Review: Artificial Evil, Colin F. Barnes

[Originally posted at www.theindiefantastic.com – the home of Indie reviews]

Image In the tradition of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Richard Morgan, British writer Colin F. Barnes delivers a cyberpunk tech thriller for the modern age. 2153. Post-cataclysm. The last city exists beneath a dome where the mysterious benefactors ‘The Family’ tightly control the population with a death lottery and a semi-autonomous network. All is well until the day family man Gerry Cardle, head of the death lottery, inexplicably finds himself the no.1 target of a malicious Artificial Intelligence. Gerry’s numbers are up, and he has just 7 days to save himself, find the source of the AI, and keep the last stronghold of humanity safe. Gerry finds help in the shadows of the city from two rogue hackers: Petal – a teenage girl with a penchant for violence, hacking systems and general anarchy, and: Gabriel – a burnt-out programmer-turned-priest with highly augmented cybernetics. 

First of all, let me wholeheartedly endorse the Blade RunnerMad Max and Exorcist mentions above. And I’m also going to throw in a heavy dose of The Matrix, a sprinkling ofThe Amtrak Wars and a hint of Neverwhere. If you enjoyed any of those, you should give Artificial Evil a go. And if you enjoyed all of them, you should DEFINITELY give Artificial Evil a go, right this minute, because you’ll love it.


It’s hard to know where to start with reviewing a title like this one. Unfortunately I don’t have Gerry’s skill with logic and data flow management, and having only just finished the novel my mere human brain is still processing the mass of information Barnes presented. It was a complete and utter roller-coaster ride of a read, packed with tech concepts that will merrily blow your mind when you try to unravel them. I had absolutely no idea where this was going and just sat back and let myself be led and entertained. It was such a cinematic read, the action and dialogue were outstanding, the pace was relentless and the world-building was innovative. A total Blockbuster of a read. Complete with a couple of nice shockers when it comes to twists.

The Matrix comparison is the easiest one to make here. Barnes presents a world where things aren’t what they seem, where a comfortable existence comes heavily coated with deceit, and where getting to the truth is gritty, costly and completely brutal. Computer code is deep at the heart of everything within this novel, and if you’re not at all familiar with coding and networking this isn’t going to be your thing. That’s probably a ridiculously obvious comment to make, I mean, I’m not big on trying to label something this innovative, but if I had to, I’d go for Cyberpunk. And you’re not going to be picking up a Cyberpunk novel if you’re not into computers at some level. At least in my experience. Whereas with The Matrix a lot of non-codey folk still enjoyed it on one level, with the visuals and general shininess of the franchise, with Artificial Evil Barnes goes pretty deep into Algorithms and programming concepts, the technology here is innovative and involved, and especially towards the latter part of the novel you’ll struggle if you’re not familiar with the basics (“Read up, code-monkey.”) I work with computer code all day long, and malicious code at that, so I had a complete blast with the technology here.  I can also think of a couple of colleagues who are going to be adding this one to basket on Monday. I know not to recommend this to my Mum though, who loved the Matrix, but wouldn’t get past the first 25% of this without getting baffled, distracted, and then disinterested (“You won’t understand, and really I don’t have the time to explain fully.”)

The fusion of old and new was a nice touch here. I love to see ‘outdated’ technology being used to subvert the state of the art stuff, with a good added dose of inventiveness and intelligence (“like modern day alchemists.”)  I always have, and always will. And I really enjoyed the notion of coded Evil being fought with coded ‘Good’ – I thought that was conceptually utter genius;

“Gabe was actually typing biblical commands to the demon: a piece of code, albeit an artificially intelligent piece of code. That idea raised its head again: had someone coded evil?”

The ‘standards’ of Post-Apocalyptic fiction are all here, or in this case, Post-Cataclysmic. (If it ‘aint broke..) The ruling powers are all well and good provided that you’re living under their roof and under their rules. Dare to be different in any way, or commit even the tiniest indiscretion, and it’s Game Over. Barnes does a great job of portraying them as all-powerful and, initially, terrifying. I have to confess though, there is one aspect of their power..the ability of a patrol to swab Gerry’s vomit on the street, DNA match him and convict him as a criminal without a jury…now I’d be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that would love to see that implemented in Swindon of a Saturday night. Outside of the boundaries of the powers-that-be we have the standard ‘world that shouldn’t exist but does’, in this case, The Abandoned Lands. Complete with “Hungry Natives”. This is where the Mad Max comparison comes into play, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The sub-cultures that exist out here, beyond the very fringes of society, are what made the novel for me. And it’s where Barnes’ writing really shines. His characters and his dialogue are so spot-on, it’s just a pleasure to read. The subversion, the will and the innovation to survive, fantastically entertaining stuff (“This is the Wild West, Doc.”)

There are so many positives to this novel. In the wonderful words of Enna “I’ve not been this excited since I made my first self-aware sexbot.” I loved it. And my only complaint is that I want to know a lot more about the 2153 world. The only reason I’ve gone four stars instead of five (I’m not big on stars in general, but if I have to do it for GoodReads & Amazon I might as well explain myself) is that I thought in several places Barnes got a little too caught up in the technology, and the time and effort spent there made other parts of the novel feel a little rushed and cramped. It’s so, so central to everything that other aspects were a little bit too marginalised for me. And of course a side-effect of this is that it will alienate some readers. It would’ve been nice if the tech element could have perhaps been diluted a bit to let others in and open the field up for some more world-building on a social and economic level. In fairness though I’m aware it’s key to everything, and I’d imagine Barnes’ blood would run cold at my ‘dumbing down’ dilution suggestion. It was, regardless, an exceptional read, and I will definitely be looking out for the sequel.

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James Herbert

Got a nice bundle of Herbert Goodness in the post today. Made a very shitty day in Real Life that bit less shitty 🙂

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I’ll have a review of The Secret of Crickley Hall up soon. My reading has slowed down massively as my writing has ramped up, but I’ll try to keep the balance as even as I can. And I absolutely cannot wait to re-visit The Magic Cottage!

In The Flesh #2

I’ve already mentioned how I almost completely missed out on this series, and how much I loved the first episode, but I didn’t get time earlier in the week to blog about the second episode. In short, it was great, but…not quite as incredible as that opener. A tiny part of me was disappointed, but in fairness it was a hard act to follow. I want to know more about the Undead Prophet, and how he fits in with everything, and other then a quick mention from Amy it was conspicuously absent. I’m itching to know more about that side of things. Because lets face it, the Dark Side is always the most interesting side..

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I thought that Bill’s reaction to Rick’s return was really well handled, the way that he re-categorised him in his head to keep him separate from the rotters, and even took him rotter hunting…it was beautifully written. As was his wife’s response to the return of her son in his new-found form. And of course when Bill, Rick et al did go hunting..that was ‘the moment’ for me, it didn’t live up to the one that nearly had me in tears in episode one, but it was unexpectedly moving all the same. Seeing the wild rotter protect his young charge like that, it was deftly portrayed and was an image that stuck with me. It was also a lovely touch how everyone assumes a bite means infections, we’re all so conditioned by the films we’ve seen that we imagine we know exactly how an outbreak would go – when of course in actuality we’re completely clueless. It was like the antithesis to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, where knowledge from the films saved so many people. I thought that was really well played.

I’m looking forward to seeing the third and final episode, although to be honest I’m gutted that there are only three. There seems to be so much here that could be explored. Here’s hoping it leads on to a bigger and better series next year.

Review: Hater, David Moody

6444093“Society is rocked by a sudden increase in the number of violent assaults on individuals. Christened ‘Haters’ by the media, the attackers strike without warning, killing all who cross their path. The assaults are brutal, remorseless and extreme: within seconds, normally rational, self-controlled people become frenzied, vicious killers. There are no apparent links as a hundred random attacks become a thousand, then hundreds of thousands. Everyone, irrespective of gender, age, race or any other difference, has the potential to become a victim – or a Hater. People are afraid to go to work, afraid to leave their homes and, increasingly, afraid that at any moment their friends, even their closest family, could turn on them with ultra violent intent. Waking up each morning, no matter how well defended, everyone must now consider the fact that by the end of the day, they might be dead. Or perhaps worse, become a killer themselves. As the status quo shifts, ATTACK FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER becomes the order of the day… only, the answers might be much different than what you expect….
In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Richard Matheson, Hater is one man’s story of his place in a world gone mad— a world infected with fear, violence, and HATE.”

This was a terrifyingly brilliant read. Hater really gets you with the ‘what-if?’ factor. Moody’s portrayal of inexplicable paranoia and primal rage is absolute genius.

Danny is a great point of reference throughout the novel. As readers we identify with him so easily, with his frustrations at work and home, and once we’re on-side with him it’s a hell of a journey through the final stages of the novel. He’s an uncomfortable character in many ways, not least because you do get sick of his eternal whining and self-pity, but at the same time those qualities are so common in so many of us that you can’t hold it against him, and feel uneasy when you can see the lesser parts of yourself mirrored. Same goes, I think, for the brutal level of pure, unencumbered violence here.

There’s an element of repetition to the novel that’s annoyed some readers, and I can understand why. Danny whines, a lot, and the descriptions of the Hater attacks all follow the same format and in some ways lose their impact therein. Add to this the fact that the ending of the book gets you no closer to finding out what’s really going on and you do have some seriously dissatisfied folk making narked comments all over the internet. And I get it, I really do, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter because it’s such a unique and compelling read that I’m lavishing five stars on it, niggles and frustrations and all. Yes, the ending was a bit of a let down, but it’s book one of three and you know there’s always going to be plenty held back. Obviously it would have been nice to find out more without having to part with another £7.99, but money’s the name of the game isn’t it? I ordered the second book as soon as I’d finished the first.

The intensity of the paranoia is what made Hater such a winner for me. The them vs us mentality, and being able to experience it from both sides was powerful, and this one stayed in my head a long time after I finished the last page. It’s one I’d heartily recommend, far from perfect technically, but it really doesn’t matter because in terms of sheer entertainment and originality, it’s genius.

In The Flesh

Last night I finally cleared myself an hour’s peace and settled down to watch the first episode of BBC Three’s new zombie drama, “In The Flesh”. I don’t tend to watch television, in general, so I’d completely missed all the trailers and fuss over this one, and if I hadn’t stumbled across mention of it on-line I would have really missed out on something special. Episode one was outstanding.

I worry that the zombie market is slowly becoming as saturated as that of its vampire cousin, but In The Flesh brings a fresh new dimension to the genre that certainly gave me plenty to think about, and I’m hearing that millions of others are finding the same 🙂 Set in the fictional Northern village of Roarton, the series deals with the re-integration of heavily medicated and rehabilitated zombies back into Society as ‘PDS sufferers’ – Partially Deceased Syndrome.

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They’ve been looked after and treated back to humanity by a government focussed on tolerance and understanding, but the society they’re being sent back into is, in Roarten at least, just the opposite. With communities filled with people who lost loved ones in the uprising, as they battled the rabid zombies on their doorsteps, the ability to ‘forgive and forget’ is not shared by all, by any means.

As long as they take their medication every 24 hours, the PDS sufferers can function relatively normally, and they’ve even been kitted out with coloured contacts to cover their blown pupils, and fake tan to mask their deathly palour. Given the level of resentment held by much of the human population, this is much needed cover indeed. Roarten was hit hard by the uprising, and is in no hurry to forget it, and residents there are shepherded along by their vehement pastor and still active volunteer league of ‘rotter killers’. As one family covertly pick up their son from a government medical facility, and attempt to conceal him within their home, the stage is set for a battle between the hardline anti-rotter population and those who are quietly desperate to give their formerly lost loved ones another chance.

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I love the concept here, I think it’s a great approach to the zombie scenario, and the emotion I felt at one point during this episode took me completely by surprise. I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who’s not seen it yet and plans to catch up, but there’s a moment towards the end of the episode that will tug at your heart in such a profound way, and that’s not something I usually experience within the zombie genre. Certainly not that vividly. I wholeheartedly applaud In The Flesh for that one moment, it was poignant, breathtaking, heartbreaking, and beautifully done.

It’s well, well worth a watch, whether you’re a hard core zombie fan or someone who wouldn’t normally consider watching the genre. In the Flesh deals with painfully human aspects and emotions, and whilst the horror content is ever present, it’s not at the forefront here. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if you can get to iPlayer you should definitely give it a look.

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David Moody’s Trust

For those of you who don’t mind reading at the computer (I can’t do it, I don’t know why, I just can’t), David Moody’s Trust is available to read for free here

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I’m 20 pages off finishing Hater, and I’m loving it to death so there’ll be a review very soon. I’ve ordered myself the next two in the series, and I’m eyeing up his Autumn series too.I am captivated. Utterly captivated.

Black Feathers

I added this to my TBR mountain today, because I’m hearing nothing but good things. And if Stephen King likes him…he’s OK by me.

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(If you all hate it and just haven’t told me, I’m going to be narked!!).

I do remember reading Meat years back, and feeling blissfully sick as a dog. So that bodes well 🙂

Review: The Concrete Grove, Gary McMahon

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“Imagine a place where all your nightmares become real.

Think of dark urban streets where crime, debt and violence are not the only things to fear.

Picture an estate that is a gateway to somewhere else, a realm where ghosts and monsters stir hungrily in the shadows.

Welcome to the Concrete Grove.

It knows where you live.”

The Concrete Grove is the first novel in Gary McMahon’s acclaimed trilogy of the same name, and I’m thoroughly ashamed that it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it.

Once I finally started it though, it took me less than a day to get through, as I absolutely could not put it down. It’s one of those.

It’s an overwhelmingly bleak novel, absolutely bursting at the seams with misery and despair. Definitely NOT for anyone who’s misplaced their Prozac, this one. It’s jam packed with disturbing imagery (much of which is breathtaking) and the ever present threat of violence. I did a bit of a double-take initially, wondering if this was YA or not, but given the levels of sexual violence it’s definitely not one I’d recommend to any younger teens, even though the protagonist here is a fourteen year old.

There’s a very small cast of characters, which works extremely well in terms of keeping the plot intimate and focused. The sheer hopelessness behind the characters’ situations though will pull at your emotions and tug hard on your despair gland. McMahon is pretty unrelenting in the torment he heaps upon them.

The pace of the novel is well maintained throughout, so much so that I think this was the fastest I’ve ever read a horror novel. It hooks you in immediately and refuses to let go until the end. Which, while I’m on the subject, was a little disappointing for me..in that I wanted more; more explanation, more resolution, but that’s just me. And I have high hopes that the second book in the series will give me some answers. That prickle of disappointment in the ending lead me to hold back half a star on this one, and the other half was for the fact that there’s not really a character here who has that one spark that you can identify with as a reader. You know, that one soul you can cling on to and root for, and just…completely and utterly ‘get’. It didn’t hurt my reading as such, but it’s just a factor that I think would have given the novel more impact as a whole. The Grove and the characters within are bleak, about as bleak as you can get, and whilst obviously you can’t have horror without that bleakness, sometimes you really do need a little something there to take the edge off, to let you as a reader breathe for a minute and get your bearings a bit. I think what I’m struggling to get at is that both the reality aspect and the supernatural aspect here were both so terrifyingly depressing that I think some readers will be put off. Tom and Lana were both so flawed that I didn’t feel much of anything for either of them, and even Hailey didn’t really capture my sympathy. If anything, Boater was perhaps the most interesting character, who *almost* had me, if it wasn’t for the fact that his past was just that bit too much to get around.

In essence, The Concrete Grove is a solid and powerful read. The fusion of reality with the supernatural is beautifully handled, and the depiction of the estate is masterful. And of course I’d be hugely remiss if I didn’t mention the bizarre bonus points McMahon earned by including a ghost getting it on with a manatee…now there’s something you don’t see every day. It’s a disturbing series opener that will have you ordering the next one as soon as you get to the end. Reminded me an awful lot of Clive Barker’s earlier novels in places, and if you’re a Barker fan I’d heartily recommend McMahon to you.

4 stars from me.

The Best of British Horror

Welcome to my all-new review site, “Horrorfied“. I’m going to be trialling it initially with just a  Wordpress dot com tag, but if it works out, I’ll happily switch this over to its own domain in the very near future.

Where did this new idea come from? Well, with my own writing starting to take a darker turn, combined with the fact that British Horror Writers seem to be hugely under represented in the Blog-o-sphere, I wanted to devote a place to some seriously British Horror Reviews. It’s an idea that was largely inspired by the recent death of one of the very Best of British, and as I look forward to a self-indulgent re-read of some of his many classics I thought it would be nice to have a place to chronicle my journey back through them, as well as somewhere to document my exploration of the many other home-grown talents that I’m beginning to discover.

To kick things off, my focus will initially be on the following authors:

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These gents should keep me busy for awhile, and give me plenty to talk about. And I’m hoping they’ll give a pretty damn impressive opening demonstration of how British writers handle the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I love US Horror as much as the next genre-junkie, but sometimes The Rest Of The World seems so ridiculously under-championed that they deserve a serious shout out. With a megaphone. Possibly two.

And of course, the above Legends aren’t even a fraction of the ground I want to cover on here. I have some huge plans for this site if Life, The Universe and Everything allows.

My opening review on “Horrorfied” will be Gary McMahon’s “Concrete Grove“, which I’m about to start reading any second now. It’s the first in a trilogy that has been on my radar but remained unread for far too long.

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Time to rectify that. I should admit right from the start here that I get very, very little free time these days, and I have a ridiculous habit of biting off more than I can chew. But this site sees a fresh determination to spend that time wisely and productively, but most importantly, enjoyably. And on that note, I’m away to bed to scare myself witless…