Aliens: Nightmare Asylum (Steve Perry)
The second book in a three book cycle detailing the Alien's invasion of planet Earth, Nightmare Asylum builds on many things, good and bad, that were introduced in the last book (like the Aliens invading Earth and Billie and Bueller's romance) while introducing a completely new setting and a new human antagonist. Even though it all works surprisingly well, this is a fairly nondescript book that only fans of the franchise will get much out of. If you ever wanted another Alien adventure eerily similar to the first ones, while managing to do just enough to succeed on its own merits, then this book will do all that and then some.
In this book, our heroes make their way to an isolated military outpost far away from Earth. The Humans continue to lose ground to the Alien swarms threatening to overrun the entire planet, so our heroes are desperate to come up with a way to end this menace once and for all. They meet with the delusional General Spears, a crazily over the top antagonist with big plans to save the Earth with the very instrument of its destruction: Aliens trained to his every command. His plan involves using our trio as test subjects initially, due mostly to the fact that he knows that they have fought Aliens before, and much of the book involves the dynamic between Spears, his top officer, and our heroes as the pieces shift around and we get closer to the truth behind Spears' motives. The early parts of the book do a great job of keeping a few of the more burning questions in suspense and promoting the generally depressing atmosphere of this deeply divided base so far away from home, while the second half or so is a straight forward action novel that anybody with an appreciation for the movies will enjoy.
Nightmare Asylum won't wow you with any plot twists or keep you guessing with intrigue. It is a fairly simple by the numbers story about a crazy general trying to train Aliens to help re-take the Earth, with our heroes caught firmly in the middle. Even with as ridiculous as this premise was, it is executed well enough with excellent pacing and just enough seriousness for it to be a surprisingly good follow up to an utterly bland first book. This is an incredibly campy, often times fun book that manages to amuse and occasionally disturb through the actions of the main antagonist, one of the book's brightest spots.
Our main cast, Billie and Wilks, continue to grow as characters but the more we learn about them, the less likeable they are. Billie alternates between frustratingly indecisive and completely bland, more of a third rate knockoff of Ripley than a character in her own right, while Wilks is more often annoying and just a little bit creepy. It is hard to feel any kind of attachment to either of these folks, and Bueller the android isn't any better. He is still pretty much a blank slate for Billie to angst over, and their relationship is a horrible feature of the book with the only redeeming factor being that it will probably never come in to play for the conclusion. The only thing that keeps this book from being ruined by having such unlikeable characters as the protagonists is that it is very much a plot driven novel, characterization definitely takes a back seat as our heroes face one death defying situation after another.
In a rare twist for me, one of my favorite parts of this entire book was actually the villain, General Spears. Spears is given a delightfully insane portrayal, gleefully feeding his marines to the Aliens, possessing a tremendous ego that is so at odds with reality to be laughable, and embodying every cheesy stereotype about military officers that there is. He is a cigar smoking camera hog more concerned with how history sees his actions than he is with preserving the lives of those under his command. This over the top portrayal is perhaps best embodied in a scene in which he seems to be sexually aroused by being in the presence of the Alien eggs, and another where he partakes in a hilariously awkward sex scene in a book chock full of them. This is a character that probably isn't meant to be taken seriously, although there is a certain element of intimidation in his insanity, but with that aside he is still one of the most bold faced and entertaining villains that I've come across lately.
While the writing in Nightmare Asylum is mostly solid, there are a few flaws. This series has had quite a bit of sex in it, something that somewhat surprises me since sex appeal was hardly a major selling point of the original films, but it isn't so much this shift that I disapprove of as it is the way it is handled. The scenes between Billie and Bueller are totally cringe worthy in dialogue and action, describing them in the dullest ways imaginable. Billie and Wilks later have a bit of flirting with one another and once again, the author seems to be unable to write romantic scenes that aren't completely stilted and strange. Spears' sex scene with his much older drill sergeant is also incredibly awkward, more so because it comes out of nowhere at a totally random point in the book, but at least this isn't really a serious character and it just kind of lends to his insanity.
There are some improvements over the last book though, most notably in setting. While the first book did nothing but the subtlest of world building, in NIghtmare Asylum we actually get a pretty good feel for the military installation where almost all of the action is set. It comes across as a living breathing encampment with more interaction between our main cast and the random side characters that populate the locale, and more exposition to fill in the technical details. It isn't dissimilar to the colony in Aliens, particularly after the action starts to pick up, and that is definitely a good thing.
Even though this is the second book in a trilogy, it is actually probably possible to put together all the needed narrative pieces in order to enjoy this book without trudging through the more mediocre opening book. The overarching story of Aliens on Earth isn't anywhere near the selling point of this book, and Wilks and Billie are hardly complex enough to require the additional material to understand them. The best parts of this book: deranged General Spears and a fantastic invasion of a Colonial Marine military installation, are entirely self contained. If you have read and enjoyed the first book, there is absolutely no reason not to read on. It only gets better.