Review: “England Expects” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from reading spin-off novels and take a look at a detective novel that I’d planned to read about two or three years ago. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2014 novel “England Expects”. This was part of a boxset of the first three of Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” novels that I was given by a family member for Christmas in 2016.

At the time, I read the first two books (but only got round to reviewing the first one) and also ended up getting a copy of the fourth one . A couple of months ago, I ended up reading the fifth novel because I couldn’t find my copies of the third and fourth books at the time. Needless to say, they turned up shortly afterwards and I’ve been meaning to read them ever since.

Although “England Expects” is the third novel in a series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel. Yes, you’ll get slightly more out of it if you already know the characters from the first two books, but it tells a fairly self-contained detective story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “England Expects”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “England Expects” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in 1953. It is a bright summer day and Express reporter Joey Gillingham has just arrived in the city to investigate a story. But, since he has a bit of time to spare, he decides to stop off at a local barbershop for a shave and a haircut. Whilst the barber goes into the backroom to get some tea for Joey, a mysterious man strides into the shop and slashes Joey’s throat.

Needless to say, ex-military intelligence officer turned debt collector and unofficial detective Mirabelle Bevan is intrigued when she hears about the murder. Her friend and colleague, Vesta, has other things on her mind though. Her partner Charlie has proposed to her and she isn’t sure whether to accept or not, because she worries that it might affect her job with Mirabelle. So, the case provides a welcome distraction for her too.

Not only that, the lead detective on the investigation (McGregor) is shocked to hear that one of his detectives has moved Joey’s body before he had a chance to examine it and that Joey’s notebook is missing. And, after someone dies in suspicious circumstances at the local masonic lodge, it soon becomes clear to all concerned that the case is more complex than it first seemed….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly compelling detective thriller novel, which is a little bit like a blend of classic Agatha Christie, modern historical fiction and a hardboiled detective novel. Even though it has a couple of small flaws, the novel has a fairly good historical atmosphere and a plot that becomes more thrilling as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re fairly good. There is the usual thing about seemingly separate crimes turning out to be part of the same case, and the investigation includes a really good mixture of Agatha Christie-style questioning scenes, some suspenseful sneaking around, a couple of red herrings, a few Sherlock Holmes-like deductions and a few elements that wouldn’t be out of place in an old hardboiled crime novel. These elements work really well and it’s really cool to see an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but with a slightly grittier and more hardboiled edge to it 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements, which mostly consist of suspenseful spy-like snooping and a couple of more dramatic moments, appear more prominently in the later parts of the story and help to keep things fairly gripping. Likewise, one of the major themes of this novel is secret societies, which helps to add a bit of extra suspense and drama too – even if this topic is handled in a rather cheesy and/or stylised way during some parts of the story.

In terms of the novel’s historical elements, the novel has a really impressive historical atmosphere and, like in many of Sheridan’s other novels, is also critical of the problems and narrow-minded attitudes lurking behind the twee respectability of 1950s Britain. Although this element of the story is mostly handled well, a couple of moments would probably have worked better if they had been handled in a more subtle way.

The novel also includes some rather amusing satire – such as in the opening scene involving the Express reporter (who, for example, wants a conservative military haircut). Not to mention that, if you’ve ever visited the modern version of Brighton, it’s fascinating to see what the city would have looked like during the 1950s (with, for example, the Royal Pavillion being in a state of disrepair etc..) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. In addition to seeing a few familiar characters from other novels in the series, the characters all seem like fairly realistic (if mildly stylised) people with realistic motivations, imperfections and personalities. The characters really help to add a lot of drama and historical atmosphere to the story and are probably one of the best parts of the novel.

As for the writing, it’s really good too. This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to add some historical atmosphere to the story, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to be fairly readable and relaxing too.

Likewise, the novel’s length and pacing are really good. At an efficient 271 pages in length, the novel never feels bloated. Likewise, although some of the earlier parts of the story are closer to a slower-paced traditional detective story, the story gradually becomes more thrilling and fast-paced as it progresses in a way reminiscent of classic vintage thriller novels like Agatha Christie’s “N or M?” and classic hardboiled detective fiction.

All in all, this is a compelling historical detective thriller. It’s an atmospheric and intriguing blend of traditional Agatha Christie-style fiction and more hardboiled fiction that combines it’s detective and thriller elements really well. Yes, there are some small flaws, but it is still a good novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” By K. W. Jeter (Novel)

Well, since it’s November 2019, I thought that I’d re-read another “Blade Runner” – related book. I am, of course, talking about K. W. Jeter’s 1995 novel “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”.

Yes, long before “Blade Runner 2049” appeared in cinemas two years ago, Jeter had written three totally different (and, now, non-canonical) official sequel novels to “Blade Runner”.

Although the final one (“Blade Runner 4: Eye And Talon”) seems to be somewhat rare and expensive, I happened to find cheap copies of the first two sequels in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a couple of months before I prepared this review (because I couldn’t find my old copies of both books).

Since it has been about eleven years since I first read “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” during a holiday in France, I thought that it was the perfect time to re-read it 🙂

However, since this novel is a direct sequel, you need to watch “Blade Runner” before reading this book. Likewise, although it isn’t essential, it is also well worth reading “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick (the novel “Blade Runner” is based on) before reading this novel, since you’ll get more out of it if you do 🙂 Of course, you don’t need to watch “Blade Runner 2049” before reading this book – since it tells a totally different story.

So, let’s take a look at “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

– This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback edition of “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” that I read.

Set nine months after the events of “Blade Runner”, the novel begins with Chief Bryant drinking alone in his office in the hours after Gaff’s funeral. To his surprise, a mysterious person enters his office and, after a short conversation, draws a gun and shoots him.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, Deckard is living in a cabin in the woods with his replicant lover Rachael. Since she is nearing the end of her pre-determined four year lifespan, she spends most of her time in a stasis booth that Deckard acquired from several of his contacts, only regaining consciousness every few weeks to spend a single day with Deckard. Most of the time, Deckard is alone. So, when he hears the sound of a spinner heading towards the cabin, he isn’t sure if he’s imagining things.

This is especially true when the spinner lands and a woman who looks exactly like Rachael emerges from it. She introduces herself as Sarah Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation since the death of her uncle Eldon nine months ago. Sarah wants Deckard to return to LA and do a job for her and, with the contingent of armed Tyrell Corp security she’s brought with her, he doesn’t exactly have much choice in the matter…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it can get a little contrived and convoluted at times, it’s a really cool alternative sequel to “Blade Runner” 🙂

Not only is it reasonably true to the tone of the original film, but it is also darker, more spectacular and very atmospheric too. It’s the kind of sequel that was written for enthusiastic “Blade Runner” fans and, in some ways, is probably a more “accurate” sequel than “Blade Runner 2049” is.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, it is a “Blade Runner” novel. Not only is it set during the summer in a slightly more expanded version of the grim, dystopian proto-cyberpunk world of the original film (with some of the hot, dusty post-apocalyptic atmosphere of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” too), but it also expands on a lot of the film’s thematic material too.

In other words, this is a novel where – thanks to the existence of ultra-realistic robots – no-one can be quite certain who is human or even if they are human themselves. In addition to this, the novel also adds a lot of conspiracy-based paranoia which is evocative of the untrustworthy, unreliable world of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” too 🙂

The novel also expands on several of the moral questions posed by the film, with Deckard being presented in an even more morally-ambiguous way, several references to times that blade runners have killed humans by mistake and more disturbing details about replicant slavery in the off-world colonies.

This, of course, brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Whilst this novel isn’t a “horror novel” as such, there are quite a few disturbing moments and/or psychological horror elements here.

Whether it is a chilling train-based scene that subtly references the Holocaust, the scenes involving a “repaired” version of Pris or some hints about Eldon Tyrell’s backstory, this can be a surprisingly unsettling and disturbing novel at times. Yet, all of this horror is very much in keeping with tone of the original film – even if there is more emphasis on it than you might expect.

Surprisingly, this novel is also more of a thriller novel than you might expect. In addition to a few spectacular fast-paced action set pieces (some of which reminded me of “Blade Runner 2049” and the spin-off anime), this novel also focuses a lot on conspiracy-based paranoia, suspense and things like that too. Whilst this novel as a whole isn’t a particularly fast-paced thriller, it’s certainly a compelling one.

However, as mentioned earlier, some elements of the story’s conspiracy thriller plot can get a little convoluted at times. There are also a couple of small plot holes (eg: video filtering technology that works inconsistently in one scene) and a few scenes can also feel a little contrived too. Still, the level of plot complexity here is vaguely reminiscent of Raymond Chandler at times 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s really good 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration uses a very descriptive, but appropriately hardboiled, style that goes really well with the story. Given that the original film is a masterpiece of visual art, it is really cool to see narration that captures this level of harsh hardboiled beauty. Yes, the descriptive elements of the narration do slow the story down a bit, but they also make it feel like a genuine part of the “Blade Runner” universe too 🙂

This novel also rewards your knowledge of both the film and Philip K. Dick’s novel, with numerous references to familiar locations from both things, a plot point involving a script error in older versions of the film, a dramatic scene involving the off-world advertising blimp, slightly more focus on background characters from the film (eg: Holden, J.F.Sebastian etc..) etc… Seriously, if you’re a massive fan of “Blade Runner”, then this novel is the kind of sequel you were probably secretly hoping for in 2017.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. In addition to seeing what has happened to familiar characters from both “Blade Runner” and “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, they also get a bit more depth too (after all, this is a novel).

In addition to this, the novel also contains a couple of new characters who are interesting alternative versions of familiar characters. If you’re a fan of the film, then all of this extra characterisation is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 340 pages in length, it doesn’t look too long, but it will take you longer to read than you might expect. In other words, whilst this novel contains a few fast-paced moments, the story’s pacing is a little bit closer to the slightly slower, more atmospheric pacing of the original film. Even so, this novel can probably best be described as a moderately-paced thriller.

As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Yes, there are a few “politically incorrect” moments (eg: some of Bryant’s dialogue, a somewhat transphobic scene etc…), but the novel as a whole feels almost as timeless as the original “Blade Runner” film. Not only that, the focus on post-apocalyptic wastelands and spectacular action set-pieces in some parts of the novel is also fairly evocative of the recent “Blade Runner 2049” film too 🙂

All in all, whilst this alternative sequel isn’t as good as the original film, it certainly comes close 🙂 Even though it may no longer be canonical, it is still well worth reading if you’re a fan of “Blade Runner”. It’s atmospheric, dark, complex and dystopian. It’s also somewhat closer in style and tone to the original film than “Blade Runner 2049” was too.

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

Review: “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” By Sarah Pinborough (Novel)

Well, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded about the sci-fi horror TV show “Torchwood” after talking to a relative about “Doctor Who”. This then stirred a vague recollection of seeing Torchwood-themed books in bookshops ages ago.

After a quick internet search, I ended up getting second-hand copies of a couple of these books. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at Sarah Pinborough’s 2011 novel “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. After all, it was apparently a prequel to the only complete series of “Torchwood” that I’ve actually seen (eg: the “Miracle Day” series from 2011).

Interestingly, although this novel references the TV show a few times, there are enough explanations and recaps for the story to be enjoyable if you’ve only got vague memories of the show or if you haven’t seen it. Likewise, this novel also tells a fairly self-contained story too.

So, let’s take a look at “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 BBC Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” that I read.

The novel begins with a government scientist called John Blackman exploring the burnt-out ruins of a secret underground facility with orders to recover any technology found within it. He hears someone groaning and, to his surprise, finds a woman lying on the ground in one of the rooms. Her stomach starts to glow red. But, before John can talk to her, she stabs him with a shard of glass.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, a detective called D.I. Cutler is spending some free time watching a mysterious government site that has sprung up in the city after a terrorist attack three weeks earlier. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he has become obsessed with this strange site.

Back underground, the site’s commander – Elwood Jackson – discovers John’s grisly corpse and is shocked to find that his eyes are missing. Whilst all of this is going on, the resurrected woman, former Torchwood agent Suzie Costello, has managed to sneak out of the facility and travel to a safety deposit box she set up in case of emergencies. However, to her surprise, she finds that she has an urge to kill again…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling sci-fi horror thriller that also vaguely reminded me of classic 1980s horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..) too, which is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. Although this novel contains a few moments of gory horror and also uses the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing several random background characters who only survive for a single chapter, the main types of horror in this novel are psychological horror, cosmic horror, paranormal horror, implied horror, death-based horror, tragic horror and/or character-based horror.

These types of horror work really well and, although they aren’t usually outright scary, they help to add a rather ominous and creepy atmosphere to the story. Not only will the reader occasionally find themselves sympathising with the story’s creepy villain, Suzie Costello, but the novel’s themes of death and trauma and it’s vaguely Lovecraftian hints about a terrifying hell dimension are also fairly creepy too.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel is probably a bit more like H.P.Lovecraft than anything else. In other words, whilst there are references to alien technologies, monsters from outer space and other dimensions, the story focuses slightly more on the effects that these mysterious things have on the characters rather than on the mechanics behind them (although the novel does give an explanation for why Suzie returned to life). But, although the sci-fi stuff is a bit more of a background detail than I’d expected, it is well written and helps to add a lot more atmosphere to the story.

The novel’s thriller elements are fairly interesting too, with the story mostly focusing on both D.I. Cutler’s investigation into a mysterious series of deaths and on Suzie’s attempts to understand what is going on whilst also staying one step ahead of the authorities. This adds a lot of suspense and drama to the story, which helps to keep it really compelling.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Most of the characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, with the novel’s best character probably being Suzie – who, although clearly the story’s villain, is written about in such a way that you’ll probably end up either feeling sorry for and/or sympathetic towards her during a few parts of the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good too. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” way that also focuses quite heavily on the characters’ thoughts and feelings (which helps to add to the story’s horror elements too). Likewise, there are also a few italicised flashback scenes that presumably describe moments from previous series of the TV show too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 250 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, this novel is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and also uses an interesting cross between a thriller novel-style structure (with alternating chapters focusing on the two main characters) and a 1980s splatterpunk novel-like structure (with some chapters and segments focusing on random background characters dying in horrible ways).

All in all, this is a fairly decent sci-fi horror thriller novel that is also vaguely reminiscent of the classic horror fiction of the 1980s too 🙂 The characters are well-written and the plot is both creepy and compelling too.

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

Review: “Virtual Light” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for a cyberpunk novel. And, although I’d originally planned to re-read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, I happened to spot my copies of Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” that I’d been meaning to read for about a decade or so.

So, wanting to try something slightly different, I thought that I’d take a look at the first novel in the trilogy, “Virtual Light” (1993), today 🙂

Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Virtual Light” that I read.

Set in in the high-tech near-future year of 2005, the novel begins with a mysterious description of a man watching several video feeds from a hotel room in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, ex-cop and private security officer Berry Rydell is driving around with his allergy-ridden partner Sublett. Their night is filled with a series of bizarre events that lead to Rydell crashing the van into a house. Although Rydell isn’t fired over the mistake, he ends up resigning from the security company when faced with the prospect of being relegated to uneventful guard duty.

In San Francisco, a bicycle courier called Chevette is delivering a package to a posh hotel. After dropping off the package, she is about to go back to her bike when she meets a drunken woman in a lift who invites her to a party in one of the hotel rooms. During the party, a sleazy guy starts hassling Chevette and, out of spite, she steals a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses from his jacket before leaving the party.

Back in Los Angeles, Rydell’s flatmate Hernandez eventually gets him a job as a freelance driver for a skip tracer in San Francisco called Warbaby. When Rydell arrives, Warbaby tells him that a man has been murdered and a very important pair of sunglasses have been stolen…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it’ll take you a while to get used to Gibson’s trademark writing style, this story is a really compelling cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk thriller. In addition to making me feel nostalgic about the first time I read Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, it also reminded me a bit of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and M. John Harrison’s “Nova Swing” too. Which is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel mostly takes the post-cyberpunk approach of focusing on ordinary people’s lives in a futuristic tech-filled dystopia. Yes, there are a few hints of the virtual reality hacking of “Neuromancer” here and loads of subtly futuristic and/or “edgy” background details, but this is more of a story about people trying to make a living in a moderately dystopian future. In essence, this is a drama set in a somewhat cyberpunk world rather than a traditional cyberpunk story.

But, what a world it is 🙂 Although this novel contains quite a few “realistic” urban settings, they are filled with enough futuristic tech and/or bizarre backstory to make them absolutely fascinating. Even so, the best location in the novel is the Golden Gate bridge, which has been turned into this wonderfully atmospheric rusting, neon-lit, rainy, ramshackle anarchist encampment. And, yes, like in the modern computer game “Shadowrun: Dragonfall“, this novel actually contains a fairly nuanced depiction of what an anarchist society would look like.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, although this story is a bit of a slow burn at times, it gets more suspenseful and action-packed as it progresses. Even so, the novel uses a few classic thriller techniques like mini-cliffhangers and alternating plot threads throughout the novel. It’s also the kind of story which starts out fairly randomly and then gradually becomes more and more focused too.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting too. In addition to being a novel about authority, it’s also a story about things like gentrification, the unreliability of history, religion, the media, income inequality etc… too. Cyberpunk fiction is, after all, one of the most thematically complex genres of science fiction out there. Even so, most of this stuff feels slightly more like a background detail than you might expect.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. Although all of the characters in this novel are slightly stylised, they really feel like part of the story’s world. Many of them also get a reasonable amount of backstory and characterisation too. Not to mention that, if you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, then the fact that one of the main characters in “Virtual Light” (Chevette) is also a punk-like courier is pretty cool too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really good when you get used to Gibson’s writing style. The novel’s third-person narration has a really distinctive voice that is both very “matter of fact”/hardboiled and very detailed at the time. It’s fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time. It has some really interesting experimental flourishes (eg: mixing past and present events and tenses etc..) and it’s also kind of a more subtle and realistic version of the intentionally confusing “bombard the reader with futuristic details” technique that Gibson uses to great effect in “Neuromancer”.

If you’ve read and enjoyed slightly more obscure genres of fiction (eg: cyberpunk fiction, hardboiled detective fiction, beat literature, gonzo journalism etc..) in the past, then you’ll “get” the writing style of this novel and really enjoy it 🙂 But, if you’ve only read more “traditional” fiction, then you might find the writing style in this novel mildly confusing.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really interesting. At 294 pages in length, this novel feels both shorter and longer than this. In short, whilst it only has a fraction of the epic scale of – say – Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” or “The Diamond Age”, the novel still somehow feels longer than a typical 200-300 page novel.

A lot of this probably has to do with the pacing. In short, this is the most fast-paced slow-paced novel you’ll ever read. Whilst each sentence flows breathlessly into the next, there is so much detail to keep track of that each page will take longer to read than you expect. But, on the whole, the novel’s pacing is fairly good – with the story gradually becoming more focused and suspenseful as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged interestingly. Leaving aside a few “edgy” and/or “politically incorrect” moments, it’s intriguing to see what this novel predicted correctly (eg: augmented reality glasses, flat-screen TVs, the disturbing trend of “Swatting“, an Anonymous-like group of hackers etc…) and what it got wrong (eg: people still using fax machines, various medical advances, a lot of the novel’s history etc..). Still, if you ignore the fact that this novel is supposed to be set in 2005, then it’s a really interesting and atmospheric cyberpunk story that is still enjoyable to read.

All in all, whilst this novel probably isn’t for everyone, it is a really interesting and atmospheric cyberpunk thriller. Although it isn’t quite as good as “Neuromancer” and it lacks some of the depth and scale that you might expect, it’s still really cool to read a 20th century William Gibson novel 🙂 Likewise, if you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, it’s really interesting to see what Gibson can do with some of the themes/ideas from that novel.

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

Review: “N Or M?” By Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, after seeing a vague comment on an online newspaper article mentioning a cleverly-placed clue in Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel “N or M?”, I was curious enough to track down a second-hand copy of it. This also reminded me of when, in 2009, I ended up reading Christie’s “And Then There Were None” after someone partially spoiled an unusual element of the ending (which made me curious enough to read the rest of the book to see if it was even possible to end a novel in this way).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “N or M?”. Although this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, I’ll avoid major ones.

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I read the 2015 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “N or M?”, but I won’t include an image of the book cover here due to the presence of a WW2-related symbol. Although the book is clearly anti-fascist and the stylised cover art is meant to reference the story’s historical setting/context, I still thought that it was probably best to err on the side of caution with regard to displaying the cover.
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The novel is set in early 1940. Middle-aged couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are sitting around and feeling thoroughly miserable. Despite some past work for the government, they are considered to be too old for war service. But, after asking around, a military intelligence officer called Grant reluctantly offers Tommy a desk job in Scotland. However, when Tuppence is called away by a phone call, Grant tells Tommy that he’s needed for a mission of national importance.

A British agent has been murdered by German spies. His last message indicated that the spies were connected to a guesthouse in the seaside town of Leahampton called Sans Souci and there were two unidentified spies, going under the code names “N” and “M”. Given a false identity and warned not to tell his wife, Tommy sets off for Leahampton in the hope of winkling out the German spy.

Needless to say, it isn’t long before another guest shows up at the Sans Souci. Having pulled off a clever ruse and overheard Grant’s orders to Tommy, Tuppence comes up with a false identity of her own and decides to unofficially join the investigation. Even so, with everyone at the guesthouse suspicious in some way or another, the two undercover investigators have their work cut out…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was surprisingly different to what I’d expected. Instead of a Poirot-like murder mystery, this novel is slightly more of a “topical” vintage spy thriller, albeit one with lots of elements from the detective genre. Interesting, although the first half of the novel reads a lot more like a detective/spy story, the second half is somewhat closer to the thriller genre than you might expect.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re the sort of thing that you’d expect to see in an Agatha Christie novel 🙂 Almost everyone is suspicious in some way or another, there are lots of subtle clues (that are explained at the end), a few red herrings, some clever twists and a solution that, whilst technically possible to guess, will seem both logical and surprising at the same time.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, although they’re more understated than a modern thriller novel, they still work really well. In the earlier parts of the novel, there is more of a focus on subtle suspense, secret identities, spy tricks and suspicion, with the second half of the novel having very slightly more of an adventure thriller/crime thriller like tone to it, with an emphasis on more dramatic types of suspense.

Interestingly, the novel blends these genres in a really clever way. Whilst the identity of one of the two spies is revealed in a more thriller-novel type way, the identity of the other is deduced from clues in a more detective novel-like way. Still, both genres support each other really well with, for example, the suspense about whether Tommy and Tuppence can maintain their cover and the fact that everyone around them is suspicous making the detective elements seem a bit more dramatic.

The novel’s historical context is fairly interesting too and it adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. Not only does this novel contain a surprisingly nuanced reflection of attitudes towards WW2 (which are, at times, more pessimistic than you might expect), but a scene where a character predicts that the war will last six years is eerily prescient (again, the novel was first published in 1941). Likewise, the novel also taps into the fears of a “fifth column” of German spies that seemed to have been a concern at the time.

Plus, although the novel shows that Britain was somewhat unprepared during the earlier stages of WW2, there’s a heartwarming “we’ll muddle through this” attitude to the story that was probably even more reassuring when the novel was originally published. Even more interestingly, looking on Wikipedia, Christie was actually investigated by MI5 after this novel was published since one of the characters is called “Major Bletchley”.

As for the novel’s writing, it’s really well-written. Yes, the novel’s third-person narration is – by modern standards- slightly on the formal side of things, but it is still very readable (after all, this book was mainstream popular entertainment in the 1940s) and the style really helps to add a bit of extra atmosphere to the story too.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written too. In addition to lots of witty dialogue between Tommy and Tuppence, they’re also presented as being a vaguely realistic middle-aged couple rather than expert detectives. Yes, they’re fairly intelligent, reasonably good at picking up clues and fairly courageous, but there’s a real sense of uncertainty (eg: about who the spies are, about whether they are in danger of being revealed as investigators etc..) that really helps to make them even more realistic and sympathetic characters.

The relatively large cast of characters are, as you would expect from an Agatha Christie novel, fairly realistic and complex. Almost all of the guests at the Sans Souci do or say something suspicious at some point in the story, with most of these things having logical non-spy related explanations. Likewise, the novel’s villains are – as you would expect- suitably chilling and/or menacing too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At about 243 pages in length, it never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst this novel is probably slightly moderately-paced by modern standards, the level of drama and suspense increases quite a bit in the second half of the novel. And, at the time that it was written, it was probably considered a more fast-paced thriller. Likewise, the novel also drip-feeds the reader clues and suspenseful moments in a way that really keeps the story compelling too.

As for how this seventy-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Yes, there are a few mildly dated moments in the story, but it is still a relatively fast-paced and compelling vintage thriller story. A lot of the novel’s subtle humour and witty dialogue still works, the characters are still compelling, the mystery is still compelling and the thriller elements are still suspenseful. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the story’s writing style is still fairly readable too (if a bit more formal than a modern novel).

All in all, this novel is a fairly interesting vintage spy/detective novel. Yes, it’s a bit different to Christie’s more famous “Poirot” stories, but it’s still compelling, atmospheric and intriguing. Plus, if you’re a fan of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels, then you’ll probably enjoy this story too.

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

Review: “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” By Philip K. Dick (Novel)

Woo hoo! It’s November 2019! So, it seemed like the perfect time to re-read Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” 🙂

For those of you not in the know, this sci-fi novel was later adapted into the cinematic masterpiece “Blade Runner” (which is set in the distant future of November 2019). And, yes, there are some fairly major differences between the book and the film. But, more about those later.

Although I first saw “Blade Runner” on VHS at least a year or two before I discovered the novel, I read it at least twice during my mid-late teens (and even ended up getting two different editions of the book, one of which I can’t find). So, I was curious to see whether it was as good as I remember.

So, let’s take a look at “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1986 Grafton Books (UK) paperback edition of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” that I read.

Set in the dystopian future of 1992, most of the Earth’s population have emigrated to other planets following the nuclear devastation of World War Terminus. Even so, some people still live in the habitable parts of Earth. One of those people is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter for the San Francisco police who tracks down and kills android labourers who have illegally returned to Earth.

Rick is having a bad day. After having arguments with both his wife and his neighbour in the first hour after he wakes up, he goes into work and learns that the police’s top bounty hunter, Dave Holden, is in hospital. Holden had been tracking an escaped android called Polokov, who had got the drop on him and let rip with a laser tube.

But, whilst Rick is eager to collect on all of Holden’s outstanding bounties, Chief Bryant wants him to go to the offices of the Rosen Association and run some tests on their latest android model – the Nexus Six – to see if they can still be detected by the police’s testing equipment.

Meanwhile, in a run-down block of flats in one of the abandoned parts of the city, a driver for an artificial pet repair company called J.R. Isidore is getting ready for work. Isidore is stuck on Earth because he didn’t pass the IQ requirements for emigration. Stigmatised as a “chickenhead”, he finds solace in the empathy box – a virtual reality device central to the new religion of Mercerism. But, just before he is about to leave his apartment, he hears someone else in the building….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s even better than I remembered 🙂 It’s an atmospheric, quirky, hilarious and thoroughly imaginative retro sci-fi novel that has stood the test of time surprisingly well 🙂 It is a novel that has a lot of personality and manages to cram a surprisingly large amount of detail, story and worldbuilding into what, by modern standards, is a fairly short novel.

I should probably start by talking about how this novel differs from the film adaptation. Basically, although a few character names, several themes, a couple of plot elements and a few lines of dialogue are the same, everything else is different. Yet, at the same time, you can see where the inspiration for pretty much everything in the film came from. In fact, even the Las Vegas locations in the recent “Blade Runner 2049” film take heavy inspiration from this novel’s dusty, kipple-filled, decaying locations.

Yet, despite all of these major differences, the novel and the film adaptation are pretty much as good as each other. Both have very detailed fictional “worlds”, both have a lot of intellectual depth, both are wonderfully unique things etc… Seriously, don’t let the numerous differences put you off of reading this book.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, they’re really brilliant. In addition to the laser guns and flying cars that you’d expect, this novel has a lot of brilliant worldbuilding. With Earth being a semi-apocalyptic irradiated planet, almost everything in the novel’s world is defined by this.

Whether it is the lead codpieces men wear to stave off infertility, whether it’s the more prosperous off-world colonies, the much higher (financial, legal and emotional) value placed on the few surviving animals, the prejudice towards those born with radiation-induced brain damage, the empathy-based religion of Mercerism etc… Everything in this novel feels like a logical extension of the story’s dystopian premise.

Another awesome thing about this novel is it’s atmosphere 🙂 Although the novel is set in a realistic semi-apocalyptic version of Earth, all of this bleakness is balanced out with lots of subtle moments of comedy and brilliantly quirky background details. If you’ve read any other Philip K. Dick novels, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. Seriously, this is a story that has a lot of personality to it 🙂

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to being an exploration of the value of empathy and how it makes us human, this novel is also a critique of nuclear war, a psychological tale where reality is never an entirely certain thing, a humanist exploration of the emotional/social nature of religion, a tale about old evils still existing in the future (eg: slavery, jealousy, violence etc..), an exploration of nihilism and a tale about how ideals and reality often come into conflict.

Not to mention that some of the novel’s other themes feel more relevant than ever. Whether it is the unprincipled tech company owners who always try to stay one step ahead of any official oversight, the scenes involving emotions being manipulated by technology (which are somehow more ethical than their real equivalent) or the possible implication that human androids aren’t allowed on Earth because of fears that they may replace humanity, this novel still feels surprisingly relevant at times.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly interesting. Rick Deckard is the sardonic, morally-ambiguous main character than you might recognise from the film. However, he gets a bit more depth in this novel and is also portrayed as much more of a middle-class suburban “everyman” than the “film noir” detective you might expect if you’ve only seen “Blade Runner”. In addition to this, the novel clearly states that Deckard is a human rather than an android.

Like in the film, the novel’s android characters are presented as being fairly “human”. However, they are presented in a much less sympathetic way than in the film, with their lack of empathy meaning that they act in a much colder, crueller and more selfish way than most of the novel’s human characters. In fact, this in itself is a really interesting plot point – since, when Rick meets a cynical and cold-hearted guy called Phil Resch, he can’t be entirely certain whether Resch is human or not.

The novel’s other main character, John Isidore, is really well-written too. He’s a really sympathetic, if slightly naive, guy who gets a decent amount of characterisation and is also designed to evoke empathy in the reader too. Plus, although many of the novel’s other characters don’t get a huge amount of characterisation, they get enough to come across as interesting and/or realistic people.

In terms of the writing, it is really good 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a descriptive and atmospheric way which, whilst slightly more formal than most modern novels, has a lot of personality to it 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the narration in this novel highly enough 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit more slow-paced than you might expect but it’s good enough to justify this 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a gloriously efficient 183 pages in length, this novel tells a story that most other sci-fi writers would struggle to tell in 300-400 pages. But, due to all of this detail and worldbuilding, this novel is a bit more slow-paced than you might expect. Even so, this isn’t a bad thing. Thanks to a compelling story and lots of fascinating background details, you’ll probably want to spend more time with this novel 🙂

In terms of how this fifty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, the novel’s gender politics are a bit dated at times, there are a couple of references to the Soviet Union and the writing style is a little bit more formal than most modern sci-fi novels, but the novel as a whole has stood the test of time really well 🙂 It’s atmospheric, the settings feel believable, the quirky humour still works and the story still remains compelling too.

One other interesting thing about reading this novel these days are the novel’s references to the old sci-fi novels of the 1930s/40s. In the book, these are presented as artefacts of a more imaginative and optimistic age. Of course, now that this novel is also an old sci-fi novel too, this adds a whole new dimension to these parts of the story.

All in all, this novel is brilliant 🙂 If you love the movie “Blade Runner” or if you just want an imaginative and quirky dystopian sci-fi novel, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

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