The Spirit of Stratos: The Shadow Virus

The Spirit of Stratos: The Shadow Virus was written by R.E. Larrison and first published in 2016. It is a science fiction novel that focuses on two teenagers as they face separate challenges on a dangerous alien world. The book reads as though it is the first part of a series, though at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

When Alec Quinn learns that an airship has crashed in the depths of the jungle, he knows that it’s the time to prove himself. However, when he approaches his admiral to ask permission to join the search party, he discovers that there may be something more to the accident. The military is desperate to keep the crash a secret and it’s only with the help of a well-regarded priest that Alec gets accepted onto the top-secret mission.

However, Alec may have bitten off more than he can chew. He’s only a cadet but the mission takes him deep into a jungle that’s infested with giant carnivores and arboreal savages. As Alec’s party nears the crash site, things grow stranger still. They find dozens of dead creatures and a settlement full of people who should not exist. Alec may have stumbled across the biggest threat to his nation, but how will be able to rescue the airship crew and escape when danger lurks behind every tree?

Meanwhile, Elka Kole – Alec’s childhood friend – has been kidnapped. She awakes to find herself held prisoner by a family of smugglers who plan to sell her to the infamous thug, Munner Lyn. Alone and far away from her family, Elka must find a way to survive and escape. However, to do this, she must first befriend her captors…

I have some very mixed feelings towards The Spirit of Stratos, and so it’s probably best if I start by talking about the things that I enjoyed the most. Larrison’s world building is very impressive. Although he isn’t an especially descriptive writer, his ideas are very imaginative. Despite the advanced level of technology, the novel had more of the feel of a fantasy novel than science fiction.

The story reminded me most of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s set on an unnamed planet where life is based around the worship of a god called Stratos. Priests are ranked as highly as military commanders, and people distinguished by the colour of their skin (red, green, blue and yellow) are enjoying a tenuous peace after many years of war. The lay of the land was also very varied, with people living in vast domed cities which offered protection from the gargantuan beasts that lurked in the forests. Although the story was a little slow to start, it was fascinating to read and deeply immersive.

The Spirit of Stratos was certainly never boring. Despite pushing 400 pages in length, it soon found its feet and maintained its tension well. Although the third person narrative followed two main protagonists, its easy pace made the jumps between their parallel story-lines feel very smooth. Yet, unfortunately, the novel was not without its flaws.

Firstly, I found some glaring problems with the way that the book was written. While it was pretty polished for an independent novel, I noticed a number of instances where character names were misspelled. The King of the Arboreals completely changes name between two chapters and Tanner occasionally becomes “Tanned”. Added to this were the anachronisms. This book takes place entirely on an alien world. How would Alec know what Fu Manchu’s beard looks like? This wasn’t the only instance of this in the novel. Proverbs and turns of phrase from our world are scattered throughout this story. In a fantastical setting, they just felt out of place.

Then there was the plotting. As I passed the half-way mark, I realised that this book wasn’t really offering answers for the questions that it raised. Just take the title for example – The Spirit of Stratos: The Shadow Virus. Just what is the Shadow Virus? I’ve finished reading this novel and I still have no idea. Is it responsible for the dead beasts that Alec discovers in the forests? Why is the villain “searching” for it, and how does he know where to look? None of these things are explained. We don’t even get to see the villain. He’s mentioned by name a couple of times, but never appears in the book in person.

I didn’t realise that The Spirit of Stratos was the first part of a series when I started reading, and was very disappointed by its ending. While it’s not the worst cliff-hanger that I’ve criticised, the book still felt incomplete. The last couple of chapters were very rushed and it broke off on a rather unsatisfying note, right after a dramatic (if sudden) act of violence. I’m a believer that every book in a series should feel like a complete story. The Spirit of Stratos didn’t manage to achieve this.

I also found it frustrating that Alec and Elka’s stories never truly intersect. Alec and Elka only share the page during the opening gala, which is where it was established that they are childhood friends. She is the daughter of an admiral (often described as being a princess). He is a military cadet who has loved her since childhood. Yet once they go their separate ways, they rarely seem to even think about each other afterwards.

Finally, let’s talk about the characters. The Spirit of Stratos is one of those books that introduces dozens of characters, many of whom have difficult to remember science fiction names. As their only distinguishing feature is their skin colour, these names quickly become a blur. Even though I’ve only just finished reading the book, only two or three have actually stuck in my mind.

To talk about Alec too much would lead to spoilers, but I will say that I found him to be a bit over-capable. He’s not unlike Avi in The Conscript in that he’s a military cadet who seems to be more adept than those who teach him. Despite having not even graduated from his academy, he assumes control of the mission when his commander is injured and the other hardened space marines just roll with this. I also felt that the book was a bit too vague about his destiny. There are hints about this throughout the second half of the novel, but I never really got a feel for what abilities he was supposed to possess.

Yet the biggest disappointment of the novel was its female cast. While there were a good number of female characters in this story, none of them did very well. They were frequently kidnapped, shot, left behind and (in one case) even donated to the enemy as a hostage. Worse still, these characters seemed woefully unable to get themselves out of trouble. In one particularly jaw-dropping scene, Elka manages to escape for half a paragraph before she is overpowered by her male captor. The only salvation for the ladies came in the form of the much more capable male cast.

As a very vocal advocate of strong women, this really frustrated me more than I can put to words. Damsels in distress don’t do it for me. This book is set in a world where there don’t seem to be any gender restrictions. Women can be priests and soldiers and anything else they want. If this is true, they should at least seem capable. There was a running joke with one female marine repeatedly misplacing her gun. Just how has she managed to get accepted onto a top-secret mission when she is apparently so awful at her job? Even Elka, who was pretty likeable on the whole, succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome less than a day after she was kidnapped.

Okay, rant over. The Spirit of Stratos: The Shadow Virus was not perfect but it did show promise. Larisson’s world-building is great and with a bit of polish, his story could have been a little gem. I am curious to see where he intends to take the story from here. I just hope that his female characters do better in the sequel.

The Spirit of Stratos: The Shadow Virus can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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