Modern Pulp

East of Desolation

East of DesolationFinally, after eighteen other ratings this year, I am giving a novel a four-star rating! East of Desolation by Jack Higgins aka Henry Patterson (1929 – 2022) is my first four-star novel of the year.  East of Desolation was first published in 1968 and I think is one of the author’s first novels – if not the first – to be released under his pen name “Jack Higgins.”  Incidentally, after reading this novel, I have read a novel with this year with the words Abomination and Desolation in the titles.

East of Desolation is hands-down a four-star read.  It is a very good example of what I look for when I read thriller/adventure pulp fiction.  It is only 244 pages in the paperback that I read through, but it is so much better than the 400+ page thriller/adventure novels.  I really like the spare writing without immense amounts of background for everything.  I liked the unique, seldom-used setting.  The story is set in Greenland and features the usage of small aircraft to travel around.  I liked the way the characters were written, each of them felt lively and significant in their rôle. I liked that they were all daring and interesting and perfectly written for this sort of novel. They all had motives and some were rogues and most had shadowy pasts.

Frankly, this is the key point, it is a thriller novel with the correct tone, pacing, and tension. So, it definitely feels satisfying to pick up a thriller novel and to get to read a thriller novel.  In other words, it was not sneaky agenda fiction, did not fall into some vague romance fiction, turn into a discourse on some obscurity, did not become a boring slog, and kept my interest for the full 244 pages. Further, and get this, the ending was very good. Imagine that – reading a good story from start to finish.

Of course this is not high-brow literature. However, it is quite a few levels up from some of the other novels that I have read this year. Somehow you can tell that the author knows what he is doing with pen and paper and is a little more intelligent than maybe some other authors.  Its nothing I could point to with precision – but its an overall feeling; maybe stemming from word choice or method of description or something. I cannot give you an example, but it felt like a fresh, crisp breath of Greenland air instead of the smoggy mush I have read lately.

The novel dares the film industry to make it into a movie – maybe that is why it has not been so adapted, yet. I cannot imagine why, though. I mean, when I consider what the people I know watch on their screens, the comparison begs for this to be a summer flick. Which actor plays the main character, Joe Martin? Well, Joe is a pilot. He is a very independent fellow, but he has a lot of skeletons in his closet.  He is a team player until he is not and he does not give warning when his loyalties shift.  He is brave and prudent, for the most part, making friends easily.  He has a surly temper on occasion, maybe saying harsh things that a softer person might not have said. The other characters tend to look past these moments as if they can see that he is a better person than he allows himself to be.

The plot is perfect for a thriller story. Excellent for a July summer read. The novel is filled out with liquor, crashed planes, gemstones, gunplay, bar fights, skiing and hunting, and sexy ladies. 1960s thriller fiction at its best. I recommend this for most readers, particularly those who are sick of over-written and overly-gruesome “thrillers” of the last few years.

4 stars

The Third Gate

The Third Gate lincoln child book coverThe Third Gate by Lincoln Child is the third book in his Jeremy Logan series.  I have read the previous two novels.  The Third Gate was published in 2012 and is the first in the series that has Logan on every page of the book, so to speak. In the previous novels, Logan was not a major character; here he takes control of the narrative.

This book is a bit of a mess and is a definite step-down from the previous novel Terminal Freeze. The setup is somewhat the same – in all three novels there is a wealthy, eccentric individual who is at the heart of whatever adventure is going on.  This time Logan is pulled in right from the beginning – he is introduced as an enigmalogist. Logan meets the “eccentric” individual in the depths of the Cairo museum and agrees to join the adventure.  The mission, this time, is to locate Narmer’s tomb.  In the author’s note Child admits that he liberally manipulated and adjusted all facets of Egyptology and related sciences in service of his novel.  In other words, there is historical fiction and then there is adventure fiction and The Third Gate is most certainly in the latter category.

Once again, as with the first Logan novel, I want to accuse Child of lazy writing. There are a couple of things here and there that could have been done better and, yes, I do mean even in the context of a little adventure pulp novel.  For example, the coffee that someone is sipping in the dark deep basements of the Cairo museum – its probably cold. And where did it come from? Somehow I doubt there is a stove deep in the museum among the papyrus stacks – at least, when I was there, I did not see one. Another example is where Child unnecessarily refers to the technicians (i.e. the digital and technological crew) as “tech weenies.”  It feels jarringly crude in a setting wherein we are frequently told the adventure has gathered highly-vetted, highly-trained, highly-established experts in so many fields of study. “Tech weenies”…..?

Anyway, Logan shows up to the site with his duffel bag of items. A variety of items, kind of similar to a doctor’s bag crossed with a magician’s bag. When asked about it, Logan shares some of the items, but also plays it a bit vague.  At the same time, throughout, readers get the sense that the characters are suspicious or at least skeptical of Logan’s field of study and of his need to join the mission.  To counter that, several times readers are given Logan’s resume and stories of his expert field work and research, to include a sidebar regarding his dissertation. All of this being said, several times during the novel, Logan utilizes a device that tests air ionization. Every time except once is the air “normal.”  The one time it reads “not normal,” or increased ionization, he says he does not know what it means.  This just seems incongruous and stupid.

I disliked every character and for that reason I really was not rooting for any of them.  Makes me feel a little bad, I guess. I like adventure stories that keep me on the edge of my seat and I can cheer for a hero or something. The character that is supposed to “balance” the Logan character is one of the world’s top Egyptologists, Christina Romero.  I am not sure what to make of her – most of the time she comes across as impulsively rude, which I very much find toxic.  I guess we are supposed to think that because she is an elite expert, she is also given to temperamental behavior? I dislike that sort of stereotyping, too.

Finally, the plot itself is stupid and difficult and has this adjacent co-plot that I really hated. I really disliked the entire psychological, NDE, “crossing-over” story thread. I hated the characters and how it overtook the plot and I did not enjoy it.  Accepting Logan as an enigmalogist and as a scientist is possible. But this type of plot overextends my suspension of disbelief.

White NileThe good thing:  listen, I love setting and the setting of this novel is really good. I mean it. I was surprised to find such a strong, interesting, and intense setting in an adventure pulp.  Child liberally utilizes the concept of the Sudd (Cp. The White Nile by Alan Moorehead – 1960) and expands and develops it as needed. Seriously, this stuff captured my imagination and I wanted to spend more time in this setting having it weigh on us, confuse us, frighten us.  In other words, Child’s idea to use it is a great idea and he did a decent job.  I just want him to have done an even better job. I did pull my old, crusty copy off of my bookshelves and think I will skim through it, just because I can.

They crawled forward into an ever-thicker tangle of logs and bracken.  The noises from the riverbanks – if indeed there were still any banks to be found in this morass – had all but ceased.  It was as if they were now surrounded by an infinite riot of flora, dead and dying, all wedged into one colossal tangle.  They waited in the bow, barely speaking, as the boat followed the line of flashing beacons. Now and then the path seemed to Logan to lead to a dead end; but each time, after making a blind turn, the fetid tangle of vegetation widened once again. Frequently, the boat had to use its own superstructure to push aside the oozing warp and weft. – pg. 67, chapter 7

At the end of the day, Ancient Egypt adventure stories and swamps and scary things are always going to draw readers in, I think. However, this novel had too much lazy writing. Again, I am not expecting high-brow literature here, but I think a lot of tidying and a little thought would have really worked.  Instead, this novel is a mess, its a bit flat, and I did not really enjoy anything at all other than the setting.  That is not a basis for a great recommendation.

I am a bit concerned about the “development” of the Jeremy Logan character. I like him as an enigmalogist. I dislike the esoteric, pseudo-ghost hunter stuff. I am glad that he got to be a main character in a novel, for once, which is amusing to consider.  Strangely, even as a main character, I feel he was extraneous. Still, I am nervous that in the next novel in the series he might actually have a magic wand or something.

2 stars

New York Dead

NewYorkDeadNew York Dead by Stuart Woods (b. 1938) was first published in 1991.  This is the first in the Stone Barrington series. There is really not much I can say about this one that is positive.  Shockingly, there are over sixty in the series. One of the reasons I read it is because I am trying to get through a very large stack of – truly – pulp fiction.  The stack has a lot of real junk fiction on it – schlock and pulp at its finest worst. Part of me is utterly amused by how horrible most of these books are. I do mean in that paradoxical sense of “so bad, its good.”  Not all of them meet that level, though. Most are “so bad, just so bad.”

So interspersed with my usual much better reads there are going to be some of these schlock novels.  I could not possibly read them back-to-back, I would probably expire.   However, I realize it is ludicrous to use the same sort of rating system that I do with general fiction, etc.  The first thing to do is to decide if a thing is in the “Schlock Category” or not.  This book by Woods is without doubt in that category.  So, then to decide how to rate it within that category?  Maybe the novels earn stars through meeting basic elements. Like a coherent plot. Well, let me share that New York Dead is missing that. The plot was so, utterly, unnecessarily, uncomfortably ridiculous that it lost any claim to the concept “plot.”

Maybe we give a star for likeable and enjoyable characters.  Ones that are good to have met because they are interesting, curious people or because they are proficient at their jobs. Characters that maybe a better story and a better author could really develop.  In New York Dead we meet no one even remotely good at their jobs or even in the slightest to be likeable.  (There is a character named Baron Harkness – whom I could not think otherwise than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune.) These are some idiotic and wretched characters – in particular the main character, Stone Barrington.  The “uniqueness” is that he is allegedly from an upper “WASP” background full of money and education (he has his law degree, just has not passed the bar exam, which, by the way, he does in a skinny minute) and he inherits a massive old home. Except Stone decided he wants to be a cop because of some convoluted backstory that is unrealistic.  The thing is, he isn’t even a good cop, but we are supposed to believe that he is a detective (second rank).  Instead, he is an intemperate, undisciplined sucker who enjoys going to the posh spots in NYC.  Its supposed to come off as unique, but instead its dislikeable and toxic.

All right, but what about good writing? Good pulp writing should be a bit sharp and snappy. Caustic and yes, maybe it does rely on tropes, stereotypes, and well-built standards of junk fiction.  But the writing should be relatively consistent.  New York Dead has several examples of stupid writing:

“I had a couple of good collars that got me a detective’s shield; I had a good rabbi – a senior cop who helped me with promotion; he’s dead now, though, and I seem to have slowed down a bit.” – pg. 77, chapter 10.

That was the main character talking to another key character over dinner. Stone was asked for his life story and he just spewed it out over the dinner. Not very wary, is he? Anyway, he told her what a “rabbi” in that context was. But then on page 128 we have this interchange:

“Stone laughed and shook his head. “To get that badge, you’d have to sign up for the Police Academy, walk a beat for a few years, spend a few more in a patrol car, then get luck on a bust or two, and have a very fine rabbi.”

“Rabbi?”

“A senior cop who takes an interest in your career?”

“Do you have a rabbi?”

“I did. His name was Ron Rosenfeld.”

“And he helped you?” – pg 128, chapter 17

I mean, holy crap. If it had been a conversation between two different characters, maybe? But its like Groundhog Day at dinnertime with these idiots.

Setting and pacing might be my last two vital elements for these silly novels.  I can be a sucker for certain settings and I can appreciate well-written settings. I want to see those in all the books. I want the place to come alive. And if there is no setting whatsoever (Cp. PKD’s novels) then there has to be a legitimate reason for it (in PKD’s case, a setting would keep the plot too grounded and PKD likes when the reader is floundering a bit). As far as pacing goes, well, even a bad story can have action or edge-of-your-seat interest. Surprises, maybe? Tension and suspense?

Well, New York Dead was a bad read. I am not saying that because it is junk fiction. I am saying it because as I might rate schlock, it still does not attain a good rating.  I mean, there are some things in here that are just so awful I cannot write about them. Trust me, do not read this one – its very bad on the crap scale. The best thing that comes of my having read this (and my expectations on it were very low, by the way, when I began it) is that now I have some benchmark for how the junk fiction pile should be assessed. It gets 1 star for the fact that the idea of the main character is vaguely unique; too bad it was mauled. So, pure junk and bad even for it being pure junk!

1 star

** I made a grievous error in writing this review.  There is a character, Elaine, who is, for all intents and purposes, Elaine Kaufman (1929 – 2010). My error in saying there were no likeable characters obviously does not include Elaine – real or simulacrum.

Gumshoe Blues

Gumshoe BluesGumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill is a short story/short collection of really fast-paced snapshots of a self-described private investigator named Peter Ord.  For the readers who are very fastidious about their categorizations, this would be considered modern noir – “Brit Grit.”  Under one hundred pages, this little copy is via Close to the Bone Publishing, which is  U.K. publishing house specializing in crime fiction and modern noir.  Their edition of Gumshoe Blues is from 2019.  I think Brazill had published some amount of this work in some other manner at some point previously, but I am not a biblio-historian.

Paul D. Brazill seems to be, and I say seems because I am hardly an expert in anything anymore, something of a good benchmarking standard in this genre. After reading Gumshoe Blues, its easy to see why. He has a really good style that matches the genre.  His mind’s-eye for scene and setting is sharp, as well.

I do not read a lot of this genre, but I am reading a bit more of it. Its become very challenging to get through any dense tomes with complicated plotlines and extreme character development. I do not have the time to invest in these works, at least, not currently. You may politely ask why not and I will mention that I have really upped my physical training for hung gar (I have 18 years of this training) and I have been spending a lot more time fishing. I have utterly lost track of where the TVs are in my home.  Anyway, reading fiction has kind of taken a backseat (BUT NEVER NON-FICTION).

Certainly, this genre is not for everyone. I am really enjoying the small print/publishers focusing on crime fiction. Long ago I became unimpressed with what “suspense/mystery” meant in the mass market LoBs. It seemed overrun by the same authors who, to an extent, seemed to be publishing the same novels? And yes, some of that is expected. Tropes and formulaic writing is the backbone of pulp media.  I still have a whole mess of such novels I want to read, do not get me wrong – I like reading! However, there is something refreshing and edgy and curious about what the small print/publishers are able to do for authors who do not want to compete with James Patterson.  This particular publisher and writer are working in a genre that is gritty and dark and definitely comes with warnings for readers.

One of the things I liked about Brazill’s writing is that his turn of phrase seems utterly seamless and smooth – nothing forced or awkward. I worry that many authors can really write “gritty crime” without making what should be noir and street-worthy somehow goofy and ridiculous. Brazill does really well with that and even injects a little wry humor. What’s more, though there has to be a lot of coarse language, it absolutely did not have that egregious display of gratuitous filth that some writers are unable to balance.

Gumshoe Blues is a short page-turner of snapshots of Peter Ord’s current life in Seatown.  It rains a lot, there are way too many seedy locations, and everyone seems to know everyone. Without describing every single aspect, Brazill has the reader follow along with Ord as Ord hangs out in pubs and clubs – and as a reader I found it quite convincing. I felt that feeling of not wanting to lean on the furniture, get too close to the walls, and cringing at the sticky floor. Its dark and smells like stale everything.

The writing is less about characters and more about snapshots of this genre. I enjoyed my time in Seatown, I guess, and hanging out with Peter was a unqiue experience. I am glad I read this – and I will probably try to read more by Brazill. Recommended for toughened readers, readers who don’t read for character relationships, and readers who laugh at tragi-comedy.

4 stars

The Room of White Fire

RWFI finished The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker (2017).  I have not read anything by this author. I expected a private investigator kind of novel, but got something closer in type to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stuff.

I wasn’t expecting great literature. However, I know this book won the Shamus Award and so I was thinking it would be above average.

The first quarter of the novel is very choppy; it also feels like a skeleton of a story, a draft. I didn’t like that at all. I can enjoy spare writing, but not unfinished writing. Eventually, I came to feel, because I had spent so much time with setting and characters, that maybe it was not quite so skeletal anymore.

The concept for the book is an attempt to make a story out of a PTSD-situation resulting from a black site involving torture and interrogation. There is a vague, but superficial, psychological tie-in, as well. This is where most of the novel’s development is located. The author puts most of his effort into the background of this; really working on the notions of patriotism, im/morality of torture, and wartime methods of interrogation.

Amazingly, and this is the main reason that this gets just two stars, the main character, Roland Ford, does not actually do any investigating. I mean, it seems like he does sometimes and it seems like he is thinking about the situation… but he does not actually do a blessed thing. Really. He re-traces his steps, mopes around, and generally just does nothing more than anyone would do. For someone who is ex-USMC, ex-police, and says “I’m good at finding things” – well, I would think he would be more competent than just to sit around and wait for clues to show up. His big investigative move was when he checked the laptop of the person he was looking for to find clues. Pure genius.

The only lead that he has for most of the book literally is one that walked over to him and engaged with him! (Sequoia).

The best thing that the author did was include the “Irregulars” – he keeps their backstory from us, but they are curious and interesting characters that make up for the dull main character.

I may read the next in the series. Readers who need a “throw-away” for a trip or a waiting room may find value here.

2 stars

The Gray Man

The Gray ManThe Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the ninth novel that I have read that was originally published in 2009.  Its not purposeful. It is, however, the first in the Gray Man series of novels and the first I have read by Mark Greaney.  Greaney has been the collaborator/writer for the Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013) franchise of novels. I have read none of those.

Let it be said from the start that this novel is not great literature. This is pure entertainment.  In a different era, such a novel would be referred to as pulp. Now, “pulp” originally meant the low-quality paper that was used to print magazines and novels in the first chunk of the twentieth century. This cheap paper was used to print entertainment fiction for the masses.  Increased literacy, cheap entertainment, increasingly efficient methods to print all contributed to the proliferation of what is now known as “pulp fiction.”  None of it was ever intended to be wholesome, scholarly pondersome literature.

Nowadays, we have changed the quality of paper and the multitude of media entertainment is humongous. However, I still refer to certain “genres” of novels as pulp. Because much of the pulp fiction found in that long ago era was science fiction, detective stories, action/adventure stories, boys’ fiction, and smut.  While the paper is a bit crisper now, some novels are still pulp.

The thing is, just because it is pulp does not mean that readers should snub it, act righteously indignant around it, or treat it as sub-par.  Novels, all novels, are meant for entertainment. If, in any novel, there is a secondary by-product of moralizing, or sharing a plight, or drawing attention to some social/moral issue – that is still secondary. Otherwise, well, it would be a thesis, an article, a commentary, a letter. (Of course, this is not a complete universal, but try not to be extremist.)

I like pulp novels, since I like all novels – more or less. There is something very much like brain-candy in these fluffy, superficial, fast-reading, over-the-top, wild, outrageous novels. I think the word is “fun.”  So, I do own a large collection of Doc Savage, The Executioner, Fu Manchu, The Saint, and Nick Carter novels.  Not all pulp novels are also good novels. Some are horribly written and even their novelty as pulp is thin.

Luckily, The Gray Man is a very good pulp novel. Its a whole lot of fun in 465 really fast-turning pages. Why? Because even though this novel should be slushy and aggravating – it just is not. I do not know how, exactly, Greaney is able to withhold from crossing into the whole “takes it too far” – but he does. And we are left with a quite polished novel that – oddly enough – respects the reader enough not to stereotype them.

Because there exists the stereotype that all readers of action/adventure thrillers are over-testosteroned, barely literate, ultra-patriotic, simple-minded buffoons. Scarily, some of the readers are comfortable accepting this as their type…in stereo. It is easy to see which books follow that stereotype – the writing talks down to the reader. There is nothing complex at all, yet everything is repetitive. The sentences become clipped phrases. The amount of gore, sex, foul language is amped up. And, finally, the plot is weak but at the end of the day the flag waves around a pile of spent rifle shells and the hero goes home with at least two buxom blondes on his arms.

If at gunpoint, I would tell you the truth, and that is:  I was highly entertained by this novel. It is such a fast read! Hey – there is not. one. typo. This is exceedingly rare these days. Also, I think the author knows he is not competing with Calvino or Nabokov – and he is okay with it, but that does not mean he does not write this genre novel to the best of his ability. It’s action, but somehow not slushy as one might expect.

Totally a non-stop action thriller. It has some cussing, a bunch of gore, but no sex. So, its definitely rated-R.  The main character sustains an injury during a fight that made me cringe in my seat and I instinctively was holding my hand over my side for awhile. This is good:  it shows the author writes convincingly.  Now, the fact that the character continues onward and does anything he does after that?  Well, let us say that in pulp novels, like in movies, you have to suspend disbelief.  The Gray Man is nearly indestructible, I guess. But you knew he would be. We like to grind our heroes up – a lot – in these sorts of stories. Why is this? Heroes are also, apparently, gluttons for punishment and can endure damn near anything. (Cp. Batman, Wolverine, et al.)

The author balances a lot of characters fairly well.  They are not multi-faceted and heavily nuanced, but they do play their rôle consistently.  The main character is oddly likeable… even if he seems indestructible. And the plot of the novel, well, it feels familiar. I mean, there are a LOT of plot points that we have already seen in a variety of movies, novels, and newspaper headlines. Yes, one would expect this to make this novel an eye-roll inducing mess of tropes and tired stories.  Somehow, though, Greaney does enough balancing to make it fun and interesting – if not new. New, I reckon, really is not always better.

Lastly, Greaney’s lines on page 400 ratify him as someone who knows something about these topics.

Justine had seen fistfights on television action shows.  This was nothing of that.  The movements were faster, more brutal, crueler.  There was no ballet or poetry in the relationship between the adversaries, no choreography. No, it was unyielding surface on unyielding surface, the jerking reactions and the grunts and cries of wild beasts, labored breathing from exertion and panic. The sounds of cracking impacts and the frenzy of a combat so pitiless, she was sure all the men would tear to pieces in the street in front of her.

Lots of people take martial arts as a hobby. Many have learned CQB and H2H in the military. But I think Hollywood and MMA/UFC have really changed how people view combat. Have you ever – truly – been in combat where your life was actually on the line? Not point-sparring, not sport fighting, not cage matches. Not for pay. Because yes, real hand-to-hand combat is ugly and gross. Real kung fu is not acrobatic or flowery. The fact that Mark describes a fight thusly verifies to me that he does know a little something about it. I gave Mark a star for this paragraph alone.

Overall, readers can burn through these pages! Fast reading full of action and double-crossing and excitement. Fans of Batman, Transporter, Wolverine, The Executioner should enjoy this one. But, I think, many folks not normally into reading this “genre” would find some entertainment here, too.

4 stars

Subterranean

SubterraneanI finished another novel today. I read Subterranean by James Rollins. Hopefully, someday, somehow, the computer (aka: hate machine) will magically be fixed. Otherwise, I will soon run out of books to read. Seriously. And I have a lot of books.

According to the author’s site, this is his first novel, published in 1999. The synopsis is:  Beneath the ice at the bottom of the Earth is a magnificent subterranean labyrinth, a place of breathtaking wonders – and terrors beyond imagining. A team of specialists led by archaeologist Ashley Carter has been hand-picked to explore this secret place and to uncover the riches it holds. But they are not the first to venture here – and those they follow did not return. There are mysteries here older than time, and revelations that could change the world. But there are also things that should not be disturbed – and a devastating truth that could doom Ashley and the expedition: they are not alone.

Well, I was not thrilled with the book because the “bad guy” is the Egyptian Muslim dude. He’s a terrorist. Shock. And he has no qualms about killing a Navy SEAL, a young boy, or womenfolk. This stereotypical characterization is annoying.  Anyway, the other major problem that I had with the book was a mystical device. One of the main characters has an undeveloped innate ability to communicate telepathically with a species of natives in the underground world.  Its straight out of Darth Vader-meets-Spock. And, basically, while I can suspend a lot of skepticism, this was too much. For this story, anyway. There was plenty going on without having to bring in more “stuff.”

As far as the setting – the scenery and the descriptions are vivid, but I couldn’t get a mental image of anything. I felt like anytime the characters were in a tight claustrophobic place, I had mistook it for a wide open canyon. And vice versa. It was hard to negotiate the subterranean world – although I suspect the author had the place all laid out nicely in his imagination. There were some minor storyline problems…. the main character, Ashley, falls in love with the other main character. They only really know each other for a short time before they are madly in love with each other. And frankly, with them being lost, stranded, and embattled deep underground, I really doubt this is a valid plot device. Its understandable, but it does make the reader go: “oh c’mon!”

Finally, my last complaint is that it sort of just ended. There was a page and a half of “epilogue” which is way too hasty. I guess, there were a bunch of obvious questions that were not answered (e.g. is Ashley pregnant?)  Still, for a first novel, this wasn’t too bad. It just had some things that I wasn’t prepared to swallow hook-line-and-sinker.

3 stars

Contest

ContestThe other book I read before the resurrection of the computer was Contest by Matthew Reilly.  The back reads:

Dr. Stephen Swain has found himself locked in the after-hours darkness of the New York Public Library. It isn’t a mistake. He’s been entombed in the historic sanctuary for a reason—as the guest of an unknown host, chosen for a night of fun and games. He’s unprepared. He’s afraid. And he’s not alone. Six other contestants roam the black halls, room by room, floor by floor, in the dead silence. Each strapped with an explosive set to detonate should they escape before the night is over. The terms are simple: seven players enter—only one will leave.

I believe that this is Reilly’s first novel. It was published by Macmillan in 2000. He purposefully writes action stories that are supposed to be fast-paced. For example, the main character’s wife is dead. We don’t learn anything else about her or her death or whatever so the story isn’t bogged down with irrelevant backstory. What the reader needs to know are just the facts that represent the play-by-play. And even though we do not develop any deep relationship-bond with any of the characters, the reader can still enjoy the plot. Unfortunately, there are some writing choices that don’t make much sense. Reilly focuses on about three of the seven contestants. The other four are brief mentions, rare appearances, and drive-by events. This makes the reader wonder – if Reilly wanted to write a fast-paced book and only wanted to deal with 4 or 5 characters, why have so many contestants? Also, it annoyed me that the selection of the library for the place of the contest was random. I felt there should have been a reason given as to why it was selected over many other “labyrinths.”

None of the above really bothered me. What bothered me were the aliens. Yes. Aliens. So you think you’re reading something out of a true crime, police procedural, mystery novel – and then BAM! – aliens. And not a nice variety of them either. The contestants are all aliens and are nothing but beastly monsters. They aren’t really precision killers, they just maul their prey in bloodbaths. I wasn’t real happy to be reading sci-fi suddenly. I love science fiction, but I didn’t pick a sci-fi book on purpose.

2 stars