Book Review: Terror Firma by Matthew Thomas

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At the end of last year I, finally, read Before & After by Matthew Thomas, a novel about exploding sheep, Nostradamus and the end of the world. And while I enjoyed it, it didn’t rock my world. It has a charm but ultimately fell flat. It was, however, while looking up Thomas for that original blog post that I stumbled across Terror Firma, his second novel, that tells the story of aliens, conspiracies and what it means to be human.

And even though Thomas’s first literary outing had left me somewhat disappointed, I have a strange loyalty to the author born from longevity and, since it was dirt cheap on Amazon, decided I’d try his writings again.

Starting out reading the book the first thing that instantly hit me was that once again, Thomas’s approach to construction remained the same. Everything is laid out through a narrative recounting backed up by comedic metaphor and simile. It doesn’t have the full on feel of a Douglas Adams tribute that dogged Before & After so much, but there is a passing nod and wink from time to time. I found it especially noticeable that the images created through description of the inside of a number of alien craft where reminiscent of images I already stored in my mind from Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.

It never feels like fan fiction, but you can’t help but feel that you’re getting treated to a lesser variety of perfection. Like watching a touring production of a West End play, it’s OK, but the back of your mind is stuck slightly in the knowledge there is better available.

If you move away from Thomas and his writing style and onto the characters and plot of the book, things sadly, don’t improve. I criticised Before & After because I felt at times there was too much going on, and this time Thomas has laid it on even thicker. There is so much going on, so many different conspiracies, and reasons and events that it all becomes a mess and hard to follow. Large passages of the book taking place for reasons that are never fully explained. It really does feel like every idea Thomas had he wrote down, then loosely tried to tie together relying on “it’s just part of the conspiracy” when a direct link proved too hard to find.

You can follow the story from start to finish as it’s presented but it doesn’t feel satisfying. I think the problem is that the story never  actually starts. It drops you straight into the action, but never stops to explain why the guns are already firing so to speak. It attempts at the very end to round things off and answer the open questions, but it’s too little too late and actually feels rushed and squeezed. It almost felt as though Thomas wrote the novel, gave the first draft out to be read and then was face with a response of “but why..?” and so shoe horned in this final explanation. Never fully committed to the answers he gave.

Terror Firma is written as a narrative prose, but the tone appeared to keep shifting. There were times when I felt like I was reading the story myself, producing my own images and thoughts and then without warning, it would switch and for passages there was an overriding sense that I was actually listening to somebody recounting the tale. It’s not quite a third person/first person split, it’s not that strong, but it just felt uneasy and off putting. I think though, it happened because there is so much going on. So many ideas that Thomas essentially lost track of what was what.

And the saturation that drowns Terror Firma, is predictably, extended into the characters, there are just far, far too many. And because it’s skewed slightly into real life in, to avoid potential law suits, Thomas has dropped names and replaced them with description text. The background characters all becoming: the cigar smoking man, or the dark man, or even One’s elderly blue rinsed Monarch. And it meant that everything became confusing, especially when you started getting lots of them in the same room. It just doesn’t work to be that expansive and in-concise.

When you look through the fog of background characters, you stare straight into the story’s leading 4 characters, that while independent, share a lot of design and structure from the lead protagonists in Before & After. Just without the charm or likeability. Read as a standalone book, they may improve, but knowing what went before I just found them a stale, repetition of previous ideas. A poor imitation and copy. My mind constantly jumping back to those who went before thinking “ah yes, but that’s just rehashed from him…” or “he seems uncannily familiar…”

Terror Firma appears to be Matthew Thomas’s last literary outing and while I cannot find anything out about him to explain why, my open guess is that will be down to his writing. The first book was OK but not spectacular, and sadly Terror Firma has failed to reach that original mundane level. Appearing more indirect copy than stand alone book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I have read it, purely because of the loyalty to Thomas Before & After created, but I wouldn’t recommend Terror Firma. I guess it was so cheap on Amazon for a reason.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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