Postcards From a Dying World
News, views, book reviews and commentary from the Science Fiction and Horror fiction underground. Home of the Wonderland award nominated author of Vegan Revolution...With Zombies and Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich.
Wednesday, July 4, 2018
Book Review: The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski
The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski
Paperback, 326 pages
Published April 2017 by Sinister Grin Press
They say in marketing that you have to hear a pitch a couple times before it hooks you. That I am afraid is why we talk so often about our books. This is a classic example. I first heard of this novel and Kozeniewski on The Horror Show with Brian Keene. When Kozeniewski was on the podcast the second time he talked about this book and I thought the novel sounded right up my alley. I requested it at the library as I do many books. (By the way if you can get a library to to get an author's book that is better than just buying a copy)
I checked the library website a few times but every time Brian Keene mentioned Kozeniewski on the podcast which is often I would think about The Hematophages. So a few months back I bought a copy and saved it for an airplane read. Yesterday thanks to a delayed flight and long lay-over I read this book in about 4 hours during a trip from Indiana back to San Diego.
The Hematophages is a blend of horror and science fiction. Kozeniewski is most well known for his zombie detective bizarro novel Brain-eater Jones. I hope this novel signals a blending of genre he will continue. The story of Paige Ambroziek a young woman who has lived the majority of her life on a space station. Paige's history makes her a perfect narrator, because she has no experience out in the ink(cool slang for space) or being on worlds. This fish out of water aspect is thankfully not used for comedy but is subtly applied to help world-build in the narrative.
Paige is a student who has expertise on ship salvage and is given a mission by a mega-corporation to find the wreck of a famous spaceship lost for hundreds of years. The major problem with this operation is the ship is on a fleshworld with oceans of blood. I enjoyed the universe of this novel that involved nasty corporations, wormy blood drinking monsters, cancer-ridden zero-g Mutant pirates (the Skin-wrappers) and a planet with bat-shit crazy ecologically that was more surreal than hard sci-fi.
It is clear that Kozeniewski was inspired by Aliens and the Thing and working from that sense he came up with a cool hook for this kind of Sci-fi tale. Once he got to the insanity of the Fleshworld I was sold. If it seems like I am harsh or critical of the book it is important to that I am doing that because I really really LOVED it. There were just a few things that kept it from being a masterpiece for me. That is no slight, I loved it and I think you should read it. It is 1,000 better than most attempts to marry sci-fi and horror.
Let us start with what is great about this novel. I liked that Kozeniewski didn't bother trying to explain the science of deep space travel. He assumes in this first person narrative Paige would expect understanding from her readers. When writing about a coast to coast car trip do modern writers feel the need to explain the science of cars? I suspect that will turn off a few sci-fi readers stuck in their ways, but I found it was refreshing. My mind filled in the gaps.
The world(universe)building is effective, with enough clever and sometimes funny elements like the opening interview and the skin-tight airlocks. The Skinwrapper pirates who lived in zero-G for so long they barely looked human were so well realized that Nia was one of my favorite characters. The paranoia in the second half is well done, never going overboard but just enough to give us a sense of distrust the survivors at the end felt. The planet is soaked in blood before the over the top gore comes in but it is done in smart was, including a fantastic chapter break in the last act that got a "Oh shit" out of me.This universe that Kozeniewski has built is rich and deserves more stories set in it.
That said I had a few minor problems. I have seen the society in this book described as Matriarchal. It is true that in this future men are extinct and referred to as the dead gender. This is a cool set up, and certainly enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I might be nitpicking without men or patriarchy the society is not matriarchy it just is. I felt like this culture just seemed like any other corporate structure in our world. There was not enough of what makes a a woman's society for me. There was some ball-busting and macho behavior that I think undermined the potential of a different looking future with-out us men.
Sci-fi has played with those gender roles as far back Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness and bit more subtle in Carrie Vaughn's Coast Roads books. I loved the idea of a all-woman culture but thought that was weakest part of the execution. If Kozeniewski returns to this universe needs some attention to that aspect.
Also one aspect that this novel is rightly getting lots of praise for is world-building. The Fleshworld is a crazy and cool place that this novel visits. The problem for me is that it is very similar to the world of Splatterjay from the Neal Asher novel The Skinner. I suspect Kozeniewski has not read the Skinner, but the eco-system of the Flesh world is very close. The Skinner is my favorite Sci-fi novel of the 21st century so it was a little hard for me to ignore. In the end they are different enough that I am glad both exist.
The Hematophages is one of the best books I have read so far this year. It is bold and weird science fiction that feels old school and insane at the same time. It is bizarro, dark sci-fi and horror in equal measure. A super neat book that I am glad I picked up. It is a little bit a parallel of Aliens, A reversal of Carpenter's The Thing (paranoia with all women) and with a world-building that reminded me of Neal Asher's The Skinner. That is a good mix.