Saturday, 14 May 2022

The Siege of X-41: A Marvel School of X Novel by Tristan Palmgren - Book Review


'Omega-level mutant Elixir must come to terms with his anti-mutant upbringing while fighting off vampiric mermen and a leviathan of ancient lore in this intense survival adventure from Marvel’s School of X.

'Once, Joshua Foley hated mutants, then he became one. It’s… problematic. When his healing powers manifested, the violent anti-Mutant Reavers rejected him and only the X-Men offered sanctuary. Now he’s surrounded by mutants who still see him as their enemy. A deep-sea training mission isolates him with a select team of new X-Men, which is bad enough, but then the attacks begin. A sect of sea monster-worshiping vampire mermen besiege the base, leaving them stranded and trapped. As the attacks escalate, their chances of survival plummet. Things go from awful to even worse when one of their team begins sabotaging their attempts to call for help, all in the name of a sleeping behemoth soon to awake…'

Super hero comics are a lot of fun. I've been reading them for decades and have always found a lot to love within the medium. It's something that has also translated to film and television well, in both animation and live action. They also make for good video games. But one area where sometimes this genre comes up a bit short of reaching its full potential is in prose novels. Sometimes authors try to give comic novels the same kind of structure as comics, trying to throw in lots of action and spectacle every chapter, and it never really feels right. Aconyte books have been avoiding this, in large part due to the fact that they've been combining their heroes with other kinds of stories. Whether it's giving us a heist story like Black Cat: Discord, or western survival stories like Outlaw: Relentless, Aconyte have been putting these heroes in situations outside their norm. And The Siege of X-41 is no exception, throwing a handful of heroes into a tense horror story.

The Siege of X-41 is kind of a sequel to Outlaw: Relentless and First Team, and follows Josh Foley and Vic Borkowski after their own individual adventures in those books. Both young men are carrying a lot of trauma from these events. Vic was being hunted by mutant haters, had his parents kidnapped, and even lost one of his arms (though it did grow back thanks to his mutation). Josh, on the other hand, used to be a mutant hater. Part of a mutant hate group, he went to anti-mutant rallies and supported the idea pf mutant eradication; until he became one. Ever since then he was held prisoners by the same people he used to support, was tortured by the again and again, and was forced to fight his way to freedom.

After helping the mutant mercenary Outlaw, Josh was arrested for his part in the Reavers. Instead of going to prison, however, he was signed over to the Charles Xavier Institute for the duration of his sentence. Knowing that if he were to try and hide his past it would come out eventually anyway, Josh plans to come clean about his past; but is prevented from doing so when student telepaths revel his secret to the school. Now Josh is an outcast and pariah, hated by his peers because of his past. One student who particularly hates him is Anole, Vic Borkowski.

When the two of them, along with fellow students Triage, and Graymalkin, the Jean Grey School exchange student Nature Girl, and their teacher, Karma, are assigned to a field exercise the two boys are both loathed to go; neither wanting to spend time with the other. These feelings are further compounded when they learn that they're being sent to the remote station X-41, a deep sea facility far beneath the ocean. Stuck in these small confines with each other, the two of them are forced to work together. However, when the station comes under attack from deadly vampiric Atlanteans they're forced to put their feelings aside when they're plunged into a deadly fight for survival. With the station damaged, their way home destroyed, and power failing, things have never been so desperate for any of them.

There is a lot about The Siege of X-41 to enjoy. A lot of the book deals with our two lead characters, their trauma, and their inability to move past it unless they're forced to do so for their own survival. This kind of character focus is something that we just don't really get in comics. With so few pages, and with the need to keep readers supplied with action scenes and big moments, a lot of the time we don't get to just sit down with these characters and find out how they're doing beyond a quick surface level glance. This book goes much further than that, and a good portion of the story is given over to how these two young men deal with their trauma.

Vic is the less complex of the two. He's a guy who's visibly a mutant, whose appearance makes him stand out, and as such he can't escape from the prejudice that mutants face. Despite this, he grew up in a loving home, part of a small community who didn't really treat him any different. It's not until the events of First Team that he really had to deal with the horrors that some mutants face. His home life was shattered, his family were put in danger, and he was brutally hurt all because some people don't like the way he was born. And whilst he got to fight against these bigots, got to save his family, and got to deal out some harm to the people who wanted to kill him, he's still carrying a lot of scars from that. This book is where we really see the effect those events had on him. He becomes withdrawn, less outgoing, and starts to struggle with his schooling. And when Josh turns up he becomes the perfect focus for all of that anger and pain.

Joshua, like Vic, carries a lot of trauma around with him. He was part of a group of bigots who were going out of their way to harm mutants. He'd been sold on the lies that mutants were a danger, that they needed to be kept away from 'normal' people, and that people like the Ravagers were doing the right thing. He was indoctrinated and radicalised into a hate movement. That alone would leave someone with a lot of stuff to work through, but then you have to take into account that one day Josh became the thing he'd been taught to hate. Then he was brutalised by people he considered his friends, held prisoner, tortured, used as a weapon. Even his family, who stood by him when he was being a bigot, have turned their backs on him now that he's a mutant. He's lost everything, been a victim of torture for months, and has found himself as the thing he was taught to hate. No wonder he spends so much of this book suffering.

These two characters are a fascinating look into different types of trauma, and how people can be affected by it. Vic becomes cold, and starts to lash out at others, especially the one he sees as being something of a threat because of his past. Josh, in contrast, just wants to retreat away, to isolate himself and keep his head down to avoid everything. They've both lost their way, they don't know what their life has become since these awful events, and don't know where they're supposed to go going forward.

Whilst this would have been enough to focus on anyway, and Tristan Palmgren could have easily has the two of them and their struggles been the main focus of the novel and it be thoroughly entertaining, we get so much more when the book takes a sharp turn into horror. The group that get picked to go to X-41 are chosen in part because their powers aren't useful there. They're being taught that not every situation is going to be one where their abilities are going to help them, and that they'll need to rely on their teammates and their other skills to get by. This is a great lesson to teach, and one that will stand future X-Men in good stead; but it also means that for the most part these young heroes have been reduced to being regular people in a horror story.

The setting of the story, this isolated, old, deep sea station is a perfect place to set a horror story. It takes the group almost a day of sinking down through the ocean, getting used to the pressure in their tiny submersible, to even get there. They can go outside for limited times in bulky diving suits, but they've got a limited oxygen supply. The station itself is cramped, forcing them into close quarters and being unable to avoid each other. It's completely dark outside, and if the hull breaches the freezing water will rush in to kill them. Even without an outside threat this sounds absolutely terrifying. And Palmgren knows this. There are scenes when the team first arrive on the station and they're just checking the place out that feel genuinely tense. They're searching the rooms for the source of a strange noise and it has you on the edge of your seat because the tension is built so wonderfully, and you're so worried about what they might find.

And once again, Palmgren could have left it there, they could have crafted a wonderfully tense story just using this isolated and horrifying location to deal with these characters traumas. But they added more. The ghoulish, vampire-like mermen who attack X-41 are really horrifying things. They're adapted to the deep environment, they can see in the dark, the cold doesn't effect them, they're hard to kill and don't seem to feel pain, and they just want in. The way they keep attacking the station, testing the defences, trying to find a way in so that they can pick off the people one by one made me instantly thing of the Alien franchise. It has the same level of horror you feel watching Aliens, knowing that the small group of survivors who've barricaded themselves inside won't stay safe forever, and that the monsters are going to get in at some point. 

But this is also seemingly not enough for Palmgren, as they then start to introduce cosmic horror too as we learn that there's something huge, powerful, and otherworldly sealed away beneath the ocean floor. Something that the monsters fear and worship in equal measure, and whose release could spell the end of life on earth itself. So yeah, this book goes full on Cthulian horror too. 

I have to be honest, as someone who loves good character focused drama, who finds the ocean terrifying, who loves a base under siege story, and who has a soft spot for cosmic horror this book absolutely ticked all my boxes. And then it's also an X-Men story too! This felt so much like it was the kind of story that we'd never get as a comic, that comic companies would say wouldn't work in that medium because of the long, tense moments where nothing really happens except a build up of horror. It felt like the kind of story that you could only get in this medium, and it proves why comic hero characters can work in this format if the story is creative and engaging enough.

I don't now how Tristan Palmgren came up with the idea of throwing these characters into a horror story like this, all whilst dealing with intense drama centred around trauma, but it's an absolutely genius concept. This is easily my favourite novel in this series, and possibly my favourite Marvel novel that Aconyte have done. Depending on how you look at the cosmic horror elements it may also beat a lot of their Arkham Horror books for how scary it is. If you like super heroes and want to see something different done with them this is the book for you, and if you're a fan of horror you're going to really like this one. The Siege of X-41 has easily become the gold standard for all other Marvel novels to beat.

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