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.

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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.

Review: “A Symphony Of Echoes” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, after reading Jodi Taylor’s excellent “Just One Damned Thing After Another“, I was eager to read the next book in the series. I am, of course, talking about Taylor’s 2013 novel “A Symphony Of Echoes”.

Anyway, although “A Symphony Of Echoes” is a sequel, it can also be read as a stand-alone novel. Yes, you’ll get more out of it if you read “Just One Damned Thing After Another” first, but this novel contains enough recaps etc.. for it to just about stand on it’s own two feet. Even so, I’ll probably be comparing this novel to the previous one quite a lot in this review.

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

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “A Symphony Of Echoes” I read.

This novel, like the previous one, focuses on a group of time-travelling historians who work for a secret research institute called St. Mary’s. The story begins when one of the senior historians, Kal, decides to retire. In accordance with tradition, when a historian retires, they get to visit whichever part of the past they want to before they leave.

So, along with Dr. Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short), Kal travels back to Victorian London in order to scare the bejeesus out of Jack The Ripper. Of course, as you would expect, things don’t go exactly to plan.

Whilst Max and Kal are recovering from their injuries in St. Mary’s sickbay, Chief Farrell goes missing. After a while, the historians work out that he has been kidnapped and taken to the future. So, it is up to Max to mount a daring rescue….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s very compelling. Not only does it begin with a grippingly streamlined flourish of thrilling drama and chilling horror, but the story also has a rather cleverly-designed plot (which, though it may get confusing at some points, ultimately ends up making sense) and a slightly more well-handled emotional tone than the previous novel too. Plus, of course, it also resolves the small cliffhanger at the end of the first novel too πŸ™‚

“A Symphony Of Echoes” also makes full use of the series’ time-travel premise in all sorts of clever ways too. Not only is there a sub-plot about time paradoxes, but there are also some rather interesting scenes that are set in the future too. Plus, of course, there are some interesting scenes about how the existence of time travel has had an impact on the lives of the main characters too. The novel’s title isn’t there to sound pretentious – it is a reference to the knock-on effects that events can have on future events. And it’s really cool to see the series exploring all of this stuff πŸ™‚

But, yes, the plot of this novel can get a little bit confusing at times. However, if you’re willing to pay attention and wait, then almost everything in the story has some kind of logical explanation.

Yes, a couple of the plot twists do seem a little bit contrived/cheap (eg: Max coming up with a plan, but not mentioning the details to the reader until later etc..) but, ultimately, pretty much everything makes sense by the end of the book. The only exception to this is that some elements of the Jack The Ripper-based scenes are deliberately left chillingly mysterious, in order to increase the horror of these scenes.

As I hinted earlier, this novel is a bit more of a thriller than “Just One Damned Thing After Another” was. There are a lot more brilliant set-pieces, intriguing mysteries, clever plans and scenes of fast-paced drama. Yes, these are contrasted with slower moments and moments of character-based drama, but the novel is – in some parts at least- a faster-paced, more streamlined and more thrilling story than I’d expected.

Likewise, the emotional tone of this novel feels much more well-handled too – with the segues from serious moments to comedic moments (and vice versa) feeling more natural and less jarring than in the previous novel. A lot of this is helped by the fact that this novel starts off in a fairly “serious” way, with lots of perilous drama and even a few moments of horror too. So, when the story’s emotional tone lightens, it comes as a relief to the reader. It also prepares the reader for the fact that the story will have serious moments too.

Still, when this novel is comedic, it is hilarious. Not only are there a few amusing references (eg: to “The Big Bang Theory” etc..), but Max’s first-person narration and the novel’s dialogue is as brilliantly sarcastic, “matter of fact” and well-written as ever too πŸ™‚ Plus, this story is also filled with all of the hilariously eccentric details that you would expect – such as the noise that a dodo makes (“grockle”, if anyone is curious).

Seriously, I cannot praise the humour in both this novel and the previous one highly enough πŸ™‚ But, for my international readers, I should probably point out that a lot of the humour in this series is very British, so I don’t know how well it will translate to audiences outside the UK.

In terms of the characters, they’re all reasonably interesting, well-written and/or stylised too. If you’ve read the previous novel, then you’ll enjoy seeing lots of familiar faces again (as well as a few unfamiliar ones too). Yes, some things remain the same (eg: Max and Leon’s tumultuous, argument-filled relationship) but there’s also a bit of character development in this story too. The most noticeable example of this is Max finding herself with more responsibilities and authority than she had in the previous novel. Even so, this novel still manages to keep a fair amount of the “punk” attitude that made the previous novel so much fun to read.

But, if you haven’t read the previous novel, then you might find the characterisation to be a little bit “light”. It’s still there, but you’ll get a lot more out of the novel’s moments of emotional drama if you read “Just One Damned Thing After Another” first. Yes, some of the moments of interpersonal drama in the story do border on the melodramatic at times – but this is part of the style of the series.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good too. Although the novel contains a mixture of fast-paced and slow-paced scenes, and a slightly more complicated plot, it remains reasonably compelling throughout. Likewise, at just 233 pages (in the edition I read), this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – an efficiently short modern novel πŸ™‚

However, it’s possible that I read an earlier edition with slightly smaller print. Plus, although I don’t usually critique this stuff, the copy I read does bear the hallmarks of an early version/small press edition (eg: JPEG compression/ image resizing artefacts in the cover art, a couple of barely noticeable typos etc..). Personally, I felt that this added to the eccentric charm of the story and made me feel like I was discovering something intriguingly new and obscure. However, fussy perfectionists probably won’t like it.

All in all, this is an extremely enjoyable novel πŸ™‚ It tells a slightly complicated story about time travel which is alternately thrilling, hilarious, scary and poignant. In other words, it’s a good sequel to “Just One Damned Thing After Another” – even if, although I liked many individual moments and scenes from this story better, I slightly preferred the previous novel as a whole (probably because it introduced me to this awesome series).

If I had to give “A Symphony Of Echoes” a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “The Invisible Library” By Genevieve Cogman (Novel)

Back when I originally bought my copy of Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street“, I noticed another intriguing-looking steampunk novel mentioned on the website.

So, when I got back into reading once again, I bought a second-hand copy of Genevieve Cogman’s 2015 novel “The Invisible Library”…. and then didn’t get round to reading it until a month or three later.

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

This is the 2015 Tor (UK) paperback edition of “The Invisible Library” that I read. And, yes, the shiny gold text and illustrations don’t really show that well in this scan.

The novel begins with a character called Irene working undercover as a cleaner in a boys’ boarding school. She is on a mission to steal a book from the school. However, the room the book is being kept in has some kind of magic-based security system. Needless to say, Irene is soon chased across the school grounds by an assortment of gargoyles and hellhounds. When she reaches a nearby library, she opens a paranormal doorway and steps through it…. into a much larger library.

Irene is a librarian, an agent of a vast timeless library that exists between an infinite number of parallel universes. The job of a librarian is to track down rare books from different universes in order to preserve them for eternity. However, soon after Irene hands the book in, she is given a new mission by her superiors.

She is instructed to take an apprentice librarian called Kai to a Victorian-like world and obtain an alternate version of Grimm’s fairytales. Of course, this mission quickly turns out to be much more complicated and perilous than Irene expected….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that it was different to what I had expected and, at first, I didn’t like it. Although it really grew on me after a while (after all, it reminded me of a cross between TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Sliders”, “Doctor Who” and “Supernatural”, with strong hints of Sherlock Holmes too πŸ™‚), “The Invisible Library” is much more of a fantasy novel than I had initially expected.

Yes, there are some really cool steampunk, thriller, sci-fi, detective and horror elements. But this is a fantasy novel first and foremost. It is also a novel where the mid-late parts of the story are much better than the earlier parts.

Although the novel’s fantasy elements can be quite innovative (such as librarians being able to command the world using words) and they do follow a fairly clear set of logical rules, the novel spends quite a while setting up all of these rules.

Likewise, the early to middle parts of the story can also sometimes seem like a random hodge-podge of every fantasy, steampunk and/or horror trope under the sun (eg: fae, dragons, vampires, werewolves, mechanical monsters, airships, magic etc..).

Still, it is well worth putting up with these problems. A lot of the more dramatic moments later in the story rely on you having a good knowledge of how the “rules” of the story’s world work. And the ending is just as, if not more, dramatic than anything in a large-budget Hollywood movie. So, it is worth trudging through all of the explanations and random stuff earlier in the novel.

Likewise, all of the other genres within this story work fairly well too. The thriller elements help to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, the sci-fi elements are kind of cool, the steampunk stuff is suitably quirky, the story’s detective elements are an important part of the plot and the horror elements will catch you by surprise at a few points in the story too πŸ™‚

Thematically, this story is really interesting. Not only is the contrast between chaos and order explored in this story, but it is also likened to the contrast between fact and fiction too. Likewise, the role of the library is also questioned too (eg: are they preserving books or just stealing and/or hoarding them? Is study for the sake of study worthwhile?). The novel also asks moral questions about whether the ends justify the means too (eg: the contrast between Irene and fellow librarian Bradamant’s approach to their jobs).

In addition to all of this, “The Invisible Library” is also a really interesting piece of meta-fiction about the value and role of books too (and, call me a luddite, but you really have to read this book in paperback. Seriously, it is a book about books. So, read the non-electronic version of it!).

As for the characters, I initially didn’t like them – but they grew on me after a while. In short, there is actual character development in this novel which results in the main characters becoming more interesting and sympathetic as the novel progresses.

So, even though Kai might seem like an annoyingly boorish brat and Irene might seem like a smug, prim, grammar-obsessed librarian at first – stick with the novel. The main characters, and the dynamic between them, slowly becomes more interesting as the story progresses. Likewise, it’s also really cool that one of the characters – Vale – is a homage to Sherlock Holmes, without being a direct copy of him. Plus, the novel’s other librarian characters are all suitably mysterious and/or scary too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good. Cogman uses a style of third-person narration that subtly evokes 19th century-style narration whilst still being readable and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a good pace. This novel is descriptive enough to be distinctive and atmospheric, whilst still remaining focused and compelling.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is excellent. There is a good mixture of faster and slower-paced scenes, and – given the amount of rules, backstory etc.. included in the story, not to mention the fact that it is both a fantasy novel and a modern novel – the book’s 329 page length is refreshingly concise and efficient too.

Plus, although it is clear that this novel is the first in a series, the main story is wrapped up reasonably well and there aren’t any seriously annoying cliffhangers (although the ending is obviously the set up for a larger series).

All in all, this is a good novel. Yes, it was different to what I had expected and it took me a while to get used to it. But, this novel is a quirky, complex thriller that builds up to a spectacular climax. There is good character development, reasonably good world-building, good pacing and an interesting mixture of genres here. If you like the steampunk genre and/or you like TV shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Doctor Who” and “Sliders”, then you’ll enjoy this book. However, it is more of a fantasy novel than you might initially expect and the story does take a little while to really get good.

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

Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

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

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

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

Review “Night School” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I last reviewed a novel (novel reviews will become a regular feature late this year/early next year though). And, I hadn’t planned to review one today – but, after spending about five and a half hours binge-reading a second-hand charity shop copy of “Night School” by Lee Child, it felt appropriate to review it too.

This review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 UK Bantam Press hardback edition of “Night School” that I read.

“Night School” is a novel from 2016 that is the 21st thriller in Lee Child’s famous “Jack Reacher” series. Like in the other novels in this series that I’ve read, “Night School” tells a self-contained story that doesn’t really require any knowledge of other novels in the series.

The story is something of a prequel to many of the other novels, with the events of the story taking place in 1996. Jack Reacher is an American military policeman who has recently been awarded a medal for a covert mission in Eastern Europe.

He’s on the up and up, and there’s a lot of military gossip about his next assignment. But, when Reacher is summoned to the Pentagon, he learns that he’s been… assigned to take a training course in forensics and inter-agency co-operation.

Of course, when he arrives at the facility, there are only two other students. A highly-commended member of the FBI and an outstanding member of the CIA. Between the three of them, they quickly realise that they aren’t there to study inter-agency co-operation or forensics……

One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that about the first two-thirds or so of it are better than the later parts. Like any good thriller, the novel starts out in a mysteriously exciting fashion.

In some ways, the beginning and middle of “Night School” are reminiscent of an American TV show like “24” or “NCIS” and, in other ways, these parts of the story are more like a classic modern European thriller (like a more fast-paced version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire”).

Yet, during the later parts of the story, there’s less suspense. The plot twists seem predictable, hollow and clichΓ©d. The ending also seems somewhat anticlimactic. So, this is a story that is more about the journey than the destination. Everything leading up to the later parts of the story is fast-paced, complex, mysterious and thrilling (enough to warrant a marathon binge-reading session). Yet, the story gradually starts losing dramatic value as it progresses.

From what I’d heard about “Night School” before I read it, I expected it to be more of an “action movie”-style novel. But, it is very much a traditional-style thriller. Yes, there are suspenseful chases and a small number of well-written fight scenes (eg: a 2-3 page description of part of a fight that only lasts a few seconds). But, this is more like a cross between a spy novel, a political thriller and a detective novel than an action thriller novel.

A lot of the story includes several parallel narratives involving various agents, detectives and criminals. For example, there are scenes where the novel’s main antagonist is a few hundred metres away from the main characters, and neither of them realises it. Like in many good thriller novels, these scenes are interweaved in all sorts of cool ways.

One cool thing about this novel is that Reacher’s old colleague Frances Neagley makes an appearance here. Although I’ve read at least one novel featuring Neagley (“Bad Luck and Trouble” in 2009/10), I couldn’t remember a huge amount about that novel. Still, the name and the character were instantly familiar to me.

As for the characters, they’re adequate and functional. Jack Reacher is mostly (more on this later) still the smart, stoic hero that we all know and love. Yet, the main characters sometimes seem slightly “flat”. Likewise, even the novel’s romantic sub-plot feels somewhat random and slightly passionless. Surprisingly, the most well-developed characters in this novel are the main antagonist and a German detective called Griezman (who helps Reacher out throughout the story).

However, and this might be because of the 1990s setting or the fact that Jack Reacher is younger in this book, but he’s a little bit more aggressive than usual in this novel. What I mean by this is he’s slightly more likely to kill or attack people for reasons other than self-defence. Like an “edgy” 90s action hero, a couple of these scenes are also accompanied by pithy dialogue too. Although this stuff seems very mildly out of character for Reacher, some elements of this change in his character are foreshadowed in a very early part of the novel.

As usual, Lee Child uses a fairly fast-paced and minimalist narrative style, peppered with occasional descriptions. And, as gripping as it is here, it didn’t quite seem to have the same substance as some of his other novels. The narrative style seems a little too minimalist in some parts. Even so, it keeps the plot travelling forwards at a suitably fast pace, which is never a bad thing.

The novel’s mid-1990s setting is also handled in a fairly interesting way too. For the most part, the novel reads like a fairly “timeless” thriller story, with relatively little 1990s nostalgia (eg: there are some references to the Millennium bug and the end of the cold war. Likewise, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight either. But, aside from this, it could almost be set in the present day).

Yet, the mid-1990s setting also has a noticeable effect on the plot, with the story drawing on both the more imaginative/silly traditions of the 90s thriller genre (between the end of the cold war and 9/11, thriller writers had to be a bit more imaginative since they couldn’t just rely on popular fears for source material) and more “serious” contemporary concerns about extremism and terrorism too. Seriously, Lee Child absolutely nails the “mid-late 90s thriller” elements of the story perfectly.

This slight hint of 1990s silliness, along with some witty descriptions/dialogue and a hilariously gross scene set in a nightclub also help to lighten the tone of the story slightly too, which is never a bad thing. Although “Night School” is a suspenseful thriller novel, with some slightly “gritty” crime-based segments, it never really becomes bleak or depressing.

The rest of the novel’s settings are handled in a fairly interesting way too. Most of the story takes place in Hamburg, and this city is described in a fairly minimalist way – which helps it to seem “modern” and “realistic”. Yet, the city also seems slightly drab and generic too – which is both a strength and a weakness.

By making the city blend into the background slightly, Lee Child is able to focus our attentions more on the events of the story. Yet, the fact that it takes place in a version of Germany shown from the perspective of an American character imagined by one of Britain’s bestselling authors kind of means that the setting often comes across as more “generic European” than anything else. Lee Child is an expert at writing American settings, but mainland Europe really doesn’t seem to be his forte.

All in all, this isn’t Lee Child’s best novel, but it’s hardly a bad novel either. I mean, it was still compelling enough to binge-read in one marathon session. Yes, the beginning is better than the ending. Yes, this story is much more about the journey than the destination. But, it’s still a fairly well-written thriller novel. Not to mention that it’s kind of cool to see a vaguely 1990s-style thriller from 2016.

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