Blood Red Sand
Dancing Lemur Press
When Damien Larkin’s latest novel opened with Harry Truman impotently shaking his fist at the latest Nazi UFO to hover over the White House, I knew that I was going to be in for a good time. I’m not usually in the habit of praising Facebook, or even being vaguely positive about that bloated, inefficient and often sinister corpse of a social media behemoth; but the one thing it has managed to do well recently – for me at least – is start to show me paid adverts from horror and scifi authors about their latest releases. So when I was scrolling through my feed a few weeks ago and saw the book cover for Damien Larkin’s Blood Red Sand, I stopped scrolling and decided to take a look. The title itself was intriguing, and the cover drew my attention with its depiction of an astronaut with a Union Jack mission patch, and the sight of a strange geodesic dome reflected in the astronaut’s helmet. Having caught my attention, the book blurb then decisively reeled me in and had me immediately messaging Larkin for a review copy: whereas in our reality the Third Reich had the decency to stay down once they’d lost the Second World War, in this alternate history the remnants of the Nazi regime and their forces decided to make use of hidden, space-age technology to instead retreat to Mars and establish a technologically-advanced citadel there, far way from the Earth-bound Allied powers. There they built UFOs and began work on the secretive and terrifying Hollow Programme that promised a route for vengeance against the Allies who had defeated them the first time around. Fortunately for humanity, the United States was still able to undertake a version of Operation Paperclip in this reality, and Werner von Braun is soon pressed into service to oversee the construction of a vast fleet of starships that will transport an invasion force to the red planet to once and for all deal with the Nazi menace.
At this point, it would be fair to assume that our protagonist would be a square-jawed, cigar-chomping, corn-fed American soldier, dual-wielding Space Tommy Guns and spewing out an endless stream of lead and witticisms: B.J. Blazkowicz with the serial numbers filed off. And yet, as the cover art subtly indicates, this is about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get. Rather cleverly, Larkin eschews the tropes and stereotypes of this particular scenario and instead crafts a completely different and rather fascinating basis for the novel’s plot. For instead of American soldiers bearing the brunt of landing on Nazi-held Mars, it’s a joint Anglo-French invasion force, comprised of soldiers from two nations that the superpowers knew would a) have a particular grudge against the Nazis and b) not be a threat to either superpower when they landed on Mars, being transported by American vessels. So it is that Sergeant William McCabe suddenly awakes from suspended animation onboard the USAF North Carolina, orbiting Mars. A veteran of the British Army, McCabe’s platoon is just one tiny part of the Mars Expeditionary Force about to be deployed onto the Red Planet. But almost immediately there are problems for the NCO: his men find themselves kitted out in bright-white EVA suits that will make them excellent targets on the blood-red sand of Mars; they’ve come out of suspended animation far too late to prepare effectively; and casualties amongst the battalion’s senior officers mean his new CO is a Major who rejoices in the nickname “Mad Jack” and jas a sinister reputation. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, McCabe has barely woken up before the North Carolina is crippled by a surprise attack which leads to its fiery destruction, and McCabe and the survivors of his platoon hurtling towards Mars in a damaged drop ship, isolated from any surviving Allied forces.
It’s an action-packed and incredibly vivid opening to the novel, and Larkin keeps up the pressure on McCabe as the Sergeant survives landing on Mars, only to find himself outgunned and outnumbered by the Nazi forces. Struggling to keep himself and his remaining men alive, McCabe finds himself having to reluctantly ally himself with the mysterious Majestic-12 operatives known as the Black Visors. Meanwhile the Nazi high command in charge of the New Berlin Colony finds itself riven by inter-service rivalries and internal sabotage as Generalfeldmarschall Seidel’s Wehrmacht and Reichsführer Wagner’s SS repeatedly clash. The arrogant Wagner will do anything to repulse the Allied invasion and unleash the secretive Hollow Programme to ensure a final victory for the Nazi Party that will have repercussions across the entire solar system. Larkin has an instinctive feel for writing action-focused thrillers, deftly ramping up the tension as the consequences of Allied failure become readily apparent, and had me on the edge of my seat as I read the novel in the course of just two days. The plotting is sharply written, laser-focused and lean, with no padding out the wordcount with irrelevant sub-plots like many authors in the genre; Larkin also manages the deeply impressive feat of making the political machinations as riveting and engaging as the action sequences, something relatively few writers are able to achieve. In fact, in many ways, the twisted yet simultaneously terrifyingly prescient goals of the Hollow Project are even more interesting than the fighting between the MEF and the forces of the Third Reich, as Larkin sets up threads that are answered in the sequel novel, Big Red. That’s not to say that the fighting sequences aren’t deeply impressive as well – far from it. The frantic, savage, close-quarters fighting in the midst of New Berlin is admirably evocative of the overarching dieselpunk atmosphere of the novel, and Larkin gives us some hugely impressive set-pieces. One such example.is the cinematic opening landing on Mars that reads like a cross between The Longest Day and Starship Troopers, with thousands of British and French troops frantically emerging from shattered drop-ships to engage Nazi forces and Russian collaborators on the outskirts of New Berlin. Larkin knows exactly what buttons to push to keep us on our toes as the plot progresses at breakneck speed.
There’s so much more worldbuilding layered into Blood Red Sand that intrigues and enthralls, all without becoming overwhelming or an example of telling rather than showing. Instead,we get intriguing snippets – multiple Nazi moon colonies, Jewish labourers launching uprisings from their ghettos, and even references to the native Martian population whose presence begins to be felt in the latter half of the novel. And the first-class writing and well-integrated worldbuilding is matched by a cast of three-dimensional and fleshed out characters. Sergeant McCabe is a solid, engaging protagonist who develops naturally as the novel’s narrative progresses: while initially more worried about ensuring he and his men survive the coming onslaught against a well-defended and fanatical foe, his involvement with the Black Visors and their mysterious mission broadens his horizons and ensures he becomes enmeshed in both the current conflict against the Third Reich, and a mysterious galactic conflict that threatens to unfold in the coming decades. His squad-mate Private Jenkins is also a favourite of mine – not lucky enough to accompany a squad of futuristic commandos armed with superior weapons, Jenkins becomes our everyman character, fighting with bayonet and rifle against fanatical Wehrmacht and SS troops and becoming more and more broken – emotionally and physically – by what he witnesses. Forced to see comrades die from suicide bombs and ground under Panzer tracks, shell-shocked and demoralised by the end of the novel, Jenkins’ experiences help to ground the novel’s overarching narrative, Larkin soberingly demonstrating that while there are many fantastical elements to the novel, especially in its latter half, this is still very much a brutal meat-grinder of a conflict on par with the worst experiences of the Eastern Front a decade before. I also greatly appreciated that Larkin is one of the few authors in the genre to remember that it was the United Nations fighting the Third Reich, and not just Britain, Russia and the US: we get to see French, Polish and even Irish troop contingents fighting amongst the MEF, and there’s even a small contingent of unarmed West German soldiers who feed into an interesting sub-plot throughout the novel as McCabe attempts to rationalise their presence compared to the Germans he’s fighting.
Blood Red Sand is an absolutely brilliant science-fiction novel, one that’s simultaneously delightfully and unapologetically pulpy with a fantastic dieselpunk aesthetic, and yet also has a much more nuanced and complex background that Larkin carefully orchestrates and reveals in the latter half of the novel. At times it comes across as something like a science-fiction, prose version of a Commando comic, with Lee-Enfields and Bren Guns and panzers grinding through the Martian sand, but it’s also imbued with surprising depth of narrative, and populated with a cast of colourful and often complex and three-dimensional characters. One of my favourite novels I’ve read in a very long time, and most definitely ranking near the top of my Top Ten Novels of 2021, I genuinely cannot wait to dive into the sequel novel, Big Red, and see how all of the narrative threads set up in Blood Red Sand are resolved and expanded upon. Daniel Larkin is clearly an extremely talented science-fiction author, and is now firmly on my radar to see what he comes up with next; whether it’s more fiction set on the red sands of Mars, or something else entirely, you can be sure that I’ll be reading and reviewing it.