Tempest: Macmillan audio, 9 CDs / St. Martin's hardcover, 334 pages, January 2012, cover photo by James Porto. Tempest advanced to the second round by defeating Forbidden by Syrie & Ryan M. James in the first round. Tempest is the debut novel of Julie Cross, which we received in audio format, featuring solid narration by Matthew Brown.
The protagonist is Jackson Meyer, a college student with the ability to travel a few hours backward in time. The first 25 pages ended with Jackson seeing his girlfriend Holly shot by myterious intruders, just as he made a jump. In the next 25 pages, we learn that this particular jump took Jackson back two years, the first time he ever jumped nearly so far, and he doesn't know how to get back to his own time. He experiments with more time jumps, in one of which he learns that his father is some sort of spy. Through 50 pages, it hasn't occurred to him that since he's in the past, he could go see Holly. (But it will—I cheated and read ahead.)
Hell Train: Solaris paperback, January 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Graham Humphreys. Hell Train got here by defeating Greatshadow by James Maxey in the first round. Christopher Fowler has written some thirty books, mostly horror and mysteries, and is a five-time British Fantasy Award winner, among other honors.
Hell Train opened with a screenwriter in 1966 receiving an assignment to write a new horror movie for Hammer Films involving a train. Then we saw a young girl who opens a very dangerous board game called "Hell Train." The first 25 pages ended with British con artist Nicholas Castleford, who gets off a train in a strange Eastern European village during World War I. The next 25 pages have stuck exclusively with Nicholas. He encounters villagers who are all rather hostile, except for the beautiful innkeep's daughter Isabella, who seemingly has been waiting for a stranger to come take her away. Nicholas considers spiriting Isabella off on the midnight train, but has been warned to avoid that train at all costs. The first 50 pages end with Nicholas and Isabella running for their lives from enraged townsfolk. Although Fowler hasn't said for sure, I suspect Nicholas and Isabella are characters in the screenwriter's movie.
The Battle: Both of these books make for engaging reading. But in pages 26-50, both authors moved away from my favorite aspect of their books' respective openings. With Tempest, I loved the chemistry between Jackson and Holly in the first 25 pages, but Holly is absent from the next 25. With Hell Train, I especially enjoyed the Hammer studio setting, but that has not reappeared since the first chapter. So the battle comes down to which author could keep me absorbed in the story without that favored story element.
Even though I'm still enjoying Tempest and I really like the teenage voice ("Time travel was kicking my ass!"), I felt a significant drop in dramatic tension in the second section. We've already seen Holly get shot, which makes some of Jackson's subsequent dilemmas in the past—for example how Jackson can explain his sudden appearance when he's supposed to be in the middle of a semester overseas—feel unimportant.
In Hell Train, even without the Hammer studio setting that I liked so much, Christopher Fowler was quickly able to ratchet up the tension to suck me into the Nicholas and Isabella storyline. Staying true to the Hammer style, he creates a nice forbidding atmosphere. I expect the two young lovers to make an escape from the surprisingly dangerous townspeople onto the midnight train, and I am most interested to read what they experience on that (surely eponymous) train.
THE WINNER: HELL TRAIN by Christopher Fowler
Hell Train advances to the semifinals to take on either Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions or Simon Bestwick's The Faceless.
To see the whole bracket, click here.