Saturday 3 October 2009

Book Reviews

The Enemy
Charlie Higson
Penguin Books
Review by Rob Wade

It's always a daunting prospect for any writer to introduce a new series. Doubly daunting, presumably, is to introduce a new franchise of your own making when your name is synonymous in literary circles with the successful adaptation of a historic name, in this case James Bond. Charlie Higson, who some may remember from classic TV sketch comedy The Fast Show, has gained some deserved notoreity recently for his Young Bond series. It's clear to see that his abilities do not go unnoticed as well, as his series has sold a million copies in the UK, and has been translated into 24 languages worldwide.

It's therefore refreshing to see an author of this caliber attempting a new project, especially something as ambitious as The Enemy. This book illustrates a scenario whereby all adults over fourteen are struck down with a mysterious sickness, turning them into mindless zombies. The only survivors of this unusual plague are the kids under fourteen, who have to rely on their own wits and instincts in order to stay healthy. More importantly, these kids have to stay alive.

When we enter the novel, a group of kids who have taken up refuge in a local supermarket are repelling an adult attack, when one of the kids is taken away and left for dead. The childrens' morale seems to be at an all-time low, until a mysterious child appears telling of a better world outside the supermarket's area; Buckingham Palace. According to this mysterious child, the palace has been turned into a veritable utopia by a group of children much like the supermarket's occupants. The kids are now faced with a dilemma; do they trust this child they've never met or chance their survival in the fortress they've carved out for themselves?

One of the things that I liked immediately about this book was how well the narrative flows. The key, in my opinion, to a good novel of this type is the ability of the author to paint a vivid picture in the reader's head of what is happening in the story. Higson's style is very accessible in this way, and makes the novel very easy to follow and envisage. Also, much like zombie movies, there are some moments that genuinely have you on the edge of your seat, those moments where YOU know that something bad is about to happen, but you know just a little bit more than the characters in the novel. Suspense is one of those things that resonates only from a really well-written narrative, and there's plenty of it to keep you busy.

Another nice thing about this book is a quality that is also prevalent in any well-written story, particularly those that concern themselves with zombies: the idea that nobody is ever truly safe. As much as people balked at the idea of Chewbacca being crushed by a moon in Vector Prime, the first book in Star Wars' New Jedi Order, the author succeeded in bursting the bubble that had previously been seen to coat the main characters. Higson sensibly does not even allow such a bubble to even vaguely form, killing off a couple of principal characters in this book. Trust me, if you read the first twenty pages and try to guess who survives by the end of the first book, you WILL be surprised at least once!

The concept, too, is a novel one, pairing the zombie backdrop akin to The Walking Dead with the savagery of children all too present in classics like Lord of the Flies. The only question that really is left unanswered at the end of the novel is "What could possibly happen next?" I don't know about you, but after reading this I'll be very keen to find out.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating :
Violence : It's Lord of the Flies meets 28 Days Later. If that doesn't sound violent to you, you've never read or seen either.
Sex/Nudity : None whatsoever, you sickos.
Swearing : A fair amount, understandably.
Summary: A tremendous start to a series, Higson has made the characters sufficiently compelling to keep the reader interested for the next instalment as well as cover enough ground within the establishing story, all without the story feeling rushed. An excellent book. 9/10

Last Rites
Shaun Hutson
Little, Brown Book Group

Review by Brad Harmer

Almost beaten to death by a gang of violent teenagers, schoolmaster Peter Mason wants nothing more than to escape the simmering violence of London, his broken marriage and the memories of his daughter's death. The perfect chance comes in the form of a position at a prestigious boarding school in the heart of the Buckinghamshire countryside.

But the past is always lurking in the background. Not just his own past but that of the school and its former staff. Mason becomes obsessed with discovering what became of his predecessor. The man's mysterious disappearance remains unexplained, leaving a chilling legacy behind. Mason finds that there are strange events occurring at the school - violent and sinister events that have happened before and will, if he cannot stop them, happen again ...

Last Rites is very much a book of two halves, it starts out really well, falls apart in the middle, and ends ridiculously and preposterously. Maybe it’s a book of three thirds, then. Goddammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a mathematician.

Put simply, Last Rites has four main things in its favour. One, the characters are all believable, three dimensional and engaging – a nice change in the field of both crime and horror. Secondly, the dialogue is great, realistic, yet theatric. Thirdly, the violence is strong and uncompromising, without being ridiculously over the top, gory and showy. Finally, there are occasional breaks in the narrative for some hardcore lesbian sex.

Unfortunately, with those very strong and naked points covered, the rest of the novel appears to be held together with spit and wicker.

Last Rites may be one of the worst paced novels I’ve ever read. While the initial event happens in the first three pages, the real “call to adventure” (Peter Mason moving off to the country to start work at his new school) doesn’t actually happen until just over half-way through the book. Once there, the mystery doesn’t truly present itself until the two-thirds mark. For all its great characters, great dialogue and spontaneous bursts of lesbian erotica, there’s no real substance to the story. The mystery itself is paper thin, and dropped in at the very end of the book.

Oh, and the final ten pages of the novel? The most shameless knock-off of The Wicker Man I have seen since that stupid Nicholas Cage movie.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Several scenes of mutilated animals, vicious kicking in by a gang of teenagers.
Sex/Nudity: Frequent and fruity. Very frequent, actually.
Swearing: A realistic amount.
Summary: The kind of crap Christopher Pike would have pushed out in the nineties. With Anne Rice publishing books about Jesus, Clive Barker writing his children’s series, and Brian Lumley disappearing up his own Necroscope, maybe it’s time for the old guard of horror to step aside. 3/10

Heroes In The Wind: From Kull to Conan
Robert E. Howard
Penguin Books

Review by Brad Harmer

Howard's swashbuckling fantasy stories feature the adventures of the enigmatic Conan: a free barbarian from distant Cimmeria who ventures into the splendid kingdoms of the south to find his fortune in the lost eons of the Hyborian Age between the sinking of Kull’s Atlantis and the dawn of history. Cunning thief, captain of mercenaries and corsairs, lover of sultry temptresses, Conan follows his destiny into demon-haunted treasure towers and across the plains of death. And at last, like Kull before him, he slashes his name across the scrolls of royalty as King Conan, usurper-lord of imperial Aquilonia.

If you’re looking for an introduction to the writing’s of Robert E. Howard, then this book is likely to be a good grounding for you. It contains pieces of Kull The Conqueror, Conan The Barbarian, and other pieces, including some western and horror material. As a broad representative of Howard’s writing, this is a success. As a “Best of “ compilation, well, that’s rather more open for debate.

There are some very, very good stories in this collection, but unfortunately there are also some rather poor and/or lacklustre ones. Sure Red Nails, Kings of the Night and The Tower of the Elephant are great examples of Howard’s fantasy pulp fiction...but The Queen of the Black Coast, Worms of the Earth and Footfalls Within are not so great – and that’s the problem. This potentially great compilation ends up averaging out, well, average!

Of course, Conan compilations are ten a penny, and it’s very nice to see some of Howard’s other stuff in here. The western Vultures of Wahpeton may be one of the finest westerns I’ve ever read, and is such a strong precursor to the spaghetti westerns of the seventies, that I dare you to read it and not picture Clint Eastwood in the starring role! It truly is genre defining.

As mentioned earlier, the book not only showcases Howard’s amazing talents, but also his many weaknesses. His writing style was frequently light on description, often leaving the reader struggling through some vague and foggy scenery, until suddenly an axe smashes out of nowhere and cleaves someone’s skull in two. Also, and I appreciate I may be more than a little biased here, Howard always struck me as a poor man’s Lovecraft, replicating many of this flaws, without any true grasp of the inspiration that made him great.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
More murderising, eviscerating, stabbing, slicing, bludgeoning, and killing than you can shake a spear at.
Sex/Nudity: There’s nothing explicit, but I think Valeria may be the original chainmail bikini girl.
Swearing: None, besides the odd “Crom!”.
Summary: A good cross-section of this work. If you only want to read Conan stuff, there are better compilations out there. If you are already a fan of his work and want to read more of his lesser known stuff, or simply want a broader scope for reference, then this compilation is highly recommended. 7/10

Red Claw
Philip Palmer

Review by Brad Harmer

Professor Richard Helms heads up a tight-knit band of scientists and soldiers sent to explore New Amazon, a lush but savage planet seemingly determined to attack them at every turn. When they are done cataloguing every detail of this vast, unfamiliar ecosystem, they will burn it to the ground and make it fit for human habitation.

But when the team falls under attack, Helms and his followers are forced to flee into the depths of the jungle. Here, old enemies and petty rivalries surface as they struggle to survive. They soon end up fighting for their lives – against the planet they are exploring, the robots designed to protect them and, most of all, against each other. For the countdown into madness is ticking.

I’m not even sure where to start with a book that is as open to interpretation as Red Claw is. It’s a marvellous mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, mashing pulp sci-fi with a seedy Heinlein style utopian dystopia, and some pretty dark humour as well. It’s The Lord of the Flies meets Starship Troopers. A truly dark tale of betrayal, big guns, and monsters.

As the team is split up and marched out into the jungle, a bizaree hierarchy forms, with the team of gun-toting genetically bred commandos enforcing their will upon the weaker scientists. The rapid descent into barbarism of the characters reflects on how their apparently clean cut society actually is. And there are lots of giant robots with guns, and loads of monsters.

The story twists and turns like a twisty turny thing, and it’s all but impossible to make any kind of prediction at any time. This is one of the best novels released this year.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Lots of eviscerations, beatings, shootings, monster deaths, lasers, explosions, and cannibalism
Sex/Nudity: Some mild scenes and suggestions, one attempted rape
Swearing: A realistic amount – considering half the cast are soldiers.
Summary: One of the finest books released this year. 10/10

Thanks to our friends at Orbit, we've got five copies of Red Claw to give away to you! For your chance of winning one, send us an e-mail to with your name and postal address before midday on Wednesday 7th October (UK time). The first five names drawn out of the electronic hat will win a free copy of this awesome novel.

1 comment:

  1. Re: 'The Enemy'

    - Sounds quite interesting but I'm curious as to how this 'plague' knows when somebody is over the age of fourteen. Also, when the kids hit their fourteenth birthday, do they suddenly fall prey as well?

    Re: 'Last Rites'

    'The most shameless knock-off of The Wicker Man I have seen since that stupid Nicholas Cage movie.'

    - Ghost Rider?