Monday 9 May 2022

Aliens vs Predator: Ultimate Prey - Book Review


'Fifteen new and original stories for a first-of-its-kind anthology , set in the expanded Aliens vs. Predator universe.

'Here the ultimate hunters, the Predators, pitted against their ultimate prey, the Xenomorphs from Alien, with humans caught in the middle! Taking place on Earth and in distant space, these tales have been crafted by a who's who of today's most talented authors of the fantastic.

'Inspired by the events of the original Aliens vs. Predator movies, graphic novels, and novels, these are the ultimate life and death struggles.'

I've been a lifelong fan of both the Alien and Predator franchises since my uncle lent me VHS's of Aliens and Predator when I way, way too young to be watching them. Five is an appropriate age for those films, right? Ever since watching them I fell in love with those creatures and their universes, so the combined Alien vs Predator media was an absolute must for me. Whether it was graphic novels, books, video games, or movies, I engrossed myself in whatever I could get. When it was announced that Titan Books would be producing stories teaming up these two creatures I was especially excited, not least because their two separate anthology books, Aliens: Bug Hunt and Predator: If It Bleeds, were excellent.

The first story in this novel is 'Below The Secret' by Chris Ryall, and acts as a nice entry point into the book. This story follows April, a young woman who wanting to do something a bit different and wild agreed to take part in a storming of Area 51. Joining up with a group of people she meets online she thinks it will be a bit of silly fun that won't go anywhere, that will enable her to get some cool pictures for social media, and won't really amount to much. However, as the group enters the grounds she and Brockton split off from the others and head to a non-descript building where Brockton claims the real secrets are held. The two of them get inside using information Brockton bought, and discover an elevator that takes them deep underground, and brings them face to face with the deadly secrets hidden inside the facility. 

This story takes place in our world as we know it now, a world with people looking for ways to boost their social media following, doing silly Internet challenges, and looking for thrills to distract them from the boredom of regular life. As such, it feels like a shock when the characters come face to face with the titular creatures, even though we obviously know its coming. In some ways this story feels like it could be part of the same universe as the films, where these creatures have been using Earth as a hunting ground and various governments and private companies have taken notice. With some surprising moments and great tension, its a brilliant start to this collection.

The second story, 'Isla Maranzas' by Steven L. Sears, is a historical piece, one told in the form of what seems to be a written account of a man stranded on an island somewhere in the Caribbean in the 1770's. This narrator, whose name we don't learn, was shipwrecked on the island two years ago, and has been surviving the best he can, avoiding the deadly creatures that call it home. He has come to believe that this island is a home to a war between demons and angels as he has seen monstrous Malvados, creatures that burst from the chest and grow into monstrosities, fighting against Nephilim, giant warriors in armour who came down from the heavens. When another ship arrives off the coast the narrator must warn the sailors not to come ashore, for fear that they fall victim to these deadly demons.

I adored this story. The historical setting was wonderful, and something that I always enjoy seeing the Predators dropped into. Seeing it through the eyes of a man who has no context for the reality of things, and has come to the conclusion that he's seeing angels and demons is delightful in its ingenuity. The story also showcases some amazing Black women warriors, who were made slaves but come into their own in this setting and prove themselves to be worthy of the respect of the Yautja; and its absolutely delightful.

'Homestead' by Delilah S. Dawson is another historical piece, though no definitive time is given for when it takes place. Set somewhere during the expansion into Wild West, the story follows Lucy, the heavily pregnant wife of a farmer. Lucy is alone at her homestead as her husband, Robert is in town. Lucy begins to experience strange things around the land, seeing odd shapes moving out in the fields, and feeling like she's being watched. When something starts happening to her cattle, when monsters rip out of their bellies, Lucy is forced to flee to the next farm for help. But with the creatures everywhere, and her labour starting, safe haven might be hard for Lucy to find.

In all of the stories collected in this book the reader knows more than the characters involved. We know how bad the Xenomorphs are, we understand the rules for not getting killed by a Yautja, but I don't think the tension of knowing all this ever felt as high as in this story. As soon as Lucy is finding odd things around the farm I was begging for her to get away, to run, and the fact that she didn't was such a source of tension. The fact that Lucy goes into labour during the story, has to contend with her child coming into the world whilst surviving against these monsters, just made it so much more frightening too. Delilah S. Dawson does such an amazing job here, and I want to see her do more in this universe.

Have you ever thought 'what if we combine Aliens and Predator with a haunted house story?' Chances are you haven't, but this is exactly what David Barnett does with 'The Hotel Mariposa', and its so wonderfully weird and unique because of it. This story tells the tale of a trio of reality TV stars, hosts of American Spook-Chasers, who've come to an abandoned and haunted hotel to try and get some proof of the paranormal, boost their ratings, and keep their show in production. The hotel has stories of ghostly figures, shifting hallways, and every few decades people found dead inside with holes in their chests. They've come to capture ghosts on camera, but little do they know that an alien hunter is watching them from the shadows, waiting for its prey to make an appearance.

'The Hotel Mariposa' is basically what would happen if a TV ghost hunting show ever got caught in the middle of an Alien vs Predator story. The three people who get caught up in the middle are pretty open minded, but never considered aliens to be a thing. Unfortunately for them, not only are they real, but the hotel really does seem to shift and warp reality whilst they're inside it. This isn't the paranormal, and there's a very clever sci-fi explanation for this, but the changing interior and ghostly visions add some extra spooky wrinkles to this story.

'Planting and Harvest' by Mira Grant is set on a deep space research station named Philomelus, a place where scientists have come together to work on new food strains, new proteins, and fast growing foods that could help change the landscape of space travel, colonisation, and the military. Whilst most of this research is fairly benign, it's done in the remoteness of space so that if anything does go wrong it can be easily contained, and so that the secrets they develop can remain in the hands of their company. Unfortunately, this remoteness becomes a serious problem when a shuttle filled with Xenomorphs docks on the Philomelus. In less than a day the creatures have spread throughout the station, killing all but a single scientist who was able to lock herself away in her lab. Desperate, and knowing that she won't survive without help, she sends out a distress signal into the deep reaches of space; a signal that is picked up by a passing Yautja hunting party.

The initial set-up for 'Planting and Harvest' seemed like a fairly standard Alien vs Predator story, a place becomes overrun with Xenos, the Yautja come in to hunt them. Whilst Mira Grant doesn't do anything with the set up that sets it apart from others the rest of the story really do feel quite different for a few reasons. The first is that Grant expands a part of the universe that most folks would never really think about, the huge demand for food stuffs and crops in this future. The details that Grant give are interesting and adds new layers to things. Some of the odd stories of the difficulties that come from this and the results when things go wrong were strangely delightful, and something that I very much enjoyed. The other thing that I really liked about this was that the lone human helped the Yautja to hunt down and kill the aliens, but not in the normal way we see. She didn't pick up a weapon and fight beside them to earn their honour, but instead used her brains to help save the day.

Susanne L. Lambdin's 'Blood and Honor' sees a human and a Yautja teaming up in slightly different ways when Kai Kentarus finds herself stranded and alone on a remote world where Yautja are hunting not just Xenomorphs, but a pair of queens too. Having been betrayed by her lover, poisoned and left to die, Kai is forced to struggle through this hellish landscape, avoiding deadly creatures as she goes. Someone who has gone up against the deadly hunters and barely survived in the past, Kai is astonished to find herself helping a captured female Yautja to escape from one of her own kind. It appears that a male hunter has gone rogue, turning on the female Yautja whilst also hunting the two queens that are at war. With threats from every side, Kai and her new ally, Blood Venom, must work together to survive.

In comparison to the previous story, this is much more of what I expect when a human and a Yautja end up working together; though there are some new twists on this formula. The most obvious thing is that there's a kind of civil war going on in both alien groups. For the Xenomorphs this is an ancient, infertile queen battling for dominance with a new, younger queen, and for the Yautja it's a rogue male that has begin hunting and torturing the females. There's no real reason given for this male hunter's turn, it's possible that he's a bad blood, or from a rival clan, but it kind of doesn't matter in this story, and instead it's a nice reflection of what Kai is going through as her former lover has tried to kill her. Males enacting violence against women isn't just limited to humans it seems. I also loved the fact that Kai is a trans woman. It's not a major part of the story, and it's not something that needed to be included, but as a lifelong fan of these franchises who's herself trans, it's amazing to see someone like myself included in this way. 

'Carbon Rites' by Jess Landry is a story with something of a mystery. It begins by introducing us to Blake, a young woman who lives in the quiet town of Morden. Blake has never left the town, has lived there since she was born, yet dreams of one day getting to go off and explore the world. Little does she know that there's a huge secret hidden beneath Morden, one that she's going to have to face if she's going to make it through the night. When a trio of armed strangers enter her diner as she's getting ready to close one night Blake discovers that a strange creatures is hunting her from the shadows.

There's a huge mystery element to 'Carbon Rites', one that makes me reluctant to talk too much about the story through fear of giving some of the answers away. The story has a very strange feel to it the moment it begins, and things don't feel quite right the more that we get t learn. As Blake fights to make it through the night these mysteries deepen, and you find yourself getting really dragged in to this story in ways you're not expecting.

'First Hunt' by Bryan Thomas Schmidt makes the human characters a secondary focus, as we begin this tale by being introduced to a group of Yautja out on the hunt. Bo'kui is an older hunter, one who has trained many young warriors and presided over their first hunts, their passage to adulthood. He now watches on as a trio of young warriors stalk their ultimate prey across a world that has recently become home to a new human colony. As the hunt descends upon the humans homes Bo'kui must make sure that his three charges don't do anything to bring dishonour to themselves as they battle the deadly Xenomorphs.

I really liked the fact that 'First Hunt' took a different approach to some of the other stories in the book and gave the Yautja a good deal of the focus. Other stories in this collection have at times followed the alien hunters, getting in their heads and showing us how they tick, but none to the degree that this story does; where half of it is told from their point of view. This gives us a lot of insight into how the Yautja think, how they feel during a hunt, and a look at the cultural significance their hunts and the way they comport themselves has. When the story shifts back to the humans we get a good sense of the horror that they're facing, coming into contact with both species for the first time, and trying desperately to survive in increasingly desperate odds. There are some genuinely frightening moments here, and it makes you glad you're not stuck on that world with them.

Yvonne Navarro delivers a surprisingly thought provoking and moving story in 'Abuse, Interrupted' as we see what happens when Jazz, a woman being abused by her partner, decides that she's finally going to try and escape her situation; only to find herself getting caught in the middle of an alien battle. This is the only story in this collection where the Xenomorphs and the Yautja aren't the real horrors, where they're not the thing that makes your skin crawl or leads you to feel afraid.

Navarro spends a good portion of the story letting readers get to know Jazz, and to understand her situation before anything happens that fits with the themes of this collection. It's done so well that I actually forgot that I was reading an Alien vs Predator story for a while, as I'd become invested in Jazz and her story. Navarro is able to get you to feel for Jazz incredibly quickly, and whilst seeing her facing off against alien monsters leads to some moments where you feel in awe of her strength and bravery, its when she comes face to face with the man who's been abusing her that you really begin to see the strength of her character. This might be an uncomfortable read for some, especially if you've been the victim of domestic abuse yourself, but it's well worth the read.

'Better Luck To Borrow' by Curtis C. Chen follows Lily Shóu, an incredibly gifted young teen who's trying to make a shady deal with a Weyland Yutani employee to sell them secret specimens whilst on a school trip. Lily found several strange alien creatures in stasis in her late parent's lab and has made a deal to sell them, but when the stasis fails the creatures, facehuggers, are released onto the boat they're on, infecting several large rat creatures. With Xenomorphs now loose on the boat and killing students things get even worse when a strange ship approaches and unleashes a deadly hunter.

This story felt like an odd one tonally, because it was very clearly a story that didn't hold anything back in terms of horror and gore, with folks getting ripped apart or teens having limbs burnt off by acid blood, but at the same time it felt like a YA story thanks to the young cast of characters and the competent female teen lead. It was a strange combo, but it really worked, and I definitely want to see more stories in this universe play in this kind of territory. I also really liked Lily, and found her to be an engaging and well developed lead for such a short story. It was also great to have a lead character with a disability getting to be a hero.

'Film School' by Roshni 'Rush' Bhatia tells its story mostly through flashback as woman is detained by security forces, being questioned about how she and her colleagues broke quarantine to land on the planet Tenebris. The woman was part of a documentary film crew, who decided to sneak onto the planet in order to find out what happened to the colony there, and why it's since been quarantined. After being dropped off by their ship they discover that the colony is deserted. Searching the surrounding area they find an infestation of Xenomorphs, and a group of Yautja hunting them for sport. Stuck with no way off world, the group have to try to survive until their ship comes back for them.

This was a really good story because even though I knew what was coming it still felt incredibly tense as the documentary crew made their way around Tenebris looking for answers. It's one of those situations where you know something awful is coming, and you're just waiting to see how it happens. The interpersonal relationships within the group, and the breakdown of the team as things go wrong were particularly interesting, and even though you knew the narrator was going to get out alive it never felt like she was particularly safe; which was an impressive feat.

'Night Doctors' by Maurice Broaddus centres on Nyota and Miles, a pair of siblings who live on the Weyland-Yutani colony of New Allensworth. Miles is sick with a cough and Nyota takes him to the medical facilities in order to receive treatment, something that she's a nervous about doing thanks to her knowledge of how Black people have been treated my the medical establishment throughout history.  Nyota has heard of the stories of white doctors experimenting on Black people, of testing vaccines, and intentionally infecting them without permission or knowledge, and has a distrust around doctors. Unfortunately for Nyota and Miles, this is a part of history that doesn't seem to have died out, and the siblings find themselves learning about awful experiments.

I loved the fact that Maurice Broaddus drew inspiration from real world atrocities for this story, that he took a look at the things that the Black community have had to deal with for generations and thought about what might still happen in the future. The Alien universe has always been grim, and it's taken a dark approach to capitalist greed and how little faceless companies value human life; so it felt like no surprise that a company like Weyland-Yutani would experiment on people in order to get what they want. This is one of the few stories in the book where the alien creatures are far from the real monsters, and it's humanity that's the real force to fear.

E.C. Myers contributes 'Scylla and Charybdis', a story that has a slightly different take on the Yautja. When the colony ship Ketumani end up dead in space the crew are awoken to try and fix things. However, not long into the emergency a strange ship docks with them, and a large alien hunter boards them. Equipped with stealth technology and a strange projectile weapon, the creature stalks the crew through the ship, taking them out one by one. When the last of the crew is shot by the creature the story doesn't end, as this Yautja has been taking prisoners for a strange purpose.

I really liked this story. I enjoyed how the first half of the tale was a chilling story of a Yautja hunting this crew through their ship. There are some really tense and scary moments, and the captain becoming the last survivor and using trickery and clever tactics to try and take the hunter down is a real highlight here. However, this is only half the story. I won't spoil what comes after, because it's very intriguing, but there's some interesting human drama mixed in here too, as some neat developments and insights into Yautja society too.

'Another Mother' by Scott Sigler is the story in this collection I was most excited to read. A sequel to the phenomenal Aliens: Phalanx, still one of my favourite books and one of the most creative takes on the franchise, this story picks up a number of years later with two of the leads of that novel. We return to the remote world from that novel, where humanity has been living in isolation for generations as a feudal society barely entering the steam age. Thanks to having lived with the Xenomorphs for centuries, the people of that planet weren't able to expand and grow; but thanks to a group of brave warriors and some amazing discoveries, they were able to wipe out the colony and destroy the queen. Now, decades later it appears that some of these demons may have survived, and a new queen is around. There's also a lone Yautja on the planet, scouting the world as a potential hunting ground for her people. When she learns that some of these primitive humans have killed a queen she wants to do the same, proving herself worthy to her people. And to do that, she'll have to work with some of the humans.

I was so happy to return to this planet and these characters, especially with there having been a decent time jump so that readers could get a sense of the kind of lives the heroes got to live after the events of Aliens: Phalanx. This also proved to be a bit of a problem for me though, as it meant I was absolutely terrified for the returning characters. These were survivors from my favourite Alien novel, and I was so scared that something awful would happen to them here. I'm not going to say what happens, but I will say that the introduction of the Predators to this world felt so seamless and perfect that it felt like the natural continuation of this story. If you enjoyed Aliens: Phalanx I'm absolutely certain that you're going to get a lot out of this story.

The final story in the book is 'Kyódai' by Jonathan Maberry and Louis Ozawa, and is another sequel story. This time, it's a sequel to the film Predators. Louis Ozawa is a name that might be familiar to Predator fans, as he played Hanzo in the movie. With his character having dies to the hands of the Falconer predator in a swordfight, this story doesn't follow him, but his younger brother, Eiji. Captured in a similar way to his brother, Eiji finds himself falling through the air to a large jungle. When he lands he begins to search for answers and finds soldiers being hunted by Yautja, who are now using Xenomorphs as hunting dogs thanks to implants in their skulls that shock them. When Eiji discovers a shrine in the jungle he learns that this was the fate of his older brother, and makes a vow to survive the hunt no matter the cost.

'Kyódai' is a really great story for fans of Predators, not just because it continues that story and shows what comes next, but because it gives us a lot of insight into Hano, one of the best characters in the film. Through flashbacks and Eiji's inner thoughts we learn a lot about the brothers pasts, and the kind of people they are. We also see that despite falling in battle to the Falconer the other Yuatja looked at Hanzo with great honour, respecting his abilities to defeat his opponent in one on one combat. This adds some interesting detail to the Super Predators, and shows a more honourable side to them that the film didn't really explore. A great companion piece to one of the best Predator movies, this story is sure to make a lot of fans happy.

Overall, I loved all of the stories on offer in Alien vs Predator: Ultimate Prey. It really felt like a love letter to this join franchise, with both sets of creatures given great moments to shine and show off what makes them such great creations. There wasn't a single dull moment to be had here, there was great action, tense moments, lots of horror, and plenty of representation as we got amazing female characters, Black characters, disabled characters, and trans character to name but a few. This book expanded the franchise in some great ways, and I hope that we get more like this in the future.

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  1. I'm glad you enjoyed "Another Mother." It was quite fun (and challenging!) to write.

    1. I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed every story in the book, but because of how much I adored Phalanx 'Another Mother' was quickly my favourite in the collection.