Review: “Cold Warriors” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for the macabre. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’d meant to read several months ago – namely Rebecca Levene’s 2010 novel “Cold Warriors”. If I remember rightly, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book online shortly after I’d finished reading the sequel, but it ended up languishing on one of my book piles after I got distracted by other books.

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

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

The novel begins in a graveyard in June 1988, with a secret agent called Tomas climbing into a coffin in preparation for burial alive and resurrection several days later as part of a Voodoo ritual, presided over by his boss Nicholson. As he lies in the grave, Tomas thinks about his beloved, Kate, who has been declared KIA after a mission to Russia. The ritual begins and, as the grave begins the be filled, darkness slowly overtakes Tomas.

Shortly afterwards, a recently-married man called Geraint is getting ready to spend the night with his wife. He sneaks into the bathroom and daubs evil symbols onto his body with blood, keeping them hidden under a T-shirt before joining his wife in bed. Needless to say, it isn’t a very happy honeymoon.

Then we flash forwards to 2009. Two MI6 agents, a younger sniper called Morgan and a more experienced agent called John, are in Yemen surveilling a terrorist base with orders to assassinate their leader. Although Morgan makes a perfect shot, the terrorist’s henchmen spot the two agents shortly afterwards and a fight breaks out. During the chaos, Morgan accidentally stabs John.

Back in London, Morgan’s boss is furious. This is hardly the first time someone working with Morgan had died in strange circumstances. But, Morgan is in luck. Instead of being drummed out of the service, a newly-reopened branch – the Heremetic Division – have expressed an interest in him. Their leader, Nicholson, says that he needs Morgan to travel to Budapest to intercept an ancient artefact that has found its way into the hands of a wealthy oligarch. Not only that, he’ll also be partnered with an agent who even his lifelong string of bad luck can’t kill…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 It’s a really cool blend of both the horror and the thriller genres, which manages to combine the best elements of both in a way that doesn’t dilute either of them 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements. This novel contains a really creepy mixture of occult horror, psychological horror, gory horror, tragic horror, the macabre, claustrophobic horror, paranormal horror, hideous crimes, apocalyptic horror, character-based horror, creature horror, ghost horror and an inventive version of the zombie genre too 🙂

These horror elements are handled in a brilliantly unsettling way, with a really good mixture of more subtle moments of horror and some splendidly grotesque set-pieces. Seriously, is so good to see a horror thriller novel that pays just as much attention (if not more) to its horror elements as it does to its thriller elements 🙂

The best way to describe the horror of this novel is that it has the gritty and grisly atmosphere of something like a Shaun Hutson or James Herbert novel, with the mysterious occult terror of something like an older episode of “Supernatural” (or possibly a novel by Clive Barker or Mike Carey), with maybe a little bit of the unsettling psychological dread of a film like “The Ring” too 🙂

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re a really good mixture of suspense, spy thriller stuff, plot twists, mystery and fast-paced action sequences. All of these elements are handled really well, with the balance between suspense and action meaning that neither element dominates the story in a way that becomes monotonous. This is also one of those good thriller novels that also feels consistently gripping throughout, whilst also slowly increasing in scale and intensity as the story progresses 🙂

Plus, as mentioned earlier, both the horror and thriller elements are blended in a brilliantly seamless way that doesn’t dilute either of them. For example, the drama of the novel’s action sequences is heightened by the fact that they are often as brutal and gruesome as something from a horror novel. Likewise, the novel’s moments of horror benefit a lot from the nail-biting thriller-style writing and suspense that often accompanies them. In short, the spy thriller elements add something new to the horror genre and the occult horror elements add something new to the thriller genre. Seriously, this is a really cool novel 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Morgan comes across as a young man with a tragic past who is out of his depth – yet just experienced/clever enough to get out of danger whilst also being inexperienced/impulsive enough to put himself in it just as often. This is kind of difficult to describe, but it really adds a lot of extra drama to the novel whilst also making him feel like a realistic and complex character too.

Tomas is a really fascinating character too, since he’s basically a man from the 1980s who has been dropped into the late 2000s – with this element of his character being handled in a subtle, but realistic way. The main cast also includes a German agent called Anya, who initially just seems like a generic “serious” character, but becomes a lot more interesting and complex as the story progresses and a really eerie CIA agent called Belle too (who is a powerful psychic who is several decades old, yet has not physically aged since the age of eleven).

And, as you would expect from a horror story, there are some really creepy villains too 🙂 I’m wary about spoiling too much, but the villains in this novel somehow manage to be absolute pure evil without ever really descending into unintentional comedy or moustache-twirling cartoonishness. This is probably because, like the main characters, they actually have (rather dark/grim) backstories and fairly realistic motivations for most of their evil deeds.

As for the writing, this novel is really good 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is a really good hybrid of the kind of gritty, fast-paced and informal “matter of fact” narration you’d expect from an action-thriller novel and the kind of slower, formal descriptive narration you’d expect from a horror novel. These two elements are blended seamlessly, resulting in an intense and atmospheric story that also moves along at a decent speed too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is good too. At a fairly efficient 295 pages in length, it is one of those novels that is able to remain focused and consistently gripping 🙂 I cannot praise the pacing in this novel highly enough. Not only does it make excellent use of mini-cliffhangers to keep up the suspense, but it is also one of those cool novels that starts in a gripping way and then becomes more and more gripping as it goes along 🙂 Yes, the novel leaves the ending open for the sequel, but there is still enough resolution to make the conclusion feel satisfying 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun novel that blends the horror and thriller genres in a way that will give you the best of both worlds 🙂

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

Review: “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read some post-apocalyptic fiction instead 🙂 I’d originally planned to read an urban fantasy novel but I found that I wasn’t really in the mood for it. So, I needed to find another book.

A few months earlier, I’d read Rebecca Levene’s amazing “Anno Mortis” and was delighted to find that she’d had another novel published by the one and only Abaddon Books in 2007 called “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure”. So, I bought a second-hand copy of it back then… and then somehow forgot about it until now.

Although “Kill Or Cure” is part of a multi-author series called “The Afterblight Chronicles”, this novel can be read as a stand-alone novel. From what I can gather about the series, it seems to consist of several authors writing separate stories that all follow the same post-apocalyptic backstory/premise.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Afterblight Chronicles: Kill Or Cure”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Afterblight Chronices: Kill Or Cure” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief scene showing the narrator, Jasmine, shooting an un-named man. Then the story flashes back to several weeks earlier. With most of the world’s population wiped out by a plague called “The Cull” that kills anyone who doesn’t have O- blood, Jasmine has spent the past five years living in the ruins of the underground research facility that she’d once worked at. The experimental plague vaccine she took back then has also had lingering psychotic side-effects and, in order to quiet the voices in her head, Jasmine has spent the past five years working her way through the facility’s large stocks of morphine.

Then, one day, she hears people breaking into the facility. Although she tries to hide and send out a distress call, the mysterious henchmen catch her and take her to a stolen cruise ship in the Carribbean. The ship is run by a woman called Queen M who orders Jasmine to work as a medic for her, or else. Although life under Queen M’s rule initially seems like the closest thing to a normal life in this post-apocalyptic world, Jasmine is ordered to accompany some of the group’s henchmen on a “recruiting” trip to Paris. The atrocities she witnesses during the trip convince Jasmine that she needs to find some way to escape from Queen M’s headquarters, or die trying…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, to my surprise, it was more of a thriller novel than I’d expected 🙂 Although it certainly contains a fair amount of horror and grim post-apocalyptic “edginess”, it’s actually more like a really awesome 1990s late-night B movie in novel form 🙂 In other words, although this novel includes some fairly grim subject matter, it isn’t really that bleak or miserable to read 🙂 It’s a wonderfully fun and gloriously over-the-top rollercoaster ride of a novel 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s thriller elements, which are excellent 🙂 In addition to fast-paced narration and quite a few intense gunfights, some parts of this novel also read like a mixture of a heist thriller and a prison escape thriller 🙂 Not only are these genres always fun to see but the mixture between fast-paced action and tense, suspenseful thinking and planning really helps to add some variety to this novel too. Plus, the fact that the story has an unreliable narrator also helps to add some extra drama and suspense as well.

This novel also takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of several intriguingly dystopian post-apocalyptic locations too and the addition of a few horror elements (eg: zombie-like people, evil experiments, gory injuries, creepy characters, psychological horror etc…) also helps to keep the story’s thrilling plot compellingly unpredictable. Plus, although the novel’s grim elements sometimes veer more towards 1990s-style “edginess”, this actually sort of works here since it balances out some of the more stylised, cheesy and over-the-top elements of the story and helps to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

All of this adds up to, as I mentioned earlier, something like a really fun late-night B-movie from the 1990s 🙂 Seriously, if you like your post-apocalypses filled with evil armed gangs, fast vehicles, anti-heroes and the kind of over-the-top story where, if you weren’t so eager to see what will happen next, you’d be laughing affectionately at it, then you’ll really enjoy this novel 🙂

Interestingly, this novel also contains a few interesting sci-fi elements too 🙂 Not only are some remnants of modern technology still working in the post-apocalyptic world, but the explanation behind the apocalypse is both mysterious enough to be dramatic whilst well-explained enough to be plausible. Not to mention that quite a bit of the story revolves around the topic of medical research too. Yes, the sci-fi elements are more of a background thing, but they help to add an extra layer of depth to the novel.

In addition to this, it’s also a dystopian novel about the contrast between anarchy and dictatorship too, with creepy examples of both appearing within the story. Although the story is a bit of a warning about how chaos allows the most evil people to take charge (in addition to being a criticism of things like colonialism etc.. too), this message is undercut somewhat by the fact that the main characters briefly end up in a nuclear-armed city state that is run by a cultured, benevolent dictator who helps them out. Even so, all of this dystopian stuff helps to add extra drama and suspense to the story, since Jasmine finds herself in a world where nowhere is truly safe and almost no-one can be trusted.

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, Jasmine is a really interesting morally-ambiguous anti-hero/unreliable narrator who helps to add a bit of intensity and personality to the story. Plus, the story’s dystopian villains are all suitably creepy and the characters that Jasmine teams up with during her escape are a really interesting bunch of people, whose backstories also give us a brief glimpse at the ways that the apocalypse has affected several other parts of the world too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of informal, “matter of fact” way that you’d expect from a fast-paced thriller and it works really well 🙂 Not only does the first-person perspective add a bit of extra intensity to the novel but the fact that the reader gets to see inside Jasmine’s mind means that the “anti-hero” parts of the novel are a bit more dramatic, understandable and less cheesy than they would probably be in a novel with third-person narration.

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 272 pages in length, not a single page is wasted 🙂 And, as you’d expect from a good thriller novel, this one is rather fast-paced too 🙂 However, it is perhaps slightly too fast-paced in some parts – with the novel occasionally moving just a little bit too fast to build the maximum amount of atmosphere or suspense in a few segments. Even so, given that the previous two novels I’ve read have been fairly slow-paced, it was still refreshing to read something a bit more fast-paced 🙂

All in all, even though I preferred Levene’s “Anno Mortis” to this novel, it’s still a really enjoyable one 🙂 If you want a fun fast-paced post-apocalyptic thriller that reminds you of the best late-night B movies from the 1990s, but with a bit of extra grittiness/edginess, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Anno Mortis” By Rebecca Levene (Novel)

Shortly after I finished reading Rebecca Levene’s “Ghost Dance” a few weeks earlier, I looked online for other books by this author.

To my surprise, I learnt that Levene had written a book for Abaddon Books’ “Tomes Of The Dead” collection 🙂 This was a short-lived collection of zombie novels published during the late 2000s and they often used to be the highlight of bookshop horror shelves (anyone remember those?) back in the day 🙂

So, needless to say, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of Levene’s 2008 novel “Anno Mortis” and then… got distracted by other books. But, since I was going through slightly more of a horror fiction phase than usual, I thought that I’d take a look at it. And I’m so glad that I did 🙂

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

——-
I read the 2008 Abaddon Books (UK) paperback edition of this novel. However, I won’t include a scan of the book cover in this review, since part of it probably borders on being “Not Safe For Work”. Still, as a work of art, it is a really cool-looking cover that also uses both composition and visual storytelling in a way that hearkens back to novel covers of the 1980s (especially since, unlike a lot of modern book covers, it’s an actual painting too 🙂 )
——–

The novel begins in Ancient Rome, during the cruel reign of the Emperor Caligula. On a hot summer afternoon, an enslaved gladiator called Boda steps into the arena for the first time. Being a fierce Cimbri warrior from the north, Boda shows no mercy after besting her opponent. Whilst the crowd’s reaction to this is a little bit mixed, and Boda doesn’t exactly make any friends with the other gladiators, the senator Seneca is pleased since it means another dead body for his mysterious plot.

Caligula is also in attendance at the games and, after his uncle Claudius is accidentally humiliated, Caligula decides to rub salt into the wound by taking ownership of Claudius’ slave Narcissus. Narcissus is forced to work in the accounting offices of the palace, where he discovers some irregularities with the cargo manifests of one of Seneca’s ships and decides to investigate.

Meanwhile, a young man called Petronius incurs his father’s wrath after he is caught indulging in a moment of hedonism. Incensed by his son’s gluttony and debauchery, Petronius’ father orders him to spend his days studying rhetoric under the stern tutelege of Seneca. Although Petronius finds this dull at first, he happens to notice a fragment from the Egyptian book of the dead amongst Seneca’s scrolls. So, when Seneca leaves the house, Petronius decides to follow him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is like heavy metal music in book form 🙂 Seriously, this gripping dark fantasy thriller novel is epic in almost every sense of the word 🙂 This is a novel about Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Vikings (in all but name), gruesome zombies, evil cults meeting in dark catacombs, gladiatorial combat, epic mythology and lots of other dramatic stuff. Seriously, this is what fantasy fiction should be like 🙂

And, yes, you’ll notice that I said “fantasy” rather than “horror”. Whilst this novel does contain some really great horror elements, it is more of a fantasy novel than it initially appears to be. This mostly takes the form of magic, ancient mythology, Bangsian fantasy and supernatural creatures.

Although the novel’s fantasy elements do contain some small inconsistencies (eg: a character is suddenly shown to have the ability to use magical disguises, even though such an ability would have been much more useful during a chase scene several pages earlier), there is so much cool stuff here that these don’t really matter.

We’re talking about things like giant stone crocodiles, jackal-headed men, giant zombie elephants, mythical beasts, dark rituals, mysterious portals, evil scarab beetles, ancient gods/goddesses, the river Styx etc… But, all of this awesome heavy metal album cover stuff is also given a bit more depth than you would expect thanks to the characters and the plotting. Not only that, this novel has the kind of clever conclusion that is as capricious as an old saga and yet as emotionally powerful as one of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics. Seriously, the epilogue left me in floods of tears, in the best way possible.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. In addition to lots of nail-biting suspense, some tragic horror, some cruel horror, some gory horror, some occult/paranormal horror, some character-based horror and some psychological horror, this novel is also a surprisingly inventive take on the zombie apocalypse genre too.

The novel’s zombies are corpses whose skulls have been inhabited by possessed scarab beetles (and, yes, there is actually a good explanation for this). The more recently-deceased a zombie is, the more intelligent it is. Yet, even the most skeletal of zombies is still smart enough to do things like follow military strategies. But, at the same time, the zombies are also close enough to traditional horror movie zombies to still add a bit of classic-style zombie horror to the story 🙂

This novel is also an absolutely brilliant thriller novel too 🙂 In addition to all of the suspense that I’ve mentioned earlier, this novel contains some brilliantly dramatic fast-paced set pieces too. In addition to gladiatorial combat and several large and small scale zombie battles, this novel also includes a dramatic chariot chase through the streets of ancient Rome and other grippingly fast-paced things like this 🙂

The novel’s atmosphere and historical settings are really cool too 🙂 Whilst I haven’t studied the history enough to be able to say how accurate this novel is (then again, it has zombies in it), the Roman settings feel kind of like a cross between HBO’s “Rome” and “Spartacus: Blood And Sand” 🙂 This is also a novel that doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of Roman society (eg: slavery, cruelty, poverty etc..) too. Likewise, there are also a couple of interesting historical cameos, such as the main characters meeting a young Emperor Nero.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The main characters are a really interesting and sympathetic group of misfits, all of whom have personalities, flaws and motivations. Plus, although the novel’s villains do seem a little bit cartoonish (especially the cruel Emperor Caligula, who veers into the realms of dark comedy at times) even they are shown to have just enough redeeming qualities for you to both care about them and relish their satisfyingly cathartic demises.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really good too 🙂 The third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to keep the story flowing at a fast pace, whilst also including enough descriptions to lend the story some atmosphere and personality too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 356 pages, it is refreshingly lean and efficient when compared to the average tome-sized fantasy or thriller novel. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is handled really well too. Whilst the story remains consistently gripping and fast-paced, there’s a really good progression from the suspenseful drama of the early parts of the story to the more action-paced and epic later parts of the story 🙂

All in all, this novel was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 It’s like heavy metal music in book form 🙂 It is a gloriously badass mixture of the thriller, fantasy, historical fiction and zombie genres 🙂 If you enjoy things like HBO’s “Rome”, “Spartacus: Blood And Sand”, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and the “Stargate” movies/TV shows but also wish there were zombies too, then read this book 🙂

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