Usagi Yojimbo, Vol 32: Mysteries by Stan Sakai

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Publisher: Dark Horse Books

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

After a year I have finally gotten the new volume of Usagi Yojimbo, one of my favourite long-running comic series.  Now I and other fans of the long-eared samurai can finally enjoy another set of exhilarating adventures in Stan Sakai’s version of feudal Japan.

Usagi Yojimbo is a great series that has been running since 1987, three years after the character was originally created.  In a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, the series is set in the early Edo period of Japanese history, during the time of the Shogun and the wandering samurai.  The series was originally supposed to feature human characters and a protagonist based on the famous historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi.  However, the series was changed to feature animals after the artist drew an early version of the hero with rabbit ears and created the series’ titular yojimbo, Miyamoto Usagi.

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The Usagi Yojimbo series follows the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi through feudal Japan.  After the death of his lord, Usagi has become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and has spent the last few years wandering the country seeking employment as a yojimbo, a bodyguard.  Throughout his travels, Usagi finds all sorts of danger and adventures, and is often drawn into a range of conflicts throughout the troubled landscape, facing threats both natural and supernatural in origin.

With 32 collected editions over 30 years, as well as the two additional graphic novels and the spin-off series, Space Usagi, Usagi Yojimbo has developed a dedicated fanbase.  Those who have not read this series may be familiar with it due to its frequent crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Characters from both franchises have crossed over into each other’s respective comic book series several times.  In addition, Usagi has appeared in all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television shows, often with some side characters.  One of my first exposures to the characters of Usagi Yojimbo was during The Big Brawl arch of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

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Stan Sakai’s series is a hybrid of western graphic novels and Japanese manga.  The style and format of the comics come across as more of a classic western style, but the story content and the series’ art is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and history.  Every issue is filled with incredible depictions of Japanese customs, history, folklore and mythology, and includes realistic and historically accurate illustrations of feudal Japanese weapons, clothes and buildings.  In addition, the dialogue includes a number of Japanese words which are translated in text, and the characters are all named using traditional Japanese naming conventions, with the family name presented before the given name.

Mysteries is the 32nd collected edition of this series, and contains issues #159-#165 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  These issues see Usagi reunited with his friend Inspector Ishida as they investigate a series of mysteries in Ishida’s jurisdiction.  There are four main stories, including The Hatamoto’s Daughter, Death by Fugu, the two-part series The Body in the Library and the three-part series Mouse TrapMysteries also contains two of the shorter Chibi Usagi stories that Sakai writes with his wife, Julie, which feature cute versions the franchise’s characters.

Readers of the latest volume of Usagi Yojimbo are in for another visual treat as Sakai continues to highlight the delicate beauty of the Japanese landscape and fantastic architecture of its towns with his spectacular artwork.  Each of the portrayals of the anthropomorphic characters in their period accurate clothing is amazing, and the reader will be astounded by the author’s desire to make his comic as aesthetically realistic as possible.  However, the real visual highlights of this comic are the action sequences that see the protagonists engage in a series of elaborate sword fights against a variety of opponents.  The artistic styling of these sword fights is both exciting and intricate, which allows the reader to imagine how these battles would occur in real life.  Mysteries contains some great examples of this series’ fantastic art form, and the reader will love the creativity that inhabits every panel of this book.

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While most Usagi Yojimbo stories are standalone episodes, the separate stories featured within Mysteries share several connections with each other.  All of them are set within the same town and feature the character of Inspector Ishida.  In addition, several of the cases are connected by a shadowy crime boss, although the full nature of this connection isn’t fully known until the final story in the volume.

As you may be able to guess from the title of the volume, all of the main stories featured within Mysteries feature a murder and the following investigation by Inspector Ishida and Usagi.  Inspector Ishida is a high-ranking member of the Shogun’s police and is renowned throughout Japan as one of country’s most effective detectives.  Usagi has teamed up with him before in a number of adventures, including a great story, Murder at the Inn, back in Volume 29, which featured Usagi, Ishida, and Usagi’s frequent companion Gen investigating murders in a locked-down inn.  There are some great stories in the Mysteries volume, especially as Sakai has crafted together some intriguing mysteries in such short entries.  Several of the big mysteries and crime stories are connected into an elaborate overarching narrative that examines the criminal underworld of feudal Japan.  Two of the stories feature some really complex murder mysteries that flit back and forth between a number of suspects and contain motives that are very unique.  The final entry, Mousetrap, is the longest story in the volume and features an excellent tale about a thief getting caught in a middle of a fight to control the area’s organised crime and the sinister figure that has been manipulating the events of the previous stories.

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Sakai ensures that his examination of feudal Japanese society carries through to each of these stories and their investigative arcs, affecting the characters’ investigations.  For example, only members of a lower caste are allowed to touch the murder victims’ dead bodies, which hinders the protagonists from properly examining the bodies to work out the cause of death.  There is also a fantastic investigation of the role of the inspectors in feudal Japan and how they bear the authority of the Shogun.  It also allows Ishida to show off his fighting skills with the jitte, one of my favourite Japanese weapons.

In addition to the returning Inspector Ishida, this volume of Usagi Yojimbo sees the return of several characters from previous stories.  Our favourite thieving duo of Kitsune and Kiyoko make a return in the middle story, The Body in the Library.  The fox thief Kitsune was first introduced in 1992 and has become one the series’ main recurring characters, adding significant amusement to the stories she appears in through her schemes, humour and continued casual theft of the other characters’ valuables.  Her young companion, Kiyoko, was introduced in a later story and serves as her apprentice in the life of crime while taking up many of her mentor’s bad habits.  Their inclusion in this story adds significant comic relief to an otherwise dark story of murder, and it is always fun to see what this mischievous duo are up to.  The mysterious masked thief Nezumi returns for a second adventure and is a major player in the book’s longest story, Mouse Trap.  Nezumi was introduced in the Volume 20 story After the Rat, and acts as a public Robin Hood character in Inspector Ishida’s town.  He is used to great effect in this new story, being framed for murder in a way reminiscent of his first appearance in the series.  Sakai continues to taunt his audience with the mystery of Nezumi’s identity and motives, and it is great to see this interesting and formidable character interact with Usagi for the first time, especially with their differing definitions of honour.  Readers should also keep an eye out for a certain recurring snitch who has played a similar role in a number of prior Usagi stories, despite the main characters failing to remember how treacherous he is.

One of the best parts of the Usagi Yojimbo series is the incorporation of intriguing and unique parts of Japanese culture into amazing action based comic issues.  Throughout the series, the author has utilised a number of great Japanese cultural elements in various stories, including giant kites, giant drums, pottery, swordsmithing, tea ceremonies, seaweed farming, games of chance and a huge number of mythological creatures and legends.  These stories often contain descriptions and informative depictions of the cultural activities in question, and the author works them into a fun adventure or creative mystery.  Mysteries contains two of these stories.  The main one, Death by Fugu, focuses on the preparation of fugu, the meat of the poisonous pufferfish.  This story contains an excellent description of what fugu is and the preparation required to eat it.  Death by Fugu is a powerful and tragic tale that prominently uses the art of fugu in its mystery, and definitely one of this volume’s standout stories.  The other entry, The Body in the Library, takes a brief look at the examination and trade of western medicines in Japan.  While this is not examined in as much detail, it is a fascinating to see what impact western medicines could have in feudal Japan and to see it used as a motive for a series of murders.

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Once again Stan Sakai has produced a powerful and fantastic new volume of his iconic Usagi Yojimbo series.  Fans of this series can look forward to seeing Sakai’s iconic art style and detailed cultural insights that are a love letter to Japan and its fascinating history and society.  Mysteries contains a range of outstanding new stories, and readers will enjoy unwrapping their mysteries with Usagi and the fan favourite Inspector Ishida.  I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next volume of this amazing series.

My Rating:

Five Stars

AWOL: Agent Without Licence by Andrew Lane

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Publisher: Piccadilly Press

Publication date – 12 July 2018

 

From a veteran author of young adult fiction comes this brilliant spy thriller that introduces a younger audience to the joys of modern espionage.

Kieron Mellor and his best friend, Sam, are typical teenagers living the ‘greeb’ lifestyle in Newcastle, England, with their biggest problem revolving around how to get tickets to the next rock show.  But when they witness a man being kidnapped in their local mall, they are thrust into the world of covert espionage and a plot to unleash untold destruction on the world.  Noticing that the kidnapped man has dropped a set of glasses and an earpiece, Kieron picks them up, only to discover that they are part of a high tech virtual reality kit that can provide the user with a database of information about anything they see.  They also connect Kieron to Bex, a secret agent on mission in Mumbai who is in desperate need of his help.

Bex’s handler, the man who was kidnapped, was using the technology currently in Kieron’s possession to remotely assist Bex with her mission.  Bex was observing a deal for information about nuclear weapons, but the disappearance of her handler resulted in her losing her target.  With no other options, Bex is forced to utilize Kieron and Sam’s help in order to complete her mission and stop an act of mass destruction.  However, the Newcastle teens have problems of their own; a fanatical right-wing extremist group and a mole inside Bex’s organisation are hunting them for the missing glasses, and they have no intention of leaving any witnesses alive.

Agent Without License is the first book in Lane’s AWOL series of young adult spy thrillers.  The second novel in this series, Last Safe Moment, is already set to be released later this year and will continue to follow the characters introduced in this first book.  Lane already has significant experience writing novels for a younger audience, with eight books in his bestselling Young Sherlock Holmes series, as well as his Lost Worlds and Crusoe Adventures books.  Other works from Lane include his science fiction based Netherspace series and several books set in the Dr Who extended universe.

The AWOL series is aimed towards a younger generation of reader and has been advertised for children in the 9-12 age range.  I felt that this book is an ideal read for that demographic, and it reminded me of some of the books that really caught my imagination when I was that age, including the Artemis Fowl and Alex Ryder novels.  While there is some violence and implied deaths within the storyline, it isn’t overly graphic and won’t traumatise the younger readers.  That being said, the overarching spy storyline isn’t dumbed down, and its intended audience will enjoy the realism and the references to events, ideologies and prejudices that currently affecting the real world.  There are also discussions about some mature themes, although nothing is too extreme or adult.  These small inclusions will be appreciated by the younger audience, as they will enjoy seeing some of these mature issues which they are likely already aware of included in their fiction.  Lane does make the obligatory attempts to tap into modern youth culture in order to appeal to his readers’ interests; fortunately, however, he does not go too overboard with his attempts like some authors do, and readers are not inundated with a flood of unnecessary pop culture references.  The author has also included multiple examples of the two teen heroes outsmarting older antagonists.  This is always a fun feature for the younger audience to enjoy, and these teen protagonists have some very inventive, and in some cases quite direct, solutions to the problems they encounter.  Overall, Agent Without License will prove to be an excellent read for the audience in its suggest age range.  Older readers will also have a blast with this book and enjoy the fantastic spy thriller elements.

For his AWOL series, Lane has leveraged his significant espionage experience to create intriguing novels with a sense of realism to their spy aspects.  In Agent Without License, the author lays down a foundation of tradecraft and spy techniques for the reader to enjoy as his protagonists attempt to save the world.  Lane explores the basics of spying in this book and provides information about current espionage agencies and how they impact on real world politics.  As a result, this is a fun and informative introduction to the spy thriller genre, and the younger readers will appreciate the exciting and mature content of this story.

One of the best parts of Agent Without Licence is the advanced technology that the protagonists use to help complete their mission.  This technology comes in the form of glasses and an ear piece, and is known as Augmented Reality Computer Capability (ARCC).  The ARCC is essentially Google Glass on steroids, and allows the operator to access information on anything they, or the person they are connected to, can see or interact with.  This is an awesome piece of fictional technology that sounds like an item espionage operatives could possibly already have access to.  Watching the young protagonist, Keiron, become acquainted with and learn to operate the glasses is an enjoyable part of the story which plays in well with the book’s espionage elements.  The information that Keiron obtains for himself and Bec is quiet interesting, and the ARCC technology provides them with threat analyses, escape routes, background history of the buildings they are going into, facial recognition and recording capabilities.  This is a seriously cool part of the book, and the technology’s presentation and use is a great element that will make the readers eager for glasses like these to appear on the market.

Agent Without License contains two separate but connected storylines and alternates between the two different point of view characters in each chapter.  One of the storylines focuses on Keiron in Newcastle, while the other follows Bex in India.  These storylines overlap throughout the chapters, and the characters are in constant communication with each other.  The different storylines are usually occurring at the same time, although Lane does occasionally move one storyline slightly ahead or behind to create some dramatic thrills.  Some of the most intriguing scenes feature Kerion communicating information through the ARCC glasses to Bex.  There is a fantastic interrogation sequence in which Bex uses the ARCC technology to stay in communication with Kerion as he provides her with the tools to crack her target and get the answers she is looking for.  This breakup in storylines also helps highlight the differences in espionage ability between the trained operative, Bex, and the amateur but highly skilled teenagers, Kerion and Sam.

Andrew Lane has produced a wonderful and highly enjoyable novel that is a fresh and exciting take on the teenage spy book and an excellent gateway into the world of spy thrillers.  Agent Without Licence is an ideal read for its intended younger demographic, while at the same time containing a range of mature story elements that will appeal to all ages.  This is a fantastic first instalment in a great new series that is highly recommended for young readers looking for a great adventure story.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date – 5 June 2018

 

Prepare yourself for dark magic and a powerfully inventive adventure in The Traitor God, one of 2018’s best fantasy debuts from exciting new author Cameron Johnston.

Ten years ago, reviled mind-bending magician Edrin Walker fled his home city of Setharis with demons biting at his heels.  On that night, a god died, his mentor disappeared and Edrin’s memories of the events surrounding his exile were erased from his mind.  All Edrin remembers is that he made a deal with somebody extremely powerful.  In exchange for him leaving the city, this mysterious figure guaranteed the safety and long life of his closest friends.

Edrin has spent the last 10 years wandering the wilderness, living day to day and evading the creatures hunting him.  Content with his decision and new life, his exile ends the moment he witnesses the death of his best friend, Lynas.  In one terrible night, Lynas was brutally murdered and skinned alive, and Edrin saw every minute of it through their powerful mental link.  Now, with nothing left to lose, Edrin will return home, his only intention to burn everyone and everything until he finds the person responsible for his friend’s death.

However, returning to Setharis is a dangerous proposition.  Not only is he still being hunted by demons, but the Arcanum, Setharis’s governing body of magicians, will kill him the moment they find out he is still alive.  Beyond caring, Edrin will risk everything to get revenge, and woe betide any man, magician, demon or god who gets in his way.

This is an extraordinary first novel from Johnston, who has produced a stylish and highly addictive sword and sorcery fantasy adventure with a morally corrupt protagonist, a great new fantasy setting and a huge number of magical battle sequences.

The Traitor God contains an impressive dark fantasy action story that effortlessly captures the reader’s imagination and attention and drags them through every page of the book.  What starts as a revenge investigation and rampage turns into a fight for the future of an entire city, as mysterious forces are unleashed.  The story is told solely from the perspective of the protagonist, Edrin, and as a result it has been noticeably infected with his dark humour and well-developed scepticism.  The familiar storyline of a hero returning home and finding that everything has changed works well within The Traitor God.  Readers will enjoy watching the powerful magician manipulate the new generation of criminals and bystanders who are unfamiliar with what he can do.  While the eventual revelation of who is responsible for the murder is a tad predictable, the investigation getting there is amazing, and fans will enjoy seeing the protagonist confront his enemies.  The scope of the villain’s evil plot is quite impressive and results in some massive scenes towards the end of the book.  I really enjoyed the cunningness and ingenuity of the protagonist and had fun watching him come up with clever solutions to the difficult and unique problems he encounters.  There is one amazing scene towards the end of the book when his plan to finish off a powerful antagonist is slowly revealed to the reader.  The reveal of the protagonist’s master plan, which is kept hidden from the reader due to magical plot elements, is done perfectly within this scene, and the audience will enjoy the clever ideas and dark humour used within.

The vast majority of the plot of Johnston’s book is set within the city of Setharis, which is controlled by an army of powerful magicians.  The city is a great setting for this dark fantasy novel as the protagonist is forced to conduct his investigation through its corrupt and crime-ridden streets.  It is clear that Johnston has spent significant time creating Setharis, and Edrin explores vast swathes of it during his adventures.  The exploration of the Arcanum is particularly intriguing, and readers will be shown the noticeable differences between the sanctuary of magicians and the dwellings where the city’s poor live.  Edrin’s observations about the inequalities and corruption of the Arcanum are unique among the book’s magicians.  This allows Johnston to show off the arrogance of the other magicians, which plays into the plot while at the same time endearing Edrin to the reader.  The setting of Setharis is an amazing part of this novel, and readers will look forward to returning to it in Johnston’s future works.

One of the best parts of The Traitor God is the sheer amount of exceptional magical and fantasy elements that have been packed into it by the author.  Edrin has unique magical mind powers that allow him to control people he encounters, and these are surprisingly dark powers for a fantasy protagonist to have.  These powers are intriguing, as they are known and feared throughout Johnston’s fantasy world, and Edrin suffers significant discrimination as a result.  The scenes where Edrin uses his mind-bending abilities are well presented by Johnston, as he successfully endeavours to show the effect Edrin’s power has on the other character’s minds.

The other magicians that feature in The Traitor God also have magical powers that catch the reader’s imagination when they are presented in the book.  The book features magicians with powers to nullify the magic of other magicians, sniffers who can smell and identify magicians from a distance, magicians who use body enhancement magic to become epic soldiers, and one extremely skilled hydromancer.  Johnston has also created some fascinating rules and abilities that affect all of the magicians within the book, including Edrin, and result in some wonderful story elements.  A great example of this revolves around the rule that magic permeates every cell of a magician’s body and leaks out of them into items like their clothing or bedding.  Johnston uses this fact to great effect throughout the story, as his protagonist is constantly forced to find constructive ways to avoid enemies who can detect his magic.  The author has also created memorable descriptions of the way that magicians are forced to access their magical power.  Johnston establishes that magicians within The Traitor God have to be careful about the magic they draw into themselves, lest they burn themselves out or go mad with power.  There are several scenes where Edrin is forced to draw large amounts of magic into himself to face powerful opponents or save the lives of his friends, and the resultant internal battles to retain control and his sanity are a fantastic part of the narrative.

While Johnston goes into incredible detail about the rules and roles of the magicians of Setharis, he has also included some alternative magical users who do not follow the same rules.  The comparison between these two different groups of magic users is quite distinctive, and scenes where they come into conflict with each other are quite destructive and highly enjoyable.  Johnston has made sure to include a number of unique demonic creatures the hunt and harry the protagonist.  These creatures are quite distinctive, and Johnston cleverly ties their hunting ability into his rules about magical scents and detection.  The most memorable magical creature within the book is also the largest, and results in some significant, fast-paced and explosive scenes throughout the book.  Overall, the electrifying and distinctive magical and fantasy elements within The Traitor God are one of the book’s most intriguing characteristics and highlight just how imaginative and creative Johnston is.

There are a tremendous number of action-filled sequences throughout the book as the main character and his allies fight criminals, demons, magicians and gods.  As a result, The Traitor God will appeal to wide range of readers eager to get their latest dose of intense fantasy action.  There are brawls, chases, complex magical duels, fights with monstrous foes, large-scale magical warfare within a city, and even a fight between two gigantic magical constructs.  Various elements that Johnston sets up when describing the city of Setharis or the magical abilities and rules of his magician characters often come into play during these scenes, and the author does a great job of winding his own lore into these fantastic sequences.  Those drawn to magical and fantasy action and battles will find all their needs and more are met within this book.

In his debut book, Cameron Johnston has shown that he is author with an immense and powerful imagination and the ability to skilfully transcribe his ideas into a powerful narrative.  The Traitor God is a fantastic piece of dark fantasy, with some incredibly thrilling action and adventure subplots.  This book is a highly recommended read, and Johnston is an author that fantasy fans will need to keep an eye on.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Deep Blue by Jane O’Reilly

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Publisher: Piatkus

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

Following on from her 2017 release, Blue Shift, Jane O’Reilly returns to her electrifying science fiction universe for another exciting and action-packed adventure among the stars.

In the distant future of 2207, Earth is dying and humanity’s only hope for survival is a brand new planet on the other side of the galaxy.  Travel to this new sanctuary requires passage through the territory of several alien species who are unwilling to let a ragged human fleet anywhere near their areas of space.  In order to convince these aliens to allow humans access to a new planet, the government has initiated the Second Species programme to create the only resource the aliens want: human slaves genetically altered with alien DNA.

Former bounty hunter Jinnifer Blue, after failing to reveal the terrible truth about the Second Species programme, has been captured by its creator, her mother, Ferona Blue.  Now genetically altered with alien strength and pissed beyond all belief, Jinnifer escapes from the lab where she was held.  Having given up on warning humanity about the government’s sinister plans, Jinnifer’s only desire is to be reunited with her lover, the pirate Caspian Dax.

But Dax was also captured by Ferona and is now serving a brutal alien race as a mindless gladiator on the planet of Sittan.  Jinnifer has no choice but to travel to Sittan and attempt to rescue Dax, while at the same time organising the rescue of another friend, Eve, who has been captured by another dangerous alien species.  Gathering together allies and an old enemy into a ragtag team, Jinnifer initiates two desperate rescue missions to save her friends.  Can Jinnifer succeed, or has Dax fallen too far under the sway of the dangerous Sittan empress?

Deep Blue is the second book in the Second Species trilogy and a brilliant sequel to O’Reilly’s first science fiction book, Blue Shift.  This is a fun and fast-paced action series that makes use of an inventive and dangerous universe filled with unique aliens and desperate humans.  Deep Blue has a very busy plot told from a variety of viewpoints that are combined together in a clever fashion to create one thrilling narrative.  Each of the various exciting storylines also contain some flawed and damaged characters, most of whom are seeking some form of redemption.

Just like in Blue Shift, I found that the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the chapters that followed the machinations of the book’s central antagonist Ferona Blue.  Her despicable political manipulation on Earth was a highlight of the first book, and this continues to be the case in Deep Blue.  The added focus on Ferona’s negotiations with alien politicians, including the book’s other main antagonist, the Sittan empress, is a brief but fun addition to this equation.  Deep Blue’s other storylines are also very fascinating and contain some great sequences, including having four storylines featuring rescue missions and alien captivity running simultaneously within the book.

Readers who enjoyed the first book of the Second Species trilogy will also enjoy the significant development that the central character, Jinnifer, has undergone since the start of Blue Shift.  The character has evolved from an uncaring loner to the leader of her own small crew who harbours deep concerns for her friend’s wellbeing.  There is also a shift in the character dynamics between Jinnifer and Dax that is quite noticeable.  In the first book, Jinnifer was constantly being rescued by Dax, who ended up sacrificing everything to save her.  This is reversed in Deep Blue, as Dax is the one who is trapped and Jinnifer is the one attempting to save him by undertaking a dangerous rescue mission.  It is a fun change to the established character dynamic and readers of Blue Shift will appreciate the interesting change of pace O’Reilly takes in this second book.

O’Reilly has also created an excellent original universe to serve as the setting for her series.  There are a ton of intriguing science fiction elements, including an interesting prediction for the future of Earth and humanity and a number of unique alien species.  In Deep Blue, O’Reilly goes into greater detail of two of her alien races, the Sittan and the Shi Fai.  There is some exploration of both races’ history, culture, technology and way of life, as well as a visit to both home planets.  While there is a larger focus on the Sittan and their militaristic, female-dominated society, including using the Sittan empress as one of the book’s main antagonists, the scenes on the Shi Fai home planet are certainly memorable and more disturbing.  Other science fiction elements that readers are bound to find entertaining within Deep Blue include O’Reilly’s look at intergalactic politics, Earth’s political manipulation with advanced technology and the inclusion of human-alien hybrids.

This is a fairly action-packed book with some great combat sequences infused into the story to excite the readers.  The main character spends significant parts of the book utilising the swords she has implanted within her arms to great effect, and O’Reilly ensures that her two main characters spend significant time in gladiator-style death fights.  The author also is not too attached to some of her characters, so prepare for a few shocks and surprises.

O’Reilly once again sends the reader on an imaginative science fiction adventure through a dark and dangerous universe.  Deep Blue is a deeply fun and action-orientated story that will appeal to a wide audience and have readers hanging out for the final book in this exciting trilogy.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Tall Man by Phoebe Locke

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Publisher: Wildfire

Publication date – 12 June 2018

 

Prepare to explore an urban legend in this dark and complex thriller from author Phoebe Locke, whose inclusion of a number of disturbing horror elements that have been influenced from the Slender Man phenomenon turn this exciting story into a must-read book for horror fans.

For years the mysterious Tall Man has haunted the minds of many people throughout England, but is he a figment of their imagination, evidence of their mental instability, or something far more real?  In the 1990s, three girls pledge their loyalty to the Tall Man in the dark woods around their home.

In 2000, a young mother flees the demons of her past and abandons her newborn baby.  16 years later she returns to her family, believing the threat from the Tall Man has passed, but something is still stalking her and her daughter.

In 2018, after a teenager is cleared of murder in a controversial and highly publicised trail, she embarks on a worldwide tour, followed by a documentary film crew.  Is she an innocent victim, or is she the latest tool of the Tall Man?  Each of these events is connected to this sinister figure, but is he the powerful legend that these people believe he is?  You decide, but remember, The Tall Man can make you special if you let him.

The Tall Man is the debut book from Phoebe Locke and is an intricate and deeply unsettling thriller that will hold an interesting appeal to fans of the horror genre.  Overall The Tall Man is a fantastic thriller that makes full use of its horror elements to create an effective story that is both compelling and creepy at the same time.  Locke has written in a number of shocking twists and turns for the reader to enjoy, while all of her characters are either afraid of or have been damaged by interactions with the Tall Man.  The constantly haunting Tall Man is an interesting and unique addition to this story, and its effect on the book’s plot and the characters is truly powerful.

The book is broken into three parts, each focusing on different time periods during the 1990s, 2016 with a couple of chapters in 2000, with the final part set in 2018.  Each of these parts is told from the viewpoint of different but related characters and is somewhat distinctive in style.  The stories are also interconnected in a variety of ways, although the significance and full connections are not revealed until later in the book in some powerful and emotional scenes.

Without a doubt, the most intriguing and noticeable part of The Tall Man that readers will enjoy is Locke’s clever utilisation of one of the most interesting horror phenomenon in the world today, the Slender Man.  The Slender Man is a fascinating fictional character introduced around 10 years ago that has had a surprising influence on society and some specific people.  With the Slender Man film coming out in a few weeks, Locke has chosen a great time to use a pastiche of Slender Man in her story.

The Tall Man elements are a remarkable part of the book, and Locke has used them to full effect to enhance her story and to make the thriller elements more disturbing and creepy.  Locke has included a number of references to the Slender Man lore, including his shadowy presence and his targeting of young children.  There are also some captivating elements to the book that have been clearly influenced by real events tied to the Slender Man.  This includes Locke’s own fictional version of the infamous Waukesha Stabbing incident of 2014, which is key plot point within the book and results in several shocking twists that will really stick in the reader’s memory.  Locke also ensures that the reader is constantly left wondering about whether the Tall Man is a real supernatural being or whether he is a mere fantasy in the minds of the main characters that becomes a group delusion among the other characters.  This element of uncertainty is a fantastic addition to this book and readers will be considering what the answer is long after they have finished reading The Tall Man.

While the storyline set in 2016 represents the most significant storyline plot-wise, I personally enjoyed the chapters set in 2018 the most.  These chapters are based around a documentary film crew who are trying to make sense of an incident that occurred in the 2016 storyline.  The documentary makers in the 2018 storyline are essentially trying to come up with the next bestselling true crime series, and there are several allusions to current documentaries, such as the Making of a Murderer series or the real-life Beware the Slenderman documentary that was released on HBO in 2017.  As a result, the reader is taken behind the scenes to follow the filmmakers as they research the Tall Man phenomenon.  This part of the book features detailed examinations of Locke’s Tall Man lore, and how it has affected a number of people, including the other storyline’s main characters.  It is interesting to see how Locke’s fictionalised Tall Man differentiates from the classic story of The Slender Man, and readers will enjoy examining how Locke has created a fictional replica of an already fictional character.  The 2018 storyline also has a series of hints about the climax of the book’s other storylines, all of which were chronologically set before it, and it was fascinating tying these hints together with the actual storyline.

 The Tall Man is the perfect read for those looking for something special and who aren’t afraid of some eerie horror in complex and heart-pounding thrillers.  With her debut book, Locke has proven that she is definitely an author to look out for and I’m excited to see what she comes up with next.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 28 May 2018

 

Australian thriller star Megan Goldin follows up her 2017 debut, The Girl in Kellers Way, with The Escape Room, a sensational new story that stabs right into the heart of Wall Street and the corruption and death festering within.

For years, the high-flying Wall Street investment team of Vincent, Jules, Sylvie and Sam have been the ultimate movers and shakers in the world of rich financiers.  Despite years of success, recent setbacks have put them all at risk of being fired from the large investment firm of Stanhope and Sons.  Ordered to a mandatory team-building exercise, the four colleagues meet at a half-constructed building and enter an express elevator to one of the top floors.  However, the elevator only ascends halfway up the building before stopping and leaving them suspended between floors and high above the ground.  As the four investors attempt to work out what is happening, they receive a chilling message: “Welcome to the escape room.  Your goal is simple.  Get out alive.”

While the team searches for a way out of the elevator, it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary escape room.  Secrets and lies are revealed through cryptic clues, and the information revealed is designed to make the four strong personalities clash and lash out at each other.  But the greatest mystery is the clues that hint to the team’s past, and particularly to a dark secret they have kept hidden for years.  As time passes and their situation becomes even more desperate, the four financiers start to turn on each other in their search for answers.  Who has trapped them, and how is it linked to the deaths of two young women who used to be members of their team?

The Escape Room is the second book from Goldin and is another great work from this fantastic Australian author.  I really enjoyed this book and found it to be so compelling that I read the whole thing in one go, intrigued as I was by the unique concept and eager to see how the story ended.

Goldin has split her book into distinctive halves, with two separate stories told in alternating chapters throughout the book.  Half of the book is dedicated to the characters trapped in the elevator and is set over the period that they spend in their confinement.  The other half of the book focuses on the life of Sarah Hall, a young college graduate and entrant to the team at Stanhope and Sons.  The chapters that focus on Sarah are set over several years leading up to the events shown in the book’s other storyline.  The chapters following Sarah feature younger versions of the characters trapped in the elevator and provide significant backstory on these people and the work that they do.

Apart from plot content, there is also another key change between the two halves of the book that is very noticeable to the reader.  The chapters set within the elevator are all told in the third person from the viewpoints of the four characters trapped within it.  However, the chapters set in the past that focus on Sarah are all told in the first person.  This is an effective way of differentiating between the two halves of the book and represents a distinctive change of tone within the story.  The use of two different styles is an interesting choice from Goldin, but it actually works really well in this book.  The third person point of view is the best choice for the scenes in the elevator, as it allows the author to show the actions of the four characters, each of whom have strong personalities.  It also allows the reader to see the mindsets of each of the characters, as their recent actions and relationships issues are explored at multiple points throughout the chapter.  These extra details add to the story and help explain the pressures they are under and the reasons they start to disintegrate mentally.  Using the first person point of view for the chapters following Sarah is also a good choice from Goldin, as the reader gets to see Sarah’s personal experiences of the Wall Street lifestyle and her impressions of the characters from the other storyline who are her superiors at the firm.  This allows the reader to see the characters who become desperate and crazy in the elevator chapters as they were when they were confident and arrogant Wall Street hotshots.  This results in some great scenes and is an amazing pay-off for this unique choice of format.

The Escape Room contains some exceptional storytelling from Goldin, who has managed to create an intricate and captivating thriller.  The scenes of the book set in the elevator are particularly intriguing, as the reader gets to witness these characters slowly become more erratic the longer they are trapped, and finally turn against each other.  The final reveal of who is set up the escape room is a little predictable towards the end of the book.  That being said, there are some great twists and turns getting there, as well as some exciting revelations, such as how the whole situation was set up, the motives behind it, as well as which characters in the elevator actually knew the dark secret that resulted in their captivity.  These additions to the narrative are intricate and clever, and are one of the main reasons that The Escape Room is such a great read.

While this book had a number of amazing elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the examination of the Wall Street lifestyle.  Goldin has done a superb job of capturing the sleaze, the sexism, the nepotism and the cronyism that infects such an old-school boys’ club like Wall Street.  The descriptions of the lifestyles that the Wall Street brokers have to live are just insane, and Goldin spends significant time describing every aspect of these character’s lives and how their work, with the long hours, focus on appearances, the corporate backstabbing and the hunt for more money completely consumes their lives.  While Goldin does not paint Wall Street in the best light, it is the perfect background for a thriller, and I really hope that she returns to this setting in some of her future books.

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin is an outstanding second outing from this amazing new Australian author.  With a brilliant setting that contains a deep and confronting look at the daunting Wall Street lifestyle and a complex and captivating narrative that masterfully combines two excellent storylines, The Escape Room takes the readers on a wild thrill ride that they will be unable to escape.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Deceit by Richard Evans

Deceit Cover

Publisher: Impact Press

Publication date – 18 June 2018

 

From former politician Richard Evans comes one of the most incredible fictional examinations of the Australian political system with Deceit, an exciting and superb political thriller.

When corrupt Australian Prime Minster Andrew Gerrard makes a deal with his Indonesian counterpart, he embarks on a plan to build up a retirement nest egg by passing a controversial funding bill for overseas detention centres over a period of several years.  However, when key members of his party die in a tragic plane accident, Gerrard decides to process all of the funding in one go and receive the full amount of his payoff.

Outnumbered in the House of Representatives, and with only one week to pass the bill through both houses of parliament, the task looks impossible.  But the Prime Minister is a canny political operator with no conscience to speak of and with the Speaker deep in his pocket and with no conscience to speak off.  Equipped with a master plan, Gerrard starts to manipulate the bill through parliament.

The only person who may be able to stop him is the outgoing Clerk of the House of Representatives, Gordon O’Brien, who suspects that the Prime Minister’s mysterious last-minute bill is more sinister than it appears.  As one of the few people who believe in the sanctity of the parliament, O’Brien will risk everything to find out the truth and ensure no wrongdoing is done on his watch.  Utilising all the tools at his disposal, including the opposition and investigative journalist Anita Devlin, O’Brien prepares to move against the Prime Minister.  Let the political games begin!

Evans is a former Australian politician who served two terms as a federal member of parliament in the 1990s.  Evans has decided to utilise his political experience and expertise by creating a series of Australian politics based thrillers and dramas, with several books planned for release in 2019 and 2020.  Deceit is his debut novel and the first book of his planned Democracy trilogy, with the second book in this series, Duplicity, already set to be released in 2019.  Readers interested in fictional depictions of Australian politics should also keep an eye out for his upcoming Referendum and Jack Hudson series, both of which will start to be published in the next two years.

Deceit is a fabulous political thriller with a fantastic story that twists and turns through multiple layers of manipulation, deceptions, lies and double-crosses.  The book’s main antagonist, Australian Prime Minister Andrew Gerrard is a selfish, manipulative and sleazy character who serves as a perfect villain for this story and whose plots are a highlight of this book.  Evans has done a clever job of spreading the story out among multiple point-of-view characters, as this allows the reader to view the impact of Gerrard’s manoeuvrings and lets them see how they are received by members of the opposition, the media and O’Brien.  Evans is a very talented storywriter, and the entire plot of Deceit is extremely compelling and very well thought out.  Readers will fall in love with this amazing story and will find its overall conclusion very satisfying.

As someone who lives and works in the book’s main setting, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, I have received a lot of exposure to Australian politics.  As a result, I loved the author’s exceedingly realistic and accurate depictions of the Australian political system and how it was used within this story.  There is some great coverage of Australia’s parliamentary procedure and the creation and passage of bills and laws through both houses of parliament that are presented in a precise and well-described way.  There are also a number of characters who hold roles that are actually part of Australia’s political and civil service.  These positions and roles are explored in detail, and the reader is given significant insights into what work and requirements are needed by the people holding them.  Evan’s does a fantastic job of weaving these usually dry subjects into a very enthralling narrative, and readers will be intrigued to see how the fictional Prime Minister plans to get a dodgy bill past the entire country without anyone noticing what he is doing.

The standout scene of the book has to be an extended chapter that featured a session of question time in the House of Representatives.  Question time is a daily occurrence during the parliamentary sitting period during which government and non-government members of parliament ask ministers questions about their various portfolios.  As someone who has been exposed to many question times, I was struck by how genuine Evans’s description of this event was.  Evans perfectly encapsulates the entire process from start to finish and was able to recreate the snarky and sometimes petulant nature of the discourse that are the usual fare of question time.  The author expertly links the overarching storyline of political corruption into this scene, as one member of the opposition is suspicious and starts to ask the Prime Minister leading questions about the controversial bill he has put forward.  The political back-and-forth around these questions was amazing, and it was fascinating watching them being tied into the rest of the story.  Overall, this sequence was exceedingly compelling, and the entire time I was reading it I was physically incapable of putting the book down.

Deceit also contains some detailed and enjoyable depictions of Australia’s Parliament House and the capital city, Canberra.  Parliament House is a beautiful building, and Evans does a wonderful job describing Parliament House in detail and examining various parts of the building, from the Prime Minister’s office and courtyard, to the various gardens, media offices and even cafes.  Other little nuances of life within Parliament House are also captured within the text, no doubt because of Evans’s prior experiences working within the building.

I also really enjoyed seeing my home city of Canberra featured in this book.  Despite being the capital city, Canberra does not feature much in fiction, due to it being a smaller and newer city than Sydney or Melbourne.  Deceit, however, contains some great depictions of the areas of Canberra close to Parliament House.  There are several references to some real restaurants and cafes that politicians are known to frequent and where several big political discussions are known to have taken place.  There are also several scenes where the characters explore other parts of Canberra as part of the book’s plot.  I for one found it incredibly amusing and disconcerting to read a scene about a secretive handoff of documents set in a cinema that I’ve watched The Hunger Games and Doctor Who specials in.  Canberra locals will love seeing their city as a major fixture of this book, and other readers will get to explore Australia’s capital and see its potential as a setting in this exciting thriller.

Richard Evans’ first book, Deceit, is a five-star thriller that brings the Australian political process to life.  Former politician Evans brings all of his insight and expertise to this new book, and readers will be astounded by the realistic descriptions of Australian politics and the way it has been utilised in this exciting and first-rate story.  This is an outstanding debut from Evans, and this terrific read comes highly recommended.

My Rating:

Five Stars