Post cross-country move, my library is now installed and some real gems have surfaced from the many, many boxes. Point in case, Gary Kemble’s Strange Ink. A thriller-horror mash up set in Brisbane, Australia, this is a novel that demands to be read as the story builds up to a brutal conclusion.

Following Harry Hendricks, a journalist for a small, local paper, the story takes us from shady property developers and nasty motorcycle gangs to nefarious goings on in Afghanistan and a psychotic Army Intelligence officer turned politician. But, that’s not all. A murdered ex-SAS operative, Rob, has found a way to return from the grave to seek revenge, not only for himself but for countless others. This is where things get weird, especially for Harry, as it’s via tattoos that Rob communicates his memories; seeing innocent women and children gunned down, hearing his own girlfriend murdered, and worse.

For Harry, a man happy to just eek out a low key life, waking up to find himself marked with an ever growing catalogue of tattoos that accompany some very real and frightening nightmares, is the last thing he needs. Yet, he’s not crazy and the memories reveal things about events very close to home. Using his journalistic skills, long left on the shelf, Harry discovers a rabbit hole that goes deep. All the way to a drug ring in Afghanistan, a corrupt and violent politician on the verge of becoming the Australian Prime Minister and some very nasty characters willing to do anything to bury the past.

Strange Ink is a blend of the best things about horrors and thrillers. The plot unravels at a solid pace, keeping the pages turning as different threads tie into others, bringing the bigger picture into view with every chapter. But, the ghoulish nature of the truth and the vengeful spirits manifesting in the tattoos add another, chilling dimension to the tension that builds throughout the story. As Harry digs deeper, he becomes changed, taking on more than just Rob’s tattoos; he can feel the other man’s spirit within him, yearning for revenge.

Against the muggy, storm strewn Australian background, Strange Ink paints a thrilling picture. The pages are full of realistic actors and a plot of epic proportions. From the excellent cover art to the brilliantly executed story, Strange Ink is an innovative, chilling and gripping page turner.

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The third instalment in Ed McDonald’s trilogy, Crowfall just keeps on ramping up the action, desperation, tension and magical mayhem from the last book until we reach a fantastic finale. It’s brutal at times, heart wrenching at others but it never lets up.

Following Galharrow, a Blackwing captain under the immortal Crowfoot, the story starts six years after Ravencry. After all the sacrifice he suffered, Galharrow has forged a plan and ensconced himself in the Misery; an apocalyptic wasteland of horrifying monsters and weird magic. The war with the Deep Kings continues but the Nameless, including Crowfoot are weakened and at odds with each other. Trouble brews in every corner but the end is in sight, one way or another.

There’s so much to unpack in Ed McDonald’s world building, its brilliant. From the dire little horrors that scuttle beneath the scorched sand of the Misery to the inhuman immortals of the Nameless and their own self creation, the Deep Kings and their mutated army of Drudge and the dark magic that abides from millennia ago, hidden under ice and rock and earth. But, it’s so much more; Galharrow and the ghosts of his friends long lost as well as the companions he still tries to protect like Amaira, now a grown woman and Blackwing captain, and Valiya, the woman he refuses to love. It’s a sea of brilliant actors full of life, of decisions and repercussions, of betrayals and guilt and hope.

Crowfall is brilliant fantasy full of rampaging hordes and monsters, good versus evil on an epic scale with all to lose and all to play for. It’s gritty and bloody, as Galharrow turns himself into a monster of his own making, and fights tooth and nail for every last person he can save. Yet, underneath it all is a story of redemption. Galharrow, that most hardened and toughest of the Blackwing, is a man made from his own guilt; forged from his own sorrow at all his failings. Furious at being a mere piece in a game, seething at the carelessness with which the Namless expend the lives of loved ones, Galharrow seeks his own end game.

Whilst the gods and wizards battle each other for power, for things beyond the scope of human comprehension, Galharrow and his remaining friends fight for things that, however fleeting, give life its meaning; love, friendship, humanity. It’s a powerful incentive. Whilst the sorcerers demand and take and subjugate, they’ve forgotten themselves, lost in their own warped games and struggles and desire for victory, however pyrrhic. Galharrow hasn’t and, as the book unfolds, we see that everything he’s done to himself has come to this moment.

It’s an epic tale, of vast proportions and huge characters. It’s fantasy at its finest; gritty, bloody, violent yet, ultimately uplifting. The Raven’s Mark trilogy is, without a doubt, part of that new cannon of awesome fantasy. Can’t recommend it enough.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

As a pre-teen youngster Drangonlance novels and the world of Warhammer 40K were some of my favourite things to read and “play” ( I preferred trying to paint the miniatures but I was never any good). Recently, I came across a signed copy of Gav Thorpe’s Space Hulk novel for just a few quid and couldn’t stop myself from picking it up.

Based on the board game, which I used to play (with my badly painted models), Space Hulk follows a squad of heavily armoured Space Marines as they look to avenge a centuries old defeat at the hands of an alien species. If you’ve not come across it before, think about the movie Aliens but with more armour and you’re close to what the game and novel are all about. Aboard a twisted conglomeration of space ships, the Terminators are sent to hunt down the aliens and collect data. Dark tunnels and walkways create a sprawling, hard to navigate terrain for the Space Marines as they seek their revenge.

The premise is somewhat simple but the novel still packs an entertaining punch. The squads of Marines, decked out in their Terminator suits, are tasked with holding the front line whilst other elements of the task force prepare a deadly toxin to kill off the horde of aliens. But, it’s not an easy ask. The alien hive mind is quick to learn and, like a swarm of insects, use their numbers as a tactic. In the tunnels and strange spaces of the sprawling ship, deadly engagements begin to take a toll. However, for the Marines, defeat is not an option.

When things escalate further, the battle becomes more than just an exercise in vengeance. Restoring the honour of their battalion and retrieving a long lost artifact adds an extra burden and, with dwindling resources, and a relentless enemy, the Terminators must use all their resolve to achieve victory.

It’s a fun, short read, well executed by Gav Thorpe who does an excellent job of revealing just enough about the universe of Warhammer without overwhelming the reader with details and lore. Space Hulk is violent and atmospheric military science fiction and all the better for it.

Published by Black Library

My copy

Review – Prospect

Posted: October 8, 2019 in Film, Sci-Fi
Tags: ,

Continuing the movie binge, I got to watch Prospect, a film I’d been wanting to see since I caught a trailer a little while ago. It’s a unique movie that blends different styles and atmospheres together to form something quite wonderful. A western-sci-fi with some very individual motifs, Prospect, is both gripping yet wonderful.

A father and daughter team decide to make one last drop down to an alien planet from the transporter rig they currently reside upon. It’s a tricky decision as it’s a small window of opportunity before the transporter leaves orbit but, the father insists its a play that will score big, pay off their debts and get them out of the game. Cee Cee, the daughter is less convinced but doesn’t have a choice. The drop isn’t smooth and, with their ship showing signs of wear and tear, they barely make it. On the surface of the alien planet, a weirdly quiet forest covered world, the two set out to find a batch of ‘gems’. These jewels are an odd kind of seed that has to be harvested from some sort of biological plant and treated carefully lest the gem become corrupted and it’s value lost.

As the duo are scavenging an old dig site, two men approach. Cee Cee hides while her father tries to negotiate his way out of this dangerous situation. It is the promise of a hidden haul of treasure that stays the men from harming him. But the temporary truce is short lived and the ensuing fallout leaves Cee Cee on the run with one of the men, Ezra, close behind. In the harshness of the alien world, strange alliances are formed all the time and soon Cee Cee and Ezra must help each other.

The frontier atmosphere creeps through everything, the lonely and claustrophobic space of the forest, the strange bonds between people, the prevalent need to find a way out of the scrabbling, hard nature of surviving. Prospect brings more to the table than that; the unusually retro technology of the suits and ships and weapons; the very alien nature of the gems; the hints of things and worlds beyond. Whilst on one hand it’s a story of a girl trying to survive on an alien planet, pursued by her father’s murderer and desperate to escape back to the transporter, on the other its a tale of someone finding themselves amongst the empty wild, of discovering what it means to be an equal and creating companionship through shared adversity.

Prospect is beautifully shot and that tempered pace of the western creates a science fiction story that is both gripping and enthralling. It’s rich with ideas and world building yet, at its heart, asks questions of the human condition that strike at our very nature. For me, this is the kind of science fiction that gets me excited – unique, mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining.

Review – Upgrade

Posted: September 30, 2019 in Cyberpunk, Film, Horror
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The movie binge continues, this time with Upgrade. A slice of near-future, cyberpunk-esque science fiction that doesn’t hold back its punches, the movie is a story of revenge with a nasty twist in its tail.

Grey Trace, a man who eschews technology and people’s absolute reliance to it, finds himself in the worst possible scenario imaginable. His wife’s smart car hacked and forced to crash somewhere downtown, the couple are set upon by a gang. Grey’s wife is murdered and he is left paralysed. A man used to fending for himself, he is suddenly helpless and reliant on the very technology he avoided.

Yet, after months of depression, Grey is offered salvation; an implant that will allow him to walk again. What he doesn’t know is, the chip is a piece of state-of-the art artificial intelligence with the power to make Grey superhuman. Now, for a man who was forced to watch his wife bleed out in front of him, the only reasonable path is to use his new found power to seek revenge. It’s a path that his implant, STEM, suggests and then, as things escalate, insists upon.

The film is fuelled with action packed violence, vengeance and bloody justice. But underneath lurk some worrisome questions. STEM has a very singular agenda, even more so as Grey decides that he can’t continue to hunt down and murder his attackers. Grey wanted legal justice but STEM wants revenge and, as the power behind the man, is in the driving seat. A cop soon becomes suspicious of the bloody trail left behind and begins to suspect Grey of being more than he seems.

Beside the obvious contemplation of technology and it’s ever present impact on human society, Upgrade asks what happens when we make things we can’t control; when the technology takes over and moves beyond our ability to comprehend and contain it. As the story unfolds, the true horror of Grey’s situation is revealed. Things are far from what they seem and Grey is suddenly pitted against an artificial intelligence that has total control of his body and is slowly trying to usurp his mind. Cyberpunk, body horror sci-fi brillance, well worth watching.

Review – Snowpiercer

Posted: September 29, 2019 in Film, Sci-Fi
Tags: ,

Once again, I’ve relocated. Once again, I’ve had to move boxes upon boxes of books. Though not just my library but also, now, my son’s growing collection as well. It wasn’t an easy move but it was worth doing. So, a new city, a new gym, and another reshuffle of books (which is always kinda fun). But, exhaustion/laziness and an excellent wifi package resulted in a film binge and, first up was Snowpiercer.

This is a movie I’ve wanted to watch for some time but it was near impossible to find in the U.K (or anywhere else we’ve lived). However, Netflix did me proud and hosted it, much to my enjoyment. I’m not entirely sure it lived up to my expectations but it’s a great piece of sci-fi action and that is always a good thing. A stellar cast mixed with fantastic photography all make for a rollercoaster ride in a post-apocalyptic future.

Set on an express train travelling on an endless circuit through the frozen wastelands of Earth, society has boiled down to the passengers. And, like any society, the classes are divided. At the front is the founder, saviour, ruler. Under him, the rich, upper classes before moving slowly down to the workers, protectors, engineers and finally the last carriage. Deemed as scum, the tail end passengers are treated deplorably yet the truth of the matter is even worse. It’s a story that slowly unfolds as Curtis, played by Chris Evans, leads a revolution to take the train.

The resulting march to the front of the train reveals all manner of things from the decadence of those first class dwellers to the horror of the ‘food’ manufactured for Curtis and his fellows. Amongst the pitched battles, friends are lost, secrets revealed and strange alliances made as Curtis frees an enigmatic yet drug addled security expert. Together they push forward to the front of the train and a terrifying realisation.

I don’t want to spoil anything but the twists and turns in the story are well handled; some signalled whilst others not so. The final act is explosive to say the least, fitting the vibe of the film perfectly. Snowpiercer is a blend of styles and it shows as the movie is a unique piece of storytelling. The mix of Korean and European influences create a film that is highly memorable from its cinematic set pieces to its wild conclusion.

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn is an extremely well written and considered look at life a few years after an apocalyptic event. The title is a repeating question, asked and answered by the main character and her immediate companions. Meditating on how life pushes on, Vaughn captures the essence of loss; loss of what could have been as well as what was. As the survivors slowly come to terms with their new reality, the issue of what the future holds becomes paramount. It’s an interesting essay on how the apocalypse bifurcated the paths of their lives comparing where they are to where they would be had it never occurred. A meditative, somewhat melancholy, story that digs into what the reality of a post-apocalypse existence would be.

As Good As New is as different from the other stories as could be. Author Charlie Jane Anders has taken a wonderful idea and runs with it. Whilst her protagonist, Marisol, survived the end of the world inside an impenetrable bunker, it isn’t until she explores outside that this story takes a massive swerve. Marisol finds a bottle, within which is a very sarcastic and pedeantic genie. What follows is a clever consideration of how genies (or any other wishing machination) contain within both potentially fantastic and catastrophic results. As Good As New is thoroughly enjoyable in its take on the genre and the tools it uses to convey its ideas.

Hugh Howey’s Bones of Gossamer is another quiet and contemplative look at what the ‘end of the world’ would mean. Yet, Howey takes the perspective of an isolated culture, far from the western world. A culture used to separation and disconnection; a man who grew up with distant parents who’d travelled to the ‘big island’ and who, once older, left to find work. Now even older, his children also gone to earn money, he watches as the silence stretches. Where a steam boat would make the harsh journey to deliver supplies once a month, the horizon remains empty. Where a new satellite phone would connect them, silence has returned. When a starving European washes up on the shore, talking of disaster, the old man realises he must somehow make the journey to find his children. It’s a journey both physical and cultural as he embarks on remembering what his ancestors knew before steamboats and satellite phones. Howey captures something here; something well worth reading.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books

Aside from the frighteningly accurate and realistic introduction by editor John Joseph Adams, I do enjoy a good tale of the apocalypse and this collection contains stories from a number of highly regarded authors. I’ll be doing a series of reviews as I read the anthology.

First up, Elizabeth Bear’s Bullet Point. How the author manages to pack so much into the short story just goes to show her skill at the craft. After an unknown event, where the entire population of Las Vegas simply disappears, Isabella is left wondering and wandering in the desert heat. Ticking off lists off what is left and what has gone, never to return, Isabella finds solace in a future free from the troubles that plagued her past.

That is, until she meets a fellow survivor. What follows is a tense yet intriguing and, to be fair, unexpected. It’s a wonderful window into a weird scenario that captures a feeling with impressive ability.

Red Thread by Sofia Samatar is told through the eyes of a teenager, leaving messages on some sort of virtual notice board to her friend Fox. Each note tells of her travels as she and her mother find sanctuary and shelter at different ‘centres’. And, with each note we learn more about the world they live within; one populated with isolation zones and ‘centres’ and something described as the Movement. Between the lines and behind the personal story there is the greater concerns of climate change and war and violence, and in its subtle way, Red Thread draws a somber tale of humanity scrambling to survive.

I skipped ahead in the collection to read Jonathan Maberry’s Not This War, Not This World, because, well, it’s Jonathan Maberry. As the author explains, this short is a sequel to some of his other work, connecting other stories together and acting as a prequel to George A. Romero’s films. It is a no-holds-barred look into the life of a DELTA sniper, unravelling in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Maberry pulls no punches as his protagonist is faced with the most awful of choices. As the sniper, Sam Imura, breaks under the pressure, his world shrinks down to one of two decisions; to match forward and protect the innocent or to take himself out and end the nightmare. Under the stars, on a cold night, facing down a hungry, undead horde, neither is an easy road.

Published by Titan Books

Review copy

Ah, Black Summer. A balm to ease my zombie needs. If you’ve read my post on why I stopped watching The Walking Dead, you’ll know just how bitterly disappointed I was that my love affair with the series came to an end. Yet, here comes Black Summer, strutting it’s gory stuff all over Netflix and getting my heart racing as zombies chase down their hapless prey.

Set (apparently – but only because I haven’t done my research) in the same universe as Z Nation, Black Summer is very different. There’s little in the way of humour nor any of the tongue-in-cheek nods given to the tropes of the genre that Z Nation manages to play with. Instead, what we are left with is a gritty, breathless start to the zombie apocalypse where no-one is safe.

What begins with a family trying to find passage with a retreating military, soon devolves into a frantic fight for survival. The father is tagged as infected, the daughter is whisked away on another truck whilst her mother is torn between the two. When her husband turns, it’s all she can do to stay ahead of him. In amongst the madness, set in a housing estate, as people are attacked and reanimate, storylines unfold. A gangster is held at gunpoint by soldiers looking for loot; a boyfriend abandons his other half; a woman looking for her family is carjacked and then saved yet only for a while.

It’s brilliantly executed, breakneck speed action that unfolds and twists back on itself within the same set of streets, and told from multiple angles. And, soon, some of these survivors migrate together. The gangster saves the mother who both help another lost soul. The carjacked woman and her saviour take in a young Asian lady who speaks little English. These strange, fractured and desperate relationships are intense yet unexplored as, just like reality, there is no time to dwell and ponder and give monologues. It’s about staying alive and staying ahead of the pack; both zombie and human.

Black Summer, is relentless and there’s little plot armour for the cast. Things happen and they happen fast. Feral kids; hedonistic-drug fuelled underground raves; kind strangers; and all out terror. I’m hoping there’s another season as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one. The no frills, all action, the ‘apocalypse is happening right now’ style to the story telling and camera work was excellent and hooked me from the get-go.

Comparisons to World War Z by Max Brooks might be apt but only in so much as this is a complete, and I do mean complete, history of a supernatural change in (fictional) human history. Where Brooks uses verbal accounts and different perspectives, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising goes further and deeper into what it would mean for vampires to appear in modern society. The author does a great job at looking at how law enforcement, the press, politics, religion and all the institutes in between would address such a person; a person who is suddenly more powerful physically and psychologically; who is now capable of living for hundreds of years; a person whose moral and ethical compass is drastically different.

Whilst the book is a history, and an exhaustive one at that, it is a narrative; a story told from numerous perspectives that overlap and, eventually, dovetail into each other. Told through the eyes of an FBI agent, a research doctor, a priest in the Catholic Church and a political campaign manager, the novel manages to iron out so many details that the ‘history’ takes on the feel of being real. Political wrangling and amendments to the law sit neatly next to creepy house raids and the worrying spread of vampire fandom. What starts with a body disappearing from a small town morgue turns into numerous threads, all chasing the idea of a vampire in its various forms: as a blood-sucking drifter, as a disease, as a supernatural force, as an ideal.

For some it’s an issue of law; clearly draining people of their blood is a crime but where is the line drawn when it comes to turning another person into a vampire? Ethically, what rights do these people have as citizens and active members of society. For others, what and how does vampirism occur; is it a disease that’s controlable or reversible? Are any of those things right to pursue? All the while the author poses and explores these questions, the book is also considering the darker side of vampirism and what a new species of superhuman wants. Heists and strange kidnappings, underground networks and nefarious doings abound. Not only on the vampire side but also from humans. Humans who morally or otherwise decide to take the fight to the vampires.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is intriguing. It’s not an apocalyptic event but rather a slow, steady burn as society is infiltrated and changed from within. The depth of consideration into all aspects of the idea is impressive in itself, but how the author has woven it all together into a bizarre tapestry of a story is even more admirable. There’s a creeping darkness underneath it all, lurking under the surface, making all the machinations above seem off centre and, in that sense, truly capturing the essence of human history.

Review copy

Published by Titan Books