REVIEW: Awakened by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

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Awakened by James S. Murray

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages

Release date: 26 June 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

After years of waiting, New York’s newest subway line is finally ready, an express train that connects the city with the burgeoning communities across the Hudson River. The shining jewel of this state-of-the-art line is a breathtaking visitors’ pavilion beneath the river.  Major dignitaries, including New York City’s Mayor and the President of the United States, are in attendance for the inaugural run, as the first train slowly pulls in.

Under the station’s bright ceiling lights, the shiny silver cars gleam. But as the train comes closer into view, a far different scene becomes visible.

All the train’s cars are empty.

All the cars’ interiors are drenched in blood.

As chaos descends, all those in the pavilion scramble to get out. But the horror is only beginning. High levels of deadly methane fill the tunnels. The structure begins to flood. For those who don’t drown, choke or spark an explosion, another terrifying danger awaits—the thing that killed all those people on the train. It’s out there…and it’s coming.

There’s something living beneath New York City, and it’s not happy we’ve woken it up.

 

“This wasn’t terrorism. It was pure terror.”

 

This book is the perfect palate cleanser for readers reeling from book hangovers. If you’ve just read an emotionally taxing story, if you’re in need of something that will deliver pure thrilling escapism for a few hours, Awakened is a great choice. A conventional blend of monster horror and shadow government thriller, this book delivers unobjectionable cheesy action punctuated by the occasional jumpscare for those needing a bit of extra excitement.

Something unexpected that, in my opinion, actually broadens Awakened‘s appeal is that it really isn’t that scary. There are well-timed moments of tension, and the premise is certainly bloody enough, but this is a novel that can be read in the dark with no fear of being snatched away by an eldritch abomination. For reference, I find Jumanji the movie scarier than Awakened.

The relative lack of scariness works, because firstly, no matter how well-written, novels will have a harder time capturing cheap jumpscares than the lowest budget B-movie. Books just don’t lend themselves well to shock horror–Lovecraftian horror or extended suspense, on the other hand, we’d be talking. But Awakened‘s premise is too horror movie-like to pull that off effectively. Secondly, the mission-driven thriller element of Awakened is by far its strongest suit: The beginning of the novel, where characters are largely unfocused, in shock and scrambling to figure out what’s going on, drags despite gore aplenty. When they’ve found enough information to form a plan and execute it, though, Murray is right at home. His story shines when the characters prevail in suicide missions against apparently insurmountable odds, aided by believable combinations of ingenuity and luck.

The characters do leave something to be desired. Far from the worst characters in the horror genre, they’re just rather bland. Awakened follows four main characters–New York City’s ambitious but ultimately good hearted mayor who knows he is partially responsible for the tragedy, a SWAT officer, a reformed gang member turned Z train’s head of operations, and a heroic diesel locomotive operator. None of them are particularly compelling, and in fact I can’t even remember all their names. The book’s two memorable characters are memorable for all the wrong reasons; the first because he’s so heartless as to be more detestable than the monsters and the second because he constantly throws French phrases into his speech. It gets annoying fast, and looks more like Murray showing off his French (or his ability to use Google) than something that an EAL speaker would realistically do.

Despite the lack of character development, Awakened provides a refreshing thriller with multiple high points. The concept of a subway under the Hudson makes for a claustrophobic and evocative setting, where characters find creative ways to contend with bloodthirsty monsters, leaking methane and the threat of drowning all at once. Thankfully, the heroes of Murray’s novel are brighter than your average Final Destination Joe. They make rational decisions, prove surprisingly resourceful and for the most part don’t wander into obvious traps.

It’s easy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the book, as long as you don’t start questioning the massive Illuminati-style conspiracy that eventually gets exposed as the villains. There are tons of books that do this, almost all of which tie their shadow government to Ancient Greece/Rome, World War II, or both, and it never gets any less ridiculous. I respect Awakened‘s narrative choice to keep its shadow government relegated to the background.

The plot is quite sound, but could have done with one or two more twists. While not overly predictable, Awakened lacks just a few surprises to give it that je ne sais quoi. Especially at the climax and denouement, which go much as you would expect them to. At that point, the story honestly has enough adrenaline that it doesn’t need to rely on a shocking reveal, yet a shocking reveal done well would bring it to the next level.

If you’re new to the horror genre, Awakened is a good place to dip your toes in. Short, tightly plotted and as grounded in reality as monster stories can be, it’s a cinematic read nicely sandwiched between more serious material.

*Thanks to Harper360 and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*

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