Review: “World’s End” By Joan D. Vinge (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for about a decade or so. I am, of course, talking about Joan D. Vinge’s 1984 novel “World’s End”.

If I remember rightly, I found a copy of this book in a charity shop in Aberystwyth during the late 2000s/early 2010s and bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art (seriously, I miss the days when painted cover art was standard for sci-fi, horror and fantasy novels) – and I’ve been vaguely meaning to read it since then, but never got round to it until now.

However, I should probably point out that this novel is the second in a series. Although I haven’t read the first one (“The Snow Queen”), this novel contains enough recaps to just about work as a stand-alone novel. Even so, be sure to read the blurb carefully and expect the earlier parts to be a bit more confusing (since the best and most useful recaps don’t appear until a little way into the novel) if you haven’t read the previous novel.

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

This is the 1985 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “World’s End” that I read.

The novel begins on a planet called Number Four, with a scarred police commander called BZ Gundhalinu getting ready for a formal ceremony. He has become famous, but isn’t too happy about it. So, whilst he waits, he opens his audio recorder and goes over his diary of the past few weeks and months.

We then flash back to some time earlier. BZ, a member of a poor, dishonoured family and recently suspended from the police force, arrives in an inhospitable region of the planet called “World’s End”. This area is run by a single mega-corporations that also allows prospectors to look for valuable minerals in the more barren areas – for a cut of the profits.

After BZ brought his family into poverty and disrepute, his brothers travelled to World’s End to try and make the family fortune back. BZ hasn’t heard from them since then and, worried, wants to find them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it takes a while to really get going (and may be mildly confusing at first if you haven’t read “The Snow Queen”), it is this really cool mixture of dystopian sci-fi, “grimdark” fantasy, old-school adventure stories, horror fiction and trippy/weird 1920s-1960s style sci-fi 🙂

Imagine a cross between something like Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, Harry Harrison’s “Deathworld”, the old “Star Wars” films, Jim Theis’ “The Eye Of Argon”, an old “Fighting Fantasy” gamebook, Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead“, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness” and S. K. Dunstall’s “Linesman” and this might give you a very vague idea of what to expect 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re very well-developed – although the story spends quite a while setting everything up. This novel is one of those fantasy-style sci-fi stories that is set on an almost feudalistic world, but one with technology instead of magic. The technology feels well-developed and includes things like FTL travel/communication, laser weapons, a virus that turns people into computer-like beings called “Sibyls” and numerous other things.

Although this novel contains some elements that appear to be fantastical, they always have a scientific explanation of some kind. Still, it feels like a really cool blend between olde worlde fantasy (with the politics, traditions, the grim lawlessness of the wasteland etc..) and old school sci-fi 🙂

Thematically, this novel is a lot closer to fantasy fiction though – with the main themes being stuff like guilt, redemption, honour, power, tradition, otherworldly forces, long-lost love, lost worlds, faded glory etc… It’s really interesting to see this stuff mixed in with the sci-fi genre and it helps to lend the story a fairly unique atmosphere 🙂 Plus, the “used future” elements of some parts of the story also help to add a wonderfully 1980s “Star Wars”/”Blade Runner”-style atmosphere to some moments too 🙂

This novel is also really atmospheric too 🙂 Although the writing borders on melodramatic and over-descriptive at times (hence my comparison to “The Eye Of Argon”), it just about stays on the right side of unintentional comedy, and actually adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. A lot of this story has a wonderfully dystopian atmosphere that also reminded me a bit of “grimdark” fantasy fiction too 🙂 Seriously, this is cynical 1980s-style fantasy at it’s best 🙂 If you enjoyed Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks and want a slightly grittier linear novel, you’ll be in your element here 🙂

World’s End is a hostile place and a lot of the novel’s drama comes from both Gundhalinu’s struggle to survive there but also from his various inner struggles with his past. And, as a thriller, this novel isn’t really that fast-paced by modern standards, but the constant suspense, dystopian stuff and struggles for survival really keep the story compelling. In addition to this, there’s also a lot of claustrophobic character-based suspense in the earlier parts of the story and some more typical adventure/fantasy-style stuff in the gripping later chapters too 🙂

Plus, although this isn’t a horror novel, there are some well-written horror elements (eg: bleak horror, psychological horror, dystopian horror, insect-based horror, macabre horror etc…) here that really help to add some extra darkness, grittiness and atmosphere to the story too 🙂 Not to mention that the disintegration of Gundhalinu’s mind in some parts of the novel and the generally bleak atmosphere also reminded me a little bit of H.P.Lovecraft’s horror fiction too 🙂

In terms of the characters, Gunhalinu gets a lot of characterisation and really comes across as a realistic, flawed person who is trying to find some kind of redemption for his past sins in the harsh wasteland. This level of characterisation also means that you’ll probably end up caring a lot about his struggle for survival too. Although the other characters don’t get quite as much characterisation as him, they all also feel like realistic flawed people who vary from sympathetic to downright scary.

As for the writing, I’ve already mentioned that it’s very descriptive and can border on melodramatic- yet, it works! It adds a lot of drama and atmosphere to the story, whilst also giving it a wonderfully “old school” kind of atmosphere too. The narration is also formal enough to lend weight to the story, whilst also “matter of fact” enough to add realism and immediacy. Most of the novel consists of first-person perspective diary entries, although there are a few third-person segments too (for the frame story). This focus on one perspective and the clear use of an in-story document (Gunhalinu’s diary) means that the few perspective changes never really get confusing.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At an efficient 230 pages, this novel might look short but – thanks to the pacing and formal narration- it’ll probably take you as long to read as a 400-500 page modern novel will. And, yes, whilst this novel is a bit slow-paced, the story speeds up a little bit and becomes more compelling as it goes along. Plus, it’s kind of cool how this novel starts out as a small-scale survival drama and gradually becomes slightly more of a large-scale adventure story too 🙂

As for how this thirty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well. Yes, it is written in a slightly old-fashioned way and there are a few “gritty”/rough moments that would probably be portrayed slightly differently in a modern story, but thanks to the fantastical setting, the novel has aged surprisingly well. It’s as atmospheric and compelling as ever and it feels very “80s” in a way that isn’t too stylised or “nostalgic” (think “Star Wars” or “Blade Runner” or something like that).

All in all, whilst this novel might take you a while to get into (especially if, like me, you haven’t read the previous book in the series), it is well worth sticking with 🙂 It’s a gritty, dramatic, dark, atmospheric and brilliantly compelling piece of retro sci-fi 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit melodramatic and cheesy at times, but this just adds to the charm. If you like Harry Harrison’s “Deathworld” or the old “Fighting Fantasy” gamebooks or you just want a gritty “grimdark” fantasy-inspired piece of dystopian sci-fi adventure fiction, then this book is worth taking a look at 🙂

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

Review: “Accursed” By Guy N. Smith (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a short break from sci-fi novels and read a 1980s horror novel 🙂 In particular, I thought that I’d take a look at Guy N. Smith’s 1983 novel “Accursed”.

And, yes, as soon as I saw this novel’s wonderfully melodramatic title and noticed that it had an ancient Egypt theme to it, I just had to get a second-hand copy of it. Plus, although my reaction to the other Smith novels I’ve read over the years (like “The Undead) was fairly lukewarm, this one seemed to show a bit more promise 🙂

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

This is the 1988 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Accursed” that I read.

The novel begins in Egypt during the early 1920s. An English vicar and archaeologist called Mason is arguing with a local guide called Suma. To Mason’s arrogant dismay, Suma also refuses to have anything to do with the latest tomb that he has discovered. Most of the local workers leave too. Undeterred by this, Mason breaks into the tomb and discovers two mummies and a mysterious serpent amulet. Ghostly voices speak to him, begging him to remove them from this place.

Mason ends up taking both the mummies and the amulet back to England for further study. However, in our humid climate, the mummies begin to rot and – after some complaints about the smell from his housekeeper – he decides to bury them near the river. However, in the middle of this, the serpent amulet glows and speaks. Frightened by this diabolical turn of events, Mason throws it into the open grave. The mummies howl with anguish and betrayal. Mason flees to the house and begins to write a letter before suddenly dying of a heart attack.

Then we flash forwards to the 1980s. In the midlands, a grumpy and unemployed middle-aged man called George Brownlow lives in a posh part of town with his wife Emily, who has become a snob ever since she won enough money to buy the house. They argue regularly. But, after seeing a story on the news about nuclear tensions in Libya, George decides to build a fallout shelter in the garden, regardless of what Emily might think about it. But, when he starts digging, he quickly finds buried treasure! An amulet…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it was a lot creepier than I’d expected. Yes, it can be amusingly melodramatic at times, but if you’re expecting a gloriously cheesy and gleefully fun 1980s cursed amulet splatterpunk novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday“, then you might be in for a frightening surprise. Seriously, this was a much more effective horror novel than I’d thought it would be 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements. Although it contains a few infrequent moments of 1980s-style gory horror, this surprisingly isn’t the main focus of the story. Instead, this novel contains a wonderfully disturbing mixture of claustrophobic horror, psychological horror, disease horror, death-based/macabre horror, suspense, apocalyptic horror, tragic horror, paranormal horror, ghostly horror, insect horror, character-based horror and religious/mythological horror.

Guy N. Smith is a much better horror author than I’d previously thought. Although this novel will rarely shock you, it is filled with a creepy, uneasy and oppressive atmosphere of dread that will weigh heavily on you. It will unsettle and disturb you with bizarre occurences and the slow spectacle of a dysfunctional family becoming more and more dysfunctional. Plus, even though they shouldn’t “work”, the scenes that transplant the Biblical plagues of Egypt to 1980s Britain not only work well but are actually more scary if you already know this old story.

And, yes, the parallels between Ancient Egypt and Christian mythology in this novel are fairly interesting – with the ancient Egyptian god Set taking the role that the devil would typically take in more traditional horror stories. And what a monster he is. Although you don’t really see him directly, he speaks to the characters in a wonderfully creepy – yet melodramatic – way, not to mention that the eyes of his serpent amulet also glow bright red at almost every opportunity. Although all of this stuff should be hilariously silly, the novel is written in a way that actually makes it scary (well, most of the time at least).

The novel is also made more unsettling through the theme of ancient tragedy too, with the events of the story paralleling the tragic fates of an ancient Egpytian priestess and a commoner – whose doomed love is forced to play out again through the possessed bodies of the Brownlow family. Far from ruining the suspense, this sense of knowing what has happened and what will happen again actually adds to it – and this novel is almost like watching a horrific tragedy in slow-motion and feeling powerless to prevent it. This gut-clenching feeling of inevitable doom is also enhanced by the cold war nuclear paranoia in the background of the story too.

The ancient Egypt-themed elements of the story work fairly well, and really help to add a lot of atmosphere to the novel – especially when they are transplanted to the more familiar setting of 20th Century Britain with, for example, spiders replacing scorpions and the country being stricken by a terrible heatwave that reminded me a lot of the one that happened in 2018 (although, of course, the novel’s heatwave is based on the famous one in 1976).

Smith has obviously done his research, since there are lots of Egyptian terms and little bits of mythology sprinkled throughout the novel, in addition to a few Biblical-style elements too (eg: lots of snake imagery, plagues etc..). My only complaint is that the mummification scene doesn’t involve the most well-known part of the mummification ritual, which (as anyone who has read a “Horrible Histories” book or ten when they were younger will know) involves the removal of the brain with a hook. I was kind of expecting, perhaps even dreading, this… and was a little bit disappointed, for want of a better word.

In terms of the characters, this novel is surprisingly good. The novel’s characters are one of the main sources of horror here, and they all come across as very realistic and normal people, with all of the flaws and emotions that you would expect. Although you shouldn’t expect hyper-detailed backstories, the characters really do feel like real people leading tragic lives. Likewise, the character development sometimes goes in some surprisingly unexpected ways too, such as downtrodden George slowly becoming a possessed fanatic and the tyrannical, snobbish Emily very gradually becoming more of a sympathetic character.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is ’80s horror fiction narration at it’s best 🙂 It is formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and weight to the story, whilst being “matter of fact” enough to keep things moving at a decent pace and give the story a more realistic feeling. This novel is also written in a very dramatic way and although this adds extra horror most of the time, it can sometimes veer into hilariously amusing melodrama (with sentences like “Death!” and chapter titles like “Snakes!” and “Horus!”). Still, given the overwhelming and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere of the story, these moments of unintentional comedy add some much-needed relief 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good too. At an efficient 239 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel relies on gradually building suspense, it never really feels slow-paced when you’re reading it thanks to lots of exquisitely creepy moments of horror.

As for how well this thirty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, there are some very ’80s elements here, like the class politics, the cold war nuclear fears etc… and some moments are probably a bit “politically incorrect” by modern standards too. But, the novel’s horror and atmosphere are pretty much timeless. The story itself almost feels like something that could have played out in the 1990s or the 2000s or even the 2010s. And the atmosphere of miserable, mundane suburban life is a surprisingly timeless thing too.

All in all, this is a really good horror novel 🙂 If you like ancient Egypt or want a 1980s horror novel that might actually scare you, then this one is well worth reading 🙂 Seriously, Guy N. Smith really is a better horror writer than I’d previously thought.

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

Review: “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” By Jacqueline Rayner (Novel)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a crime thriller novel, I was still in the mood for sci-fi. And, during a book-shopping trip to Petersfield a couple of days before preparing this review, I happened to find a couple of slightly older “Doctor Who” spin-off novels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield.

Since I quite enjoyed reading a more modern novel in this series a few months earlier, I was eager to read one of them as soon as possible. And, since Jacqueline Rayner’s 2007 novel “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” involved both a dodo and time travel (the very idea brought back very fond memories of reading one of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels), I ended up choosing it.

Interestingly, although this novel is based on an older version of the “Doctor Who” TV series (the version starring David Tennant and Freema Aygeman), it can still be enjoyed if you haven’t seen the show – since the earlier parts of the novel explain/recap all of the important elements of the TV series.

So, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 BBC Books (UK) hardback edition of “Doctor Who: The Last Dodo” that I read.

The novel begins in Mauritius in 1681, with a scene showing a dodo fleeing from hungry sailors who have recently found the island. When the dodo realises that she is the only dodo left on the island, two people in green shirts suddenly appear and rescue her.

Then we flash forwards to 2007, Martha is standing around inside the TARDIS and trying to make a decision. The Doctor has told her that the TARDIS can take her anywhere in time and space and this has left Martha frozen with indecision. Eventually, she suggests visiting the zoo – which prompts something of a self-righteous lecture from the Doctor about why he doesn’t like zoos. So, after happening to notice that the Doctor is using a dodo feather as a bookmark, Martha suggests going back in time to see the dodos before they became extinct.

Using the feather as a locator, the TARDIS travels through time and space. But, when the doors open, Martha and The Doctor find themselves inside a giant museum. In front of them, the last dodo floats in a box frozen in stasis. But, before Martha or The Doctor can really make sense of it, alarms go off and they are seized by armed guards. The museum’s director, Eve, explains that they are in the Museum Of The Last Ones – a planet-sized collection of the last members of all extinct species. And several specimens have recently been stolen from the “Earth” segment…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it certainly has some good moments. It is reasonably compelling and is also generally in keeping with the tone and style of the TV series (which is both a good and a bad thing). So, yes, I have fairly mixed views about this novel.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from “Doctor Who” (eg: time travel, other planets etc…) in addition to some classic sci-fi stuff like teleportation etc.. But the most interesting thing about this novel is how well it both does and doesn’t predict the future.

In at least one part, this novel is startlingly ahead of it’s time – since a running plot point in this novel involves Martha playing a vaguely “Pokemon Go”-style animal-spotting game on a tablet computer/electronic book that looks “a bit like a large iPod”. For reference, this novel was published in 2007 (and probably written a year or two earlier). On the other hand, this novel predicts that a near-future Britain will use the Euro as a currency and also predicts/implies that the Kakapo would become extinct in 2017. So, it’s a rather interesting glimpse into the near-past’s visions of the future.

The novel’s main plot is a rather interesting mixture of a detective and thriller story – with the earlier parts of the novel involving Martha and The Doctor trying to track down who has been stealing animals from the museum and the mid-late parts of the novel being a more traditional-style adventure/ thriller/ caper story.

Both of these parts work reasonably well and are fairly compelling, but are a little on the amusingly cheesy side of things (occasionally veering into “so bad that it’s good” territory). The detective segments have more of a focus on clue-finding and interviewing people and the thriller segments are a mixture of hilariously awesome/silly set pieces (sometimes involving dinosaurs) and classic-style cackling villainy, dramatic plot twists, clever plans, general chaos etc… These later parts are most close in tone to the TV series and, if you stick around for them, then you’ll be rewarded with something like a larger-budget mid-2000s episode of the TV show 🙂

Thematically, this is a novel about environmentalism and conservation. However, like some of the worst episodes of the TV show, this novel can sometimes take a fairly heavy-handed, patronising and/or lecturing approach to these topics. Not only that, whilst The Doctor does have quite a few comedic and eccentric moments, he can often be somewhat self-righteous during several parts of this novel.

Still, leaving this aside, some of the characters in this novel are reasonably well-written. The best characters are probably Martha and a dodo called Dorothea, although many of the background characters feel like fairly realistic characters (even if they don’t get that much characterisation). Likewise, there are at least a couple of surprisingly emotional parts later in the novel (which are in keeping with the best character-based moments in the TV show).

However, although the novel’s main villains do get well-written motivations and backstories, they are very much from the cackling, moustache-twirling “elaborate and almost nonsensical evil schemes” school of villainy. Needless to say, this results in some wonderfully silly moments and other “so bad that it’s good” kind of stuff.

In terms of the writing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. On the plus side, the writing in this novel is informal and fast-paced enough to both make the novel very readable and to give it personality, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.

On the downside, the perspective is quite literally all over the place. Expect random jumps from first to third person perspective (or vice versa) to happen in the middle of chapters, with very little consistency (eg: some Martha-based scenes are first-person, some are third-person etc…) and with only the barest minimum of signposting to tell you what is happening. Yes, you’ll get used to this after reading the book for a while, but there never seems to be any real reason or logic for the perspective changes and the novel would have been much better if it had stuck with either first or third-person narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 At a very efficient 248 pages in length (less if you don’t count the encyclopaedia/game score segments), this is the kind of refreshingly short novel that can easily be enjoyed in a couple of hours or so 🙂 Plus, the pacing is reasonably good too – with a good mixture of suspense, mystery, drama, fast-paced set pieces and location changes that remain compelling throughout the novel. Not to mention that the later parts of the novel almost feel like watching a “lost episode” of the TV show too.

All in all, if you can put up with random perspective changes and a bit of self-righteousness, and if you don’t mind a little “so bad that it’s good” silliness, then there is actually a fairly good story buried in here. When it is at it’s best, this novel is like a really good older episode of the TV show (but with a slightly larger budget) and, when it is at it’s worst, it’s like one of the more annoying episodes of the TV show.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “The Rosewater Insurrection” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for some sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Tade Thompson’s 2019 novel “The Rosewater Insurrection” (the sequel to Thompson’s excellent “Rosewater) since a relative pre-ordered a copy of it for me as a gift a few weeks before I prepared this review. And, yes, I write these reviews quite far in advance.

Before I begin the review, I should probably also point out that “The Rosewater Insurrection” is a direct sequel to “Rosewater” (and is the second book in a trilogy). Although it contains a few recaps, the story probably won’t make that much sense if you haven’t already read “Rosewater” first. So, this is a series that should probably be read in order.

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

This is the 2019 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The Rosewater Insurrection” that I read.

The novel begins in Nigeria with a flashback scene set in 2055. Eric is a sensitive (someone with psychic-like abilities, due to alien spores) working as a field agent for Section 45. He has been sent to Camp Rosewater, the settlement surrounding a mysterious alien bio-dome that has recently arrived on Earth, with orders to track down and kill a local revolutionary called Jack Jacques.

Eric infiltrates Jack’s camp and spends quite a while working as a labourer there, waiting for a chance to get close to Jack. But, when he eventually does, he gets a message from Kaaro telling him to get the hell out of there, because Section 45 consider him expendable and are going to use him as a human targeting beacon for an air-strike. Eric flees and is demoted to a desk job.

And, after Molara delivers a short lecture about the symbiotic history of humans and aliens to the reader, we flash forwards to the city of Rosewater in 2067, where a woman called Alyssa wakes up and finds that she has no memory whatsoever…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like “Rosewater”, it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 As you might expect, this sequel tells a larger and more epic story than “Rosewater” does. Although this means that the story doesn’t feel quite as focused during the earlier parts, if you stick with it then you’ll be rewarded with a gripping, spectacular sci-fi thriller that could probably put even the largest-budget modern movies to shame 🙂 Seriously, why hasn’t this series been turned into a film or TV series yet?

In terms of this novel’s sci-fi elements, it expands a lot on some of the stuff introduced in “Rosewater”. Not only do we get to learn a lot more about the aliens’ backstory, motivations and plans for Earth (including a novel twist on the familiar “alien invasion” trope) but the novel also includes all of the intriguing background details that you’d expect from a biopunk/cyberpunk novel too 🙂 The world-building is as good as ever, and the novel’s technology, alien fauna etc… also plays a role in the story in all sorts of dramatic, and occasionally surprising ways, too. Even so, this novel is very slightly more focused on it’s thriller elements than it’s sci-fi elements.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, it contains a really good mixture of suspenseful scenes, fast-paced action set pieces, tech/sci-fi based scenes and political/military/war drama too. All of these things also exist in both large and small scale versions too, adding even more thrilling variety and depth to the novel too. Although the novel takes a while to set up all of it’s many plot threads (which can make the story feel mildly confusing or unfocused at first), everything comes together in a really spectacular way and the mid-late parts of the story. Reading this novel feels like watching a much more intelligent, complex, creative and immersive version of a large-budget CGI blockbuster film 🙂

As you might expect if you’ve read “Rosewater”, the novel also contains some elements from the horror genre too 🙂 Although these are less prominent than they were in “Rosewater”, they turn up in a few wonderfully creepy moments (eg: the scene with Bewon and the plant growing in his apartment) – but their main purpose here is to add more atmosphere/realism to the setting and also to add extra impact, creativity and epic-ness to some of the novel’s action scenes. Even though this is less of a horror novel than it’s predecessor, these horror genre elements (eg: body horror, gory horror, zombies and psychological horror) really add a lot to the novel 🙂

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. Not only is this a novel about how power corrupts (shown through both Jack’s character arc and a few references to “Macbeth”, amongst other things) but it is also a novel about the environment, politics, warfare, how history is recorded etc… too. Most of this thematic stuff is more of a subtle background thing, but it plays a fairly major role in the events of the novel and also helps to add extra depth and realism to the story too.

As for the characters, this novel is as good as ever 🙂 Unlike “Rosewater”, this novel focuses a lot less on Kaaro (although he still gets some character development and a few really cool moments) and instead focuses a lot more on Aminat, Alyssa and Jack. All three of these characters have a decent amount of characterisation and character development – with Aminat going from being a slightly squeamish mid-level agent to a much more tough and heroic character, with Alyssa coming to terms with what is happening to her and with Jack slowly becoming corrupted by power. Yet, in an interesting twist, Jack isn’t the novel’s villain – but someone that the other characters have to reluctantly work with for the sake of their collective survival.

In terms of the writing, this novel is both similar and different to “Rosewater”. For the most part, this novel uses present-tense third-person narration that is informal enough to add personality to the story and keep things moving at a decent pace, but also descriptive and/or informative enough to add a lot of atmosphere to the story and make everything feel solid enough. The third-person narration also allows for a more complex and large-scale story. There are also a few mildly experimental flourishes too – such as random “extracts” from an in-universe historical novel (written by a character called Walter) that appear occasionally and provide extra backstory.

The novel also includes several first-person perspective segments and, although the jump from one perspective to another is a little surprising, the narrative voice is consistent enough and these segments are signposted well enough (each chapter title tells you which character it focuses on, and the infrequent chapters focusing on Eric and Walter are in first-person perspective) that this didn’t really become too confusing. Still, I’m kind of puzzled by this aspect of the novel – although, at a guess, Eric’s segments are in first-person because his opening segment is similar to the first-person narration used throughout “Rosewater” (and it provides a good bridge between the two books) and Walter’s segment is in first-person because it focuses a lot more on his thoughts, reactions etc…

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At 374 pages, it is shorter than “Rosewater”, yet manages to tell a much larger story 🙂 And, although the story’s plot may feel a little less focused at first, all of the novel’s plot threads blend together well and provide a lot of payoff. The novel also contains a really good mixture of fast-paced action and moderately-paced drama/suspense, whilst still being as compelling as you’d expect from a thriller novel. Plus, although this novel is the middle part of a trilogy, the ending contains as much drama and resolution as you would expect from a stand-alone novel 🙂

All in all, this is a really enjoyable and compelling novel 🙂 Yes, it takes a little bit longer to really get started than “Rosewater” did (and the perspective/focus changes might take you a while to get used to), but it tells an even more spectacular story 🙂 This novel is a sequel in the truest sense of the word, taking everything good about the first novel and turning it up to eleven 🙂

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

Review: “The End Of The Day” By Claire North (Novel)

Well, after reading Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers“, I was still in the mood for the macabre. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand book that I ended up getting several weeks earlier because of the intriguing premise, I am of course talking about Claire North’s 2017 novel “The End Of The Day”.

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

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The End Of The Day” that I read.

The novel begins with a man called Charlie sitting in a hotel room with some pills and wondering if death will come for him. Then we flash back to some time earlier when Charlie is in Peru, meeting an old woman who is the last speaker of a language. There is another flashback scene showing Charlie taking a job interview in Milton Keynes for the position of Harbinger Of Death. The messenger that travels ahead of Death, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s this wonderfully unique mixture of poignant drama, dark comedy, magical realism, topical satire, chillingly realistic horror, heartwarming “feel good” moments, profound thought-provoking stuff, fascinating places, fascinating ideas etc…

It is an intelligent, humane and mature (in the truest sense of the word) novel that goes beyond merely telling a story to taking on an almost spiritual quality at times. In other words, it is art. It has literary merit. You will feel slightly richer, or changed, after reading it. In short, if you enjoy things like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic, then this book is probably your sort of thing 🙂

Interestingly, although this is a novel that is quite literally about death, it isn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are a few gruesome moments, descriptions of disturbing events/situations (eg: torture, war, poverty etc…) and even a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque Of Red Death”, but it isn’t really a horror novel. It’s more of an exploration of the concept of death itself, with – for example – the death of an idea, or a place, or a phase of a person’s life or a period of history being described with the same dramatic weight as an actual death. And, like with Tarot cards, death is presented more as a force of change than of destruction.

This is also one of the novel’s major themes. It is about how the world is constantly changing (in both good and bad ways) and how this is an essential part of the world. This is also the focus of a lot of the novel’s topical stuff and it is one of those wonderfully rare things, an intelligent modern left-leaning novel that doesn’t really feel the need to earnestly preach at the reader in the patronising way that some novels do. It actually respects the reader’s intelligence, maturity and knowledge of the world and this is so refreshing to see. Yet, at the same time, it also makes a lot of points about a lot of topical stuff.

And, as well as being a timeless novel about one of the most timeless things in existence (or non-existence, as it may be), it is also a very modern novel at the same time. There is a lot of topical stuff here, which is handled in all sorts of amusing, interesting, serious, poignant and/or clever ways.

In addition to scenes set in places like melting ice caps and war-torn Syria, one fascinating experimental feature of the novel – which really sets the mood – is that some chapters consist entirely of random dialogue fragments from conversations near Charlie (it is left ambiguous whether these take place in his mind or not). Although it takes a while to get used to these chapters, they feel like a fascinating glimpse into the collective subconscious mind in a way that is really difficult to describe, but really effective.

This novel is about more things than I can describe here but, in addition to the themes that I’ve already mentioned, it is also a novel about capitalism, it is about how we lose humanity when we see others as less than human (shown, amongst other things, by random lines that consist entirely of the words “human” and “rat” in varying quantities. It makes sense in context), it is about how unique everyone is, it is about how similar everyone is. It is about a lot of stuff. But it is also a fascinating story at the same time, feeling like an intriguing glimpse at several years in the life of a man with a very unusual job.

In terms of the characters, they are excellent 🙂 Since this is a novel about life and humanity, the characters are probably the most important part of the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation here highly enough.

Earlier, I likened this novel to both Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic and this is mostly because of the realistic, interesting, nuanced characters. Even Charlie, who seems like a bit of a bland “everyman”/”expert traveller” kind of character at first, gains more depth and realism as the story progresses. Still, the numerous people he meets along his travels throughout the world are often slightly more interesting characters – many of whom are pretty much short stories in their own right.

Plus, like in “Sandman”, Death is actually a character too (who is often friendly, unless angered or summoned). In fact, all four horsemen of the apocalypse are characters. They retain their essential qualities and personalities, whilst also changing appearance, gender, shape etc… depending on who is looking at them at any one time. This both shows how they are timeless and yet still very much shaped by the world they live in. It’s difficult to describe, but it works really well. Not to mention that the scenes involving the horsemen are sometimes absolutely hilarious too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is amazing 🙂 Yes, it might take you a little while to work out what is happening in the early parts of the story and to get used to a few slightly experimental elements (like the random dialogue fragments I mentioned earlier), but stick with it!

Most of this novel is written in a way that is informal/matter of fact enough to both feel realistic and to be easily readable, yet the writing is also descriptive, poetic (eg: certain repeated lines, descriptions etc..), vivid etc.. enough to literally make you feel like you’re reading an amazing graphic novel (eg: Gaiman, Rowntree etc..) at the same time. Yet, it also does all sorts of amazing stuff that can only be done with the written word and it is one of those novels that would lose a lot of it’s atmosphere, richness and depth if it was ever adapted to the screen or to a comic. Again, this is hard to describe fully, but it works really well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 403 pages in length, it is a bit on the longer side of things, but justifies it’s length by telling a story that is both epic and small-scale at the same time. In terms of the pacing, this novel moves at a fairly moderate pace (and doesn’t have a traditional “plot”, which may put some readers off) – but this is one of those books that is atmospheric, unique, thought-provoking, emotionally-powerful, intelligent etc.. enough that you’ll probably want to savour it over several days rather than binge-read it.

All in all, this review probably hasn’t done justice to how good this book is. It is an intelligent, readable, compelling, unique, profound, humane, quirky, funny, chilling, sad, happy and fascinating novel. It is a piece of art that you will leave feeling richer than when you entered. Or, to put it another way, I went into this novel expecting either a horror and/or dark comedy novel, but found myself reading something that could easily rival Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality”, and that sheer level of quality is something that doesn’t appear all too often.

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

Review: “Death Walkers” By Gary Brandner (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a 1980s horror novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand one that I found online several weeks earlier. I am, of course, talking about Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers”. Interestingly, looking online, this novel was originally titled “Walkers” (which seems to be the most well-known title) and the edition I read was retitled for some reason.

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

This is the 1980s Hamlyn (UK) paperback edition of “Death Walkers” that I read.

The novel begins at a pool party in Los Angeles, attended by a woman called Joana Raitt and her boyfriend Glen Early. During the party, a trained disco dancer called Peter Landau tries to ask Joana out but, when he realises that he won’t get anywhere, he gives her his business card instead. After all, he has a nice side-job as a psychic counsellor. The party continues and Joana decides to take a dip in the pool.

However, she has eaten less than an hour before swimming and her whole body is seized by painful, paralysing muscle cramps that cause her to drown. She sees a tunnel with a white light and a benevolent figure at the end of it. But, as she floats down the tunnel, something seems to be pulling her back. So, she decides to try going back. The tunnel turns fierce and menacing in an instant, as the souls of the dead begin to emerge from the walls. Shortly before she leaves, they give her a cryptic warning that they will keep coming for her and that she will return to the afterlife by the Eve of St. John.

Joana returns to life beside the pool, resuscitated by Glen. A doctor living nearby, Dr. Hovde, checks Joana over and, although she is still haunted by the ominous warning, she is fine. A couple of days later, she goes into the city to do some shopping and is almost run over by a car that crashes into some nearby shrubbery. When the bystanders rush to the crashed car, they find that the driver is dead. Curious about this strange turn of events, Dr. Hovde decides to ask the local pathologist to show him the autopsy results. To his surprise, the driver died a day before the crash…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it has a slightly silly/contrived opening segment, it’s a really cool horror thriller novel that also does some innovative things with the zombie genre too. But, if you’re expecting a typical “1980s video nasty”-style horror story, then I should probably point out that whilst this novel was published in 1980, it was very clearly written during the mid-late 1970s.

Which brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Unlike the typical zombie novels of the 1980s, such as Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is very much a 1970s-style horror story, where there is a lot more focus on things like suspense, the paranormal/occult (and, yes, both ouija boards and the “Death” tarot card make an appearance) and traditional old-school macabre/death-based horror that the kind of intense gory horror that you’d typically associate with the zombie genre. Yes, there are a few slightly gruesome moments, but this focus on relatively bloodless traditional horror actually lends the story much more of an ominous and “realistic” tone (that is also vaguely reminiscent of old 1950s horror comics).

Likewise, the focus on death and near-death experiences gives the novel a timelessly creepy feel that is reminiscent of horror films like “Flatliners”, “Final Destination” etc… or novels like Kaaron Warren’s “Slights” or Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno”. Plus, the ominous warning from the realm of the dead casts a dark shadow over the story, whilst also allowing for all sorts of brilliantly suspenseful moments and other cool horror movie style stuff. Whilst this novel isn’t outright scary, it is certainly gothic, suspenseful and creepy at times 🙂

It’s also a refreshingly different take on the zombie genre too. In addition to the fact that the zombie-based scenes are relatively bloodless and have more of a focus on the macabre, suspense and the paranormal, this novel is also notable in the fact that it doesn’t feature a zombie apocalypse.

Instead, the only reason that invididual zombies occasionally return from the dead is to chase Joana and drag her back to the afterlife – so, not only are there relatively few zombies (which actually makes them scarier), but they are a bit more intelligent/agile, they follow a different set of “rules” to typical Hollywood zombies and the fact that only one appears at any one time gives the story much more of a suspenseful slasher movie-style atmosphere too. Seriously, if you want an innovative zombie story, read this one.

Likewise, thanks to all of the suspense, this novel is also a bit like a traditional thriller novel too – something also helped with the classic thriller technique of having several different plot threads that focus on different characters (eg: Joana & Glen, Dr. Hovde and Peter Landau). Whilst this novel is still very much a horror novel, these thriller elements really help to keep the story compelling and to make the rest of it feel a bit more “serious” after the hilariously silly opening segment.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect a huge amount of in-depth characterisation here, they are realistic/interesting enough to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re probably a little bit on the “stock characters” side of things. Still, the story remains fairly compelling nonetheless.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is mostly fairly good. The narration uses a reasonably informal (by mid-late 1970s/early 1980s standards) and “matter of fact” style that also includes a decent number of descriptive moments and, for the most part, is very readable. However, the very beginning of the novel isn’t as well-written as the rest, with the first few pages being written in a slightly stodgier way (eg: “telling” narration, slower-paced descriptions etc..) than the rest of the book. So, don’t judge the writing by the first few pages.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only is it a lean and efficient 222 pages long, but the novel makes brilliant use of suspense and thriller genre techniques to keep the plot compelling throughout. Not only that, although you’ll probably see at least one plot twist coming a mile away (if you’re paying attention to the story) and might guess the nature of another one (if you’ve seen enough horror movies and are paying attention to the page numbers), this novel has one of the most gripping endings that I’ve seen in a horror novel during the past few weeks.

In terms of how this forty-year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Although the novel has a wonderfully retro 1970s-style atmosphere (similar to an early episode of “Columbo”), the scenes of suspense and macabre horror are still very compelling. Plus, for the time it was written, this novel was also a fairly progressive one, and although a few moments may seem mildly “politically incorrect” by modern standards, the novel as a whole has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this is a really compelling 1970s-style horror novel that also does some innovative stuff with the zombie genre too 🙂 Yes, the beginning is a bit silly and the characters can feel a little like stock characters at times, but this novel is still a really good retro horror novel.

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

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) 🙂

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 🙂 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.