal with the imps first.

The level also includes an interesting little puzzle involving teleporters and barrels, a few basic switch puzzles, some combat-based puzzles etc… These puzzles are interesting enough to be reminiscent of the classic FPS games of the 1990s whilst also being straightforward enough not to become frustrating.

Hmmm…. I’m surrounded by barrels o’ fun!

In terms of the difficulty, experienced players will find this level enjoyably challenging 🙂 Whilst it is more of a standard-style level (think “Final Doom” turned up to eleven) rather than a “slaughtermap”-style level (where you’re faced with giant hordes of monsters), the level’s difficulty is achieved in a variety of interesting ways.

When you start the level, you’re faced with a reasonable number of mid-low level monsters, few health power-ups, relatively little ammo and a few claustrophobic areas. Whilst the difficulty in these parts of the level can feel a little bit cheap (especially if you’re slightly out of practice), the level soon begins to include a variety of different types of challenging combat.

These include really fun arena areas, areas where you’ll be running for your life, tense battles in narrow corridors, a Cyberdemon battle and even a fun little slaughtermap-style segment where a wide corridor quickly fills with powerful monsters (and you’ll have to use quick reflexes and clever tactics to find a way to escape).

And, yes, this level fulfils it’s mandatory Arch-vile quotient too 🙂

In addition to all of this, the relative scarcity of health items throughout the level (seriously, my health was less than 20 for large portions of the level!) helps to keep things suspenseful and challenging too 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun level 🙂 It’s a really cool modern twist on classic 1990s-style FPS levels. If you feel that “Final Doom” is a little bit too easy or you want a slightly more epic classic-style “Doom II” level, then this one is certainly worth checking out.

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