Book Review: Domain

DomainIt’ll come as no surprise to readers that I am a big fan of author James Herbert’s work. I’ve steadily read a good number (but by no means all) of the 24 novels he published during his lifetime and they all share a common attraction – they’re visceral but approachable horror novels that tell a great, engaging story; like King’s work, there’s no pretence that these novels are literary, but they’re great fun, and, surprisingly, they retain their macabre punch even decades after publication.

There’s some memorable scenes in Herbert’s work, from the opening of a tramp being viscerally devoured by mutant rats in The Rats, the population of Bournemouth – 140,000 people – committing suicide by walking into the sea in The Fog and the multitude of supernatural scares in the brilliantly creepy The Magic Cottage, which I reflected upon previously with The Rats. Domain is no different.

Domain is the final instalment in the “Rats Trilogy”, which I had been both excited and a little apprehensive to read, following The Rats and Lair. I was excited to read it because I’d enjoyed the previous two books; but apprehensive because I was nervous that Herbert wouldn’t quite be able to deliver the post-apocalyptic disaster. It seemed out of his reach almost, especially as the previous books were gloriously timeless in their portrayal of a contemporary reality upended by the mutant manifestations.

But I was wrong. Domain portrays the moment of nuclear apocalypse with possibly the most powerful invocation of a Herbert trope I’ve yet read. Herbert’s books like to divert to vignettes of characters orphaned from the main plot but who are directly impacted by the book’s source of horror. In Domain, we follow people just going about their ordinary business, they have hopes, dreams and wants, and we see their lives cut short by nuclear Armageddon.

Indeed, one of the most powerful of the vignettes is that of the survivor of the attack who seems to be readying her family for breakfast – it seems a normal day but there’s a sense that something’s not quite right and the revelation that her family are just dead bodies tied to their chairs is the cherry on the top of a fantastic, powerful scene that evokes not just horror but the sense of grief a survivor would feel, and a very relatable, but creepy, way they may deal with it.

It’s powerfully done, and it helps Domain stand out to me in a crowd of supernatural-themed stories that, while effective and engaging, don’t entirely gel with me; it’s Domain’s portrayal of post-apocalyptic survival that adds greatly to its influence on me. There’s a lot I’ll take from Domain I can imagine! While I have grown to like Herbert’s supernatural and spooky stories, it’s his grounded-in-reality horror novels that really hit paydirt for me. I’m yet to read a better example of this than Domain.

Being a later work of Herbert’s, Domain does benefit from his accrued experience. The characters we are introduced to seem, in some regards, more rounded – the “everyman” hero in Domain being Steve Culver, a pilot who rescues government man Alex Dealey from the collapse after the bombs hit, and it’s this unlikely pairing that drives the story into its first forays. Culver is revealed to have motives and complexity that are a little unusual in a Herbert novel. That’s not to say we don’t have characters who seem to exist purely to propel the story, but as I explained above, that’s fine and it’s almost refreshing to have characters for this purpose, as the story is that compelling for me to forgive it. Culver and Dealey seem the most developed, with the rest of the cast seeming ancillary. But that’s fine!

Again, Domain is dripping with Herbert’s apparent experience – he knows his niche with Domain and plays it fully. There’s scenes that are uncomfortable to read even in 2018 – in one of the vignettes, a lonely man ends up killing a cat; in another, a survivor of the nuclear attack goes to the toilet, is almost raped before her and her attacker are overcome by the rats – but I accept them, even if they brought about discomfort because Herbert’s work portrays a visceral, instinctive warts-and-all portrayal of the situation. Yes, these things are seedy, grubby and unpleasant – and luridly described – but it’s hard to imagine them not happening.

Domain takes place mostly in underground settings, and this claustrophobia is palpable. It brings on the inevitable, and the imagery is superbly done – gritty, grisly and grotesque. I did wonder whether Domain brings anything new to Herbert’s formula of mutant rats going awry; I feel it brings the notion to its logical conclusion. There’s a certain sense of inevitability, a certain “so where are the rats?” but when they do arrive in each encounter it’s Herbert’s chance to indulge in some of his goriest, grisliest and most visceral and effective horror, especially when combined with the atmosphere stoked up just prior. It’s a very popcorn-esque way of building the tension but it’s there regardless.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of horror, there is, and the ending is, as I have come to expect with post-apocalyptic fiction, uncertain. And rightly so, there can be no “happily ever after” when civilization is destroyed.

So, is Domain my favourite Herbert novel so far? It was very good. Is it my favourite of the Rats Trilogy? I’m not so sure – I feel that the “cosy catastrophes” of The Rats and Lair, while Herbert’s apocalyptic writing was surprisingly effective and powerful, edge it just slightly with me. Yeah, at times I feel the middle of the book sags, meanders but it’s a gripping and riveting meander that just allows James Herbert to do his best. But that’s not to Domain’s disservice, it’s a fantastic book.

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The_Handmaids_TaleAs some may know, I enjoy and write post-apocalyptic fiction and one of the most common titles that I get cited and asked “have you read?” is The Handmaid’s Tale and I can now say that I have. It was a thoughtful book that definitely got me thinking – a plus! I’m still unsure quite how I feel about it however.

What I found convincing in The Handmaid’s Tale was the sense that the Republic of Gilead, in which the story takes place, was a plausible and frightening theological autocracy, and the mood of the book certainly conveyed that. This society did seem regressive, scary and foreboding which is impressively executed; the most recent work to which I can draw an analog being The Children of Men, which I read first but was published after The Handmaid’s Tale.

I feel The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men are very similar books – certainly on reading the former after the latter, it’s clear that PD James was influenced quite heavily by Atwood’s novel. They both have foreboding atmospheres portrayed with crisp prose that instils the sense of bleakness and resignation that the characters seem to exude until the latter parts of each.

A friend from university, knowing me, was surprised to see me reading “such progressive literature”. Is The Handmaid’s Tale a “progressive” book? I wouldn’t necessarily readily agree – I feel The Handmaid’s Tale does well in the sense that the book extrapolates to an extreme the idea of a religious uprising taking control of what was America, and the eroding of what we contemporarily see as human rights as blasphemy and indecency. But does that mean The Handmaid’s Tale is “feminist”? I wouldn’t be too sure; certainly the author, contemporarily, isn’t quite conforming to the more extreme puritanical feminist type today so to draw too much from The Handmaid’s Tale is tempting but not something I will indulge in.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale really a “feminist book”? I’d struggle to agree – I feel the plot rather extrapolates to an extreme the persecution of women under various contemporary extreme religious viewpoints, so (if anything) the book serves as a cautionary tale for the true believers. But does Offred’s rebellion against this system make therefore make The Handmaid’s Tale “feminist”? Again… no, as the system Atwood had created in the Republic of Gilead is and always was doomed to failure; yes it made characters suffer, especially those not compliant to an extreme and barbaric interpretation of religious doctrine, but is it feminist? No; I’d argue it’s more a polemic about the dangers of religious bigotry and dogma (the society of Gilead is flawed by constraining human emotion and the story highlights these inherent flaws) but I imagine there’s some that would argue that it’s more focussing on traditional patriarchal hierarchies. I did not read it that way or glean that perspective in particular, but people will read into it whatever they do (or do not) want to.

I’d rather focus on what, as a book, not a statement of intent or whatever, The Handmaid’s Tale does right and wrong. The setting and mood of the piece is excellent, and there’s a key admission that the theocratic regime cannot entirely contain the human nature for desire under the pretext of religion – so is this book less “pro-feminist” and more “anti-religion”? I would say so from my reading. There’s some chilling instances of characters being replaced and it helps to underpin the nature of the society that Atwood is creating in Gilead; the reasons for it coming about are left ambiguous which is a bit of a missed opportunity but the story is very contained so swathes of exposition into the backstory would be conspicuous.

That’s not to say The Handmaid’s Tale is perfect: indeed, I feel it’s a book I would certainly gain more from a second reading of; there’s a fair bit I only seemed to glean from research outside of the novel itself. The prose, while mostly crisp and taut, is at times feeling as it if is disconnected from telling the story to make a wider point outside of the story – there’s points Atwood wants to make using The Handmaid’s Tale and at some instances I feel she stops the story to make them. Whether the story of Offred quite fills the space Atwood is creating with this world isn’t clear – certainly the prose makes the story feel claustrophobic and tense, but at the same time is there much story there at all?

Atwood also managed to irritate me with her prose: some dialogue has no punctuation, some is regular. There seemed to be no “pattern” to this usage/non-usage which proved an irritation below the surface and impacted the comprehension of whatever point the author wanted to make. And the ending feels somewhat ambiguous and unclear which irked me, just as I felt the plot had begun to motor along nicely.

Overall though… The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting concept inside an imperfect book, but it’s one I have kept a few nagging thoughts of. That’s neither to say it’s a book I couldn’t stop thinking about once I finished it (which is good) or a book that was immediately forgettable; it’s in a strange limbo that I feel, only a re-read will propel either way. But I strangely, for my reservations, look forward to it.

February Reading Roundup

Photo 01-02-2018, 2 01 36 pmIt’s a bit of an enviable situation to be in but I have recently found myself in possession of a lot of books that I want to read so I thought it would be at least somewhat interesting to examine my current “to-read” pile so I can both weep at how long it’s going to take me (though I hope to speed up!) and reflect on what it is I’m reading lately! As I said previously I’m not doing a reading challenge so numbers aren’t so important but these are the books I want to get read this month or next so let’s take a look:

Artemis by Andy Weir – I really enjoyed The Martian when I read it a few years ago; I feel it does so much right for science fiction – it’s accessible, enjoyable while at the same time not compromising at all in the actual science behind it. Being a fan as such, I am eager to see what Andy Weir has done next and to see he has set his next piece on the Moon – a bit closer to home – is certainly something I’m excited to read.

Fatherland by Robert Harris  – Alternate history has been something I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a fair while. Last year I read and enjoyed SS-GB so it makes Fatherland, which is regularly rated as one of the top books in the alternate history genre, a no-brainer. I’ve also had The Man in the High Castle on my radar for a while but I felt like starting with Fatherland.

Sahara by Clive Cussler – Cussler is one of those authors who is prolific but I’ve never actually experienced any of his work, so this was another massive punt from his back catalogue that I’m looking forward to enjoying. I generally read a lot of thrillers and I’m fairly enticed by the premise of Sahara. I haven’t seen the apparently-disappointing film version though, so again I feel if I am going to approach the story I’d rather experience the book! Sounds exciting!

Domain by James Herbert – I managed to find this book for sale for £1 in a discount bookstore in Doncaster when visiting a friend and I simply couldn’t say no as I really love the work of James Herbert. I’ve read and thoroughly the previous two books in this series, The Rats and Lair and they’re enjoyable, gruesome horror tales. From what I understand Domain takes a post-apocalyptic twist to this entire formula. Herbert’s work is always gripping and engaging so I expect no less from Domain

Wool by Hugh Howey and Metro 2033 by Dimitry Glukhovsky – these are two books I am linking together because they’re both books I’ve heard of and had on my radar for being notably-good examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. Wool is one that’s been on my to-read list for what seems like time immemorial and it’s highly recommended so it’s about time I stopped thinking about reading it and got to it. Metro 2033 is slightly different; I’m aware of the well-received video games based on these novels but I’m unlikely to play them. I feel seeing perhaps a less Western-centric take on post-apoc (Metro 2033 is set in Moscow) will be a different and interesting perspective

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this book was an early birthday present from my aforementioned friend (we went book shopping and it was awesome) – and the concept intrigues me. What tipped me over the edge was that my friend recommended it despite the fact he traditionally doesn’t read science fiction; indeed, my research showed me that the author deals also with fantasy which is my friend’s preferred genre. It seems a good point in which to be introduced to Tchaikovsky’s work so we will see!

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown another one I paid £1 for, this is essentially literary roughage for me – I read Inferno in 2016 and I enjoyed it but was fully aware that it was anything but literary, and largely not great writing. But despite that it was an enjoyable, breezy read so I’m not averse to another one from the series. I feel that as a reader who writes it’s important to also read some less good books to glean tips and tricks and I hope that the notch on the bedpost I’ll get from The Da Vinci Code will add to that experience.

So that’s pretty much the state of my to-read pile as it stands! I’m eager to get on with it so hopefully that eagerness will translate into more reading getting actually done!

Book Review: The Fireman

The_FiremanI’d been recommended this a while ago so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I approached this book. This was my first experience with Joe Hill’s fiction and I found it held up its own – certainly, the fact the author is Stephen King’s son didn’t sway me. The book stood up fine on its own.

The Fireman tells the story of Harper Grayson, a nurse at a time when a mysterious, and deadly, spore named Dragonscale that literally causes the afflicted to spontaneously combust. Naturally, in the line of Harper’s work she contracts the disease and is forced to relocate to a nearby camp of other infected.

First of all, the characters were really well fleshed out. Harper is a sympathetic character that I related with; interestingly, her husband, Jakob, deals less successfully with her contracting the Dragonscale, and their paths quickly diverge; she flees to Camp Wyndham while Jakob, disgusted by the disease that has befallen his wife, joins one of the roaming vigilante Cremation Crews who take it upon themselves to search out and purge what’s left of America of the infected.

While this is happening, the book quickly delves the reader into life at Camp Wyndham, which was ostensibly set up as a safe refuge for the infected but, like the wider world outside the camp, society begins to fall apart as people’s natural suspicions seem to take over. The slow degeneracy of the camp is quite compelling to read; I found myself wanting to read on, to find out what happens to these characters in the camp that become gradually more unpeeled and their motivations revealed. Indeed, Harper herself becomes somewhat ostracised inside the camp – she is sceptical of the quasi-religious nature of the camp, where singing brings about an euphoric trance-like state known as The Bright – plus she quickly develops an allegiance to The Fireman, an outsider who has mysterious abilities with his Dragonscale whose relationship with Camp Wyndham is at arms-length at best.

I enjoyed the bleak depiction of the horrors that a disease like Dragonscale would bring – the inherent widespread societal collapse is beautifully put across with some haunting but vivid imagery. Entire states literally seem to go up in smoke and the tranquillity of what was once thought to be normality is quickly shattered. Early on there’s a depiction of the horror of the Dragonscale outbreak on TV in Toronto, which seems so distant yet the outbreak quickly envelops not only the continental USA but the world in which the characters reside. Indeed, the main focus of the book is the collapse of society at Camp Wyndham, but that reflects and is analogous to what’s happening in the wider world.

As events transpire the reader, too, learns both of Camp Wyndham’s unpleasant past and the history of the Dragonscale itself. I had some initial concerns that the Dragonscale affliction was a bit witches-and-wizards but the more I learned through the gradual unpicking of the backstory the more I found myself at ease with it. And as the book shifts toward the finale, some brilliantly-written and tense confrontations lead to a bittersweet but believable ending – as is the case with a lot of books that deal with society-destroying events, there isn’t room or the plausibility to wrap things up in a nice package; but The Fireman wraps them up in a believable package that kept me thinking for a good while after I finished the book.

There’s some subtle but powerful themes at work – the zealous nature of the Cremation Crews bringing to mind the ugly worst confrontations of the US civil rights movement and the empowerment that is given to supremacist groups. The infected almost become an underclass – able to live with their affliction as they learn more about its dynamics – rushing to escape from the zealots that won’t entertain their very survival.

Overall though, The Fireman was a compelling, thrilling and thought-provoking read. Definitely pick it up!