A Fun and Terrifying Ride Through and Under the Streets of San Francisco – A Review of Nocturnal by Scott Sigler

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Every child grows up with stories of monsters and things that go bump in the night, and I’m no exception. Aside from the monsters in cartoons and fairytales, I also grew up with the monsters of Philippine mythology. Some were said to exist only in the far-flung rural areas, but others were said to linger even in the urban areas. These monsters were, in some ways, scarier than the ones in fairytales, perhaps because they were so close to home. But the interesting thing about these monsters was that they weren’t really known for killing people – or if they did, it was because the victim had done something particularly stupid. The monsters of Philippine myth and folklore, so it seemed to me, simply didn’t kill without reason. They operated on a certain code of honor, and if one was aware of that code and made sure that one stuck to the rules of the code, one could get out of an encounter with a tikbalang or a duwende with relative ease. As for the monsters in fairytales and cartoons, those tended to be quite distant, far apart from my own reality, mostly because the setting was often not one I recognized as part of my own country.

When I was eleven years old, though, I learned of a very different kind of monster, one that was far closer to home, and one that didn’t play by the rules I’d come to learn monsters usually operated on. It was at around this age that my mother handed me Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s novel Relic, right after I’d finished Michael Crichton’s Lost World and asked for more novels like it. Now, those who are familiar with the novel Relic might argue that it’s hardly the kind of book one hands to an eleven-year-old, but as I’ve explained elsewhere, my mother simply wasn’t the type of mother to edit her daughters’ choice of reading beyond steering us away from romance novels until she deemed us ready.

Relic left a lifelong impression on me. For the first time, I was reading about a monster that didn’t seem to operate on any recognizable code or set of rules that would determine how people could safely interact with it, which was often the case with monsters in Philippine folklore. Neither did it seem to punish people who deserved to be punished, as was often the case with monsters in fairytales. It simply existed, killing whoever and whatever crossed its path, because that was all it knew to do. This was, of course, something I’d learned about in Lost World and Jurassic Park: the drive for predators to kill because they need to do so in order to survive, a natural instinct on the part of an animal to do what it must in order to keep on living. This made sense in the context of entities I recognized as animals, such as lions and velociraptors, but not in monsters. The monster in Relic, and its sequel Reliquary, was something else entirely.

What made it even more frightening was the setting. Monsters in fairytale lands, or in the countryside, or even on distant privatized islands, were very far from my reality. A monster in a museum? Whole other story entirely. I loved museums, even at that early age, but I really hadn’t thought about all the dark nooks and crannies in such buildings, and what they could potentially hide if one found oneself stuck inside with no escape. Combined with the fact that this was a monster one couldn’t negotiate with, or simply avoid by doing things that wouldn’t attract its attention, and I had in my hands a truly, genuinely frightening thing – and I loved it.

It’s taken me a while to overcome my prejudice of horror (specifically supernatural horror – the kind involving ghosts and spirits and whatnot), but the monster story has always been a favorite of mine, especially in books. My personal copies of Relic and Reliquary have the cracked spines that signify constant reading, and I’m always on the lookout for a novel in the same vein.

When I first heard about Nocturnal by Scott Sigler, I knew I had to read it. It was a monster story, that much I knew, and one that had nothing to do with zombies – I have, as I may have said elsewhere, become tired of zombies as my go-to monster of choice. These were monsters that existed within a city, and even better, one I was relatively familiar with: San Francisco. The final nail in the coffin of my interest in this novel was the Scott Sigler interview on The Sword and Laser video podcast. Nocturnal just sounded so ridiculously fascinating that I tried my hardest to find a copy – but no dice. I had my favorite bookstore keep their eyes peeled for it, and as soon as they got a copy – even if it was the only one in the shipment – they were to put it away just for me. And just a few weeks ago, three books came in on a shipment, one of which was set aside for me, the other two for two other customers. None of those books so much as touched a display shelf.

Fortunately, it was worth the wait (and the price): Nocturnal is a capital monster story. Though it doesn’t give me the same chills as Relic once did, I attribute this to reading it as an adult and not a child. If I’d read it when I was twelve, say, I know I’d have been really scared.

The novel follows Bryan Clauser, a cop who’s been having some very strange dreams – dreams wherein he kills people, and really, really likes what he’s doing. These dreams parallel a string of brutal murders going on throughout San Francisco, murders being perpetrated by entities called Marie’s Children, whose existence has been the city’s dirty secret – a secret that people in high places would do pretty much anything to make sure no one finds out about. However, Bryan’s caught up in these dreams and these murders in ways that run deeper than he thinks, and he has no other choice but to risk himself and the people he loves in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.

What I think I liked the most about Nocturnal was how it feels so cinematic, like a good TV show or a movie. The way the chapters were cut, and the way the scenes were set up, echoed the feel of a good movie. This isn’t always something I notice in novels, which can get away with a lot of things regarding flashbacks and setup because of the nature of the medium, but I’m of the opinion that a good monster story could stand to be similar to a well-edited movie or TV show. Nocturnal has precisely that feel. There were times when I wasn’t reading so much as watching the action unfold in my mind; even the characters’ thoughts didn’t disrupt that feeling. The chapters felt like individual episodes in a series, or scene jumps in a movie. If someone picks this book up for a TV show or options it for a movie (and I really hope someone has), I don’t think they’d have a hard time figuring out how to shoot this – the way the book is written pretty much describes how scenes should be shot.

The characters also feel like they belong in a TV show, and many of their relationships can be defined according to certain TV show genres. Bryan Clauser is the classic strong-and-silent type of cop with a rather uncompromising view of life (which can be a good thing, but can also be a bad thing) – until that life gets stood on its head. His partner, Lawrence Chang (better known as Pookie), is a riot, though I did find myself a mite offended at some of his dialogue. It was easy to ignore that, though, especially in light of the fact that Pookie really does have his heart in the right place, and moreover, is fiercely loyal to those whom he thinks deserve that loyalty. Their partnership is a joy to read about, with many of the best elements of the buddy-cop show present in their interaction. Add to this the fact that Pookie himself is trying to write a series bible for a TV show, and the circle is completed.

Robin Hudson, on the other hand, represents another TV genre: the crime procedural. She’s the second-in-command to the head M.E. of the story, being groomed to take over when he retires, and it is she who provides much of the scientific background for the story – aside from being Bryan’s romantic interest. I rather like her as a female character: she’s pretty strong and no-nonsense, and doesn’t let her feelings for Bryan get in the way too much (although they do, kind of). She also has a tendency to bite back, especially later on when Bryan tries to act all protective of her. I liked her enough that I was rather disappointed when she was killed in the latter third of the novel, with her death being used as the primary catalyst for Bryan taking on the mantle of the Savior. While I can see how that would be useful as a way of getting Bryan into the role that’s obviously (at this point) his to fill, I found myself thinking that she might have been more useful alive, not dead. I also think that it would have been interesting to see how she and Bryan would have juggled a romantic relationship if she had been alive, with both their lives caught up in the business of hunting down and eliminating Marie’s Children.

On the other side of this scale is Rex Deprovdechuk, introduced as an abused, bullied teenager who is, apparently, something much more than that. Rex, true to his name, is the “king” being sought out by Marie’s Children: a race very similar to humans, but not quite, either. Anyone who’s been bullied at any point in their life (and I’m one such person) cannot help but feel sympathy, even pity, for Rex: living with a physically and emotionally abusive mother, as well as having to put up with physical and emotional bullying at school, it’s completely understandable why he does what he does later on. This isn’t to say, of course, that I approve of what he actually does; I’m just saying that I can see his reasons for doing what he did. Rex’s first act, upon discovering that he’s king of Marie’s Children, is to have his bullies killed. The ringleader of those bullies, Alex Panos, is not only killed but tortured in a set of scenes that are quite horrific by any standards. No bully met a fate worse than he, and while he most assuredly deserved his fate, that still doesn’t make it any less horrific. On the other hand, I’m not quite certain I’m comfortable with putting all the blame for Rex’s development into what he becomes later on in the story on his mother and the bullies. The development of a psychopath is, I think, more complex than that, but then again Nocturnal isn’t that kind of story. Any complex psychological analysis of Rex’s motives for doing what he did and becoming what he became will have to be done by the reader himself or herself, because doing so in-story would just get in the way of the plot.

And now that I bring up Marie’s Children, I would like to say that I find them quite interesting. Though they’re similar in many ways to humans, I like the fact that, for the most part, their behavior is very much like that of ants and termites. Their social structure is very ant-like, with a queen producing offspring that are eventually divided into different castes. The comparison is not just metaphorical: when the reader encounters “Mommy” for the first time, comparisons to the queen of an ant or termite colony are absolutely unavoidable – especially given the visual description. Occasionally she will produce other queens and other kings, but those will remain sexually dormant for as long as she’s alive – something that’s also vitally important in the novel. Even the fact that most of Marie’s Children communicate via smell, as opposed to sight, is something that ties them once again to ants and termites. My only quibble is that the genetics that distinguish Marie’s Children from normal humans is a bit wobbly. While it’s true that trisomal abnormalities can and do occur, I rather find it a bit of a stretch that an entirely new chromosome is what distinguishes them from ordinary humans. This is likely me just nitpicking a bit, but I did find that the idea kind of took me out of the moment while I was reading the novel, instead of my brain simply accepting it and moving on.

What really makes this novel a hit, though, is the plot. I don’t think I’ve read such a well-plotted monster story in a long while. The beginning took a while to build up, but as soon as the plot hit its stride, it kept going and going and going all the way to that explosive climax. The twists were pretty good, in my opinion, and while none were mind-blowing surprises, they were still pretty enjoyable in their own way. As I mentioned earlier, it felt like I was watching rather than reading the story, and the pacing of the plot, as well as the directions it takes, are all pitch-perfect for the genre. My only quibble is that there sometimes seemed to be too many characters on-deck to tell the story properly, but eventually Sigler seems to settle on a specific handful of characters, and uses them, primarily to tell the story.

Overall, Nocturnal is a fast-paced (but well-paced) thriller, with just enough horror to make the reader squirm in his or her seat. The characters are pretty solid in their own way, despite the fact that there’s no attempt to explore them too deeply, but that’s not the point of a novel like this. As for the monsters, they’re pretty interesting in their own right, though science buffs might find themselves raising their eyebrows at their admittedly questionable genetics. Other than that, though, the novel itself is a great read, and will go over well with people looking for an interesting monster story.

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