Martin Roy Hill
I first discovered Martin Roy Hill through his Alternate History short story Hitler is Coming, a fast-paced and character-driven story about a former OSS agent forced to work alongside the Nazi regime occupying the continental United States in order to prevent the assassination of Adolf Hitler when he made his first official trip to the country. It was a brilliant piece of counterfactual fiction that struck a chord with me, and after reviewing it I resolved to read more fiction by Hill. After reviewing some more of his short fiction, I was lucky enough to be contacted by the author and offered a review copy of the first novel in a new series; titled Polar Melt, it told the story of an elite U.S. Coast Guard unit sent to investigate a US Navy research vessel in the arctic that suddenly goes silent. Discovering a missing crew, ruined electrical systems and several bombs primed to go off, the special forces unit suspect the involvement of a nearby Russian oil platform. But they soon discover that, while international politics have played a part in the crew’s disappearance, a mysterious power source below the platform also plays a role – and it may well not be of this planet at all. Excellent writing, a highly imaginative and exciting plot, and some gripping nautical action sequences made Polar Melt a thoroughly engaging and first-rate military thriller; and I was thrilled to recently be contacted again by Hill and offered an Advanced Review Copy of the sequel – the intriguingly-named Chimera Island.
I immediately took Hill up on his offer, my attention snared not just by the title, but also the rather menacing cover art by RebecaCovers, in which an idyllic island with a castle-cum-cathedral in its centre is contrasted by a gigantic human skull lurking underneath it in the ice-cold waters below. It’s a fantastic piece of cover art which meshes well with the back-cover blurb for the novel. Chimera Island is a small atoll inhabited by an American research team undertaking secretive research, and shadowed by a Chinese intelligence vessel in nearby waters. When strange deaths and mysterious disappearances plague the researchers they urgently request extraction, but both they and the transport plane sent to the island disappear, as does the Chinese vessel. Dispatched to investigate, Lieutenant Commander Douglas Munro Gates and his DSF-Papa team, who specialise in strange and unexplainable phenomena, soon find themselves isolated on the island. The research station is wrecked, strange creatures lurk in the vegetation, and reality itself seems wrong, somehow. Either Gates and his team discover the secrets of Chimera Island – or they risk becoming the latest victims of the forces controlling events on the strange atoll. It sounded like an absolutely incredible plot devised by a stellar author, and I couldn’t wait to get reading.
After a rather chilling prologue in which Hill deftly demonstrates the mentally and physically degrading effects that Chimera Island has on its inhabitants, and the dramatic disappearance of a C-130 and its crew and rescued researchers, we’re then (re)introduced to Lieutenant Commander Gates and his team of veteran ‘Coasties’. Gates and the rest of DSF-Papa have been hurriedly transferred to a US Aircraft Carrier to help search for the missing C-130, and after linking up with the elderly academic accompanying them on their mission, they’re briefed on the incredibly strange nature of Chimera Island. Malfunctioning compasses, ghost lights and the crews of entire shipwrecked vessels found dead are just the beginning of the island’s often lethal mysteries. The island and its surrounding waters are clearly a mystery that needs to be solved, and the missing researchers and Air Force crew rescued, and so DSF-Papa travel to the island. But the veteran Coast Guard operatives soon find that what should have been a routine search and rescue mission becomes a life or death fight even more terrifying than their previous mission in the Arctic, and with even higher stakes this time.
Hill rapidly demonstrates that he knows how to generate an unsettling and disquieting atmosphere – as soon as DSF-Papa touch down on the island, it becomes clear that there’s something inherently wrong with the entire island, and Hill deftly and expertly ratchets up the tension as the plot progresses and Gates and his team discover that the climate research station has not only been systematically destroyed by someone – or something – but that the station was also clearly researching something much different than the climate. What does it have to do with the mysterious voices in the trees, strange electromagnetic emissions, and the climate change researcher accompanying them who seems worryingly ill-informed about his supposed research speciality? Slowly but surely, the members of DSF-Papa learn the horrifying truth behind the disappearances and murders on the island across the decades, and the inhuman forces once again at the core of one of their missions. Although the atmosphere is consistently unsettling, it’s also inherently engaging, and Hill keeps you on your toes on practically every page as the tension increases and more clues to the real situation on the island come to light.
That fantastic atmosphere is matched by a small but potent cast of characters that mesh perfectly with the plot: Lieutenant Commander Gates continues to be a well-developed and unique protagonist, with a complex and troubled family history and his own, unique talents which simultaneously make him the perfect fit to lead DSF-Papa but also someone haunted by things he has never done and effects that he cannot control. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the eerie occurrences on Chimera Island are becoming focused on Gates, leading to some shocking revelations and thought-provoking character development. The rest of the DSF-Papa team are also well fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters even in a supporting role, and they never feel like the kind of cardboard cut-outs that often populate many of the novels found in the military action-thriller genre. In addition, Professor Handley makes an excellent secondary antagonist as an arrogant, overbearing academic with a raft of secrets to hide about his project on Chimera Island, only to find his entire world exposed and effectively set on fire by the end of the novel. The overall character development is excellent, augmented by the elements of psychological horror that Hill integrates into the latter half of the novel: as the inhuman forces on the island begin to manipulate the members of DSF-Papa, each of them begins to experience the worst moments in their lives as if they’re occurring for the first time, allowing us to get some invaluable insights into the background of each member of the team, and their fears and vulnerabilities.
Chimera Island is a potent blend of military action and science-fiction, with a smattering of psychological horror expertly integrated for good measure, creating a fast-paced and hard-hitting thriller that’s rapidly becoming the signature of author Martin Roy Hill. I devoured this novel in a series of lengthy reads spread over the course of a single day, almost unheard of in a household with multiple small children – it was just that damn good. I’ve come to appreciate the men and women of DSF-Papa, and the intriguing (and real-life) concept of the US Coast Guard operating small groups of special forces operatives; it goes directly against the common (and thoroughly erroneous) public ‘knowledge’ that the US Coast Guard only have responsibility for US coastal areas, and that it isn’t a ‘proper’ branch of the US armed forces despite actually being the senior naval service, formed almost a decade before the US Navy itself. It makes for a unique and engaging concept that Hill has completely made his own, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing what Hill has in store for DSF-Papa in their next adventure.