Publisher: Cadre One, 2009
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 3 1/2 pints of blood
This is a great cover (and title, incidentally) for a horror novel. The issue is that this book is decidedly not a horror novel. This book is science fiction, with spaceships and aliens and genetic experiments. Creepy angry eyebrows coming out of the dark draw my attention if I'm looking for evil vampires or zombies, something dark and likely gory. Military space opera does not even cross my mind, and it took some major mental adjustment when I started to get into the story. Even the cover copy sounds like a dark post-apocalyptic story:
Humanity is wiped out in less than two months. Hundreds of strange vessels appear, unleashing an assault both methodical and efficient. Bombardment vaporizes building and bone. Invasion clears out the larger pockets of survivors. Plague finishes the last few clinging to life. Extermination complete, the azure skinned beings journey home and resume their normal lives. Seven hundred years later, a cargo ship goes missing. A burst of static precedes the disappearance, but investigations find no trace of ship or crew. Decades pass. Then another vessel vanishes, again with the burst of static. Another decade. Another disappearance. Never a trace. A rumor begins in the dark alleys and religious communities, spreading like fire. Most laugh when they hear it, dismissing the speaker as superstitious or overly pious; but all tremble inside. In their hearts, they know the genocide was a great crime; and where all of their technology and power has failed to provide answers, the rumor may be true. “Angry Ghosts have come to revenge.”
Sure, there are shades of sci fi in there, but it's rather common for horror novels to contain some paranormal elements, and there's often a fine line between a dark post-apocalyptic novel and straight-out horror. Ever read EE Knight's Vampire Earth series? Yeah, excellent example of what I'm talking about here. Angry Ghosts is nothing like this, though, and after chapter two closes, we hear nothing about the titular angry ghosts.
Confused? I was. The only explanation I can come up with is that marketing wanted to hide the first plot twist, but since this happens on page 27, it's not really much of a spoiler. (Which means I will, of course, be discussing this particular plot twist during the review.) It's all very misleading and reading the thing involved the disorientation that comes when you discover the book is nothing at all what you had expected it to be.
The first two chapters follow the cover copy, at which point the source of the disappearing ships is revealed: a pocket of humans (living, not ghosts) have survived the genocide, and to ensure their survival are capturing ships, stealing their supplies, and killing the crews. Since there are so few humans left, they need to keep their existence hidden. Life is hard, forcing them into twenty-hour workdays, but the three-piece Team Spectre are the best of the best. Thompson, Argo, and Maiella work together seamlessly and have come out victorious on every mission they've been out on, which makes them the perfect choice for a new and dangerous mission in unexplored territory.
After some issues with the cryogenic freezing, the team comes across a huge ship, something unlike anything they've seen before. They need to bring home the goods, though, and so they perpare to take on the ship the same way they have many times before. The takeover goes smoothly until Team Spectre finds out who is manning the ship. It's not the blue "lizard" aliens who decimated mankind, and now Thompson, Argo, and Maiella are faced with a dilemma they'd never expected to face.
There are some really interesting ideas in Angry Ghosts, not the least of which is the dramatic contrast between the two cultures presented in the novel and the huge gap in understanding between them, even when both sides truly want to work together. This is a huge theme in the book, and one dealt with gracefully. Both sides are presented sympathetically, so there's no "our way is obviously superior to yours and therefore you should all just drop your culture and merge with us" that is so often prevalent. I could have read an entire book just based on the world-building and the culture clashing presented here, it was put together so beautifully.
The three main characters make a nice balance. Argo is perhaps less developed than the other two, but considering they come from a culture where emotion is considered a danger and a liability, this is perhaps to be expected. Thompson, as the leader, is given more opportunity to demonstrate his personality quirks. He's strong and competent without resorting to gruffness, an unusual balance in an alpha male that made him fun to read. Maiella is particularly nuanced; as the sole female of Team Spectre, I was initially annoyed to see her shown as the "weak link" due to her poor control of her emotions (oh, those hysterical wimmins!), but as the book progresses, it's implied her emotions have the potential to make her the strongest of the three of them, even if her culture refuses to perceive it as such. She's also arguably the smartest team member, and unquestionably accepted as an indispensible team member.
Angry Ghosts does, however, have its flaws. The most distracting was that I often felt like I was missing pieces of the story. At only 227 pages, this is not a long novel, and with micropublisher Cadre One, wordcount limits were presumably not a problem, but there were gaps where it felt like something had been hacked out. As aforementioned, the first two chapters of the book deal with the angry ghosts and come from the perspective of the blue lizard aliens who eradicated (or attempted to eradicate) the human race. We're told they have their reasons, regret the necessity, and still carry the guilt along with them. What is this deep, dark reason of theirs? I have no idea, because not only is it never revealed, but we never see the blue lizard aliens again after the focus is switched over to the human protagonists. Granted, this is clearly set up as the first volume in a series, but to have what is presented as a key storyline abruptly dropped so early on is at best disorienting. In fact, the prologue and the first two chapters have so little to do with the rest of the book, it would be easy enough to skip them entirely and just start the book with chapter three.
There were other holes left in the narration, the largest being the sixteen months of space travel during which people are apparently getting to know each other but as the reader, I'm left entirely out of the loop. Gregor in particular goes from intense rage and hatred to wanting to save the lives of those who wronged him in the space of one chapter, a progression which could have been an entire novel on its own. Chapters often end abruptly, before the scene comes to what feels like a natural conclusion, and some of the secondary plotlines are left hanging. (That part may be on purpose, to leave more fodder for later books.) There's also some minor head-hopping, to add to the disorientation.
This doesn't mean it's a bad book, though. It's certainly an interesting one, and I'm curious to see where Farnham plans to take the story from here. The themes of guilt, forgiveness, and redemption become especially thought-provoking when the actions of the alien race are taken into consideration, and as long as there's going to be more of the culture contrast without either trying to swallow the other, I am intrigued.
And, of course, all of this brings me back around to questioning the packaging of this novel. The title is based on a reference that is never mentioned beyond the second chapter, and the cover copy ignores the main conflicts and themes of the novel. I can only presume the "angry ghosts" and the blue lizard aliens will return in future volumes, particularly since the series has been dubbed the Angry Ghosts series, but it doesn't follow that the first book's marketing needs to rely so heavily on that, especially when it fails to draw its target audience. Which is a shame, because in spite of its flaws, this book has something to say.
Angry Ghosts is available in trade paperback or as an e-book.