The Suicide Exhibition by Justin Richards

(8.0/10) Good solid alternate history sci-fi, with no doubt that the aliens are buggy bad guys.

Wewelsburg Castle, 1940. The German war machine has woken an ancient threat - the alien Vril and their Ubermensch have returned. Ultimate victory in the war for Europe is now within the Nazis' grasp.

England, 1941. Foreign Office trouble shooter Guy Pentecross has stumbled into a conspiracy beyond his imagining - a secret war being waged in the shadows against a terrible enemy.

The battle for Europe has just become the war for humanity.

Given the recent fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who it seems an opportune time to be reviewing the first instalment in a new British science-fiction series. Justin Richards is no stranger to the wonderful world of Who either, in fact the bulk of his output over the past decade has been Whovian fiction.

The audacious use of historical characters in this book owes much to the vast influence of the ever-changing Time Lord, but there are other traces of Brit sci-fi lurking in here—notably Quatermass (with its science gone wrong angle), Torchwood (a specialist unit dedicated to investigation of aliens) and UFO (again with a specialised anti-alien unit). And, with Richard's evident knowledge of historical settings, it works very well.

The premise of the series is that Nazi archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a hidden alien society from the Stone/Bronze age and are seeking to control it to aid the war effort. At the same time a secretive government unit called Station Z is collecting data on sightings of unknown aircraft picked up by RADAR. Into this come two main characters - Guy, a former major who works for the Foreign Office, and Sarah, an auxiliary pilot. Despite being warned off they become involved in the investigations, teaming up with the third main character - the amusing Leo, an actor-come-archaeologist-come-adventurer (with more than a trace of a Time Lord’s panache to him).

The aliens are typically grotty bug things called Vril, who can utilise humans via infection as puppet creatures referred to as Ubermensch. Most of the book builds up the background of how the Vril are being contacted and revived, and how they are starting to infiltrate both sides in WW2. Naturally the book is a setting-up work for the next ones in the series, although it doesn’t suffer particularly for that reason.

I liked Richards’ use of historical characters - he pulls in Hess, Hitler, Himmler and even Alistair Crowley. They give a certain integrity to the plot, grounding the somewhat fantastical scenes with a mortar of factuality. The downside of the historical setting is that Richards is bound to a pre-determined time-line, which requires some rather contrived fillers and changes in pace. In fact the pace is a real struggle in areas, with some excellent set scenes losing momentum as we enter a lull. Of the scenes, the infiltration of Himmler’s castle is very well done, but felt rather like a finale - despite coming at 80% through the book. The final scene was suitably over the top and cinematic, although I preferred the aforementioned castle chapters.

There are odd uses of flashback scenes to fill the background of the plot out, which given Richards’ vast back catalogue felt surprisingly clunky and oddly placed. Having said this, Richards has definitely created a likeable set of characters whom I hope will evolve more in the subsequent books. The style of the book is reasonably superficial and action-packed, and character development and emotional progression take second place for much of it. You don’t really get a sense that the characters, except perhaps Sarah, are ‘making a journey’ in the book - changing or gaining anything. I’ll forgive him this, however, as it kept my interest until the end and I’ll be happily reading the next book.

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