This is the second book in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series. Oris is a medical resident in Philadelphia, working as an orthopedic surgeon. His strange experiences in the series’ first entry The Bone Curse are behind him, and he is well on his way to a successful career in medicine, as well as having a pleasant domestic life, being good friends with Sophia, the mother of his young son, Maxwell.
Unfortunately, he again finds himself caught up in bizarre events when he and Sophia discover a severed leg in the park one frigid January day. It’s especially horrifying to Ben because he recognizes the limb–it belongs to a patient he himself recently performed knee surgery upon.
Once more, Ben is drawn into a macabre mystery. Soon, patients begin vanishing and more severed limbs are discovered. With the help of his friend Laurette and a forensic psychiatrist, Ben slowly pieces together an incredible theory–one that implicates a member of his own surgical team, possibly even his attending surgeon, who is also accused of ethically-questionable medical practices. Although, complicating things further, the accuser is also far from being a reliable source.
Speaking of unreliable sources, sprinkled throughout the book are chapters told from the perspective of the killer. Readers of Rubin’s earlier novel Eating Bull will be reminded of the glimpses into the twisted mind of the murderer in that novel. It’s done just as effectively here.
There’s a great cast of suspects here. Of course I kept trying to guess who it was, my suspicion shifting among 3-4 characters. In the end, none of my guesses were correct. The supporting characters in general are fantastic–I particularly liked Derek, the forensic psychiatrist, and Fisher, the chairman of orthopedic surgery and a former Army doctor. He has a penchant for creative swearing that I found very entertaining. “Holy bastard on a birthday card” is one of the more mild examples.
There are many memorable lines throughout–“No one’s willing to discuss the severed elephant in the room,” Ben muses at one point. And the pacing is great. After a gradual build-up, in the second half, the book turns into another of Rubin’s signature fast-paced, tension-filled thrillers, with a new twist coming every chapter. Mark Paxson once compared the pace of The Bone Curse to a hockey game in overtime, and the same could apply here.
And, by the way, while I don’t think it’s absolutely essential to have read The Bone Curse before reading The Bone Hunger, it will help a lot to familiarize yourself with Ben and his friends and family. Also, there are references to the events of the earlier book throughout.
All in all, this is another terrific medical thriller. I suppose a word of caution is in order for those squeamish about references to surgery, and of course, as the title suggests, the killer’s motives are based in some very unsettling desires.
I read this book in a little over one day from when I first got it. It is a fast-paced page turner, and by the second half, I just had to know what happened next. It’s a Carrie Rubin classic, full of clever lines and an intense climax delivered at breakneck speed.
Sandra’s police training kicked in, and she immediately dropped prone to the floor, as the sizzling hot beam of light singed the air above. She arched her head upward, and beheld, stomping towards her, the silhouettes of three Lurge assault bots, the barrels of their cannon-arms glowing orange and already charging up for another barrage. Sandra glanced around wildly for cover. There was a stack of crates some yards off to her left, and she began to scramble for them, though she knew she was unlikely to cover the distance before the volley hit, and instinctively closed her eyes, bracing for painful annihilation.
At that instant, she felt a powerful force seize her by the back of her jacket, lift her off of the ground, and, with a speed that felt as though she were being hurled through the air, deposit her safely behind a stack of metal boxes. The next thing she was aware of was a hand sweeping across her torso and seizing her pistol from its holster.
Falling on her hands and knees, gasping, Sandra looked up to see, silhouetted in the nearly-blinding blaze of the laser beams, the figure of Venus, in a perfect combat stance, and returning fire with her pistol. At first, it seemed suicidal; surely she would be cut to ribbons by the deadly beams. But then, a translucent mist shimmered into view around Venus, deflecting the energy away from her, and she stood her ground, firing again and again with calm control. Sandra could not see over the boxes, but she could hear the rounds hit home with repeated metallic thuds. Shortly, the clanking of the assault bots ceased, as did their cannon fire. Venus lowered the weapon, turning to look at Sandra.
The two stared at each other for a moment, breathing heavily.
“Military cyborg enhancements,” Venus said finally. “They gave them to me when I was in the Service. Experimental; top secret thing. ‘Operative of the future,’ they said. Then, a couple years later; new government, new priorities. They RIF’d me, and outlawed all weaponized robotics. So I couldn’t get work anywhere—nobody was willing to hire me and risk all the lawsuits. So,” she said furtively. “That’s my deal. Sorry I didn’t tell you. I just didn’t know if I could…”
“Don’t apologize. Ya’ll just saved my bacon. Thank you.” said Sandra. She paused. “And. . . that was awesome.”
“Anytime. You hurt?” Venus by now kneeling beside her and gently prodding her torso for injuries.
“Whoa, this is so hot,” came the voice of Charlie, who was standing in the doorway of the stairwell, peeking out at them.
Venus rose, turned, briskly crossed the yards between them, picked the young man up by the waist, twirled him around over her head blindingly quickly, and plunked him down unceremoniously where he had stood.
“Thank you again,” said Sandra. “Now we need to figure out what the hell is going on with these robots. Didn’t chucklehead say,” Sandra nodded at Charlie, “that these things had to be activated from the main office—where he just was?”
Venus leveled the pistol at Charlie.
“I swear, I didn’t do it!” he protested. He had been shaking his head to try to clear it, and now raised both hands in the air. “I didn’t touch a thing! Maybe it activated automatically when you logged in as Mr. Lurge!”
“Why on Earth should that be?”
Charlie made a motion halfway between a shrug and a twitch. “How should I know? All I’m saying is, I didn’t do it, okay?”
Venus glanced at Sandra, but kept the weapon aimed at Charlie’s chest.
“Tell ya what, Chuck,” Sandra said, a slight smile curving one side of her mouth. “As I recall, you said something to the effect that, even when the robots are activated, they respond to the voice of Lurge personnel, isn’t that so?”
“Uh, yeah… yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, then, I reckon you can lead the way , and talk down any more of these things that we run across.”
Charlie swallowed hard.
“She’s right,” Venus added. “I can hold my own against these things, but I can’t cover the both of you at the same time. If we run into a bunch of them, we’re in trouble.”
“It’s our best bet for getting out of here. C’mon, let’s go find that back door that Lurge used.”
Reluctantly, and still shaking his head, Charlie followed as they walked towards the rear of the factory. They stayed close together, with Venus in the lead, pistol drawn. The distant percussion of more infantry bots patrolling echoed all around them, making it difficult to tell from which direction the sound came. They kept close to the walls, creeping between different points of cover.
“Okay, we’re coming up on the door,” Venus hissed at last. “And there’s seven, no, eight of the damn things guarding it.”
“How—?” Sandra began, squinting into what appeared to her to be complete blackness. “Oh. Retinal enhancements, right. Dumb question.” she muttered.
“Okay, Charlie,” Venus said as they moved closer to the door, concealing themselves behind a stack of scrap metal. “Do your bit.”
Charlie took one glance at the pistol in Venus’ hand and swallowed hard. He peered hesitantly over the pile of metal, and called out to the lumbering machines, “Attention! Um, attention! This is Charlie Bradler, ID number 410-D.”
The machines all turned as one, the red cores of light that glowed within their metal-mesh skulls pulsating ominously.
“Um, that’s right. Charlie Bradler. 410-D. Please stand down and assume passive stance for human inspection, please,” he said, trying his best to strike a tone of authority.
The machines did not obey the command however, instead raising their arm-mounted cannons and firing. Venus leapt in front of Charlie as he dove behind the metal pile, raising her arm to again create a barrier.
“This won’t hold up long,” she said. “Start running!”
Together, the three retreated back into the factory, dodging stray lasers as the infantry bots mounted a pursuit.
“What the hell, kid?” Sandra shouted at Charlie as they clambered and scrambled across ancient manufacturing equipment.
“I don’t know!” he cried, “It should have worked!”
Venus continued to fight a delaying action as best she could, but soon the pistol ran out of ammunition.
“You got any more ammo?” she called to Sandra, blocking a laser blast with a flick of her free hand.
“In the car,” Sandra replied grimly.
“Damn. Okay, let’s make a break for it,” Venus ordered. Quickly, she closed the gap between herself and Sandra, striding across the floor with incredible speed. She raised her arms as if holding an invisible shield behind the three of them, and then gripped both by their collars. Lifting them off the ground, she accelerated, hurtling through the maze of boxes, machinery and roaming assault bots. The gargantuan machines tried to draw a bead on them as they sped by, but Venus’ moved much too quickly for the powerful but lumbering battle platforms to deploy their weapons accurately. Errant lasers struck walls, stacks of boxes, and even other robots, but none hit the three fleeing people.
At last, they came in view of the door by which they had entered, and Venus was beginning to slow down. Her grip on the other two slackened, and they stumbled on their own feet the last few yards—Sandra managing to slap the control panel as they slipped through to shut the door behind them. All three collapsed to the floor beside Charlie’s desk, Venus from exhaustion, Sandra and Charlie from motion sickness.
“Must… recharge…” Venus panted.
“We can’t stop here,” Sandra said, gasping for air herself, and trying to desperately to keep the contents of her stomach down. “Those things will get through the door eventually. We need to get to the car.”
“We can’t!” Charlie groaned.
Sandra shot him a look. “What do you mean?”
“Look!” He gasped the word, pointing a shaking finger towards the glass doors and into the parking lot beyond.
At first, there seemed nothing noteworthy about the scene. But as they watched, they perceived the light of the lamps seemed very weak. Only about half were lit at all, and soon, these too began to flicker and die out.
“It’s the Eidolon!” Charlie whispered. “It’s coming!”
I don’t read a lot of romances. Even less do I read modern romances. On those rare occasions that I venture reading any romance, it’s usually in a historical or fantasy setting. But this book caught my eye because it’s a modern military romance.
I’d never heard of a military romance before. But, we have military sci-fi, so why not military romance?
Forbidden Kisses is told from the alternating perspectives of two people: Layla Matthews and Ethan Parker. The two meet and quickly fall in love–unfortunately, so quickly that neither realizes the other is in the Navy. Layla is a petty officer, Ethan a lieutenant. Military regulations forbid a romantic relationship, but the two can hardly stand to be away from each other.
The book is short and sweet. If there’s one thing I find tiresome in many romances, it’s when the two people who are obviously perfect for each other break up for contrived reasons. Happily, there’s none of that here–it’s just a story of two people in love, caught between the age-old struggle of passion vs. duty.
There is a part of me that would have liked to see the two of them try to control themselves while on a ship out at sea. (It’s high time–or is it tide?–that the nautical melodrama made a comeback.) But as it is, the two have plenty of romantic encounters while ashore.
It’s a fun book. It’s nice to read about two good-hearted, nice, decent people in a wholesome relationship. Especially in a time when escapism is very welcome, having two co-protagonists who are easy to root for is really pleasant to read.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if Layla and Ethan figure out a way to overcome the rules prohibiting their relationship? Well, read the book and find out!
“He’s talking on our comm sets,” Sandra said, tapping her ear piece. Her momentary surprise had given way to annoyance. “It’s his favorite trick; you’ll get used to it eventually.”
“Really, Sandy; so cynical!” Max clucked in his velvety baritone. “The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t able to get through to you for quite some time.”
“The factory floor must have blocked service,” Venus mused.
“Quite possibly. I have some news for you. I’ve been ‘following the money,’ as they say, and I’ve found a bit of a bombshell. It took a surprising amount of digging, but I’ve learned that Lothar Lurge was no longer the owner of the Lurge family robotics factory, effective September 30.”
“What? Then who was?” Venus asked.
“Mrs. Lurge, of course. The company transferred to her sole ownership on that date. And that’s not all I found, either. Are you ready for this one? The Lurges’ divorce was finalized on that same date!”
Venus and Sandra exchanged a look.
“Well, I guess that isn’t too surprising, uh, given what we just read.”
“No, indeed. But you can see this casts Mrs. Lurge in quite a different light.”
Venus nodded, and then remembered Max couldn’t see her, and added, “Sure does. Find out anything else?”
“I did! Before he, ah, ‘passed away,’ Mr. Lurge had wrapped up a deal with the state to let them take over running day-to-day operations and receiving revenues from events on the grounds.”
‘That’s right—you remember, Mrs. Lurge said the state had been trying to buy them out for years.”
“So what about the whole thing with McIntyre?” Venus asked.
“Most likely a red herring,” Max finished, “Thrown in to put us off the trail.”
“You mean… Mrs. Lurge was lying to us?”
“Let me posit a hypothetical series of events,” said Max. “See if you don’t agree that it has at least a better than 50/50 chance: Mrs. Lurge finds out about her husband’s infidelity, and she is outraged. She further finds that he intends to effectively abandon the family business by turning the proceeds over to the state. That’s the last straw. So she seizes control of the family firm, and brings old Lothar here, unsuspecting, and has him murdered in the night by his own machines!”
There was a long pause, broken only by the rumbling of the thunder.
“But then why would Mrs. Lurge hire us? She’d already committed the crime and gotten away with it.” said Venus.
“Why, to assist in the final masterstroke: the framing of Mr. McIntyre for the crime! She wanted to settle the old score with the McIntyres along with everything else. So, she contrived things, told us stories of the McIntyre’s interference with operations, to plant the suspicion in our minds. She wanted us to come here, find what we were supposed to find, and point the finger at McIntyre.”
“What do you think, Sandy?” Max asked at last.
“I dunno… maybe.” She murmured. “I just feel like… feel like…”
She whirled around suddenly.
“Like somebody’s staring at our asses instead of standing guard like I told him to,” she barked at Charlie, who had advanced into the room and had been hovering behind the two women.
He yelped and leapt backwards. “No, no,” he insisted, “I heard a man’s voice in here and wondered what was going on.”
Venus shook her head. “C’mon, let’s see what else we can find on this machine.”
Sandra locked eyes with Charlie and pointed firmly to the door, and he grudgingly retreated.
“Hey, look; here’s a message with the kid’s personnel file,” Venus said loudly enough to be heard in the hall as she scrolled through the menus.
“What!” Charlie huffed.
“No worries,” she said cheerfully. “Looks like your performance reviews are all strong… let’s see… ‘perfect for the job,’ ‘sensitive to company’s needs,’ a note from Mr. Lurge saying ‘hire this boy at once—he’s perfect.’ Wow, all that, and not a harassment complaint in sight, who’d have thought?”
Sandra chuckled. “What else you got in there?”
Venus continued scrolling through with incredible speed. “Well, there’s a long email exchange here with Mr. Lurge’s lawyers.”
“What’s it about?”
“Arguing over the terms and conditions of his agreement with the state… ‘the party of the first part agrees…’ ‘herewith the party referred to as the ‘operator’ shall agree to…,’ ‘if, after a period of less than 60 days, the goods are found to be faulty, the party referred to as owner shall recompense…,’ blah blah blah…”
“And then there’s this,” Venus continued triumphantly, continuing to read at an incredible speed. “Some emails between Lurge and McIntyre. It’s a thread that goes back quite a ways, but the last message is from the day of Mr. Lurge’s death. It’s from McIntyre—it says:
‘I’m confirming what we discussed this morning at the Chamber meeting. As we agreed, I’ll meet you on your premises this evening. I’m not sure what you believe will come of this, but you have my word, I’ll be there, as planned.’”
The two investigators exchanged a glance.
“That’s a bit of a—I mean, why would Lurge have invited him?” Sandra asked.
“Maybe he didn’t. Maybe McIntyre just sent that message to make it look like he had.”
“Could be, I guess. Still, something doesn’t add up.”
“There’s still one more angle we need to investigate,” Max chimed in. “Mrs. Lurge said that her late husband had entered by a back door. Have you been able to find that?”
“No, not yet,” Sandra answered. “Charlie!” she barked.
“Still here, guarding the rear.”
“Where’s the door that Mr. Lurge came in the night of his death?”
“Oh, um, it’s back down in the factory. At the very back, near where they keep the scrap metal.”
“Right, got it.” Sandra turned to Venus. “Can you download those emails? I have a data stick in my purse—”
“Don’t worry, got one right here,” Venus interjected. “You go ahead; I’ll catch up.”
Sandra shrugged, and made her exit. She and Charlie began to retrace their steps back down to the factory floor.
As she descended the steps, she fancied she heard a distant clanking noise echoing from a distance. Probably hail on the metal roof. As she exited the staircase, it seemed to become more pronounced, as if it were all around her. She felt slightly unnerved by it, but shook her head. It’s that stupid kid’s ghost stories, getting to me. Grow up, girl! she thought to herself.
With that thought, she turned on her heel and walked deeper into the darkness. But when the clanking persisted, she stopped and spun around just in time to see an eerie red glow looming out of the blackness, follow by a high-pitched whine and a sudden blaze of light roaring at her head.
This is a fast-paced, supernatural horror adventure laced with film, TV, and literary references. Hannah and her friends are teenagers in a small-town that is abruptly attacked by monsters of every description–zombies, vampires, witches etc. Fortunately, they are assisted by the wizard Merlyn Morningstar and Hannah’s mother Sarah, both of whom have seen a thing or two in their day.
There are violent, bloody battles, punctuated by snappy, sometimes fourth wall-breaking wisecracks. There are sword fights, and wizards’ duels, and at least one extra-dimensional excursion. I think the overall concept may be an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but having never watched that, I can’t be sure.
One thing I particularly liked about the book was the depiction of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Especially the monster: Colonel Karl Hesse, a Prussian soldier in life, before falling into the mad doctor’s clutches. He’s portrayed as a towering, powerful and heavily-armed one-man army. I adore the description of him lumbering up a hill clad in his old cavalry uniform.
In fact, one of my complaints is that he’s not in the book enough. Although, this may be unfair, because I’m not sure I could get enough of him even if he were the protagonist.
The action is, as I said, very violent. Most of it has sort of a cheesy, comic-book or low-budget horror film vibe for most of it, although there is one scene, very close to the end, of true horror that is very disturbing. Indeed, as this book is the first of two, and ends on a real cliff-hanger, I am hopeful that the wrongs done in this scene may be righted in the subsequent volume.
Now, apart from the violence, which was rather more than I typically enjoy but your mileage may vary, there are a few little technical issues. There’s a bit of a formatting oddity on Kindle that makes paragraph breaks appear randomly. This was slightly confusing at first, as I thought a new section was starting when it wasn’t, but I quickly got used to it. There are also a few typos, although by no means a huge number for an indie book. As I always say, that’s the beauty of e-publishing–you can always go back and fix these things.
But don’t let these minor nitpicks dissuade you from reading it. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, and the zombie genre especially, this is a book you will enjoy. And if you like the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, you definitely shouldn’t miss it, as this tackles the classic story in a very clever way.
I think most people who read the blog regularly have already read my books, but if you’d like to recommend any of them to your friends, now is a good time.
Today is my birthday. To celebrate, my sci-fi long short story 1NG4 is free on Kindle. Here aresomereviews if you want a better idea of what it’s about.
Also, my Halloween-themed long short story Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is available for a price of your choice (including free) on Smashwords. It’s obviously more of a story for Autumn, but if it sounds like something you’d like to read, you can download it now for reading when we’re nearer to the eve of All Saints’ Day.
Besides those, if you’re of a mind to get me a present for some reason, read my sci-fi novel The Directorateand tell me what you think. It’s 99 cents on Kindle. You can listen to the beginning here:
Charlie’s eyes widened as the implication dawned on him. “Wait… you mean… me?”
“I didn’t say that,” Sandra replied. “But at the same time… You were the only one here that night.”
“No… absolutely not!” Charlie protested. “I didn’t—like I said, I was holed up at the front.”
“Until your alleged ghostly entity forced you to come back this way, according to your story.”
“What? No; look, that’s what happened, I swear. I came back here, and I found Mr. Lurge. It was the first I saw him or knew he was here! I would never have done anything to him, anyway—he was a good boss! He gave me this gig and he was always nice to me.”
“Calm down,” said Venus. “We’re not accusing you.”
Charlie seemed not to have heard. “I’ll tell you what happened—it was the ghosts! Samuel, I guess. Maybe something else. But that’s the only way it makes sense—they must have brought the robots online and had them kill Mr. Lurge. Probably to get revenge on the family, I guess.”
He paused to catch his breath, and Sandra seized her opportunity:
“This ghost business has got to stop, okay? I’m not saying you’re implicated, but spouting nonsense won’t help your case, understand? Just be cool, kid.”
Charlie nodded, still looking quite frantic.
“You said the bots have to be activated in the main office—where’s that?”
“It’s in the center of this building. We’ll have to go further into the factory and then go up a couple floors. But it’s—“ he paused abruptly, seeming not to know what to say.
“Uh, well, I don’t know how to… that is…”
“It’s something else about ghosts, isn’t it?” said Venus.
“Look, we can handle any ghosts, okay?” Sandra said firmly. “Take us to this office.”
Charlie swallowed hard and then pointed the way. Together, the three continued past the long, silent line of mechanical warriors, which were sporadically illuminated by the blue glow of lightning flashes. The storm outside was drawing near, and the narrow window slits where the wall met the ceiling rattled in the increasingly violent wind.
At last, they reached a sort of central pillar made of huge concrete blocks, inside of which was molded a stairwell leadingup into blackness. The three went inside and up the winding stairs, advancing slowly, sweeping the beam of Sandra’s light before them. Once, Venusabruptly held out a hand, pressing it into Sandra’s chest to bring her to a halt.
“What are you doing?” Sandra demanded.
Venus nodded upward, and Sandra raised the beam of her light in the direction indicated, till it fell upon a huge, hairy spider scurrying into a crack in the wall.
“Whoa, thanks. How did you know that was there?”
Venus shrugged. “Sixth sense, I guess.”
They began to move forward again when a muffled noise from behind made them turn around. Charlie remained on the landing, staring at the wall.
“I hate spiders, okay?” he said. “Can’t we just blow this haunted pop stand and come back in the daytime?”
“We’re going to the office,” Sandra said. “You wanna stay down, be my guest.”
Considering this, Charlie reluctantly followed. “Sure, you two probably feel safer with me.”
At last, they came to the top of the last flight, and a battered red door that opened into a long hallway. This hall was more luxurious than the industrial, unpainted metal-and-concrete of the lower levels. It was carpeted with avocado-green shag and the walls featured vintage Lurge adverts depicting bots in alien landscapes or space stations. There were doorways every few yards, leading to vacant offices.
“These are the executive suites,” Charlie said. “I’ve only been up here once, for my interview. That’s when Lurge told me about the control panel in his office. It’s at the end of this hall, on the right.”
And indeed, as they reached the end of the corridor, they saw to their right a large wooden door, with a brass nameplate bearing the words, “Lothar Lurge, President and CEO”
Charlie stepped forward and inserted his key into the lock. He turned it hesitantly, and the door creaked open.
“Look at you, with a key to the boss’s office,” Sandra remarked.
“Naturally,” he said, some of his old bravado returning. “Old Man Lurge knew I’d need a master key since I kept the whole joint secure at night.”
Lurge’s office was fairly spacious.An area at the front, separated from the main space by avocado-colored dividers, had a desk and filing cabinets, was presumably for a secretary — Miss Ritter, according to the nameplate.The larger, executive desk sat at the rear of the room, in front of a massive bank of windows against which the rain continued pounding.
“So, where are the controls you were talking about?”
“I think they’re at Mr. Lurge’s desk, but I don’t know exactly”
“Okay. Stay just outside in the hallway andguard the door,” Sandra commanded, as she and Venus hurried to the desk, and started looking at the panels of monitors, buttons and switches arrayed there.
“It wants a password,” said Sandra, opening a window on the largest terminal. “Do you know it?” she called to Charlie, who shook his head.
“Hey, I’m pretty good at guessing passwords,” said Venus, resting her fingers on the keypad and closing her eyes, as if concentrating for a moment. Then her fingers flew, and immediately, the words “Access Granted” flashed on the screen.
“How’d you do that?” Sandra asked in amazement.
“Something I picked up in the FES,” the other woman replied with a shrug. “Here, let’s do some digging.”
Together, they read through the messages on the mail client, which was automatically displayed on the screen. Most were uninteresting reminders, alluding to meetings and deals they had no knowledge of.
“What’s this here?” Sandra said, pointing at one message, from Mr. Lurge to Miss Ritter. Venus opened the message and read aloud:
I need to expedite matters. She’s been looking daggers at me every morning, and it gives me the creeps. I think I’ve got a plan.I’ll give you the details — and a whole lot more — when you get back.
“Ewww!” said Sandra and Venus in unison as they exchanged shocked looks. “Well, I don’t like the sound of that!” said Venus, with a scandalized expression.
“Neither do I,” said Sandra.
“Me neither, ladies,” the voice of Max concurred, causing both of them to start.
This is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)
So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.
The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.
This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.
The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.
The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.
There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.
Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.
Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.
There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.
The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.
And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.
The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.
The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.
“Big ol’ storm’s rollin’ in,” Sandra noted after the thunder subsided. “Anyway, you were tellin’ us about this Eidolon thing.”
Charlie nodded importantly. “No one knows what it is. It’s invisible, but you can feel it coming, because it knocks out the power when it does. Old Doyle, the weekend guard, swears it’s a failed experiment with nanobots. He figures the nanites were given the programming of a hush-hush prototype network-distributed crime-fighting artificial intelligence they’d been working on in R&D, and they went nuts. Now they roam the factory in a swarm, killing anyone they find.”
“Uh huh. So what’s this got to do with the night you found Mr. Lurge?”
“Well, I was at my station up front, just doing my usual. I thought I heard noises back here and but figured it was just Samuel. I was looking at some, uh, pictures—security footage, that was it—when I looked up and out the window.That’s when I saw the parking lot lights going out—first they’d flicker, and then they’d pop out. When my desk lamp started doing the same thing. I knew it had to be the Eidolon coming.”He nodded with great seriousness.
“And you realized since it was coming across the parking lot, your best bet was to retreat into the factory,” Venus finished.
Charlie blinked a few times. “Yeah… that’s right. How’d you know?”
“We’re detectives,” said Venus.
“So, Charlie, let’s all go into the factory. Ms. Darcy and I will go first, make sure the coast is clear, then you can show us where you found Mr. Lurge, and we’ll clear out, okay?”
“You’ll go first?” he said, his cocky manner starting to return. “I’ll keep watch on the rear.”
Sandra again fought the urge to roll her eyes. Some security guard, she thought to herself.
“Let’s get going,” Venus said blandly.
“Well, okay. But I’ve gotta warn you: there’s no telling what’ll show up in there. You know, there have been teams of pro ghost hunters that come to investigate this place, and you know what?”
“They were all killed by ghosts, providing hard evidence of a spirit world which somehow has still received no attention from the media?” Sandra snapped.
“Uh, no… not that.”
“Didn’t think so, actually.”
“But they recorded these freaky noises! Here,” he pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped a few times, then held the device up for Sandra and Venus to see.
On the screen was displayed green-tinted night vision footage of a bearded man standing in the beam of a strong light, throwing an eerie halo around him as he walked through what appeared to be an endless black abyss.
“They say this is where the old floor manager was burned alive by the robot’s cannons,” the man on the screen was saying. “It’s pretty spooky, I can tell you. It feels like there’s something here. We’re lucky our equipment works down here, the energies in this place can disrupt electronic devices. Our cell phones have been on the fritz since we got here.”
From his pocket, the bearded man took a small rectangular device and held it up to the air.“Let’s see what our proprietary ectoplasmic aural spectrometer can detect.” After a few moments, he lowered the device and pressed a button on the side. It began to playback a weird series of noises which resembled badly-garbled speech, as if spoken on a radio frequency full of interference.
“Do you hear that?” He said. “It’s saying ‘get away,” isn’t it?”
He played the noise back several times: “Get away! Get away! Get away!” it said, and though still garbled, each time it seemed clearer and clearer.
“The human ear can’t detect the cries of lost souls,” the man concluded, “But our devices detect the frequencies from the planes beyond, of spirits stuck between this world and the next.”
The clip ended there, and Charlie gave a firm nod towards his phone, as if to say, “I told you so.”
“That was recorded on the factory floor just about a year ago,” he said.
“Okay, good,” said Sandra. “Come on, enough stalling; let’s get this over with. How do you turn the lights on in here?” She stepped through the huge doorway and into the cavernous room beyond. Although in the darkness she could see only a few feet ahead, the echoing of her footsteps told her the room was vast indeed.
“You don’t,” said Charlie.
“You don’t turn the lights on. The old man took out the wiring years ago; he said he didn’t want to waste the money. During the day, enough light comes in that you can see pretty good.”
“And at night?”
“No one’s supposed to go in here at night; except for ghost hunts, and those happen in the dark anyway.”
“It’s okay,” Venus said, “Sandra; I think my eyes’ll adjust pretty well, if you want to hang back, I’ll go with him—”
Oh, so you can take the credit? Sandra thought. “I’ve got a flashlight; I’ll be fine, c’mon, let’s go.”
Sandra flicked on the beam of light and the three walked into the room. More muffled rumbling from outside indicated the storm was drawing near. Sandra flicked the beam of her light from left to right; inspecting the surroundings. Dilapidated conveyer belts and welding arms sat on the left; on the right, massive rust-covered hooks, designed for loading the finished products into government trucks, hung ominously from chains that disappeared into the blackness above. At irregularly-spaced intervals were pyramidal stacks of cardboard boxes, all labeled “Fragile” and some “Top Secret.” Every few yards, mounted about nine feet up the grey, featureless wall, were inoperative, bulb-less light fixtures, and just below these, small silver disks resembling smoke detectors. The room was cold—clearly, Lurge had not been any more willing to pay for heat than he had for light—and the total absence of the reassuring white noise found in almost all buildings made it feel even more remote and empty.
Eventually, the narrow cone of Sandra’s flashlight fell upon something that made all three stop at once, and Charlie yelped with a noise halfway between terror and excitement as he crashed into Venus’ back. She pushed him away, and all three stared at the thing before them.
It was huge, at least 7 feet in height, and in the general build of its frame, resembled a massive ape. This was by design; it was meant to instill fear by conjuring the genetic memories of great menacing beasts. But where an ape would have had curved muscle, soft flesh, and fur, this figure was outfitted with sharp, angular points of metal—one arm terminating in a long cylinder pockmarked with holes, and the opposite limb in a serrated blade nearly two feet long. Its blocky legs were bent as if it were poised to spring upon its prey, and on its shoulders sat what, by analogy to organic bipeds, might be called its head; a silvery metal cube, covered with thin wire mesh. This appendage was small in comparison to the rest of the armored monster, and if the rest of the figure were not so manifestly intimidating, might have appeared comical.
“Wow, a genuine combat infantry bot,” Venus whispered.
“More like fifty genuine combat infantry bots,” Sandra said, shining her light behind the figure, revealing more identical forms assembled behind it, in a long, perfectly-spaced line; soldiers standing eternal guard at their posts.
“Technically, these are assault bots,” Charlie with some self-importance. “The way you can tell is that they have more armor in the chest and shoulder areas than a standard infantry bot. These are for storming fortified positions, whereas the typical infantry bot—”
Venus and Sandra simultaneously glared at Charlie in a way that clearly communicated to him that further details regarding the different attributes and uses of war robots were not required at this time.
“Is this where you found Lurge?”
“Er, yeah; just about. He was…” Charlie looked at the floor and held up his hands as if to measure, pointing to a spot some three yards from the clawed feet of the first robot in line. “…right about here. Well, mostly. Part of him was here. And there.” He indicated an open area a few yards away. “And some more over there.”
“So, you’re quite sure the robots did it, then?” Venus asked.
Charlie shook his head. “Well, maybe the robots pulled the trigger. But there’s no way they shoulda been on! These things are deactivated—they’re just here for tourists to see.”
“Do they have an energy source?” Venus asked.
“Well, yeah; I mean, there’s a power core in ‘em for demos. But they should never open fire. At most they’d just stomp around a little and look threatening. But that’s only if someone went to the main office and manually activated ‘em.” Charlie could tell he had their attention, and he intended to keep it as long as he could. “There’s this whole security protocol the bots have to go through—they have a voice-controlled activation system. There’s a series of questions the bots ask whoever activated ‘em.”
“So, they have voice recognition capability?” Venus asked.
Charlie nodded. “Yup. Voice samples of all key Lurge personnel on file.” There was a very long pause, and Sandra and Venus exchanged a glance. Then both of them looked at Charlie.
“Chief of Security would be key personnel, huh?” said Sandra quietly.
This book is a transcript of a discussion hosted by indie author Kevin Brennan with Karen Choi and Dan DeLonge. Before you go off to search on those latter two names; they are pseudonyms. Both of them are successful authors, and because they are speaking frankly about the industry in this discussion, they are not using their real names.
In a way, this is too bad, because I really wanted to read their books after reading this discussion. But, it’s good that they were able to voice their honest opinions.
The discussion covers every aspect of the writing process, from inspiration, to getting the first draft down, to editing, to publication and marketing. Every writer will instantly relate to the points they make in here, and it’s well-worth reading for anybody interested in the craft of writing.
I won’t go into too much detail about what they say on each subject–the whole point of the book is to read the opinions of three writers on these topics, and it would be a disservice to paraphrase them too much. All I’ll say is that this book is a perfect illustration of one of the best things about writing: the community. Writing may be a solitary activity, but even we writers enjoy hearing the thoughts of others who know what it’s like to dream up a whole story and commit it to the page. This is a great way to do exactly that.