Review: “Aliens: Cauldron” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.

Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.

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

This is the 2007 Dark Horse Books (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: Cauldron” that I read.

The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.

Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.

Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.

Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.

All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.

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

Review: “Torched!” By James Blackstone (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for reading another 1980s horror novel. So, after a bit of searching through my bookshelves, I found an old novel from 1985 called “Torched!” by James Blackstone. From the stamp on the inside cover, I must have got it from a second-hand book stall in Alnwick during a holiday near there in the early-mid 2000s.

Although I vaguely remember reading it back then, I couldn’t remember that much about the story (other than the fact that I later confused it with Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn). So, it seemed like it might be worth re-reading.

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

This is the 1986 Grafton Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torched” that I read.

The novel begins in New York. A middle-aged man called Al Andrade is staying at a swanky hotel for a convention and is looking for company. To his surprise, a beautiful – and somewhat nervous- woman approaches him in the hotel restaurant and asks to go to his room. However, a few minutes after they get into bed, she suddenly bursts into flames.

Meanwhile in London, cynical middle-aged insurance investigator Richard Grierson is investigating a warehouse fire that resulted in two deaths. After a bit of snooping around and some examination, he concludes that the fire was started by the owner for the insurance money. But, soon after he’s solved the case, he’s called back into the office.

Following a takeover by an American firm called Insill, Grierson doesn’t really like his trendy new boss too much. Something not helped by the fact that, following a spate of arson attacks, Insill’s main branch has asked for the UK branch’s best investigator to fly over and team up with their lead investigator, Jack Lattimer. With the threat of being fired if he doesn’t, Grierson reluctantly gets on a plane to New York….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is technically a horror novel, it is more like an old thriller/ detective novel than anything else. It’s a fairly enjoyable novel – although, if you’re expecting a splatterpunk novel, then you’ll be disappointed. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Clive Cussler novel, a low-budget 1980s movie, and/or something like James Herbert’s “The Jonah” than anything else.

Even so, the novel’s relatively few horror elements are reasonably effective. There’s suspenseful horror, fire-based horror, sexual horror, scientific horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and maybe one or two moments of gory horror. Even so, this novel probably has slightly more in common with the average 1970s/80s thriller novel than the kind of 1980s splatterpunk novel that the dramatic-looking cover art (seriously, I miss ’80s-style cover art) might lead you to expect.

Still, as a thriller, it is fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect an action-packed explosion-fest, this novel makes fairly effective use of suspense, mystery, multiple plot threads and a spectacular set piece or two. In a lot of ways, this novel is a little bit more like a detective/buddy cop novel than anything else – with Grierson and Lattimer investigating the fires whilst another character called Carol also finds herself involved in the case.

But, whilst the premise of the novel is ripe for horror (and I was expecting something like Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn”), this novel goes down the cheesy ’80s thriller route of having a sleazy criminal mastermind villain instead. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a suitably chilling antagonist (although his villainy gets a little cartoonish at times) and this allows the novel to have a suitably dramatic and suspenseful conclusion at his villa. But, still, it’s impossible not to think of something like this during a couple of moments involving him. Seriously, this novel is a lot more ’80s than I’d expected.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably decent. Both Grierson and Lattimer are weary middle-aged men who have lost their families (either through divorce or arson) and, in typical buddy cop fashion, don’t get along that well initially but become a better team as the story progresses. Interestingly, although Lattimer is described as looking like an American cop, the mild-mannered Grierson is actually the “loose cannon” of the pair. The other characters are also given enough characterisation to make them sympathetic or creepy, but you shouldn’t expect gigantic amounts of characterisation here.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly standard old-school thriller stuff. In other words, it is “matter of fact” enough to move at a decent pace but is a little bit more formal than you might expect from a modern novel. Still, the novel has a fairly decent atmosphere and sense of place to it – with the brief scenes set in London being reminiscent of James Herbert and the US-based scenes looking like something from a 1980s movie. Even so, the novel’s settings are the clichΓ©d triumvirate of London, New York and Los Angeles.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At an efficient 223 pages in length, it makes me pine for the days when even thriller novels could be short if they needed to be. Likewise, although the novel is fairly moderately-paced and/or mildly-fast paced, this is one of those stories that becomes a bit more suspenseful and dramatic as it goes along. Even so, a few moments later in the novel seem a little bit contrived/coincidental, although they help to make the ending a bit more dramatic.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it probably hasn’t aged that well. Leaving aside a few “politically incorrect” moments and the general roughness of many of the novel’s sleazier moments, this novel is very ’80s. Normally, this is a good thing – since old novels usually provide a much more nuanced, realistic and immersive window into the past than films or TV do. However, aside from maybe the segments set in London, the rest of this novel has slightly more of a stylised movie/TV show-like tone to it. Still, this adds a certain cheesy charm to the story and the plot itself is reasonably compelling.

All in all, if you want a cheesy ’80s buddy cop-style thriller novel with a few horror elements, then this novel might be worth reading. It isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s a reasonably compelling (if a little silly) story. But, if you want a better old-school pyrotechnic horror thriller novel, then read Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn” instead.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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

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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 πŸ™‚ )
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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 πŸ™‚ Seriously, this gripping dark fantasy thriller novel is epic in almost every sense of the word πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

This novel is also an absolutely brilliant thriller novel too πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

The novel’s atmosphere and historical settings are really cool too πŸ™‚ 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” πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

All in all, this novel was a hell of a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ It’s like heavy metal music in book form πŸ™‚ It is a gloriously badass mixture of the thriller, fantasy, historical fiction and zombie genres πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five πŸ™‚

Three Basic Tips For Making Your Thriller Story More Gripping

Well, since I’m reading a supernatural thriller novel (“Ghost Dance” by Rebecca Levene) and because the short story project I was writing at the time of writing this article has ended up including some thriller elements, I thought that I’d talk about a few basic techniques you can use to make your thriller story more gripping.

So, let’s get started…

1) Mini-cliffhangers: Whether your story just has one plot thread or a couple of interwoven plot threads, mini cliffhangers are one of the oldest and most important ways to make a thriller more compelling. They can include anything from ending a chapter in a suspenseful way to just having something mysterious happen in the middle of a chapter that isn’t fully explained or shown until later in the chapter.

This technique dates back to at least the 19th century, where novels would often be published as serials (in magazines, penny dreadfuls etc..). So, having a mysterious or suspenseful chapter ending meant that people had an incentive to buy the next chapter. But, although this was originally done for purely commercial reasons, it can really help to make a story gripping – especially if it is combined with the modern technique of using short chapters (which tempt the reader to read “just one more”).

But, mini cliffhangers aren’t just for the end of each chapter. In other words, don’t be afraid to include them in the middle or beginning of part of your story. Anything that makes your reader think “what will happen next?” or “what is that?” will make them want to read more of your story as quickly as possible. So, mini cliffhangers are really useful.

2) Brains, not brawn: Although thriller stories will often include dramatic fight scenes, don’t rely on them too heavily. When used occasionally, they can add some much-needed adrenaline to a thriller story. But, if used too often, then they can become really boring – especially if the main character comes across as being invulnerable (which, incidentally, is also why many modern superhero-style action movies aren’t very gripping or suspenseful).

So, if you want to make your thriller story really gripping, then make sure that your main character uses their brain more often than they use their fists. If your main character has to outsmart their enemies, then this usually means that the enemies in question are too powerful or dangerous to fight directly. This instantly adds a lot more suspense to your story.

Plus, if your put your main character in a dangerous situation that they can’t punch or shoot their way out of, then you also make the reader feel curious about how the main character is going to survive. And, as I mentioned earlier, curiosity makes people want to read more. So, strange as it might sound, scenes where your main character has to come up with a clever plan or strategy are often a lot more gripping than a simple fight scene.

3) Pacing: Although thrillers should be fast-paced, it is important to remember that this doesn’t meant that they should be fast-paced literally all of the time. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, having a few well-placed slower moments (with less actions, more descriptions, more dialogue etc..) will actually make the fast-paced scenes seem even more thrilling by contrast.

The thing to remember is that the slower moments need to do something. Whether they give the reader character information, describe an interesting location or help to build mystery or suspense, they have to be there for a good reason. Although you still need to include fast-paced scenes, you also need to make sure that there are a few of these slower moments between each of them.

If this still sounds strange, then think about a monster movie. In a monster movie, the monster will often only appear on screen for a relatively small amount of time whenever it appears. This is because showing the monster for too long makes it seem ordinary and less frightening. It also means that there’s less suspense between monster scenes too. And, well, the same is true for fast-paced scenes in thrillers. If there are too many of them too often, then they become ordinary and boring.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Review: “Aliens: Rogue” By Sandy Schofield (Novel)

Note: Due to scheduling reasons, the “making of” line art post for my recent webcomic mini series won’t appear here until tomorrow. Sorry about this.

Well, although I’d originally planned to read something a bit more “high brow”, I was kind of in a stressed out mood and just wanted to read something fun. Something like the kind of novels I used to read all of the time when I was a teenager.

Then I remembered that I still hadn’t read the second half of a two-novel “Aliens” omnibus (that contains Robert Sheckley’s 1995 novel “Aliens: Alien Harvest” and Sandy Schofield’s 1996 novel “Aliens: Rogue”) that I’d bought second-hand a few months ago. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity πŸ™‚

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

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Aliens: Rogue” I read.

The novel begins with the crew of a civilian spacecraft, captained by Joyce Palmer, emerging from suspended animation after a long voyage to a remote asteroid facility called Charon Base. The spacecraft is carrying a passenger called Mr.Cray to the facility, since he seems to have some kind of classified business there.

Meanwhile, in the former penal colony mining tunnels near the facility, a detachment of space marines are trying to catch an alien specimen for Professor Kleist, the ZCT Corporation scientist who runs the facility. Unfortunately, the experimental technology the marines are using to stun the deadly aliens doesn’t work perfectly and one of the marines is killed – prompting another marine to blast the alien to smithereens with his rifle. Watching on CCTV, Kleist is absolutely horrified…. about the death of one of his alien specimens.

After a brief meeting with Kleist, Joyce and her crew stay at the facility for a few days. Although Joyce is happy to meet her occasional lover, Hank, she soon starts hearing news of mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the facility’s crew and decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t anything particularly new, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read πŸ™‚ Although the basic premise (an alien-filled research facility run by a mad scientist) is pretty much identical to S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, the novel does a few interesting things with this premise.

This novel is as much of an action-thriller novel as a sci-fi horror novel, with the general tone and atmosphere of the novel reminding me a lot of the original “Red Faction” computer game.

In addition to lots of desolate mining tunnels, a lot of the novel focuses on several groups of characters (both civilian and military) who start a resistance movement against Kleist and his henchmen. So, in a lot of ways, this is also a dystopian novel too πŸ™‚ Yes, the “plucky band of rebels” thing is a well-worn sci-fi/fantasy trope, but it’s handled in a really thrilling way in this novel, which will really have you cheering for the rebels.

Seriously, although it contains nothing especially new, this novel is the perfect blend of dystopian sci-fi, thrilling action and macabre horror fiction πŸ™‚ Reading this novel is like watching a really fun late-night 1980s/90s B-movie, like “Fortress” or something like that.

As for the horror elements of this novel, they’re pretty good. Although this novel isn’t that scary, it certainly has a rather ominous claustrophobic atmosphere, in addition to lots of grisly moments of gory horror, creepy alien-based moments (including a giant genetically-engineered alien king) and plenty of scenes featuring Kleist’s evil experiments too. These horror elements complement the novel’s action-thriller elements really well and not only add more atmosphere and tension to the story, but also give it a bit more depth by allowing for more moments of human drama too.

As for characterisation, this novel is reasonably decent, with several of the civilian and military characters receiving enough backstory and emotional moments to make you care about what happens to them. Likewise, the space marines are also shown to be an efficient, courageous and resourceful team too. However, the evil Professor Kleist and his security guard henchmen don’t really get much in the way of backstory and mostly just come across as cheesy, melodramatic “villain” characters (which is kind of fun in a “corny B-movie” kind of way, though).

In terms of the writing in this novel, it’s reasonably good. This novel’s third-person narration is descriptive enough to be atmospheric whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to not only keep the story moving at a decent pace, but also to make it reasonably relaxing to read too. Even so, in the edition I read, the editor missed a few basic mistakes (eg: misspelling Cray’s name as “Clay” once, spelling “gel” as “jell” once etc..) to the point where these errors actually became noticeable.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. In addition to being a fairly efficient 288 pages long, the pacing in this novel is fairly good. It starts off in a suitably ominous way before gradually building into a more traditional thriller (where chapters jump between two or three groups of characters, with lots of mini cliffhangers etc..) which remains fairly gripping throughout.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it’s aged really well. Although the story has a fairly “1990s late-night TV” kind of atmosphere during a few moments, this just adds to the story’s enjoyably fun “cheesy B-movie” quality. But, like with S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth”, this novel is pretty timeless thanks to it’s distant-future setting (which still comes across as reasonably futuristic).

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t really do anything new, it is still a lot of fun to read. So, if you want to relax with the literary equivalent of a great late-night movie from the 1990s, then this novel is well worth checking out. Likewise, if you want a dystopian sci-fi horror thriller novel, then this is definitely one of the more enjoyable ones.

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

Review: “Piercing” By Ryu Murakami (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I read a Ryu Murakami novel. After discovering Murakami’s excellent 1997 horror novel “In The Miso Soup” in a Waterstone’s during my early twenties, I ended up reading translations of several of his books (“Audition”, “Almost Transparent Blue” and possibly “Coin-Locker Babies”, if I remember rightly) over the next year or two.

At the time, I must also have bought a copy of his 1994 horror/thriller novel “Piercing” (translated by Ralph McCarthy) but, for some reason, I didn’t get round to reading it.

So, when I was working out which book to read next, I happened to spot “Piercing” in one of my book piles. And, since it was both a refreshingly short novel and it was a Murakami novel I hadn’t read, I thought that I’d check it out.

[Edit: Interestingly, in the months between when I first prepared this review and the time of posting it, an American film adaptation of this book (also called “Piercing”) was announced and released. Since I haven’t seen it at the time of writing, I can’t really compare the two things.]

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

This is the 2008 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback edition of “Piercing” that I read.

Set in Tokyo, the story begins with family man Kawashima Masayuki standing over his baby daughter’s crib one night. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he has stood over the crib for ten nights in a row. Every night, he holds an ice pick and wills himself not to harm the baby. Every night, the baby is left unharmed. And, thankfully, this night is no different.

When he tries to work out what is wrong with himself, Kawashima is racked by traumatic memories of his childhood. Overwhelmed by the furious intense rage within him, he decides to act upon it in the hope that this will cause it to go away. So, coming up with an excuse, he leaves home for a few days and stays in a hotel in another part of Tokyo – where he begins to plan a grisly murder…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Piercing” is that it is an incredibly gripping horror thriller that isn’t for the easily shocked. However, by the high standards of Murakami’s other horror novels, it falls short somewhat.

If you’ve read “In The Miso Soup” or “Audition”, then you’ll know that Murakami is famous for gradually building suspense over the course of a novel, only to finally release it in a truly shocking moment of extreme horror. Well, this novel does the literal opposite of this.

In other words, a lot of the really shocking, creepy, dark and horrific stuff happens in the earlier parts of the novel, and although the novel still works reasonably well as a fast-paced and gripping thriller, all of the novel’s chilling suspense eventually descends into something of a grim farce (like a “romantic comedy from hell” or something like that) that ends in a rather random, abrupt and ambiguous way which is about a million miles away from the usual jaw-droppingly shocking Murakami ending.

Likewise, the almost unrelenting barrage of horror means that some of it comes across as a bit “over the top” in a corny late-night movie style way or as an immature attempt at being “edgy”. Although there is a small amount of contrast between the horrific and the mundane, there really isn’t enough of this to make the novel’s scenes of horror really stand out in the way they do in Murakami’s other horror novels.

Still, as a horror novel, it works incredibly well. This novel contains a disturbing plethora of different types of horror including violent horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, sexual horror, criminal horror, poverty horror, suspenseful horror and some hints of paranormal horror. And, yes, this is a very grim and disturbing novel too – with lots of bleak background details, traumatic flashback scenes and creepy psychological moments.

So, yes, this really isn’t a novel for the easily shocked. Still, the novel includes some moments of dark comedy (like Kawashima ranting at himself in his notes, some quirky background details etc..) that help to lighten the bleak tone somewhat.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably well-written and are the source of a lot of the novel’s horror. Most of the novel focuses on both Kawashima (who is disturbed by traumatic memories, fairly misogynistic and a serial-killer-in-the-making) and a sex worker called Chiaki who, unknown to Kawashima, also suffers from traumatic memories and violent impulses (and also has a hatred of men that rivals Kawashima’s hatred of women).

The characters in this novel are disturbingly compelling and the story devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation.

Interestingly, this novel also seems to be the literal opposite of another extreme horror novel I read in my early twenties called “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite.

In Brite’s “Exquisite Corpse”, two serial killers end up having a beautiful romance that is filled with stomach-churning horror. Whereas, in Murakami’s “Piercing”, the fact that Kawashima and Chiaki are kindred spirits makes their meetings fairly awkward and eventually ends up cancelling out the horror of the story (since they both try, and fail, to kill each other before having a rather bizarre and ambiguous moment together the following morning).

In terms of the writing style, whilst I can’t comment on the original Japanese text, Ralph McCarthy’s translation is incredibly readable. It reads a lot like a classic pulp novel (a bit like a more modern version of Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson or Dashiell Hammett), with some more descriptive and poetic flourishes. In other words, this is a fast-paced, gripping thriller novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a lean and efficient 185 pages in length, this novel remains streamlined and morbidly compelling throughout. However, the pacing is definitely better in the first half of the novel than the second, although both halves are still reasonably suspenseful.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only does the story remain grippingly compelling, but the story’s many moments of horror are still as disturbing as ever. Likewise, although there are some brief mentions of 1990s technology, the story has a timeless quality to it (and could easily take place in the present day or the 1970s or whenever). Still, there are a few elements of the story (eg: how Kawashima and Chiaki both despise the opposite sex) which, although integral to the story’s suspenseful drama, irony and dark comedy, would probably be considered “politically incorrect” these days.

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t quite reach the horrific heights of some of Murakami’s other horror novels (“In The Miso Soup” and “Audition”), it is still a grimly gripping and deeply disturbing read. If you want a story with creepy characters, a grim atmosphere and a fast-paced plot, then this one might be worth checking out.

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

Review: “Working For The Devil” By Lilith Saintcrow (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive when I spotted a copy of Lilith Saintcrow’s 2005 novel “Working For The Devil” on one of my bookshelves. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s (probably when I was reading Mike Carey’s awesome “Felix Castor” novels, at a guess), but never quite got round to reading it back then.

So, after glancing at the first few pages and thinking “Yes, this is my kind of novel!”, I ended up ordering a second-hand anthology of all five novels in the series (it’s a giant tome of a book, so it seemed more ergonomic to read the individual paperback of this novel). I then…. got distracted by other books for several weeks, until this review.

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

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback reprint of “Working With The Devil” that I read.

The novel begins in the fictional US city of Saint City, at some point in the distant future. A necromancer (and part-time bounty hunter) called Dante Valentine is having a quiet afternoon at home when there is a knock on the door. When she opens it, a mysterious demon points a gun at her and tells her that his boss – Lucifer- wants to hire her for an urgent job. Needless to say, it looks like Dante will be… working with the devil!

More specifically, Lucifer wants Dante to track down and kill an escaped demon who has stolen something from him. Although Dante is initially wary about this, she soon learns that the demon in question is none other than the man who murdered her best friend several years earlier. So, in true action movie fashion, this time it’s personal!

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that is it awesome πŸ™‚ Not only is it a totally badass horror/urban fantasy action-thriller novel (in the tradition of writers like Mike Carey, Jocelynn Drake and Laurell K. Hamilton), but it is also set in a cyberpunk-influenced future that reminded me a bit of things like “Blade Runner“, “Cowboy Bebop“, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“. In other words, it is a really cool novel πŸ™‚

I should probably start by talking about the horror/urban fantasy elements of this story. Although this story isn’t really particularly scary, there’s lots of horror-themed stuff here, like necromancy, hell, demons, serial killers, evil schools etc… Plus, although there’s relatively little of the gory horror that you’d expect in a novel like this, this story still works reasonably well as a horror-themed thriller.

Likewise, the story certainly has it’s own mythos and set of rules (eg: regarding magical power, necromancy etc..) which really help to add some depth and atmosphere to the story. The story’s fantasy elements also blend in really well with the sci-fi elements of the story too – with Dante’s astral voyages into the realm of the dead, manipulation of magical power etc.. almost reading like futuristic cyberpunk computer hacking at times. Likewise, the way that society reacts to the presence of psychics, necromancers etc… allows for some chillingly dystopian background elements too.

The novel’s action-thriller elements work really well too. Although there is a fair amount of time devoted to things like investigations and characterisation/dialogue, the story remains fairly gripping throughout and there are certainly a few dramatic fight scenes too (Dante carries a katana with her everywhere. So, this is kind of a given) – although not quite as many as you might expect. Still, this is the kind of compelling novel that you’ll want to binge-read in a couple of 2-3 hour sessions πŸ™‚

The story’s sci-fi elements are really cool too πŸ™‚ Although this novel initially just seems like an “ordinary” urban fantasy novel with a few futuristic words (eg: “holovid”, “plasgun” etc..) dropped into it for flavour, the “world” and atmosphere of the story is gloriously cyberpunk πŸ™‚

Whether it’s the neon-lit “Blade Runner”-like Saint City, the scenes with flying skateboards (which reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”), the scenes set in a futuristic version of Rio Di Janeiro (which reminded me of a low-budget 1990s cyberpunk movie called “Nemesis) or the vaguely “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”-esque blending of fantasy and cyberpunk, this novel has a really cool cyberpunk background to it. Seriously, I absolutely love the “world” of this novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing, it’s reasonably good. The novel’s first-person narration is the kind of gritty, sarcastic, fast-paced narration that you’d expect to see in a good urban fantasy/thriller novel πŸ™‚ The writing contains enough descriptions and characterisation to keep the story atmospheric, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to keep things thrilling and intense too.

As for the characters, they’re really good. There’s certainly enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the characters. As you would expect, Dante Valentine gets the most characterisation – and she’s a rather interesting character. Although she clearly takes inspiration from Anita Blake (from Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels), I found Dante to be a more interesting character than Anita Blake.

In addition to being a total and utter badass (who mostly avoids the annoying “goody two-shoes” elements of Anita Blake’s character), Dante is also something of a social outcast (on account of her magical abilities) who is also grappling with both a grim past and a complex web of friendships and antagonism (especially since, amongst other things, Dante ends up being magically linked to a demon and also has to team up with her ex-boyfriend too).

And, yes, although this is one of those novels where the main characters spend quite a lot of time arguing with each other about various things, it never really becomes too obnoxious. If anything, it helps to add tension and drama to the story. This type of thing is quite difficult to get right, but this story seems to handle it pretty well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly reasonable. Although this story is 382 pages long (in the edition I read, the version in the anthology is shorter due to larger pages/smaller print), the fast-paced story and narration means that it never really feels too long. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, although the novel devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation etc…, it never really gets slow or boring.

All in all, this is a really cool novel πŸ™‚ It’s always awesome to see the urban fantasy/horror genre being mixed with the cyberpunk and action-thriller genres πŸ™‚ If you like writers like Jocelynn Drake or Mike Carey, then you’ll love this novel. Yes, it could possibly have done with a little bit more action and some scarier horror, but it’s still a wonderfully gripping and atmospheric novel nonetheless.

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