Thursday 16 April 2020

Book Review: Aliens: Phalanx

Book Review: Aliens: Phalanx

Review by Casey Douglass

Aliens: Phalanx

One of the things that drives me to stories that feature xenomorphs is that they often mix science fiction and horror. When I read the blurb for Scott Sigler’s Aliens: Phalanx, I was almost put off by the word “medieval” in the description. My first reaction was that it didn’t sound like it was for me. My love for anything starring a xenomorph eventually burst through that initial resistance, and I purchased the book. Were my own personal misgivings proven correct, or was I blown away like a face-hugger disintegrating in pulse-rifle fire? Read on to find out.

The events in Aliens: Phalanx take place on Ataegina, a rugged continent of mountains and ravines. The inhabitants have been slaughtered by black-husked ‘demons’, the survivors driven to living in subterranean mountain keeps. People don’t venture above ground often, but the ones that do, the Runners, race between the various holds to trade goods. These mainly take the form of various essential medicines, but this doesn't stop them bringing a variety of luxury items too.

The book follows Ahiliyah, a young woman who is one such runner, as she serves Lemeth Hold and tries to earn her keep. She also wants to become a warrior, but in Lemeth Hold, women aren't warriors. She runs with two others, the large framed warrior-in-training Brandun, and a weaselly little gobshite called Creen. Brandun is a warrior-in-training and is already blessed with a larger frame than is expected for someone of his age. He is also a little slow at times, which Creen loves to point out to him by calling him “dumbdun”. Creen is actually the comic-relief in many ways, coming out with many cruel words but also displaying vulgar humour in almost equal measure. It is this trio that the reader gets to know during the course of the book, how their already limited world becomes yet more dangerous, as the demons start to eradicate the last traces of humanity in Ataegina.

The societal landscape, the relationships between the various holds, plays an integral part in the pressures that fall on the dwindling people. Due to the nature of the threat from the demons outside, what doesn’t naturally grow in one hold often ends up being an urgent item for another. There are a number of illnesses that can afflict people. Imbid flowers grow abundantly in Lemeth Hold, and Imbid Soup is the cure for something called Weakling Disease. If another hold is suffering from such a disease, runners from Lemeth will trade Imbid flowers for something that they might need to treat their own hold’s different outbreak of illness. Add into this the usual way that humans become greedy, paranoid and even religious zealots, and the politics between holds becomes a true driving force, and often hindrance, to them actually working together.

When the humans clash with the demons, the weapons they have at hand are knives, spears and shields. On my first thoughts about this notion, I think I was guilty of thinking “How the hell are they going to fight them with spears?” in a “Pfft” kind attitude. It didn’t take too long to think the exact same question with a more curious “How will they?” frame of mind. Having finished the book, I didn’t realise that the answer could be so exhilarating. Just as in the films, if you go from the pulse-rifles of Aliens to the cleavers and machetes of Alien3, there’s an exhilaration to be found in that.

The holds themselves are also aptly suited to this kind of horror. The humans are trying to shut out the danger, but by doing so, they have to live claustrophobic and grim lives. They use strangely glowing water in glow-pipe plumbing to light their dark corridors, harvest plants and make use of anything that sits within their “safe” realm. When things take a turn for the worst - as you’d expect they would in a tale like this – these corridors turn from claustrophobic passageways into tunnels of death. I’m not sure what is more scary, meeting a xenomorph on open ground and seeing it dart at you from hundreds of yards away, or hearing one coming towards you along a dark tunnel. Probably the latter...

Aliens: Phalanx is a very satisfying tale. We get to see all three of the runners rise-up in their hold, fighting against prejudice, fear and politics, even sometimes against each other. They all become nicely fleshed out characters with more about them than their more obvious traits. They all grow as people too, and their relationship changes and strengthens as events unfold. It was nice to see a society that viewed the xenomorphs in a different way, as demons and semi-supernatural rather than na├»ve humans stumbling across them on a spaceship-based jaunt across the galaxy. The story itself escalates in a way that any xenomorph fan will enjoy, and the culmination at the end is the kind that sets the previous events in a slightly different frame, which I thoroughly appreciated. Aliens: Phalanx is a brilliant story, and I’m very glad that I decided to give it a try.

Book Title: Aliens: Phalanx
Book Author: Scott Sigler
Publisher: Titan Books
Released: 25 Feb 2020
Price: £7.99 paperback / £4.74 Kindle (currently)
ISBN: 9781789094015