THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


LINESMAN, by S.K. Dunstall

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Linesman
By S.K. Dunstall
Ace Books – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780425279526 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


I keep going back and forth on how I feel about Linesman, the debut novel of a series written by Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall. It has some issues, which of course I’ll get to, but ultimately it is a solid, entertaining space opera, with a protagonist I found interesting. And balancing each problem I saw with the work, the Dunstall pair did something else really well that I appreciated.
Ean Lambert is a Linesman, rated at the highest level of ten. But he is also a pariah, self-taught and from a disadvantaged background, with odd behaviors and views of the lines that every conventionally trained Linesman considers quetionable, bordering on a sign of insanity.
The problem is that though the lines have been used for centuries, no one really knows what they are, or what exactly they could be capable of. The lines have allowed humanity to travel the stars as never before. Apparent remnants of some alien technology, the lines form an intimate connection with ships, powering them to safely travel through the Void, effectively giving humans faster-than-light travel technology. Through the centuries humans manage to figure out what most of the lines seem to do, and come to a rough understanding how some people have the power to control them. Humanity has spread out among the stars into an empire. But politically organized business interests and others stand in opposition to the Empire, near war. A strange confluence of lines and the discovery of a dangerous derelict alien vessel propel competing political factions into a race to capture potential new line technology, and a powerful weapon.
By happenstance Ean is thrust into the center of this building conflict, but members of the empire begin to realize that Ean’s unique approach to the lines may be the key to everything. Ean doesn’t just fix lines and use them, he sings to them, he hears their music. As his powers and abilities build he finds that he can communicate with them, and that the lines may be far more than ever suspected, and the mysterious alien race that once used them could one day represent a grave danger for humanity.
One of the best aspects of Linesman is how well the Dunstalls relate this universe to their readers. Things are explained as thoroughly as the characters understand, and the info dump of material blends in rather seamlessly. However, they do a bit too much in trying to make sure readers have gotten things straight. For instance, I began getting tired of reading how ‘no one knows what lines seven and eight do’. This sticks out in mind, but there were other aspects to plot and character that became repetitively pointed out.
Cutting that repetitiveness would’ve been a good start, but I also did feel it could have used some larger trimming, particularly chapters from the point of view of another Linesman, Rossi. Ean has a rather unconfident personality – which makes sense given who he is, where he is from. But I still found him endearing, I like rooting for underdogs and the under-appreciated. But Rossi is just a complete ass. And like most of the characters in the novel, he doesn’t really change. (I hope characters can go through more development in the follow up to this). Rossi is from the other side, the enemy of those Ean Lambert works for. So Rossi’s sections are here to give us some of that perspective, but also to relate plot details that Ean isn’t present for. For the most part I didn’t find those necessary though. And with so few redeeming qualities it is hard to see him other than as a sneering character ‘type’.
Despite this weakness of Linesman, its otherwise careful construction, excellent dialogue, and tremendously entertaining action/shifting plot made it a real enjoyable read throughout. (And Rossi’s chapters are at least mostly short). The Dunstalls relate the action of a scene well, I could follow what was going on easily. By making the exact nature of the lines (and their origin) a bit of a mystery the novel also helped keep my attention through curiosity to find out more on how all these things worked – and the authors seriously tease the reader’s curiosity with the novel’s last line!
Linesman is a fun space opera and the authors show a lot of potential – as does the series itself for going interesting places. I’ve read a cluster of ‘first-in-a-series’ recently and this one seems to be set up to go in interesting new directions. At the same time this novel has a clear resolution to work well enough, satisfyingly, on its own should one choose not to keep reading future volumes.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

I AM CRYING INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES by Clifford D. Simak

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I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories
The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume I
By Clifford D. Simak
(with Introductions by David W. Wixon, Editor)
Open Road Media – 20th October 2015
ISBN 9781504012652) – 332 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


UPDATE: The release date for this was marked incorrectly on NetGalley and Goodreads, so I ended up publishing this WAY earlier than I would otherwise have. I’ve now updated the date here and on Goodreads based on the information on Amazon.com and the publisher’s website.

CONTENTS:
“Installment Plan”
“I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air”
“Small Deer”
“Ogre”
“Gleaners”
“Madness From Mars”
“Gunsmoke Interlude”
“I Am Crying All Inside”
“The Call From Beyond”
“All the Traps of Earth”

Aside from Isaac Asimov novels and the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, I haven’t really read much classic science fiction. I feel there is something worthwhile in expanding horizons, also into the historical context of the past, so I was pleased to have a chance to check out the start to this collection of the complete short fiction by Golden Age author Clifford D. Simak.
As you might expect for something written over half-a-century ago some of Simak’s stories are a bit dated in terms of both the science and culturally. But they aren’t particularly offensive to modern sensibilities and there is still a lot to be enjoyed within these stories. It should appeal to anyone wanting more exposure to classic tales of the genre from an author whose stories age relatively well and people who want to revisit beloved Simak tales.
This first volume of a planned fourteen in the collection doesn’t seem to have any particular scheme to its organization, but the tales do span a range of the types of stories and themes that I gather Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Simak is best known for. Each story is preceded by a short introduction from editor and executor of Simak’s writing estate, David W. Dixon.
I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories begins with a longer story that features Simak’s repeated exploration of robotic intelligence and emotion. Robots are obviously a frequently visited topic in SF, not new even in Simak’s time. Despite the familiarity of the types of questions/dilemmas regarding robots that Simak delves into, his take still doesn’t come off as cliched now, or dull. While I find the opening story “Installment Plan” to be overly long, it did resonate with how human the robots were it in, not mere automatons, but created instruments that had emotions and personalities. Simak’s robots seem more alive and human than many of his human protagonists. The concluding story “All the Traps of Earth” returns to the robot themes in a far more powerful story where a robot who has escaped mandatory memory erasure finds a home and purpose elsewhere beyond, but not completely divorced from, humanity.
“Small Deer” and “Gleaners” are two representatives of Simak time-travel stories. The latter is about a group that goes back in time to retrieve objects of value and felt like an early version of a story that I’ve seen crop up often in recent years still. Simak’s seems less about the cleverness of the time-travel setup as about the intrigue of the story and characters. “Small Deer” on the other hand is more about the idea than the particular adventure of the plot. In it a man goes back in time to witness the extinction of the dinosaurs and discovers what killed them may be back again for humankind. I enjoyed the story for its “Twilight Zone” type vibe, and it is an example of a Simak tale that includes some elements of horror.
Simak, who won a Stoker achievement award in its first year of being offered, does employ light horror in some of his stories, most evident here with “Madness from Mars” and “The Call from Beyond”. The latter can be accurately described as Simak trying some Lovecraft flavors. Both stories feature humanity discovering something unsettling and strange as a result of space exploration. These weren’t my favorite stories here, and the science in “Madness from Mars” is particularly dated, but they are fairly good.
The titular “I Am Crying All Inside” and “Gunsmoke Interlude” were the stories I least enjoyed. The latter is straight up pulp Western, a genre I simply could care less about. “I Am Crying All Inside” is one of the most emotionally resonant stories here, the most touching. While Simak made his robots larger-than-life, it seems he usually made his humans more salt-of-the-Earth. Wixon quotes Simak in the intro to this story as responding to criticism of his human protagonists as ‘losers’ with the explanation: “I like losers”. The folksy nature and regional dialect of the voice in the story ruined it for me.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air” and “Ogre” were my favorite stories of the bunch. I largely liked both of these stories because of the biological elements they contained and their shared theme of anti-exploitation.
The former story though is weakened by going on far too long for what it is, and with a fair amount of repetition. In it a man arrives on another planet intent on stripping it of its resources for his own economic benefit, with nothing but contempt and disregard for the planet’s ‘simple’, ‘uncultured’ inhabitants. But after an ‘accident’ leaving him dead, the planet’s lifeforms resurrect him in a body more suitable for the environment and he learns the hard way that his preconceptions are way off, and his greed abhorred. Actually, the guy never really ‘learns’ the errors of his way as much as the reader is given a cautionary tale. I loved the biological alien detail here linked to the planet’s properties, and for a time at least I read with an interpretation that the planet itself was a sentient life guiding these events.
“Ogre” is another fairly long story, but this time rightly so. It features wonderful biological speculation of sentient plant life and plant life adopted to give photosynthetic capabilities to humans through symbiosis. Interesting stuff, and coupled with it we get a plot again warning against the dangers of exploiting another culture and resources. In this story, members of exploration group try to prevent another human from harvesting sentient trees (that are also musical) and taking them back to Earth. Another notable aspect to the story is that it features a set of space exploration rules very much akin to what years later would form the ‘Prime Directive’ of Star Trek‘s Federation.
Overall I’m looking forward to seeing the other volumes collecting Simak’s fiction, and this reaffirms to me the use of at least trying out some classic Golden Age SFF. It is impossible now to read everything that has gone before to form the genre field and still keep up with the exciting directions it is going today to evolve from that past. But dipping into the historical perspective is valuable not just in showing what has been done well, but also what mistakes to not make or move on from. And it is reassuring – though simultaneously slightly depressing – to see social themes still explored today already brought up so many decades ago in that Golden Age of SF.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.