by Benjamin Cross
Colony introduces us to Dr Callum Ross; an archaeology Professor and divorced father of one, who is drafted last minute to assist in an environmental survey to Harmsworth Island, a remote Russian archipelago in the Arctic. Despite the inhospitable conditions, Callum makes the archaeological discovery of the century which poses more questions than answers. Whilst contemplating the find, the Harmsworth mission is sabotaged from within leaving the team completely isolated although they may not be as alone as they believe….
Colony is a gripping, well-written and tightly constructed novel that I found difficult to put down. There is a confidence to the writing and an innate sense of how to plot and pace the story. The prologue was intriguing yet nicely concise with a whiff of the supernatural which immediately has you turning the page. The first two chapters are split between Harmsworth Island and the Highlands of Scotland. At this stage, the characters and narratives could not be more different; the Russian military headed by Starshyna Alexander Koikov, who was one of my favourite characters, and Callum being gently yet forcefully persuaded to join the Harmsworth expedition by the ailing Jonas Olsen who despite appearing briefly was poignantly portrayed. The characterisation of the Russian contingent was brilliantly authentic and precise set against the forbidding and sinister backdrop of Harmsworth.
However, in Scotland, the reader is immediately drawn to Callum’s subjectivity and emotional responses, due in no small part to his young son, Jamie. Callum is an able main character. Mr Cross has written him with just enough mental baggage; he is likeable, dependable but also a touch fragile and slightly vulnerable. Nonetheless, this is an action thriller crossed with horror and laced with a dash of ancient history. In the beginning, there are quite a few narrative strands, including the discovery of the Ice Mummy but ultimately they become two – the eco-terrorism angle which has its own subverted twist satisfying the action/thriller aspect and, in the horror corner, the sheer terror of what inhabits the island. The pace rarely lets up but it’s credible, there are really only a couple of moments towards the end which stretch believability. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of where the plot is heading, another sharp turn is taken but it’s a straightforward read and never becomes indulgent or overly-clever. There are two huge twists; one around halfway and the other just after three-quarters, both convincing and, as in all good reveals, hiding in plain sight.
All the characters are written with subtle layers, personality tics and surprise disclosures, even those that, at first, appear superfluous, such as Gavriil – they all have a part to play. Even Fenris, the wolf-dog, is portrayed with considered realism and is of significant importance to the narrative on more than one occasion. However, the real standout is the Arctic environment; Mr Cross uses its savage beauty to magnificent effect, especially the mist. It’s frighteningly ominous and builds the tension to nerve-shredding levels. Then, there are the creatures, which are sustainably nasty yet developed with a slight humanisation evoking a flicker of compassion within the reader. All elements of Colony are so deceptively well-developed and skilfully involving, it is a very visual read and I thought would make an excellent film. It was also refreshing as a reviewer to read the correct usage of ‘discrete’.
Colony is a blisteringly good read; thoroughly absorbing and entertaining. Highly recommended.