Book Review: Into the Ashes by Lee Murray

“All in all, Murray gives us another cracking, rip-roaring adventure, while also taking us to new heights and new directions.”

 

Australia and New Zealand have both had a unique and distinct output where horror is concerned. Their film industry has, since the 70s, produced a steady stream of fresh and offbeat fare such as The Cars That Ate Paris, Long Weekend, and Patrick. This trend has continued through the years with Peter Jackson’s early efforts (Bad Taste, Brain Dead), right up to the modern era with the likes of Wolf Creek, The Babadook, Deathgasm, Housebound, Lake Mungo, and many, many more. In terms of the literary, the names might perhaps be less known, yet there are many fantastic writers from “Down Under” busy beavering away on dark works. Gary Kemble, Angela Slatter, Paul Mannering, William Cook, Alan Baxter, and Sally McLennan are just a tiny handful of Antipodean writers plying their dark trade. And then there’s Cohesion Press, who put out a steady stream of award-winning and lauded military horror books and anthologies

This brings us to Lee Murray, who is not only a prolific writer, but also a champion of New Zealand speculative writers. Amongst her numerous works are the—currently—three books in the Taine McKenna series. Though the books do follow on from each other, they can be easily read as stand-alone works, though why you would want to is a mystery. Into the Ashes is the most recent release in this series.

All three books weave action, thrills, and chills with deep knowledge of New Zealand myths and history, and various Māori cultural touchstones. The main characters are Sergeant Taine McKenna, a soldier in the New Zealand Defence Force (essentially special forces), Rawiri Temera, an indigenous New Zealander and shaman (a matakite, a seer) who can speak with McKenna through a shared psychic link. There are also many others, some who appear in only one book, some who pop up across two or three. In other hands, the sheer number of different characters and locales might feel confusing and disorienting, but with Murray’s capable skills, each situation is rendered with clarity and depth. In the previous two books, McKenna and his team—and various others—encountered peoples and creatures from Māori myth. In this one, it is the very land that is threatening the populace. The Kāhui Tupua are warring, mountain warrior spirits rumbling in the form of volcanos. McKenna and his team are dispatched to assist with the rescue and aid efforts. But also in the area is Jules Asher, hunting for a rare species, a number of research scientists, some innocent civilians, and a group of prisoners and two guards, men abandoned by the authorities.

Murray leaps between these characters and their various situations with ease. Widening the scope of her previous works, she brings more of a disaster thriller aesthetic to the proceedings. There is still time for brief flurries of action, for deeds of desperation and heroics. But there is also the wider peril, the mountains on the brink of erupting. It’s an ambitious novel and yet never feels out of the author’s control. The prose is clipped and clear, suited to the fast pace and the action. Yet there is also time for quieter moments, allowing the characters—and the reader—time to catch their breath. But never for too long.

Murray knows just when to rack up the tension and when to ease off. There are some real, epic, blockbuster moments, and it occurs as one reads just what fantastic movies these books would make. Whereas in the previous two novels there were clear-cut antagonists—a prehistoric lizard in the first, a gang of ruthless traffickers in the second—in this, it is the elements that are the danger. That’s not to say we don’t still have our bad guy. Leading the prisoners—many of whom follow reluctantly—is Barnes, a nasty sociopath. When he and his gang take some innocents hostage, it sparks some real heartfelt dread.

However, it’s not all big, military action. As before, Murray threads in pieces of Māori culture. Through both McKenna and Temera, we are given insight into a unique and rarely shown—outside its own lands—culture. From most of the characters’ perspectives, it is simply the volcanoes that are threatening eruption. But for Temera and McKenna, there is a deeper, spiritual reason. One that they might—if they can survive long enough—be able to appease. Guiding them, offering cryptic clues and often hindering are two warrior women from ancient myth. They—along with the god-like spirits of the mountains—bring a distinct and unique flavour to the story. Murray blends these differing components with ease, creating something that is compelling, thrilling, and thoughtful in equal measure.

If there can be one tiny criticism, it’s that the ending feels a little rushed. The story has been building towards this epic climax, and all of a sudden, it’s over. That could merely be a lingering sense of not wanting the story to be finished. Certainly, it’s one of those books—along with the previous two—where the characters feel real and familiar. Like people we know. Like friends. And we never want to leave the company of those. There’s also a real sense of closure at the end, underscored by an unexpectedly emotional scene. Although it’s been said the books can be read as stand-alone, it does feel that we are at the end of a trilogy. Yet there is also the promise of new chapters and avenues, so hopefully, this is not the end.

All in all, Murray gives us another cracking, rip-roaring adventure, while also taking us to new heights and new directions. If you haven’t read any of these books, get all three now. If you have, you just know you’re going to love this one as much—if not more—than the first two. Anyone with a passing interest in military action/horror would be remiss not to have these books on their shelves.

 

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Severed Press
Paperback: 263 (pps)
Release Date: 19 February 2019

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