CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Molting of a Queen” Novella by Peter J. Foote

A spritely, fast-paced novella reminiscent of the simple yet exciting pulp fiction adventures of the 1930s

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Molting of a Queen: (Vol’kris Chonicles) – by Peter J. Foote

Publisher: Self-published, Nova Scotia, Canada , December 2021.

Premise:

A helicopter leaving an oil rig flies through a  portal to an alien world.

Review:

 “As you know, Bob” this is a stressful world right now, what with the war in the Ukraine and the possibility it might escalate into the long-promised World War Three.

How delightful, then, to come across a spritely, fast-paced novella reminiscent of the simple yet exciting pulp fiction adventures of the 1930s. A deliberate throwback, I suspect, one that probably incorporates numerous references to actual stories from that era, and even earlier if you consider many a “lost race” novel or the daydreams of Burroughs. I’m pretty sure I could pull multiple tropes and themes from myriad works and claim this novella is in homage to them all. However, given how badly my memory sucks in me old age, I would just be grabbing generic examples without being able to pin down specifics. But who cares? I’m not writing an academic paper. No need for foot notes. Let me just give you my gut reaction.

This novella FEELS like something written in the 1930s. There’s a charming innocence to the tale. Giant bugs aren’t exactly new to the genre, but somehow the “revelations” and “discoveries” are described as if the concepts have never been written down until now. This Gosh-Oh-Wow impression instantly drags the reader back in time not only in terms of the ambience of the work but also in terms of the age of the reader. Suddenly the reader is fourteen-years-old again and reading about nifty stuff for the first time ever. Considering current world tensions, I am grateful to have read this novella at this time. It left me relaxed and content, happy even.

So, how did this miracle cure come about? What is it about this novella that makes it seem like a phantom from nearly one hundred years ago?

First off, the beginning is over the top. Nina Carson, and her boss Harrison Blaine, have been inspecting an oil rig for safety violations. Finding none, they break every safety regulation in the book by demanding the pilot of their helicopter fly them back to Halifax despite a raging storm that is getting steadily worse by the second. Said pilot refuses because it is too dangerous, but another guy, Al Selwyn, ex-military and very mercenary, agrees to pilot the helicopter aloft, even though he has nothing to do with the company operating the helicopter. I had no idea the logistical support for oil rigs at sea was so laissez-faire in nature. Anything goes, apparently.

No sooner do they get into the air when it becomes impossible to fly and impossible to land. Fortunately, Nina sees a bit of blue sky off to the left and Pilot Al is able to smash the tail rotor assembly against a rock  and crump down onto a gorgeous, golden beach. Seems Nina had spotted the calm eye of the hurricane just in time. Granted, the Canadian Maritimes are struck by hurricanes as often as islands in the Caribbean, but they’re usually the downgraded elements of hurricanes wearing themselves out crawling up the Eastern seaboard of the United States. I think there’s no actual “eye” remaining by the time these storms hit the higher latitudes. But maybe I’m showing my ignorance. I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s not the hurricane that dumped the trio onto an alien world, but a portal that happened to have been floating about in the eye of the hurricane when the helicopter flew into it. Why bother? With the storm, I mean. They could have been quietly zipping along under blue skies in calm air and still flown through the portal by accident. So what need for the storm?

Character exposition, that’s why. Nina is a useful-enough secretary but basically a doormat of an individual traumatized by a childhood experience which left her prone to perpetual second-guessing and incapable of making a decision, especially when confronting authority figures. She’s terrified of flying in a storm, but even more terrified of her boss.  She dare not refuse. She’s too inhibited.

Her boss Harrison Blaine is the kind of guy who turns beet red at the slightest hint of disagreement or, worse, opposition.  He takes everything personally, even the weather. He should have dropped dead from apoplexy years ago. Working for him, even meeting him, is not a lot of fun.

Al Selwyn has “knocked about” more than most mortals. Hasn’t made him rich, but at least he’s a survivor. He doesn’t fear authority figures, he hates them. And he knows Harrison from previous encounters. Not a smooth mix.

Years ago there was a husband-and-wife comedy team known as “The Battling Bickersons.” Well, these three characters are similar, forming a battling love-triangle I might say (and just did). Perhaps a  majority of the drama and tension in the opening sequence derives from the nonstop one-upmanship argument between the two men whose collective ego appears to be larger and more dangerous than the hurricane. Poor Nina keeps trying to get them to shut up so that Al can concentrate on flying, but her “stage presence” amounts to zero.

By the time they crash on the beach the reader has got to know all three characters well and is probably hoping they die instantly on impact because they’re so annoying. However, necessity breeds a working relationship which ultimately results in them mutual caring for each other and pulling together to survive. You’d expect that of course, but the sheer insanity of their incompatibility at the beginning is such a contrast that the reader welcomes their emotional evolution into a team perhaps more readily and easily than the more normal writing technique of flinging strangers together in a character-driven game of Tetris. Peter’s approach works better and saves a lot of time. Sets things up nicely for the unveiling of hidden motivations and personal agendas which justify the characters’ transformation into decent adults capable of looking after themselves and each other. In short, once you’ve learned to hate them, it becomes easier to love them, to root for them and hope they survive.

So, now you see how necessary the hurricane is. It provides the emotional fear factor as background and highlight to inter-character bickering which otherwise might have come across as whiny bitching by a wimp and two blowhards. The storm adds enough drama and significance to get the readers to swallow the characters at their worst and move on to enjoy their transformation into admirable protagonists easy to identify with. A very neat trick for the author to pull off.

Here’s another neat trick. If this were a Tom Clancy novel there’d be enough technical info dump to enable you, once you’ve finished the novella, to strap into any helicopter and fly away. Plus, probably, a complete history of helicopters. You’d be attracted to the book in part because you absolutely adore helicopters and want to know everything about them. This tale does the exact opposite.

The opening scenes, what with verbal fisticuffs and violent winds, vividly convey the tumultuous reality of a machine and its occupants being pummeled by nature in more ways than one. It was only after reading through it that I realized there was next to nothing in the way of describing how Al was struggling to keep the helicopter under control. I immediately read it again looking for details. The pilot throws some switches. He moves a control stick. That’s it. Nothing more.

I was taken aback. Is this how you write a tech-thriller? Of course not. This is action adventure 1930s-style. An era when all a character had to do was throw a toggle switch or pull a lever and off he went to Mars. Oh, to be sure, there might be tons of scientific bafflegab if one were George O. Smith writing about interplanetary radio repeater stations or some such, but for the purposes of this tale all you need is three people arguing in a storm-tossed helicopter. How a helicopter is actually flown is utterly irrelevant. Consequently, the author adopts an extremely minimalist approach to inserting tech info. We’re lucky we even know it’s a helicopter. But that’s all we need to know.

This is a refreshing lack of information that renders the flow of the adventure free of the ripple effects of info-dump distractions. It results in a purity of concept accenting the innocent “feel” of the novella. This has got to be deliberate on the part of the author and I feel it’s a wise decision. It keeps focus on the characters and what they experience, maintains the proper emphasis as it were. Very appropriate to the story and a technique I admire and want to emulate. A great way of avoiding padding, for one thing.

A perilous situation requires problems to be solved despite attendant threats and risks. Case in point, the intrepid trio need to go back through the portal to return home. Trouble is, the portal is slowly shrinking while it’s hovering several hundred metres above the sea. This means they have to get the helicopter up and running so that they can fly through the portal. But one of the three rotor blades in the steering assembly is shattered. It needs to be replaced before the machine can safely lift off. So, naturally, Al contemplates carving a piece of driftwood into a substitute rotor blade.

Say what? I’m no aviation technician but I strongly suspect a replacement blade would have to have the same weight, density, and tensile strength (among other things) to work at all, not to mention avoiding tearing to pieces and damaging the other blades. But, hey, this is super-duper old-fashioned SF where “simple” problems call for “simple” solutions. Why let reality stand in the way of a good story? The idea is for the reader to have fun. Any sort of lecture on what is or is not “real” would spoil the fun.

I have the impression some people read genre fiction in order to annihilate the entertainment value of what they’re reading. Masochistic pedants and Grognards I calls them. It’s so much simpler and more pleasurable to accept the premise and go with the flow no matter how it whirls and twirls. In this case it’s important to remember this novella is essentially fantasy, an exercise in wish-fulfilment designed to shift you from mundane cares into a waking dream that’ll do you a world of good. Call it therapy.

Getting back to the plot, since the characters lack spare rotor blades, not to mention food and water, they’re faced with the task of exploring the jungle fronting the beach in order to find what they need. Jungles are seldom mistaken for peaceful glades. You just know something is going to be waiting for them, and because of the title and cover art, you’re probably convinced the welcoming committee will consist of giant bugs. And you’d be correct.

Thing is, ginormous insects are hard to interpret visually. Nothing in the way of meaningful facial expressions, for instance. And they’re ability to articulate their thoughts, even supposing they could speak English, is somewhat lacking due to a lack of suitable vocal cords and associated apparatus. Fortunately, actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, actions aren’t always friendly, and even when they are, are liable to be misunderstood. Humans, being emotional creatures, would probably act irrationally in the face of intelligent creatures who behave, no matter how logically, as a result of instinct rather than emotion. A bit like being trapped in a classroom by a physics professor equipped with torso-shearing mandibles. Makes it difficult to stay calm.

In other words, though the task at hand is simple, nothing is easy. There are… complications. In addition to which, the reader can enjoy revelations concerning the alien culture. Some aspects are predictable. Indeed, certain scenes reminded me, not only of previous genre stories and novels, but of particular movies. These be the homages. Yet, there are many original touches where I thought “Oh, yeah, given the nature of these beasties that makes sense. Cool idea.” On the one hand, a pleasing familiarity that makes you feel right at home, and yet, on the other hand (or claw), intriguing speculation that reinforces the premise and enhances your sense of exploration and discovery. All part of the charm of reading this work.

Molting of a Queen is a novella, and a short novella at that. It’s a fast read, relatively simple in plot, so I won’t describe it any further because I don’t want to give it all away and spoil the reader’s experience. I do hope, however, that I’ve revealed enough to make you want to read it.  Not a literary novel, not something giving Samuel R. Delany a run for his money, but definitely loads of fun. Undemanding, good relaxing fun.

 CONCLUSION:

 This stirred my sense of wonder and made me feel like a happy fourteen-year-old again. A welcome break from the current dire reality. Don’t you deserve a break today?

Check it out: < Molting Queen >

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