A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Stolen Lives”

“The X-Files: Stolen Lives” is a direct follow up to “The X-Files: Cold Cases” in the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, and various monsters and supernatural happenings menace the world. Grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The show aired for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.

This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprise their roles as agents Mulder and Scully, and they are clearly having a blast stepping into these familiar shoes. And their enthusiasm is infectious. Welcome also to the return of the Lone Gunmen, in an amusing but credulity stretching development here holed up in a secret lair under Arlington Cemetery, and grab your favourite pack of smokes (Morleys) it’s the return of Spender, the Cigarettes Smoking Man, here a tortured clone doomed to die violently and repeatedly. He becomes strangely sympathetic.

He’s not the only clone afoot. There’s a sinister army of them, comprising of old faces from the original show, the titular ‘Stolen Lives.’ These are mainly baddies, the dreaded Syndicate for one, the Cabal responsible for orchestrating the original alien invasion conspiracy. They are ruled over by a fearsome new Prime Elder with an agenda of his own. His identity and some of his agenda are revealed in the final story of this collection, ‘Elders,’ and it’s the conclusion of a satisfying arc that began Cold Cases and has run through both releases. There are stand alone stories here as well, as in the last collection, mirroring the format of the original show. And unfortunately as patchy as the original. It begins with a powerful story of possession that I thought was going to be the start of a whole new arc, it felt so epic. But it wasn’t. It’s chilling, violent, and has a number of real gut punching scenes of visceral power. As a heads up there is a scene of a mass shooting that some will feel especially unsettling and upsetting given recent real world events.

After this there follows a tale of a ravenous swarm of flesh eating Scarabs, that’s ok but feels very generic. Then we find out what happened toAgents Dogget and Reece after their disappearance in Cold Cases. Again, it’s ok, but there’s a feeling of it not quite living up to it’s premise. Just a quick tidying up of loose ends.  

Then the weakest of the bunch, an investigation into Government produced psycho-active substances with a much too protracted gag involving Mulder getting stoned. Real life legal highs are much scarier.

And it wraps up with the superior story arc conclusion mentioned above, and a promising set up for the next series.

On the whole a great, patchy listen, faithful to the strengths and the weaknesses of the original, and taking it in some interesting new directions. And there’s one powerful reveal and link to the original that I have not given away here. Enjoy.

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A review of the Audible Original audio-drama “The X-Files: Cold Cases.”

“The X-Files:  Cold Cases” is an addition to the “Audible Original” range of audio dramas.
If you are new to the X-Files, welcome to a world where shape-shifting aliens bent on colonising the planet, various monsters and supernatural happenings are grist to the mill for our two dogged FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  The show aired ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, spawned two follow up feature films, a recent new series in 2016, and various spin offs, novels and graphic novels.
This drama is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Joe Harris. Series creator Chris Carter provided creative direction, and it was adapted specifically for this audio format by Dirk Maggs, who has been behind the excellent ‘Alien’ audio dramas on Audible.
And what a fantatsic listen it is.  I loved the show for at least it’s first three seasons, before losing patience with the patchy quality of the stories and the increasingly convoluted story arc, where someone revealing things like, “actually, I’m really your father” became increasingly eye-rollingly familiar and ridiculous.  However, when the show was on form it was really on form, with scary, original monsters (remember Tooms?), an epic feel and knuckle chewing cliff-hangers.
This drama feels like those earlier,  show stopping episodes.  The mystery is back and it’s a successful re-boot, scary, thrilling and fun.  The original cast of Mitch Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back and clearly enjoying what they are doing, which is completely infectious.  Also get ready for the return of William B , Davies, literally resurrected as Spender, or Cigarette Smoking Man.  That familiar voice of quiet, genial menace together with the rustling packet of Morleys will bring a huge grin to any fan.  Get ready also for many familiar names, monster, bad guy and good guy.  I won’t spoil them all here, but warring alien factions, shape-shifters, and a certain black oil feature.  It’s like a roll call of the original shows’ greatest hits, and yet it is testament to the writing and production that this never feels contrived.  When each familiar face took the stage, I felt like cheering.
I loved this, and can’t wait for the follow up due next month.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Iain Rob Wright’s “The Gates: An Apocalyptic Horror Novel (Hell on Earth Book 1)”

All over the world mysterious black stones appear.  They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints:  Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York.  All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.

The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans.  The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull.  All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him.  Or something.

This book is stark, staring bonkers.  Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there.  It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense.  It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued.  The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world.  That does not appear.  There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.

The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.

And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate.  There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.

The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing

A review of Riyria Chronicles Tales “The Jester” and “Professional Integrity.”

Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.

They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.

‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming.  Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.

Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn.  It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.

The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms.  In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap.  It’s a wonderful opening.  With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest.  They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber.  Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?

The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know.  It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story.  The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.

A 40  minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.

I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.”  This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety.  Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit.  Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.

Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.

Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novella “The King’s Justice”

“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers,  elemental forces, and good versus evil.

It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.”  He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated.  He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it.  He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling.  What has this to do with his wider mission?  Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces?  What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?

This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling.  Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency.  In  119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building.  Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity.  Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice.  But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.

The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche.  They are powerful and transcendent.  The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world.  Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father.  The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive.  Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it  as Black and those around him experience much more.

I listened to the audio-book version, narrated by the excellent Scott Brick.  His reading has a contained, driven passion that completely suits the tale.

A review of G.K.Chesterton’s “The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare”

This work, sometimes called “a metaphysical thriller,” is a rich delight.

It tells the story of one Gabriel Syme, who challenges anarchist Lucien Gregory on his views at an evening gathering in a bohemian side street in Edwardian era London.  Gabriel asserts those who bring order, even those who reliably steer trains to reliable destinations, are heroic linchpins that keep chaos at bay.  Lucien argues that chaos will liberate and create.  Gregory argues that only with order framing the chaos can any creating or anything else be done. It sets the tone for the central conflicts and arguments of the book.

Irritated, Lucien invites Gabriel to an anarchist meet, where he is horrified to discover that Gabriel is a Police detective(part of a special branch hunting anarchists).  Through a series of bluffs and counter-bluffs, Gabriel assumes the guise of a henchman of the notorious “Sunday” who rules over anarchist councils such as this everywhere, and is held in awe and fear among the anarchists.  Pushing his double agent work further, he then gets himself on Sunday’s elect Council as “Thursday,” where his comrades are also named after the different days of the week.  At his first supreme council meet, his spiritual intelligence detects an air of something truly diabolical about Sunday and his comrades.  He finds himself embroiled in a fight where the stakes could not be bigger..

To reveal more would be to plunge too far into spoilers.  For this is a wonderfully intricate piece of story-telling, its parts and components slotted together with a watch-makers skill.  If you do guess a twist, you won’t foresee how it will play out.  And if you do guess or work out from previous hints the identity of Sunday, you won’t foresee exactly how that plays out, and what the arguments behind the big reveal are.

Suffice it to say that G.K.Chesterton tells a cracking story first and foremost, and through that delves into some of the mysteries of the Christian Faith. This fits so well with the story, indeed it is the story, that it does not reduce the story to allegory or trick the reader.  Far from it.  This is a book to enrich, enlighten and entertain.  And it is often very, very funny as well, balancing humour at times with Hitchcockian suspense.  More than one scene has a thrilling race against time.

I also need to give a shout out to Simon Vance, who read the audio-book I listened to.  He strikes just the right balance between the different tones of seriousness and lightness, and his characterisation s brilliant.

Read and embrace this gem, you will be richer for it.