The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.

Throwback Thursday – Assassin’s Code by Jonathan Maberry

Assassin's Code Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 April 2012)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book 4

Length: 15 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, get ready for the fourth high-stakes, action-packed instalment of Jonathan Maberry’s excellent Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code, which sets the titular character up against a fantastic new set of antagonists.

Joe Ledger, top field agent for the elite Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is about to have a very unusual day. On assignment in Iran, Ledger and Echo Team have been tasked with rescuing American college kids held hostage by the Iranians. After successfully rescuing the hostages, Ledger is forced at gunpoint into a meeting with a high-ranking Iranian security officer. However, instead of being arrested, Ledger is given information about an impending terrorist attack that could shake the very foundations of the world.

An unknown player apparently has several nuclear weapons in play and is planning to unleash them against a number of targets around the world. As Ledger relays this information to his superiors, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant who is faster, stronger and more deadly than anything he has faced before. Barely escaping from his attacker, Ledger finds himself being pursued through the streets of Tehran by the Red Order, an ancient group of killers whose operatives appear to intimidate even Ledger’s boss, the legendary Mr Church.

As Ledger attempts to come to terms with what exactly is hunting him, he finds himself in the crosshairs of several other secret organisations, each of which has their own agendas. As Ledger gets closer to the truth, he discovers that events are being manipulated by an old enemy. An ancient conspiracy has been revealed and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Can Ledger defeat the monsters unleashed against him or will a new world order arise?

Assassin’s Code in the fourth book in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, which sees an elite special forces agency go up against the worst horrors that modern science and science fiction can unleash. I have already read and reviewed several books in this series so far, including the previous three novels, Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory and The King of Plagues, as well as the 10th and latest book in the series, Deep Silence. Each of these books has proven to be fantastic dark science fiction thrillers that I have had an amazing time reading, and all four of them have received a full five-star rating from me. Assassin’s Code is another incredible addition to the series, as Maberry has once again produced an intense and clever story, with some great antagonists, a complex protagonist and a heck of a lot of high-grade action.

In his fourth Joe Ledger book, Maberry has continued to utilise the same writing format that made all the other books in the series such an awesome read. While a large amount of the storyline follows Ledger and the other members of the DMS as they attempt to investigate and then counter the threats they are up against, a large amount of the book revolves around showcasing the history that led up to the book’s current events, as well as exploring the antagonists side of the story. There are several chapters that solely focus on the antagonists, showing what they are planning and the full range of their various motivations. I always love these explorations of the antagonists as I feel it creates a much more complete and interesting overall storyline, and these alternate points of view are often used to really ramp up the book’s tension and hint at events that are going to hit the protagonists.

While he continues to successfully utilises a number of these familiar writing styles, I felt that Maberry also made sure that Assassin’s Code stood out from the other books in the series. Not only does this fourth book have a lot more of a horror vibe to it than the previous two books in the series (somewhat reminiscent of the first novel, Patient Zero) but it is also told as a rush of events over a 24-hour period. Ledger is barely given an opportunity to rest as he is attacked again and again by a series of different opponents in the hostile territory of Tehran. The author has also woven together a number of interconnected conspiracies and features appearances from several individuals and organisations, each of whom has their unique agendas throughout the plot of the book, all of which need to picked through by the reader. All these various players and motivations make for a very full story, but I quite enjoyed seeing all the various revelations come to light. Assassin’s Code is also an intriguing central piece to the whole Joe Ledger series. Not only does it introduce several key characters who become major fixtures of the series but it also introduces a number of key events in the lives of characters who were introduced in the previous books. As a result, it is a must read for those people trying to get a grip on the series as a whole and is a fantastic overall read.

In my mind, one of the best things about the Joe Ledger books are the distinctive antagonists, each of whom come across as major threats not only to the protagonists, but to the entire world. So far in the series, Ledger has had to face zombies, genetically enhanced Nazis and a powerful cabal of terrorists (whose members included Osama Bin Laden) whose attacks are used to manipulate the world for profit. In Assassin’s Code, Maberry has done a fantastic job converting an old legend into a terrifying modern threat, as the major villains of this book, the mysterious Red Order and their infamous Red Knights, are essentially vampires. Maberry already has significant experience writing vampires into the modern world, thanks to his V-Wars book series (an adaption of which is coming out on Netflix in a couple of months), and he does a great job coming up with a new and somewhat plausible explanation for their existence (well, slightly more plausible than a supernatural origin), as well as a creative historical explanation for their organisation. These vampires are written as major threats for most of the book, and the fear and concern that they cause in a number of characters whose badass credentials have been firmly established in previous books is pretty impressive. The use of vampires in modern thriller was a real highlight of this book, and I really loved seeing them go up against a modern special forces unit. Maberry spends a lot of time exploring their history, as the book features a number of interludes that go back to the time of the Crusades, when they were first recruited for their mission. All of this exploration does a fantastic job of showing what true monsters these types of vampires are, which helps the reader really root for the reader. I also really liked some of the other groups featured in this book that were formed as a direct result of the existence of vampires, including a group of modern Inquisitors and the mysterious Arklight. If I had one complaint about these antagonists, it would be that they were taken down a bit too easily in the final act, and I would have preferred a more protracted or vicious fight.

In addition to the vampires, this book also features the reappearance of two key antagonists from the previous book in the series, The King of Plagues, who are major manipulators of events behind the scenes. These characters are the former King of Fear, Hugo Vox, and the mysterious priest Nicodemus, both of whom were major players in the previous book. I really liked how Maberry continued to explore both of these cool characters, and he did a fantastic job of tying their storylines into the unique events of this book. Their respective roles in the plot of this book is quite interesting, and I really enjoyed how both their storylines progressed or ended in this novel. The true reveal of who (or what) Nicodemus is has been left for a later book, and I am very curious to see what he turns out to be.

Maberry continues to do an outstanding job utilising his complex and multilayered protagonist, Joe Ledger. While on the surface, Ledger’s defining character traits are his abilities as a special forces operative and his relentless sense of humour, the character is actually extremely emotionally damaged. Thanks to the fact that Ledger is the only character whose chapters are shown from the first-person perspective (a nice distinctive touch for the central protagonist), the reader gets a much more in-depth look at his inner thoughts, and as a result you see how the events of his life, including the events of the previous three books, have impacted his psyche. It is quite refreshing to have a character who is actually emotionally affected by the events of his books, and you get the feeling that Ledger is only a short way away from truly snapping. However, in the meantime, the thick layer of humour he overlays these feelings with is great for a laugh, and it helps gives the chapters that the character is narrating a very unique and enjoyable feel. In addition to Ledger, I really liked some of the new protagonists introduced in Assassin’s Code and I look forward to exploring them more in the future. Special mention as always needs to go the awesome supporting characters of Mr Church and Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog. With his actions and woofs, Ghost honestly has more personality that some human characters in other books I have read, while Church continues to be the ultra-mysterious intelligence god who you cannot help but want to know more about. These two characters are one of the many reasons why I am excited to check out all the future books in the series.

It should come as no surprise to those who read the plot synopsis, but Assassin’s Code is filled with wall-to-wall action. Maberry has a well-established history of doing detailed research into various forms of combat, especially martial arts, which he has actually written several books on. Maberry is able to transfer all of this knowledge into his books, creating some truly amazing action sequences. There are a huge number of great and varied battle scenes throughout the course of the book, and readers are guaranteed a pulse pumping ride as a result. Also, if you have ever wondered how martial arts trained special forces soldiers would go against vampires, than this is the book for you.

Like all the other books in the Joe Ledger series, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Assassin’s Code, narrated by Ray Porter. Coming in at around 15 hours and 35 minutes, this is a substantial audiobook; however, due to how much I enjoyed the epic story, I powered through it in a couple of days. I would strongly recommend that readers always check out the audiobook format of this series, thanks mainly to Porter’s narration. Porter, who has so far narrated all of the Joe Ledger books, has an uncanny ability to bring this central protagonist to life. His great narration fully encapsulates Ledger’s full range of emotions, from light-hearted banter, to soul-crushing despair to powerful bursts of rage, and it is really worth checking out. In addition, Porter does some really good voices for the other characters in the book, especially Mr Church, and he is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.

When I started reading Assassin’s Code, I knew I was going to love it, and it did not disappoint. Not only did Maberry up the ante with some incredible antagonists but he created another complex and utterly captivating story that had me hooked in an extremely short period of time. Assassin’s Code easily gets another five stars from me, and I whole-heartily recommend the audiobook format of this book. I am planning to try and read all the other Joe Ledger books in the next couple of months as I only just found out that the story is continuing in November of this year as part of a new spin-off series. Stay tuned to see what I think of the other books in this series (spoiler alert, I think I am going to love them).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Vol.1: High School is Hell by Jordie Bellaire and Dan Mora

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - High School is Hell Cover

Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a whole new take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the first four issues of BOOM! Studios’ new Buffy comic series are collected together in their first volume, High School is Hell.

For those unfamiliar with it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an extremely popular fantasy television show that started in 1997 and ran for seven seasons until 2003. The show followed the adventures of the titular Buffy, who has inherited the role of the Slayer, a magically strengthened warrior chosen to fight vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show helmed by Joss Whedon, who went on create one of the best science fiction shows of all time, Firefly, as well as direct the first two Avengers movies (and parts of the Justice League movie, but let’s not look to closely at that). Buffy was actually an adaption of Whedon’s 1992 movie of the same name; however, there were some significant differences between the tone and writing of the movie and the show, as the show had some superb storylines and an amazing cast. It eventually resulted in the spin-off Angel, which also had a strong five-season run and some amazing episodes.

Buffy-01-01a.jpg

Due to the immense popularity of the show, a huge amount of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in material has been created, including a number of novels and video games. A substantial number of comic books were also created through Dark Horse Comics, many of which involved Whedon in the creative process. Indeed, the storylines of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were continued for many years as a comic book series that followed a huge number of events that occurred following the end of both television shows.

Recently, Dark Horse Comics gave up the comic book rights to several of Joss Whedon’s works, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. These rights were subsequently obtained by BOOM! Studios, who have embarked on a whole new wave of comics for these franchises. The first of these, Firefly, started up last year, and the first collected volume was released in late April (I grabbed a copy the other day and will hopefully review it in the next couple of weeks). A new Angel comic book series is also currently running, although the first issue was only released a short while ago, so it might be a little while before I get my hands on the collected edition of it. BOOM! Studios are producing a bunch of different stories for these various properties and have different plans for each of them. The Firefly comics, for example, will be set in the same universe as the shows and have presented an interesting new adventure. However, for the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, they have decided to do something different. Rather than continue the storylines written by Dark Horse Comics or try to fit in the established universe left by the shows, the new creative team have taken the bold step of completely revamping the entire series, restarting the story from the beginning and swapping the setting to a more modern era. This new series takes place in 2018/19 instead of the 1990s and features a completely different story to the original series, similar to what Marvel Comics did with their Ultimate universe.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - 2.jpg

This new series starts in a similar way to the events of the show, with Buffy Summers only recently arrived in Sunnydale and ready to start as the new kid at Sunnydale High. Buffy has to deal with many of the pitfalls of being a modern teenager, grades, friends and an embarrassing dead-end job. However, Buffy has one thing no over teenager has to deal with, an unescapable destiny as the latest in a line of vampire slayers. While the story may sound familiar so far, this is not the grunge era of the 1990s; instead it is the modern era of smart phones, social media and social norms. Buffy soon settles in as the new girl in school, training with her watcher, Giles, and making two new friends, Xander and Willow, after she saves them from a vampire. While the worst thing in her life may appear to be the exceedingly peppy Cordelia, Sunnydale is still Sunnydale. Vampires and demons are always lurking just beneath the surface, and two familiar and deadly foes are in town. The devastating team of Drusilla and Spike are looking for a mysterious power and will kill anyone who gets in their way. What is their sinister plan, and how will the lives of the new Scooby Gang be changed forever?

Volume 1, High School is Hell, features issues #1-4 of this new Buffy series and was written by Jordie Bellaire. It also features the artistic skills of Dan Mora as the illustrator and Raúl Angulo as colourist. Joss Whedon is also credited as the original creator of this series in all the issues, although I am uncertain if he consulted on this new project at all. Pretty much the moment I saw this comic in the shop, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I grew up with watching Buffy and Angel when I was younger and have enjoyed a lot of their comics in the past. I really liked the concept of this new series, and I was incredibly interested in seeing where the creators of this new series were going to take it. I have to say that I was not disappointed with the end result. These first four issues not only tell an excellent and deeply compelling story with some incredible artwork; they also present an incredible reimagining of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe and bring it into modern times.

Buffy-02-01a

The issues featured within Volume 1 tell a pretty amazing story. The whole reintroduction of the Buffy world is done extremely well, as the new story told within is filled with the right amount of new ideas, classic characters and an exciting, action filled storyline with some major twists. I really think the blend of the old characters and story elements with the new storylines where done exceedingly well, and it creates and excellent new world that has some amazing potential for the future. Bellaire also does a fantastic job capturing the tone and humour of the original series and inserting it into this new vision of the Buffy universe, and it makes for quite an entertaining and enjoyable read. I also like how the creators brought the story out of the 90s into more modern times, incorporating all the relevant technology and social norms into the plot. There are also quite a few jokes making fun of the 90s, which is a nice touch, and a great call back to the original series. As a result, I thought the new story introduced in High School is Hell was pretty darn amazing and I had a lot of fun reading it.

The issues featured in High School is Hell feature an interesting mix of characters from the original television show, and I think fans of Buffy will enjoy the changes that the creative team introduce to the various characters. Firstly, Buffy remains pretty much unchanged; she is still the new girl at the school who is trying to balance the Slayer part of her life with high school, friends and romance. While there is a tad additional teenage apathy, perhaps as a result of her job at Tunaverse, her character remains as a pretty consistent touchstone from the original series. The same could be said of Giles, who is still the same stuffy English gentleman he was in the first few episodes of the original show with the disapproving mentor vibe, although we do get to see him playing his guitar in public a lot sooner.

Buffy-03-00a

While Buffy and Giles are fairly similar to their original versions in the show, there are some interesting changes to the other major Buffy characters featured in this new series. For example, Willow has already discovered her sexuality and has a girlfriend, new character Rose. She also seems to be a whole lot more confident than she originally was in the series and is already eager to fight evil and start learning magic (which couldn’t possibly go wrong). Cordelia is still the most popular girl in school, although she is a lot braver and nicer than she was in the original show, although most of the characters find her extreme peppiness to be a bit too much. She also garners a rather unhealthy obsession with Spike, which was an intriguing addition which will no doubt become a major plot point in the future. Interestingly enough, Xander is probably the character who has changed the most in this series. On the exterior he is still the same happy-go-lucky character he was in the show. However, none of the characters realise that Xander is actually quite depressed, lonely and feels quite powerless, something the audience is made aware of by viewings of his anonymous blog. The inclusion of the blog entries is quite clever; we are initially made to think they are Buffy’s inner monologue. Once we are shown they belong to Xander, it gives an emotional look into his mind. Xander’s resultant story arc in this book ends in a pretty shocking twist, which has real potential to be a defining moment of this series.

Buffy-03-01a

In addition to these main characters who were the focus of the original Buffy first season, there is also an interesting use of other characters from the show. Major characters Anya, Robin Wood, Spike and Drusilla all show up in these first four issues, each entering the story far earlier than they did in the television show, and with very different storylines. Anya is a demonic witch who deals magical artefacts from a secret occult shop (a fun nod to her business from the show). Anya is a neutral force in the town, and it is an interesting departure from her role as a vengeance demon. We only see a little of Robin Wood in these first four issues, although he is set up as Buffy’s potential love interest. In this series he’s set up as a star athlete and overall nice guy, with no real indication of whether he’ll have the same connections to the Slayers or Spike that he did in the show. Spike and Drusilla are a cool choice as the initial antagonists for this version of Buffy. The two of them always make a great team, although there is a bit of a change to the dynamic. Dru is somewhat less insane in this series, and seems to be the brains of the operation, relying on Spike a lot less. Spike is pretty much his usual fun self, although he appears a little less in love or devoted to Dru as he was in the show. He also has a fun relationship with Cordelia, and there is also a certain debate about his name. While Dru and Anya refer to him as William, he introduces himself to Cordelia as Spike to try and sound edgy, which results in a good joke from Dru about how the name “hardly played in the 90s”.

Buffy-04-00a

Overall, I was quite happy with how the creative team behind this new series utilised the show’s existing characters and brought them into the new century. Some of the changes are really quite cool, and I liked how some of the dynamics were altered. Some of the new characters were also pretty cool, and it will be interesting to see what overall impact they will have on the series. I think that some of their decisions will lead to some excellent stories in the future, and I look forward to seeing how other existing characters are introduced.

The artwork in the first four issues of this series was pretty awesome and really added a lot to this volume. Mora did an outstanding job capturing the likenesses of the existing characters from the show; they looked so much like the original actors. The action sequences are done exceedingly well and there is a real sense of motion in some of the scenes that bring all the fights to life. The artwork and the colour schemes help add a lot of dread or unease to several scenes throughout the volume, which add a lot more to story. The artwork in this new version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first rate and really exciting.

Buffy-04-01a.jpg

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High School is Hell represents a bold new direction for the Buffy franchise, and one that I am quite excited for. The alternate timeline that the creative team has decided to set this story in is quite an intriguing concept that works exceedingly well. Bellaire has come up with a captivating initial storyline that is enhanced by Mora’s artwork. This series will definitely appeal to fans of the original television series, who will love seeing these great characters altered in a brand-new timeline. It is also easily accessible to those readers less familiar with the show and could be a good starting point for those who want to check out the franchise. This volume is highly recommended, and I am looking forward to the future inclusions in this excellent new comic book series.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

Dracul Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

You think you know the story of Dracula?  Prepare to have your understanding of one of history’s greatest horror novels completely turned on its head as Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew presents a captivating new story of horror based off Bram Stoker’s notes and his original version of the iconic book.

The year is 1868, and a young Bram Stoker has barricaded himself in the top room of an abandoned abbey.  This room has crosses carved on every wall, mirrors hanging from every angle and garlic smeared around the door frame, while Bram himself is armed with roses, holy water and a rifle.  Outside the room lurks an ancient evil, its greatest desire to enter the room and claim the man waiting within.  As Bram waits for the sun to rise, he writes in his journal, desperate to describe the events that lead to this moment.

The tale he tells is an intriguing tale of horror and mystery set in the midst of 19th century Ireland.  Bram was born a sickly youth whose constant illness stopped him from leaving his bed for most of his early life.  One of the few points of comfort in his life was his nanny, Ellen Crone, who nursed him through the worst of his maladies.  Bram seemed destined for a short life, until one day a miracle occurs and Bram’s sickness is cured by the mysterious intervention of Nanny Crone.  But as Bram and his sister Matilda investigate the suspicious behaviour and abilities of Nanny Crone, she disappears, leaving behind questions about who, or what, she really was.

Years later, it appears that Ellen Crone has returned, as strange and bloody events haunt the lives of Bram, Matilda and their older brother Thornley.  As they investigate further they find that the mysterious Ellen Crone has not aged a day, is accompanied by those who died years earlier and has a strange hypnotic hold over Bram.  But even as the siblings attempt to find answers, they soon realise a far more powerful and malevolent creature is hunting in Ireland, one who will forever change the life of the Stoker family.

This is one of the most intriguing books of 2018, as it is a reimagining of the origin of one of the world’s most iconic horror novels, Dracula, which was originally published in 1897 by author Bram Stoker.  The authors of this new book are the team of established horror writer J. D. Barker, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker.  This is not the first Dracula book that Dacre Stoker has had his hand in, as he also wrote the 2009 book, Dracula the Un-dead with Ian Holt, which serves as the official sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracul is a clever and compelling read that takes a deeper look at the story behind the classic horror novel.  The plot of this novel is apparently based upon Bram Stoker’s notes, journals and around 100 pages that were culled from the original draft of Dracula by his editors.  As a result, the authors of Dracul strongly hint that Bram Stoker and his family actually encountered a vampire, and that his experiences led him to publish Dracula as a warning to people about the dangers that were hidden around them and the apparent weaknesses of these creatures.  There is a great quote at the very start of this novel that the authors attribute to Bram Stoker and indicate was part of Dracula’s original preface: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

This new novel by Stoker and Barker is an outstanding piece of fiction.  Not only is it a powerful piece of horror fiction in its own right but it has a number of clever and intriguing connections to Dracula.  The horror elements of this book are fantastic, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the dread that surrounds the protagonists as they investigate the horrors that surround them and their family.  There are a number of great scenes throughout this book where the characters encounter supernatural elements that slowly seek to drive them mad with fear or horror, and the attacks come from a variety of sources.  I have to mention the fact that the monster who inspires Dracula is particularly fearsome in Dracul and the authors really paint him as a powerful and soulless being far beyond the comprehension of the human protagonists.  I really loved the overall story of Bram and the other Stokers as they find themselves bound to this adventure at an early age and slowly encounter all the horrors around them.  There are some very clever turns throughout this book, and there are some surprising twists.  This is a great chronicle of Bram’s life and the writers even try to answer some interesting unanswered questions, like why Bram Stoker left instructions to have his body immediately cremated upon his death, an unusual custom for the time.

I really loved the way that this story is told, especially as Stoker and Barker have set large portions of this story out in a similar manner to the original Dracula novel.  Like Dracula, a large part of Dracul’s story is told in an epistolary format, featuring a series of diary entries from Bram and Thornley Stoker, as well as several letters from Matilda Stoker.  This serves to provide the reader with a large amount of backstory to the Stoker lives and show how they initially met their first vampire and the crazy events that followed them uncovering her secret.  This epistolary format is used for around the first two thirds of Dracul, and these journal entries are interlaced with short chapters set in the story’s present, with Bram stuck at the top of a tower and an evil force trying to get into him.  These scenes are particularly awesome, as they show strange forces trying to get through the door in front of Bram, while the protagonists utilise a number of techniques to force it back.  As the book continues, the reader is given a view into why Bram is up in the tower, what he is facing and the truth to everything that is happening to him, revealing a completely different story than you were expecting.  All of this is a fantastic and unique way to tell this story, and I felt it added a lot to the book, especially as the lack of knowledge about what Bram was facing in the tower at the start of the book really increased the book’s early horror elements.  These notes are also an item within the story, as the characters combine their journals together and the letters to Nanny Crone appear in a number of places that the protagonists are exploring.  At one point, the characters even arrange some of the older journals together to form a more coherent story, indicating that these journals and letters formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and play into the idea that the events of Dracul could have actually happened.

While this book is a fantastic horror novel in its own right, fans of Dracula will appreciate how this book calls back to the original novel in a number of captivating ways.  For example, the major character of Nanny Crone has her backstory explored at one point and her real name is revealed to be Countess Dolingen of Gratz.  Fans of Stoker’s work may recognise her as a vampiric character featured in Bram Stoker’s 1914 short story, Dracula’s Guest.  While very little about this character was revealed in Dracula’s Guest, Stoker and Barker flesh her out in this book, creating a fascinating backstory for her and an interesting connection to Dracula, perhaps even explaining why she featured in Dracula’s Guest.  There are a number of other interesting features of Dracul that call back to the original novel.  For example, a large part of Dracul is set in Whitby, England, a major setting in Dracula.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of real life historical figure Ármin Vámbéry as a major character in this book.  Vámbéry, a noted scholar and a close friend of Bram Stoker, is considered by some to be the inspiration for Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and in Dracul he plays a similar role, understanding the threat that is before them and providing the Stokers with the tools to fight against the Vampires.  I also really appreciated the vampiric lore that Stoker and Barker put into Dracul, as the vampire characters only have the vampiric traits found around the time that Dracula was published, and not the ideas that have been included in more recent versions of the vampire legend.  As a result, Dracul comes across as an intricate and clever tribute to Dracula, which fans of the original novel will greatly appreciate.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker have produced an incredibly exciting and deeply fascinating novel that breathes new life into the familiar story of Dracula.  Setting the plot around the life of a pre-Dracula Bram Stoker and his family is an amazing idea that works incredibly well to create a dark and captivating horror story.  One of the more unique books of 2018, Dracul is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have an appreciation for one of fiction’s greatest and most iconic monsters.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Those looking for an entertaining, intriguing and different take on the horror genre should investigate Dreadful Company, the latest book from author Vivian Shaw, which contains a thrilling story based around the doctor to your favourite fictional monsters.

Greta Helsing is London’s medical practitioner for the undead, providing specialised treatment to the city’s hidden community of ghouls, vampires, mummies and zombies.  After being called to Paris to attend a supernatural medical conference, Greta’s plans to enjoy a stimulating discourse and debate on monster medicine is ruined when she is suddenly kidnapped off the street.  Her abductors turn out to be a coven of young and murderous vampires led by the unhinged Corvin, who bears a particular grudge against Greta’s vampire friend Ruthven.  Even more concerning, a member of Corvin’s coven is using magic to summon small and friendly magical creatures.  While the creatures may be harmless, the ripples they are causing in reality are not, and represent a significant threat to our world.

While Greta is trapped in the tunnels and catacombs below Paris, her friends arrive in the city to save her.  Legendary elder vampire Ruthven and Greta’s vampyre boyfriend, Sir Francis Varney, team up with Paris’s guardian werewolf, two immortal paranormal investigators and the city’s resident demon to free Greta and put an end to the dimensional instability.  But Greta and her companions are about to find out that there are weirder and more dangerous things than a collection of bloodthirsty vampires in the tunnels underneath Paris.

Dreadful Company is Shaw’s follow-up to her 2017 debut novel, Strange Practice, and is the second book in her Dr Greta Helsing series.  Dreadful Company returns several of the protagonists from the first book while also adding in a healthy number of new and exciting characters.  A third book in the series is already planned; I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Grave Importance next year.

Shaw’s latest book contains a fun and electrifying adventure that pits several ancient beings and their doctor against a coven of vampires and the magical catastrophe they have created.  The author tells her story through a range of characters to show many different perspectives of the adventure taking place.  Not only is every single protagonist – including returning characters Greta, Ruthven and Varney, as well as new characters the werewolf St Germain, the remedial psychopomps Brightside and Dammerung and the demon Irazek – a point of view character, but so are several of the young vampires who serve as the book’s antagonists.  This allows Shaw to tell a much wider story.  Not only is the central adventure explored in greater detail from a several angles, but the motivations, shared histories and the underlying thought processes of the story’s key players are presented to the reader.

Shaw has made a smart decision to change the book’s main setting from London to Paris.  Many writers can get bogged down in one location during their series, but Shaw did a fantastic job adapting her story to a completely new and unique cityscape, a trend that she will apparently continue to follow in her 2019 addition to the series.  Shaw makes full use of several iconic Paris locations, particularly the catacombs and tunnels underneath the streets, which are the perfect setting for a horror story.  Overall, Dreadful Company contains a rather exciting adventure story that makes spectacular use of its horror and fantasy elements, while also making use of the humour and history of its many point-of-view characters to lighten the darker tone of the book and create a unique and entertaining read.

I was extremely happy that Shaw included more examples of monster medicine within Dreadful Company.  The examination of the medical techniques used on supernatural characters was one of the best features of Strange Practice, and was a very unique and compelling element of this first book.  There are a number of wonderful general monster medicine scenes throughout the book, including a supernatural medicine conference where topics include ‘An overview of the various treatment modalities for tissue degeneration in Class A revenants’ (how to stop bits falling off zombies).  Readers will really enjoy Dreadful Company’s interesting focus on the medicine of vampires.  Shaw did spend a little time exploring the biology and treatment of vampires in the first book, which is expanded upon in Dreadful Company.  There are several discussions about vampire anatomy and physiology, including some of the features of the different vampire subspecies.  There is also a detailed look at the effect of certain substances on vampiric characters, including drugs and garlic, as well as the surprisingly devastating absinthe.  The protagonist is also forced to treat a number of different vampire characters for a variety of different conditions, including an overdose, stab wounds and an infection caused by a ghoul bite.  Once again, Shaw’s inclusion of monster medicine was an amazing part of this book, and I am looking forward to the third novel in the series, Grave Importance, which will focus on the care of mummies.

Aside from the examination of vampire biology, Shaw has also included a fascinating look into the different vampire mentalities, particularly when it comes to the old school versus the young bloods.  The two elder vampire characters, Ruthven and Varney, are reformed from their violent past and are instead trying to live normal and peaceful lives alongside humans.  The younger vampires, on the other hand, are bloodthirsty creatures who don’t follow any rules, kill indiscriminately and indulge in drugs and wanton behaviour.  The differences between the behaviours of these two different types of vampires are quite noticeable, especially when the younger vampires try to live up to all of the vampire stereotypes, such as sleeping in coffins, wearing elaborate clothes and makeup, making up dumb names for themselves, developing a superiority complex and trying out various ways to make themselves glitter.  While these inclusions are extremely fun, the readers will really experience chills when they see how angry the usually calm characters Ruthven and Varney get when they encounter these younger vampires and realise what taboos they have broken.

In addition to the creative and captivating use of vampire characters throughout the book, Shaw has referenced several other classic horror creatures and villains.  There are several allusions to Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, with the protagonists actually visiting the Phantom’s underground lair at one point.  There are also other creatures, such as magically summoned hair monsters, well monsters and a whistle-summoned spirit, all of which play an interesting role in the plot.  Some great humour also comes from the inclusion of several ghosts, many of whom can be found having a lively party in Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise cemetery.  Highlights of this scene include a snarky Oscar Wilde and a musical Jim Morrison, both of whom have some great interactions with the new characters, Brightside and Dammerung.

Dreadful Company sees new author Vivian Shaw return with another fun and thrilling horror novel that contains a fast-paced adventure and a light comedy enhance tone.  Shaw has invested in a range of new characters, a fresh setting and some appealing fantasy and horror elements.  The author’s clever and memorable inclusion of monster medicine once again shines through as the book’s best feature, as well as the detailed examination of the vampire psyche.  An absolutely amazing second outing from Shaw, Dreadful Company is a fantastic read that will prove to be both unique and captivating to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

Vampire Uprising Cover

Publisher: Hachette

Publication Date – 29 May 2018

 

From the inspired mind of Raymond Villareal comes one of the most captivating and thought-provoking literary achievements of 2018.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if vampires came into existence in the modern world?  Villareal’s debut novel, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, explores the possibility of such an event through a comprehensive fictional oral history, much like Max Brooks’ observation of a zombie apocalypse in World War Z.

The body of a young woman in an Arizona morgue awakens and disappears into the night.  This mysterious event will start a chain reaction around the world that no one could predict.  The CDC investigator consulting on the case soon discovers that the woman was suffering from a mysterious disease with several incredible symptoms.  Subjects are stronger, faster, suffer a violent reaction to sunlight, have unnaturally long lives and are utterly enthralling to humans.  More importantly, they must consume blood to survive and can pass the disease on by biting another human.  As attempts to quarantine the disease fail and additional bodies start disappearing, the world quickly realises that vampires are real and here to stay.

As more and more people are infected, many of those who have been turned begin to reintegrate back into society.  These new creatures call themselves ‘gloamings’, finding the term ‘vampires’ to be derogatory.  Soon, many of the rich and famous are flocking to the gloamings, hoping to join their ranks and be re-created.  With their natural talents enhanced, the gloamings start accumulating significant wealth, power and influence as they infiltrate all levels of human society while attracting followers to their side.  Gloamings infiltrate the government, powerful companies and the Catholic Church.  One gloaming even begins a run for high political office.

However, not everyone is enamoured by the gloamings.  A faction of the church is determined to stop the vampire incursion and has formed its own militia to fight gloamings throughout the world.  Following a series of high profile cases, the FBI starts a taskforce focusing on crimes by gloamings.  The original CDC investigator continues her research into the virus despite intense political and social pressure to stop.  In New Mexico, a skilled political motivator soon discovers a terrible secret about his employers.  This is the start of the vampire uprising; the world will never be the same.

Written in the format of a history book, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is an epistolary novel that uses a series of fictional documents and testimonials to tell the story.  Villareal presents a large portion of the story within chapters representing testimonials from certain characters specifically taken for a history book.  Other chapters are written in the format of important documents from the fictional world and are made to represent interrogation notes, congressional transcripts, government reports and articles in scientific and legal journals.  In addition to these longer chapters, Villareal has also included numerous shorter entries that are presented as news stories, public interest articles, transcripts pulled from popular media sites, emails and the comments section of a message board.  As a result of all these different formats and documents types, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising has the uncanny feel of an actual history book, which is further reinforced by the inclusion of footnotes in most of the longer chapters, and three short appendices slipped into the back on the book.  This is a marvellous way to structure the book and it speaks to Villareal’s skill that he was able to tell such a captivating narrative using this style of writing.

By employing fictional testimonies and documents originating from a number of different characters, Villareal is able to tell an extremely wide-reaching story about the introduction of vampires.  Most of the longer chapters are written in the style of testimonies from characters in the United States, while many of the shorter articles show a wide view of the rest of the world.  This allows Villareal to focus his main story in one specific country and focus his analysis on how the United States would react to such an event.  At the same time Villareal is also able to illustrate a much wider story showing how the vampire uprising would affect the entire world.  Exceptions to this are the chapters featuring the gloamings causing a religious and ideological schism within the church.  These chapters focus the plot on characters throughout Europe and represent some of the more fascinating fictional postulations within A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising.

While the book contains numerous narrators, authors and interviewees telling their specific stories, Villareal is still able to produce a clear overall narrative about the introduction of vampires to the world.  While Villareal initially has the individual narrators tell their own stories, eventually the characters meet and interact, allowing the multiple storylines to combine into one overarching plot.  The smaller articles and extra details within some of the longer features also allow the reader to have an amusing examination about how some social groups and individuals may react to the introduction of vampires, including celebrities such as Taylor Swift.  The end result is very well-done, overarching narrative that takes the multiple storylines within and turns it into an exciting and comprehensive overall plot.

While this is a piece of fiction, it also serves as an examination and critique of modern society.  Villareal postulates that if vampires ever did appear society would be split between distrusting such creatures and worshiping them, while the rich, famous and powerful would all try to join them, turning the gloamings into the ultimate elitist clique.  Villareal examines extremely plausible ways in which the gloamings could influence humans and attempt to win them to their side, with one chapter in particular describing how a vampire might win an election.  The result is a perceptive and astute examination of current human nature that will leave readers spinning.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is one of the most impressive books of the year.  Raymond Villareal produces an insanely compelling story while using a unique and clever format that clearly highlights his skill and imagination.  In addition to being incredibly entertaining, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is also an insightful piece of social commentary that will greatly amuse readers.  This is a truly magnificent piece of fiction and an outstanding debut from Villareal.

My Rating:

Five Stars