Review: Topsiders (Scott Tyson)

I very much enjoyed this read but I’m going to begin this review with a disclaimer.

It’s fair to say quite a few of my reviews will have a disclaimer of sorts; as a writer, I have a lot of writerly friends and colleagues who pen the genre I love reading, so there’s bound to be cross-overs from time to time. Scott Tyson falls into the cross-over category. While I’ve worked with Scott on another project, I was not involved with either the pre or post-production of Topsiders. Yes, that is me mentioned in the acknowledgements, but that was for providing general advice of a writing/editorial nature. My only knowledge of the Topsiders story was based solely on the back-cover blurb. I did not receive a free copy of the book – I buy the books that fill (overfill?) my shelves, and do so gladly.


Okay, now that we have the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get on with this review. Oh, and big-arse spoiler alert here: I’ll be talking about the end of this story so if you don’t want to be tainted look away now…now I said! Stop peeking through your fingers!

Topsiders is a tale of twos: two worlds, two families, two journeys and two protags. Told through the eyes of father (Bill) and son (Mathew), we follow each as they embark on separate (though intertwined) quests into an abandoned house by the river. You know this isn’t going to end well.

The story started a little slowly for me; the small glimpses I had of the goings-on in the house made me want to be there, not reading of the dynamics between the adult-couples, or the jostling hierarchy of 14-year-old Mathew, his just-older brother Guy, and love-interest Claire. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are well-drawn and believable, I just wanted to get into that house… or rather, beneath it.

As we’re told this story from two points of view, we know that overly-cautious Bill isn’t so keen on investigating the house, but provoked into doing so by his estranged wife Judy, and lured by his lust for family friend Helen (despite Helen’s husband Phil), Bill plunges into the darkness of the house. When the parents go missing, Mathew, Guy and Claire (Helen and Phil’s daughter) head up their own search party.

Tyson does well to flip between the two parties. Access to the world below is through a tunnel hidden behind a picture in the bathroom – our first glimpse of this is done remarkably well, which only heightened my belief that we needed to get to this point sooner. The tunnel is creepy, and you know they shouldn’t enter, but they do (as we’ve all done things we know we really shouldn’t), and here we really see Bill’s cowardice come to the fore.

Mathew and Claire soon follow suit, determined to find their parents and the now-missing Guy. Tyson creates tension here, and his use of monsters-hiding-in-darkness fear is done very well (sometimes what is unseen is more frightening that what is). Bill, now alone, is at a crossroads – he’s seen (kinda) what lies below and he wants out, but Mathew’s arrival forces Bill’s hand.

Once both arrive at the heart of the monster’s home, the horror of what really lies beneath is shown in its total brutality. There are parts of this story that aren’t for the feint-of-heart, but I liked that Tyson didn’t shy away from brutality – this is a horror story and horror happens.

Once in the cavern, we’re shown the true heart of all involved: the monsters, Bill, Mathew and Judy. Tyson shows us that sometimes there’s not a lot of difference between those that live below and the ‘topsiders’. It’s a hard ending, but there’s a truthfulness to it that made the story all the more enjoyable. There’s a Laymon-esque quality to Tyson’s story – a collision of worlds that is honest in its brutality. I don’t want to spoil the ending of this story, but let me say that Tyson doesn’t soften that blow but delivers it how it must be delivered.

My main issue with the story was its slow beginning, and I think part of that goes to the world Tyson’s created beneath that house – this is where the true story lies, and I think the relationships explored at the beginning could well have been given to the reader while the topsiders were underground. I believe it would have amplified their dynamic. I wanted more of that world, and those trying to survive in it (monster and topsider alike), especially when you take into account that last chapter.

Tyson has left this open for a sequel, and given the point of view of that protag, I would gladly read it.

On a Goodreads scale, I give this a 4 out of 5 stars.



Death of a Novel

After a lingering illness of insentience and lassitude, we regret to inform you of the death of Novel Draft Two. It slipped into the Black with relief and without fanfare. May it never see the light of day again.

The “deadline” for the draft of my first novel is approaching at what seems to be warp speed (I can’t actually confirm that with like… math and stuff, ‘cause, well… it’s math), but I guarantee it’s true.

Last December I chucked my first draft in at 52,000 words (no, that’s not a typo) and started again, pumped and ready to go. Five days ago draft number two bit the dust at 26,000 (yep, that’s 78,000 words in total – novel length), and started again. I’m nothing if not consistent.

The problem with the story wasn’t the fact that I was leaning more to the side of ‘pantsing’ than ‘plotting’, but that the story had no soul. It wasn’t my characters or the world they lived in, it was the way I was imparting my characters’ story. I was bored, and if I’m bored with the storytelling, then so will any potential reader.

I won’t lie; it’s been a struggle. I’ve been plagued with self-doubt, petty jealousies, and outright apathy – dark moments that made me want to give it all away. Not just the novel, but writing as a whole. It’s a terrible place to be, and while it usually only lasts a few days, it feels like an eternity when you’re living it, and it feels like there’s no way out.

Storytelling isn’t easy; it’s more than just sitting down and spewing out words. Not everyone can do it. On my good days, I like to think I can do it well. Well enough to keep at it. Perseverance, stubbornness, quintessence, call it what you will. Writing is an intrinsic part of me – the good, the bad and the ugly.

So where does that leave me? Two thousand words into the third draft and with two main characters who have a story they want to tell before they’re lost to history. A story of gods and monsters, survival and betrayal, hope and hopelessness in a savage, unforgiving world. I like them, warts and all, but they don’t care that I do; they are who they are and they make no apologies for it.

Here’s a little taste by way of introduction:

If Wren knew one thing, it was the world was dying and she wasn’t one for being long in it. She’d defied enemy and gods alike, and sooner or later, one would stake their claim and into the Black she’d go.

Crouched in the shadow of the Kanaku Ranges, she slit the wood rat from tiny cock to tiny throat, scooping out its innards and plopping them into the pan. They sizzled, stinging her nostrils and watering her mouth. The rat’s blood sautéed the offal quickly and her gut grumbled with impatience. She chose the heart. It tasted like metal. Metal and dirt. Still, food was food. She’d seen others eat much worse.

And debut number two:

The aroma of roasting deer teased Cy’s tongue as he busied himself with the defences along the north ridge, but it was the tournament that weighed heavily on his mind. The first rounds would have begun. Candidates would be sweating in their armour, the women demure behind intricately-bejewelled veils. Seven women; the last of breeding age left in the Ranges.

Cy punched the log into place, taking pleasure in the radiating pain. No girls born in over a decade—and she’d been a sickly child, strange of face and mind—and three more women lost in childbirth this past year. They had a legion of soldiers in the making, but no wives to mourn them. His name should have been called; the deal had been struck. But here he was fucking about with wood when he should have been earning his legacy. He would leave tomorrow, past the sanctuary of the mountains in search of a womb.

I feel a lot more confident with this incarnation, I can see their stories much more clearly, and both Wren and Cy seem comfortable in their new skins (I think Wren may have smiled, but she swears it was a grimace).

So enough dilly-dallying for now, it’s time to get these two moving – they have paths they’re itching to take and they don’t suffer malingerers.

Right then, where’s my coffee…