If I’ve said it to my wife once, I’ve said it a thousand times; Netflix is crushing it with their original sci-fi series. The Punisher is an excellent example. As a kid, I read some Spider-Man/Punisher crossover comics and, as a teen, I read more Punisher comic books. He’s a great character who populates a space in the superhero landscape that is unique. An anti-hero of sorts but one driven by the most pure albeit tragic of reasons.

The series does an amazing job of bringing that backstory to life, rebooted yet losing none of its power. In fact, it probably adds a layer of moral ambiguity to the character of Frank Castle that firmly places the series at the gritty end of dark. Jon Bernthal fills out the army issue boots of The Punisher in epic fashion with an intensity that is relentless and terrifying.

After dispatching a host of gangsters, drug dealers and mafiosa, who Castle blames for the murder of his wife and children, he is drifting under the radar having faked his own death. But a message from a certain ‘Micro’ brings everything back and uncovers the real power behind the killing of his family.

The dynamic between Frank and Micro is intriguing and complex, moving from enemies to friends and everything in between. The duo are, however, the perfect package to take on an enemy who has all the assets and all the power. Frank’s psychotic drive and ability to rain down death paired with Micro’s technological wizardry is an unstoppable force.

Yet, there are other players in the game such as Homeland Security Agent Madani. A woman compelled to find the truth and very much a white-hat in the story. It complicates Castle’s plans entirely as Madani is determined to bring The Punisher in, thinking he is responsible for all manner of crimes. As things begin to untangle, Madani and Castle begin to co-operate.

The Punisher is a brilliant series. Dark, violent and uncompromising. It also cleverly touches on some serious modern themes around the recent conflicts in the Middle East. But, the finale is one of the most brutal conclusions I’ve seen in screen. One which cleverly leaves an opening for a second series and I can’t wait.

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Whilst re-organising my bookshelves, I spied this title nestled in amongst some older fantasy works. In the two brief steps it took to place it with my horror section on the opposite wall, I’d begun to read the opening chapter. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before or not (I get hit in the head a lot while sparring), but it was intriguing enough that I keep in turning the pages.

It’s an excellent zombie apocalypse novel told through the eyes of an ensemble of characters divided between two locations. The leader of each group is military: General Sherman, an experienced soldier tasked with operations in Africa; and Lieutenant Colonel Anna Demilio, part of the US medical research institute for infections disease stationed in America. Demilio catches wind of the ‘Morningstar Strain’ early on before it begins to really spread, trying, helplessly, to urge her higher-ups to act. Soon enough, however, the infection is taking hold across the African continent, forcing military action to try and quarantine certain countries.

Sherman is at the forefront of this conflict, witnessing the horror of the initial effects of the virus and the consequent reanimation of its victims. Double the zombie, double the mayhem as Recht has mixed ‘sprinters’ and ‘shamblers’ into a nightmarish blend of death. It’s as great as it sounds. Sherman is the reader’s eyes into pitched battles, breathless escapes and brutal violence. Demilio portrays the political side of the problem as she tries to get the truth out only to find herself imprisoned for treason by a very scary NSA trio.

The opening book in a series, it’s a solid, action-packed read. Just the kind of thing I was looking for to accompany my morning coffee.

Published by Permutated Press

After the amazing debut, Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee has built on that success with the exceptional Raven Stratagem. Further exploring the larger universe, including the complicated political landscape of the hexarchate, this series is space opera at its finest. Battles large and small, both physical and intellectual abound in a story peopled by gripping cast of characters.

Following the protagonist Cheris/Jedao as they embark on what seems to be a madness induced campaign of warfare, Raven Stratagem drives forward with a thrilling story while setting up a number of ideas for the next book. Turning the hexarchate’s calendrical mathematics against them, Jedao/Cheris is able to take over a huge fleet of Kel ships yet continues to pursue the enemies of the ruling hegemony instead of attacking it. Whilst one Lieutenant is able to resist Jedao’s commands, the fleet is soon gaining popularity and traction in a universe desperate to find hope and freedom from the stifling rule of the hexarchate.

But, nothing is as it seems. The various factions and their leaders are simultaneously at each other’s throats whilst pursuing similar goals. Equally, Jedao/Cheris isn’t trying to murder innocent populations on undefended planets but is, instead, looking to protect those people and maintain a sense of order within the greater culture.

Raven Stratagem is full of intrigue, covert agendas, space battles and wonderful, intoxicating world-building. Yoon Ha Lee has a unique vision and voice and this is definitely a fantastic series for fans of sci-fi.

Review copy

Published by Solaris Books

I watched something..

Posted: January 19, 2018 in Random, Uncategorized

Well, actually, I watched two short films but it took me about four days to view the collective forty minutes. It doesn’t really explain my six month absence from blogging however..

Things have been hectic, as life goes, and training has gotten manic recently (trying to keep up with training partners 20 years younger isn’t a great plan). I’m teaching more wrestling at the gym and on top of looking after my son and getting work done, the blog ended up being left by the wayside.

However, in amongst it all I saw some talk about Neill Blomkamp’s latest project. More to the point, his latest decision to start a film company to explore lots of different ideas and projects; an incubator of sorts for film directors and editors. Searching for Oats Studios will reveal all. It’s a fantastic idea, in my opinion, especially with the current reboot mania the major studios seem taken with.

I’ve also started watching The Punisher, which is proving to be very enjoyable; Luke Cage, a show that has some great moments and some slightly stilted ones; and I finished watching the season seven of The Walking Dead. More on all of that later.

Honestly, this post is just a marker for me; a way to push me back into blogging and recording the books I read and the films I watch. So, whilst I’ve been bouncing around like Sam Beckett, desperately trying to make the leap home, I’m back and will, hopefully, be blogging once again more regularly.

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Aside from reading my son his collection of The Little Red Train books by Benedict Blaithwayt (which are excellent for toddlers), the Dark Cities anthology has me equally enthralled.

Grit by Jonathan Maberry features that city within a city; the housing estates of the UK or the projects of the USA. The kind of places that have their own ecosystems and rules, where the locals implicitly understand the unique laws they live by. Working amongst that grim collective of hustlers, addicts, survivors and criminals is the protagonist; ostensibly a bounty hunter for two enigmatic bondsmen yet also a man who deals in things on the other side, both of the law and the natural.

Big, ugly and covered in tattoos, he’s a man who is capable of reaching through the veil. Communicating with ghosts and uncovering the identities of their murderers, he can understand the pain of the lost and wandering souls. Tasked with just such a job, Grit is a rough and violent episode into a place best avoided.

The horror contained in Simon R. Green’s Happy Forever is an enigmatic one. A thief of unusual and exceptional items is contacted by the father of his ex-girlfriend a decade after her disappearance. Though he claims to be free of any attachments, even to his own name, this request immediately draws him in as he seeks to save her and thereby show his true feelings.

Her ‘prison’ is an unassuming suburban house where time has stopped. The thief appears to be in control and on route to fulfilling his task. The darkness of this tale comes in the last few paragraphs and leaves and unsettling feeling.

Paul Tremblay does an amazing trade in dealing out dualities; stories full of more questions than answers and answers with no clear meanings. The Society of The Monsterhood is told from the perspective of a neighbourhood regular, witnessing events from his front porch. Four kid are given the opportunity to attend a good school on a scholarship. This immediately makes them a target for the other residents in the hood where they live.

Verbal and physical abuse ensues. The kids become teens and then something changes. They issue a threat, one which has dire consequences for those who don’t leave the four of them alone. It’s here that Paul Tremblay interjects uncertainty, giving the story numerous facets and a heavy degree of weirdness.

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Published by Titan books

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Helen Marshall’s The Way She Is With Strangers is a wonderfully poetic, musically written short story. It’s a strange but engaging tale of Mercy, a women who has moved away from her place of birth to a new city and a new existence where her daughter regularly visits and where she seems to have found happiness amidst the difference. But, as the story progresses the rhythm alters. Oddities occur and suddenly strange clues are left to be unthreaded.

The Way She is With Strangers is strangely beautiful. Pathways and boundaries, maps and geographies all hint at something beyond as Mercy tries to help those looking to find a way out of the city; a way only ghosts can walk. It’s a wonderful story.

Coming at the idea of a ghost story from the polar opposite direction, Good Night, Prison Kings by Cherie Priest is a grim and gritty tale of vengeance. The story is a slowly revealed by the protagonist, Holly, as she finds herself remembering the circumstances of her current existence. Sat in a mundane interview, Holly realises that she is dead and that her interviewer is offering her the chance to conclude some unfinished business.

That ‘business’ turns out to be the opportunity to avenge her own death. To bring retribution to those who have wronged her and the elderly family members she was looking after. Holly turns out to be a violent conduit for justice but it’s the targets of her anger that add such a grim taint to the tale.

What I’ve Always Done by Amber Benson is an engaging yet odd snap shot of a strange life. Told with few details but in with exceptional style, this is one of those short stories that has the immense ability to pull the reader into a world using but a few sentences. It’s violent and dark, hitting the brief perfectly.

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Published by Titan Books

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The strap line for this anthology reads ‘all-new masterpieces of urban terror’ and with an impressive list of authors to boot, it’s a collection I’ve been keen to read. Premised on the idea of the city, each writer has scraped back the veneer of metropolitan living to reveal the horror lying beneath.

First up and making an immediate impression was Scott Smith’s The Dogs. A mix of supernatural and bizzare properties, it’s the kind of tale where once it’s stall has been laid out you kind of know where it’s going. But, that doesn’t diminish its power or ability to unsettle. A young women who enjoys meeting men on Craigslist, suddenly finds herself in a situation that is
only ever going to end badly. However, it’s not the normal ‘met a guy who turned out to be a serial killer’ type bad; somehow it’s worse yet also pleasantly mundane. A mysteriously magical flat; murderous, talking canines; and the choice between killing or being killed. Superbly written and brilliantly paced, The Dogs is understated horror at its finest.

In Stone by Tim Lebbon definitely added some welcome chills to this week’s epic heatwave. It’s a story that manages to do so much with mere suggestions and hints rather than outright horror but the effect is exceptional. An insomniac narrator, troubled by the death of his closest friend, begins walking the streets of his home city in the early morning hours. During these meandering wanderings, he sees a woman strolling down alleyways and sidestreets, and he follows her. Curiosity peeked because she seems so out of place, so elsewhere, the woman disappears.

It’s a mystery that leaves the narrator unsettled and he investigates the spot again the next day. However, what he finds inexplicably intrigues yet deeply frightens him. Soon he begins seeing signs of further offkilter happenings around the city and can’t help but look for more. In Stone never explicitly shocks but the creeping sensation it produces is impressive.

Both stories have found intriguing interpretations of the brief for this anthology and I’m definitely hooked. Featuring so many good writers, such as Jonathon Maberry, Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell and others, I’ll be posting up more reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books

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Maniacle and manic; those were my overriding thoughts after reading El Sombra. It’s no surprise as the author, Al Ewing, is known for his comic book writing and this novel, set in a steampunk alternative reality, had many of the same visceral, action packed set pieces along with a healthy dose of vile villains waiting to be extinguished in exceptional style.

In the shared world sandbox of Paz Britannia, Ewing takes the idea of steampunk and runs with it. Basing his story in a small Mexican town that has been overrun by ruthlessly evil Nazis, El Sombra is a tale of absolute vengeance. By that, I mean total and completely insane levels of retribution. The eponymous protagonist was once some sort of emo poet and general laughing stock while his brother was the exact opposite; handsome, charming, brave and liked. Opening at the brother’s wedding, the novel quickly finds its stride as Nazis murder the bride and groom while emo-boy blubbers and then runs away.

As a catalyst it’s result is impressive. Emo becomes El Sombra; a fierce, desert hardened, sword wielding mix between ninja and berserker. After nine years in the wilderness he returns to his village and wreaks havoc. The Nazi force are undertaking all kinds of experiments, mainly turning the populace into mindless automatons. El Sombra is a one man army and so begins his bloody, violent journey toward retribution.

El Sombra is a blend of self-reflexive pulp fiction, alternative history, steampunk and comic book violence. It’s glorious in its unrelenting, unadulterated, uncensored imagination. Flying Nazis, a steampunk powered Hitler, gore galore and a hero of epic proportions. It’s mental but in a good way.

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Published by Abaddon

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I read Kieran Shea’s debut and it was a definite hit. Similarly, Off Rock has all the panache, creativity and excitement but this time packaged up as a classic crime caper set in a far future, space mining facility. There’s a good natured vibe to the book that keeps the fun ratcheted up high even when the action truly kicks off.

Jaded and complacent, Jimmy Vik, is fairly set in his ways, working for various mining companies that exploit the material rich outer reaches of space. He’s bounced around, lived the maxim of ‘work hard, play hard’ and is now getting to that stage in life where he’s stuck with his lot and doesn’t care one way or the other. That is until he discovers a seam of gold, missed by the company scans and ripe for the taking. To Jimmy, it’s the chance to start everything afresh regardless of the very severe and life threatening punishment that comes with appropriating the mining company’s property.

It sets in motion a series of events, bluffs and double crosses as Jimmy is stiffed by his accomplice, Jock. An indebted gambler with a huge criminal cartel on his case, Jock takes little time stitching up Jimmy. Off Rock has, to my mind, the feel of the Ocean’s Eleven movie as each actor brings to the story another complication. Setting up the main heist story for the first half of the book, things quickly unravel as Jock puts his own plan in motion. Sure enough, Jock the fixer is greasing wheels and doing deals. But, the cartel have eyes on him and are determined to get the account settled or, more accurately, terminated. Add in to the mix Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend and supervisor, who is far from stupid and tough to boot, the gold has gone from a sure thing to a hard sell.

Off Rock is, from start to finish, a brilliantly fun read. It hits all the right notes of a caper as everyone scrambles to get their slice of the pie. Jimmy, as hard as he tries, continues to blunder into obstacles, and it looks like he’ll be lucky to get out alive. Off Rock is a strikingly impressive feat of writing from the characters and banter to the plot and conclusion. When all is said and done, this is a book that will keep you thoroughly entertained and leave you with a smile on your face.

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Published by Titan Books

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Following on from his slick opening gambit with The Hatching, Ezekiel Boone continues the arachnid apocalypse in Skitter and never lets go of the creepy-crawly tension. Though the majority of his cast survived the first book in the series, things haven’t got any better. In fact, this whole novel is all about just how bad things are going to get.

The spiders have wrought havoc and, though it seems the plague of flesh eating eight-legged freaks are dying off, it’s just the beginning. Country after country has suffered outbreaks of attacks and the world’s governments and armies are trying their best to destroy and burn out the egg nests left by the first wave. However, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a mathematical (and physical) impossibility to contain the situation using conventional military tactics.

That is the issue at the heart of Skitter. President Stephenie Pilgrim knows it; scientist Melanie Gruyer has realised it and the boots on the ground are seeing it – no matter what they do, someone infected or some nest will have been missed and is about to restart the avalanche of killer arachnids. Skitter is the calm before the storm and, as the second book in the series, sets up what will clearly be a catastrophic ending. Because, what was, at first, a tidal wave of death is actually something else. It was a first wave. Therefore, what is coming next?

Clues and conjecture, fragmented information and intuition start to form a picture as humanity is given a brief respite from the spiders. Huge caccoon eggs are discovered whilst a different type of spider appears; one that seems to nurse the gigantic egg sacks. Amidst all this, the US president is forced to make harder and harder choices. With China already a nuclear wasteland and parts of Europe and Indian crumbling under the arachnid threat, Stephanie Pilgrim must do the unthinkable to save her country.

Skitter is all about those tough choices. The tension and terror is present throughout the book but this second instalment is really concerned with what is to come and how to try and stop it. The ensemble cast of characters continue to impress, some coming in to contact with others, while some try their best to survive. It’s a real strength of the author that no matter who is in the spotlight, you’re made to care about them, for however brief a moment. If The Hatching was a summer blockbuster then Skitter is its tense, page turning counterpart setting the tone for a brutal, all out apocalyptic conclusion.

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Publish by Gollancz