Review: “The Snow Queen” By Joan D. Vinge (Novel)

Well, although this review has been quite a while in the making, I thought that I’d take a look at Joan D. Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning 1980 sci-fi novel “The Snow Queen” today 🙂 And, although I’ll probably take a break from reading/reviewing novels for a while, I’ve really been looking forward to reviewing this book 🙂

If I remember rightly, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book after really enjoying Vinge’s later prequel novel “Tangled Up In Blue” – which I discovered after reading the second novel in the “Snow Queen” series, “World’s End“, about a decade after I found it by chance in a charity shop. It has been a weird journey.

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

This is the 1988 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The Snow Queen” that I read.

The novel begins on the planet Tiamat. Although Tiamat is a member of a powerful interplanetary alliance called the Hegemony, it is only accesible to the rest of the Hegemony via a wormhole that opens and closes in 150 year cycles. The planet is split into two tribes – Summers and Winters – who rule depending on whether the wormhole is open or shut. When it is open, the Winters are in charge and off-world technology is temporarily available to the planet in exchange for the “water of life” – an immortality serum derived from the blood of sea-creatures called mers.

In the planet’s capital city of Carbuncle, a festival is in full swing to celebrate a visit by the Hegemony’s Prime Minister. During the celebrations, a drunken couple fall asleep in a room in the city’s palace. The planet’s ruthless Winter queen, Arienrhod, sneaks into the room with a reluctant off-world doctor she has bribed into helping her. She orders the doctor to insert an illegal clone implant into the unconscious woman.

Several years later, on an island in the Summer areas of the planet, a young woman called Moon leaves home with her beloved cousin Sparks. Unlike the technology-obsessed Winters, the Summers are a more primitive and superstitious people who live from fishing, consider mers to be sacred and worship a sea-goddess called The Lady. Part of this mystical tradition is the existence of “siblys” – people who become human search engines/encyclopaedias thanks to the sharing of blood.

Both Moon and Sparks have wanted to become sibyls since they were children and they have travelled to another island in order to begin the tests and rituals that will allow this. However, after reaching a dark cave, Sparks realises that he can’t see in the dark in the same way that Moon can. He has not passed the test and cannot become a sibyl. Despite his protests and their promise that they would become sibyls together, Moon reluctantly continues into the cave and begins her sibyl training.

Dismayed by this, Sparks eventually decides to leave Moon and seek his fortune in the bustling metropolis of Carbuncle. After having his belongings stolen by two of the locals, he begins a profitable career as a busker before being attacked in an alleyway by a gang who want to sell him into slavery. Meanwhile, two Hegemonic police officers – Jerusha PalaThion and BZ Gundhalinu – have an awkward formal meeting with Arienrhod and are returning to the station when they find Sparks being attacked. They save him and, to avoid vagrancy charges, he gives the address of a blind mask-maker called Fate who he met shortly after arriving in the city.

Fate agrees to let him help her out. Sometime later, Arienrhod visits the shop to enquire about a ceremonial mask. Sparks is stunned. Arienrhod looks just like his cousin Moon. He makes the mistake of pointing this out to her. Arienrhod suddenly becomes a lot more interested in him and insists that he works at the palace as a musician. Things improve for Sparks and he quickly rises in position and, at Arienrhod’s prompting, he sends for his cousin to visit…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 On the back cover, there is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that compares this novel to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and it is a very apt comparison 🙂 If you enjoy epic fantasy-influenced science fiction, set in complex worlds filled with intrigue – where high technology and ancient traditions sit uneasily side-by-side, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂 Seriously, it’s an absolute crime that this novel isn’t more well-known and/or hasn’t been adapted into a film, videogame or TV series yet.

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s science fiction elements. Although the novel has some of the trappings of the fantasy genre (eg: monarchy, tradition etc…), it is very much a science fiction novel at heart – with every strange or futuristic thing in this novel either following scientific rules or having a scientific explanation. But, the technology itself isn’t really the main focus of this novel. This is more of a novel about the power of knowledge and technology than anything else.

The Hegemony controls Tiamat by only allowing the planet’s people to own technology during the 150 year window that the wormhole is open – remotely destroying or seizing anything vaguely high-tech before the wormhole closes. They also keep some technological knowledge and history secret from the people of Tiamat and make it difficult for them to leave the planet. Although one character tries to explain this by quoting something similar to the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek, it is very clearly shown to be a way to keep Tiamat weak and easily-exploitable. So, this is very much a novel about the interplay between technology, politics, knowledge and power. It’s sort of meta sci-fi in this way 🙂

Still, one interesting thing is how the novel’s “sibyls” are inspired by, and expand on, the idea of human computers from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Unlike the mentats of “Dune”, this novel’s sibyls are linked by a strange genetically-engineered network created by a long-lost ancient civilisation (that the Hegemony are trying to reconstruct). Due to the bio-tech in their blood, they are both feared and revered by everyone in the story. And, in an eerily prescient twist, they act like a human version of something like Google or Wikipedia. This might not sound that impressive now. But this is a novel from 1980!

Like novels by some modern sci-fi authors such as Becky Chambers, this is more of a novel about life in the future. Although it has a thriller-like plot, filled with intrigue and drama, it is the type of “realistic” sci-fi that just shows what ordinary life in another galaxy might be like. In other words, this novel has absolutely excellent worldbuilding 🙂

The world of Tiamat really feels like a complex, living place that is always really fascinating to visit. The best way to describe it is “Blade Runner/Star Wars meets Game Of Thrones”. If you loved the intriguing combination of high technology and ancient cities/traditions in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, then you’ll love the world of this book too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the worldbuilding here highly enough.

Not only that, this first novel in the series also gives us some tantalising glimpses of other places and societies in this series’ “universe” too. The highlight is probably a brief trip to the planet Kharemough, which creates an overwhelming sense of intrigue, atmosphere and wonder that I’ve only ever really seen in a few other sci-fi novels (the most recent example I’ve read probably being Becky Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit).

Thematically, this is also a novel that covers timeless topics like inequality, the environment, moral ambiguity, religion/tradition and how power corrupts. All of this thematic complexity is mostly explored through the novel’s excellent cast of characters.

Every major character in this novel comes across as a complex, realistic person with emotions, history and motivations who experiences a significant amount of character development as the story progresses. I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂 This story has a large enough cast of main characters to feel epic, but a small enough cast of characters to allow each one to actually have some depth. I could spend absolutely ages going on about the characters, but this is one of those stories that just feels “realistic” in terms of its portrayal of humanity.

In terms of the writing, it is also excellent 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to lend atmosphere and complexity to the story, whilst still being gritty and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story feeling realistic. Yes, like many 1980s novels, the writing is probably a little formal or slow-paced by modern standards – but if you’re used to this writing style or willing to get used to it, then you’ll be rewarded with some timelessly brilliant storytelling.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 536 pages, this novel is a bit of a tome. But, thanks to the complex and epic story, this length is justified. “The Snow Queen” is one of those books that is best when savoured and enjoyed in smaller instalments of 10-50 pages at a time.

The pacing is really good too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a fast-paced novel here, the plot moves along at a fairly natural pace and is structured in a way that means that it never gets boring. Likewise, the story also becomes more and more dramatic and compelling as it progresses too 🙂 Although the earlier parts of this book were interesting, the mid-late parts were even more gripping than I’d expected.

In terms of how well this forty year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, there are a couple of brief moments that seem mildly dated and the writing style is also a bit formal by modern standards, but thanks to the novel’s complex sci-fi setting and well-written realistic characters, this could pretty much be a modern novel 🙂 Like how George R. R. Martin’s 1996 novel “A Game Of Thrones” still seemed fresh when it was faithfully adapted to TV in 2011, this is the kind of novel that could easily be made into a complex, fresh and modern TV series or film with hardly any changes. In other words, it’s pretty much timeless.

All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel that is well worth reading if you’re a fan of Frank Herbert, Becky Chambers or “Game Of Thrones” 🙂 It has excellent characters and worldbuilding and is the kind of classic sci-fi novel (and book series) that really should be more well-known than it is 🙂 It richly deserves its Hugo Award 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Practical Magic” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, due to hot weather and the fact that I was feeling less enthusiastic about reading than usual, I thought that it was time to take a look at a book I’ve been meaning to read for about two years. I am, of course, talking about Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel “Practical Magic”, which I first became aware of when I watched the film adaptation during a “1990s films” phase I went through a couple of years ago.

Anyway, second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” were a bit on the expensive side of things for a while and I ended up reading a few other Hoffman novels instead. But, shortly after reading Hoffman’s excellent 2017 prequel novel to “Practical Magic”, I looked online again and noticed that second-hand copies of “Practical Magic” had come down in price 🙂 So, I’ve been waiting for a chance to finally read this book.

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

This is the 2017 Scribner (UK) paperback edition of “Practical Magic” that I read.

The novel begins in rurual Massachussetts with a description of the Owens House, an old house lived in by two eccentric sisters called Frances and Jet who – like their ancestors – are believed to be unlucky. They have recently adopted their two young nieces, Sally and Gillian, after they became orphaned following a fire. The two girls grow up, going from being feared by the locals to being either respected or admired by them. When Gillian is eighteen, she has had enough of the town and sneaks out in the middle of the night to travel across America and meet a string of lovers.

Sally, on the other hand, is much less adventurous and stays at the Owens House with her aunts. A while later, she ends up meeting a local man called Michael and marrying him. They have two daughters – Kylie and Antonia – and things are going well until Sally starts to notice a number of strange omens. An odd feeling in the air. The clicking of death-watch beetles. Sometime later, Michael is killed in a car accident.

After a year of intense depression and mourning, Sally eventually decides to move to a suburb near New York with her daughters. The next few years pass and life is fairly normal, despite the fact that both of Sally’s daughters become teenagers and life becomes more chaotic as a result. Then, out of the blue, Sally suddenly gets an ominous feeling of foreboding one night.

To her surprise, Gillian knocks on the door. She needs Sally’s help. The body of her violent ex-boyfriend Jimmy is in the car and she needs somewhere to bury it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very different to the film adaptation. It’s an absolutely great book but, if you’re expecting a quirky “feel-good” dark comedy, then you might be disappointed. Hoffman’s original novel is a much more atmospheric, complex (in almost every way), creepy, bittersweet and intense story than the Hollywood movie that it got turned into. It’s this really interesting mixture of drama, horror fiction, literary fiction and romance that is fairly unique 🙂

Thematically, this is a novel about family, ageing, romance and magic. The novel focuses on three generations of Owens sisters, where each generation seems to influence the subsequent generation in strange and unexpected ways. Yet, each generation seems to have some things in common with each other despite sometimes trying to distance themselves from or define themselves against their older relatives. Characters’ personalities also change in unexpected ways as they grow older too. The novel also presents the weird mixture of friendship and friction within families in a reasonably realistic way too.

As for the novel’s romance elements, it portrays love as a capricious, intense thing that drives people to obsession, ruin and/or uncharacteristic behaviour. In this story, love is just as likely to bring misery as it is to bring happiness. Love in this novel is also much closer to overwhelming lust than romantic love in a lot of ways, which also adds a bit of steaminess, horror and/or intrigue to various parts of the story too.

This unusual – and sometimes scary- portrayal of love also links into the story’s theme of magic. This is less prominent than in the film, with the novel’s magical elements being portrayed in a slightly mysterious way and mostly consisting of things like omens, auras, folk traditions and occasionally spells. This understatement and mystery helps to lend a sense of realism to these magical parts of the story, whilst also giving everything an intriguingly fantastical atmosphere.

And, yes, this novel has atmosphere 🙂 It is this wonderfully intriguing mixture of modern gothic (with old houses, ominous moods etc..) and a slightly more “realistic” version of the type of timeless, stylised, rose-tinted 1950s-70s style American suburbia that turns up in fiction quite often. This is difficult to describe well, but this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between being a place where you want to relax in and a place that feels anything but relaxed.

So, I should probably talk about the novel’s horror elements. Although I’m hesitant to call it a “horror novel”, it certainly has some rather creepy moments of horror. These are both grittier and more understated than in the film and they include things like a tragic/gothic atmosphere, quite a few ominously foreboding moments, obsession, ghost horror, criminal horror, love spells gone wrong and a few menacing background characters. Although these moments are also there to make a few scenes feel happier or more reassuring by contrast, they lend the story a much darker atmosphere than the film adaptation and can certainly catch you by surprise.

Plus, unlike the film, the novel’s moments of supernatural horror are a little more on the slow-building, creeping and understated side of things and are also paired with a few more “realistic” moments of horror and tragedy too. All of this also helps to lend the novel a much creepier and more intense atmosphere than you might expect if you’ve seen the film.

On a side-note, another difference between the book and the film is in the locations. In short, the Owens House is much more of a major location in the film – with the majority of the book taking place in a suburb/small town near New York instead. Surprisingly, this works well with the novel’s horror elements – since it makes them feel more “realistic” rather than stylised and gothic. Likewise, because a lot of the novel takes place in “ordinary” suburbia, the scenes involving the Owens House also feel more atmospheric, otherworldly and intriguing by contrast too.

In terms of the characters, they are superb. As you might expect from an Alice Hoffman novel, they are both incredibly realistic and slightly stylised/quirky at the same time. All of the characters have realistically complicated flaws, emotions, anxieties, desires, motivations and personalities. A lot of the novel is about the relationships between the various characters, which also provides a lot of the story’s drama too. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂

Interestingly, unlike the film, the differences between Sally and Gillian are a lot more pronounced – with Gillian being more free-spirited and Sally being much more “boring” (for want of a better word). This contrast between the two characters works really well, even if it means that there are more argument scenes than you might expect and – for parts of the novel – Sally comes across as being a rather grumpy and unlikable character.

Another interesting difference from the film is that Sally’s daughters are pretty much the main characters during large parts of the novel, with the two aunts also being more like background characters than I’d expected them to be. Still, given that I’ve read the excellent prequel novel (“The Rules Of Magic”), the relative lack of characterisation for the aunts didn’t bother me too much. Still, despite this, they still get a fairly decent amount of characterisation during the relatively few scenes that they appear in.

As for the writing, it is spectacular as always 🙂 If you’ve ever read an Alice Hoffman novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. This novel’s third-person narration is written in this wonderfully flowing and poetic way that is both informal enough to be easily readable whilst also containing a level of personality and description that wouldn’t be out of place in a literary novel. Even if this story doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, this novel (or any Alice Hoffman novel) is well worth reading just for the sheer quality of the writing alone.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 278 pages in length, it never really feels too long. Likewise, thanks to the presence of several sub-plots and the way that the writing style flows, the story never really feels too “slow-paced”, even though it is very much a small-scale drama story (with horror and romance elements) rather than any kind of thriller novel. In short, whilst you shouldn’t expect to blaze through this novel ultra-quickly, it will never really feel slow either.

As for how well this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless 🙂 Although the atmosphere of the story sometimes feels more “vintage” than you might expect from a story set in the 1990s, this gives the story an oddly timeless quality (and it could easily take place in 1920s, 1950s, 1970s or 2000s America). Likewise, thanks to the excellent characters and characterisation, the story has an almost timeless level of depth, complexity and emotional relevance.

All in all, this is a really great novel that is filled with atmosphere, complex characters and excellent writing 🙂 Yes, it is very different to the film in a lot of ways – but if you want a memorable and unique novel, if you’re a fan of Alice Hoffman or if you just want a horror-infused romantic drama novel written at a level of quality you’d normally associate with literary fiction, then read this one 🙂

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

Review: “Warhol’s Prophecy” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading, so I needed to find a novel that I knew that I’d read. And, since it has been about a month or so since my last Shaun Hutson novel review, I rifled through my book piles for a one of them and ended up turning up a copy of Hutson’s 1999 horror novel (Sorry, “dark urban thriller”. Gotta love 1990s publishing jargon) “Warhol’s Prophecy” that I must have bought sometime during the early-mid 2000s, but never actually got round to reading at the time.

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

This is the 2000 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Warhol’s Prophecy” that I read.

The novel begins with a description of one of the Manson murders in 1960s America. Then we flash forwards to the 1990s and see a woman called Hailey Gibson in a shopping centre near London. Her daughter, Becky, has just gone missing and she is desperately trying to find her. After frantically searching, she finds a member of staff and gets them to put out an announcement on the P.A. Several minutes later, a man called Adam Walker finds Becky and returns her to Hailey.

We then see another description of a notorious real murder from the 1960s before the novel returns to the 1990s. A prisoner at Wandsworth prison called David Layton is due to be released in a matter of weeks, but he’s been asked by a gang boss to brutally wound another prisoner in retaliation for some slight or another. Since refusal will mean death and because Layton hopes that this might result in favours down the line, he begins planning the attack with the help of his cellmate.

When Hailey and Becky get home from the shopping centre, Hailey’s husband Rob finds out about Becky getting lost and the couple argue. Again. Ever since Rob’s recently-ended affair with his secretary, arguments have been a lot more common in the Gibson household. So, when Hailey happens to meet Adam again a little while later, she’s eager to talk to someone friendly…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is probably one of the creepiest and most disturbing Shaun Hutson novels I’ve read. But, despite some very effective scenes of horror and scarily prescient social satire, the novel takes quite quite a while to really get started and, at times, reads more like a “gritty” soap opera-style drama than a horror novel. Yes, I can understand some of the creative reasons for this (eg: characterisation, suspense etc…) but expect a more slow-paced and small-scale experience than you’ll typically find in a Hutson novel. Even so, when this novel is at it’s best, it is genuinely terrifying.

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s well-crafted horror elements. It contains a genuinely chilling blend of psychological horror, slow-building suspenseful horror, cruel horror, creepy characters, a grim atmosphere, gory horror and – most disturbing of all – descriptions of real historical murders and serial killings.

Although these real historical crimes are written about in the extremely graphic and unflinching way that you’d expect in a Hutson novel, they do actually have a level of plot-relevance and artistic justification that consists of more than just “shock value”. Even so, they tend to appear more often during the otherwise less eventful early parts of the novel and, given that one of the crimes described (the murder of Gianni Versace) happened a mere two years before the novel was first published, the description of it may have possibly been a bit “too soon” when the novel was first published.

But, despite this, I’d argue that the inclusion of these extremely disturbing historical scenes is artistically justified due to their connection to the novel’s main themes. The novel’s title is a reference to Andy Warhol’s famous quote about everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame, and Hutson uses this as way to analyse and satirise how the media sensationalises and over-emphasises crimes. How extensive press coverage of atrocious acts not only lends the perpetrators a level of fame that they don’t deserve but also encourages other criminals too. And, given that mass shootings and/or terrorist attacks have become a depressingly frequent part of the news during the past few years, this late 1990s horror novel feels chillingly prescient in a lot of ways.

Plus, by contrasting the grim and almost unreadably horrible reality of these disgusting crimes with both “dramatic” media quotes from the killers and several characters’ fascination with “true crime” books, Hutson makes an utterly terrifying point about how popular culture has a warped view of the very worst criminals. How they are sometimes almost treated like celebrities in the popular imagination, when they should just be forgotten about.

All of this stuff is also part of the novel’s bitter satire and criticisms of fame itself which, in this era of social media, feels both chillingly prescient and yet very dated (after all, on the internet, almost everyone is mildly “famous” these days). So, as shocking, “tasteless” and/or extremely repulsive as parts of this novel may seem, these scenes are there to make a very valid moral criticism of society.

As for all of the novel’s other horror elements, they are also chillingly effective. Unlike a lot of Hutson’s classic novels from the 1980s, this novel focuses slightly less on gory horror (though there are still some very grisly moments) and instead focuses more on gradually building suspense, creating a chillingly bleak atmosphere and gradually ramping up the tension.

Since this novel was published during that awkward time in the 1990s when many publishers often wouldn’t print new horror novels unless they were gritty, realistic “psychological thrillers”, the tone and atmosphere of this novel is a lot more “realistic” and down-to-earth than Hutson’s classic fiction. Whilst this focus on small-scale drama and realism serves to intensify the horror, it also means that this is often a slightly slower and less “over-the-top” story than you’d usually expect from Shaun Hutson.

The novel’s thriller elements are also quite well-handled and take heavy influence from both the detective genre and hardboiled fiction. In short, there are several characters with motives for some of the horrific acts that happen to the main characters and you’ll probably be guessing who is responsible right up until their identity is revealed. Not only does this allow for a few dramatic plot twists but, like in classic hardboiled crime fiction (eg: Chandler, Hammett etc..), a complicated web of crime, secret affairs etc… also helps to add complexity and unpredictability to the plot too.

In terms of the characters, they are both brilliant and terrible. In short, the characters here feel like very realistic people with realistic flaws, motivations, personalities and thoughts. The novel also devotes a good amount of time to showing the main characters’ everyday lives, allowing us to build a connection with them. So far, so good. However, one of the flaws with this is that the main characters spend so much time arguing with each other that parts of the novel can feel more like a soap opera than a horror novel. Likewise, this focus on the main characters’ ordinary lives also means that this novel can feel more slow-paced than a typical Hutson novel too.

As for the writing, this novel is fairly good. As you’d expect from a Shaun Hutson novel, it is written in a fairly “matter of fact” way that both adds gritty realism to the story whilst also allowing the narration itself to move at a reasonably fast pace (even if the events of the story don’t always do so). Although this novel contains a few of Hutson’s famous words and catchphrases (eg: “orbs”, “scapula”, “liquescence” etc…), one repetitive element that got a bit annoying was the fact that he over-uses the word “rasped” when describing speech in later parts of the book.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. At a hefty 541-3 pages in length, it does feel a little too long at times. Even so, the narration moves at a fast enough pace to stop things from dragging too much. This novel also focuses a lot more on slow-building suspense and drama than you might expect. Although this means that the later parts of the story feel nail-bitingly tense, intensely horrifying and extremely gripping by contrast, expect the early-mid parts of the book to be a bit of a slog at times. Still, the ending of this story is one of the most dramatic I’ve seen in a Hutson novel since “Relics” – with an expertly-handled mixture of irony, tragedy, shocking horror, dark humour and poetic justice that might catch you by surprise.

As for how well this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged better than I’d expected. Whilst the story very clearly takes place in a grittily “realistic” version of the mid-late 1990s, a lot of the novel’s themes feel eerily ahead of their time. Although the novel’s “inspiration” for some shocking later parts of the story is clearly stated to be crimes that took place in 1980s and 1990s Britain, this horrific part of the story feels terrifyingly prescient and relevant when read these days. Perhaps more so than modern novels and films, given that modern standards and sensibilities probably wouldn’t allow writers these days to handle such topics in the unflinchingly stark way that they are handled here. Likewise, thanks to all of the novel’s comments about society, the dedication to the timeless satirist Bill Hicks at the beginning of the book isn’t just there for show 🙂

All in all, this is a better novel than I’d originally thought it to be. Yes, it can occasionally seem a bit slow-paced and the constant arguments can make the plot feel more like a soap opera at times, but not only is it a horror novel that is extremely disturbing on more levels than you might expect, but it is also an expertly-written, eerily prescient and utterly chilling piece of satire that has much more artistic merit than it might initially appear to have. If you want a satire of the worst parts of the modern world, written at a time when satirists had more freedom to be unflinchingly cynical, then read this book.

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

Review: “Hope For The Best” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I last read one of Jodi Taylor’s excellent “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” novels. And, after getting a copy of the tenth novel in the series – “Hope For The Best” (2019) – as a birthday present several days before preparing this review, I was eager to read it 🙂

Although this novel contains a few recaps, it picks up reasonably soon after the ending of “An Argumentation Of Historians” and probably won’t make too much sense if you haven’t read the previous nine novels in the series (starting with “Just One Damned Thing After Another). So, read those books before you read this one.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Hope For The Best”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2019 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “Hope For The Best” that I read.

The novel begins in the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s sometime during the mid-21st century. Max and Leon are still recovering from the injuries they sustained during the dramatic ending of “An Argumentation Of Historians”. But, it isn’t all doom and gloom because their son Matthew is visiting for the week.

During the visit, Max talks to Captain Ellis of the Time Police and begins to come up with a plan to deal with the dastardly Clive Ronan once and for all. Max is especially confident about this plan, even if it means that she has to join the Time Police in order to accomplish it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it takes a little while longer than I’d expected to really get started, it is well worth the wait. Yes, there is a lot of deliberate mystery and slightly fewer fast-paced moments than you might expect during the early to mid parts of the novel, but all of this stuff has a wonderfully dramatic payoff that is well worth waiting for 🙂 Not only does this novel make a few innovative changes to the formula, but it is also a bit more of a dramatic, suspenseful and “serious” novel than you might expect too.

And it excels at these things. Whether it is the relatively slow build up, a few brilliantly suspenseful moments or the fact that Max finds herself a “fish out of water” during her employment at the Time Police, this novel sometimes has the darker and grittier emotional tone that was more common in earlier instalments of the series. But, thanks to Taylor’s experience with the series, all of this stuff is handled a lot more confidently and smoothly than it was during the earlier novels 🙂

Still, this isn’t to say that this novel doesn’t have the thrills or comedy that you’d expect from a “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂 Although it tells a slightly more “serious” story, there are still quite a few “laugh out loud” moments and numerous other moments of quirky subtle comedy too. Likewise, in the traditional “St. Mary’s” fashion, pretty much every jump backwards in time usually results in hilarious chaos for one silly reason or another 🙂

As I hinted at earlier, this novel is more of a thriller than usual too. This is handled in a more “traditional” way, with lots of mystery and build-up during the early to mid parts of the novel (with, for example, Max sometimes hinting at a secret plan that she refuses to reveal to the reader). This build up then gives way to some brilliantly unexpected moments of nail-biting suspense, before peaking with the kind of rip-roaringly chaotic and fast-paced adventure through time that you would expect 🙂

Intriguingly, this focus on suspense also allows Taylor to include a few elements from the crime thriller and spy thriller genres too. Not only does this help to shake up the formula a bit, but it is also handled with the kind of familiar eccentricity that you’d expect from a St. Mary’s novel too 🙂 This mixture between novelty and familiarity works really well and helps to keep the story intriguingly unpredictable at times, allowing for at least a couple of interesting plot twists.

Not only that, the fact that the novel involves the Time Police allows us to see more of this mysterious organisation and for the story to include more sci-fi elements than usual too 🙂 These sci-fi elements are handled really well and show off a few intriguing things that were only hinted at during previous novels in the series. Of course, being “St. Mary’s”, these intriguing things mostly fall into the category of “what happens when things go really wrong”. Still, it’s really cool to see more details of the technology and “world” of the series 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are as good as ever 🙂 As you would expect, this novel focuses a lot on Max – and, in classic thriller fashion, she ends up going through hell in this story – this not only allows for a lot of courageous and/or clever moments, but also allows for moments of serious drama that really help to add some extra realism and depth to her character too. Literally the only criticism I have is that, for some bizarre reason, Max’s first name is stated to be “Lucy” in this book (despite it being Madeleine in earlier books). At a guess, this might possibly have something to do with the events of book three. Even so, it was a little confusing and disconcerting.

The other characters are as good as ever too. Although there’s less emphasis on the traditional supporting cast of St. Mary’s members, this allows for a bit more emphasis on the Time Police characters and a few intriguing background characters from previous novels. Likewise, although Ronan is still the main villain in the novel, he remains unseen for a lot of the story – allowing for both the introduction of a couple of new villians and the return of another familiar villain too 🙂 Yes, the villains are very much on the “cartoonishly evil” side of things, but they are given enough nuance and menace to keep them frightening.

As for the writing, it is excellent as usual 🙂 Max’s first-person narration is the kind of fast-paced and informal narration that allows for a lot of immersion, comedic moments, powerful drama and characterisation too 🙂 If you’ve never read a novel in this series before, then the best way to describe the narration is that it combines the irreverent attitude of punk fiction with the eccentricity of an author like Terry Pratchett. It is, as always, an absolute joy to read 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a hefty 461 pages, this novel is at least four pages shorter than the previous book in the series. Even so, I miss the more concise and focused lengths of some earlier books in the series. Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel’s pacing has a lot of focus on build-up and suspense. What this means is that the second half of the book is a lot more compelling and eventful than the first half is (although the first half is still fairly good).

All in all, whilst this isn’t my favourite novel in the series, it is still really good 🙂 Yes, it takes a while to really get started but it is good to see Taylor doing different things with the series and showing off more of the “world” of the series too. Likewise, although the grittier emotional tone of some of the earlier novels in the series makes a bit of a return here, it is handled in a much better way and – as always – is also balanced out with lots of comedy too. If you’re a fan of the series, then this novel might be a little different to what you’d expect, but it is still very recognisably a “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂

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

Review: “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” By Tim Lebbon (Novel)

[Edit: Ooops! I’ve just remembered that April is only 30 days long. I’ll post this month’s “Top Ten Articles” article here in about an hour’s time (and I’ll also have to break my rule about posting reviews on consecutive days too). Sorry about this.]

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read anything “Alien”-related, so I thought that I’d finally take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Tim Lebbon’s 2014 novel “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I found online when I rediscovered the spin-off novels based on the “Aliens” movies last year. Somehow, this novel ended up languishing on my “to read” pile for almost a year and had actually gained a rather impressive-looking layer of dust before I actually started reading it.

Unlike the “Aliens” spin-off novels that I’ve reviewed in the past, the events of this novel take place between the very first film in the series and the events of “Aliens”. Although this novel can probably theoretically be read as a stand-alone, the story will have a lot more depth and some elements will make more sense if – at the very least – you have seen “Alien” first. Plus, although this novel is technically the first part of a trilogy written by multiple authors, it works really well as a self-contained spin-off novel too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Alien: Out Of The Shadows”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I read.

The novel begins on the deep-space ship Marion, in orbit around a mining base on a desert planet called LV-178 that contains deposits of a rare mineral called Trimonite. Chief Engineer Chris “Hoop” Hooper has finished his shift and is planning to play some pool with Captain Lucy Jordan in the ship’s improvised bar. However, before they can start playing, they receive a distress call from the dropship Samson, which is travelling back up from the surface along with another dropship called Delilah.

From the bridge, the Marion‘s skeleton crew watch a disturbing emergency video broadcast from the Samson showing nothing but death, chaos and something. Something alive inside the ship. Something that isn’t human. When the Samson auto-docks, the crew wisely decide to quarantine it behind several blast doors and a vacuum-filled airlock. However, there are problems with the Delilah. It crashes into the side of the Marion, killing several crew members and knocking the Marion into a slowly-decaying orbit towards the planet. The remaining crew try to send out a distress signal, but the antennae has been damaged in the crash.

Ellen Ripley – last survivor of the disaster on the spaceship Nostromo thirty-seven years earlier – remains in hypersleep as her escape shuttle drifts through space. She is plagued by endless nightmares of alien creatures and the memories of her former crew members. Then, her shuttle’s computer picks up a signal and begins auto-docking. She wakes up to find herself on board another ship. It is the Marion. It has been several weeks since the crash and, according to the crew’s calculations, the ship only has about another fifteen days to go until it crashes into LV-178…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 This novel is an absolutely perfect blend of both the claustrophobic, suspenseful sci-fi horror of the first “Alien” film and the more action-packed drama of the second “Alien” film. Seriously, this novel is as good as – or even better – than the films that it takes inspiration from 🙂 If you enjoy well-written sci-fi horror or if you preferred the first “Alien” film to the second one, then this novel is absolutely worth reading 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements 🙂 Although pretty much everyone knows what the monsters from “Alien” look like, this novel still manages to create a real feeling of mystery and foreboding during the early-mid parts of the novel by leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. Like in the original film, we’re shown enough to know that something horrible is out there, but enough is left mysterious to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Seriously, it is so good to see an “Alien”-related novel that takes as much (or more) inspiration from the horror elements of the first film in the series as it does from the action elements of the second film.

All of this suspense, claustrophobia and ominous mystery is also backed up by several other expertly-handled types of horror too 🙂 In addition to well-placed moments of gory horror that show enough to gross the reader out whilst leaving even worse details to the imagination, this novel also makes expert use of psychological horror, tragic horror, creepy places and – like in the original film – lots of bleak Lovecraftian cosmic horror too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the novel’s horror elements highly enough 🙂

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, it absolutely excels 🙂 The novel’s heavy focus on suspenseful situations not only adds a lot of gripping tension to the story, but it also means that the story’s occasional action-packed moments feel a lot more intense and vivid in contrast.

Unlike most of the “Aliens” spin-off novels I’ve read, the main characters aren’t heavily-armed space marines 🙂 What this means is that they often have to rely on their brains in order to survive and, because they are only armed with improvised weapons cobbled together from mining equipment, every encounter with the alien monsters feels a lot more intense, dangerous and brutal than you might expect. Far from being an action movie in book form, this novel is primarily a harsh, suspenseful survival drama – which also lends the intense action sequences a lot more impact and gravitas than you might expect 🙂

As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, it absolutely nails the grimy “used future” atmosphere of the first “Alien” film 🙂 Not only do the spaceships all feel like realistic, utilitarian places, but the story also makes excellent use of technology (eg: A.I, incompatibilities between systems etc..) to add extra suspense to the story. This feeling of realism is also enhanced by the fact that the Marion’s crew are competent and intelligent astronauts who, unlike typical horror movie characters, actually make sensible decisions about what to do when faced with danger.

Although the novel’s alien monsters are what you would expect them to be, this novel makes excellent use of both mystery and cosmic horror during a brilliantly haunting scene where the characters stumble across the ruins of another alien civilisation that has been destroyed by these creatures. We see enough detail to marvel at the beauty and sophistication of their civilisation, but enough is left intriguingly mysterious to fill us with a haunting sense of death, loss and cosmic insignificance. Seriously, this is both science fiction and horror at their very best 🙂

On a side-note, one intriguing thing about this novel is that it also takes a little bit of inspiration from “Prometheus” too. Whether it is a subtle “Blade Runner” reference (eg: a mention of combat androids with expiry dates), other android-based stuff, long-forgotten civilisations, an automated medical pod or even some of the scenes set on the planet, this novel really feels like a good blend of old-school and modern “Alien” 🙂

As I hinted earlier, the novel’s characters are absolutely excellent 🙂 They all come across as realistic, intelligent people who have to use their wits in order to survive. This novel also gets the balance between showing their courage and showing their emotions absolutely right. Although they are well-trained, knowledgeable and tough enough to keep going, they are far from emotionless. Not only are they all suffering from various personal tragedies, but their determination to persevere in the face of almost certain doom is absolutely heartwarming too.

Ripley and Hoop get the bulk of the novel’s characterisation, with Ripley shown to be seriously affected by the events of the first “Alien” film and suffering from repeated PTSD hallucinations. Yet, despite this, she still manages to be the tough-as-nails badass that you’d expect her to be 🙂 Likewise, Hoop actually comes across as a realistic member of a long-distance spaceship crew. Not only is he plagued with worries about his own family, but he actually has a level of practical common sense, courage and technological knowledge that you’d actually expect someone on a spaceship to have 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably “matter of fact” style that is fast-paced enough to add suspense to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere and suspense to the novel. I cannot praise the narrative voice here enough, reading this novel literally feels like watching a higher-budget and slightly more modern version of the original “Alien” film 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 At an efficient 298 pages in length, not a single page is wasted here. To give you an example, the first sixty pages of this novel tell as much story as most other novels do in 100-150 pages 🙂 Likewise, this novel makes absolutely excellent use of suspense to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also contrasting this with enough faster-paced action sequences to make both elements of the novel feel fresh and gripping in comparison to each other. Seriously, if you want a good example of how to blend horror with thriller-style pacing, then read this novel 🙂

All in all, this novel was a lot better than I’d initially expected it to be 🙂 It is a spin-off novel that is easily as good as – or better- than the source material it is based on 🙂 If you want an atmospheric sci-fi horror novel with both excellent characters and a perfect blend between suspense and fast-paced drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Strange Practice” By Vivian Shaw (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read anything horror-related. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Vivian Shaw’s 2017 novel “Strange Practice”. This is a novel I found a couple of months earlier when shopping online for second-hand books. Intrigued by the plot summary, I ordered a copy there and then. Then, I got distracted by other books for a couple of months. So, this review has been a while in the making.

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

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Strange Practice” that I read.

The novel begins in modern London with Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, visiting her vampire friend Edmund Ruthven. He has called her over because another friend of his, Sir Francis Varney (of “Varney The Vampire” fame), is in trouble. Fanatical garlic-spraying monks have broken into Varney’s house and stabbed him with a cross-shaped blade. He barely managed to escape alive.

Greta treats Varney’s injuries before extracting a mysterious substance from the stab wound. Thinking that it is probably poison of some kind, she decides to get it analysed. Meanwhile, London is reeling in fear from a series of Jack The Ripper-style murders and, in a dark chamber somewhere, a badly-burned man goes through a strange initiation ritual…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it has a really cool premise and is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read recently. It’s this really interesting blend between the horror, urban fantasy, detective, thriller and medical drama genres that not only contains a good mixture between chills and comedy, but is also absolutely crammed with old-school horror fiction references too 🙂 Yes, it wasn’t quite as much of a fast-paced thriller as I’d hoped, but I really loved the style and concept behind this novel 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is a little on the old-school side of things. In addition to a bit of gothic horror, it also contains suspense, paranormal horror, horrifying injuries, grisly murders, religious horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and even a few subtle hints of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror/ weird fiction too 🙂 Although this novel isn’t outright scary, the horror elements really help to add atmosphere, depth and creepiness to the story 🙂

In the classic urban fantasy fashion, the novel’s “monsters” (vampires, ghouls, demons, mummies etc..) aren’t actually the villains in this novel. Instead, Greta has to help protect them from a group of fanatical monks with glowing blue eyes. If you’ve ever played an old computer game called “Blood“, you’ll know that evil monks are one of the funniest and most gloriously melodramatic types of horror villains out there – and it is an absolute joy to see them here 🙂 Seriously, I bought this book purely on the basis that it contained evil monks 🙂 Plus, this novel also contains an adorable baby ghoul called a “ghoullet” too 🙂

And, in the classic urban fantasy fashion, this novel also has a little bit of a mythos too. Although this is slightly more of a background detail, the fact that the story makes a distinction between “vampires” and “vampyres” and also comes up with a rather clever twist on the classic “heaven and hell” thing really helps to add a bit of uniqueness, depth and atmosphere to the story 🙂

The novel’s detective and thriller elements are a little bit understated, but work reasonably well. Most of the novel is structured more like a drama and a detective story, with suspenseful thriller elements in the background. Although this suspense works well and the novel has a suitably dramatic climax, the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in Ruthven’s house means that the thriller elements weren’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected.

Even so, the fact that the house is presented as a bunker-like refuge from danger helps to build suspense and add realism to the novel, plus it makes the novel’s relatively few action-packed moments stand out more in contrast. These are reasonably good and mostly work well. However, despite being set in London, one fight scene has a very US-style moment where Greta fends off an attacker with pepper spray. Although this scene is very suspenseful and dramatic, it will probably seem a bit incongruous (given that the only people allowed to carry or use this particular weapon in the UK are the police).

The novel’s detective elements are fairly good too, with a strong focus on both scientific/library research and old-fashioned investigation. Likewise, the solution to the mystery of the monks is one of the most inventive that I’ve seen a while – containing a good mixture between psychological, paranormal and scientific horror that makes the novel feel a little bit like a Lovecraftian episode of “Doctor Who” at times 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Not only do Greta and her supernatural friends come across as complex, realistic people – but their friendship not only allows for quite a few “feel good” moments that leaven the story’s gothic gloom, but also for a few moments of drama and subtle comedy too 🙂 The villains also get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add to the horror. My only criticism of the characters is that there is slightly too much emphasis on Varney’s melancholic brooding. Yes, it adds depth to his character and even allows for a few obscure Victorian literature references too, but it happens just slightly too often.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a formal enough way to add a gothic, Victorian-style flavour to the story whilst also being informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Not only does this writing style emphasise the glorious strangeness of Victorian vampires living in modern London, but it also helps to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story that really helps to set it apart from the crowd too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 353 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, the novel still moves at a reasonable speed (and never really felt “slow-paced”). Likewise, the mixture of suspense, drama and mystery helps to keep the story reasonably compelling. Even so, at least half of the novel is spent inside Ruthven’s house – and, although these scenes can sometimes feel a little less thrilling than the rest of the novel, the novel as a whole is still fairly compelling.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t always perfect, I really loved the concept behind it 🙂 Not only is it one of the most original horror/urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a while, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves stories that revolve around gothic vampires or evil monks too 🙂 Yes, you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, but if you like suspense, horror, urban fantasy, Victorian literature and/or detective fiction, then this novel is worth reading.

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

Review: “Gun Machine” By Warren Ellis (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for crime fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at Warren Ellis’ 2013 novel “Gun Machine”.

I’ve been meaning to read something else by Ellis ever since I enjoyed both his 2008 novel “Crooked Little Vein” and his excellent “Transmetropolitan” comic series about a decade or so ago. So, when I was shopping online for second-hand books and happened to notice this one, I just had to get it.

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

This is the 2014 Mulholland Books (UK) paperback edition of “Gun Machine” that I read.

The novel begins in Manhattan. Two detectives, a world-weary cynic called John Tallow and a family man called James Rosato, get a call about a naked man brandishing a shotgun inside an apartment block. The block is set to be demolished and the man is determined that it won’t be. Both detectives try to reason with the man but, after he blasts Rosato’s head off, Tallow shoots him five times out of sheer spite.

When backup and forensics finally arrive, Tallow notices that a stray shot from the man’s shotgun has knocked a small hole in one of the apartment doors. It is dark inside and Tallow can’t see a thing through the hole, but something seems suspicious. After a few futile attempts at opening the door, he eventually instructs the cops to break down the wall beside it – much to the consternation of the crime scene team. To everyone’s surprise, the room is filled with hundreds of carefully-arranged guns.

Although Tallow is supposed to be taking compassionate leave after all of this, he gets a call from his lieutenant a while later. She tells him that forensics have tested a few of the guns from the apartment and found that each of them has been involved in an unsolved murder case. With hundreds of guns in the apartment, this means a hell of a lot of work. As such, she decides to assign Tallow to investigate it…

One of the first things that I will say is that, although this novel probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 It’s a brilliantly weird hardboiled detective/police procedural novel that really stands out from the crowd thanks to it’s intriguing premise, sense of humour, punk rock attitude, strange characters and excellent writing 🙂 Although it isn’t quite as overtly surreal as “Crooked Little Vein” and is also a bit more of a “serious” police procedural novel too, it’s still absolutely great to read another hardboiled novel by Warren Ellis 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. These are a really good combination of old-school “film noir” detective work and modern forensics – with Tallow interviewing people, reconstructing events, coming up with theories, following his intuition, examining crime scenes and navigating the complex internal politics of the NYPD. He’s also supported by two eccentric forensics officers called Scarly and Bat, who handle all of the science stuff. The best way to describe this novel is that it’s a little bit like a cross between “The Maltese Falcon“, “The X-Files” and an 18-rated episode of “NCIS” 🙂 In other words, it has all of the best elements of both classic and modern detective fiction 🙂

The novel’s central mystery is also an extremely intriguing and original one, but I’m not going to spoil it too much. Instead, I’ll talk about the atmosphere of this novel – which is absolutely brilliant. It’s kind of like a modern, if slightly futuristic, version of the kind of atmosphere that you’d expect from a film noir, but with Ellis’ own unique punk sensibility and spin on the whole thing. So, expect lots of gritty cynicism, quirky background details, irreverent “edgy” humour and a fictional world that feels both highly stylised and highly realistic at the same time 🙂

Interestingly, this novel is also something of a thriller too. For the most part, the novel relies heavily on suspense and psychological drama, with quite a few scenes focusing on the owner of the weapons cache sneaking around Manhattan, plotting revenge against Tallow and meeting various people. We also get numerous mysterious glimpses into how he sees the world, which are both chilling and fascinating at the same time. All of this suspense is also punctuated by a few gritty, brutally realistic fight scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern film noir too.

As you’d expect from a Warren Ellis novel, there are also some fairly good comedy elements too 🙂 Although this novel isn’t really a comedic novel in the way that “Crooked Little Vein” is, there’s enough of Ellis’ unique brand of humour here to both lighten the emotional tone slightly and to give the novel a feeling of originality and personality. The humour here is kind of like a slightly more understated and “realistic” version of the “shock jock” humour found in Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” and “Crooked Little Vein” and probably isn’t for the easily shocked or offended.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting too. In essence, it is a novel about geography, commerce and history. One of the interesting motifs in “Gun Machine” is that there are several different types of maps of Manhattan, such as one that stock traders use to measure latency between their buildings and the stock exchange and maps of what the city looked like at various stages of it’s history. This historical theme also allows Ellis to comment on both urban sprawl and on the treatment of Native Americans during America’s past. The novel also contains some subtle criticisms of privatisation/free market fundamentalism with, for example, a private security company trying to act like the police during a couple of points in the novel.

Another interesting motif is the police radio. At various points in the novel, there will be “excerpts” from the police bands that consist of a list of bizarre, shocking and/or horrific crimes. Tallow listens to this to relax and, at one point, one of the characters (Bat, I think) wonders out loud why the hell anyone would actually want to listen to this. If it wasn’t for the journalistic themes in Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics, I’d probably see this as a brilliantly cynical criticism of the press – but it is just probably a motif that is there to create a particular mood or emotional tone.

As for the characters, they’re absolutely excellent 🙂 Tallow is a typical morally ambiguous world-weary hardboiled detective, but with enough details and quirks to really make him stand out from the crowd (whilst also still being in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett etc.. too). But, the best characters in the novel are probably some of the “larger than life” supporting characters. Whether it is all of the hilarious dialogue between Scarly and Bat (both of whom are characters that only Ellis could write) or the chilling insights into the mind of the main villain, this novel’s characters really help to set it apart from the crowd 🙂

The novel’s writing is absolutely excellent too 🙂 As you’d expect, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact” style that is both modern enough to be readable and is also evocative of both classic hardboiled fiction and modern police procedural TV shows. In addition to this, this is one of those novels that has a wonderfully irreverent sense of personality too 🙂 If you like punk-influenced fiction like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” or Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series – but want a bit more cynicism – then you’ll enjoy the writing in this novel 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a fairly lean 308 pages in length, there isn’t a wasted page here 🙂 Likewise, thanks to the hardboiled writing style, the intriguing mystery and the eventful plot, this novel moves along at a fairly reasonable pace too. It is neither too fast-paced nor too slow-paced for the story it is trying to tell.

All in all, this is a really enjoyable and creative hardboiled detective novel 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it’s a little bit more understated and “realistic” than some of Ellis’ more well-known works but, if you want an amusingly cynical, compelling hardboiled mystery with a little bit of a punk sensibility to it, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Scarecrow” By Matthew Reilly (Novel)

Well, due to hot weather at the time of writing, I was in the mood for an ultra fast-paced “easy reading” thriller novel. So, naturally, I reached for the second-hand copy of Matthew Reilly’s 2003 novel “Scarecrow” that I’d found online shortly after I finished enjoying Reilly’s “Area 7” a few weeks earlier.

Although this novel is the third novel in Reilly’s “Scarecrow” series – following “Ice Station” and “Area 7” – it can technically be read as a stand-alone novel. However, some scenes and a few brief references will both matter more and make more sense if you’ve read the previous two novels.

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

This is the 2010 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Scarecrow” that I read.

The novel begins in London with a cabal of the richest and most powerful men in the world holding a secret meeting. They have compiled a list of fifteen names – including special forces soldiers, spies and terrorists from a variety of countries- and have put out the word to the international bounty hunting community that they will pay $18.6 million for the head of any person on that list.

Meanwhile, US Marine Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is on a plane to Siberia. The Russian government has asked for US help in dealing with a group of terrorists who have taken over an abandoned Cold War gulag/missile silo and are threatening to launch a missile from it. There is no word from the previous two US special forces teams that have been sent in to storm the compound. Worst of all, the radio suddenly goes down.

When Schofield arrives, he finds the bodies of the other two teams… and no terrorists. It doesn’t take him long to realise that he’s walked into some kind of trap. After all, his name is one of the ones on the list!

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a gloriously cheesy, ultra fast-paced and gleefully “over the top” thriller novel that was a lot of fun to read 🙂 However, it differs from the previous two novels in the series in a way which means that it doesn’t always feel quite as suspenseful or unique as “Ice Station” or “Area 7” do. Even so, this is still one hell of a thriller novel and it can easily put even the most spectacular modern action movies to shame.

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s thriller elements. As you would expect, this novel contains a lot of blisteringly fast and extremely spectacular set-pieces that are also backed up by several different types of suspense (eg: time limits, dangerous situations, Schofield literally being hunted etc..), lots of grittily brutal fight scenes and the kind of gloriously contrived high-stakes 1990s-style conspiracy theory plot that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Pierce Brosnan “James Bond” movie (or possibly even this awesome old computer game).

Like with Reilly’s other “Scarecrow” novels, all of this results in the kind of ultra-intense, compelling thriller story that will make pretty much every other thriller novel that you’ll read seem “slow paced” by comparison. It is like reading the kind of action movie Hollywood could only dream of ever making.

Like other books in the series, it is also as gloriously cheesy, stylised and “over the top” as you would expect – including everything from hilariously melodramatic nicknames for the bounty hunters (eg: “The Demon”, “The Black Knight” etc…), a few gloriously badass one-liners, numerous explosions, a shark pit, random sci-fi tech/weapons and other such things that are just brilliantly fun to read about – if you can suspend your disbelief. And, yes, you really need to suspend you disbelief to enjoy this novel. Trust me, it is well worth it 🙂

However, as mentioned earlier, this is probably my least favourite novel in the series so far. Why? Well, it has to do with the story’s scale and scope. One of the great things about the previous two books is that they each mostly take place within a single location (eg: An Antarctic research station and a secret desert base). Not only does this add a lot of extra claustrophobia, suspense and tension to these two novels, but it also means that the reader has a chance to really get to know the locations – deepening their immersion in the story, whilst also allowing Reilly to surprise them in all kind of ways.

On the other hand, “Scarecrow” takes place in a wide variety of different locations across the globe. Whilst I can see that Reilly wanted to make this novel “more spectacular”, this also means that it loses what made the previous two books so unique. In other words, this novel reads a lot like pretty much any other novel in the genre at times. For example, if you’ve read any of Clive Cussler’s modern co-written books (such as his “Oregon Files”, “Numa Files” etc… novels) or anything like that, then this Reilly novel won’t seem all that different. Yes, it’s still a really gripping thriller novel, but it just feels a bit less unique than the previous two books thanks to it’s globe-trotting plot.

In addition to this, the novel is a lot more of it’s time than I’d expected. Although the main plot still has some of the innocent 1990s-style silliness that you’d expect from this series, it is both a lot more “topical” and, like many other things from the early-mid 2000s, a bit “gloomier” and “edgier” than previous books in the series too. When this is at it’s best, it allows for a genuinely shocking plot twist or two, it allows Reilly to play with the reader’s expectations a bit and also to add a little bit of extra emotional depth to the series too.

On the other hand, this “edgier” tone also leads to some very predictable and overwrought “dramatic” moments. Likewise, some parts of this novel haven’t aged as well as Reilly’s “Ice Station” or “Area 7” and will probably come across as a bit “politically incorrect” when read today. Some of this is probably due to the historical context (eg: the fear and conservatism of the early parts of the “War On Terror”) and the rest can probably be attributed more to clumsiness than malice (eg: a cringe-worthy phonetic accent during one scene, some two-dimensional characters etc…), but it is still a novel that hasn’t aged entirely well.

In terms of the characters, although you shouldn’t expect in-depth characterisation from a Matthew Reilly novel, there was a little more characterisation here than I’d expected. Most of this, of course, focuses on Captain Schofield – and the novel uses the corny narrative trope of using other characters as tools to give him a bit more depth. Whether it is another character that shows what he’d have turned into if his past was slightly different, a tragic death that allows him to express his emotions (in an incredibly melodramatic way) or scenes that cause other characters to tell him how great he is, this isn’t exactly subtle or nuanced characterisation, but it is a welcome change and it adds a little bit more depth to his character.

As for the writing, it is a Matthew Reilly novel 🙂 In other words, it is one of the best “badly written” novels that you’ll ever read. Like with Reilly’s other thriller novels, this novel’s highly informal and ultra fast-paced third-person narration breaks all sorts of stylistic rules and yet still remains incredibly readable and compelling throughout 🙂

The writing style is, at the same time, both incredibly immature and yet sophisticated enough to keep the story flowing at a hundred miles an hour. This is really difficult to describe well, but Reilly’s writing style is a “love it or hate it” kind of thing that you’ll either really enjoy or which will make you throw the book across the room. And, with the exception of a few egregious mistakes (such as the phonetic accent I mentioned earlier), I really enjoyed the writing style in this book 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent as always 🙂 Although it is a fairly hefty 524 pages in length, this novel moves so quickly that it feels like reading a much shorter novel 🙂 Likewise, this is a very well-structured thriller novel that never gets boring or really slows down too much either 🙂

All in all, this is a gloriously cheesy and “over the top” thriller novel that will also make most other thriller novels seem “slow-paced” by comparison. Yes, it lacks the brilliantly unique claustrophobic suspense of the previous two books in the series and it also hasn’t aged entirely well, but – these things aside – it is still a very compelling and enjoyable thriller novels that fans of authors like Clive Cussler will probably enjoy 🙂

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