Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Reviews: The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli,
M.R. Carey,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, 400 pages,
Published April 2020

(cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio with photography by Blake Morrow)

A new book by Mike Carey is always something to look forward to: here we’re even more fortunate as The Book of Koli is the first in a new trilogy sequence by Carey, with The Trials of Koli following in September and The Fall of Koli in March 2021. Koli is a teenage boy, in the small, walled village of Mythen Rood (a nod to Mythago Wood, perhaps? And “rood”, a splinter of the True Cross, a play on the importance of trees and wood in this book?). In many ways this feels like a medieval-era village, but actually it is an unspecified point in the future, and the world is very different from today, in the land of “Ingland” or “Yewkay”.

The deep, dark woods beyond our settlements have disturbed human dreams and nightmares since the dawn of time; they litter our collective folk tales of old, they re-emerge in many modern horror films and books, danger always lurks in there for those who stray from the path. In Koli’s world, while there are dangerous beasts in the wilds (and dangerous rogue people who may be bandits or cannibals or both), it is the forests themselves which present the greatest danger.

Long before his time, the old stories tell of a civilisation that had such knowledge and power as to seem magical to Koli’s simpler, damaged era. But in their arrogance they over-used their knowledge and science, damaging the world around them. So they turned to those same devices and learning to repair the damage, genetically altering the flora and fauna, with catastrophic results. Now the trees are deadly – only certain kinds of true wood can be used (Koli comes from the Woodsmith family of wood-turners), any seeds that land in the village and aren’t clear can cause death and destruction, swallowed chocker seeds result in a horrendous death from within, wood cutters and hunters only venture out on dull, overcast days when the trees are less active, in a reversal of what would have been normal practise of utilising periods of fine weather.

The village is dominated by the Ramparts, the group who can use the remaining, scavenged tech from the fallen world. By a remarkable coincidence – or is it? – one family has become the only ones who ever seem to make the dormant tech “wake” (a coming of age ceremony sees each youngster try to wake a chosen device, those that do become Ramparts, but these days nobody save members of one family seem to be able to manage this). Koli is a teenage ball of longing – for a friend who now seems more interested in a young Rampart, for the ability to work the ancient tech and become a Rampart himself. He will come into knowledge via Ursula, a travelling physician. And knowledge can be dangerous without the wisdom to use it, even more dangerous when it contradicts the established system and privileged groups who do well from it, and it will put a reluctant Koli onto a very different path from that he expected.

The youngster coming of age, discovering new knowledge and awareness before they have the experience to know how to use it safely, finding companions on the way, is something of a staple in storytelling, as is any resulting voyage of discovery and trials on the journey. This is Mike Carey, however, he is well-versed in those classic tropes, and quite deliberately using them, then reshaping them to new ends in some quite delicious ways.

Koli’s world is richly described, from the village to the terrifying woods, with Carey only allowing us small fragments of the history that lead to this dystopian world where humanity has turned nature against itself, so the reader is much like Koli, finding out pieces along the way, and this immerses us into Koli’s world, piquing curiosity not just about what will befall Koli but how this world came to be as it is. As you may expect from Carey, this doesn’t shy away from some quite terrifying and horrific moments, and it populates its world with realistic characters (nobody here is entirely evil or heroic, they are just people with a mix of traits). There’s a strong ecological theme running through the book, and also eco-horror, which reminded me (in the best way) of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work and the “revenge of nature” cycle of fantasy and horror common in the 1970s. A world turned upside down, once exploited by teeming masses of humans, now the humans are a small group living in fear of the world,.

It’s rich, intriguing, heady and often terrifying work that will draw you deeply into Koli’s world. I can’t wait for the next volume…

This review was originally penned for Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Shoreline of Infinity