The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 8 February 2018

 

A classic and complex murder mystery in a English manor combines with ingenious elements from fantastic genres to create one of the best new releases of 2018.  Reading like the outrageous combination of Groundhog Day, Inception, Downton Abby and Sherlock Holmes written by Agatha Christie, The Seven Deaths of Eveyln Hardcastle is the triumph debut from outstanding new author Stuart Turton.

In a turn-of-the-century country manor, Blackheath, a group of distinguished family guests have gathered for the first time since a terrible incident many years ago.  Before the end of the weekend’s masquerade, a terrible crime will be committed.  A young woman will be killed, and no one will realise that her death was the result of murder.

Inserted into the middle of all this chaos is Aiden Charles, who awakens with no memory of who he really is.  Aiden thinks at first that he is a cowardly doctor with amnesia until a man wearing a plague mask reveals that nothing is as it seems.  Aiden is an outsider, inhabiting and controlling the body of the doctor through unknown means.  The plague doctor reveals that Aiden has been trapped within the manor and is being forced to repeatedly relive the same day again and again, awakening each morning in a different host and living the entire day in their body.

There is only one way Aiden can earn his freedom: solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the estranged daughter of the manor’s owners.  If Aiden can solve the murder by the end of his eighth day, he will be able to leave.  If he fails to solve the murder his memory will be erased and the cycle will start again.

Using the abilities and connections of his eight very different hosts, Aiden must navigate the halls of Blackheath and the various guests who have arrived for the party.  However, Blackheath has a dark history of murder and betrayal that still casts a shadow to this day.  Every one of its inhabitants has a secret, and many of the guests would willingly kill to protect theirs.

Aiden is also forced to overcome several unnatural problems associated with his circumstances.  While the bodies he inhabits all hold the means to solving the crime, he is forced to balance the varied personalities of his hosts, each of which causes him to act or think in a very different way.  The longer he remains trapped in Blackheath, the more powerful the personalities are.

It also soon becomes apparent that Aiden is not as alone as he thought.  Two other people like him have also been trapped in Blackheath, but only one of them can solve the murder and earn their freedom.  One of his competitors appears to be trying to help him, but Aiden may not be able to trust the mysterious Anna, even though her name is the only thing from his past life that he can remember.  The third competitor has taken on the persona of a murderous footman and has no qualms about killing all of Aiden’s hosts to remove him from the competition.  Can Aiden solve an unsolvable crime before all his hosts are killed, or will he be trapped forever within Blackheath?

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fantastic read that features a unique and imaginative combination of genres.  The basis of the story is a complicated murder mystery placed within the setting of a British manor house.  However, there is a certain and mysterious fantastic element that makes the narrator relive the day over and over again within a new host.  The murder mystery, the manor house setting and the time travelling body swapping, combine together perfectly into a tremendously addictive narrative.

At the heart of the story is an intense and compelling mystery that quickly becomes the main draw for the reader.  Solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle requires the protagonist to discover and expose every single secret and lie within the manor.  The sheer amount of details and enigmas that Turton has included with the book are so immense that it takes nearly eight different perspectives of the same sequence of events to get them all together.  Even then, the reader will be amazed by every single twist and turn that it takes to get to the final reveals.  The time travel and body  switching elements of the plot cleverly tie in and enhance the book’s mystery elements.  These elements allow the reader to see multiple versions of the same event, provide a wide variety of different perspectives on the clues, and pull together different testimonies from the same characters as they are questioned by the various hosts.

In addition to enhancing the murder mystery elements, the time travel and body switching aspects of the novel also help to increase the pacing and suspense throughout the book.  The transition between the main character’s various hosts is not as linear as it first appears.  Not only does the narrator switch to his next host once a day is over, he can also switch back to a previous host when he one of his hosts is knocked out, falls asleep or is killed.  This allows the reader to flip through these hosts when a lot of action is occurring, especially when the narrator’s various hosts are targeted in quick succession.  Additional suspense is also introduced due to many of the incidents within the story being out of sync with the narrator.  Various events have been put into place by either future hosts of the narrator or by characters from different points of the book’s timeline.  As a result, the reader has no idea why some events are happening, especially at the start of the book, and it is cool when the various causes of these events are revealed throughout the later parts of the book.

An appealing part of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the eight unique hosts for the main character to possess.  Each of these hosts has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is intriguing watching the main character try and work out what they are.  They also have their own distinctive personalities that affect the main character in different and subtle ways.  The hosts also have their own way of dealing with people or situations, and this affects how the main character reacts and goes about his investigation.  It is intriguing to see how he changes from host to host.  In addition, there is no certainty about who the main character’s future hosts are going to be.  While there are hints, the reader doesn’t know until the narrator wakes up in the body, so the reader can’t help but examine the other characters with whom the narrator interacts in case they are a future host.  There are also some interesting scenes in which the narrator attempts to find and interact with a future version of himself.  Turton’s use of multiple hosts for his narrator is an important and distinctive part of this book that cleverly adds additional mystery to the narrative while also providing suspense and a changing array of personalities and challenges for the protagonist.

Representing a masterful combination of crime fiction and otherworldly attributes, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is pure enthrallment that is guaranteed to transfix all eyes to its pages.  As one of the best releases of 2018, I cannot recommend this book enough.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone Cover.png

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Australian Publication Date – 13 March 2018

World Publication Date – 6 March 2018

 

A brand new magical world is born in Children of Blood and Bone, the enthralling first book from a talented new author.

In the nation of Orisha, magic was once controlled by the maji, powerful practitioners who were respected and feared throughout the land.  However, that all changed eleven years ago, when magic suddenly and mysteriously died, leaving the maji powerless and confused.  Taking advantage of this uncertainty, the magic-fearing King Saran struck out, arresting and killing all the former maji.  Now the people of Orisha consider magic evil and all links to the old order are shunned.  Those children who would have become maji, if not for the death of magic, are known as diviners.  Made distinctive by their white hair, they have become a second-class citizenry within Orisha and are routinely targeted by abusive guards and crippling taxes as King Saran seeks to slowly kill them all off.

Zelie Adebola is one of these diviners and remembers what it was like before magic died.  Haunted by the death of her maji mother and still defiant after years of oppression, Zelie is determined to survive.  However, when a chance run-in with an ancient scroll awakens her latent magical abilities, Zelie is given an unexpected chance to restore magic to the world.  With the help of her brother, Tzain, and the rogue princess, Amari, Zelie must reclaim three artefacts and travel across Orisha before the solstice.  If they fail, magic will be gone forever.

As the trio encounter the dangers that lurk throughout Orisha they must also contend with a dangerous force that is following them.  Amari’s brother, Prince Inan, has been tasked by the king to hunt the fugitives down and ensure that magic can never return.  However, Inan’s own latent magical powers have surfaced, and he is torn between the burning powers in his head and his father’s instilled hatred of all things magical.  Will his sudden infatuation with Zelie save him, or will it lead to his destruction?

The greatest threat to the quest may come from Zelie herself, whose powers over life and death may turn out to be too dangerous to control.

Children of Blood and Bones is the first book from Nigerian American author Tomi Adeyemi.  It is a bold fantasy adventure targeted towards the young adult demographic, and has already received significant hype from various sources, including discussion about a possible movie adaption.

One of the most obvious things that will appeal to potential readers is the considerable work and imagination that Adeyemi has put into her fantasy creation.  The central focus on a group of oppressed magic users who have lost their power and influence is particularly engrossing, as is the distinctive magical practice and lore that Adeyemi has used.  The detailed landscapes and cities of the nation of Orisha do a wonderful job of catching the imagination, especially as the characters traverse a number of different locations, each with their own unique environments and features.  There are also a number of intricate battle scenes that add significant excitement to the narrative, including a particularly memorable sequence where the main characters participate in a massive ship-to-ship gladiatorial battle in a flooded desert arena.

In addition to the above elements, readers will enjoy the use of multiple character perspectives throughout Children of Blood and Bone.  Three of the main characters, Zelie, Amari and Inan, each narrate their own chapters and provide a detailed overview of the story from their point of view.  There are many quick-fire perspective changes that serve to give multiple different viewpoints of the same event.  This is particularly useful as much of the book is dedicated to Zelie, Amari and Tzain being closely pursued by Inan.  Seeing how close Inan gets to the protagonists through these separate perspectives adds a lot of tension and suspense to the book.  It also works well in enhancing many of the larger battle scenes, especially the above mentioned gladiatorial naval battle.  The different viewpoints also allow the reader a clear picture of the ideological breakdown of Adeyemi’s world, as the readers are given insight from both the oppressed diviners and the paranoid King Saran

Adeyemi’s clever use of multiple narrators also allows for a clearer view of the personal and group development of the main characters, which can be seen not just through their own eyes but through the eyes of the other narrators.  Amari’s change from spoiled princess to hardened warrior is fun and heart-warming.  The changes to Zelie and Inan as a result of their dramatic internal conflicts are much more intriguing and draw the audience in emotionally.

While Adeyemi explores several themes throughout the book, the most intriguing is her examination of power and the responsibility to wield it.  Within Children of Blood and Bone, the maji have had their magical power taken away from them and are oppressed by the king as a result.  The subsequent quest to return magic to the world raises certain ethical questions, like whether an oppressed group should suddenly have destructive powers returned to them?  Within the book there a number of characters who have dissenting views on the subject, but only Zelie and Inan are in the unique position of seeing both parts of this debate.  Inan has always been taught to fear and hate magic, but his perception of magic changes when he gains his own powers, meets Zelie and experiences the oppression brought on by his father.  As a result, his opinion about the future of magic is changed multiple times throughout the book.  Zelie on the other hand, has experienced oppression all her life, and is at first determined to bring back magic.  However, when she uses her own destructive powers and sees the devastation caused by other magic users, she starts to question her previously held beliefs.  This fascinating internal debate is masterfully woven in the story through the books narrators, and it will be interesting to see how this debate continues in any future books.

Children of Blood and Bone is an intricate and ambitious young adult fantasy debut that includes a first-rate, emotionally charged story.  Set in an inventive new universe and featuring slick use of characters and multiple narrators, Children of Blood and Bones lives up to its significant hype.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

The Throne of Caesars Cover

Publisher: Constable

Australian Publication Date – 6 March 2018

World Publication Date – 20 February 2018

 

Steven Saylor’s long-running ancient Roman detective series returns as Gordianus the Finder deals with the most infamous murder in Roman history: the assassination of Julius Caesar.

For decades, Gordianus the Finder has been the most respected investigator in all of ancient Rome.  After a lifetime of solving crimes and murders for the city’s rich and powerful, Gordianus is determined to retire from the investigative game and enjoy a life of luxury.  However, one last surprise has been thrust upon him: Gordianus’ adopted son Meto has spent years in the service of Caesar as his trusted aid and ghost-writer, and Caesar now seeks to reward Meto by making his father a senator.  Reluctantly accepting this rise in station, Gordianus’ ascension will take place in five days’ time, on the Ides of March.

Caesar has an ulterior motive for meeting with Gordianus.  Warned by visions and prophets, Caesar believes that his life may be in danger, and that disaster may strike before the conclusion of the Ides.  He requests that Gordianus keep his ears to the ground and quietly question leading members of the Roman nobility to see if there is any basis to his concerns.  While initially sceptical of any attempts on the dictator’s life, Gordianus’ suspicions are aroused when one of Caesar’s old rivals, Senator Cicero, also asks him to watch out for potential conspiracies.  As Gordianus begins his investigation, he finds himself in the middle of dangerous historical events, and even the legendary Finder may be unable to stop what is to come.  The Ides of March are approaching, and Caesar’s life isn’t the only one at risk.

The Throne of Caesar is the 16th book in the Roma Sub Rosa series, a series that also includes three prequel novels and two collections of short stories.  Saylor began in 1991 with Roman Blood, set in 80 B.C. some 36 years before the events of this book, and he has slowly been working towards the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Indeed, the last three instalments of the series were prequels produced while Saylor perfected his account of this famous murder.  It was definitely worth the wait, as Saylor has produced an extremely detailed and well-researched account of the infamous killing.

Gordianus’ investigation and social interactions are used to introduce the reader to many of the key people involved with the plot, as well as to discuss the political atmosphere that lead up to the assassination.  The Ides of March is the centrepiece of the novel.  It is clear that Saylor has consulted the key historical records of the killings, as he has made sure to include several of the lesser-known events that happened on the day.  For example, Saylor includes descriptions of the supposed visions Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had the night before, and Decimus Brutus’ intervention at Caesar’s residence the morning of the Ides.  Saylor also dedicates a good part of the book to examining the aftermath of Caesar’s death, including the political manoeuvrings that immediately followed, as well as the violent funeral.  As a result, the description of the killings and the surrounding circumstances are first rate, and this aspect of the book will appeal to Roman history buffs.

As Saylor discusses in the author’s notes, writing a murder mystery around the assassination of Julius Caesar is particularly hard, as his death is one of the most well-known events in Roman history, with all the conspirators condemned to historical infamy.  Saylor, however uses this to his advantage and manages to create a large amount of suspense by counting down the days until the 15th of March and hinting at the events that are to come.  All the reader can do is keep going through the novel, knowing that Gordianus will be unable to stop the murder, even as he gets closer and closer to the truth.

Saylor also compensates for the lack of mystery around the death of Caesar by including a second murder subplot.  Elements of this additional murder mystery are hidden in the background of most of the book, as the reader’s attention is directed towards the upcoming assassination, and the investigation into the second murder comes to the fore after Caesar’s death.  The actual events of the second murder are unique and will be of particular interest to fans of a certain Shakespearean play.

One of the best features of The Throne of Caesar is the significant incorporation of Greek mythology throughout the book.  Several Greek myths are discussed, and parts of the plot mirror elements of these myths.  Many of these myths are also included as centrepieces of two Roman epic poems written by Gaius Helvius Cinna, a famous historical poet, which are a major part of the plot.  While one of the plays featured is completely fictional and with no historical basis, the other play is Zmyrna, considered by Cinna to be his greatest achievement, the text of which is unfortunately lost to history.  Saylor provides an interesting possible narrative for the lost play, which flows into the plot of his mystery with great effect.  The overall effect of Saylor including these myths and legends is very striking, and it provides the reader another viewpoint into the lives of the ancient Roman characters who put great stock in these old and religious stories.

The latest addition to the Roma Sub Rosa series is a meticulously detailed and well-crafted book that acts as a unique and powerful chronicle of an important historical crime.  A suspenseful and compelling read, The Throne of Caesar serves as a great continuation of the story of Gordianus the Finder, and it will be interesting to see where Saylor takes the series next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Vallista by Steven Brust

Vallista Cover

Publisher: Tor

Australian Publication Date – 28 November 2017

World Publication Date – 17 October 2017

 

One of fantasy’s most iconic heroes returns in Vallista, the latest book from acclaimed fantasy writer Steven Brust.

In the world of Dragaera powerful and long-lived humanoids known as the Dragaerans are the planet’s dominant species, while humans, called Easterners, are second-class citizens.

Vlad Taltos is a rare anomaly, being an Easterner with a title, money and influence.  Having made his name as an enforcer and assassin, Vlad was a respected member of House Jhereg, the Dragaeran clan in charge of the Empire’s organised crime.  However, Vlad’s relationship with the Jhereg has deteriorated.  Having betrayed his clan, Vlad has spent the last few years on the run, hunted day and night by ruthless assassins.  Luckily, Vlad has friends in very high places, including the Empress, some powerful sorcerers, a necromancer and even a Dragaeran god.

Throughout his travels, Vlad has had several meetings with Devera, a small Dragaeran girl who is the daughter of one of his many powerful friends.  Devera is a mysterious creature of considerable power, an overabundance of enigma and a casual relationship with the rules of time.  Devera has once again appeared to Vlad, requesting his help and leading him to a mysterious manor that has suddenly materialised by the sea.

Despite the fact that the manor should not even exist, Vlad enters, only to find himself trapped with the manor’s mysterious inhabitants.  The inside of the manor is a weird collection of rooms and corridors altered by magic and no longer obeying the rules of reality.  Mirrors teleport people from room to room, mysterious portals lead to the ancient past, and a certain door leads to the Halls of Judgement, the Dragaeran afterlife.

The more Vlad explores, the more he understands that the manor is home to many lies and death.  The overly helpful servants are determined to keep the manor’s past a secret.  No one will explain how an unused and empty kitchen keeps providing Vlad with warm meals.  On top of this, Vlad encounters a ghost unaware of how she died, a mutant deformed by magic, and a powerful demon determined to kill him.

In order to escape, Vlad must uncover the manor’s bloody history and reveal all of its inhabitants’ dark secrets.  With his sarcastic familiars and a sentient sword to aid him, Vlad must use every trick at his disposal to survive while trying to interpret some beguiling visions of his own past lives.  If only Devera, his only guide, would stop disappearing in the middle of every conversation.

Vallista is the 15th book in Brust’s iconic Vlad Taltos series, and is set before the 14th book in the series, Hawk.

One of the most appealing features of Brust’s books has always been their trademark combination of fantasy world-building, action, adventure and fun comedic undertone.  Brust continues this trend in Vallista, creating a fast-paced book that delivers several exhilarating action scenes and a good amount of comedy without compromising the fantasy elements of the plot.  Fans of the Vlad Taltos series will be excited to see an in-depth look at Devera, a minor character who has long mystified readers, as well as visions into several of the titular character’s past lives.

Brust also has an enjoyable habit of combining elements of other genres into his stories.  This ensures that many of the books in the Vlad Taltos series are transformed into different genres, such as murder mysteries, political thrillers or heists contained within the fantasy setting.  Vallista continues this trend with its interesting and unique fantasy mystery.  The main character is forced to uncover the secrets of the mysterious manor in which he is trapped in order to escape.  As a result, Vallista reads a lot like a typical mystery, which is enhanced by the book’s various fantasy elements.

Vallista also borrows several elements from classic haunted house tales.  The main character is trapped and imperilled, the house is filled with servants reluctant to reveal their secrets, and ghosts, monsters and strange events are around every corner.  However, as this is a fantasy book, our hero has far more experience in dealing with such things, and quite a lot of the book’s humour revolves around Vlad responding to the manor’s various challenges.

Unsurprisingly, this book will appeal greatly to those readers who enjoyed the previous instalments of the Vlad Taltos series.  At the same time, this is one of the most inclusive fantasy series that I have ever read.  Burst is very good at succinctly explaining the universe’s lore so that new readers will easily be able to enjoy Vallista every bit as much as any seasoned veteran of the Vlad Taltos series.

Overall, Vallista is fun fantasy adventure that will appeal both to Brust’s established fans and to casual fantasy readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker

Blood of Assassins Cover

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 13 February 2018

 

War, murder and magic return with R. J. Barker’s assassins in the sequel to his impressive debut, Age of Assassins.

It has been five years since assassins Girton Club-Foot and his master, Merela Karn, started a bloody civil war in the nation of Maniyadoc.  Since then, they have been in hiding, fighting in the borderlands as soldiers for hire to avoid the price on their heads.  However, when Merela is gravely injured, they have no choice but to return to Maniyadoc and seek shelter there.  Girton finds a far different land to the one he visited five years before.  War has turned much of the kingdom into a brutal hellscape, ruled over by war crazed marauders known as Nonmen, while giant flesh-eating pigs roam the wilds.

Amongst this chaos, three kings fight for power, their armies controlling what small tracts of inhabitable land remain.  Girton knows all three of the opposing kings, having spent time among them five years ago.  Two of them hate Girton and his master, falsely blaming them for the deaths of their relatives, the events which started the war.  However, the other of the warring kings, Rufra, owes Girton his life, and may be the only friend the young assassin has.  Since their last meeting, Rufra has turned into a noble king, weighed down by the responsibility of his office and personal grief.

Pledging his loyalty to Rufra, Girton immediately sets about trying to find a spy hidden among the king’s closest followers, navigating camp politics and the fragile alliances that hold the army together.  At the same time, Girton must also solve the murder of a fanatical religious leader whose dangerous followers demand retribution.  Rufra is the fractured nation’s best option for peace, but far too many people want him dead.  Each day the spy is active hastens Rufra’s defeat, and Girton must use every bit of his wit and skill to save his friend.

But the greatest threat to Rufra’s reign may be Girton himself.  Like all assassins, Girton uses forbidden magic to grant himself subtle advantages to aid him in his kills.  However, Girton’s magic has become far too powerful, and he can no longer control the terrible energies within him.  In a world were all magic is outlawed and feared, any evidence of Girton’s abilities would condemn him and everyone he loves to a bloody end.  The last uncontrolled sorcerer turned the kingdom of Maniyadoc into a barren wasteland, and Girton’s power may soon compel him to do the same.

This is the second book in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series and is the follow-up to last year’s successful and highly compelling debut, Age of AssassinsBlood of Assassins is a great addition to the series which builds up the anticipation for the upcoming King of Assassins, which is set to come out in Australia in August 2018.

The fantasy world that Barker has created is an interesting one with several unique features.  While most of the first book’s story was limited to the goings-on within one specific castle, Barker completely changes the script in this sequel by expanding the narrative to the whole realm of Maniyadoc and the fighting going on around it.  Readers of Age of Assassins will enjoy seeing how the devastation of the civil war has changed the kingdom.  The nation of Maniyadoc, which was already described as a fairly dismal place, is now haunted by a new range of monstrous creatures and humans created by neglect and the brutal fighting.  This noticeable change to the scenery of the story helps to affect the overall mood of the book and also acts as a mirror to Girton’s more depressed and hopeless mental viewpoint in the second book.

I often enjoy authors blending different genre types within fantasy books, and Blood of Assassins is a great example of this, as Barker has incorporated elements of political thrillers and murder mysteries.  The hunt for the murderers and traitors at the heart of Rufra’s camp is a well done and produces a compelling mystery that combines well with the book’s action, politics and magic.

Fans of action and battle will not be disappointed, as Barker makes full use of a range of fight scenes.  Action junkies will enjoy the numerous duels, clashes between assassins, larger pitched battles and one notable siege that sees that protagonist fighting to defend a village from a horde of crazed Nonmen while also attempting to hold his destructive magic at bay.  It is also interesting to see how Barker forgoes the enormous pitched battles that are a usual fantasy staple.  Instead this conflict is fought by small, desperate armies over limited amounts of land, which comes across as more realistic, considering the landscape.

Finally, Barker has also done a great job of showing how his main characters have developed since the last novel, particularly taking the time to illustrate how their relationships move and change throughout the book.  Girton has gone from a young and optimistic boy seeking the approval of his master to a taciturn and depressed man, actively resenting his master for the changes and problems in his life.  At the same time, Rufra has gone from a lowly squire seeking a friend and trying to avoid trouble to a man consumed by his responsibilities and personal grief.  These changes lie at the heart of the book and add emotional depth to the story.  It is also warming to see how the friendship between Girton and Rufra lightens both characters and helps heal their emotional wounds.

As a result, Blood of Assassins is a fantastic character-driven story that weaves together action and mystery in Baker’s excellent fantasy world to create a scintillating and addictive read.  This is a marvellous second outing from a bright new star in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira

Gunpowder Moon Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 13 February 2018

 

Murder has just been committed on the Moon, and all hell is about to break loose.

By 2072 the world has dramatically changed.  A devastating natural disaster shook the planet and altered the balance of power between nations.  The only hope for the future lies in a new energy source, helium-3, which can power Earth’s fusion reactors and provide unlimited clean energy.

Earth’s main source of helium-3 is on the Moon.  Desperate to have as much of this valuable material as possible, the world’s leading nations each have their own mining expeditions in play.  Life is tough for the miners, death lies around every corner and Moon dust can quickly destroy the hardiest of equipment.

For Caden Dechert, the Moon is the perfect place for a man trying to escape his past, even if it does strongly smell of gunpowder.  Trying to forget the long wars he fought back on Earth as a marine, Caden has forged a new life as the chief of the U.S. mining station Sea of Serenity 1, a vital station for a country only just coming back into world prominence.

However, Caden’s small slice of peace is broken when a member of his mining team is murdered in a deliberate explosion.  Evidence quickly points to the United States’ most prominent rival, China, whose bases are located a short distance from Caden’s station.  Tensions are quick to rise, and a series of escalating incidents sees the two nations draw closer to the brink of war.

Despite the evidence supplied by his own country, Caden is not convinced that the Chinese are behind the explosion.  Years spent working near the Chinese mining team has built up a certain respect, and Caden’s suspicions of a conspiracy begin to grow after noticing other unusual activities around his base.  With his team trapped at Sea of Serenity 1, and with both nations ready to fire the first shot, Caden is forced to investigate the murder himself in order to stop a destructive war that could tear his beloved Moon apart.

From first time author David Pedreira comes Gunpowder Moon, a spectacular piece of crime fiction set on the harsh and unforgiving surface of the Moon.  Pedreira has created an interesting murder mystery that combines with a high-stakes plot, science fiction elements and exotic location in order to produce a great story.

Without a doubt, the most memorable feature of this book is its setting of the Moon.  Pedreira has done a remarkable job of highlighting and describing his story’s brutal backdrop.  Significant time is also spent describing the narrator’s emotional attachment to the Moon and how it represents a new beginning for his crew of outcasts.  By the end of the book, the Moon is nearly an additional character as it acts as an excellent emotive setting for the reader.

The Moon also serves as an important plot device, as various features of life on the Moon, such as the required technology, gravity, the isolation and the devastating effects of Moon dust, all play a key part in the overall story.  In addition, Pedreira’s observations about the requirements for living on the Moon and his descriptions of the technology and mining work will appeal to the interests of many curious readers.

While the Moon is the main location for this book, Pedreira has also created an interesting potential future for humanity that serves as a backdrop for the story.  Pedreira postulates an interesting build-up to a war between America and China made up of ecological problems on Earth, expansion outside the planet and a fight for a new energy source.  Views of the near future of Earth are always fascinating, and the predicted future presented in Gunpowder Moon is a particularly intriguing story element that combines well with the books overarching mystery.

The plot of Gunpowder Moon focuses on a riveting murder mystery that is made unique by its location and the limited options for an investigation.  The investigators do not have any traditional evidence or witnesses.  They have limited information due to their isolation and they are unable to discuss the case with many of their suspects, who may be on Earth.  The background plot of the United States and China going to war combines well with the murder elements, as there is a real sense of urgency and import to the investigation as the main characters are trying to stop an upcoming war.

Gunpowder Moon is an excellent science fiction murder mystery that contains a fast-paced, action-packed story.  The author makes great use of his futuristic setting and unique location, providing the reader with impassioned descriptions of the Moon’s surface.  David Pedreira’s debut novel is a captivating and intriguing new read that spectacularly captures humanity’s imagination with the Moon.

My Rating:

Four stars

Rome’s Sacred Flame by Robert Fabbri

Rome's Sacred Flame Cover

Publisher: Corvus

Australian Publication Date – 1 February 2018

World Publication Date – 24 January 2018

 

Explore the dark side of Roman history in the new novel from veteran historical fiction author Robert Fabbri.

In Rome, 63 AD, Nero reigns as Emperor.  Meanwhile, Vespasian has been given the lucrative appointment of Governor of Africa, exploiting the rewards of his previous adventures.  Before Vespasian can settle into the role of governor, he must first travel to the remote desert kingdom of Garama to negotiate the release of hundreds of Roman citizens held as slaves.  He and his companions, Magnus and Hormus, arrive on the eve of a slave revolt that threatens the entire kingdom.  Forced to flee across the desert with hundreds of freed slaves and few provisions, the Romans must avoid the chaos of Garama while also dealing with traitors in their midst and harsh desert conditions.

However, even revolting slaves and desperate conditions hold little danger compared to the problems brewing within Rome.  Nero’s reign has reached new peaks of insanity and chaos.  Like his predecessors, Nero is depraved and deranged, humiliating the citizens of Rome while destroying all who displease him. When he returns to Rome, Vespasian soon discovers that all the previous Emperors he had survived were nowhere near as dangerous as Nero.  Vespasian determines that it is time for the reign of Nero and the unstable Julio-Claudian bloodline to end.

However, Vespasian has made many enemies over the years, and all are plotting to use the unstable Emperor as a deadly weapon to destroy him and his family.  Vespasian must use all his skill and daring to survive while also trying to turn the chaos to his own advantage.  With conspiracies and danger all around, few will survive, especially with the Great Fire of Rome about to engulf the city.

Fabbri is a prominent and prolific author of Roman historical fiction whose distinctive books have one of the most entertaining examinations of Roman history.  Rome’s Sacred Flame is the eighth book in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, not including Arminius: The Limits of Empire, a recent standalone novel which runs parallel to the events of earlier books in the series.

This is an engaging series exploring the exploits of the future Emperor of Rome, Vespasian, during the earlier days of his life as he rose to power.  Fabbri makes use of what little is known about Vespasian’s early political career by including all the moments of his life recorded in the surviving Roman histories.  Fabbri also works the character of Vespasian into a number of key historical events that happened during his lifetime, such as famous deaths, ascensions, wars and other more infamous incidents.  All of the books in the Vespasian series describe a wide range of memorable episodes in Roman history, even though it is unlikely, but not impossible, that Vespasian, who was a prominent senator during these times, would have been involved.

Rome’s Sacred Flame continues this trend by inserting Vespasian right into the middle of some of the more interesting events of the Emperor Nero’s reign.  Through Vespasian’s eyes we see some of Nero’s infamous parties, one of the more significant plots against the Emperor’s life, the brewing persecution of the Christians, and, most importantly, the Great Fire of Rome, during which, some sources indicate, the Emperor played the lyre as the city burned.  Many fans of history will love the detail that Fabbri goes into when he examines all the events surrounding the fire: the politics of the time, the initial outbreak of the fire, the attempts to fight it, Nero’s supposed response, the fire’s conclusion and the eventual rebuilding of the city.

Readers will also be intrigued by Fabbri’s inclusion and interpretation of the Garmantes and their capital city of Garama.  The Garamantes were the people of a small kingdom that historians and archaeologists believe existed in south-western Libya around the same time as the Roman Empire was at its peak.  Many historical fiction writers have neglected the Garamantes in their works, instead favouring the more impressive enemies of Rome, so Fabbri’s use of the limited historical and archaeological facts available to create a unique society and civilization for his story is particularly interesting.

Like the other books in Fabbri’s Vespasian series, Rome’s Sacred Flame contains a large number of scenes that focus on the supposed depravity of Rome, especially during the reigns of last Julio-Claudian emperors.  This results in a compelling and engaging narrative, especially as Fabbri takes pains to describe these scenes in great detail, building a terrific story on what little historical evidence is available.  It is also offers something different to many of the other current Roman historical fiction series, which recently have tended to shy away from exploring these events to the same degree.

Once again, Fabbri has produced a highly exciting and thoroughly entertaining addition to his best-selling series.  Fans of Roman historical fiction will love the unique viewpoints and historical conclusions Fabbri explores in Rome’s Sacred Flame, as well as the exploration of Rome’s supposed dark side.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Nights of the Living Dead edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry

Nights of the Living Dead Cover

Publisher: Duckworth

Australian Publication Date – 1 December 2017

World Publication Date – 11 July 2017

 

In 1968, the late, great, George A. Romero created one of the most iconic films in horror movie history, Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead has had many lasting impacts in the world of film, but one of the most significant things it did was to firmly enforce the terror of the zombie into the public consciousness and set the rules for all future zombie works.

Since that day, zombies have dominated people’s minds and pop culture in all its forms.  From movies to television and comic books, zombie stories infest modern fiction.  The introduction of zombies has also influenced the world of literature, with many prominent authors producing some incredible and varied works of zombie fiction.  From World War Z to Warm Bodies, these bestsellers have enthralled the world, with many serving as inspiration for other mediums.

One significant piece of zombie literature published in 1989 was Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.  Book of the Dead was an anthology of short stories based on the zombie apocalypse premise introduced in Night of the Living Dead.  With a foreword by Romero himself and bringing together original stories from a large number of prominent horror authors, including Stephen King, this iconic book is considered one of the first pieces of zombie literature.  It produced two follow up anthologies, Still Dead and Mondo Zombie.

Now, the concept of a zombie anthology book has again been resurrected in Nights of the Living Dead, edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry.

Nights of the Living Dead contains 20 new and unique stories from a distinguished group of authors.  Each of these stories is set in a world forever changed by a zombie apocalypse and shows the horror through the eyes of a range of different survivors enduring a number of different scenarios.  Police, doctors, murderers, white supremacists, scientists and showmen all examine different sides of the classic zombie apocalypse.  Many of the stories are set in more contemporary times, exploring how people in 2017 would react to this phenomenon while also allowing some commentary of current social issues.

Fans of the original movie may also be interested in several stories set during the events of the film.  The connection that some of these stories have to Night of the Living Dead is somewhat minor, with the stories merely being set in the same year, thus allowing the reader to assume they are set during the same outbreak.  Other stories have a far more significant connection to the events of the movie.  John Russo’s story is a direct sequel to the movie and follows some of the posse that played a significant part in the end of the film.  Another story, by Isaac Marion, is told from the perspective of a minor character in the film, Karen Cooper, and features her dramatic and eventually violent interactions with other characters in the movie.

Perhaps one of the best features of Nights of the Living Dead is the sheer talent that has been gathered together to write this book.  Numbered among the contributors are some of the most influential writers of zombie fiction, including both of the Night of the Living Dead’s original screenwriters, Romero and Russo.  The other writers include multiple Bram Stroker Award winners, such as editor Jonathan Maberry, whose contribution to zombie culture includes working on the Marvel Zombies series.  Many of the authors have their own zombie fiction novels and series, including Isaac Marion, writer of Warm Bodies, Briane Keene, author of The Rising, and Mira Grant, author of the Newsflesh series.  The list of contributors also includes people who have worked on zombie comics and television shows, including one of the writers and co-creators of Z-Nation, Craig Engler.

The various contributions to the anthology allow the reader to enjoy a range of zombie stories which may appeal to different people.  Personal favourites include David Wellington’s short story set around the International Space Station and Mira Grant’s emotional tale set in a zoo.  Other great stories includes Craig Engler’s tale of vigilante justice in a world of zombies and a new original contribution by George A. Romero, which also takes the time to examine racism in more modern times.  Readers may also be interested in the forewords from Romero and Maberry, which examine their experiences with the movie and how it has influenced zombie culture for the last 50 years.

Nights of the Living Dead is an exciting anthology series that presents the reader with 20 new and unique stories from some of the leading minds in zombie fiction.  With a range of different and exciting stories of the zombie apocalypse, many with ties to the original movie, this is a must-read book for all fans of zombie fiction and the man who inspired it all.

My Rating:

Four stars