reading, Reviews

Review: Displaced

Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of Displaced ahead of release by the author, Dan Hook, for review purposes.

Post-apocalyptic books, from my own experience, live or die on the strength of the imagery and world-building, but also on the strength of the characters that populate that world and the plot that befalls them. In Displaced, all of this happens with some aplomb.

Displaced is an assiduously-written adventure, with crisp, tight prose that really doesn’t impose itself upon the reader, instead laying the foundations for the characters we make acquaintances of to introduce the world and the story. That’s a great positive for me as unobtrusive, but not inelegant prose is a challenge to get right. Displaced succeeds.

We meet three main characters who have, at first glance, very different starting points: Zara, a young girl from Carbon City, one of the principle settlements in the world Dan has built, is working where she shouldn’t at Russet Dam. Quickly we are alluded to the fact that what Zara, and her accomplice, Trent are doing, isn’t quite in the spirit of helping the community they come from. Whatever clandestine task Zara has gotten herself wrapped up in goes awry and she finds herself on the wrong side of the tracks, looking for a way home.

Then we meet Shelby, whose idyllic agrarian lifestyle – living off the land on the grassy outskirts of Lornstern, portrayed as a veritable Eden – is predictably disrupted by the arrival of hostiles. These hostiles quickly disrupt Shelby’s idyllic agrarian lifestyle and threaten to turn his world inside out.

Finally, we meet Luther, head of security in Carbon City, tasked with investigating the events Zara found herself wrapped up in, and balancing the political ramifications both at home and outside with methods that raise eyebrows to say the least.

These are three distinct and diverse characters, and the narrative switches between. One of the successes of the approach Dan takes with this triumvirate of protagonists is that the reader finds themselves wanting to know what happens in each thread of the story, eager to see them coalesce together. The strands begin as separate entities but are clearly signposted as the book develops as being on a collision course, and this drives the story forward.

Dan does a great job in piecing together the world that this book takes place in – unencumbered by the geography of the present world we, the reader, are aware of, he creates a totally new world reshaped by events several centuries before. This allows total creative ability to create geography, lore and politics between the various zones.

I thought the choice to focus the characters around Carbon City was an interesting and successful one as Carbon City, despite its auspicious name, is not the crowning glory or de-facto superpower of the region: indeed, there are multiple external factors that put the settlement on the back foot and this really raises the stakes: Carbon City is in a delicate peace with the militarily-superior Eastern Legion of Trittle and trying to negotiate with Sol to gain access to their strategically-important oil resources. There are great hints that Carbon City can talk the talk more than perhaps it can walk the walk, so this keeping up of appearances adds an urgency to at least one of the main character threads.

The events of the story fall broadly into a theme of Carbon City trying to remain relevant and competitive; Zara’s guerrilla activities threaten the fragile peace with Trittle and threaten derailing the oil negotiations. On the other hand, it becomes readily apparent that Shelby is forced to participate in a clandestine, sneaky evening of the score for Carbon City against these changing odds.

If I had to pick which character’s story intrigued me the most, I would say the storyline of Luther seemed the most developed of the three: his character has the most development – we see him constantly battling against what could very well be violent and unpredictable mood swings to maintain the façade of sophistication in his interactions. Plus, I wasn’t sure for the majority of the book whether his character was good or bad – his intentions seem to be in the interest of Carbon City at the beginning but slowly more and more it seems like the opportunity to do right by the City is also an opportunity for personal political gain. Ostensibly, he is conducting an investigation that threatens to harm the efforts to maintain Carbon City’s relevance in the region but his methods and the opportunities presented in this endeavour leave these noble intentions in question throughout and we end up pondering quite what Luther’s end goals happen to be.

Overall though, the narrative is plenty intriguing to draw us, the reader, into the world of Displaced. The three threads do achieve some commonality toward to conclusion of the book and we’re left on a precipice wondering what happens next. The book is astutely titled as we do see all the main characters are displaced from the positions – physical and political – we encounter them in at the offset.

That said, if I had to think of one thing this book had lacking, it was a self-contained story that stands alone. Displaced does feel like a portal to the wider adventure we’re embarking upon, and less of a stand-alone story as we don’t reach any firm conclusions on the character. It does well to plant plenty of intrigue into what will follow up in the next book but I did feel this book was calling out for a story arc its own, especially as the rest of the series is yet to come. However, this aside, crisp writing and vivid, compelling worldbuilding and action retained my interest and left me wanting more!

I’m also hoping that Shelby and Zara’s story treads get the development and depth that Luther’s appeared to have; I want to find out what happens to them and how this ties together!

But these things aside, Displaced has a ton of positives going for it. I really enjoyed Dan’s writing style and voice, it really hit the nail – paradoxically hard-to-achieve of easy to read writing. The prose is not obstructive to the plot but it doesn’t lack style.

Overall thoughts on Displaced are that the quality of the prose and the richness of the world – combined with three intriguing and engaging plot threads, especially strongly on the part of Luther’s story – offset there not being as well-developed a stand-alone story arc for the book on its own as I feel it deserves. I see this as a very well-written and lusciously-built world and I’m eager and excited to see what Dan has planned next for the series!

My rating: Highly Recommended

Find out more information on Displaced on Dan’s website: danhook.co.uk

Displaced launches on Amazon on September 1st 2020 (paperback) and September 8th 2020 (Kindle)

reading, Reviews

Review: The Silence (Paperback)

I’m gradually learning to be a bit more adventurous with my book choices, and those efforts continue to pay dividends with The Silence.

I picked this book up not quite sure what to expect. This edition was a tie-in to a Netflix movie derived from the book that has middling reviews. I sensed something supernatural about The Silence, which may have been why it languished a little longer on my shelf than it ultimately warranted.

It’s an interesting premise: the apocalypse in The Silence is brought about not by aliens, or nuclear Armageddon, but by the unearthing in Moldova of an ancient, unknown species of reptilian creatures that have developed in the dark. Indeed, Pandora’s Box quickly opens wide and quickly these creatures, christened Vesps, begin to spread, causing havoc across Europe.

The narrative focusses on Ally and her family as they watch this disaster unfold on the news and through social media. There’s a sense of foreboding, waiting and inevitability from us, the reader, watching the Vesp menace get steadily closer to the United Kingdom. Indeed, the story unfolds over a matter of days where the world changes completely, and we follow Ally and her family, joined by Ally’s terminally-ill maternal grandfather and Ally’s father’s outdoorsman-like friends, with whom the families have coexisted in the same, small, sleepy town as the realisation sets in: to survive, the family must flee their lives as they’ve known for ever for an uncertain future far away, where safety from this unknown threat is not even assured.

So far, so good. The tension and sense of foreboding in these initial chapters is palpable, and the atmosphere – one of dread, a knowing that it’s a matter of time, and how these people cope – and don’t cope – really sends an electric tingle with every word. Indeed, scenes of panic-buying at shops in preparation for some kind of end-of-the-world scenario seemed prescient in the climate in which I write this review, with similar behaviour regarding the coronavirus pandemic the world is currently experiencing. Maybe that’s what made these brooding, dread-filled chapters resonate more – my real experience of this so recently perhaps attenuated my senses. It’s effective.

Quickly The Silence becomes a story about the journey, not the destination, but it’s less The Roadwhich I hated, and more One – a novel I adore. The journey is horrifying for various different reasons and it’s traumatic for everyone. The landscape shifts. The objective changes in the face of the facts presented on the road. Society is seen to slowly disintegrate as the journey progresses, leading to new twists.

What I liked about this was, with The Silence, along with One, and other post-apocalyptic books (The Girl With All the Gifts is a fine example) is that the story is about the journey and what it does to the characters. There is, I’ve noticed, not going to be a happy-ever-after at the story’s conclusion. The world has changed monumentally in all these stories. It’s a story of adaptation to survive, and to survive that traumatic transition from the comfortable life you and I can relate to into the horrors thrown against society and the characters we observe this through.

However, it’s not all perfect for The Silence. There’s a number of aspects and concepts I felt were good but not fully developed, which I think is a shame – they needed more time in the oven!

  • Ally decides to chronicle her experience of the Vesp invasion through a scrapbook app on her iPad, and she monitors the results of this through social media. Later in the book, as society slowly falls apart at the seams, “grey areas” without electricity develop across the country, threatening Ally’s memoir through the scourge of a dead battery, unable to be charged. This is nice but I feel it is somewhat shoehorned in as a little bit of an afterthought, with the brownouts beginning toward the last third of the book. And I don’t feel a massive affinity for Ally’s scrapbook as its knowledge being kept for posterity, and it isn’t called up on in the story in any real active way
  • One of the interesting themes is that Ally, as a protagonist, is deaf. The prose handles this pretty seamlessly – Ally “speaks”, but she signs. It’s revealed that the Vesps cannot see visually and are guided by sound. Late in the book we are introduced to a sort-of cult called The Hushed, led by a somewhat one-dimensionally ominous Reverend who want Ally to help their cause, the goals of which are unknown. We meet The Reverend for the first time at random, and he crops up in a series of increasingly-sinister vignettes until the end of the book.
  • The Vesps themselves, while having an interesting take on an origin, are essentially mindless pack animals in their hunting. I would’ve liked to have seen a more intelligent foe to contend with modern society, and I don’t think it would’ve been beyond a stretch of the suspension of disbelief from them having evolved in hidden caves to begin with.

These aren’t cardinal sins by any means – I enjoyed The Silence enough to wish that these had been done. But they’re not fatal errors or omissions by any means. The Silence is by no means a bad book – I certainly enjoyed it, but like I said before, these areas needed more time in the oven to really wring the most potential out of the story. That said, it was a punt that paid off for me and I would have no hesitation in giving it a recommendation – and I think Tim Lebbon is an author whose work I’ll be exploring more about in the future – The Silence was a vocal introduction.

Verdict: Recommended

reading, Reviews

Review: Dogs of War (Paperback)

Dogs_of_WarMaybe I’m just not a dog person.

I picked up Dogs of War recently as a charity shop purchase – I was wary on buying it as I didn’t have a great experience with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time at all. However, it was an inexpensive purchase and the premise of the book seemed intriguing, so I was happy to exchange some coins for it.

A book about biologically augmented dogs (and other creatures, but more on that later) being used in a dystopian near-future to fight humanity’s wars has the potential to be really quite gripping. And indeed, the opening parts to Dogs of War are quite effective as we follow bioform Rex and his cadre of augmented animals as they are used in a war in Campeche, Mexico against the Anarchista rebellion. This purpose is ostensibly that but the conflict quickly becomes the private war of the commander, Murray, who utilises the bioforms to commit a variety of quite brutal war crimes as he is left unchecked. Indeed, any attempt to interfere or provide oversight is met with hostility.

Had Dogs of War stayed in Campeche it would have been a very gripping, atmospheric and gritty book that explored the horrors of humans using augmented animals to fight wars that human soldiers aren’t to be “wasted” on. And indeed there’s plenty of ethical strife for Rex as his augmented intelligence clashes with his literal programming – he obeys his Master – Murray – because he craves the euphoria released by his feedback chip from being a Good Dog; likewise the fear of being a Bad Dog is tantamount in his mind, and there’s plenty of mileage in exploring what happens when Rex is unshackled from that hierarchy and has to make his own decisions.

However only the first quarter of the book takes place in the Mexican battlefield and this is where I feel Dogs of War quickly unravels.

The book pivots to be a political procedural of sorts that focuses on using Rex as a means to bringing Murray to justice and a more wider ethical exploration as to whether the bioforms are things (which can be destroyed) or sentient beings which deserve their own right to coexist alongside humanity.

Even writing that synopsis made me realise that the idea itself isn’t bad; however it is a quite trite and tired narrative thread. And once Dogs of War leaves the gritty battlefield of Mexico and expands to the civilian life of the bioforms – focussing on Rex as he battles with his new-found freedom from his hierarchies – the narrative completely seems to vent of momentum. Rex’s journey seemed immaterial as I felt he was a tool – a thing, if you will – for exploring thematic ideas rather than a solid plot.

To compound the triteness there’s a scene where Rex crumbles when questioned in court when presented with Murray, and the trial of his former Master collapses. I quickly began to be irritated by the stunting of Rex’s character.

There’s parallel narratives, much like Children of Time and the Rex chapters quickly started to bore me, honestly. Rex’s character hasn’t much depth – indeed, underneath the augmentations he’s just a dog, and the battle against his Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality, even when it no longer has any material basis on his actions. Honestly, Rex’s simplistic point-of-view doesn’t do the action portrayed any justice – it’s the narrative style given to Rex’s point-of-view that sells the story short. His perspective and recollection of events is so insulated from the brutal reality that the situations aren’t done justice.

Rex’s point-of-view seems more like a report or log of what happened rather than narrative with any sense of character and the prose of those chapters is too clinical and disconnected to be effective, ultimately. The prose’s insulation from the action it describes bleeds it very quickly of any impact and it becomes a hybrid of a report after-the-fact to a simple running commentary. It’s very tell-y; and the maxim that the author should show, not tell seems to have been purposefully ignored.

I am suddenly much happier. I am moving on all fours, working out where to take cover. Bees is mustering her units. Dragon wakes up and slithers into a stand of trees from where he can get a good shot.

All the not-enemy humans are still running. Some of them will still be in the way. The vehicles are coming very quickly. Already the enemy are shooting. They are only hitting other humans, though: they cannot aim at this range when they are moving.

Honey’s Elephant Gun explodes the lead vehicle. She is pushing through the not-enemy, and I tell her she should stay back to use them as cover.

Dogs of War, Chapter 6, page 47

I feel Dogs of War fails because it’s cramming too many thematic and ethical ponderances into a short book. The final fifth of the book was a race to the finish, ultimately, and I found myself caring less and less for Rex’s point of view. Indeed it was only toward the latter stages of the book that I learned that Rex’s fellow bioforms are not all dogs – he is accompanied by Honey, a bear, Dragon, whose species I never quite nailed down and more ponderously Bees, a literal hivemind of augmented bees that just doesn’t get the weight of attention that such a concept deserves.

Indeed, the character of this group of animals is expressed solely, it seems through the “telepathic texting” that was solely expressed through Rex’s point-of-view chapters. I didn’t quite understand this – were they communicating through aforementioned telepathic texting in real time? How did that work? This confusion just added to the sense of deep disconnect from the characters that Rex’s chapters were.

Ultimately I think Dogs of War worked less as a novel but more as a bit of an indulgence of the author’s desire to explore this well-trodden path of the ethics of utilising augmented animals and determining where the difference between beings and things seems to lie. But more fatally I didn’t come out of it convinced – the plot was ultimately predictable in its denouncement of humanity’s instinct to use its ingenuity to figure out a both more “acceptable”, marketable way of dealing with human problems that remains totally inhumane.

Humanity comes out the bad guy here and unfortunately the limited narrative in Dogs of War just can’t sustain that. Ultimately the themes that drive Dogs of War prove to be an old dog, and there’s no new tricks on show here to speak of.

In Children of Time the narrative enters a stall in the midsection of the book from which it was unable to recover; in Dogs of War the thematic weight behind the narrative forces it out through a puncture in the constraints that kept it taught and once it escapes into atmosphere, it quickly dissipates into nothingness.