Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Review: THE LION AND THE UNICORN (2020)

British independent science fiction and fantasy writer Chris Nuttall has another story out in his "Ark Royal" series. I don't think I've read anything in this series before, so let's be off into a world of aliens, space warfare, and mayhem...

The Plot

The zombie apocalypse in space. I'm not making this up. That's the thrust of the plot. Humanity and several alien races are doing battle with what is essentially a sentient plague that has infected many worlds and turned the populations into a singular hive intelligence. Said hive intelligence has industrialized shipyards, space fleets, etc. and it's expanding like, well, a virus.

(Rather appropriate given the circumstances in which I'm writing this review.)

Captains Thomas Hammond and Mitch Campbell, the first a conservative old war-horse and the latter a a less-experienced but far more daring new captain, are placed in charge of two new warships. And among the enlisted ranks, Royal Marine Colin Lancaster and gunboat pilot Tobias Gurnard have to face the demons their youth in Liverpool have set upon them.

If they don't, they're all dead. And humankind and its aliens might die with them.

The Good

*Although the book is actually the fifteenth in a larger series, it essentially stands on its own. Events that happened in previous books are introduced smoothly as part of a character's background rather than something the reader has to have read about in order to enjoy the current book.

*The book is overall a fast and entertaining read, perfect for the elliptical exercise sessions where I typically indulge myself with e-books. The last quarter or so of the novel is particularly gripping.

*Chris begins the novel by hanging a lampshade on several ridiculous sci-fi tropes, including Star Trek's infamous exploding consoles. However, with that one he also plays it straight, explaining just how it might realistically work. I thought that was fun. There are also a couple riffs on Superman and S.M. Stirling's Draka that science fiction fans would appreciate.

*I liked Colin's arc as he realized how much of a bastard he was to Tobias when they were students and how he handles his return to the boarding school and dealing with both former cronies and enabling administrators who hadn't grown like he has. I also liked how Tobias struggled with the low self-esteem and paranoia that a youth of horrific bullying had inflicted on him.

*The concept itself is pretty cool. I've read zombie stories and am familiar with the concepts of body-snatching, demonic possession, etc. even though I haven't consumed any media about them, but I don't think I've ever read a story with a "virus space empire" as the enemy before. And the possibilities for trouble such an enemy can produce are pretty clever when every conceivable living thing can be infected.

*There are a couple fake-outs that Chris throws our way that keep the story from being predictable.

*The book sets up more adventures that I'd definitely be up for reading.

The Bad

*Those who've read a lot of Chris's work will notice some stock characters like the nerd with a chip on his shoulder because of boarding-school bullying or the nobleman who married for family duty more so than love who has to keep track of an elaborate social circle with debutante balls and parties and has entailed assets. Those tropes existing in the past or fantasy worlds that mimic the past like his Zero Enigma and Schooled In Magic series make sense, but the Ark Royal series is supposed to be set in the future. I could imagine the modern-day British navy reflecting these types of class distinctions, but hundreds of years in the future? Cultures change a lot, and they can change very quickly. Compare Britain of 1945 with Britain today.

*Although there's much talk of how humanity and its allies are losing the war against the virus, I never really got the urgency of the situation. If there were more horrors--worlds falling, refugee fleets getting quarantined in deplorable conditions or nuked lest they bring the virus with them, people getting scapegoated for the disease and murdered like medieval Jews--on-screen, I would have gotten that better. With coronavirus crisis still ongoing, there are plenty of horrors to crank up to eleven. I'm actually getting some Cozy Catastrophe vibes.

*The book makes references to people who'd been infected but been freed from viral control after a relatively short time (the most is a few months), but characters also speculate about what it's like to be infected by the virus--whether an infectee's consciousness just goes to sleep and never wakes up or whether they're helplessly watching as their body does the virus's bidding. This is something that should be well-known among the rank and file, if anything for the propaganda value--if the alternative to victory is an endless And I Must Scream trapped in one's own head, that'd be quite a motivating factor to give one's all for victory. The book makes a reference or two to labor unrest and scaring the hell out of people so they don't undermine the war effort is a missed opportunity.

(Later in the story characters start talking about being infected by the virus as being "a living death," but it would have been better if this was something mentioned earlier.)

The Verdict

Definitely worth reading once and a worthy addition to the Ark Royal series. 7.5 out of 10.

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