The Emperor’s Railroad – by Guy Haley (Review)

The Dreaming Cities #1

Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; April 19, 2016

173 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

3 / 5 ✪

Quinn is a knight of the Angels. Armed with a six-gun and two swords—one for killing the living, another for killing the dead. Abney is one of the last two survivors of New Karlsville (his mother is the other), fleeing for the safe harbor of Winfort. Quinn has agreed to escort them there, for a price.

The world has changed—as you’ve likely gathered. The Great War changed everything. Turned cities to glass, and others to dust. But the world is even more dangerous than just that. The dead do not stay dead. The living don’t stay that way neither. There be Angels, and dragons.

The road to Winfort will be long and hard. But with Quinn by their side, Abney and his mother might just make it.

My second time through this one, and still I think that it took its sweet time getting moving. The world is quite nice when it starts rendering in, but again it takes its sweet time. It’s like a DOS prompt that takes forever to load properly, but once it does is quite enjoyable. Actually… yeah, the entire book is like a post-apocalyptic or fantasy DOS game. The main problem with it is that books aren’t used to being games, and so that first 50 pages where nothing really happens are more of a letdown. Which—if you’ve only got 170 pages to tell a story—is quite a long time to wait.

Okay, okay. SOME things happen in that first 50 pages. There’s the origin story of how all this began—told from Abney’s POV. Now, it doesn’t tell us what happened to New Karlsville. No, that comes later. It also doesn’t tell us Quinn’s story. It just tells us how Quinn and the two refugees meet. Which, to be honest, is a bit dry and a bit light on details.

Once the story gets going, however, it’s quite the tale. Set in quite the world. A fantasy meets post-apocalyptic setting, complete with swords, guns, trains, dragons, angels, and the undead. And there’s more too—some of which you’ll meet should you continue the series. In general, I found the second story preferable to the first, but you’ve got to start somewhere. And it’s good to meet Quinn before getting too far along with his story. Because while this is told from Abney’s POV—it’s Quinn’s story. And not a bad one at that.

The whole thing has kind of a Metro vibe to it (the games, not the books—so a perilous scramble through the apocalypse, not a metaphysical stumble through it), which isn’t a bad thing. Exodus, in case you’re wondering. And if ever you can come close to describing a Metro game in your stories, you’re doing something right.

TL;DR

It’s quite a quick read once you get into it. Quick, but enjoyable. I have the ebook version that I got for a buck; and I’d easily call that worth it. Recently I picked up a paperback from my local library, and it’s more than worth the time spent there. While the Emperor’s Railroad isn’t the best story you’ll ever read, most of that’s down to the sluggish start. I’d recommend it—in part because I know Book #2 is better than #1. While 3/5 means it’s not great, it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours by any means.

The series continues with Book #2 of the Dreaming Cities—The Ghoul King, at the moment the de facto conclusion to Quinn’s adventure. Guy Haley maaay return to the series at some point, but right now he’s busy industriously churning out 40K novels for the Black Library.

The Apocalypse Seven – by Gene Doucette (Review)

Standalone (?)

Scifi, Post Apocalyptic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 25, 2021

363 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin, Mariner and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

When the world ended, it wasn’t with a bang. It was with more of a… blah.

Thus passes the Whateverpocalypse—the end of the human race, where cities fall to ruin and the entire planet becomes overgrown. There seem to be no survivors, except those few that overslept the end of the world, awakening only after everything had already ended.

Carol and Robbie are students at Harvard—both freshmen, they awaken to find their dorms deserted and Cambridge around them in ruin. While Carol had spent her last night in, Robbie had gone out drinking. Neither remembered the world ending, but Robbie didn’t even recall stumbling home. And while disoriented, he’s barely in the dark at all compared to Carol—as she’s blind and all.

The two soon run across Touré—a twenty-something coder, and the only person excited by the prospect the end of the world presents. With him in tow, the group soon adds Bethany, a teen with a mysterious past and a helpful skillset (all of which suggesting a record). As they explore the ruins of Cambridge, the group soon discovers that the end of humanity is only the beginning of their poor luck. There’s also the lack of power, the packs of violent boars choking downtown, the freakish weather (including hailstorms, tornadoes, snowstorms and heat waves all in the same week), not to mention the horse-sized wolves.

Elsewhere, the world is little better. Paul is a non-denominational preacher living in backwater Vermont. He awakens to the apocalypse on Monday but it takes the man til Sunday to notice anything wrong. Once he does, he discovers a voice on the radio—the last sign of human life he’s seen. Soon he sets off for Boston, eager to meet Ananda, a former MIT adjunct, who remains picking through the ruins of her former campus for clues. Also there’s Win—an olympic hopeful stranded in the countryside. All leads eventually point to Boston, where the Apocalypse Seven might eventually meet, if they can survive the Whateverpocalypse long enough to find one another.

And even then, it’ll take all their combined effort to not only discover what ended the world, but to survive what comes next.

I do love a good apocalypse now and then. This one does it all without any undead, too, which is impressive. I was getting major Last of Us vibes from this—not so much the story, but the world. Those stolen moments between the cutscenes where nothing’s actively trying to kill you. The decaying, overgrown cities. The wildlife just milling about. The quiet. For the most part, this was a quiet apocalypse. One that provided a good premise, and then just let the story unfurl until The 7 (my shorthand for the survivors) finished filling it in. I can’t say enough about how much I loved the story. It combines a physical sense of loss and deterioration with the struggles of its survivors. Carol is missing her seeing-eye dog. Everyone’s lost family. Some are away from home. None are in their comfort zone. Mental breakdowns co-mingle with physical hardships. Loss with hope. The mystery of what’s befallen the world brings them all together, focuses them on something other than just trying to survive (well, except maybe Touré). And throughout it all there’s an undercurrent of lively—sometimes silly, sometimes dark, always entertaining—humor. Lots of jokes seemingly off the cuff. In conversation. During emergencies. At the literal end of the world. It all goes together exceptionally well—which I loved.

Despite this being the end of the world, it never seems all that hard to survive. I mean, there IS everything that’s trying to kill The 7 all the time, but otherwise. They’re helpfully stocked with Noot Bars—your lembas from LotR, grot from the Faithful and the Fallen, and a number of other things from other places. Noot is basically an foodstuff that never goes bad, has all the nutrients a body needs to live, and leaves something to be desired in the taste-department. So… basically an MRE. And since the young’uns are all stocked up, they’re not likely to starve to death. Win and Paul can hunt, but this is mostly glossed over shortly upon being introduced. Ananda’s nutrition is barely even addressed. I honestly would’ve expected a lot more survival from this story, but there’s comparatively little. It’s a tale more about the mystery, the strange happenings, and the atmosphere.

And the end of the world atmosphere is strong. It kept reminding me of the Last of Us or the like: huge sprawling metropolises empty of people, overrun by animals, overgrown and haunting as hell—except with out all the zombies. No zombies. Just the end of the world, and whatever happened to cause it. I have to say, while I eventually called the ending, the big reveal was nowhere near done after one twist. There were a number of other details that made the whole thing worth it twice-over, even though I did pretty much guess the overarching mystery. And even if you wouldn’t read this for the mystery of what happened, it’s a well-written apocalypse tale with a tense, spooky atmosphere and wolves the size of horses—recommending it is pretty much a no-brainer.

I would recommend skipping the epilogue. While it may provide a little closure, for me it raised more questions than it answered. And as I assume this is a standalone—you don’t need that in an ending. Everything was all well and truly wrapt up before—don’t ruin it.

TL;DR

The Apocalypse Seven is a thoroughly enjoyable post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopian set in a world teeming with life. Just empty of humanity. No undead, no super mutants, no robotic overlords. Just an overgrown world with desensitized wildlife and wolves the size of compact cars. And the mystery of how it got that way. Only seven survived (The 7) and they alone set out to solve this new world or die trying. Possessive of a tense, haunting atmosphere; a strong and immersive mystery; an all-too human cast complete with both strengths and weaknesses; and another twist even when you assume all’s been said and done—the Apocalypse Seven presents an excellent post-apocalyptic scifi and executes it just as well. While there’s comparatively little survival in terms of the Pincher-Martin-level I expected, the mystery and tension carries the story more than well enough. There’s little to hate about this one, and a lot to love.

Firewalkers – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Novella

Scifi, Post-Apoc

Solaris; May 12, 2020

208 pages (ebook)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris Books and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The second Tchaikovsky novella in two years, Firewalkers features a cast entirely too young to drink, but old enough to wander the post-apocalyptic wastes of the world, fighting and dying for nothing more exotic to us than A/C. Hitting the shelves next week, most of us will be forced to get it via ebook, though it proves entertaining in any format. Just make sure you appreciate the cover—courtesy of Gemma Sheldrake—which is quite eye-catching, don’t you think?

The city of Ankara Achouka isn’t perfect. There’s never enough food, medicine, or water. There are rolling blackouts, if you can find electricity at all. Jobs are scarce, money is even scarcer. But here, at the base of the Anchor, those things are at least present. The rest of the planet is burning. Deserts and wastelands cover the world, the only refuge from the dying world being aboard the Grand Celeste—the only space station in orbit above the Earth. A space station connected via space elevator at Ankara.

At the base of the elevator sits the Anchor—the only area of government control left in Ankara, perhaps even the world—and within its domain the so-called “Roach Hotel”, a resort that caters to the super-rich and elite, so named for the fact that they check in, but never check out. This is where those powerful or connected enough spend their last days on planet, before ascending the elevator to orbit and the Grand Celeste. The hotel has food, water, and amenities. Amenities including A/C, since just because the planet is burning, god forbid the 1%-ers get a little uncomfortable.

But when the power goes on the fritz, someone has to go check and repair the solar panels—located far the south amidst the desolate wastes. Enter the Firewalkers. They leave the city to scavenge, scout, and yes, fix the power. Firewalkers are all young and desperate. Or the insane. They have a short life-expectancy, on account of the raiders, the predators, the heat, the desolation, the unknown beyond the bounds of Ankara Achouka. Only those with no future and no better option would consider the life of a Firewalker.

Mao is one such man. A legend at only nineteen—a middling age for one of his profession—he once walked back to Ankara through the wastes after an accident that killed his entire crew. Joining him are Lupé and Hotep, two of the best in their respective fields. Their mission: to restore the power to the Roach Hotel, before some of the elite lose their cool. Their lives have already been filled with disaster, but this trip into the wastes may well be their last.

If Adrian Tchaikovsky is the master of anything, it’s science fiction. Specifically science fiction with the most distasteful of organisms. His Shadows of the Apt series features a whole host of insects, while the Echoes of the Fall deals with predators. Children of Time plays host to spiders, and several novellas feature several other creepy crawlies. This one is no different, as, in Firewalkers, he returns to bugs.

I can’t get much into it without giving everything away, but if you have a problem with or a phobia of insects… maybe skip this one? Otherwise it’s a highly entertaining post-apocalyptic read. The characters are lovely, each with their own personalities and loyalties that evolved to impressive levels, particularly with this only being a novella (albeit a long one). All are well-written, as each portrays both strengths and weaknesses, making them seems very, very human.

The setting itself is quite interesting—something of a cross between the world of Metro and the Darwin Elevator, with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos thrown right in. Though I’d really’ve liked to know more about the state of the world. There’re hints of additional space elevators, the status of which is unknown. The setting itself is a bit of a mystery; I was guessing Africa somewhere, though the most famous Ankara is in Turkey. Other than these few hints, the world itself is hidden in the fog. Or, it’s burned up. There’s very little given. It’s more the kind of story that’s “here’s the world, this is how it is—it’s not about what happened, it’s about the future”. I have a mind curious for details; I always wonder after what’s happened before.

While the story itself is pretty good, it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read by Tchaikovsky. Firewalkers takes a decent amount of time to get moving, and there’re distractions along the way. It’s a solid 4-star tale, though there was a bit of a letdown at the end. Nothing big—the story was completed and all threads tied up nicely—it was just a bit underwhelming. While once I got into the meat of it I had no problem reading to the end, it took some time to get to the meat, as it were.

TL;DR

With a landscape like that of Hades and a plot out of Metro, Firewalkers tells a post-apocalyptic tale not quite like any other. Together with Tchaikovsky’s particular brand of chaos, it makes for an entertaining read—with excellent characters, a provocative setting, and good writing throughout. However, the story takes a bit to get off the ground, and wanders a bit more upon doing so. Additionally, the world-building itself seems incomplete, with little more told than those aspects directly relevant to the matter at hand. All in all, Firewalkers is definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of the author, or short on reading material.

Book Review: Ex-Heroes – by Peter Clines

Ex-Heroes #1

Scifi, Zombies, Superpowers, Post-Apocalytic

Broadway Books; February 25, 2010

310 pages

4 / 5 ✪

I’ve been after Ex-Heroes for a while. I mean, zombies + superpowers + apocalypse = well, I suppose it’d be a bad thing, but for the reading of it, I’d say it’s all good. Peter Clines debut features all the big names of a world that has succumbed to chaos: Stealth, Gorgon, Regenerator, Zzzap, the Mighty Dragon, Cerberus. Essentially they represent the last, best hope for mankind. The rest comprises gangs, outcasts, and somewhere around 99% Exes (the pretty-much-zombies).

When the infection began it was expected to be mopped up in a week. After months of fighting, however, and the fall of the eastern seaboard, the heroes were left with little in the way of allies. The fall of the government, the army followed, and the last vestiges of civility set up shop in LA—transforming the area of several film studios/locations into “The Mount”, their final stronghold against the hordes.

A year into the apocalypse things are looking bleak. The South Seventeens have stepped up their attempts to take down The Mount. Ammo is running thin. Patrols into the city are bringing back not only essential supplies, but also news of more. Exes acting strangely. Roadblocks and traps. And more worrying, sightings of previous heroes; those that once bitten, succumbed to the Ex plague. Now they are little more than shamblers themselves. Albeit totally badass, superpowered ones. And all the while, it seems the South Seventeens have been consolidating power.

This was a pretty good read.

I mean, it went by quick: only about 300 pages, took me about a week as I was reading two other things at the time. A straightforward plot with little surprises, a little mystery, and mostly packed with fight scenes and dark realism. Not surprisingly St. George (the Mighty Dragon) stood out as the character I enjoyed the most. After him… probably a tie. Between Zzzap or Cerberus. But St. George… yeah, the dude has superpowers, but he’s as human as the rest beneath it all. Though he’s pretty much unkillable, he bears the emotional and psychological scars of survivor’s guilt. Of everything he’s seen go to shit over the years. And still he tries to be better. And maintains that the people around him—even the other heroes—should do the same.

The story features a back-and-forth between past and present, with each glimpse of the past taken through the eyes of one of the heroes. Their origin story, the outbreak of the plague, the fall of civilization, how The Mount came to be—I can’t say they weren’t interesting flashbacks. And yet they leave a lot to be desired. Somewhere between ending to soon and taking to long to begin again. It’s not like some other books (Porcelain Blade) where there’s a flashback every other chapter. They appear now and then, but usually don’t remain for too long. Interesting snippets of lore, yet little more.

I really don’t have anything all that bad to say about Ex-Heroes, except that it was over too quick, and possessive of nothing terribly life-altering. I will say the opposing gang had a very unfortunate name (the SS? Not the best choice). The concept was good, combining the zombie apocalypse with superhero fiction, two tried and true genres. But as a book, it wasn’t anything special, either. A good read with some interesting (although not very developed) characters and a straightforward plot with gentle twists.

Not a super complex story here. I mean, it ain’t winning any awards. But even so, it was a quick, entertaining read. And I’d definitely be interested in seeing where Clines takes the series from here. Hopefully he develops the characters more. Explores the pre-collapsed world. And some more post-fall locations. This book begins a pentalogy—a five-piece series. Ex-Heroes is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Ex-Heroes series continues with Ex-Patriots, released in 2011.

Note: I couldn’t find this at my local library (I live in a nowhere-adjacent locale), but managed to score a copy on the cheap. Think I paid about $4 for it, used. While I’d whole-heartily recommend supporting the author and buying a new copy, if you’re on a budget: Ex-Heroes has been out since 2010. There’re bound to be more than a couple used copies lying about. That you can pick up, for a good price. Or, if you can get to at your library, do! Libraries are great like that.

Book Review: Metro 2033 – by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Metro Series #1

Scifi, Post-Apocalyptic

Gollancz; April 1, 2011

458 pages

3.5 / 5 ✪

A metaphysical journey combines with a thrilling, coming-of-age adventure. A post-apocalyptic Russia overrun by mutants. With the addendum of a mysterious enemy, Metro 2033 is complete. And yet… in joining these three elements, Metro just can’t decide what it wants to be.

I’ve played the game—a few times, in fact—but none of them prepared me for the journey Dmitry Glukhovsky weaves. Actually, I read through a good portion of this book while playing Metro Exodus, though none of this caused me to lose touch with the tale. Part of it has to do with Exodus; the story element isn’t as strong as it’s been in the previous two games—but I’ll have to review it to talk about this. Which… maybe? Anyway, one of the main reasons I was able to get through a related, though distinctly unique game while reading 2033 lies in what it is as a story. And just what it tells.

Metro 2033 tells the story of Artyom, a young man trapped in the Moscow Metro. Above him, the world is gone. Ruined. Changed by nuclear war. He was but a boy when the bombs fell, but remembers their sound and fury well. Even better than he remembers the world before. Better still than he recalls his mother’s face, her voice.

Since then he has lived in the metro tunnels, along with but a fraction of the human race, those few that survived alongside him. When he was young still a rat swarm overran his home station, Artyom alone saved when his mother pressed him into a soldier’s hands. At the start of 2033 he lives in VDNKh with his stepfather, Sukhoi, the very soldier who led him to safety all those years before. It is not an overly safe life, the constant fear of being overrun by rats, mutants, fascists, communists, or succumbing to either starvation or radiation—but is a quiet one, nonetheless. And one that is shattered with the arrival of Hunter.

Long story short, Hunter gives Artyom a mission—to deliver a message to Melnik at Polis—should he not return to the station within a day. While the reason for this wasn’t super clear at the time, from the context of later conversations (and the game, of course) it becomes clear that VDNKh is close to being overwhelmed by an unknown threat. What follows is the story of Artyom’s journey, a meandering trial of terror and tears, set in a destroyed world, populated by the remnants of humanity. He is witness to the best and worst and most human of humanity: smugglers, cannibals, killers, survivors, the faithful as well as the deceived. All and more.

While 2033 was quite the tale, it wasn’t what I’d call… engrossing. Sure, there was a story. A really good one, at that. It just wasn’t what I expected. Instead of a post-apocalyptic action-thriller, I’d classify 2033 as a metaphysical experience set in a post-apocalyptic world, with elements of mystery, thriller and scifi epic.

Stories dominate the text. The main, overarching one is Artyom’s. But his is not alone. Instead, imagine if you had a main story that was constantly interrupted by other legends, lore and second- or third-hand tales of the metro, all told by people the lead character meets in his own journey. Tales that often interrupt the main story—and while providing interesting lore—accomplish little more than distracting from the primary adventure itself. This is what 2033 gives the reader. A muddied, confusing jumble of tales that somewhere at its heart bear a diamond core.

The deep, thought-out world is more than enough of a reason to read Metro 2033. It’s more than just an adventure, a thriller, a mystery, yet somehow, as it tries to include all of these elements, loses all of them. It is certainly worth reading—I did enjoy the book more than the game (helped by the fact that I didn’t die every couple minutes and have to repeat a section)—though nowhere near the experience I was hoping for.