Thursday, 23 June 2016


Zombies seem to be top of my list of entertainments at the moment. A quick glance at the PS4 (assuming it's on and I'm playing on it) will tell you I've just made a start on The Last of Us, and a quick spy at my phone will also tell you that my main running app is the audiobook/interactive game app Zombies, Run. The last week has also seen me reading the second book in Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire's Parasitology trilogy, Symbiont.

Technically speaking, the mindless walking corpses in Symbiont aren't the walking dead. Instead, they're 'sleepwalkers', who have had their bodies taken over by a medicinal tapeworm in what is, depending on your point of view, either a scientific nightmare or the product of a seriously warped imagination. This has resulted in the end of the world. The majority of people having their minds enslaved by parasites generally has this effect. The problem is that due to the lack of integration all human thought has gone, intelligence fleeing with the destroyed human mind.

Sal Mitchell is our heroine and sole point of view character. After the events of the first book, Parasite, brought about the end of civilisation as we know it and major revelations have been made as to the nature of the future of humanity (hint: it involves parasites), Symbiont picks up where the story had been left and proceeds to take it further into ethically murky waters. What is human? Who gets to decide what is human? What happens when humanity plays god? More questions are asked in this than in its predecessor, but I'm not sure it's a good thing.

The thing about Mira Grant's first trilogy, Newsflesh, was that it was both light in tone and dark in nature. It asked questions, but it never allowed those questions to bog down the pacing and it never forgot about the driving narrative. Zombies and Republicans may not be everyone's thing (even if it offers a great chance for current affairs jokes), but I thoroughly enjoyed it because it maintained its breakneck pace throughout and didn't allow itself to linger. Although it was a hefty read, it didn't outstay its welcome, even in its weirder moments. Parasitology, on the other hand, loses pace dramatically in Symbiont, and it becomes apparent after only a hundred pages or so that this was originally conceived to be a duology and that it subsequently became stretched into a trilogy. I'd personally be interested to know whether this was Grant/McGuire's choice or at the publisher's behest.

To say Symbiont runs to over 500 pages (I read the Kindle edition, which says it's 608), not an awful lot happens. I should qualify that by saying that although a lot does happen on a page-by-page basis, most of the events feel like they're padding out the page count and offer little to develop characters or settings. Even the events which do take place feel like they've been spread out. It's only at the end when it feels like the story is getting back on track, having taken a sprawling detour through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape.

There's also the distinct feeling of déjà vu which also pervaded Parasite. There are times when the trilogy has felt like a slightly off-piste rehash of Newsflesh without the politics and with the end of the world playing out rather than the aftermath alone. We have complex conspiracies, wacky minor characters (one of whom genuinely believes that his life is a video game) and an end of the world scenario. There was a freshness to the ideas of Newsflesh which made it so enjoyable, but that freshness doesn't exist in Parasitology. I may be forced to revise my opinion by the third book, but although I can't say Symbiont was bad by any stretch of the imagination I can't recommend it highly. To now I've found the whole series something of a disappointment. Hopefully I'll enjoy the conclusion, Chimera, far more.

Saturday, 4 June 2016


Derry is a strange town: every twenty-seven years or thereabouts a cycle of violence and death repeats itself. Children are murdered, their bodies either found in a mutilated state or never found at all. Violent events which would seem out of place elsewhere seem to go unremarked. 'It's a Derry thing,' the locals would say.

Against the backdrop of one of these cycles of violence, a group of friends is brought together, seemingly by fate. It is the summer of 1958, and these seven friends - the 'losers' - find themselves caught up in events and unravelling the truth behind the child murders. This leads them to an evil beyond what they could imagine. Twenty-seven years later the same friends are reunited when the evil they thought they had defeated awakes once again.

It is probably best known for its villain, Pennywise the Clown. With good reason. Pennywise is a capricious, unpredictable and implacable villain. He seems to be omnipresent and omnipotent at times. He inspires a sense of dread throughout, even when he isn't actually killing or maiming. His evil goes a long way beyond just being a child's nightmare, but on one level it's exactly why he works as a villain and why It works as a book.

Childhood belief and imagination plays a key role in the book, as does the idea of memory. The friends lose their memories of the summer of 1958, and it's only as the narrative goes on - intertwining events of 1958 with those of 1985 - that they regain their memories. There's a difference between the adult characters and the children they were, whilst there's also a connection between who they were and the paths their lives have taken.

Unusually for a Stephen King book, It never gave me the feeling that it was running away from the author. The Stand ran out of steam after about 400 pages; It never ran out of steam and ideas. It gained momentum as it went on. The last few hundred pages, where the big reveal was made and the final confrontation took place, were thunderous.

What King does well is create characters who can be empathised with. That this comes from a rambling writing style which expands the story probably far beyond where it should have been expanded is a trade-off which is worthwhile. By the end, you feel you've become a personal friend or enemy of each of the characters. Were King's prose stodgy the trade-off would not be worth it, but his style is easy and readable. For all his failings in planning, he's a good writer who creates believable worlds and who tells superb stories.

It is a superb story, if a remarkably long one. Those reading it will be rewarded with a strong story which draws on its setting and its characters to create a genuinely pulse-pounding experience.