Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher

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Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

With the third season of the sensational and entertaining television show Stranger Things fast approaching (4 July cannot come fast enough), another tie-in novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, has been released and offers another intriguing look into the wider Stranger Things universe. This story heads back into 1970s and focuses on the life of Hawkins police Chief Jim Hopper, portrayed in the show by David Harbour, and presents a thrilling and curious new adventure.

Stranger Things is one of the hottest televisions shows on at the moment, featuring a captivating plot, some incredible characters, amazing young actors and the fun use of 1980s nostalgia, all of which come together into one hell of a show. With the final season of Game of Thrones just wrapped up, the third season of Stranger Things is the next big release I am looking forward to (with the possible exception of Good Omens), and I fully intend to binge-watch it the weekend it comes out. It is not surprising that some tie-in material has been released to capitalise on the success of the show, and, truth be told, they have actually been a little restrained with it, with only one tie-in novel and one comic book series released so far. While I have not had a chance to the read the comic book series, The Other Side, which looks at Will Beyers’ time in the Upside Down in Season 1, I did previously read and review the first official Stranger Things tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, a few months ago. Suspicious Minds was set back in 1969 and looked at how Eleven was born and then subsequently stolen by the US Government, and it proved to be quite a thrilling read which explored some fascinating backstory to the television show.

As a result, I was very keen to check out what the next Stranger Things tie-in novel was like and what secrets it might reveal about the show. Darkness on the Edge of Town is set to be released on 4 June 2019, exactly one month before the release of Stranger Things’ third season, which is going to be set around Independence Day in 1985. Another Stranger Things book, which I will also try to get a copy of, Runaway Max, is also due out on 4 June, and this book will be aimed at a young adult audience.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was written by New Zealand-born author Adam Christopher, who has some experience with tie-in novels, having previously written three books that tie in to the Dishonoured video game and two books that tie in to the Elementary television show. Christopher is probably best known for his 2012 debut novel, Empire State, as well his Ray Electromatic Mysteries and Spider Wars series. I have not previously read any of Christopher’s work before, but several of his books, especially Empire State (a noir superhero thriller with parallel words, yes please!), sound like a lot of fun and I may have to check them out in the future.

Darkness on the Edge of Town’s story starts in December 1984, around two months after the end of the second season of Stranger Things. While enjoying a quiet Christmas with his adopted daughter, Eleven, Jim Hopper is suddenly brought back to his past when Eleven pulls out a cardboard box marked “New York”. Despite his reluctance, Hopper begins to tell Eleven the story of the greatest case he solved before tragedy forced him back to Hawkins.

On Independence Day in 1977, after returning from the Vietnam War, Jim Hopper is living in New York City with his wife, Diane, and his daughter, Sara. While the city deals with bankruptcy and a heatwave, Hopper, a rookie NYPD detective, finds himself investigating a series of brutal, ritualistic murders with his new partner, Rosario Delgado. The murderer has already killed three people, leaving a mysterious card at each crime scene. Before Hopper and Delgado can make any progress, their investigation is shut down by shadowy federal agents who order them off the case. Disobeying orders and putting his career on the line, Hopper continues to investigate the murders and is able to connect the deaths to the mysterious leader of the Viper gang, who is reputed to have paranormal powers. Going undercover to infiltrate the Vipers, Hopper makes some startling revelations about the scope and devastation of the gang leader’s sinister plans, and he must do everything he can to protect his city from an upcoming evil.

This was quite an interesting and engaging novel from Christopher, who not only manages to examine some interesting aspects of the Stranger Things television show but also creates his own intriguing story set during an interesting time in American history. The story is split between two separate time periods. Some of the story is set in December 1984 and follows the older Hopper as he tells the story to Eleven, while the majority of the book is set back in 1977 and follows Hopper and his partner as they investigate the brutal murders and the Vipers. Most of the book comes across as a dark murder mystery thriller that also spends significant time examining the psyche of its protagonist. I quite liked the murder mystery angles of the 1977 storyline, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the more science fiction/horror/young protagonist focus of the television show.

The previous Stranger Things novel, Suspicious Minds, explored in detail events that featured in the show in flashbacks. Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, is a character study that may not have too much relevance to franchise’s overall story. While this might not appeal to some Stranger Things fans, it does allow Christopher a lot more freedom to explore the character of a younger Hopper. The result is a fantastic story that dives deep into the psyche of this great character and really lets the reader see what drives Hopper and what initially convinced him to become a police officer. There are some amazing parts to this examination of the character, but I personally liked the way that Christopher decided to focus on the lasting effects of Hopper’s service in Vietnam. This is explored in some detail, and the reader gets a really good idea of how emotionally vulnerable Hopper was even before his daughter became sick and his wife left him. I also thought that the author did a great job showing Hopper’s relationship with Eleven in the 1984 storylines, and their oddball father-daughter relationship comes across quite well.

In addition to the focus on the character of Hopper, this book also contains a few plot points that tie into the wider Stranger Things universe. The contents of the mysterious box Hopper had hidden in his house, which Eleven uncovered in Season 2, becomes a major part of this book’s story. In addition, there are several things that could potentially become significant in the future, and which the reader can leave to their own imagination. The first thing that comes up is a physic prediction about clouds or tendrils of darkness covering the world, mentioned a few pages in and repeated throughout the book. While events that occur later in the book do fit in with some of these predictions, the imagery of the Mind Flayer from the show comes to mind every time this vision is mentioned, and in some ways, it fits the predictions a little better. In addition, quite early in the book the antagonist is rumoured to have mental abilities as a result of government experiments. For a large part of the book, the reader is left wondering whether he actually has abilities like Eleven and, if he does, how he is connected to the institute that Eleven was being tested in. All of these, plus some other great references, will prove to be deeply appealing to fans of the television show, and I will be really intrigued to see if any of these references might appear in the third season of the show (do these authors have the inside track on the series?).

One of the most interesting parts of Darkness on the Edge of Town was its setting in 1970s New York City. The 1970s, especially 1977, were a pretty chaotic period in the city’s history, which serves as an excellent backdrop to this dark and gritty tale. Not only was the city suffering through a severe economic downturn but there was also a tremendous heatwave, especially in July of 1977, when the vast majority of the storyline is set. The Son of Sam killer was also active during this time, a fact commented on in several parts of the book, which also ties into the darker ‘70s crime nature of this book. I liked the way that Christopher was able to bring the atmosphere of this period to life in his book, as well as the way he was able to tie the story into a certain major event that occurred in New York in July 1977. This great use of setting really added a lot to the story and helped turn Darkness on the Edge of Town into quite a compelling read.

One of the reasons why Stranger Things is such a success is the show’s writers and creators have such an amazing ability to channel its viewers’ nostalgia for the 1980s into each episode. Writers of these tie-in novels also attempt to capitalise on this nostalgia by highlighting aspects of that decade’s culture in their writing. I previously felt that Gwenda Bond did an amazing job of that in Suspicious Minds, and Christopher also did his job exploring parts of that culture, specifically when it relates to New York City. As a result, there are several fun references to relevant movies, television shows, books, sports and music for fans of the 1970s to notice and reminisce about. Whether the characters are having fun thoughts about M*A*S*H or cheeky discussions about whether Princess Leia will end up with Luke or Han in Star Wars, there are some really fun inclusions throughout the book, and Christopher luckily does not go too overboard loading his story up with these references. I personally quite liked the way that the author envisioned the New York City gangs at this point, and the main one that Hopper encounters has a very Warriors vibe around it. An extended sequence later in the book kind of put me in mind of Escape from New York (although that was released in ’81). I really enjoyed the strong nostalgia included in the book, and it added a certain amount of fun to the book that fans of the show will greatly appreciate.

Darkness of the Edge of Town is a fantastic new addition to the burgeoning Stranger Things extended universe, and Adam Christopher does an amazing job of exploring one of the show’s main characters. The author’s examination of Jim Hopper is a deep and emotional dive into the character’s psyche, and it proves to be an effective and compelling centre to this book. Christopher is also able to utilise ’70s nostalgia and fan interest in the franchise quite effectively and turn this into an excellent tie-in novel to this complex and enjoyable show. The end result is an excellent character-driven story that will greatly appeal to fans of Stranger Things. This book is really worth checking out, especially before the third season of the show is released, and I look forward to seeing what other tie-in novels Christopher produces in the future.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

For those looking for some down and dirty fantasy crime, look no further than Priest of Bones, the new release from fantasy author Peter McLean, which provides the reader with a dark, violent and downright entertaining story.

After achieving victory in a devastating war, thousands of soldiers begin the long and weary journey back home through a countryside ravished by war, plague and famine.  Among those soldiers returning to the industrial city of Ellinburg is Thomas Piety, priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and leader of a small and loyal band of killers.  Thomas has taken his duty as a soldier and a priest seriously, but now it is time for him to return to what he knows best: crime.

A successful crime lord before his conscription, Thomas believed he had left his territory in capable hands.  However, upon his return he discovers that his entire criminal empire has been taken over by a new gang that appears to have origins outside of Ellinburg.  With no choice but to reclaim what is his, Thomas and his soldiers, including his loyal sergeant, Bloody Anne, and his damaged brother, Jochan, do what they do best and go to war.

As Thomas and his gang, the Pious Men, reclaim territory and re-establish themselves in Ellinburg, they begin to realise that they are facing an opponent far more dangerous than the usual gangs and criminals of the city.  Their opponents are organised, have the best weapons money can buy and even have a couple of magic users.  To make matters worse, Thomas finds himself entrapped by one the deadly Queen’s Men, the feared order of spies and assassins loyal to queen, who have some special plans for the Pious Men.  Now, Thomas and his soldiers must embark on a dangerous and bloody crusade against the other gangs of Ellinburg.  Victory will mean control of the city’s crime, while defeat will spell doom for them all.

Priest of Bones is an excellent example of fantasy crime fiction done right as McLean has produced a story that is action-packed, incredibly intriguing and very enjoyable.  McLean has been writing fantasy for a few years and is probably best known for The Burned Man series, an urban fantasy crime series that focused on a magical hitman.  He also has a few short stories to his name, including some set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Priest of Bones is the first book in his new War for the Rose Throne series, which will continue next year with the highly anticipated Priest of Lies.

The story contained within this first book is an amazing fantasy crime narrative which sees the protagonist work to reclaim his criminal holdings from a powerful new gang that has moved into the city while he was gone.  This starts out exactly as you would expect from this sort of story as the protagonists attempt to regain territory, one business at a time, while their opponents launch counterattacks and raids of their own.  The protagonists come up with some effective plans for taking territory and show what happens when a bunch of soldiers engage in some brutal urban combat.  There is a large amount of action throughout this book, which McLean records in bloody and enthralling detail.  This action mostly takes the form of small skirmishes and battles, although there are some magical battles which do result in some more gory and spectacular deaths.  All of this is incredibly fun, and it works very well with the intriguing side stories and character exploration to create a compelling overall narrative.  As the book progresses, an element of political intrigue takes hold as new players enter the game.  This represents an interesting but subtle change to the pace of the book and doesn’t result in any loss of action or excitement.  In many ways, it appears to be a setup for the next book in the series, which sounds like it’s going to have a much more political focus to it.  McLean wraps this all up with a memorable conclusion that I won’t elaborate on, but is the perfect ending for this outstanding and extremely enjoyable piece of fantasy crime.

The central gang that McLean looked at in the plot, the Pious Men, are a strong bunch of characters who serve as a fantastic focal point for this series.  All of the Pious Men are former soldiers who have recently survived the war and are still haunted by the horrors they experienced, especially at the devastating siege of Abingon.  Quite a few of the characters from this small band of soldiers are explored throughout the book, and while some of these characters only get minor mentions, a number do get expanded roles throughout the book and are shown to have some form of development or are slotted into a role that they make their own.  One of the most interesting features of this book is the way that McLean has focused on just how badly the war has messed up these characters, as pretty much all of them are suffering from PTSD in some way or another, referred to by the characters in the book as battle shock.  This is handled very well and allows for some fantastic scenes, as characters who initially come across as quite amiable for most of the book go berserk when attacked, while other characters who appear quite strong find themselves crippled by these memories.

The leader of this group of former soldiers turned criminals is Thomas Piety, who serves as the book’s main protagonist and only point-of-view character.  Thomas is a good central character to anchor this story, who for the most part comes across as a cold and calculating person who knows how to get what he wants.  As Priest of Bones continues, it is slowly revealed that there is a lot more to Thomas’s character than what is originally believed, as he is trying to hide not only the emotional damage from Abingon but the dark memories from his childhood that are still driving him to this day.  It is interesting to see Thomas try and reconcile his new role as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows with his role as a soldier and crime lord.  It is also intriguing to see that one of his deeper motivations is based on his belief that his criminal enterprises not only will make his city a better place but may also save it from a similar fate to Abingon, something he is desperate to never see again.  As the story is completely shown through Thomas’s viewpoint, the reader gets the benefit of his cynical attitude as well as his humorous and accurate insights throughout the book.  This is a great focal character for this book, and I had fun exploring his full depths.

Quite a lot of time is also spent exploring the other members of the Pious Men that follow Thomas back from the war.  The best of these characters is easily Bloody Anne, the hard-as-nails sergeant who is Thomas’s most loyal soldier and friend.  There is detailed examination of Anne’s past which reveals a lot about her current character, including her distrust of magic users.  This turns into quite a nice side story, as Anne finally starts to overcome her past enough to start exploring a relationship with the prostitute Rosie.  Thomas’s brother, Jochan, is also an intriguing character who fits in well with this darker story.  Jochan is your standard unhinged killer, who has some of the funniest lines and can be found in the middle of all the big fight scenes.  His presence results in a lot of the book’s tension, as he and Thomas clash about everything.  McLean has also created a very traumatic backstory for Jochan that not only helps to humanise the character as the reader gets further into the book but also explains a lot about Thomas’s deeper motivation and the guilt he feels whenever he thinks of his brother.  Other great characters that the reader should keep an eye out for are the fake knight Sir Eland, the mysterious barmaid Ailsa and Billy the Boy, the Pious Men’s good luck charm who is clearly going to be a very important character throughout the rest of the series.

In Priest of Bones, Peter McLean has delivered a fast-paced and captivating piece of fantasy crime that is filled with a ton of graphic violence, a number of exhilarating fight scenes and some excellent character driven story work.  This new book is a wonderful introduction to the new War for the Rose Throne series, and I’m already looking forward to the follow-up book in 2019.  Clever, bloody and all sorts of fun, readers will have a blast checking this book out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Hit-Girl, Volume 1: Colombia by Mark Millar and Ricardo Lopez Ortiz

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Publisher: Image Comics

Publication Date – 26 June 2018

 

The baddest little vigilante in America goes international in this outrageous new series from comic book legend Mark Millar.

Hit-Girl is the moniker of Mindy McCready, a pre-teen vigilante killer who is the Kick-Ass universe’s most effective and terrifying hero.  Introduced early on in the first volume of the Kick-Ass comic, Mindy was a 10-year-old girl who had been indoctrinated by her father, Big Daddy, into becoming an expert killer and crime fighter.  Despite an attempt to live a normal life after the death of her father, Mindy has reverted to her vigilante ways with her trademark extreme violence and sassy attitude.

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Following the events of the Kick-Ass 3 comic, Hit-Girl has decided to take her vigilante gig international and bring her version of justice to criminals around the world.  However, with her partner, Dave Lizewski, the original Kick-Ass, retired, and his replacement (a young man Hit-Girl randomly recruited off the street) deciding to quit in the face of armed criminals, Hit-Girl is all on her own.  With a request for help in Colombia looking too big to handle by herself, Hit Girl decides to recruit a partner as deadly and deranged as herself.

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Enter Fabio ‘Mano’ Mendoza, the most ruthless and dangerous hitman in Palmira, Colombia.  Freeing him from imprisonment, Hit-Girl ‘convinces’ Mano to help her with her mission, utilising an explosive device to keep him in line.  Armed with an array of advanced and insanely destructive weapons, Mano helps Hit-Girl turn all of the city’s gangsters into corpses.  But what will happen when Hit-Girl forces Mano to target his own gang?

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Hit-Girl was created by author Mark Millar, one of the most impressive and recognisable names in modern comics.  Millar has worked with a number of different publishers throughout his career, including DC, where left his mark on titles including Swamp Thing, Superman and The Flash, and Marvel, where he wrote the iconic Civil War series and had significant input in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, which serves as the inspiration for many recent comic book movies.  Millar has also created a number of the best alternate universe stories these two major comic book publishers have ever produced, from the inventive Superman: Red Son to the incredible Old Man Logan, which served as the basis for 2017’s best comic book movie, Logan.  Millar has also created a range of independent series, many of which are quite dark and brutal, such as Kingsman: The Secret Service, Jupiter’s Legacy, Superior and Wanted.  However, one of Millar’s most iconic works is his independent series, Kick-Ass, which was adapted into a fantastic movie in 2010 that helped dramatically increase the author’s general profile.  Kick-Ass ran for three volumes, and the final issue revealed that Kickass and the above independent series all exist in a shared universe, known as the Millarverse.  Readers may recognise several of the above comics from recent movies, with Kingsman and Wanted both having been adapted into big screen movies.  In addition to this current Hit-Girl series, Millar is currently working with Netflix to create a number of intriguing new comics, such as The Magic Order, and a range of movies and television series.

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A large amount of the success of Kick-Ass can be attributed to the character of Hit-Girl, a sensational addition to both the comics and the subsequent movie adaption.  Hit-Girl is easily the most popular character in the series due to the sheer craziness of having a 10-year-old girl tearing through groups of dangerous criminals while swearing her head off.  This cool character continued in the movie, where Chloë Grace Moretz brought Hit-Girl to life in all her foul-mouthed, murderous glory, albeit with an altered costume.  Hit-Girl appeared in all three volumes of Kick-Ass, and has already been the star of her own Hit-Girl miniseries comic, much of which was adapted into the Kick-Ass 2 movie.  This current series of Hit-Girl represents the first work that has been done on the Kick-Ass storyline since 2014.  The first volume of this new series is called Colombia and contains issues #1-4.  The second volume of this series will continue Hit-Girl’s international murder spree as she heads to Canada, and will be released in late October.

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This new Hit-Girl series contains pure insanity as the titular character goes on a rampage down in Colombia.  There are some fantastic sequences throughout this book as artist Ricardo Ortiz draws a series of demented murders and deaths as Hit-Girl and Mano attack and kill hundreds of gang members in Palmira.  These gang members suffer an insane amount of different gruesome deaths including being shredded by bullets, sliced by swords, shot with arrows, killed by a train, blown up into tiny pieces, vaporised by flesh-eating gas, and thrown off buildings.  Ortiz’s artwork pulls no punches during these scenes, with the highlight having to be the microwave gun that cooks one gang member from the inside out.  There are also a ton of great action sequences throughout this book, with the artist presenting some excellent battle artwork that really highlights the fast-paced and frenetic action portrayed within.  Some of these scenes are so wonderfully over the top that it is hard not to laugh, such as the sequences where Hit-Girl and Mano are forced to overcome a zoo of coked-up animals standing between them and their target.  This is some brilliant work from the artist and a real highlight of the volume.

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While all the superfluous violence is outstanding, this first volume of Hit-Girl is far more than just about the killing of criminals.  It is actually a complicated revenge plot, and Millar has created a fantastic overarching story for this entire volume.  Watching the full extent of Hit-Girl’s plan unfold is so much fun, especially when you realise just how much she is playing all the other characters in the book.  Hit-Girl revealing that her plan involves saving a kid who served as her patsy from joining a gang is pretty powerful, especially when the kid is left wondering about the origin of the ‘final message’ from his brother.  By the end of these four issues, all the characters get what they deserve, leaving the reader extremely satisfied with the result, while Hit-Girl is left determining where to go for her next rampage against crime.

Hit-Girl is once again a fantastic main character for this book, and Millar and Ortiz’s portrayal of her is absolutely amazing.  Placing murderous attitude and terrifying adult personality inside the body of a little girl is still spectacular to see, and it is quite jarring and very entertaining to see this little kid doing crazy stuff like jumping up and down in excitement while requesting that her associate perform a particularly gruesome murder.  Ortiz presents some incredible changes in facial expression throughout the book that really show off the dual personality of the character.  In some scenes, she looks quite innocent and childlike, while in others, she looks positively demonic, especially when she establishes control of a situation.  While she is mostly portrayed as destructive, adult and emotionless, there are times when she comes across as more human and acting her age.  She spends several scenes getting closer to Mano, and the two work out that they have some interesting similarities, including being manipulated by a controlling father figure for most of their lives.  In hindsight, it is quite horrifying that she spent time getting close to Mano, considering the multiple ways she was playing him and her eventual intentions for him, but it is still great to see her team up with someone who has the same killer instinct, as well as a similar moral compass.  I also love the scene at the end when Hit-Girl allows her ally, Camila to get a chance at revenge, but is not surprised when she does not take the shot, stating “you’re a good person”.  Hit-Girl’s facial expression while she says that is perfect, as it helps portray the fact that our protagonist knows she is not a good person and never will be.  Overall, this is some amazing character work and Hit-Girl is still an amazing protagonist.

Mark Millar is once again in top form as he brings in the first volume of his new Hit-Girl series.  Featuring some outstanding artwork from Ricardo Ortiz, Hit-Girl Volume 1: Colombia contains an insane amount of graphic and entertaining violence and death, while also containing a fun and satisfying story with an awesome main character.  I am already excited for the next volume of this new series, and I cannot wait to see what chaos Hit-Girl causes in Canada.

My Rating:

Five Stars