No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

I’ve read a couple of horror/monster related novels already this year, with Mark Matthews’ The Hobgoblin of Little Minds being the pick of the bunch. Cadwell Turnbull’s second book, No Gods, No Monsters, is a different beast altogether, if you pardon the pun. Both authors offer a fresh take on the werewolf mythos, preferring to focus on the psychological effect of actually being a monster in a contemporary environment. Whereas Matthews’ book is a visceral gut-punch, Turnbull’s novel is more reflective, has a larger cast of characters, and weaves its story through time and locations which don’t, at the outset, seem to connect with one another. But they do, in the end. How Turnbull gets there is genius.

It’s a difficult book to give a synopsis of, but I’ll try. The book is framed and narrated in parts by Calvin who, like the author, is a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He ends a relationship when he learns of his brother’s death. He goes back home to reconnect with his niece. Laina, who I consider to be the main character, has also lost her brother, Lincoln, who was gunned down by police. Echoes of police violence on people of colour in the U.S. and elsewhere weighed heavy on my mind as I read this and other parts of the story. Laina learns of a video of her brother’s shooting and immediately shares it online. It is proof that monsters live among us, because her brother was one. But the video is mysteriously edited, leaving Laina and her husband Ridley knocked back emotionally.

And that’s just two of the many character arcs going on here. Throughout the novel we learn of a war between two secret societies: one wants to let the world know that monsters co-exist with regular humanity; the other uses violent means to suppress the information. Caught between the two is a young boy with powers of his own, enough to turn the tide one way or another. He is protected by a group of women which includes a tech mage and a woman who literally takes her skin off and becomes invisible. The boy, who I won’t name because it’s a spoiler of sorts, is hunted by a man who’s been maimed in a ritual. It’s all sorts of crazy, and somewhere in the back of it all, there’s a debate on quantum physics and the ability to slip between dimensions. So, some of what happens occurs in our world, I think, while other events occur in a parallel universe.

Cadwell Turnbull (credit: Anju Manandhar)

One of the many things I love about this book is the diversity of its characters. Cadwell Turnbull brings them to life in a way I’ve not experienced in my reading too much of late. Turnbull brings his Caribbean culture to life in these pages, flavouring his book with characters that do not identify as ‘straight’ or binary. Despite being self-proclaimed monsters in the classic sense, they are as human as you or I, and share similar needs and identities as any of us on this planet. This book left me with a need to read more fiction by authors who don’t look like me, or live a lifestyle similar to mine. I consider this a must in this day and age.

Although No Gods, No Monsters is a fantastical tale, brilliantly written and told, the depth of feeling and sense of urgency is as real as anything you would see in our world. This book will sit with me for some time to come.

My thanks goes to NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing for supplying me with an ARC of No Gods, No Monsters, in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on September 7, 2021. Get your copy now. You won’t regret it.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 13-17

Read the previous instalment here.

These next four chapters lay the trail for Edmond Dantes eventual escape from the Chateau d’If. This is an important section for the book because, away from the political to-and-fro of early 19th century French history, we get to spend a decent amount of time with Dantes and his new-found friend and spiritual adviser, the Abbe Faria, the ‘Learned Italian’.

Napoleon has been banished once more, and Louis XVIII has been restored to the throne. No better time for the inspector-general of prisons to do his rounds and see how things are with the inmates of the lonely island Dantes calls home. Dantes spies an opportunity to appeal to the man who, in all fairness, sees no reason why Dantes should even be in prison. Having listened to his pleas, the inspector-general promises the innocent man that he will look into his case. Dantes feels hope at last, thinking that de Villefort’s notes will save him. However, the opposite happens. Conspiracy runs deep and the prosecutor’s lies, and his desire to hide his own relationship with Noirtier further damn Dantes’ claim to be released. There is nothing the inspector-general can do.

Nor is there anything he can do with the other prisoner he visits, the seemingly mad Italian Abbe Faria, who promises the inspector-general untold wealth if his release can be secured. Faria has a treasure buried somewhere and he’s willing to part with most of it if his pleas are met. The governor and inspector-general think him mad and leave him to rot away. Prisoners 27 (Faria) and 27 (Dantes) are left to fend for themselves.

Dantes falls into deep despair, at one point threatening to starve himself to death, such is his plight. His prayers to God go unheeded; and he’s oblivious to the fact that other people who were close to him put him where he is now. But when he hears a noise coming from the other side of his cell, he tricks his jailer into leaving his dinner pot behind and starts scratching away at the sound. Then he hears a voice. After some time and much scraping away at the wall, he meets his neighbour, who turns out to be the Abbe Faria, who comes into Dantes’ cell.

Far from being mad, as his jailers deem him to be, Faria is a resourceful man. Imprisoned because of his belief in a unified Italy, Faria is a polymath who becomes Dantes’ tutor in the years they spend together. He teached Dantes other languages and soon enough Dantes, an intelligent if naive man, quickly learns the basics in Italian and English. Faria also proves to Dantes that Caderousse, Fernand, and Danglars were the men behind his captivity. Dantes swears revenge. Together they hatch a plan to escape. Faria, much to his own despair, works out that he’s been digging in the wrong direction. So, between planning another route, and learning mathematics and philosophy, the two men bond over a mutual need for freedom.

Before their plan can come to fruition, though, the abbe has an epileptic fit. The man knows he’s on limited time, with an arm and a leg becoming paralyzed. Dantes swears to not leave his friend while he’s alive.

Tempest of Bravoure: Kingdom Ascent by Valena D’Angelis

Meriel Ahn Arkamai is dokkalfur, a dark elf, on the run from her past, and heading into a future she’s very unsure of. Going by the her preferred name Ahna, she has kept her true identity and magical abilities safely hidden away for fifty years. The world she lives on is called Terra, but she’s a Dwellunder by birth, feared and respected in equal measure.

The war which led to the Prince of Mal, Xandor Kun, becoming the Dark Lord Sharr, took everything from Ahna: her home, her family, her reason to be. So she left it all behind, with only her friend, the woman who calls her ‘sister’, Kairen, keeping her from straying into total despair. Ahna has, for years on end, spurned Kairen’s call to join the Resistance, but another encounter leads her back into the fold. Ahna isn’t accepted by all, though. Her race leaves others suspicious of her intentions, as Lord Sharr is a dark elf himself, but she gets by because Kairen and her husband David trust her. Ahna doesn’t have the luxury of time to settle in with her new kinfolk, because the Resistance is plotting a new attack, focussed on Bravoure City, the fabled City of Gold.

Valena D’Angelis is a new author, and she debuts with Tempest of Bravoure: Kingdom Ascent, an intriguing addition to the genre of epic fantasy fiction. I finished it over the course of four days, frantically swiping my Kindle to find out where her story was heading. Sure, it has most of the tropes of the genre front and centre: there’s a prophecy; there’s the heroine’s journey; there’s a dark lord to be vanquished; there are diverse races living on or beneath an Earth-like environment; and there are monsters — dragons to be precise. So far, there’s enough here for fans of JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan.

Valena pulls no punches when it comes to her action scenes; they’re bombastic in scale, and as violent as anything you’d read in modern fantasy. She inhabits her world well with a decent number of likeable characters, important to both plot and main character, that when a couple of them inevitably meet their end, you mourn them. It’s easy to root for Ahna, and while the villain of the piece can be a little boo-hiss from time to time, he has a reason to be who he is and do what he does.

A major subplot I found compelling was the relationship between Ahna and Cedric Rover, a shrike captain, who’s initial loathing of both himself and the dark elf evolves over the course of the book, in a couple of very surprising ways. In this book, secrets are everywhere, but family, in the end, is everything.

One thing I’d like to say, though, is the world of Terra is vast and well-populated. It appears to have a history that goes back eons, with events important to the overall story mentioned briefly and then we move on. I would have enjoyed this book more if it was longer. I know a lot of readers don’t enjoy massive tomes, but in the fantasy genre especially, world-building is a vital part of what makes fans like me really get into a story. Here, there’s a lot of telling without showing, and a part of me was disappointed that there was no deep dive into Terran history, politics, and magic systems. However, I hope in the forthcoming books, we’ll get more exploration.

I give Valena D’Angelis all the kudos in the world for putting her book out there. I know in my heart that she will get better with each novel she publishes. She has made a great start here, and I look forward to reading the second book in this series, Castaway, some time in the near future.

The Eddie Flynn Series by Steve Cavanagh

I was brought up on crime thrillers. Nothing excited me more than watching the good guys catch the bad guys, and getting them put away for murder and fraud. I also enjoyed thrillers where an innocent person needed help to clear their name. I watched old shows like Petrocelli, where a low-key defence attorney who lived in a trailer used his skills and intellect to get his clients cleared of crimes they did not commit. (Occasionally he got it wrong, but he always stuck to the law.)

Modern shows like Law & Order, in all its incarnations, focus on both law enforcement and criminal justice, and are equally compelling in presenting the thrills and spills of the legal system. It’s deeply flawed nationally and internationally, but when it comes to fiction writing, the genre lends itself to providing many, many hours of entertainment. The current HBO show, Perry Mason, is testament to how popular crime and courtroom dramas are and will remain.

Belfast native Steve Cavanagh is a writer who’s currently riding high on the success of a series of electric and exciting novels about New York lawyer Eddie Flynn. To say Eddie is offbeat and eccentric is to do an injustice to a man who uses every trick in the book and under his sleeve to win a case, normally at great cost to himself and those around him. A former con-man and street hustler, Eddie was driven to use his skills in misdirection to help his mother during a medical insurance case.

The first novel proper in the series is The Defence. Eddie’s personal life is a mess, and he’s lost his way in life, but he’s dragged back into court with a bomb strapped to his body, and his daughter’s life in danger. Forced to defend the head of the Russian Mafia in New York, Eddie is in a literal race against time. And did I mention he’s also got a drinking problem? All of this in the first couple of chapters, too. Cavanagh wastes little time on the niceties, and we’re all the better for it. Of course, Eddie realises that no matter what he does, he’s toast, just like his former partner. So he draws on his experience on the streets and in the courtroom, and with the help of a friendly judge, uses the 48 hours he’s been given to turn the tables on his new employers. The book is high-octane, a page turner, and Eddie has always one more trick to play. The pace never lags.

Steve Cavanagh (Credit: Kelly M Photography)

After finishing The Defence, I picked up the other four available books in the series. In The Plea, the FBI and CIA blackmail Eddie into defending a client who’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend. The agencies want Eddie to get the accused man to admit his guilt and take a plea. But Eddie knows there’s more going on. In order to protect his estranged wife, who’s unknowingly tied to a money laundering scheme, he has to go head-to-head with a highly ambitious district attorney who looks down on Eddie as being unworthy of his time. This is another excellent thriller, and Cavanagh lays on the surprises and twists with dexterity.

The Liar continues the trend, with another serpentine story involving Eddie defending an acquaintance from his younger days who’s been charged with the kidnapping and murder of his own daughter. Convinced of his friend’s innocence, Eddie works the case while also helping out the friendly judge, Harry Ford, whose career is in jeopardy due to another lawyer who has demanded the release of casework on a trial the judge was working on. The Liar introduces Agent Harper of the FBI, who eventually works side-by-side with Eddie as the twists come chapter after chapter. Both plots are connected and Eddie and co. have to find out how.

My persona favourite of the series is Thirteen. Eddie is at the centre of the celebrity murder trial of the century. Bobbie Solomon, a movie star, is charged with the murders of his wife and security guard, and Eddie takes on his defence. The twist in this book is that a serial killer, known only as Kane, has found their way onto the jury. This is a premise that can only come from the mind of Steve Cavanagh. There are echoes, however faint, of John Grisham here, but Cavanagh takes his level of plotting to another universe. He mixes the chapters with first person narrative from Eddie himself, and the sinister voice of the killer. The clues as to who this person is are laid out throughout the book, so that when the big reveal comes, we’re not tricked. Bamboozled, stunned, yes; but not taken for fools. Thirteen is glorious.

The last (for now) is Fifty-Fifty, the premise of which is deceptively simple. Two sisters, Alexandra and Sofia Avellino, are accused of the murder of their father. Each blames the other for the crime. At the centre is a $44,000,000 inheritance. The sister found innocent will get the lot. The other goes to prison for life. Eddie represents Sofia, while another lawyer, Kate Brooks represents Alexandra. As in the previous novel, the guilty party, ‘She’, gets chapters to herself. So which of the two lawyers is on the winning side? Cavanagh once again piles layers upon layers of twists, surprises, intrigues, and a shocking death midway through adds to the punchy storyline.

I am in awe of Steve Cavanagh. From the first book till now, with a new one due out hopefully this year, I haven’t read anything near as compulsive and propulsive as the Eddie Flynn novels. He leaves the likes of Grisham and co. for dust.

The Children God Forgot by Graham Masterton

I have a soft spot in my black little heart for the works of horror maestro Graham Masterton. Some time in the eighties I must have read close to a dozen of the author’s early work. Personal favourites were The Manitou, Charnel House, and for me, the daddy of them all, The Devils of D-Day, a crazy book that placed demons, angels, and all kinds of mythological beings right at the heart of WWII. I thought it magnificent.

(Image: HorrifiedMagazine.co.uk)

Masterton’s books are literal page-turners. He wastes no time in setting the scene and getting straight into the beat of the story. In his most recent book, The Childen God Forgot, we’re thrown into a series of freaky situations that have doctors and police officers baffled. The setting is multi-cultural London, and our main characters DS Jamila Patel and DC Jerry Pardoe, who appeared in a previous book, Ghost Virus, have to deal with a strange occurence in the depths of London’s sewage system. A man has gone missing, and his colleagues tell a horrifying story of malformed children and an eerie green light. When the man is eventually found, he’s in serious condition, with his life hanging on a thread.

At the same time, a number of women are tormented by creatures that appear in their wombs despite not being pregnant, but having either aborted a foetus or miscarried one. These creatures have the faces of cherubs but have bodies that cannot be defined as human. Yet they live. And they are protected by a mysterious presence who will kill to defend her ‘nestlings’.

Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton has a way with grotesque set-pieces. He doesn’t pull any punches with his action scenes, and violent dismemberment or death is never far away for any of the characters in these pages. DS Patel and DC Pardoe are an engaging duo, reminiscent of Mulder and Scully in the early days of The X Files. They get the cases no other branch will go near, and often place themselves in danger when others would just cut and run. The truth is not so much out there, but under London, in the sewers.

The Children God Forgot is a great and pacy read. You’ll get exactly what you ask for and expect in a Graham Masterton novel. He makes use of his characters cultural differences to good effect, with DS Patel’s Asian background coming in to play a lot of the time. Masterton has always had a strong feel for the supernatural, and the research he did for this book is there for all to see and read. I enjoyed this book, and it reminded me of a more innocent time when I devoured his early books. He’s been prolific ever since, and I look forward to a return journey into the dark heart of Masterton’s world.

The Time Roads by Claire O’Dell

Claire O’Dell says that The Time Roads is a story about murder, mathematics, and time. It is, but it’s also a deft, complex, and at times explosive political thriller, with characters that are well-drawn, intriguing, and who seek to understand the truth about the world they live in.

Eire is the country of my birth. You will know it as Ireland, a small island nation whose nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has a rather fractious history with it. Ireland spent generations fighting for its independence from its British masters, ultimately gaining sovereignty through a series of rebellions, a civil war, and then political agreement which resulted in the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining under British control. This divide continues to have repercussions in this new Brexit era.

But what if none of this happened? What if Eire was the dominant force in Europe, and the Anglian Dependencies sought independence for themselves? Claire O’Dell creates such a world. Alba (Scotland) is independent, but Anglia, Cymru, Manx, and Wight are subjects to Queen Aine Lasairiona Devereaux and her court of Lords at Cill Cannig, where the kings and queens of Eire had lived for six centuries. It’s a marvellous concept, one I found so intriguing that I had to get a copy to read for myself. I love speculative fiction that takes in alternate history.

Aine takes the throne after her father, the king, passes away suddenly. She is young, idealistic, and looks to a future where there is a league of nations, where there is peace and prosperity. But not every nation is willing to be part of this prototype U.N, though. There are anarchists in Europe who are willing to fracture time itself to stop this from happening. This happens because, at the start of the book, Aine funds the research of a scientist, Breandan O’Cuilinn, who has found a way to move objects into the future. There is a spark of romance between Aine and Breandan, further complicated by the arrival of Commander Aidrean O Deaghaidh, a former spy who’s now enlisted in the queen’s Constabulary, the Garda. There is a hint of a love triangle, but following a series of gruesome murders, and a tragic death, the story goes down a couple of roads that are literally fractures in time.

Claire 0’Dell

The Time Roads consists of four interlinked novellas, set years apart from one another. The Golden Octopus focuses on events in November 1897, which I have related in previous paragraph. We meet Aine, Breandan, Aidrean, and the many lords who make up the queen’s parliament of advisers. The second novella, A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange, is set in September 1902, and this is where the tale becomes more complex. We meet Siomon Madoc, a student of mathematics at Awveline University, whose sister Gwen is a resident at a sanitorium and does nothing all day but reel out sequences of prime numbers. Murders occur, or do they? Aidrean is investigating, but things are not what they seem. Time itself if fracturing.

The third novella, Ars Memoriae, is a good old-fashioned spy story, with Aidrean going undercover in eastern Europe, at great danger to his physical and mental well-being, as he attempts to root out anarchists and traitors to the cause. The book concludes with a section called The Time Roads, where Aine and Aidrean must confront a future that cannot be allowed to happen. It’s 1914 now, and the queen is older and wiser, and knows she has to stop a war that would destroy all she holds dear. She must travel along the time roads themselves.

As I wrote earlier, this is a complex story, one that held my attention from the first page. Claire O’Dell does some great world-building here, and while I would have liked to know more about this Europe and its nations of Frankonia, Prussia, the Turkish States, as well as the new world of Mexica, what information she gives to move her story along serves its purpose. There is a grander story taking place in this world, and Eire is at the centre of is. Being Irish myself, this is as it should be.

Previously published in 2014, writing as Beth Bernobich, Claire O’Dell repackaged The Time Roads for Kindle recently. It’s definitely worth reading, and taking your time as you do. There’s a lot going on, and at times you might find yourself puzzled by what’s going on. But rest assured, while not all answers are forthcoming, the resolution is gratifying and uplifting. Time can be our enemy, but if we use it wisely, it can be our greatest ally.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 9 – 13

Chapters 5-8 can be found here.

These next few chapters are light on Edmond Dantes. Following his illegal incarceration on the island of Chateau d’If, the narrative focuses on Villefort’s efforts to protect his good name, while also moving with the tide. If the king is in power, he wants to remain in His Grace’s good grace. If Bonaparte took over, Villefort would then use his own father’s influence to stay out of harm’s way. There’s a lot of politics and French military history in these five chapters, and they set the scene for what comes later in the novel.

Louis XVIII, King of France, is returned to his rightful place following Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to Elba. But what he’s about to find out from Villefort, who has urgently requested a meeting with the king, will shake him to his core. Napoleon has escaped from captivity just as the two men meet. Villefort uses the information he got from Dantes, an innocent man, to win favour with the king, who awards him with the Legion of Honour. The chief of police isn’t impressed, and finds himself soon out of a job. Villefort knows that he can play both sides.

Meanwhile, Villefort’s father, Noirtier, visits his son, aware that he’s wanted in connection with the assassination of a royalist general. Noirtier changes his appearance, telling Villefort that Napoleon is once again emperor-in-waiting. He has a huge following in France regardless of his exile.

The Hundred Days War soon follows. Louis XVIII is deposed, Napoleon has control over France, and calamity ensues. The Battle of Waterloo seals Napoleon’s fate once more. But before all of this, M. Morrel seeks to have Dantes released from prison. While Napoleon is in power, the ship-owner asks Villefort to intercede with the emperor on Dantes’ behalf. Villefort, the coward that he is, shrugs him off with vague promises. The other co-conspirators deal with the changing political landscape in their own way. Fernand still hopes to win Mercedes’ hand, but joins Napoleon’s forces. Danglars leaves for Madrid. Caderousse remains where he is, ruined and ruled by jealousy, drinking away like nothing else matters in life. Dantes’ poor father dies destitute and in misery. M. Morrel pays for his funeral.

And so ends what is, for me, the first part of the novel. Dumas has placed his characters all across France and Spain. The scene is set for Dantes’ impending escape and plans for revenge.

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds by Mark Matthews

NetGalley and the publishers provided me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The first thing — the very first thing — that struck me about The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, before I even started reading it, before I even looked at the cover or researched the author Mark Matthews, was its title. The phrase is mentioned quite a few times in the text, and it is by no means a throwaway title. It means something to every character in this engrossing horror novel. It was coined by the poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, taken from his 1841 essay Self Reliance. In it, Emerson states that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A quick search on the internet explains this in layman’s terms for me: basically saying that just because you’ve thought the same thing for most of your life, or performed the same actions, it doesn’t absolve you of the importance of critical thinking, and the necessity of changing your mind and opinion when better information comes to light. (Sounds like a lot of politicians could use this advice here, but we won’t go there.)

Emerson’s metaphor takes on new life (literally) during the course of this novel. Told in a somewhat non-linear way, beginning in 2002 and ending in 2018, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds centres around five main characters. Kori Persephone Driscoe, who’s father Peter has been in and out of psychiatric institutions, serves as our introduction to Mr Matthew’s insane and dangerous world. Kori’s mother is about to hightail it out of Detroit and set up home with her new partner in Florida. Kori doesn’t want to go, and instead visits the hospital where she last saw her father. Anyone from Detroit will be familiar with Northville Psychiatric Hospital in Northville Township,Wayne County, and former Governer Engler’s closure of the hospital for economic reasons. Patients and staff were moved on elsewhere. Kori visits the abandoned building, already the subject of blogs and videos which suggest it’s haunted, and finds that nothing is what it seems anymore.

Peter has been the subject of genetic medical experiments by his doctor, the mysterious Dr Ziti. She is an expert in mental illness, and because of her own family trauma as well as a God Complex, she invents a pharmaceutical that she hopes will harness Peter’s bipolar disorder into something she can use. Basically she Dr Frankenstein, Psychiatrist. But Peter isn’t her first attempt at harnessing this disorder. Her previous failed attempts are chained up in the tunnels under the hospital, and when Kori finds them and her father, the narrative takes a number of strange and disturbing detours.

Maya, a Black woman, traumatised by her mother’s suicide, and subjected to heinous treatment by her local pastor, lands on Dr Ziti’s doorstep, and is partnered up with Peter in a bizzare and horrifying experiment; the result of which is the book’s fifth character, whom I will leave for you to find out more about. I’ve gone far enough into spoilery territory, and wish to go no further.

Mark Matthews

Over the last few years or so, there has been a plethora of vampire and zombie novels, movies, and television shows, but few if any on what we call werewolves. I want to point out that Mr Matthew’s monsters aren’t classic werewolves in the Lon Chaney, jr. vein; they are their own creation, but follow similar patterns of behaviour. The Hobgoblin of Little Minds is as much about how mental illness affects the families of those who endure bipolar disorder as it is about the victims of this illness themselves. Dr Ziti sees that classic attempts to treat sufferers of bipolar disorder don’t work anymore and that it’s time for something new, something extreme. She sees the foolish consistencies of those in the field who preceeded her. But she has an agenda of her own, a deeply personal one.

The Hobgoblins of Little Minds is at times a violent novel. There is one scene that literally had me crossing my legs, but the victim in question deserved their end. Hat’s off to the author, though, who had me enthralled from the first page, and I finished the novel over two nights. (This is a book to read in the dark, trust me.) It’s the terrifying offspring of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It also raises questions on medical ethics, and how it can be that sometimes the people we trust to help us won’t always have our best interests in mind: which is something equally as terror-inducing as anything you’ll read in these pages.

Northville Psychiatric Hospital: source MLive.org)

It’s worth reading the author’s Afterword at the end of the book. Mark Matthews offers us his experience in the field of mental illness and treatment and how he came about to write his book. I found this very informative. If you want to learn more about Northville Psychiatric Hospital, you can check out the links here and here.

Colony by Benjamin Cross

I’m a sucker for a monster movie. During these dark winter months, with so much going on in the world, I have found some solace in fictional monsters. One of my all-time favourites is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s classic from 1951. I love the setting, the isolation, the unknown that’s ‘out there’ and ‘within’. It was the perfect movie for its time, and nearly 40 years later, I wouldn’t change a single frame.

Author Benjamin Cross’ debut novel, Colony, captures a lot of that movie’s effects, especially the sense of dread and aforementioned isolation, but is individual enough to not be a retread. It’s to his credit that he not only brings his own talents to the page, but also his extensive experience in the world of archaeology. A native of South Wales, Mr Cross has travelled all over the world, exploring ancient sites in Cambodia and Peru. A noted environmental consultant, he wears a couple of hats during the course of this book.

Callum Ross is an archaelogy professor based in Scotland, with a particular fondness for skipping stones with his son Jamie along the banks of Loch Ness. He’s trying to build a relationship with Jamie, because his job had him spend far too much time away from home. The softly-softly approach appears to be working, until a colleague appears out of the blue offering Callum a gilt-edged opportunity to travel to the Arctic and help a multinational company explore Harmsworth Island, one of hundred of islands on the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Explaining to his son that he’ll Facetime once a week doesn’t cut it with Jamie or his ex, but Callum goes anyway.

He’s reunited with an another colleague, Dan Peterson, a Texan who ribs Callum by referring to him as Dr McJones. The rest of the contingent is made up of scientists from Russia mainly, and one Canadian. There is also a suspiciously large number of Spetznaz, soldiers for hire representing the Russian Federation. Things begin intriguingly enough with the discovery of the mummified remains of a man who’s been perfectly preserved for millenia by sub-zero temperatures. Callum’s companion Lungkaju tells of a myth that has been handed down through generations of a hero sent out by his people to kill a monster. Think Beowulf, only in a colder climate. The mummy’s injuries suggest this is the hero, and that the monster got the better of him.

Benjamin Cross

Then we meet the monsters.

Colony is a frenetically paced novel that brings to mind not only The Thing, but also Michael Crichton’s classic techothriller Jurassic Park. (We’ve all seen this movie, right?) The concept that we share our planet with species that we haven’t yet discovered isn’t a new one. Scientists have always supported the theory that in parts of the world that one would deem uninhabitable or unexplored, there must be creatures that have evolved over eons that we’re not aware of. Benjamin Cross takes us to that place, and then runs riot. Callum and his companions not only have to deal with monsters that want to kill them, but there are saboteurs in their midst who for reasons of greed and idealism want to destroy Harsmworth and everyone on it. When monsters aren’t ripping humans apart, the bad guys are setting off explosions and murdering in cold blood. There is a lot going on in this book, and Mr Cross does well to balance the action with some decent characterisations, even if the dialogue contains more expostion than it needs to. But this is only a minor criticism of a book that held my attention from the first page. I really enjoyed it, and I want to see what the author does next.

PS: There’s a clever coda right at the end that’s worth hanging around for. Call it a post-credit scene, perhaps?

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 5-8

(Chapters 1-4 can be found here)

Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans. For Edmond Dantes, fresh off a boat and well on his way to success in his career on the seas and so close to marrying the lovely Mercedes, his elation at being around family means he’s completely oblivious to the conspiracy which will take him away from everything and everyone he holds dear. Things are about to go pear-shaped for the young Frenchman.

At their betrothal feast, during which they will marry (because why wait?), Edmond and Mercedes enjoy their special day, lavishing plenty of attention on Old Dantes, Edmond’s ailing father. Edmond is anxious to get the old man back to health. Meanwhile, Caderousse and Danglars consider their lot in life, seemingly unaware that the third leg of their Tripod of Conspiracy has taken it upon himself to deliver the letter Danglars forged and carelessly threw away to the king’s attorney. So it’s a surprise even to them when Fernand does turn up, followed soon after by some royal guards, who take Edmond into custody without telling him why. It’s only then does it dawn on the two men that Fernand took the bull by the horns. Caderousse and Danglars think it’s in their best interest to say nothing.

We are then introduced to yet another conspirator. Gerard de Villefort is an ambitious prosecutor, acting as assistant to the king’s attorney. He’s having a betrothal feast of his own, due to marry Renee, the daughter of the highly influential Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Meran. Over dinner, it is revealed that Villefort’s father is an infamous supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, M. Noirtier, but that his son does not share his views and is a staunch royalist. Indeed, his job has required him to sentence a handful of Bonapartists to the guillotine. Renee is horrified that her betrothed’s career requires him to show little mercy, but he promises her to do better when the situation calls for it. Villefort is then called away to deal with a man who’s been brought to his house for examination.

That man is Edmond Dantes, who’s understandably bewildered by what’s happening to him. Villefort is informed of the facts of the matter: that an anonymous letter marked for the attention of the king’s attorney has laid accusations against Edmond, and that he’s in possession of incriminating material that needs to be looked at urgently. When Villefort first sets eyes on Edmond, he’s convinced of the man’s innocence. We would breathe a sigh of relief, but that would only make The Count of Monte Cristo a much shorter book than it actually is. Villefort’s initial examination, however, reveals nothing criminal, just a naive young man taking on the responsibility of another’s mission: the late Captain Leclere.

Then comes the clincher. Just as Edmond is about to be set free, Villefort sees that the letter in Dantes’ possession is addressed to M. Noirtier, Villefort’s father, and he panics. If word of this gets out, his career and life is ruined. So he makes a split second decision: he swears Edmond to secrecy with the false promise of impending freedom; he burns the letter in the fireplace; and places Edmond into custody for a “few hours”. Later that night, Edmond is taken by boat, out through the harbour, past where Mercedes lives, and drops him off at the Chateau d’If, an island fortress that doubles up as a prison. Edmond has nowhere to go but inside, where his jailer awaits with bread, water, and a bed of straw. Subsequent attempts to gain a meeting with the prison governor lands him in the dungeon in a short space of time.