Making my way through the recent range of Alien tie-in novels has been fun, but I must admit that – more times than not – the books have been entertaining at best, not ‘good’. That was until I read Alien: The Cold Forge by Alex White, which featured a fairly familiar Xenomorphs-escaping-a-deep-space-lab backdrop, yet used this to deeply examine a fantastically horrific character, Weyland-Yutani troubleshooter Dorian Sudler. It helped that White’s writing style was fairly sparse and didn’t feature the usual over-descriptive, unnecessarily detailed prose that litters most tie-in novels, along with a plethora of new and interesting ideas that shook up the usual formula that Alien fiction often falls into. In short, it felt like a genuinely good book; a real rarity in the Alien series, not to mention tie-in fiction in general.
So the chances of me finding another genuinely excellent read in the series that did more than just provide a predictable, formulaic read felt low, but then I read Alien: Echo by Mira Grant.
For starters – and yes, I know that books should absolutely not be judged by their covers – Alien: Echo doesn’t feature a generic shot of a menacing Xenomorph on its cover (seriously, Alien: Isolation aside, I genuinely think I’d struggle to identify which Alien novel is which if you removed the titles and asked me to tell you their names based on the cover art alone). Instead, there’s a beautifully designed shot of twin sisters Olivia and Viola, with the only Alien reference being the eggs from the original 1979 movie poster in their eyes. It’s eye-catching and intriguing; the boringly formulaic covers in the rest of the line desperately need a shot in the arm – and it’s a shame that they’ve simply reverted to type after Echo’s great attempt to differentiate itself from the other books.
However, one key reason for this is that Echo is actually a Young Adult novel, aimed at mid-teens. It’s perhaps an odd choice for the franchise, which is traditionally very gory and ‘mature’, but it’s definitely led to a great take on the material.
Twin sisters Olivia and Viola are used to finding themselves living in new colonies, on different worlds, as they follow their in-demand Xenobiologist parents wherever they’re needed. Olivia has fallen for Kora, the governor’s daughter, on the planet Zagreus – where the family is currently working – whereas her sickly sister, Viola, is unable to even leave their temporary home; Olivia’s pampered, privileged classmates don’t even believe that Viola exists. When the twins’ father encounters trouble on a fairly routine, though slightly shady, salvage mission, Olivia has no choice but to step up and do what she can to save her family – all while dealing with the highs and lows of her feelings for Kora.
Grant’s writing, a little like Alex White’s work on The Cold Forge, less overwrought than usual for Alien books; even more unusual is that it’s written in the first person, from Olivia’s perspective. Olivia is a relatable, decent character – a teen outsider who finds herself wanting to be part of a group of kids who, for the most part, want nothing much to do with her. Her burgeoning love story with Kora is sweetly, beautifully, delicately handled and really grounds the story in a way that makes you root for both characters to make it, both in terms of their survival and their relationship.
There’s some neat twists along the way too, with a few that are genuinely unforeseen; one slight callback to an event that occurs in the movie Prometheus comes across as unintentionally silly, however – as it did in the movie (I can say no more than that, for fear of ruining one of the book’s big twists).
The Xenomorph-based action is great too, with some very tense scenes. There’s a nicely colourful, incredibly alien environment, full of vibrantly described alien life, for them to run rampant in too. It makes a big difference from the usual drab metal of a Weyland-Yutani facility or spaceship (interestingly, the Alien franchise’s real big bad, company Weyland-Yutani, are barely mentioned – their name pops up twice over the entirety of the book).
The gore is dialled back in intensity a little, but it is still there and the situation the teenagers find themselves in feels genuinely unpredictable and there’s no guarantees about who, if anyone, will make it out alive.
The teen love story really does give the book an unusual feel too, setting it further apart from the expected Alien tropes than usual. It’s a hugely compelling read, brilliantly written, with engaging characters and a very different feel to the material. The next time someone tries to tell you that Alien movies can’t work without Ripley, you now have two examples of them absolutely thriving without any mention of that particularly over-used character: The Cold Forge and Echo. It’s a big universe and it feels stupid to limit the stories to those featuring a specific character or her descendents; Echo is proof positive that there’s much more than just one strong female character in the Alien franchise.
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