Roll up, roll up, we've got zombies, we've got Martians, we've got a fistful of short stories - check out the latest review round-up.
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland
It was the cover that lured me in to this novel, I'll freely admit. Look at how gorgeous that cover is - a brilliant piece of work.
The story is an alternative history - in a world where the American Civil War ended abruptly, when the dead rose from the battlefields of Gettysburg and humanity had a new enemy, one that would bite and turn victims into fresh monsters. Warring soldiers are suddenly united in the face of a new enemy - but life doesn't get any better for those who were slaves.
No longer reaping harvests, instead they are forced into reaping the dead - or to die trying.
Enter Jane McKeene, a student at a school of combat where she is being trained to fight.
So far, so good - it's an intriguing premise, certainly. Alas, it doesn't quite hang together.
For example, in one nugget of information, we learn Jane likes to sneak out of the combat school at night to go hunting zombies that threaten travellers. She does so on such a regular basis that you would think a supposedly top school would notice frequent absences - but nope, no sign of guards watchful enough to spot any passing zombies, let alone a bored student looking to pass the time with a spot of zombiecide.
The zombies don't seem to be terribly much of a threat most of the time either - except as required for dramatic effect. Jane, meanwhile, is something of a superhero zombie killer, smiting while others are screaming.
Still, there's something about reading this in the wake of reading the satire Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which so effectively skewered this comfitted world of corsets and corpses that it's hard to take some of Dread Nation seriously. That wasn't helped every time somewhat gasped or grew short of breath because of the tightness of their corset while running or fighting zombies.
All in all, it felt something of a mixed book - there's an intriguing world within bursting to be freed. The ramifications of the changed world remain to be explored in full, and the tone wavers at times, but it's still intriguing. It didn't quite hit the mark for me - but then, if you've steered clear of the satire mentioned above, you might well add an extra star for your own reading.
AI Rating: 3/5
Dread Nation is available here.
10 Days: Undead Uprising, by Jon Athan
By golly, if this is the shape of the apocalypse, then I'm going to heartily cheer on the zombie invasion.
Let's start with the good - the idea of telling the story of the end of the world through ten different stories over the course of ten days isn't a bad one. Indeed, it could have been a great way of showing the big picture. Instead, we get mere vignettes of the vestiges of humanity. In each story, zombies travel around the US, meet not very interesting people, and eat them. More or less.
There's no central characters to hang onto, so don't get invested in any of the people you meet here, they won't be around long. Which is probably a good thing, seeing as they're all pretty repugnant.
For example, fully one fifth of the book revolves around characters who are trying to figure out the best way to engage in necrophilia. A couple of days into the end of the world and already you have a character trying to figure out how to save the world by getting a zombie to carry his baby. Yick.
Throw in folks going straight past canned goods to cannibalism and hey, I'm on the side of the zombies.
The writing is also clunky - for example, in the midst of a zombie attack, the mother of one family arrives home. The father is in the middle of being eaten - so this is an ideal time for the author to stop and give us a full rundown of her black a-line shirt and glossy black heels, right? Her vibrant brown eyes and beach blonde hair don't matter very much, she'll be zombie chow soon, have no fear.
Add to that some inconsistent details about the spread of the disease and a dangling plot thread about the colour of zombie eyes that goes nowhere and it seems clear there's not a lot of planning in this. Heck, the lack of subtlety can be shown by the name of the scientist researching the outbreak - step forward Jorge Romero. Sigh, yes. Oh, and I swear I swore aloud at the book when the author used the phrase "anxious fluids". Sweat, dude. It's called sweat.
If you want a fragmented vision of a zombie apocalypse that works, go read World War Z. But this? I'm afraid this bites.
AI Rating: 1/5
10 Days: Undead Uprising is available here.
War of the Worlds: Retaliation, by Mark Gardner and John J Rust
Now this is a good bit of fun. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells is a fantastic book - and ripe with possibility to develop in other tales. Here, Gardner and Rust imagine what comes next. After all, if the invasion had happened, humanity would have to figure out how to deal with the danger lurking on that distant Red Planet, right? The survivors of that first war retool the remnants of the tripods left behind by the invaders, re-engineer the technology and lo, behold, Earth is ready to invade Mars in return.
The really nice thing that the authors do here is to use real-world individuals for their story. So Tesla has been at the heart of inventing the ways to use this new technology, while the invasion force is spearheaded by the likes of Patton and De Gaulle, while Rommel becomes the fox of another desert entirely as the battle rages on the surface of Mars as time ticks on humanity as the Martians consider their own final solution.
It's a fun ride - though at times lacking a little in specifics, we get casualty lists but sometimes lack a bit of detail of how much of the Earth force that is, so it can be a little hard to gauge how much of a hammer blow it is to the forces of humanity. It's very much a military sci-fi, there's more action than rest, more chance to marvel at the tactics of taking on Martians on their home turf than to explore who our protagonists are. Sometimes too one sympathises with the Martians - there's no room for mercy in this war.
These are minor gripes, though, it's a smashing exploration of what could have been after the end of Wells' novel. There's bravery, there's loss, and the chances of success at times seem like a million to one...
I enjoyed this alternative history - and a look at how the paths of nations would have changed in the wake of the Martian invasion.
AI Rating: 4/5
War of the Worlds: Retaliation is available here.
The Last Days of Thunder Child, by C A Powell
One of the greatest moments in HG Wells' The War of the Worlds is the battle between the Martian invaders and the HMS Thunder Child. It's a heroic moment, the outgunned and outclassed naval vessel surging to the rescue of ships loaded down with civilian refugees fleeing the conflict - as tripods bear down, seeking to send them to a watery grave.
C A Powell expands that moment in the book to a fuller story of how the military side of the conflict came to be - and the story is divided largely into two parts. The first part is life on board the Thunder Child as the first reports begin to filter through of strange events after the arrival of a meteorite; the second part follows a low-level official from the Ministry of Defence as he encounters the Martian menace - and discovers a crucial piece of information that might help the fight. The second part largely carries the action in the opening half of the book, as the crew of the Thunder Child have little to do except wait for their part in the oncoming storm.
That does make for a little bit of a slow start, as we follow a couple of young sailors on punishment duty on board the Thunder Child, which puts them within earshot of the first reports of things going wrong. It soon picks up, though, as the MOD man picks his way through the devastation wrought by the tripods, gathering a handful of survivors with him and heading to join other refugees as they make for the coast.
In the end, it left me wanting a little more - the engagement itself I felt could still have had more added to it, but being left wanting more is no bad thing. It adds a little more to the incident from the novel, not least of all in the naval background material, which feels like it is soundly researched, and there is a real sadness at some of the moments in the conflict. I swear, I still think there hasn't been a solid movie adaptation of Wells' novel - and a successful adaptation could do far worse than to borrow some of the ideas here.
AI Rating: 3/5
The Last Days of Thunder Child is available here.
Zephyr I, by Warren Hately
This book seems to be pretty heavily promoted on Amazon - but I heartily suggest before you consider buying you use the Look Inside feature.
Straight away you plunge into a stream of consciousness of a character busily swearing, checking out other characters' breasts and butts, and name checking celebrities in a fairly implausible way - "Eric Clapton goes past and high fives me and then immediately makes a face aghast like he mistook me for someone else".
The story is a superhero one - but set in a more real world environment. How would our world react if superheroes really existed? And what would those heroes be like in a world which would fete them as celebrities, even with their personality flaws?
It all reads like some weird wish fulfillment fantasy - and not a pleasant one at that. For example, early on, the hero uses a static electricity power to make the nipples of girls at a party harden. Really.
Now if this is your kind of thing, then hey, the look inside will prepare you for it. If that's for you, go for it. It wasn't for me.
Throw in the cover looking like it's riffing off the far superior Zenith comic book and the whole thing is a package that I wish I'd left on the shelf.
AI Rating: 1/5
Zephyr I is available here.
StorycastRob: Mic Drop, by Rob Edwards
Mic Drop is a collection of some of the short story material showcased on the StorycastRob podcast. It's broadly fantasy, I would say, and includes ten stories, plus a chapter from his upcoming novel, Writ in Blood and Silver.
Rob excels at gentle whimsy, while often having a deft exploration of the worlds he creates beneath that. I've read a lot of his work - and yet there were still some pieces here that were new to me, such as Lizard Raid, a short story that comes from a roleplaying campaign he runs, and which feels like rich ground to discover more from.
The pick of the stories here are Time Rigger's Lament, which is a really delicate exploration of armageddon and ice cream, Armchair Armageddon, a witty story about supervillainy and suburban life, and his newest story, Equinox Transfer, of vampires and jumbo jets.
It's a delightful dabble into his world of writing - a slim volume ideal for a short read that will linger on after the book is done.
AI Rating: 5/5
StorycastRob: Mic Drop is available here.
Tales From The Seaside, by Claire Buss
One of the nice things about short story collections by authors is that you can see them stretching their writing muscles.
Freed from the need to frame a longer narrative, the short story is a playground, to test out different styles, different ideas. That's what Claire Buss does very nicely here. There are poems, a wittily constructed fake work module, a script, all capturing the beauty of mundanity, the delightful decay of British seaside life.
Pop down to any seaside town and you can see the characters from this book, picking their way delicately to the water then scampering back, their boldness vanquished by the chill of the water, or bickering about holiday destinations, or complaining about needing to go to the toilet. It's a slice of life, perfectly captured.
I particularly liked Maud and the Runner, a story of people watching growing into friendship. Claire also includes the opening chapters of two of her novels to give a glimpse of her longer work.
What I enjoy here is the subtlety, the gentle recreation of our own world, all while holding it up as perhaps something ridiculous, perhaps something essential.
It's a short read - and charming throughout its length.
AI Rating: 5/5
Tales From The Seaside is available here.