Monday 4 May 2020

Book Review: The Hematophages

Book Review: The Hematophages

Review by Casey Douglass

The Hematophages

The other day, I found myself wanting to read some space-based horror, something that might contain blood, ideally in rattling metal corridors and featuring a strange, twisted threat. I browsed through some of the horror presses I follow on Twitter and after a few clicks, Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Hematophages was sitting on my Kindle. The blurb told tale of a strange fleshworld, ghoulish skin-wrappers and depravity, which are three things that I didn’t know I was looking for, but on seeing them, made it an easy purchase.

The story follows Paige Ambroziak, a student who, in the opening pages, is going through a job interview. The job in question is a salvage mission to recover an old seed ship from a bizarre fleshworld, a bounty that various megacorps are salivating about claiming. Paige has spent most of her life on Yloft, a deep space outpost where she moved when she was young. This new job offers the prospect of adventure, fortune and excitement, and on landing it, her fate is sealed. She doesn’t believe this is just any seed ship however, but The Manifest Destiny, a ship that was launched when countries were powers in the world. The Manifest Destiny’s plight is even the subject of a movie that everyone seems to have grown up watching.

Paige’s journey to the fleshworld doesn’t go smoothly. Her new ship, the RV Borgwardt, crosses paths with gruesome pirates called skin-wrappers, a strange group of mummy-like creatures in which illness caused them to flay their flesh and live in zero-gravity. Beyond the threat of pirates, the fleshworld itself holds various dangers, its blood-like protoplasm the home of the Hematophages of the title: the blood drinkers. I enjoyed the fleshworld as a location. There is something quite gruesome about a planet with an ocean of blood, even the thought itself has a very strange weight to it, like dropping a stone down a wishing well and hearing something chilling echo back, rather than a “plop”.

The Hematophages themselves are a fun adversary, if fun is the right word. There is something about them that brings a lovely paranoia to the tale, and what the crew of the RV Borgwardt learn about their true nature evolves them from a simple adversary to one with a pleasing depth. Even though the Hematophages are the titular terror, I found the skin-wrappers just as engrossing. Just to get into the head-space of someone who is suffering from so much pain that they choose the life of a mummy, it’s a thought that makes you shudder.

The universe that The Hematophages plays out in is a bleak, high-tech and greedy one. The corporations rule all and fight amongst themselves. The technology allows for travelling vast distances into the “ink” while also allowing people to inject crank with the press of a button. The characters that populate the story all have their own personality, from Paige’s bunkmate Zanib who forever calls Paige “virgin” (for not having travelled before) to the intimidating Director Diane who seems to cling to protocol even when the shit hasn’t only hit the fan, but is fizzing in the electrical system too. Paige herself is a sometimes likeable, sometimes unlikeable character. She can be a bit of an arsehole but she is also capable of thinking of others. I liked her, and I appreciate the skill in writing a character that contains shades of grey.

I did get a little lost by the thread of the story on one occasion, a confusing encounter in the first half of the book left me wondering who was really dead and who wasn’t. There was a “reveal” involved which made sense, but it felt layered in a way that I still wasn’t sure about the detail of what happened, just the general big picture stuff. It’s the only thing that jumped out at me as something I had issue with, and that very well could have been on me and my concentration at the time. The story as a whole was a fun ride, and the horror elements were particularly eye-watering. If you read the book, you’ll fully understand my use of that phrase.

The Hematophages is a book that takes you on a dark journey through the “ink”. There seems little of beauty in the parts of the universe it touches upon, and what beauty is there, seems fleeting, needy and self-obsessed. There is a great mixture of fleshy horror and human greed, and it all plays out in those thrumming metal corridors that I always find add a lovely sense of claustrophobia to proceedings. The Hematophages was really fun. Enough said.

Book Title: The Hematophages
Book Author: Stephen Kozeniewski
Released: 1 April 2017
Price: £13.13 paperback / £2.32 Kindle (currently)
ISBN: 9781944044558