Nucleus by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 March 2018

World Publication Date – 25 January 2018

 

In June 1939, war is on the horizon.  While many in England still hope to avoid another conflict with the Germans, it is becoming clearer that war may be unavoidable.  Nazi Germany is aggressively moving throughout Europe, while back in England the IRA has embarked on a new bombing campaign.

While the world watches and waits, many governments have turned their focus towards a dangerous new arms race.  Advances in nuclear fission have allowed scientists to envision a potentially game-changing weapon: an atomic bomb.  Many believe that the research at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory will lead to the creation of the first bomb, and the laboratory is now the subject of intense scrutiny.

While holidaying in America, Cambridge professor Tom Wilde is summoned to the White House to meet President Roosevelt.  The president requests that Wilde use his position to spy on the research at Cavendish and report their progress to the Americans.  Upon his return to Cambridge, Wilde begins to suspects that Nazi spies may have infiltrated the laboratory when one of the Cavendish researchers is brutally murdered.  As he investigates further, he learns that the murder may be connected to a wealthy family with Nazi sympathies and the famous movie star sister of one of his colleagues.  Wilde is forced into a web of spies and assassins as he tries to discover what terrible plans the Nazis have for Cavendish.  What does his long-lost cousin have to do with this plot, and how do these attacks tie into a kidnapped child that Wilde’s girlfriend, Lydia, is searching for in Germany?

Nucleus is a pulse-pounding thriller that combines mysterious events and spycraft with a dark historical background and a grounding in nuclear physics.  This is the second book in Clements’ Tom Wilde series, and the follow-up novel to his 2017 bestseller, Corpus, which was a stunning historical thriller that featured a plot against the royal family.

Clements has a lot of experience with historical thrillers, having previously examined espionage during the Elizabethan era in his acclaimed John Shakespeare series.  In Nucleus, Clements combines several intriguing storylines into one compelling plot that will draw the reader into the book’s many mysteries.  With a series of hidden adversaries, twisting character loyalties and several shocking conclusions, Clements tells a first-rate thriller that combines well with his story’s historical setting and locations.

Clements uses his latest book to once again explore the period of calm immediately before World War II.  Clements does a masterful job of depicting the dread and apprehension filling England as the whole country found itself drawing closer and closer to war.  This bleak and foreboding historical period is the perfect setting for Clements’ thriller, especially as the characters realise the major repercussions their actions could have on the world.

The historical locations used throughout Nucleus are an essential part of the book and add a lot to the story.  Clements once again returns to the Cambridge backdrop that was one of the defining features of Corpus.  The academic background is used less during this book, but the reader is compensated by being able to see the famous Cavendish Laboratory.  There is also a harrowing journey into Nazi Germany for one of the characters, Lydia, which Clements uses to full effect, highlighting the terror many German citizens felt during that time and their attempts to flee the country before it was too late.  Another highlight of the scenes set in Nazi Germany was the interesting focus on some of the groups attempting to get refugees out of the country, such as the Quakers and the staff at the British Embassy.  The reader also experiences Lydia’s palpable dread as she comes into direct contact with the dark mechanisms of the Nazi machine, and these scenes contain an amazing and appropriate level of suspense.

Due to it being a major plot point for Nucleus, Clements spends a significant amount of time focusing on the state of nuclear science in the 1930s.  Clements does a good job of explaining the science in some detail without it getting too complicated.  As a result, the reader receives a basic understanding of nuclear science of the time, at least enough to appreciate what the spies and nuclear physicist characters within the book are up to and are attempting to achieve.  This is a good balance to have and it allows the reader to experience the fascinating early history of nuclear fission and the early arms race for the atomic bomb.

By infusing his excellent storytelling with a dark historical period, Clements once again delivers with an exhilarating historical thriller.  Featuring a gritty and captivating storyline and making full use of its excellent historical setting, Nucleus is guaranteed to blow you away.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Scales of Empire by Kylie Chan

Scales of Empire Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 19 February 2018

 

Can humanity survive the arrival of an alien dragon with an offer of love?  Find out in this curious novel about first contact with aliens from bestselling Australian author Kylie Chan.

In the near future, Earth’s ecosystem is failing and humanity’s only hope for survival lies in escaping our solar system and finding viable new planets to colonise.  Corporal Jian Choumali has been chosen to accompany one of the huge generation ships that is preparing to journey to a distant planet.  However, the launch is interrupted by the arrival of a giant alien spaceship above Earth that will change humanity forever.

The ship is piloted by an alien known as a dragon, which bears a striking resemblance to the beasts of legend.  Dragons are the ruling members of a vast technologically and culturally advanced empire made up of numerous alien races.  The Dragon emissary, Shiumo, brings offers of peace, love and advanced technology to humanity as she introduces Earth to a wider universe.

Jian and her commander, Richard Alto, are chosen to be the first delegates to meet with Shiumo, and they soon become her guides to Earth.  Shiumo becomes a sensation overnight, providing humanity with longer lives, faster-than-light travel and a solution to Earth’s failing ecosystem.

However, the more Jian gets to know Shiumo, the more it becomes apparent that the Dragons may not be as benevolent as they seem.  What price will humanity really have to pay to join the Empire, and what role will the Dragons’ cat-like enemies play in the future of Earth?

Scales of Empire is the first book in the intriguing Dragon Empire trilogy, written by Australian author Kylie Chan.  This is Chan’s first voyage into science fiction, having previously written the Chinese mythology inspired Xuan Wu series.

Scales of Empire has a number of cool features that make it an amusing and thought-provoking science fiction novel.  Chan has constructed a first contact story that explores how humanity could potentially interact with an advanced alien race.  Chan provides a series of fascinating postulations about what human products would prove desirable to an alien species, what humanity could use in our defence against potential alien threats, and what our place would be among a vast interstellar empire.  The Dragons are the stars of this book, as Chan has imbued them with several distinctive abilities and personality quirks.  There is also a fun origin story to explain the similarities between the alien Dragons and the Earth dragons of myth and legend.  Having the other main alien race also resemble an Earth species, in this case cats, is a little over the top very unrealistic.  However, the behaviour of this other species acts as a good foil to the apparently benevolent and socially advanced Dragons.

Science fiction aficionados will also appreciate Chan’s descriptions and theories about what would be required for humans to reach and colonise other inhabitable planets in the galaxy.  Chan spends some of the early parts of the book highlighting her theories about how humans in the near future would achieve this.  Her descriptions of large ships that would require ten generations of its crew to live in space before they even reached the planet is fascinating, as are her suggestions about the ideal initial crewmembers; not a lot of other writers would suggest that colonisation ships should have large crews mostly made up of bisexual women with good genetic diversity.  In addition, there is also some intriguing discussion about the colonisation of other planets, and several chapters are dedicated to the training and initial colonisation of a planet, which many readers will find enticing.

While these science fiction aspects of the book are good reasons to try Scales of Empire, one of the most compelling and memorable aspect of this book is the constant examination of whether the Dragons are as benevolent as they seem, or if they have their own secret agenda.  This becomes a central focus of the story as the human characters analyse all of the Dragons’ actions while coming up with countermoves and their own attempts at manipulation.  There are many twists and turns, and at points it becomes hard to tell whether the Dragons or the humans come off as the worst species during these interactions.  This results in a really compelling narrative which serves as a superb central focus for the book and will keep you hooked until the final reveal.

The new book from Kylie Chan is an intriguing start to a promising science fiction trilogy.  Examining humanity’s potential first contact with an alien species, Chan asks the question: between an alien species with its own agenda and mistrustful and calculating humans, who is the greater evil?  This is a brilliant bit of fiction that provides a distinctive and in-depth discussion and is definitely worth exploring.

My Rating:
Three and a half stars

to

Four stars

 

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

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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