(2014) Justin Richards, Del Rey, £16.99, hrdbk, 396pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95598-4
This is the second book in the Never War series and is set in 1942. I have not read the first, The Suicide Exhibition, set in 1940-41. It appears that there is a gap of just a few months between them so The Blood Red City comes across as simply the next story in the saga; nonetheless, all the background information I needed to know was filled in as the story went along without me feeling that I was missing anything important and it stood up perfectly well as a novel in its own right.
It transpires that a few millennia ago an alien race called the Vril arrived on our planet. At that time they tinkered a bit with Earth's existing civilisations, some of which lead to various historical legends. But, possibly because we were not yet advanced enough for their requirements, they retreated into the background whilst our civilisation evolved. The Vril being extremely long-lived and very patient, most of them simply settled into a long sleep in underground facilities whilst leaving just a few still awake to monitor our progress. I have to say I was not entirely sold on this explanation; it felt like it was there as a justification for the story rather than being a meaningful ploy by the invaders.
In 1936 one of their craft crashed and the Germans took its wreckage to Wewelsburg Castle where they examined it, reverse-engineered what they could of the technology (particularly beneficial to the Luftwaffe and the early work of Werner von Braun), and experimented on the bodies of the Vril. It also appears that we had reached a state of advancement whereby the Vril are starting to wake up and take notice of us.
The German researchers also found that a deep scratch from a Vril is enough to infect a human body, one result of which is that the person becomes much stronger and extremely resistant to injury. For example, a gunshot in the chest will slow them down for a moment and the damage will be repaired in just a few seconds. But Vril infection also leaves humans extremely susceptible to mental control by the Vril. They call such infected people ubermensch. Furthermore, they found that if they fitted a Vril artefact, a sort of bracelet, to an ubermensch it acts as an amplifier and the ubermensch falls under the complete control of the Vril.
Meanwhile, a small team, known as Station Z, within the British intelligence services is also aware of the Vril, presumably as a result of activities in the first novel.
The Germans think of the Vril as a military resource to be exploited whereas the British realise that they pose a long-term threat to all of mankind. Whilst most of the allies are busy fighting the Axis powers, a very small band of the British also have to defend the planet against the threat of domination by aliens.
The book opens with a Vril craft heading over Los Angeles and causing great consternation as it is mistaken for a Japanese attack. The Vril turn a local farmer into an ubermensch and it soon becomes apparent that there is something in LA that they are seeking. Meanwhile in London, Guy Pentecross and other members of Station Z call on the occultist Aleister Crowley for help. Through means of séances and diabolical rituals (a little reminiscent of scenes in Dennis Wheatley novels), one of Crowley’s people can 'tune in' on images seen by ubermensch and gain some feel for the aims of the Vril. Despite appearing to cooperate with the authorities, Crowley has his own motives for investigating the Vril; to him they are a source of power to increase his own importance and influence and he is reluctant to pass on much of what he really knows.
In Wewelsburg Castle we come across Hoffman; although ostensibly a Sturmbannfuhrer in the SS, he is in fact a Russian agent. Furthermore (and unbeknown to his colleagues), an accidental infection lead to him becoming an ubermensch though he has the strength of mind to fight off control by the Vril and is very aware of the danger of ever donning one of their bracelets.
Through the actions of Hoffman, along with information gathered by the British agents, it becomes apparent that the Vril are looking for and recovering several of their artefacts which have been mistaken for ancient axe heads, and which are scattered in museums and collections over Europe and in America. These artefacts form a vital part of the controls required to open and awake a slumbering 'nest' of Vril on the occupied island of Crete - and they want them back. The Germans are hot on the trail, thinking it will lead them to powerful weapons, but the British understand the true danger. And it is this chase which provides the story; whatever else happens the Vril must not awaken!
The action moves between Los Angeles and several European countries, and between various Germans and a number of British agents, as you would expect when a story has a number of characters on different sides and with different missions. Various British agents follow the Vril trail to Los Angeles and eventually realise the significance of the axe heads, later making their way to a French monastery, to Moscow, and finally to Crete, though these involve a mixture of dangerous submarine and aeroplane journeys that seem to be there somewhat more for the adventure and risk than the necessity of travel. Similarly, Hoffman travels back to Russia without reference to his German command in a pointless attempt to see his girlfriend in Stalingrad. I say pointless because even he knows that she has either died in the attack on the city or else has escaped further into Russia without leaving any way in which he can possibly track her; either way he has no hope of finding her. His visit to Stalingrad has little purpose other than to describe the horrors inflicted on the city and to establish that, being an ubermensch, he can wander the ruins with impunity and survive attacks from the many snipers on both sides. In the end he simply returns to Germany and nobody seems to be too worried as to where he has been.
There is something about the way this whole story is told that just did not grab me. Although its has many characters and many locations, and moves about between them to tell the wider story, it seemed at times to flit about a little too much and it felt like too many things happened because the story required it. To me the story telling felt a little immature, in a sort of Boys’ Own kind of way, yet this is not (I presume) a 'young adults' (juvenile fiction) novel, and this feeling served to weaken my belief in the narrative. The title perplexed me as it has little to do with the story unless, that is, it refers to the destruction of Stalingrad; however, the events in Stalingrad are but one scene and of little relevance to the principal plot.
The pages turned but were easy to put down, the conclusion was inevitable and offered nothing special, and the Boys’ Own feeling remained throughout. I doubt that I shall bother with any further volumes in this series.
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