Filler content with shadows and shifters

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-


SHADOWS (Quercus pb, 520pp, £6.99) by Ilsa J. Bick is the second volume in a trilogy and comes with a cover sticker that reads ‘As good as The Hunger Games or your money back’, which is no real indicator of quality to this reader as I haven’t read THG.

Set in a world where society has collapsed and gangs of feral teens (the Changed) roam the countryside, it picks up where Ashes left off, detailing the various fates of Alex, Tom and Chris from the first book, and introducing some more players. Much of the action revolves round the town of Rule, a heavily defended community ruled by religious fanatics, which has made its own, somewhat unsavoury, arrangement with the Changed. Ousted from the town, Alex is taken prisoner by a group of the Changed, who add her to their living larder. Chris’ duplicity is revealed to the town Council of Rule, and that’s just the start of his troubles. Tom becomes part of a plot to clear the path for an attack on the town. A madman called Finn, who experiments on children and the Changed, has plans to lead his militia against Rule. In addition to which there are plenty more revelations about the nature of the Changed and the circumstances that brought Rule into being.

And that’s only a hint of the contents of this long and complex book, one in which nearly everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, with their secrets and the biology of the Changed becoming clearer as the narrative progresses, but despite the labyrinthine nature of the material Bick always seems to know what she is doing, the plot strands she needs to tweak to keep the story bubbling away and readers engaged with her characters. The driving force behind it all is the need to get the main actors together, the ones who between them hold the various pieces of the puzzle. Of course there are plenty of obstacles in the way and this meeting of the minds doesn’t happen within the pages of Shadows itself (I did say it was the second volume in a trilogy) though there are hints of what is to come. Action is at the heart of the story, with a succession of fires and frying pans to keep characters and reader alike on the edge of the seat. At times it feels like every step forward is followed by two back, as some fresh danger looms large in place of the one that has just been taken care of. We are never allowed to forget that we are in the middle of a desperate fight for survival – against a harsh climate, harsh friends and harsher enemies, with nobody certain who to trust.

Bick makes it all look effortless, with vivid descriptive writing that doesn’t go easy on the gore, as cannibalism, torture and human experimentation all get thrown into the mix (and, as far as that goes, I notice that a YA label is no longer appended to the book, references to THG aside). She gives us the kind of details – of weaponry, medical procedures etc – that add a note of verisimilitude to the proceedings, so that we believe totally in what she is showing us and have faith that we are in capable hands, a writer who will get us out safely on the other side, even if some of the party fall by the way (this uncertainty as to who will live and who will die adding yet another frisson). And yet despite the emphasis on fight and flight, Bick doesn’t stint on characterisation, allowing her protagonists to grow and filling in necessary bits of back story to make their actions more comprehensible. It was a thoroughly enjoyable slice of horror with an apocalyptic slant. I loved every page of it and can’t wait for the next one.

I had a lot of fun with Michael G. Preston’s first novel, the excellent Cull, in which he managed to tag serious philosophical and aesthetic concerns onto a schemata in which horror writers attempt to murder each other, but follow up book SHIFTERS (Austin Macauley pb, 231pp, £6.99) is a much more earnest production.

The book’s prologue has Meg Carroll giving a document to writer Jason Werrett and instructing him to write a book telling the world the truth. Next there is the story of crime scene photographer Richey Monitor, who sees something he can’t quite believe at the site of an air crash, one pilot having apparently flown into the other. Monitor slowly comes to the realisation, with other visions to guide him, that the world is ruled by reptilian intelligences, who possess key human beings, and they are intent on wiping out the human race. He sets out to find sanctuary with Dr Sarkin, a scientist who has told the world about these ‘shifters’, or TeleOps as he names them, but things don’t quite go according to plan. The story is now taken up by Richey’s work colleague and friend Meg Carroll, who pretty much goes through the same process of discovery, also seeking the help of the elusive Sarkin.

The basic premise here plays out like the theories of David Icke filtered through the Carpenter of They Live, but once you get past the novelty of alien intelligences intent on destroying mankind (and let’s be honest and admit that it’s not that original an idea), Preston doesn’t really seem to have anywhere interesting to go with it. Carroll’s adventures are more or less a reprise of what happened to Monitor, with the same father/child troubled relationships and distrust of authority for each. There’s no satisfying explanation for why each one is ‘allowed’ to see this truth, or why they aren’t simply killed off by the shifters, or why Carroll thinks that a book about the shifters will make a blind bit of difference, and I could have used a tad more credulity on the part of the characters as a prelude to acceptance of what is going down. Throw a bit more ambiguity into the mix and it could have passed for a study of psychological breakdown, only the repetition of events with Carroll undermined even that tack.

Further complicating matters, the writing is very uneven and at times awkward, with word choices that seem rather dubious, as with a sore thumb overuse of the word ‘sudden/suddenly’, sometimes inappropriately (e.g. ‘Suddenly there was a slow knock on the study door’), and on p192 there’s a section where the character is called Randy/Rusty in alternate paragraphs. Characterisation never really came alive for me, Richey, Meg and the others major players failing to get under my skin so that they felt like ciphers for much of the time, and with one late addition sounding rather like Arnie in his monosyllabic days, embarrassingly so. Where it worked best was in Monitor’s flight with his daughter, the madness undercutting their journey, and a genuine jump moment when Ellen phones her mother. That bit could have made a worthy short story, or at a push the dramatic resolution of a novella focused on Richey’s mental state, but as part of the novel it felt wasted. Overall this was pretty much something about nothing, big on concept but short on content, and failed to engage my attention sufficiently, so that reading eventually become a chore rather than a pleasure. If you want to check Preston out, go get a copy of Cull, and then if it impresses you as much as it did me, grab this one so you can consider yourself a completist.

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