Review: “An Argumentation Of Historians” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel I’d meant to read a couple of months earlier. I am, of course talking about the copy of Jodi Taylor’s 2018 novel “An Argumentation Of Historians” that I got for my birthday in that year.

This novel is the ninth one in Taylor’s amazing “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series (If you’ve never read this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, “St. Trinians”, a punk comic and a late-night BBC3 sitcom) and, at the time of preparing this review, it was the most recent novel in the series I owned (apart from the short story collection “The Long And The Short Of It”, which I haven’t read yet, or the tenth novel – which wasn’t available when I prepared this review in March 2019).

And this is probably one of the reasons why it has taken me so long to review this book, I really didn’t want to run out of “St. Mary’s” books (yes, they’re that good). Still, I was in the mood for a “St. Mary’s” novel, so I decided to finally take a look at it.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel is the ninth novel in a series. Although this novel contains some recaps and some self-contained sub-plots, you really need to have read the previous eight books in order to really understand both the story and the characters.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “An Argumentation Of Historians”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “An Argumentation Of Historians” that I read.

After everyone in the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s has recovered from the events of the previous novel, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine “Max” Maxwell joins in with a jump to Greenwich in 1536 to study what really happened during Henry VIII’s famous jousting accident. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan. However, to everyone’s surprise, it is the Time Police who mess everything up this time.

After everything has been sorted out, Captain Ellis tells Max that their moustache-twirlingly evil arch-nemesis Clive Ronan is still out there and that he’d like both organisations to come up with a plan to catch him. So, Max comes up with a clever scheme involving some valuable jewelery and a time-jump to Persepolis shortly after it was taken by Alexander The Great. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a really good, but different, entry in the series. Although it certainly contains all of the comedy and adventure that you’d expect from a “St. Mary’s” novel, it is more of a serious drama, romance and/or thriller novel than I’d expected. It’s a really good novel but, if you’re used to the series, then it both will and won’t catch you by surprise.

Although the novel contains a few of the short, fun, self-contained comedy-adventure time jumps that you’d expect, a surprisingly large portion of the novel involves Max being stranded in the middle ages (with only four years to escape before a time paradox happens). This segment is simultaneously the best and worst part of the novel.

On the one hand, it’s a really atmospheric, detailed, realistic and suspense-filled segment that allows for a lot of character-based drama and has the kind of grim, bleak and harsh tone that is vaguely reminiscent of something like “Game Of Thrones” (with maybe a tiny hint of Joe Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” too) πŸ™‚

On the other hand, it is fairly long and is also slower-paced than both the beginning and ending of the novel. This also means that the series’ hilariously eccentric comedy elements don’t feel quite as prominent as they usually do. Likewise, although Max is a really interesting character, part of the fun of reading the series is being in St. Mary’s, spending time in this wonderfully eccentric, unique and chaotic place that is filled with bizarre people. So, separating Max from St. Mary’s changes the tone of the story quite a bit. Yes, this was probably the whole point of this segment but, still, it made me feel like I was missing out on something.

Still, in addition to the constant suspense of the medieval-based segment, the novel’s thriller elements are fairly good. Not only are there a few of the usual chaotic, fast-paced jaunts to the past (but fewer than usual) and other hilariously gripping scenes of mayhem, but there’s also the usual duel of wits between Max and Ronan too. Whilst most of this is handled fairly well, some of the later plot twists do seem a little rushed. Even so, they still add a lot of extra drama to the ending of the novel and my main complaint here is that more pages should have been dedicated to them.

However, after reading nine “St. Mary’s” novels, I’m starting to get the sense that Max and/or the Time Police will never catch Ronan. That, like the cartoon about the roadrunner and the coyote, the whole point is the chase. That, if Ronan was ever caught or killed, the whole series would come crashing to a directionless halt. And, yes, these cat-and-mouse scenes are really dramatic – but this element of the series means that they are at least mildly predictable by now.

In terms of the characters and the writing, this novel is excellent as ever πŸ™‚ Not only is Max’s first-person narration as irreverent, eccentric, amusing, “matter of fact” and/or personality-filled as usual, but this novel certainly isn’t short on character-based drama. Seriously, it’s amazing how this series can handle such a large cast of characters whilst still making them not only seem distinctive, but also giving many of them their own sub-plots and story arcs too.

As for length and pacing this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a fairly hefty 465 pages in length, novels in this series really do seem to be getting progressively longer. Normally, this would be a good thing – but the story’s pacing is a bit different than usual. One of the cool things about a typical “St. Mary’s” novel is that it often feels like a much larger novel (or, more accurately, a cleverly-disguised short story collection) has been distilled/compressed into a sensible-size novel. And, if this novel’s 465 pages were all like this, then it would have been really awesome.

However, whilst both the beginning and ending of this novel are the kind of fast-paced, detailed, plot-dense story that you’d expect, everything slows down a bit for the gloomier and more morose medieval segment that I mentioned earlier. Yes, this change in pacing helps to add realism, drama and a bleak atmosphere, but it does make the novel feel a bit longer than it should be and it also means that, as mentioned earlier, the really gripping ending feels a little bit rushed by comparison. Seriously, if the medieval segment had been 30-50 pages shorter and the ending 30-50 pages longer, then the pacing would have been better.

All in all, whilst this isn’t my favourite novel in the series, it is still a really good novel. Yes, it does some things differently (which is both a good and bad thing) and the length/pacing aren’t perfect, but this is still a really compelling sci-fi/thriller/drama novel filled with interesting characters, fascinating places, hilarious comedy, serious moments and atmosphere.

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

Review: “Sunburn” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was in the mood for something a bit more fast-paced. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a noir thriller novel from 2018 called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last February (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance of posting them). If I remember rightly, I ended up choosing this novel because of the cool cover art and the fact that there were author quotes from both Lee Child and Stephen King on the back cover. Naturally, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Sunburn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS. I’ll avoid major ones, since this book is best read with as few spoilers as possible.

This is the 2018 Faber & Faber (UK) paperback edition of “Sunburn” that I read.

The novel begins in America in 1995. In a bar in the small Delaware town of Belleville, a mysterious man spots a red-haired woman with sunburnt shoulders sitting alone. He goes over to talk to her and tells her that his car broke down near the town. She isn’t that interested in him. Still, the man decides to stay in town and book a room in the same motel as she is staying in.

The red-haired woman, Polly, has stopped off in the town after leaving her husband and daughter several hours earlier. The man, Adam, is a private detective who has been following her for several weeks. As the two both end up working at the bar and gradually get to know each other, it soon becomes obvious that they both have many more secrets….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really cool modern-style noir suspense thriller that reminded me a little bit of a mixture between Marc Behm’s “The Eye Of The Beholder“, the film “Blood Simple“, Alice Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” and maybe even the second or third season of “Twin Peaks”. In other words, it’s a dark, claustrophobic and grippingly suspenseful novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s noir elements, they are brilliant. Although this novel doesn’t feature any trilby hats or anything like that, it has a wonderfully noir atmosphere thanks to a whole host of things. Whether it is the understated fast-paced “matter of fact” hardboiled third-person narration, the fact that almost every character is morally ambiguous and/or has a shady, secret and/or tragic past, the complex web of criminal intrigue, the brilliant focus on mystery and suspense or even the claustrophobic small town setting, this novel is modern-style noir at it’s very best πŸ™‚

Plus, this novel also updates the gloomy realism of the noir genre too. Although traditional noir fiction is often currently thought of as a wonderfully stylised fantasy of trilby hats, rainy streets and old-timey America, these novels were actually gritty pieces of social realism at the time they were written. And, “Sunburn” updates this to the 1990s – with quite a few bleak and/or grim scenes about realistic tragedy, crime, cruelty etc.. all delivered with the kind of detached tone you’d expect from the noir genre. So, although this novel is a very gripping one, don’t expect it to be a very cheerful one.

This novel also does some really interesting things with the staples of the noir genre too. For starters, although Polly would probably have been written as a “femme fatale” character in a traditional noir story, she’s much more of a complex, and even sympathetic, character here. Likewise, although Adam is that most classic of noir characters – a private detective – he’s a million miles away from the grizzled gumshoes of old. He cooks, he falls in love etc.. and, in a lot of ways, is much more like the traditional naive “love interest” character you’d expect in an old film noir. So, this novel is an intriguingly unpredictable twist on the noir genre.

And, like in many great noir stories, the characters (or, rather, their flaws) are the main driving force for the plot too. This is a novel about complex, imperfect people with ulterior motives that collide in a way that you can’t really look away from. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom, or damnation, hanging over this story – which really helps to add a lot of suspense. Yes, the drama and suspense in this story is fairly small-scale, but this actually works really well since it not only adds realism to the story, but it also helps to add to the tense, suspenseful feeling of claustrophobia too.

Likewise, this novel handles the balance between mystery and suspense really well. The first half or so of the novel focuses slightly more on mystery, with intriguingly dark details and plot twists about various characters being slowly revealed to the reader as the story progresses. Then, when many of the twists, mysteries and secrets have been revealed (with a few held back for the ending, of course), they help to create extra suspense during the later parts of the story.

In addition to the suspense and noir-style plot, another cool thing about this novel is the setting and atmosphere. Given that I absolutely love stories, films etc… set in 1990s America, I knew that I was in for a treat when I saw “1995” on the first page. Interestingly, this novel is a lot more like an actual 1990s novel than a modern historical novel, in that there are very few “nostalgic” 1990s references here (the only ones I spotted were TLC’s “Waterfalls”, a video rental shop, Beanie Babies and a mention of Bill Clinton) and the story is just about ordinary life in a small town.

This actually makes the story feel more 1990s, especially since several of the story’s twists and turns rely on it being set somewhere without internet access. Not only that, the story’s 1990s setting is also relevant to the plot for a reason that I won’t spoil.

I’ve already talked about the complex, realistically flawed characters and the fast-paced “hardboiled” narration, so this just leaves the novel’s length and pacing to talk about. And, in this regard, it absolutely excels too πŸ™‚

Like an actual novel from the 1990s, this one is efficiently short at about 292 pages in length. This helps to keep the story focused. Likewise, although the novel takes the time to set the scene and focus on several characters’ backstories, this never really feels slow-paced thanks to both the fast-moving writing style and the fact that all of these details help to add extra mystery, atmosphere or suspense to the story in some way or another.

Even so, the novel’s pacing is more like a traditional moderate-fast paced thriller rather than an ultra-fast paced action thriller. Still, compared to -say- a Raymond Chandler novel, this novel is a fairly fast-paced one. And it is very compelling.

All in all, this novel is really great πŸ™‚ It’s a modern-style noir suspense thriller that is set in the 1990s and is filled with intriguing characters who drive the plot in a really dramatic way. Yes, it certainly isn’t a “feel-good” novel but if you like the 1990s, the noir genre or suspense, then this novel is well worth reading πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (Computer Game)

Well, after a marathon gaming session, I finally completed a modern survival horror game that I’d been playing for several weeks before I prepared this review. I am, of course, talking about an “AA” indie game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) which I’ve been meaning to review for a while.

This was the first new game I bought for my modern refurbished computer (after seeing that, late last year, it was on sale on GOG) and, to my delight, it would actually just about run on my computer’s integrated IntelHD 2500 graphics.

However, in order to get an even vaguely playable framerate, I had to turn most of the graphics settings down to the absolute minimum … and then both reduce the FOV and lower the resolution scaling to 40%. So, the screenshots in this review won’t reflect how the game will look on a computer with an actual graphics card.

Interestingly though, this game contains pre-rendered cutscenes (which show what the game looks like on high graphics) – so, if you want an old-school 1990s/early 2000s-style experience, then the difference between cutscenes and gameplay just adds to the charm when playing on ultra-low graphics.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Remothered: Tormented Fathers”. Needless to say, this review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS.

The game begins with a journalist talking to a mysterious old woman called Madame Svenska. The story then flashes back to 1970s Italy. Dr. Rosemary Reed has driven to the rural mansion of an old man called Richard Felton in order to ask about his missing daughter Celeste. Needless to say, the meeting doesn’t go well and Dr. Reed is thrown out of the mansion by Felton’s nurse, Gloria.

Hiding nearby, Dr.Reed waits for Gloria to leave for the night, before finding a hidden key and sneaking back into the mansion to find Richard’s reclusive wife, Arianna. However, when she gets to Arianna’s bedroom, she is horrified to find a decaying corpse on the bed. Not only that, Richard Felton is nearby – wearing nothing but an apron, carrying a sharp sickle and muttering ominously. Even worse, the front door to the mansion has been blocked by an iron grille. Needless to say, Dr.Reed needs to find a way out of the mansion before it is too late….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it is the scariest computer game I’ve ever played. Seriously, even “Silent Hill 3” seems only moderately creepy in comparison to the literal adrenaline-rushing, heart-pounding and, on one occasion, insomnia-inducing terror that I felt literally every time I played this game. But, this isn’t a linear jump scare game designed for “Let’s Play” Youtube videos, this is a modern old-school survival horror game of the type that hasn’t been made for ages πŸ™‚ Yes, it isn’t perfect, but it’s still one hell of a game πŸ™‚

YES! It’s a survival horror game from 2018 πŸ™‚

However, unlike many classic survival horror games (except possibly the “Clock Tower” games, which I haven’t played), the emphasis here is not on combat but on sneaking past and/or hiding from powerful killers who, at most, can only be briefly stunned, temporarily distracted or, if you’re good enough at running away, left far enough behind you to give you a brief chance to hide.

Although I normally loathe and despise stealth games, the fact that this is a modern old-school survival horror game more than makes up for this πŸ™‚ Even if, like me, you might spend literally weeks of gaming sessions cowering in one of the cupboards near the beginning of the game until you learn how the killers’ AI works and how to sneak around properly, this game is still really compelling. If you dare to play it.

Yes, it’s a stealth game. But, the utterly terrifying horror elements more than make up for this πŸ™‚

Still, this game is a really cool homage to so many classic games. Although the main inspirations were apparently “Clock Tower” and various horror movies, fans of classic survival horror will see many familiar inspirations. Whether it is the “Silent Hill 3”-style way the soundtrack will become more intense when danger is nearby, the vaguely “Alone In The Dark” style main character and location design or the “Resident Evil 2”-style way that health levels are shown via injuries to the main character etc… Yet, despite all of these inspirations, the game is still very much it’s own thing too.

Plus, as I mentioned before, this is an extremely scary horror game! Not only does this game include lots of suspense, atmosphere, psychological horror, some moments of gory horror and even a few jump scares, but the whole game is designed to impart a terrifying feeling of vulnerability too. Whether it is the small number of save points, the frantic quick-time events, the slightly unpredictable enemy movement paths, the weak single-use weapons, the restricted view from hiding places etc… this is pretty much abject terror in game form.

Seriously, don’t play this at night. You probably won’t be able to get any sleep afterwards…

Unlike modern linear Youtube-focused horror games, this is very much a game of skill too πŸ™‚ Not only will you gradually get accustomed to listening out for the killers, but doing things like memorising hiding places and learning how to use single-use defence weapons and throwable distraction items are pretty much essential too. Likewise, you’d better get to know the layout of the mansion like the back of your hand, since it’ll come in handy when you’re fleeing in terror. Though, of course, running makes noise. Noise attracts attention. This is a bad thing.

Ok, this is from a cutscene. When the killers appear in-game, there’s usually no time to take screenshots. Running and hiding is more important.

When it is at it’s best, this game is a heart-poundingly thrilling game of cat and mouse. At it’s worst, it can be a little bit of a waiting simulator though – especially if, like me, you find yourself too scared to emerge from a hiding place.

Yes, you’ll become quite familiar with these. Eventually, you might even work up the courage to leave them. Until then, expect lots of scary boredom.

Still, although the stealth in this game is fairly well-handled, it is brutally unforgiving at times. The killers often linger near hiding places for long periods of time and there are some fixed distraction items placed in positions where pretty much the only way to leave the area after you’ve activated them is also the only path that the killer will take to find them. Yes, there are time-delayed distraction items too – but these can’t be remotely activated from other parts of the house (so they’re less useful than you might think. You just kind of place them and then wait).

Although there were moments when I found myself wishing for an “easy mode” or some cheat codes, I can respect the decision not to include difficulty settings or cheats in this game. Yes the game’s challenging stealth system takes a while to learn and get used to – but the challenging difficulty also helps to add extra horror, adrenaline and suspense to the game too.

Yes, this isn’t your usual “walking simulator with jump scares” modern indie horror game. You actually need skill to beat this game.

Of course, like in all classic survival horror games, this one also includes item puzzles too. Although these are relatively easy in principle, they will often send you back and forth across the mansion (which, in case you’ve forgotten, is aslo populated by vicious killers). So, the puzzles are more challenging than they may initially seem.

Yes, the puzzles may not be that difficult. But, you have to solve them whilst also hiding from scary people too.

In fact, I ended up using a walkthrough for most of the puzzles so that I could focus more attention on hiding, sneaking etc.. However, I actually had to restart this game at one point because I found two items (the film and the projector battery) before reading the piece of paper that tells you to collect them and formally gives you the objective. This caused the game to get stuck in an unwinnable state. So, don’t sequence break if you’re using a walkthrough.

In terms of the story and characters, they’re both brilliant and terrible. Although the voice-acting can be a little bit corny during some of the cutscenes, the killers’ in-game dialogue often walks a brilliantly fine line between disturbing and hilarious (with, for example, Mr.Felton sounding like a cantankerous old man, one of the other villains reciting Bible verses in a croaky voice, one sounding like an evil version of Meg from “Family Guy” and another sounding like a “wicked witch” character from a fairytale).

Plus, unlike the military protagonists and/or well-armed civilians of many classic survival horror games, Dr.Reed actually comes across as a realistic character who is also genuinely afraid of the game’s many scary things.

Another interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that, unlike most classic-style survival horror games, the main character never carries a gun. This makes the game about ten times scarier.

Plus, whenever you hide, you’ll hear Dr.Reed mutter exclamations of dread and breathe heavily, which really adds to the suspense.

Not only that, the game’s story is better than it initially seems to be πŸ™‚ Even though the plot is a little convoluted at times, even though the game’s ending is a clear set up for a sequel (although many parts of the game’s story are resolved) and even though some story elements are fairly standard “evil experiments” stuff, the game knows when to tell you stuff and when to leave stuff to your imagination. Plus, the characterisation is reasonably good too.

Not only are all of the characters’ backstories both explained enough to make sense and left mysterious enough to be intriguing, but you’ll probably also eventually end up feeling sympathetic for the house’s evil residents too.

Plus, there are also loads of subtle character details that will only make sense later in the game. To give you an example, Felton will occasionally sing a nursery rhyme in the early parts of the game. When you first hear this, you’ll just assume that it’s there because it is creepy. When you learn more backstory, this detail makes a bit more sense (even if it isn’t explicitly spelled out).

Seriously, I cannot praise the character design in this game highly enough. There are so many small details that only make sense later in the game.

In terms of music and sound effects, this game absolutely excels πŸ™‚ A lot of what makes this game so nerve-frayingly terrifying is the ominous ambient music and all of the sound effects that you’ll constantly be listening out for. Seriously, expect to jump whenever you hear footsteps or opening doors for a while after each gaming session. However, one small problem with the sound design is that sometimes the killers can sound closer than they actually are (eg: they may technically be near you, but the game can’t tell that there’s a wall in the way etc..) – then again, this might have been an intentional choice to make the game even scarier.

In terms of level design and visual design, this game is really good. Even at the kind of low graphics settings which reduce the textures to Playstation One levels of blurriness, the mansion is still incredibly atmospheric, not to mention that the mansion also contains a really good mixture of both scary open areas and scary claustrophobic areas too. It’s also large enough to feel daunting, whilst being small enough that it won’t take you too long to learn where everything is. Plus, it goes without saying, but it’s always awesome to see old-school non-linear level design in a modern game too πŸ™‚

Plus, creeping around evil mansions somehow never gets old either πŸ™‚

As for length, this is probably a short to medium-length game. If you’re an expert at stealth games, have nerves of steel and are using a walkthrough, then you’ll probably be able to complete it in a few hours. But, if you are of even a vaguely nervous disposition or have more practice at action-packed games than stealth games, you can get weeks of terrifying gaming sessions out of this game.

All in all, whilst this isn’t a perfect game, it is still a really awesome one πŸ™‚ It’s a real survival horror game from 2018 πŸ™‚ If you want a modern horror game that will leave you a nervous wreck after every session, if you miss the “Silent Hill” and/or “Clock Tower” games and/or if you want something a bit more imaginative and skill-based than linear jump-scare based Youtube-focused horror games, then play this one. Yes, it requires practice and it can get stuck in an unwinnable state if you don’t do some things in the correct order, but it’s still a really brilliant – and very, very scary- horror game πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Man On The Moon” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ GZDoom)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“Origin” by Dan Brown) and because it’s been almost a month since I reviewed anything “Doom II”-related, I thought that I’d take a look at a runner-up in the 2018 Cacowards (chosen by none other than Major Arlene) called “Man On The Moon” by Yugiboy85.

I played this WAD using the GZDoom 3.4.1 source port. According to the accompanying text file, it was tested with PRBoom+ and is also probably compatible with ZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at “Man On The Moon”:

“Man On The Moon” is a large single-level WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” that contains new music, new textures, new sprites, new sounds and a new monster too.

One of the first things that I will say about this WAD is that it reminded me a little of WADs by Skillsaw (like the excellent “Lunatic” or the even more excellent “Ancient Aliens) and not just because of the textures and sci-fi setting. Like a good Skillsaw level, this WAD is an interesting mixture of more traditional level design and more challenging “slaughtermap”-style design too.

Seriously, don’t let the relatively easy early parts of the level lull you into a false sense of security…

It’s one of these levels πŸ™‚

In other words, this WAD contains a really good mixture between more traditional level design and combat design, and a very slightly milder version of the kind of fast-paced, monster horde battles that you’d expect from something like “XXXI CyberSky” or “Infernal Fortress“.

This mixture between the two things not only helps to keep the challenging gameplay unpredictable, but is also helped by the fact that the “slaughtermap” segments are a really good mixture between large arena fights and claustrophobic crowded corridor battles.

I know it’s a bit of a clichΓ©, but you’ll quite literally be knee-deep in the dead in some parts of this level.

Like all of the best modern WADs, this is one where you’ll not only need to know the “rules” of “Doom II” but also how to use them to your advantage. Like other maps of this type, this is a level where you probably won’t have the health or ammo to fight literally all of the monsters – so, things like tactics, knowing when to fight and when to run/hide/dodge etc… are essential. This turns the gameplay into something like a fast-paced combat-based puzzle where, for example, you have to work out how to get past a horde of monsters when you’ve only got three health points left.

Yes, it requires perseverance and this level really isn’t for beginners (seriously, play “Final Doom” before even thinking about playing this level), but it makes many of the level’s challenging combat encounters really satisfying when you use your experience, tactics and knowledge to beat them. Not only that, the new monster sprites help to add some extra novelty to the level, there are a decent amount of Arch-viles and even new boss monsters near the end of the level too πŸ™‚

These two new bosses are quite literally called “Terminators” and they are as tough as the name suggests…

Not to mention that this level also contains a decent number of Arch-viles too πŸ™‚

In terms of the actual level design, it’s a mixture of good and bad. The giant, sprawling moon base level is split into several segments (each involving a switch and a keycard) that can be completed in any order and a final arena battle. Although most of the level is really well-designed and is the kind of non-linear thing that could easily have come from the 1990s, it is perhaps very slightly too large for it’s own good.

Not only did I almost miss a crucial weapon pick-up (which was hidden in one of many small corridors) but, after pressing the four switches, I spent at least an hour wandering around the level’s many halls and courtyards wondering “what the hell do I do next?” and thinking “I’m sure I saw an unlockable door somewhere ages ago“. Eventually, out of pure frustration, I ended up using the no clipping cheat to get to the final arena. Whilst it’s really cool that this level has an old-school non-linear layout, these types of old levels worked because they were small enough for the player not to get lost or stuck for too long.

Strange as it sounds, this level would have been even better if it was a bit smaller.

Interestingly, this WAD also takes a rather traditionalist attitude towards jumping too – with the ability to jump being disabled by default. Although, thanks to lots of stairs and lifts, you won’t really even notice this most of the time.

The level’s visual design is really brilliant too, with some wonderful skyboxes and some excellent use of both Skillsaw’s sci-fi textures and a few things from “Duke Nukem 3D” too πŸ™‚ Seriously, I love the 90s sci-fi look of this WAD πŸ™‚ Likewise, the new music and sound effects also help to add a bit of a sci-fi ambience to the level too.

All in all, this is an enjoyably challenging “Doom II” level that is also a cool homage to Skillsaw too πŸ™‚ Yes, it’s a little bit too large for it’s own good (and expect to get stuck at least once or twice), but it’s still a really fun level that experienced players will enjoy πŸ™‚

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

Review: “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” By Steve Cole (Novel)

Well, since I was still going through a phase of reading spin-off novels, I thought that I’d check out a “Doctor Who” novel from 2018 called “Combat Magicks” by Steve Cole.

This was a hardback novel that I splashed out on last December (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance) shortly after series eleven of “Doctor Who” had finished.

Although I didn’t have time to review more than the first episode of this series, it was probably one of the best series of the show that I’ve seen and, well, I wanted more of it (especially since the 2018 “Christmas episode” was postponed to New Year’s Day 2019 and the show apparently won’t return until 2020). Hence getting this book.

I should probably also point out that, although “Combat Magicks” tells a stand-alone “Doctor Who” story and can be read without watching the “Doctor Who” TV show, it’s probably worth watching at least a couple of series eleven episodes before reading this novel in order to get to know the main characters.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks” that I read.

The novel begins with the TARDIS, a time-travelling spaceship shaped like an old police call box, being knocked off-course by a mysterious energy field. Inside the TARDIS, The Doctor and her earthly companions Ryan, Yaz and Graham try to work out what has happened.

When the TARDIS lands, they find themselves in Gaul in 451 AD. The sky is glowing. Something is interfering with Earth’s history and it is up to the Doctor to find out what it is and put everything right.

But, there is just one little problem. In the area around the TARDIS, the forces of Attila The Hun are about to do battle with the Romans who control the area. Being a fixed historical event that is a crucial part of Earth’s timeline, The Doctor can do nothing to stop the war. Still, it doesn’t take her too long to find out that mysterious witch-like creatures called the Tenctrama are involved in this whole mess…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like an extra episode of “Doctor Who”, but with a slightly more complex storyline, slightly more horror and a much larger special effects budget πŸ™‚

In other words, it’s a brilliant mixture of quirky science fiction, subtle comedy, gruesome horror and thrilling drama πŸ™‚ Yes, it takes a little while for the novel’s story to really become gripping, but it is worth sticking with this novel πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Every futuristic thing here has a logical explanation and follows a consistent set of rules (which the characters have to try to understand). The nefarious Tenctrama who are threatening Earth also have realistic motivations for their actions and all of the story’s futuristic technology also feels like technology rather than magic.

Of course, thanks to the historical setting, many of the Roman and Hun characters consider alien technology to be magic. This allows the story to include some really cool dark fantasy-style elements, in addition to allowing the story to occasionally explore the difference between knowledge and superstition. Seriously, as sci-fi stories go, this one is well within the “Doctor Who” tradition.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really cool πŸ™‚ In addition to some brilliant scenes of paranormal horror, scientific horror, death-based horror, zombie/monster horror and suspenseful horror, the novel also includes a surprising amount of gruesome horror too πŸ™‚

Yes, this gruesome horror is relatively tame when compared to “proper” horror novels (with the story’s grislier moments being described in a slightly quicker and/or less detailed way), but it still adds a bit of extra atmosphere, grittiness and horror to the story in a way that the TV series probably wouldn’t be allowed to do.

Not only that, the story also includes zombies too πŸ™‚ Yes, they are a little different from typical horror movie zombies, but it’s always really cool to see zombies in “Doctor Who” (like in the series eleven episode “The Witchfinders”).

In a lot of ways, the horror elements of the story reminded me a little of modern historical dark fantasy/horror/zombie novels like Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, which is never a bad thing πŸ™‚

Of course, all of these horror elements are also balanced out with the series’ trademark sense of humour, consisting of things like pop culture references, amusingly eccentric comments from the Doctor and a few amusing narrative moments. So, this is more of a “feel good” novel than you might initially think.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too πŸ™‚ Although the story takes a while to lay out all of it’s plot threads and become really gripping, this is worthwhile. There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful moments, a couple of plot twists, dramatic action sequences, clever plans and large-scale drama.

One of the cool things about the Thirteenth Doctor having three companions (rather than the usual one) is that this allows for more complex stories when they become separated, and this novel takes full advantage of this fact.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only are the main characters reasonably close to their TV show counterparts, but this story also allows them to be a bit more badass – whilst still staying within the show’s traditional pacifist themes.

Likewise, the fact that this is a novel means that there’s even more room for personality and humour too. In addition to all of this, the novel’s historical background characters are reasonably well-written – with the highlights being Attila The Hun and a Roman version of “Torchwood” called “The Legion Of Smoke” – although they don’t get quite as much characterisation as the four main characters do.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the novel’s villains (the Tenctrama) also come across as characters with defined motivations who do evil things for a practical reason rather than just for the sake of being evil. Because of this, they are even more chillingly effective villains. Not to mention that their backstory and motivations also help to feed into the novel’s anti-war theme too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good. The story’s third-person narration has a little bit more of a distinctive “style” than I expected and it’s this brilliant mixture of more informal observations and mildly formal descriptions. It fits in surprisingly well with the tone of the TV show and, although there are a few mildly confusing moments (eg: a third-person segment written from the perspective of one of the Huns early in the story), it means that the story is a very readable and relaxing way to spend a few hours.

As for length and pacing, this novel is also really good. At an efficient 264 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. The pacing is mostly really good too, although the second half of the story is probably somewhat more gripping than the first half is. Although this is probably because the earlier parts of the story have to spend time setting everything up for the spectacular drama in the later parts of the story.

All in all, this is a really good “Doctor Who” novel πŸ™‚ Yes, it takes a little while to really become compelling, but it’s a brilliant blend of the sci-fi, horror and thriller genres πŸ™‚ So, if you enjoyed series 11 and wonder what it would look like with a higher budget, a bit more horror and more time to tell a story, then this novel is worth reading.

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

Review: “Meddling Kids” By Edgar Cantero (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this book review, I ended up watching several episodes of “Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated” and was amazed at how good this modern Saturday morning cartoon was.

A couple of weeks later, I was looking around online for second-hand horror novels and happened to find a modern novel from 2018 called “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero, which seemed to be a Lovecraftian dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” πŸ™‚

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

This is the 2018 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Meddling Kids” that I read.

In 1977, the four young investigators of the Blyton Summer Detective Club (and their trusty dog Sean), solve the mystery of the Sleepy Lake monster. Far from being a giant salamander monster, it was actually a masked criminal called Thomas Wickley who would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

Flash forward to 1990 and Wickley is up for parole. But, soon after he leaves prison, he is ambushed by Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, a former member of the detective club who is determined to get the truth out of him. There were things in Sleepy Lake that were too strange to be part of an elaborate criminal scheme. Unexplainable, unworldly horrors that have haunted the nightmares of the club members ever since that fateful summer holiday.

As a result of that horrifying summer, Andy has ended up living a life of crime, nerdy redhead Kerri has ended up in a series of dead-end jobs and weedy, nervous Nate has found himself in a mental hospital (but, at least he has the ghost of tall, athletic Peter to keep him company). About the only club member who is vaguely ok is Tim, Sean’s canine descendent.

Rattled by the mysterious incantations that Wickley babbles after she questions him, Andy decides that the only thing to do is to get the club together again and return to Sleepy Lake……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW! It’s a funny, creepy, thrilling and mysterious mixture of dark comedy, Lovecraftian horror and retro nostalgia πŸ™‚ In other words, this novel is kind of like a mixture of H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Door“, “Blood“, “Twin Peaks”, “Supernatural”, “The X-Files”, “Scooby Doo” and some kind of alternative punk comic from the 1990s. So, yes, it’s pretty awesome πŸ™‚

The novel’s horror elements are pretty interesting. As you would expect from a modern Lovecraftian horror story there’s a really good mixture of ominous horror, occult horror, monster horror, suspenseful horror, jump scares, psychological horror, implied horror, scientific horror, economic horror/ post-industrial decay, claustrophobic horror and gruesome horror. Although this novel isn’t likely to leave you frozen with fright, there is a wonderfully creepy and ominous atmosphere in many parts of the story πŸ™‚

The novel’s comedy elements also work reasonably well. Although there were only a couple of moments that really made me laugh out loud, the novel has a wonderfully irreverent attitude, some moments of bizarre slapstick comedy, numerous retro pop culture references, a gleefully farcical denouement, lots of amusing dialogue and some brilliant dark comedy plot elements too.

The novel’s detective elements are fairly interesting too. Although the novel enters the realms of fantasy and science fiction, pretty much everything in the story has a logical scientific, practical and/or paranormal explanation. Even though fans of H.P. Lovecraft won’t be too surprised by the premise of the story, there are enough clever plot twists and intriguing clues, locations etc… to keep the story intriguingly gripping.

Interestingly, this novel starts out as a slower-paced mystery, psychological thriller and character-based drama novel. These elements all work surprisingly well and, although this means that the first two-thirds or so of this novel are relatively slow paced (but still really compelling), the novel then segues into this absolutely spectacular action-packed final act that occasionally reminded me a little bit of the classic computer game “Blood” (which, again, is never a bad thing πŸ™‚ ).

The story’s atmosphere is really cool too. In addition to the kind of ominous atmosphere you would expect from a Lovecraftian horror story, this story also includes the cynical nihilism of the 1990s (in addition to some vague hints of that decade’s more famous optimism) and a brilliantly dark and twisted version of the fun atmosphere of “Scooby Doo” too πŸ™‚

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant πŸ™‚ Not only do all of the main characters come across as stylised, but realistic, people with a huge number of quirks, flaws and emotions but the novel’s characters are also both a brilliantly inventive parody of both “Scooby Doo” and Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” too. In short, the level of characterisation here is on par with Neil Gaiman’s amazing “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” πŸ™‚

The novel’s main characters also allow for the exploration of numerous themes such as mental illness, memory, non-conformity, friendship, love, trauma etc… too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough πŸ™‚ They’re a glorious band of misfits who are so much fun to hang out with.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s (mostly) third-person narration is amazing. It is this wonderfully weird mixture of formal descriptive narration, highly informal narration and more experimental/avant-garde narration… and, somehow, it really works πŸ™‚

In true punk fashion, this novel isn’t afraid to break the rules by doing things like using film script-like dialogue segments, breaking the fourth wall (usually subtly, but one instance of it – involving a chapter ending- is truly epic) and occasionally inventing new words just for the hell of it. The inventive, irreverent and unique writing style in this novel is an absolute joy to read πŸ™‚ Still, if you’re used to more conventional writing styles, then you might not enjoy the narration as much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 442 pages, this is one of those novels that will sometimes feel like reading a DVD boxset. However, although the first two-thirds of the story are relatively slow-paced, they remain really compelling thanks to the atmosphere, the characters, the writing style and the mysterious plot. These slower-paced segments also contrast really well with the brilliantly gripping and fast-paced final act too πŸ™‚

All in all, this is a punk Lovecraftian horror dark comedy parody of “Scooby Doo” that is set in the 1990s πŸ™‚ Need I say more?

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

Today’s Art (20th April 2019)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the first comic in “Damania Retracted”, this month’s four-comic webcomic mini series. You can find links to lots of other comics featuring these characters on this page.

This is a comic about last year’s Eurovision Song Contest. And, yes, I tend to make these comics quite far in advance. Even so, I was kind of surprised that there only seemed to be just one metal/rock/punk group (AWS from Hungary – with this song. Even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics, it was pretty cool – although it reminded me of early-mid 2000s metal a bit though) in what I saw of the contest. But, given the sheer variety of awesome music out there, it’s always weird how Eurovision almost always seems to focus on just one genre (pop music).

Note: Today’s comic update is NOT released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Retracted – Eurovision 2018” By C. A. Brown