The Unfortunate Expiration of Mr David S. Sparks, by William F. Aicher: A Review

A story set in the near future but strong in elements from folk tale and mythology.

A world made uninhabitable by pesticides and dirty bombs, genetically-engineered crops and pollution, and within this world, the inevitable division of human society into classes, factions, revolutionaries and those who turn their back on society. A world where science is both savior and slayer. This is the world David Sparks wakes into, to be immediately threatened by a man with a chain saw.

The story, while set in the near future, is strong in elements from folk tale and mythology: the dangerous wild wood, the wise hermit, the ‘wizards’ who abuse their power; the glass castle where food is abundant; the concept of the sacred twins. Rich in world-building, asking questions about the limits of science and the definition of humanity, The Unfortunate Expiration of Mr David S. Sparks follows the protagonist’s physical and intellectual journeys to understand the world he is in – and who he is.

Is the book successful in delineating these quests? Perhaps not entirely. World-building takes precedence over character-building, and there are times when too much information is handed to the reader in a chunk of exposition. There are enough hints leading to the climax to keep a reader wondering if they’ve worked the story out or not, and the overall idea is compelling.

The Quantum Door by Jonathan Ballagh: A Review

Five stars to this outstanding debut middle-grades novel.

The door into another world is as old as Alice in Wonderland and as new as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, with many many interpretations and reiterations in between (and since). In The Quantum Door, Jonathan Ballagh’s debut novel, it is given a familiar yet fresh treatment in this middle-grades science fiction story set a very few years in the future.

Brothers Brady and Felix are attracted by a faint light in the forest behind their Vermont home, a forest that has recently been purchased and fenced with No Trespassing signs. Felix, the younger and more technologically-oriented brother, attempts to investigate with a drone, leading to the discovery of the quantum door, a door into a parallel universe fraught with menace and danger.

The door has been constructed by Nova, a strong, resourceful female character who appears to be roughly the same age as the boys. With her robotic, AI dog – a canidroid? – Achilles, she is attempting to find a safe place away from the Elder Minds, the artificial, evolving intelligences that now rule her world.

The Quantum Door is imaginative and fast-paced, introducing young readers to many of the classic science fiction themes. The science and the technology is realistic and feasible, building on current knowledge, devices and systems. The scenes of the underworld where the Neurogeists, constructed creatures that house the reprogrammed minds of transgressors of the Elder Minds’ rules, are resonant of many dystopias portrayed in text and film, and yet manage to be fresh horror.

A mention must be given to the outstanding illustrations by Ben J. Adams. Dark and fractured, they convey the dystopian side of this novel perfectly.

The reading level and story complexity are also worthy of mention: they are appropriate to the age group to which this book is aimed, without talking down in any way. This is a book that in my previous career in education I would have been recommending to middle-grade teachers without hesitation. Five stars to this outstanding debut novel, and here’s hoping for a sequel.

This is an independent review of copy of the book provided by the author. The opinions stated here are mine alone.