Providing both exciting struggles against an invading alien menace and an exploration of the mental challenges of facing something Other, van Dahl creates science fiction horror that stimulates both the emotions and the mind.
Lucas had a career he both enjoyed and was good at; as a police officer in Gothic, Arkansas. Until the day portals opened throughout the town, filling the streets with horrific monsters. Fences and patrols keep the threat confined, but Gothic itself is abandoned. So now he spends his days as a security guard in the refugee camp just outside the quarantine zone. However, the arrival of Io, a young woman the Director of the Gothic Quarantine Zone seems very determined to find, destroys Luke’s routine of driving around in a golf buggy with his stoner friend.
This novel is the second in the Gothic series. However, the author has attempted to write it as a stand alone work, so this review seeks to avoid spoilers.
The aliens in this novel are formed of networks of semi-sentient needles, an organism that can potentially infect humans. As such, the plot contains a certain amount of body horror.
However, van Dahl treats this as a trigger for the characters’ reactions rather than a purpose in itself. Therefore – while some descriptions might not be a comfortable read for all readers – this is a tale about the paranoia and prejudice that can arise from facing the Other, rather than a simple gore-fest. In this it bears some similarity to certain vampire tropes.
Paralleling the infection/invasion thread, van Dahl raises classic questions of any disaster story, whether speculative or mundane: when does efficient response become tyranny? Should the military ever have authority on their nation’s soil in a time of peace? Is it better to survive or be moral?
These philosophical questions of self and society are not forced or bolted on, though. Although some events might well provoke thought, this novel is a fast-paced science-fiction invasion thriller.
Lucas is an interesting character. His previous career gives him a most useful set of skills and perspectives when it comes to facing invasion by monsters. However, the shift from police officer to glorified building supervisor in a pseudo-military enclave has both robbed him of his actual authority and the underlying certainty that comes from it. He is therefore plausibly competent in a scrape without becoming simply a lantern-jawed action hero striding through the apocalyptic wastes.
The other characters are similarly well crafted. The infected teeter between humanity and otherness, each a different balance of self-hatred, survival instincts, and morality. Scientists and technicians differ in their reaction to both the infected and the alien, but even the most accepting doesn’t always see them as equals or act free of self-interest. And the military seek to protect humanity from the threat, as seen through the lens of conditioned partial inhumanity.
Written to be accessible to readers unfamiliar with the previous volume, this book contains a reasonable amount of repeated information. However, this is wrapped up in conversations with people who don’t know it or in memories of different characters from the relevant view-point character of the first book, and only occurs where necessary. As such it is likely to provide a fresh perspective on character and events to those reader familiar with the previous volume, rather than seeming tedious exposition.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book. I recommend it to readers seeking character-driven science-fiction or horror.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.