Review – “Blood Ocean” by Weston Ochse

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I love a good end of the world, and the Afterblight Chronicles series from Abaddon Books have always been reliable. “Blood Ocean” by Weston Ochse is no exception, and despite treading a couple of beaten paths, it proves to be a tight meld of martial arts, character drama and dystopian horror.

The apocalyptic engineering of this novel is fairly generic. A blood-type related plague has wiped out much of the world’s population: a terrible pandemic known as “The Cull”. But it’s the perfectly evoked stage that sets this novel apart from similar premises. It takes place entirely within the rusted hulls and creaking masts of Nomi No Toshi: a floating city of lashed togther boats, tankers and submarines that drifts on the sun-drenched ocean.

Our protagonist is Kavika, a young Hawaiian who longs to earn his traditional warrior stripes and become one of  the Pali boys. They rule the skies above the city, swinging monkey-fashion through the rigging and masts above with an ethos of “living large”.

But Nomi No Toshi is a dangerous place, and when one of the boys is apparently harvested for his blood, Kavika sets out to find the killer. This takes him on an adventure through the secret passages, dank hulls, shrines and crow’s nests of the city, and he soon discovers that money talks, fear talks even louder, and power most certainly corrupts.

I loved the setting of this book, and the city is a patchwork of sumptiously realised territories. From the Koreans living in stacked containers aboard an old cargo ship, to the Russians in their subs, life aboard the floating city is one of violence, segregation and suspicion. “Water dogs” rule the sea beneath and control fishing rights, and there are all manner of other scientists, gangs and sinister religions jostling for power and hustling favours.

The characters are also a strength. I cared for Kavika pretty quickly, and enjoyed his point of view. Some authors forget that they’re writing from the perspective of somebody who’s never seen pre-apocalypse times, but it’s subtly acknowledged here in a world where history has become an oral tradition, declining as the older generations die out. The other major players, including a transsexual water dog and a Spanish drug dealer, are all interesting enough to invest, and even Ivanov – a grizzled, alcoholic submarine captain – has an earthy charm.

This is a pacy read with plenty of action: Weston Ochse clearly knows his way around a fight. But the “rip-roaring yarn” feel is deliberately tempered by shocks, and there’s cannibalism, surgery and other bursts of extreme violence to keep the horror machinery oiled. The real dark heart of the book comes from the ruling Corpers, “blood-raping” their subjects and commissioning human vivisection behind the banner of medical research.

This novel isn’t without flaws. Although I generally like the author’s prose, there were occasional times when a scene would describe what I’d already tacitly imagined, which left me getting ahead of the text and waiting for it to catch up. And although most potential cliches are avoided, I did find the whole orphan boy yearning for acceptance rather too familiar. Kavika is real and likeable with his bravery and affecting naivety, and I’d liked to have seen him fundamentally driven by something less textbook.

Another minor gripe is that one element of the vivisection stepped into the realm of SF. As this is a novel otherwise based in concrete science, it demanded a suspension of disbelief I couldn’t give, and dulled a scene that had otherwise very much appealed to my love of the physically macabre.

But despite these grumbles, there is certainly nothing to spoil it. Weston Ochse has a great eye for speculative detail, and neatly presents our inability to rebuild without resorting to tribe and abuse.

Fans of China Mieville may also notice similarities with his sprawling and gorgeous “The Scar” with its floating city, cultural diversity and grotesque body modification, but those heavy sociopolitical depths aren’t attempted here. In fact, ignoring the horror content, this almost feels like a book for younger audiences. That’s not because this is euphemistic or lightweight storytelling. I think it’s partly due to a sense of optimism despite the odds, but mainly because it’s a wild ride driven by a fresh-faced youth that doesn’t contrive to be disturbing or profound, but concentrates on shovelling coal into its furnace.

I enjoyed “Blood Ocean”. Take a tour of the City on the Waves, and give both your inner kid and your inner ghoul something to get their teeth into.

Tide of Souls – Simon Bestwick

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A recent addition to Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead line, I expected this to be a zombie horror-thriller. And while indeed it is, there’s far more to Simon’s novel than necrotic innards and masticated brains.

Britain is being consumed by floods, and as the terrified population attempt to climb away from the creeping waters to safety, it becomes clear that drowning or starvation are the least of their worries. The murky depths are home to an army of green-eyed undead. Control and hope is soon lost, the semi-devoured victims rising from where they fall to replenish the ranks of their slayers.

The story follows the plight of three characters. The first is Katya Wencewska, an educated and tough Polish immigrant whom we meet imprisoned in the Manchester brothel where she is forced to work as a sex slave. The pace begins at a breathless rate, as Katya breaks out of her flooded vice cell to the rooftops to fight off the watery horde.

Robbie McTarn is an ex-soldier, steeped in alcohol and post-traumatic-stress, who finds himself called back into service to embark on a dangerous mission across the bleak, drowned Lancashire countryside. His orders are to find Ben Stiles, a brilliant but damaged scientist who may have some answers regarding the rotting scourge that is consuming the world.

These are no ordinary zombies. I’ve seen genre fiction in which the dead are nothing but a brainless, relentless eating machine. There are also ones that display cunning and intelligence. This, paradoxically, can sometimes make it less scary; you can’t plot or scheme against something that has no capability to learn or any sense of self-preservation. Well, Simon’s undead fall somewhere between the two with a pleasing twist, and the results are fascinating.

The back stories of our protagonists, and the way their lives become entwined, are delivered in snippets with the skill of a practiced writer. The characters themselves are believable, each displaying a realistic voice of experience (the novel is presented as three 1st person accounts) and empathy is never a problem.

Tide of Souls is refreshingly unpredictable, and also quick to resolve threads before they drag on past their welcome; some writers misjudge a reader’s patience with suspense, but here, the timing is always spot on.

This is also an incredibly visual book, packed with images both haunting and loud. To present one example, at the outset of McTarn’s tale, we join a group of military as they watch handheld footage of some soldiers investigating an office block that are beset by the horde. The experience made me feel as though somebody had triggered a strobe-light in my brain, and the memory of this scene is almost as though I’ve actually seen the horrific video myself, bringing similarly unpleasant moments in Aliens and Event Horizon to mind. Excellent stuff.

So any gripes? There’s a military commanding officer who’s a dick, which made me think yeah, yeah, yeah, but as it works so well here, maybe it is the fault of lesser writers for making this a cliché. It did jar that it comes as a shock to one character when he discovers that infection is spread via the undead’s bite. As this story is set in our world, one could presume that their entertainment media is just as full of zombie fiction as ours, so wouldn’t they just assume that if you get bitten, you’re screwed? I’ll concede that while this is a tricky one, it’s an issue that I wish more horror writers would address.

But these are the only complaints, and I had to be pedantic to find them. This is a powerful, entertaining novel written in crisp, addictive prose. The first two segments brim with action – brawls upon precarious boats, melees involving some serious military hardware (which are startling in their realism) and an immense bodycount – while the third favours a creepy rather than explosive tone. The scientist’s account takes us to a very different place, offering some degree of explanation, pathos by the barrel, and ties up this memorable and grisly package.

Based upon Tide of Souls and also Simon’s collection Pictures of the Dark, his name has joined the ranks of those whose future fiction I shall purchase without hesitation.

Simon Bestwick

Abaddon Books

Review – “The Culled” by Simon Spurrier

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My wife bought this Afterblight book from Abaddon Books in a recent apocalyptic-fiction phase of which I wholeheartedly approve. I rattled through it, and it’s definitely one of those addictive stories where you anticipate the next chance to pick it up and dig in.

CulledIt’s five years since most of the world’s population has been decimated and we find a new social order in the hands of a sinister cult called the Clergy. Our enigmatic protagonist (and narrator) takes us on a brutal adventure through the shanties and clans of New York. He isn’t an entirely pleasant creature, and deliberately so, and proves to be increasingly fascinating the more we learn.

The characters present all our traits, from the reassuring to the heinous, giving the book an extraordinary sense of humanity; the triumphs and the flaws. This makes the extreme violence all the more shocking, yet at the same time, sometimes understandable.

It’s a very colourful tale that manages to be a homage to the familiar (there’s plenty for fans of  Mad Max and Escape from New York here) while also treading fresh, unexplored ground. The pace is relentless and it’s all tied up nicely at the end in a manner that should be irritatingly contrived, but instead just cements a solid story.

This novel has certainly thrust Abaddon books to the forefront of my attention. If you’re not a fan of the tribal, post-apocalyptic futures, you’ll probably think it’s good. If you are, you’ll love it.