Cocytus – Planet of the Damned by John Caligiuri

What a wonderful surprise. Despite finishing grad school with a ton of English Language credits, I did not immediately recognize the word “Cocytus.” In fact, I’m still not one hundred percent sure I could pronounce it. The light bulb went on at the beginning of chapter one and the quotes from Dante’s Inferno. Cocytus is the lake in the lowest pit of hell. By the middle of the first chapter I was hooked. I lived in the same area of Western New York as the story opened, Fort Drum. My hubby was a member of the 10th Mountain Division, so this story made me smile from the start. A couple of grad students are on their way home for the holidays when they encounter military activity along the highway. At first, they are told there is a chemical spill causing the delay. It becomes clear that the chemical spill is a cover for something much more serious when choppers go down in the woods and a ground battle ensues. The main characters, Dante and Tina, wake to find themselves in a strange new place. The air smells of sulfur and the landscape is barren. Worst, they are prisoners of an alien race who use human clones as their “muscle.” Dante, rather charismatic for a computer science major, soon befriends other prisoners in the camp. He is shocked to learn the aliens have been to earth four times. There are thousands of humans being held in the hellish prison. The leader of the Australian camp gives Dante the run-down and warns him many of the Americans will be slaughtered in the coming “Blood Passing ceremony.” “Yeah, yeah, sounds familiar.” Not at all! This is where the story takes on a life of its own. It has strong themes including love, freedom and what it means to be human. It will stick with you long after you are finished reading. This is an extremely well written book. A great mix of sci-fi and fantasy. The characters, even the aliens, are well written, well developed and can draw the reader in. The non-military humans in particular are normal folks. They could be your neighbors. My only complaint (and it's a small one) is the military humans were a little predictable, and one in particular came off as cliché. However, I really enjoyed the naturally unfolding love story between the main characters, as well as the friendship and acceptance plot lines between the humans and the “special” clones. There were a couple of minor plot points that didn’t work for me. Military units don’t normally do field maneuvers in a state park using live ammo, but I was so drawn into the story I ignored it. The second issue was an eye roll worthy love at first sight moment. Luckily, both of the points were minor and didn’t ruin the overall plot, nor did they change my rating of the book. The book maintains a fast pace, the quotes from Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of each chapter are a nice touch, and remind the reader of the symbolism shared by both novels. The author maintained a steady pace through the middle, and provides a satisfying ending, yet leaves the reader with unanswered questions, and screaming for a sequel. I for one will be waiting. I cannot say enough good things about this author’s writing style. The book is easy to read, even during times of heavy technical jargon. The characters have unique voices. The plot moves at a good clip, and provides enough thought provoking questions to stick with you for days to come.

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