This is the second in a new trilogy of Alien novels from Titan Books, and manages to meet the bar set pleasingly high by the first instalment of “Out Of The Shadows” (My full review of Tim Lebbon’s story here).
This time, we travel to New Galveston – LV-178 – an outer rim planet already terraformed and boasting three cities. But plans for a fourth have been slowed by the “Sea of Sorrows”. This is a vast area of noxious and unstable black sand, threaded with strange silicon nodes, in which nothing will grow. Working on the site we find Alan Decker, a toughened safety commissioner with strong empathic abilities who also happens to be a descendent of our favourite alien-slaying icon, Ellen Ripley.
Of course, Weyland-Yutani (aka The Company) aren’t far away. When an old mining excavation and alien ship is discovered, talk of xenomorphs abound. After Decker is injured on the Sea of Sorrows and seems to have forged some kind of nightmarish link with the alien consciousness, The Company blackmail him. He has to join a crew of heavily-armed, hired mercenaries on an expedition into the mine and bring back a live specimen.
I had a great time reading this book. As you would hope, Weyland-Yutani present the epitome of corporate ruthlessness. Their knack for being one step ahead of the game and playing everyone as pawns is perfectly realised in the form of Andrea Rollins, their ice-cold and sociopathic spokesperson. The Ripley link is a nice idea, and it’s Rollins who uses this family tie to force Decker into compliance. This is with a bit of good old-fashioned extortion, naturally, making him pay for Ripley’s trademark historical talent for blowing up expensive Company installations.
Decker himself is a solid lead, made real by his flaws, and the seasoned roughneck mercs do their job. Some of the characters are a bit stock, and several of them don’t get enough airtime to become distinguishable from the others, but they serve a purpose even if it all feels a little familiar.
That’s one of two problems I have with this book. It’s initially rather samey with regard to setting and devices: The Company wanting to capture live specimens, a consultant thrown in at the deep end with a squad of protective hard-cases, a crashed alien vessel, being stalked in old mine shafts. We’ve seen all of these in the films and previous novels, several tropes of which feature in this book’s direct predecessor “Out of the Shadows”. I suppose I was hoping for some fresh ideas, the kind of which featured in some of the Dark Horse tales of the 90s. There, we had the infestation of earth in “Earth Hive”, a dangerous musician wanting to record an alien’s scream in “Music of the Spears” and the intrigue and mystery of an xeno-detective’s life in “No Exit”. As a result, “Sea of Sorrows” was never going to stand out too far above the crowd. But I was pleased to discover that the author makes the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere for some superb tension and excitement.
My main problem however, lies with the concept of the aliens being out for revenge. They somehow know that Decker is a descendent of Ripley, whom they regard as “The Destroyer”. While I’m all for introducing new developments to the species, I think portraying them as vengeful thinkers makes them somehow less frightening than the instinct-driven killing machines that care for nothing but queen and nest.
That said, the rage and consuming hatred felt by the aliens is used to good effect, especially in a visually stunning encounter with a queen. There are also plenty of dream-like snippets in which Decker’s subconscious connects with the xenomorphs, and we see and feel their point of view. Conveying something so… well, alien, is no easy task but the author gives us a ghastly peek into what it might be like to actually be one.
Overall, there’s plenty to please fans of the mythos and also the casual horror/sf reader. The vicious attacks are cinematic and very easy to follow, despite the subterranean chaos, and the breakneck action is straight out of “Aliens”. One fight in a steep, narrow tunnel lingers in the memory as a horrible bottleneck of screaming, gunfire, corpses and acid blood.
I also like it that the story utilises the fact that readers are familiar with the xenomorphs, but the protagonists are not. For example, the mercenaries find a corpse they assume died by stray gunfire, though it’s clear to us that she was the victim of a chestburster. This fosters a wry but uncomfortable feeling. I also loved their gob-smacked reactions to seeing the aliens for the first time, and the author does well not to unnecessarily overdescribe.
There’s also pure horror moments for those who like their spines thoroughly chilled. A couple of attacks out on the malevolent sands of the Sea of Sorrows produce shivers and a good old-fashioned jump in the seat. While much of this book is in the vein of “Aliens”, these silent stalk-and-kill scenes evoke the anticipatory dread of Ridley Scott’s film.
Of course no story can survive without pathos, and there’s tragedy and humanity here too. One memorable scene sees two close friends cocooned beside each other in the alien’s nest. After realising they’re impregnated and awaiting a horrible death, the ensuing dialogue is refreshingly moving.
Despite my reservations of familiarity, the second half of the book is a blast with a couple of tricks up its sleeve, and of course not everybody is what they seem. I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, and after all that adrenaline, the conclusion is appropriately dark.
“Sea of Sorrows” is very well written. Some of the older Dark Horse mythos books were poorly scribed, to the point where I even bailed on one, but at least with this trilogy Titan have given the job to those who are up to the job. James A. Moore has delivered a robust novel of atmospheric action, treachery and dripping teeth. They can definitely keep them coming for me.