Monday 9 March 2020

BOOK REVIEWS: Invasive, by Chuck Wendig; The Black Company, by Glen Cook; Archangel, by William Gibson; Dark Flash 4, by Maria Haskins; Warming Season, by SR Algernon; Madness in the Shadows, by Jason J Nugent

It's review time again - including a couple of books I listened to as audiobooks. Audio is a different experience when it comes to books. For starters, the narrator can make a world of difference. A great story with a weak narrator can fail to shine, while a great narrator can keep you going through a humdrum story. Elsewhere this week, we have short stories and sci-fi - and a graphic novel from the splendid William Gibson. Here we go...

Invasive, by Chuck Wendig

This is the third novel of Chuck Wendig's that I've read - and it's fair to say I've had the full range of reactions to his work. I say read, this one I listened to as an audiobook, but previously I loved his first Miriam Black novel, but couldn't warm to his take on Star Wars in Aftermath. This one? Well, it ticks all the boxes for something I ought to love. 
It starts with a bang, an FBI consultant being asked to come and investigate a cabin where a weird death has taken place. The consultant, Hannah, is a futurist, who seems to have a habit of imagining all of the worst possible outcomes without ever really seeing the best. She uncovers clues that suggest that ants are being used as a weapon - and follows the trail of their little tiny feet as she hunts for the suspects. 
After the start, though, things get bogged down with very little action - Wendig throws in a few dream sequences as jump scares to distract from the lack of much happening. He writes really well, his style absorbing and immediate, but it takes a while for the story to pick up the pace - with Hannah all the while making bad choices and failing to see the consequences in her own personal future. 
Stick with it and about halfway through all hell breaks loose - in a good way. Suddenly I was pouring a glass of rum and enjoying the ride. Still, it took a while. 
So did I love it? Hate it? In the end, somewhere in the middle. I liked it - but it took a bit of patience to hang in there. I really like Wendig's writing, but the plot here was a bit humdrum, and it was easy to predict whodunnit. 
I must say, however, the narrator - XE Sands - was brilliant. Disarming in the face of scientific explanations and adding a real human uncertainty to the lead character, she really knocked it out of the park. Top notch narration. 

AI Rating: 3/5

Invasive is available on Amazon.

The Black Company, by Glen Cook

This came highly recommended to me on Twitter - so I'm sad to say it was a bit of a disappointment for me. 
First things first, what it's about - it's a fantasy tale of a company of mercenaries. Trouble is, they're on the side of the bad guys. Caught in the middle of conflicts while trying to make some coin, the mercenaries find themselves fighting alongside monsters while doing their best to bring down the heroes on the other side. 
So far, so good - but there are so many shades of grey going on here that it's hard to tell much difference between the cast in the company, uniformly morose and miserable and almost entirely male. Female voices are few and far between except for the Lady who leads the evil army. Worse, so many of the characters speak alike - I feel for the narrator on the audiobook I listened to who had to work hard to give them a distinct voice.
Many of the characters are unlikeable too - they rape, they pillage. The lead character at one point wakes from a dream in which he's forcing himself on underage girls - so I tended to cheer against the lead characters. 
In many ways, it reads a lot like a game of Warhammer - with the monstrous entities the company fights alongside almost like special units in a wargame. 
The story - such as it is, more a collage of short stories travelling the same path - picks up in the latter half of the book, and a plot appears, but the first half of the book could very well be offputting for many. 
In the end, it wasn't for me. I don't mind anti-heroes - but this company of soldiers are too covered in dirt and mud to be able to tell much difference between the worst of the worst and the best of the rest. 

AI Rating: 2/5

The Black Company is available on Amazon.

Archangel, by William Gibson

I've always really enjoyed William Gibson's work - but I didn't know he'd done any graphic novels until this popped up on my Kindle recommendations. 
In I dived, falling into an alternate history world where World War 2 ends very differently and time travellers try to put the timeline back the way it should be. 
It's a lot lighter than Gibson's usual fare - almost a pulp sci-fi take on things, and it feels like it could have done with being fleshed out a little more. That mostly hurts a couple of the characters who we don't really get to know well enough, leaving them as fairly broadly drawn archetypes. 
But it's fun. It really is. And makes you wonder about how things might have played out for the worse. 
I picked it up on Kindle Unlimited, and I'm glad I did. Worth the read. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Archangel is available on Amazon.

Dark Flash 4, by Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins has become one of my favourite short story writers. She's also writing here, there and all over the place - so these Dark Flash collections are a great way of keeping up with her progress.
These collect her flash fiction pieces written for the Word Count podcast, by RB Wood, which itself is worth checking out. 
Maria has a knack of turning her pen into a scalpel, able to peel open your flesh with a deft flick of the wrist. I read these at a time when my emotions were particularly high but this collection really got to me at times.
Now, being flash fiction, these are quick, sharp slices - it can be hard to get too in depth. And while they were all written to different prompts for the podcast, if there is something of a theme across them it is of becoming. Becoming something more. Someone more. Becoming... well, you'll just have to read to see. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Dark Flash 4 is available on Amazon

Warming Season, by SR Algernon

By golly, this is a strong slice of worldbuilding. A sci-fi tale in a world of conflicting cultures, this feels like a world close to the author's heart. It's also nice to see a sci-fi setting that isn't predominantly Western in its background, with a strong element of Chinese culture here.
The story itself kicks off with murder, and builds towards revolution - though it's a slow start. Once things get going, so the consequences build, amid a powder keg of arrogance, religious beliefs and cultural clashes. 
It was a tough one for me to pick a star rating for - as the worldbuilding is great, but sometimes at the expense of the flow of the story. Still, I enjoyed it - and it's great to see a vision of a future that's unique, not just piggybacking off other mainstream sci-fi. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Warming Season is available on Amazon

Madness in the Shadows, by Jason J Nugent

This collection is something of a revisit for me - bringing together two short story collections I've reviewed previously and tossing in a couple of bonus extras. 
As such, it's an easy one for me to rate - I gave both previous collections five stars so I guess I add those together and... wait, five stars is the maximum, right? Dammit. 
As for the feel, a lot of these come across like little slivers of Twilight Zone goodness - thoughtful and scary all at once. 
Many of the stories are short flash fiction pieces rather than longer stories, so glorious nibbles of darkness to enjoy with your coffee on a break. Delightful, dark and delicious. The coffee is, too. 

AI Rating: 5/5

Madness in the Shadows is available on Amazon.
Thanks for reading, all - and hey, in the comments, tell me what you've been reading!

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