Scott-Norton focuses on character and ambiguous evidence rather than the overtly inexplicable, to create a UFO thriller that leaves the reader uncertain of how things will unfold even after they’ve settled on a view of what probably happened.
MI18 was created by Winston Churchill to investigate reports of odd lights in the sky; lights that, for decades, have turned out to be the aircraft, quirks of weather, and over-active imaginations the founders assumed they would be. Tucked away in a bunker, far from Whitehall, the organisation is losing relevance and funding. However, when an routine investigation of lights over a coastal village in Northern England uncovers a young girl who displays a radical, almost inhuman, change of personality, Alice Linwood – newly appointed head of the team – starts to believe this is the real thing.
While this novella is a prequel to The Face Stealer, Scott-Norton creates a complete arc rather than merely using it as a vehicle to explain events. Norton also focuses on character and the how of overcoming obstacles rather than the final outcome. As such, this book will provide a tense yet satisfying read both to those familiar with the Tombs series and those who are not.
Where the book does perhaps display its status as a prequel is in the volume of explanation. Although characters do not explain things to other characters that they already know, so the information does not feel forced, the start of the book might feel a little like narrating a premise rather than engaging with an event to some readers. However, this passes quickly once the investigation plot starts.
Opening with Alice discovering she has replaced her colleague Thaddeus as head of MI18, and then almost immediately placing the two of them together to investigate a phenomenon, Scott-Norton firmly establishes a thread of power vs authority from the beginning. This is amplified by MI18 having sweeping powers but because they are a secret organisation not being able to wield them except as a final resort.
This conflict between Alice being in charge and others listening is complemented by Scott-Norton’s portrayal of villagers who consider both the presence of aliens and the idea a young girl could be the danger rather than the victim as vaguely ridiculous.
Maintaining the pressure, Scott-Norton adds the likelihood that MI18 will lose funding without a significant validation of its purpose, forcing Alice to balance following her gut even if it means using her authority as a club against her responsibility to keep the organisation covert.
Alice herself is a well-written character who fits the conspiracy-thriller tone. She displays a plausible mix of open-mindedness and assumptions, which – tainted by both self-doubt about her ability to do the job and determination to get it done – result in equal measures of caution and bravura; each of which are sometimes the right approach and sometimes less so.
Seen through Alice’s eyes, the supporting cast display a realistic range of behaviours, united by an underlying tone of conspiracy and paranoia. This is especially evident in Thaddeus, who appears less sociable but just as competent as Alice, leaving the reader to decide when he is challenging her authority and when he is merely naturally brusque.
The evidence of alien presence is similarly balanced: as the reader follows Alice they see why she believes; however, with much of the things that convince her happening when she is alone or with only a few people, the supporting cast seem rational in not seeing more than a young girl scared by perfectly explicable events.
Overall, I enjoyed this novella. I recommend it to readers looking for a thriller with tinges of UFO conspiracy.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.