Quick Review: FIREWALKERS by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris)

Tchaikovsky-FirewalkersOn a scorched Earth, access to energy can mean the difference between life and death.

Firewalkers are brave. Firewalkers are resourceful. Firewalkers are expendable.

The Earth is burning. Nothing can survive at the Anchor; not without water and power. But the ultra-rich, waiting for their ride off the dying Earth? They can buy water. And as for power?

Well, someone has to repair the solar panels, down in the deserts below.

Kids like Mao, and Lupé, and Hotep; kids with brains and guts but no hope.

The Firewalkers.

Firewalkers is the latest shorter novel by Tchaikovsky. A mystery set in an environmentally ravaged future, it follows a group of firewalkers as they are sent out to investigate some strange energy surges and interruptions. A bleak picture of the future, one in which the very few have left the many behind. I enjoyed this. Continue reading

“Black Moon” by Kenneth Calhoun (Hogarth)

CalhounK-BlackMoonUKAn interesting premise, well-executed, but still slightly flawed

“A black moon had risen, a sphere of sleeplessness that pulled at the tides of blood-and invisible explanation for the madness welling inside.”

The world has stopped sleeping. Restless nights have grown into days of panic, delirium and, eventually, desperation. But few and far between, sleepers can still be found – a gift they quickly learn to hide. For those still with the ability to dream are about to enter a waking nightmare.

Matt Biggs is one of the few sleepers. His wife Carolyn however, no stranger to insomnia, is on the very brink of exhaustion. After six restless days and nights, Biggs wakes to find her gone. He stumbles out of the house in search of her to find a world awash with pandemonium, a rapidly collapsing reality. Sleep, it seems, is now the rarest and most precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.

I hadn’t heard of this novel before it arrived through the post. As someone who has a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic novels (and the various sub-genres that covers), and also someone who has always suffered from varying degrees of insomnia, Black Moon’s premise jumped out at me. Given its slim length, too, I decided to read it right away. What I found was a novel that is, strangely, both excellent and also wanting.

To be sure, one of the things that drew me into the narrative was the insomnia aspect. In this story, rather than ravenous zombies prowling the streets and eating the living, we have a population suffering from true insomnia – no sleep whatsoever, rather than the more common syndrome that restricts sleep and prevents restfulness. As a result, the majority of the global human population is going through the debilitating symptoms of hallucinations, dissociative disorder, emotional turmoil, and eventual death. On top of this, and here’s where the peril for non-sufferers comes in, those suffering also experience homicidal rage when they are either confronted with someone they believe to be a “sleeper” or if they actually witness someone sleeping. The descriptions of what those in the early stages of suffering experience was very close to home, and I immediately sympathised with them all. [Interestingly, and rather meta, I ended up reading Black Moon well into the wee hours of the day, unable to sleep myself…] Here’s one example (I share Carolyn’s frustrations):

“Unlike Carolyn, he had never had trouble sleeping. Early in their relationship, his ability to drop off anytime, anywhere, had been a point of occasional contention. It offended her not only in that she felt that he was using sleep as a means of avoidance, but also because she held sleep so precariously. The slightest noise or change in the light could wake her. Her mind, roaring in the chassis of her skull, pounced on painful memories and worries about the future of the challenges of her studio work, batting them around for hours as she tossed and turned. Meanwhile, he snored at her side. They had decided that sleep was his super-power…”

CalhounK-BlackMoonUSDespite a great premise, however, the novel felt rather underdeveloped and, perhaps, far too short. Calhoun can certainly write, and his prose and pacing drew me on through the novel at quite a clip. However, we are never really given the chance to get to properly know the characters, which left me rather uninvested in some of their fates. Certain characters were far stronger than others (Biggs, Felicia, for example) and I think their storylines offered greater storytelling potential than a couple of the others (Chase, for example, who was a little irritating by the end). I think this would have benefited from being longer, which would have allowed us to feel the tensions of the world a bit more, get to know the characters better, and become invested in their struggles. The work-around developed by the sleep institute was arrived at rather suddenly and out of the blue, too, which robbed yet more of the tension.

True, the novel is structured and composed in a way that reinforces the hallucinatory symptoms of prolonged true-insomnia, which made it rather disjointed at certain points (on purpose) while at the same time evoking an appropriate atmosphere. This was a solid attempt to do something different, which is always welcome, but the vagaries of what I was reading often just obfuscated certain elements of the story, which meant my investment waned as things became worse.

Ultimately, there were certainly things I liked in Black Moon – the insomnia-induced zombification and mania, for example, and also the work-around that they develop (which, while suddenly introduced to the story, was also pretty cool), and the aforementioned stronger characters. Sadly, however, I didn’t love the book. It will be interesting to see what the author comes up with next, though, and I await his next novel with anticipation.

Upcoming: “Black Moon” by Kenneth Calhoun (Hogarth)

CalhounK-BlackMoonUKThis is a really intriguing-looking novel. A copy of the novel arrived in the mail yesterday (complete with an eye-mask…). Here is the synopsis for Kenneth Calhoun’s dystopian future novel, Black Moon

Insomnia has claimed everyone Biggs knows. Even his beloved wife, Carolyn, has succumbed to the telltale red-rimmed eyes, slurred speech and cloudy mind before disappearing into the quickly collapsing world. Yet Biggs can still sleep, and dream, so he sets out to find her.

He ventures out into a world ransacked by mass confusion and desperation, where he meets others struggling against the tide of sleeplessness. Chase and his buddy Jordan are devising a scheme to live off their drug-store lootings; Lila is a high school student wandering the streets in an owl mask, no longer safe with her insomniac parents; Felicia abandons the sanctuary of a sleep research center to try to protect her family and perhaps reunite with Chase, an ex-boyfriend. All around, sleep has become an infinitely precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it. However, Biggs persists in his quest for Carolyn, finding a resolve and inner strength that he never knew he had.

Black Moon will be published in March 2014 by Hogarth (an imprint of Random House) in both the UK and US.

“Ex-Heroes” by Peter Clines (Del Rey UK/Broadway)

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUKSuperheroes-vs.-Zombies Novel Fails to Impress

Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Billions died, civilization fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions protect a last few thousand survivors in their film-studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. Scarred and traumatized by the horrors they’ve endured, the heroes fight the armies of ravenous ex-humans at their citadel’s gates, lead teams out to scavenge for supplies—and struggle to be the symbols of strength and hope the survivors so desperately need.

But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the city’s ruins. And just a few miles away, another group is slowly amassing power… led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

I had high hopes for this novel – mixing superheroes and zombies seems like such an awesome, perhaps even common-sense mélange, yet it had not been done before. So, when the three books arrived on my doorstep, I was eager to get stuck in. While Ex-Heroes had some good bits – the action-scenes, in particular, are well-written – ultimately, I do not think this book was ready for publication. This was a big disappointment.

Ex-Heroes is very much rooted in the super-hero and zombie apocalypse genres. Clines does a fine job of painting the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, and it was never difficult to get a sense of the place and atmosphere when he was writing about the city, it’s few surviving residents, and its shambling hordes.

The novel is also, disappointingly in my opinion, equally rooted in comic book aesthetic of, at a guess, 1990s Marvel – all of the women are super-hot, sexually available, adolescent fantasies. There’s even a “dominatrix-ninja” who doesn’t wear very much at all. This character is Stealth, and Clines overdid her introduction: it is filled with such cliché ideas of what makes someone a genius, for example, and also explanations of how much being stunningly beautiful was something that never mattered to her, and that she was endlessly frustrated that people will only ever see her worth in her looks. Fine, nothing wrong with the latter. But then why on Earth would she design an outfit that accentuates her underwear-super-model figure? And yes, she was an underwear-super-model. I think I get what the author was trying to comment on, but he didn’t do it too well at all. And I may be being charitable…

The novel is meant as pure entertainment, and I can certainly see what the author was trying to do. In many ways, he succeeds, but the end result remains not brilliant. It’s a good, even inspired blend of two popular genres – I’d say more rooted in superhero than zombie sub-genre, though, as it lacks the slow-build, sinister tension of the best zombie tales. It does a good job of tapping in to many wish fulfillment needs of super-hero fans everywhere.

Another major weakness, in my opinion, was the writing. I think it could have been much better written. The story lacked depth, but I can’t deny that I zipped through what I read pretty quickly. Sadly, the characters were unsurprising, some of the “psychology” seemed mixed up or garbled. The “relationships” were bland, relying on gorgeous, sexually aggressive women fawning over the menfolk. It lacked tension. Ultimately, I was rather bored. Which is why I stopped reading.

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUSWhich is a pity, as I thought there were elements of the narrative and apocalypse-building that were innovative and interesting. For example, the nature of zombism idea is intriguing: the virus/pathogen is actually non-fatal, it just turns people/victims into walking petri dishes, as if they have been “injected with the CDC’s wish list” of the myriad diseases percolating in Los Angeles.

And the action scenes aren’t bad. But the overall momentum, and the level of my interest dwindled quickly, the more I read. Each time I picked it up, I’d easily get through a handful of chapters. But each time it took a bit more effort to pick it back up. I wonder, really, if the novel had been properly formulated before it was written – most of the ideas are there, but I would describe this as an early draft at best. It’s missing development. It lacks chops.

As I mentioned at the start, I was sent the first three novels in the series, which makes me feel a little awkward about disliking it as much as I have, truth be told. Will I read the others? Probably, yes. But I’m in no rush to get to them, so don’t hold your breath for reviews in the near future.

With Ex-Heroes, while Clines has managed to come up with an interesting, original spin (as far as I’m aware) on two very popular genres, the actual story, characters and quality of writing aren’t there. I really wanted to like this, but ultimately, after about 40% of the novel, I just couldn’t read any more. This, in my opinion, was not ready to go to market. A real shame.

***

Update: The original version of this review included an error. I stated that Ex-Heroes was previously self-published, when in fact it was published through a small-press: Permuted Press. Apologies for the error.

*

Ex-Heroes – and the sequels Ex-Patriots and Ex-Communication – are out now in the UK (Del Rey) and the US (Broadway).

ClinesP-2-ExPatriots

Book 2 – UK, US

ClinesP-3-ExCommunication

Book 3 – UK, US

The fourth book in the series, Ex-Purgatory, will be published in January 2014. Here are the covers (UK, US):

ClinesP-4-ExPurgatory