Review: “Plague World” By Dana Fredsti (Novel)

Well, since I’ve read both the first and second parts of Dana Fredsti’s “Ashley Parker” trilogy, I thought that it was time to take a look at my second-hand copy of the third novel – “Plague World” (2013) today 🙂

Although this novel contains enough recaps to theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel, it pretty much picks up where “Plague Nation” left off. As such, you’ll get a lot more out of this novel (especially the later parts) if you read the previous two books in the trilogy first.

So, let’s take a look at “Plague World”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS for both this novel and “Plague Nation”.

This is the 2013 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plague World” that I read.

After a short introductory scene showing the zombie virus spreading to London, the story moves back to San Francisco and picks up where “Plague Nation” left off. The elite “wild cards” team of zombie fighters is stranded in a zombie-infested medical facility and missing several members.

Once they find a way to safety, Ashley Parker has several things on her mind. Not only does she have to prepare for a daring rescue mission but she is also threatened by one of the team’s sleazier new recruits and also has to find a way to track down vital medication for Lil too….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, even if the novel’s main story takes a while to truly hit it’s stride.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good 🙂 In additional to the kind of splatterpunk-like ultra-gruesome zombie horror that you would expect, this novel also contains some brilliantly creepy moments of suspenseful horror, tragic horror, character-based horror, apocalyptic horror, disturbing horror, taboo-based horror etc.. too. Like in the previous two novels, this novel also includes at least a couple of brilliantly disturbing moments of story-based horror where the situation itself is the main source of horror.

One cool feature of this novel is that it also contains short chapters showing how the zombie virus affects different parts of the world. These segments contain a really good mixture of thrills, tragedy, irreverent dark comedy and/or cynical nihilism. And, although the main story improves as the novel progresses, these short side-stories remain consistently good throughout the novel and really help to keep the earlier parts compelling 🙂

In terms of the novel’s action-thriller elements, they’re especially good during the later parts of the novel 🙂 In short, whilst this is a fairly action-packed novel throughout, the early-middle parts of the main story tend to focus a bit more on things like character-based drama, heavy subject matter, small-scale suspense etc… which can detract from the story’s gripping action-thriller elements a little bit.

But, it is worth reading earlier parts of the story just to get to the awesome final segment. In addition to some brilliantly epic action scenes (involving explosions, a biker gang, a secret base etc..) there are also loads of dramatic plot twists, some brilliantly disturbing moments of horror, some excellent satire and a couple of wonderfully heartwarming moments. This is one of those novels where I was reading it very slightly reluctantly during the early parts, but was absolutely gripped during the later parts.

In terms of the characters, they’re pretty interesting. Although there is lots of character-based drama and characterisation, some of this can get in the way of the story a little bit. Even so, it adds depth to the story and also serves as a recap for new readers too.

Still, the best character-based moments appear in the later parts of the novel, where a couple of good and evil main characters turn out to be a bit more morally-ambiguous than previously thought. Plus, there is also a wonderfully heartwarming character-based scene in the last few pages of the novel that will probably make you cry with happiness 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is as good as ever 🙂 Like with previous novels in the series, this novel uses a combination of first and third-person narration. This is clearly signposted to the reader via both titles and italic text, which prevents the perspective changes from being confusing. The novel’s first-person segments are also written in the kind of gloriously informal, pop culture reference-filled way that you would expect and they are really fun to read 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At 308 pages, this novel never really feels too long. Plus, even though the later parts of the novel are more gripping than the earlier parts, the whole story is written in a reasonably fast-paced way. Even so, I wish that more of the novel was like the truly excellent later segments.

All in all, this is a good conclusion to a really good trilogy. Yes, I preferred the later parts of this novel to the early/middle parts of it, but the story is still a rather compelling and dramatic one. If you’ve read the previous two books, then this one is well worth reading for the scenes set around the world and the brilliantly gripping final parts of the main story.

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “The Arrivals” By Melissa Marr (Novel)

A couple of weeks earlier, I heard about a really intriguing genre called the “Weird West” genre (eg: the western genre, but with supernatural, horror, sci-fi etc.. elements).

So, after looking around online, I found a couple of second-hand books. But, since one of them didn’t interest me as much as I’d initially expected, I ended up reading the other one – Melissa Marr’s 2013 novel “The Arrivals” – instead.

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

This is the 2013 Harper Collins (UK) paperback edition of “The Arrivals” that I read.

The novel begins with a gunfight in a monastery in the middle of a bizarre wasteland in an alternate dimension. One of the possessed monks has just shot a gunslinger called Mary and her friends (Jack, Kitty, Edgar and Francis) want revenge. After a battle, the monk is killed and the gang carry Mary’s body back into the surrounding wasteland. In the wasteland, dead people sometimes return to life after six days. Sometimes they don’t.

When they don’t, a person from our world who has taken a life appears in the wasteland to replace them. When a new arrival appears, no-one can be certain of their loyalties. They could side with Jack and his band of honest outlaws or they could be seduced by a powerful, cruel man called Ajani who wants to turn the wasteland into part of the British Empire…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it seemed a little bit random at first, it quickly became a lot more atmospheric and compelling than I had expected 🙂 This is an interesting moderately-paced thriller novel that is filled with intriguing characters and a fairly atmospheric and well-developed fictional world too.

Seriously, I love how the fantastical elements of this story follow a clear set of rules but are also kept mysterious enough to be intriguing. Likewise, this is also one of the most original fantasy novels that I’ve read recently.

Everything from the mysterious mechanics of life and death amongst the arrivals, to the bizarre etiquette of the novel’s vampire-like creatures, to the relatively few magic-based scenes to the array of mysterious creatures (eg: wingless dragons called Lindwurms, plagues of giant insects etc..) are really interesting. Not to mention that the weirdness and originality of these elements really helps to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a mysterious alternate world.

Although this novel is a thriller novel, don’t expect it to be a wall-to-wall action-fest. Although there are several well-placed fight scenes, the focus is more on character-based drama, the atmosphere of the wasteland and the politics of it. Since these three things are handled really well, the story still remains really compelling – even if it is very slightly less of an action-thriller novel than the dramatic opening scene (which reminded me of the computer game “Blood“, which is never a bad thing 🙂 ) might lead you to expect.

Thematically, this novel is pretty interesting too. It is a story about loyalty, friendship and family as well as being a novel about how power corrupts. The more democratic and egalitarian band of outlaws is contrasted well with Ajani’s cruel hierarchy and his imperial ambitions. Although this element of the story isn’t explored quite as much as I would have liked, it still helps to add some depth to the story. Likewise, this is also a story about moral ambiguity, bereavement, love and redemption too.

Still, the best parts of this story are probably the characters and the atmosphere. This novel has the kind of desolate, gritty wild west atmosphere that you would expect and this really helps to immerse the reader in the story 🙂 Likewise, although this is one of those stories where the main characters spend more time arguing with each other than fighting the bad guys, the main characters are a really intriguing bunch of people from different periods of history who all have interesting personalities, complicated backstories and dramatic flaws.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is fairly good. It is written in a fairly informal, but descriptive, style that really helps the story to flow well in addition to being a really good fit with the gruff, harsh world of the wasteland too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At a wonderfully efficient 274 pages in length, this novel never feels too long. Likewise, although this story is a bit more moderately-paced than I’d expected, the atmosphere, setting, characters and plot really help to keep it compelling 🙂

All in all, this novel is a really interesting version of the western genre. It’s an atmospheric, dramatic and compelling tale that is set in an intriguingly mysterious world and populated by some rather interesting characters (even if they do spend quite a lot of time arguing with each other).

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

Review: “Blood Music” By Greg Bear (Novel)

Well, when I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase a week or two ago, I looked online for sci-fi novels and Greg Bear’s 1985 novel “Blood Music” caught my interest enough for me to order a second-hand copy. And I’m glad that I did 🙂

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

This is the 2001 Gollancz (UK) paperback edition of “Blood Music” that I read.

The novel begins in California, where a socially-awkward scientific genius called Vergil Ulam is working for a bio-tech company called Genetron. He has been doing some secret research into using blood cells as mini-computers. However, his boss finds out about the research and orders him to destroy it. Infuriated by this, Vergil saves a sample of his altered cells (which he calls “noocytes” – thinking cells) and begins plotting revenge against the company.

Unfortunately for Vergil, his hack into the company’s computer system is discovered and he barely has time to inject himself with the last sample of noocytes before he is thrown out of the building. He isn’t sure what to do next and ends up in a bar, where a beautiful woman called Candice somehow feels attracted to him. To both of their surprise, he is remarkably good in bed.

That isn’t all, Vergil also seems to be getting thinner and healthier too. At first, he considers his experiment a success and tries to get work at another lab in the hope that he can extract and use the noocytes whilst they are still alive. But, after the hack, he has been blacklisted by the industry. Not only that, the noocytes start having strange effects on Vergil’s body and it soon becomes obvious that Vergil has accidentally created a sentient virus. A sentient virus that has already started spreading…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… Wow! Although this novel takes a while to really get started, it is amazing 🙂 It is atmospheric, intelligent, compelling and awe-inspiring 🙂

This is one of those books that almost feels like a trilogy of novels compressed into one. It is a book that, whilst it might challenge you at times, has a surprisingly emotional payoff if you stick with it (seriously, the ending actually made me cry). It’s a novel that I probably didn’t entirely understand, but understood enough about to be amazed by it. Although this novel also contains elements from the horror and thriller genres, it also has all of the wonder and amazement that the best science fiction does.

Despite the reams of scientific jargon throughout the novel, the most interesting sci-fi elements of this novel are the scenes showing the strange world and thought patterns of the noocytes. The scenes of a continent being transformed into some kind of alien landscape, of people being copied and gaining access to lost memories from history, of inner space being as fascinating as outer space. Of reality itself being malleable and questionable. Although the novel takes a while to set all of this stuff up, it is well worth waiting for 🙂

It’s also a novel about the nature of change and innovation too, with the naively optimistic experiments at the beginning of the novel having a bit of an eerie resonance when read in this age of smartphones, social media mega-corporations, fake news and all of the other side-effects of the tech optimism of the 1990s. The focus on large tech companies near the beginning of the book (they are biotech companies, but are trendy in the way that Google, Facebook etc.. are) also helps to make the novel feel eerily prescient too.

It’s also a novel about individuality and community too. Of how a scientific discovery made by one person always involves “standing on the shoulders of giants”, how both individuality and community are important (perhaps a reference to democracy?), how we are all products of many years of human history etc… Seriously, it’s really fascinating.

This novel also has some fairly cool horror elements too, with lots of David Cronenburg-esque body horror involving people melting, merging and transforming in strange ways. Plus, there’s a bit of Richard Matheson-esque post-apocalyptic horror too 🙂

Interestingly though, whilst the scenes of people transforming are a brilliantly grotesque source of body horror during the early and middle parts of the book, this novel then somehow manages to find beauty in all of this (in a way that reminded me a little of Clive Barker’s horror and fantasy fiction).

Likewise, this novel also manages to be quite a compelling thriller too. Although it is a bit slow-paced and filled with formal scientific jargon at times, the quietly suspenseful early scenes where Vergil begins a mysterious transformation eventually morph into a worldwide geo-political storyline, which is also expertly counterpointed with suspenseful scenes of small-scale drama (eg: a young woman called Suzy who is alone in a post-apocalyptic version of Manhattan). Seriously, this story can be more of a thriller than you might expect – but don’t expect a modern-style ultra-fast paced thriller though.

In terms of the characters, this novel is better than it initially seems to be. Although the characters at first seem to be typical sci-fi stock characters (eg: the frustrated scientific genius, the beautiful lover, the charismatic businessman, the ordinary person, the doctor etc..), they gain a bit more depth and complexity as the novel progresses. This is also one of those interesting novels that doesn’t so much have one main character, but has a series of main characters that appear and disappear as the story progresses.

In terms of the writing, it is better than it initially appears to be. Although this novel’s third-person narration is peppered with bewildering scientific jargon and the occasional science lecture, the narrative parts of the story are a really interesting mixture of informal “matter of fact” descriptions and more formal/poetic/experimental narration. The mixture of these two things helps to keep the story comprehensible and compelling, whilst also allowing some parts of it to have a level of awe and wonder that you won’t find in films or TV shows.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a gloriously efficient 262 pages in length, not a single page is wasted and the novel almost feels like three novels squashed into one 🙂 As for the pacing, although this novel would probably be considered “slow-paced” these days, it is really compelling and the story gradually builds in intensity throughout the novel too.

In terms of how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, this story is very clearly set in the world of the early-mid 1980s (eg: scenes involving West Germany, the USSR, the World Trade Center etc.. and a few mildly dated descriptions), but the actual story itself feels eerily modern in many ways. Not only are many of the novel’s weirder scenes completely timeless, but the story also seems like an eerily prescient metaphor for modern social media etc…. when read today.

All in all, this is a brilliant book 🙂 Yes, it is a little bit slow-paced at times and all of the scientific jargon might be a little confusing but, if you persevere with it, then you will be rewarded with an absolutely brilliant and awe-inspiring story 🙂

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

Review: “Ghost Dance” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at another one of the interesting books I found when I was sorting through one of my book piles a week or two ago. I am, of course, talking about Rebecca Levene’s 2010 novel “Ghost Dance”.

If I remember rightly, I bought this book from Waterstones in Aberystwyth back in 2010, mostly because of the wonderfully badass cover art (and the fact that the shop actually had a “horror” shelf too 🙂 ). However, I only got round to reading the first couple of chapters at the time. So, it seemed like the right time to read the entire book.

Interestingly, although “Ghost Dance” seems to be the sequel to another novel, it worked reasonably well as a stand-alone novel when I read it. Yes, there are a few random references to an over-arching backstory (that didn’t 100% make sense to me), but the novel pretty much tells its own self-contained story.

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

This is the 2010 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “Ghost Dance” that I read.

The novel begins with a disturbing description of a mass shooting in rural America. In another state, a rich teenage girl called Alex is picked up by the CIA, who want to talk to her because of a phone call – predicting the shooting – that she placed whilst under the influence of drugs at a party. Reluctantly, Alex agrees to start a training regime and a series of experiments to determine if she has psychic abilities.

Several years later, an ex-soldier called Morgan is having a pint in London when he is called by a member of MI6’s Hermetic Division. A professor has been murdered at University College London and, since Morgan has the ability to use mirrors to see death, they want him to witness the crime and describe the killer. After this, it quickly becomes obvious that the professor was killed due to her research into the Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee.

Meanwhile, in America, Alex is now a rookie member of the CIA’s equivalent to Hermetic Division. Whenever she takes hallucinogenic drugs, she enters a spirit world that allows her to see the truth of things, to time travel, to talk to a mysterious raven and to walk through walls. Although Alex is still reluctant to work for the CIA, she has a case to investigate. There is mysterious cult in San Francisco who claim that their members can separate their souls from their bodies and travel anywhere at will……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly gripping paranormal thriller novel 🙂 Imagine the TV show “Supernatural“, mixed with Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor” novels, mixed with Lee Child’s thriller novels and this should give you a vague idea of what kind of book this is 🙂 In addition to this, it also contains a few intriguing elements from the spy, detective and horror genres too 🙂

The novel’s paranormal elements are fairly interesting and they draw heavily from both Judeo-Christian mythology and Native American mythology. This focus on religious mythologies means that this novel feels a little bit different from the average “gritty” urban fantasy novel too. Thankfully, the novel doesn’t preach at the reader and it contains enough ambiguity for all of this stuff to seem interestingly complex.

This novel also focuses on the awkwardness between European Americans and Native Americans with regard to things like mythology, symbols etc…. too, with the novel’s cult exploiting Native American symbolism for nefarious purposes and a couple of scenes showing a Native American CIA agent feeling a little bit peeved that Alex, of all people, has the ability to spirit walk.

Interestingly, the majority of the novel’s creepiest and most disturbing horror elements come from human evil rather than the paranormal. Yes, there is still some paranormal horror, but most of this novel’s horror elements are creepy because they tap into more realistic fears such as cult indoctrination/brainwashing, serial killers, mortality etc…. Even so, this novel is probably more of a gritty thriller than a horror novel.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too 🙂 This novel contains a good mixture between suspenseful moments, mysterious detective segments, plot twists, spy-based segments and fast-paced fight scenes. The frequent jumps between the storylines set in Britain and America not only allow for lots of mini-cliffhangers but also help to add some variety to the atmosphere of the story (with the scenes set in Britain feeling a bit more detailed, gloomy and understated) too. Plus, like in all good thrillers, these two storylines end up joining together in a rather gripping way too.

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. Most of the main characters are cynical misfits who have bizarre backstories and find themselves in situations that they are reluctant to be in. Likewise, this is one of these stories where most of the characters are morally ambiguous in one way or another, which really helps to keep the story unpredictable. Even so, this is also a novel with a clear (and very chilling) villain for the main characters to fight too. So, it’s kind of like the best of both worlds 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is really good. It is informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story grippingly readable, whilst also being descriptive enough to give the story some atmosphere too. The narration is also fairly character-focused too, which helps to add some depth to the story too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a fairly efficient 277 pages in length, it never really feels long or bloated. Likewise, this novel has a good balance between compellingly mysterious, dramatic and/or suspenseful slower-paced segments and more fast-paced action scenes too. Even so, this is a novel that becomes more fast-paced as it goes along, so the earlier parts are sometimes a little bit slower than you might expect.

All in all, this is a really gripping paranormal thriller novel that blends both of these elements in a really interesting way 🙂 If you’re a fan of TV shows like “Supernatural” and authors like Lee Child, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel 🙂

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

Review: “A Rose Red City” By Dave Duncan (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a novel from the 1980s. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Dave Duncan’s 1987 novel “A Rose Red City” today.

This was a novel that I rediscovered whilst sorting through several of the book piles in my room a week or so earlier. If I remember rightly, I originally found this novel in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton during the late 2000s and bought it because of the wonderfully ’80s cover art.

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

This is the 1989 Legend (UK) paperback edition of “A Rose Red City” that I read.

The novel begins in the utopian city of Mera, a walled city surrounded by evil demons where people lead eternal lives of joy and leisure. Local librarian Jerry Howard is busy binding a book when his old friend Gervasse visits him with a message from the city’s oracle.

Apparently Jerry has been chosen to travel over into our world and rescue a future citizen of Mera. The oracle advises him to take a stout friend with him, so Jerry enlists the help of Killer – a muscular, handsome warrior from Ancient Greece.

When they leave Mera, they cross a strange shifting landscape for a while – before eventually finding a mysterious deserted cottage where they decide to stay the night.

Meanwhile, a tired woman called Ariadne is driving through the night in America. She is trying to reach the Canadian border with her children before her ex-husband catches her and takes the court’s paternity order into his own hands. However, the border town she is looking for doesn’t seem to exist and, after accidentally wedging the car in a ditch, she decides that it would be best for them to seek shelter in a nearby cottage……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it’s a fairly interesting mixture of Bangsian fantasy, ancient mythology, suspenseful horror and thrilling drama.

Imagine a cross between the light-heartedness of John Kendrick Bangs’ “A House-Boat on the Styx“, the cheesy optimism of the 1990s TV show “Sliders” and both the mythical horror and old-fashionedness of something like Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno” and this should give you a vague idea of what to expect.

Interestingly, whilst this is a fantasy novel about a quest, it is a bit different from the more traditional epic fantasy of Tolkien etc.. And is, instead, more of a story about myths, legends, monsters etc… with occasional magic-based elements. And, although this can make the story a little bit random at times, it is a refreshing change from more traditional epic fantasy.

Even so, this story does contain some wonderfully cheesy “Conan The Barbarian”-type scenes involving battles with ancient demons and mythical beasts. Likewise, although this novel mixes both the ordinary world and more fantastical locations, the rural settings in the scenes set in America mean that it isn’t really an “urban fantasy” novel in the modern sense of the term.

This brings me on to the novel’s horror elements, which work surprisingly well. Although this isn’t really a horror novel, there is a stand-out scene of suspenseful horror during an early segment of the novel where all of the main characters are trapped in a cottage surrounded by demons, who are trying to both trick them into inviting them in and to drive them insane.

This claustrophobic part of the novel works really well and it is vaguely reminiscent of novels like Dennis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” and ’80s horror movies like “The Evil Dead” too. Likewise, there’s also a fairly suspenseful scene involving a certain well-known maze in ancient Crete, that also contains some good horror elements too. Even so, this novel is more of a fantasy thriller than a horror novel.

The novel is also a story about truth, morality, second chances and imperfections. But, whilst the novel does contain a fair amount of nuance and compassion, this element of the story does also come across as somewhat pompous, old-fashioned or patronising at times.

Even so, this pompousness also lends the novel a little bit of unintentional comedy because, whilst the author is perfectly happy to include bloody battles, random nudity, disturbing backstories and descriptions of the free love culture of Mera, he seems to have a rather prim aversion to using any four-letter words (which are often either implied euphemistically or replaced with hilariously old-fashioned phrases like “I really loused up” etc..).

In terms of the characters, they’re a reasonably interesting bunch of people – all of whom have flaws, tragic backstories and various quirks. The main characters are an unlikely group of people thrown together by circumstance, which allows for a lot of interesting character-based drama. Plus, although the main character (Jerry) comes across as a bit stuffy and formal, the other characters (like Killer, Ariadne and Carlo) are a bit more interesting.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is written in the slightly more formal and descriptive style that you would expect from a novel of this vintage. Whilst this helps to add atmosphere to the story, it can also slow down the pace of the story quite a bit. Even so, Duncan’s writing style is something that you’ll get used to after a while.

As for length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a gloriously efficient 227 pages in length, this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – a short fantasy novel 🙂 On the other hand, the focus on utopian locations and suspense in the earlier parts of the story, in addition to the slightly formal writing style, mean that this novel may be a bit more slow-paced than you might expect. Even so, the story does become a bit more fast-paced during some later scenes though 🙂

In terms of how this thirty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the scenes set in Mera have a wonderfully timeless quality to them and both the story’s horror and thriller elements still remain compelling to this day. Likewise, the story is just as atmospheric today as it probably was in 1987.

However, although the slightly formal writing style adds some extra atmosphere, it does sound a little old-fashioned when read today. Likewise, whilst it is really cool that the novel features a heroic bisexual character (eg: Killer), the story occasionally takes a slightly sneering and old-fashioned attitude towards this element of him. Whilst this novel certainly isn’t the most narrow-minded 20th century novel I’ve read, it does contain some fairly patronising and dated attitudes during a few brief moments.

All in all, whilst this is a reasonably compelling fantasy thriller novel, it is also a bit random, cheesy, slow-paced and old-fashioned at times. If you want a better 1980s fantasy novel about alternative worlds, then read Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” instead. Still, if you’ve already read “Weaveworld”, if you’re a fan of John Kendrick Bangs, if you want something a bit more random and/or if you just want to read a short fantasy novel, then “A Rose Red City” might be worth reading.

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

Review: “Aliens: DNA War” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, it has been a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel and, since I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase, I looked around online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Diane Carey’s 2006 novel “Aliens: DNA War”.

Although it is theoretically possible to read this original spin-off story without watching any of the “Aliens” films, it is worth watching at least the first two films (Alien” and “Aliens) before reading this book, since the novel basically assumes that the reader knows at least a little about the series’ famous alien monsters.

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

This is the 2006 DH Press (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: DNA War” that I read.

The story begins on the spaceship Vinza, which is trying to land on a habitable planet called Rosamond 6 to evacuate a science team before a team of aggressive terraforming robots can deal with the xenomorph infestation that is killing off the planet’s fauna. However, the ship is having some problems. Namely that the medic’s pet bat has got loose and the rest of the crew are trying to catch it.

When they eventually land on the planet, the ship’s legal officer – Rory Malveaux – joins in the expedition to find the scientists, since he is the son of famed ecologist Jocasta Malveaux, who is leading the research team. Needless to say, Rory did not have a happy childhood and feels that he will be the only one there who will be able to persuade his fanatical, manipulative and charismatic mother to leave the planet.

However, when they reach the main research settlement, all that the team finds are several corpses. Although the rest of the crew want to get the hell out of there, Rory points out that most of the research team is still unaccounted for and that he won’t sign off on using the terraforming robots until he has found them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a suspenseful, and gloriously cheesy, sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Whilst this novel is both similar and different to the other “Aliens” novels that I’ve read, it remained compelling throughout. It also reminded me a little bit of the later “Prometheus” prequel movie (mostly due to the planet-based scenes), whilst still having a fairly classic “Aliens”-style atmosphere too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it tends to rely more on suspense and character-based horror than on gory horror. Sure, the novel contains a few grotesque scenes of grisly alien-based horror but the main sources of horror here are the hostile environment that the characters find themselves in, Jocasta’s sociopathic nature and the way that character deaths affect the other characters. So, whilst this novel isn’t that much of a gore-fest (relatively speaking), it still works really well as a horror novel.

In terms of the characters, although there are a surprisingly large number of background characters, the main characters are fairly well-written (if a little stylised). Although Rory is a likeable and slightly morally-ambiguous main character, the most well-written character is probably the story’s villain, Jocasta. She’s this creepily evil charismatic cult leader, who is also a fanatical environmentalist who cares more about aliens and science than about humans. Seriously, as villains go, she’s actually scarier than the aliens.

Jocasta is also contrasted with a space medic called Bonnie who, in addition to being a love interest for Rory, also seems to be like a “good” version of Jocasta who cares about both humans and animals (eg: an adorable pet bat called Butterball). Although she makes some rather naive mistakes during the story, which help to add suspense to some scenes, she comes across as a really likeable and realistic character.

In terms of the sci-fi elements, this novel contains some fairly interesting technology, not to mention an intriguingly mysterious planet too. Still, a lot of the focus of this story is on the ethics and legality of things like space exploration and terraforming.

This is also used as an avenue to show the inadequate nature of fixed rules in a complex universe, with even the most “lawful” character (Rory) having a fairly morally-ambiguous past. Likewise, the novel’s laws about terraforming are used as both a weapon against Jocasta and a tool for Jocasta and her fanatics. It’s a really interesting novel about the gap between formal rules and reality.

It’s also a novel about the dangers of things like ideologies and personality cults too, with these elements being one of the novel’s main sources of horror. And, in this spirit, the novel is also written in a brilliant way that will probably frustrate anyone wanting to analyse it in political terms (eg: it’s both a liberal and a conservative novel etc..). In other words, this is a novel about ambiguity and plurality.

Likewise, the novel mostly stays within the general mythology of the “Alien” films, whilst also doing a few innovative things with the alien creatures too. This helps to keep things surprising and suspenseful, whilst also allowing Carey to use the reader’s knowledge of the films to add extra suspense and implied horror during a few scenes too 🙂

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is written in a fairly informal way. Although this includes a few slightly quirky descriptions, these help to give the story a bit of personality (as well as adding to the “cheesy late-night sci-fi movie” atmosphere 🙂) and are part of the fun of the novel. Likewise, the informal narration also helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace and allows for a few occasional moments of comedy too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a wonderfully efficient 269 pages in length, this novel never really feels too long. Likewise, there’s a really good mixture between slower-paced moments of claustrophobic suspense, character-based drama etc… and faster-paced moments of drama and action. This novel flows really well and moves along at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is a really fun, suspenseful and compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Yes, it contains a few tropes which seem to turn up in almost every “Aliens” novel I’ve read (eg: sociopathic scientists, desolate planets/space stations etc..) but it still a compelling story with some really good character-based horror too.

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