Throwback Thursday: The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Jenny Wurst

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Publishers: Doubleday, HarperCollins

Publication Dates:

Daughter of the Empire – 1987

Servant of the Empire – 1990

Mistress of the Empire – 1992

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

If you are a fan of Raymond E. Feist’s books, check out my review of his latest work, King of Asheshttps://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/king-of-ashes-by-raymond-e-feist/

 

Set in the same universe as fantasy author Raymond E. Feist’s legendary Riftwar Cycle is The Empire Trilogy, which serves as a fantastic companion series to his main body of work.  This trilogy, made up of Daughter of the Empire, Servant of the Empire and Mistress of the Empire was written in collaboration with fellow fantasy author Janny Wurst and represents an intriguing piece of literature that shines not only as a side series to Feist’s first two books but also as a substantial and powerful standalone series.

I first came across this series during my school days, when I had to read Daughter of the Empire for a fantasy literature course (great book, terrible teacher).  I was already very familiar with Feist’s massive fantasy universe, having read all the other books available in the series at that point, though in a somewhat eclectic order.  I had not previously attempted to read The Empire Trilogy before this point, but I eagerly dived into Daughter of the Empire when I got my copy from the school library.  I was immediately entranced by the story and read it several times in that semester, especially during the more boring classes.  Upon completing the first book, I also sought out the second and third books in the series in order to see how the fantastic storylines continued.  In recent years, I was lucky enough to find audiobook copies of the entire trilogy, and have since re-listened to it several times.  These more recent perusals only confirmed my enjoyment of this series, as well as my love of Feist’s massive fantasy world.

The first book of The Empire Trilogy, Daughter of the Empire, was published in 1987, one year after the final book in The Riftwar Saga, the first trilogy in Feist’s massive Riftwar Cycle.  In many ways, Daughter of the Empire and the second book, Servant of the Empire, serve as accompaniments to Feist’s original series, as both plots are set at the same time and events that occur in Magician and Silverthorn have significant impacts within The Empire Trilogy.

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The Empire Trilogy follows Mara of the Acoma, a young woman who becomes the Ruling Lady of her house after the sudden death of her male relatives.  Through the course of this series, Mara must become a strong ruler to maintain the honour of her family and ensure the survival of all the people pledged to her house.  Mara must use all of her cunning to overcome powerful opponents while adapting new methods and viewpoints that are uncommon in her regimented culture in order to survive.

This series is set in the world of Kelewan, a vast planet inhabited by several strange alien species, and mainly focuses on the inhabitants of the massive Empire of Tsuranuanni.  The Tsurani were introduced in Feist’s first book, Magician, where they travel through a magical rift to the world of Midkemia and clash with the inhabitants of this new planet in an event known as the Rift War.  The Tsurani are a race of humans based on a combination of real world cultures, such as the Japanese, Koreans and the Aztecs.  For example, the overriding Tsurani ideal of honour, an exceedingly important concept in the books that strongly influences their culture and way of life, is very strongly based on feudal Japanese ideals of the samurai and bushido.  Kelewan is explored within Magician through the eyes of Feist’s main protagonist, Pug.  Midkemia is the main setting for the books in the Riftwar Cycle.  While Kelewan is visited in later books of the Riftwar Cycle, most notably in Silverthorn, it becomes a more underutilised setting as Feist’s overall series continues, before eventually being destroyed in Wrath of a Mad God.

Each of the books in this trilogy contains epic and captivating stories that not only highlight life in these alien planets but also show a tale of survival and victory against all odds as the protagonist, Mara, faces and overcomes the superior forces arrayed against her.  The first book in the trilogy is Daughter of the Empire, which introduces many of the series’ main characters and storylines.  The protagonist and main point-of-view character is Mara of the Acoma, who is dramatically pulled from her peaceful life as a novice priestess into the deadly and treacherous world of Tsurani politics.  Mara’s father and brother were killed during a battle on Midkemia because of treachery from the most powerful house in the Empire, the Minwanabi.  As a result, Mara is forced to take on the role of Ruling Lady to save her house from being destroyed and her retainers taken as slaves or forced to become honourless bandits.  With the vast majority of her soldiers killed in Midkemia, Mara must find creative ways to stop the Minwanabi and other rival houses from wiping her out.

Mara proves to be an effective leader, bending Tsurani traditions to her favour, recruiting talented followers and forming new alliances.  Her machinations result in a political marriage to a brutal husband whom Mara must endure until the moment is right to remove him.  Watching the protagonist rebuild her house through any means necessary is a fantastic focus of this book which really allows the reader to get a strong idea of Tsurani politics, ideals and culture, as well as Mara’s determination as the central protagonist.  The climax of the book is set within the Minwanabi stronghold, which Mara has been forced to visit in order to attend a celebration for the Warlord (the Tsurani equivalent of a feudal Japanese Shogun).  This final part of the book is filled with significant tension and fear, as everyone is well aware that the Minwanabi will murder Mara before she leaves the party.  Mara must find a way to use the Tsurani honour system to prevent her own assassination while also striking a blow against her opponent.  Daughter of the Empire is an exceptional introduction to this fantastic series, and is a spectacular novel in its own right.

Feist and Wurst followed up their first entry in this series with another sensational novel that doubles down on the action and intrigue and contains some of the best sequences in the entire series.  Servant of the Empire directly follows on from the events of the first book and sees Mara and her house still in great peril.  Mara may have overcome the previous ruling lord of the Minwanabi, but her enemies are still the most powerful house in the Empire.  While the new lord is nowhere near as competent as his father was, he has called up the family’s most devious and destructive member, Tasaio, the man who organised the death of Mara’s father and brother.  As the Minwanabi plot against the Acoma, Mara is distracted by her acquisition of a group of Midkemian slaves, especially the charismatic Kevin of Zūn.  As Mara and Kevin fall in love, the Acoma are drawn into a series of battles on many different fronts, but Kevin’s alien way of thinking offers Mara a distinct advantage.  But events completely outside Mara’s control may have the greatest impact on the future of her house.  Both the magician Pug and the chaotic event of the Riftwar bring significant change to the Empire, and Mara and her enemies must seek new ways to turn these events to their advantage.  While Mara’s relationship with Kevin provides her with strength, it also represents her greatest weakness.

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There is a lot going on within this book, including a number of large-scale battle sequences, as well several scenes focusing on the Empire’s political intrigue.  The standout scenes for me have to be either the extended sequence in the arena which features a different point of view to the chaotic magic unleased by Pug in Magician, or the sequences where the biggest houses in the Empire stage a night-time battle of assassins in the halls of the Imperial Palace.  While this might be my favourite book in the series, I am not the biggest fan of the way the romance angle between Mara and Kevin is portrayed.  Kevin, however, is a fantastic addition for this book, and it is intriguing to have a character that has a similar viewpoint as the reader to observe and comment on Tsurani honour, politics and culture.

The third book in the series, Mistress of the Empire, is set some years after Servant of the Empire and sees Mara and the Acoma once again up against a superior enemy.  After their victories in the second book, the Acoma are now the most powerful house in the Empire, but Mara’s sins have come back to haunt her.  When the Hamoi Tong assassins initiate a devastating strike at the Acoma, the Assembly of Magicians forestalls Mara’s vengeance against the house she holds responsible.  The magicians, known throughout the Empire as “Great Ones” are determined to limit the Acoma’s influence, and Mara soon finds herself in a hidden war against the most destructive force in all of Kelewan.  At the same time, her former brother-in-law, Jiro of the Anasati, seeks retribution against Mara, while her loyal Spy Master Arakasi seeks to find a way to finally destroy the Hamoi Tong.  Travelling outside the Empire, Mara uncovers dark secrets about the Assembly, and her actions will have major impacts on the future of Tsurani life.

Mistress of the Empire is an excellent conclusion to this trilogy that not only provides a compelling story with exciting new additions but also neatly wraps up storylines from the previous two books.  While this book probably has the least connections to the events of Feist’s main series, it dives deeper into the history and hidden lore of Kelewan and the Empire, including the Assembly of Magicians, a sinister and powerful group in Feist’s universe.  Many of the main characters get satisfying endings to their storylines, and we get to see several chapters told from the point of view of the Spy Master Arakasi.  Arakasi is one of the series’ best characters; however, due to the nature of his work, the readers usually do not get to see him in action, instead only hearing second-hand accounts of his missions.  Readers get to enjoy scenes that focus on Arakasi’s investigations into both the Assembly of Magicians and the Hamoi Tong, which also serve to expand on Arakasi as a character.  Readers will also enjoy the fact that, after two books in which the antagonists need to keep up the appearance that they are obeying the Tsurani code of honour in their battles with the Acoma, Mara is now forced to go up against an opponent outside the typical laws and practices of the Empire.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series is how the authors have tied the books into the events of Feist’s original trilogy.  There are actually a few pre-emptive mentions of characters and events that become an important part The Empire Trilogy in Feist’s first book, Magician.  For example, the Shinzawai, a major house, whose members become key characters in The Empire Trilogy, are first introduced in this book as friends of Pug.  During Pug’s adventures in Kelewan, there is mention of a visit to the Lady of the Acoma, an event that subsequently occurs in Servant of the Empire.  The Minwanabi betrayal of the Acoma forces is also described to the Midkemian protagonists of Magician by a former Tsurani slave in an attempt to highlight the Tsurani system of honour and politics.  The first book in The Empire Trilogy, Daughter of the Empire is actually set in the time gap between the two halves of Magician, and takes a closer look at the impact that the Riftwar has had in Kelewan.

A more direct connection to the series is established in Servant of the Empire.  As mentioned above, long-running Riftwar Cycle protagonist, Pug, makes several appearances in this book, mirroring events that occur in second half of Magician.  Events that occur in Feist’s original trilogy have severe impacts on the plans of Mara and her enemies, such as the destruction of a huge number of Tsurani lords in the final battle of Magician and the death of the new Warlord in Silverthorn.  All of these become significant plot points in Servant of the Empire, and it is absolutely fascinating to see the impacts of events in other books.

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The most spectacular crossover event comes about halfway through Servant of the Empire, which shows some of the cataclysmic events from Magician from a whole new perspective.  In the second half of Magician, the powerful magician Pug unleashes his full fury on an arena full of Tsurani, sending wave after wave of magical attacks and disasters on the arena’s audience.  The scene is very intense when told from Pug’s point of view; however, readers of the second book in The Empire Trilogy are shown the absolute terror and destruction that a member of this crowd experienced during these events.  Mara, Kevin and a few Acoma retainers are present when the magical attack occurs and must flee through the panicking mob while also avoiding enemy assassins.  The sheer chaos and dread experienced by these characters and the surrounding crowd is astounding, and turns an incredible scene from Magician into one of the most intense and memorable sequences Feist has ever written.

Throughout the series, the Mara and her house are engaged in significant conflict with other factions in the Tsuranuanni Empire.  In the first two books, their opponents are primarily the most powerful house in the Empire, the Minwanabi, while the third book sees Mara in conflict with another influential house, as well as the Assembly of Magicians and the Hamoi Tong assassins.  As a result, the main focus of these books is usually the battles for supremacy between the Acoma and their opponents.  However, what sets these stories apart from other fantasy novels is the way that these battles are fought.  While an all-out war would probably ensure a quicker conclusion to this struggle, the Acoma and their enemies are forced to fight within their nation’s rules of conflict and honour.  As a result, the participants are forced to fight in a far more shadowy conflict.  While there are battles between armies, often with one side in disguise, the participants also fight using economics, espionage and politics.  Throughout the book, the protagonist makes alliances, build up her resources and use her influence to mould the politics of the realm to her advantage.  The reliance on honour is a fascinating part of this battle, and the reader will enjoy seeing the protagonist use this concept of honour to manipulate her opponents.  The real fun comes when the various participants are no longer bound by the rules and are able to unleash much more devastating and direct attacks on each other, such as the massive battle in the imperial palace that takes place in Servant of the Empire.  The battles for survival and control of the Tsuranuanni Empire represent an absolutely captivating and exciting part of this series, especially when the Acoma spymaster Arakasi gets involved.

Readers of The Empire Trilogy are also gifted with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the people, races and culture of Kelewan.  This world and some of its history was explored in Feist’s earlier books, including Magician, where an extended magical vision showed the reader key points in the planet’s history.  However, for those readers who wish to have a truly deep understanding of life in Kelewan, and the Tsuranuanni Empire in particular, the books in this trilogy are the best things to read.  Through the protagonist’s eyes the reader gets to explore the various pieces of land that make up the Empire, as well as the creatures that inhabit these lands.  Feist and Wurst also spend significant amount of time looking at the Cho’ja, the ant-like alien creatures who were first introduced in MagicianDaughter of the Empire takes a very interesting look at the Cho’ja, especially as an early part of the book focuses on the protagonist’s attempts to win a Cho’ja colony for her land.  In order to do this, she enters a hive and negotiates with a newly hatched queen in order to provide Mara with additional warriors and access to silk spinners.  In order to gain an edge on her competition, Mara attempts to understand the cultural differences between her race and the Cho’ja, and is able to come up with some intriguing conclusions as a result.  These initial and interesting observations of this race are then massively expanded upon in Mistress of the Empire when Mara, in an attempt to find out the secrets of the Assembly of Magicians, uncovers the true history of the Cho’ja and the ancient pacts they are bound to.  Readers will be absolutely fascinated by the lore of these creatures, and there are some great scenes featuring Cho’ja economy and their skills in battle.  In addition to the Cho’ja, Feist and Wurst also explore some of the human nations that exist in Kelewan, including the desert tribes of Dustari and the Thuril.  These explorations aren’t as detailed as the authors’ look at the Cho’ja and the Tsurani, but are intriguing in their own right, as the authors create some unique cultural features for them.

While the examination of the Cho’ja and the other human races of Tsurani is an intriguing and detailed part of the books in The Empire Trilogy, it pales in comparison to the massive amount of time spent exploring Kelewan’s main civilisation, the Tsuranuanni Empire.  The vast majority of the three books is spent within the Empire, with only a small portion of Mistress of the Empire spent outside.  Feist introduced a lot of the elements of the Tsurani in Magician, but this is expanded on substantially in this series.  Readers who read through these books will be left with an incredible amount of information about Tsurani politics, religion, culture, societal makeup and various other parts of day-to-day life in the Tsuranuanni Empire.  The use and examination of Tsurani politics at many different levels is an extremely compelling part of these books, and the various meetings and manipulations that occur represent a very enjoyable part of the book.  The concept of Tsurani honour is also explored in great detail.  Honour is a massive and defining part of Tsurani culture, and the various characters risk everything to maintain it.  Living or dying without honour is considered the worst thing imaginable as it will impact on the individual’s reincarnation in the next life.  The concept of honour is particularly skewed towards the Tsurani nobles, and it often takes an outside perspective, like that of Kevin, to identify how unfair the system is.  Mara becomes particularly adept at using this honour system to her own advantage.  While absolutely devoted to maintaining her family’s honour, her interactions with Kevin lead her to try and make some substantial changes in Tsurani society.  The books in the trilogy also reveal some deeper understandings about Tsurani history and the various secret organisations such as the Assembly of Magicians have been protecting.  While physically reading these books allows the reader to absorb a lot of this lore, I would also suggest that people check out the various audiobooks that have been produced, which can help listeners to absorb more of these amazing story elements.

I do have a few minor criticisms about this series, but nothing that is really going to change my high regard for it.  There are some unnecessary scenes where Mara is scolded and nagged by her nurse, Nacoya, who quickly becomes one of the series’ more annoying characters.  I felt that some of the scenes featuring Nacoya’s constant criticism took away from Mara’s image as a skilful and intelligent leader, and just made her seem like a foolish girl.  Luckily Nacoya is easily overshadowed by several of the other supporting characters, such as Keyoke, Arakasi and Lujan.  I also found parts of the relationship between Mara and Kevin in Servant of the Empire to be very frustrating, especially as they seemed to keep cycling through the same problems and issues.  Luckily, Kevin’s ‘barbarian’ insights and ideas more than make up for this, as he produces some excellent battle and political tactics throughout the book.  Overall, these are some fairly minor criticisms from me, and I really love all three of these books.

The Empire Trilogy from Raymond E. Feist and Jenny Wurst is a spectacular fantasy series set in the same incredible universe as the Riftwar Cycle.  This trilogy of books is an amazing series in its own right; however, it’s real strength comes from it being a clever tie-in to Feist’s main series of books.  Featuring some incredible story elements, exceptional action-packed scenes and a detailed setting stuffed full of lore, The Empire Trilogy is some of these two talented authors’ best works, which still stand up to this day.  The series is required reading for anyone who has read Magician and other books in the Riftwar Cycle, but it also comes highly recommended for those readers looking for that next fantasy series to fall in love with.

My Rating (Series and Each Book):

Four and a half stars

Phantom by Leo Hunt

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Publisher: Orchard

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

From bestselling author Leo Hunt comes an electrifying and fast-paced young adult science fiction adventure that takes an intriguing look at the future of technology, as well as the crime and consequences these advances could lead to.

In the far future, humanity has built towers and skyscrapers up in a major way, leaving the ground far below.  The rich and powerful live in the City, the highest level of construction, far above the poisoned ground.  Up in the City, luxuries such as sunlight, clean water, jobs and corpbloc homes are available to its hardworking corporate-owned population.  Those who do not have money live in the undercity slums, where the sun never shines and poisoned water is flooding up from the ground.

One of the inhabitants of the undercity is orphaned teenager Nova, who earns a living going up into the City and stealing from the corporate workers.  In a world where everyone has technology implanted in their heads, a skilled hacker like Nova can obtain everything from money to information.  Nova’s most important tool is Phantom, a powerful program created by the shadowy anticorporation hacker, the Moth, which hides the identity of hackers while they commit their crimes.

While Nova is only just scraping by, her skills have caught the attention of the Moth, who has a dangerous job for her.  The Moth needs Nova to infiltrate the powerful Bliss Inc and uncover their most treasured corporate secret.  Posing as a prospective assistant for the CEO of Bliss Inc, Nova goes deep undercover, changing her identity and her appearance to sneak in.  However, her mission is about to get far more complicated then she could have ever imagined.  Caught between the dark secrets of Bliss Inc and the mysterious ambitions of the Moth, Nova is going to be lucky to get out of this heist alive.

Phantom is the latest book from young adult author Leo Hunt and represents his first foray into the science fiction genre.  Hunt’s previous works have mainly focused on the fantasy and horror genres, with his 13 Days of Midnight trilogy featuring a young man who develops necromantic powers.  Phantom is an interesting new direction for Hunt, who has created a fantastic piece of young adult science fiction with strong techno-thriller elements.

This book is contains an intriguing science fiction story that takes the reader through a unique futuristic city and presents them with a thrilling and technology driven adventure.  Phantom’s story contains a superb combination of story elements which come together to form an entertaining and fast-paced plot with compelling pieces of betrayal, technologically assisted espionage and corporate intrigue.  There are a few good twists throughout the book, but I did find that one of the big reveals towards the end of the book was a little easy to predict as a result of the author only utilising on a small number of characters throughout most of the narrative.  This was more than made up for by the shocking and deeply intriguing reveals that followed the protagonist uncovering the hidden secret motivations of the book’s various antagonists.  All of these hidden surprises result in some great story elements and have a strong relation with the book’s focus on technology.

Phantom is intended for a young adult audience, and it works well as an absorbing and exciting introduction into science fiction and technology-based thrillers.  Younger readers will love the interesting examination of the potential future technology and will find the exciting adventure storyline quite fun.  The violence contained within the book is not too graphic whilst also allowing for some strong action-packed scenes.  There are some minor mentions of mind-alerting technology and substances, but nothing too inappropriate for the younger audience.  There are also some subtle but important LGTB elements that come into play later in the story, and Hunt handles these quite well.  Overall, I would recommend this book to all teenagers, and even some younger readers, who will find a lot to enjoy in this wonderful book.

The best and most compelling features of Phantom are the amazing technological elements that form a significant part of the plot and which take a particularly intriguing look into humanity’s reliance on technology and how we are likely to advance in the future.  In this potential future, everyone has neural implants inserted in them at birth that act as a mobile connection to the internet as well as a phone, music player, bank card and personal identification all in one.  This is an interesting thing to examine, especially as humans are constantly getting closer and closer to incorporating our personal technology into our own bodies.  Hunt does a great job presenting some of the potential benefits and problems that humans could experience with this sort of technology, and takes a stimulating look at that the ways that it could impact on our lives.  Quite a few things are explored throughout Phantom, from examinations of how this technology will influence human identity to how it could be abused for criminal reasons, such as stealing money, hacking someone to take control of their body or producing technology that mimics recreational drugs.  Other technological questions come into play later in the book and result in some deep emotional scenes as well as some interesting questions about ethics and the nature of humanity.  These fictional technological elements represent some truly fascinating ideas from Hunt that readers will find very captivating.

In addition to Hunt’s intriguing postulations about future technology, another compelling story element is the inventive and imaginative setting for the story.  The entirety of Phantom is set within a fictional metropolis that is constantly being built up and is split between the soaring spires of the rich and the sprawling slum-like undercity where the poor live.  Throughout the story, the protagonist journeys from areas of the city flooded with poisoned water and inhabited with humans and animals that have never seen sunlight, to the very top of the city, above the clouds.  There is a detailed exploration the city’s disparate economic zones, and significant time is spent interacting with the populace in both these areas, resulting in some fascinating comparisons.  This is an amazing setting for this science fiction and technology focused story and represents another intriguing look into the future by Hunt.

Leo Hunt’s latest book, Phantom, is an absorbing and thrilling tale of adventure and crime in a futuristic city.  Containing some extremely enthralling technological elements and a fantastic city setting where the differences between the rich and poor have never been more obvious, this is another outstanding release from Hunt that will be perfect for those younger readers looking to break into the science fiction or techno-thriller genres.

My Rating:

Four stars

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

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Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

From Lynne Truss, one of England’s most creative minds, comes A Shot in the Dark, a hilarious take on the historical murder mystery that sets three fantastic and exaggerated police characters against a sinister and surprising criminal mastermind.

Brighton, 1957.  Following a terrible massacre that saw the death of every member of two rival gangs some years before, the city of Brighton is now clear of all crime.  At least, that’s what Inspector Steine believes, and, as he is the famous and inspirational police detective whose actions allowed the eradication of these vicious gangs, that’s what the rest of the Brighton Constabulary believe as well.  Unfortunately for everyone, Inspector Steine is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Despite all the evidence, he simply refuses to believe the theory of his long suffering ‘bagman’ Sergeant Brunswick that a mysterious third crime boss organised the massacre and is currently running crime in Brighton.

So when the young, keen and exceedingly annoying Constable Twitten arrives in Brighton and starts investigating a series of burglaries, Steine is particularly aggrieved.  Despite Steine’s insistence that Brighton’s criminal element is no more, Twitten seems determined to find criminal activity – and he does.  The opening night of a new controversial play is unfortunately ruined when the opinionated and unpleasant film critic that Twitten is sitting next to is shot in the head.  Finally a crime that even Steine can’t ignore.

Who could have wanted the critic dead?  Is his death due to the multiple plays and productions that his reviews have destroyed?  Or is it perhaps related to a bank robbery that the critic witnessed many years ago, and that Steine failed to solve.  As Twitten and Brunswick start their investigation and Steine provides his own special brand of ‘help’, a second body is found.  As the case continues, Brighton’s newest constable is about to uncover a dark secret about his city and the sinister figure manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Truss is a highly talented writer, author and radio personality who has produced a huge range of different works, including the non-fiction book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Truss has also created several other fictional and non-fictional books, as well as a number of popular radio series.  A Shot in the Dark is Truss’s fifth fiction novel and is the first book in her Constable Twitten Mystery series.

One of the most interesting features of A Shot in the Dark is that it is actually a novelisation of Truss’s popular radio comedy drama series, Inspector Steine, which ran between 2007 and 2013 and starred the inimitable Michael Fenton-Stevens.  This is a great introduction to the franchise that will have a massive amount of appeal both to fans of the radio show and people who are unfamiliar with this great comedy series.  Rather than being a simple write-up of one of the Inspector Steine episodes, A Shot in the Dark is a combination of several different episodes, containing plot elements from various seasons of the show’s run.  In particular, it contains components borrowed from the series one episodes While the Sun Shines, Separate Tales and The Deep Blue Sea, the series two episode The Entertainer, and the series three episode While the Sun Shines.  As a result of this combination, people unfamiliar with this series get to experience several of the radio show’s best stories and plot points in their first outing.  On the other hand, fans of the radio series get a completely new adventure that re-imagines Constable Twitten’s early days at Brighton.  Storylines listeners may be familiar with have been altered in some new and substantial ways to create a fun and excellent combination of some key stories in the series.

In the original Inspector Steine series, Truss created some amazing characters who are not only terrific by themselves but who played off each other extremely well.  The author has done an amazing job transplanting these characters into a completely different format.  The three main characters are Inspector Steine, Constable Twitten and Sergeant Brunswick.  Inspector Steine is your classic self-important senior management figure who thinks they are so much smarter than they actually are.  Steine is extremely self-absorbed and very easily manipulated, but ultimately well meaning, given he is completely convinced that all the crime in Brighton was erased years ago as a result of his brilliant actions.  Twitten, on the other hand, is actually as smart as he thinks and has no trouble letting everyone he meets know it.  His clever investigative work is capable of solving the crime, but his cleverdick attitude ensures that no-one, especially Inspector Steine, will actually listen to him.  Sergeant Brunswick plays straight man to both of his colleagues, and seems to be the middle ground between these two extreme personalities.  However, while he is a competent investigator, he is also easily manipulated, and fails to see that his brilliant plans to go undercover on every case are hampered by the fact that all of Brighton’s criminals already know who his is.  These three are all extreme examples of some of the classic police characters.  In a normal piece of crime fiction, these three characters work well together (think Endeavour for example), but in A Shot in the Dark they bring out the worst in each other and combine together for great comedic value.

While the three police characters are excellently used and a whole lot of fun by themselves, special mention needs to be given to the brilliant antagonist of this story.  Whiles fans of the radio series will not be surprised about their identity, I will try to avoid revealing too much in order not to ruin the surprise for any new readers.  That being said, this character is an excellent villain who is able to manipulate the three police characters in some suitably comedic ways.  The various and often quite unsubtle ways in which this villain manoeuvres the protagonists in A Shot in the Dark is absolutely hilarious, especially when their ridiculous plots actually work.  New readers will have a fantastic time finding out who this character is and how they’ve gotten away with their crimes, while fans of the radio series will love seeing this outstanding antagonist in all their criminal glory once again.

A Shot in the Dark contains a fantastic story that expertly combines a clever murder mystery with hilarious comedy elements.  As mentioned above, due to main characters’ various shortcomings and the devious nature of the villain, this is not your standard criminal investigation.  The protagonists have to deal with some absurd situations as well as various unusual plans to stop them solving the case.  That being said, the police do perform an investigation and the truth of the various crimes are eventually uncovered, although again without the standard solution crime fiction readers would be used to.  The crime elements are compelling and there is a really interesting mystery contained within this book, with some imaginative twists leading up to the conclusion.  In addition, the two murders are connected together in some clever ways, and the overarching conspiracy about Brighton is particularly intriguing.  While the book contains some gripping mystery elements, it is a comedy at heart; there are some really amazing comedy elements, including some great sequences that really cracked me up.  In addition to the shenanigans of the main characters, there are a range of other eccentric characters throughout the book that provide some fun moments of comic relief with their antics.  These elements come together perfectly, and it is incredibly fun watching all attempts at a serious investigation get disrupted in various silly ways.

Truss set the Inspector Steine series within Brighton in the early 1950s.  While this would already be an interesting setting, the author has amped this up by using elements from the classic crime novel and movie, Brighton Rock.  Truss has stated that her series is based on captions at the start of the 1948 movie which declared that Brighton went from a crime hub between the two World Wars to an area completely free of criminals and corruption by the 1950s.  While many people would be somewhat suspicious of such a statement, the Inspector Steine series is based on the idea that a member of the police actually believed this and acted accordingly.  As a result, the whole city has, on the surface, a wholesome family atmosphere.  That makes the crime hiding underneath a lot more fun to see, especially as the criminals really don’t need to do too much to disguise their activities, secure in Steine’s blissful ignorance.  In addition, fans of the crime classic may be interested to know that there are a number of elements from Brighton Rock that play a key part in the story.  As both the book and the movie exist within the Inspector Steine universe, Inspector Steine actually blames the events of this book on Graham Greene, the original author of Brighton Rock (a sentiment shared by Truss).  In addition, various characters within A Shot in the Dark are obsessed with the events of the classic crime book, and many locations from the Brighton Rock book and movie become major plot settings in the story.  In particular, there are several sequences based around one certain murder from the movie that results in some very entertaining scenes.  Overall, this is a great setting for this excellent comedy-mystery hybrid, which also has some fantastic tie-ins to a classic post-war crime novel.

Lynne Truss delivers an extremely fun and very entertaining adaption of her popular Inspector Steine radio series with A Shot in the Dark.  Featuring all of the exceptional characters that were a standout feature of the original series, A Shot in the Dark is an excellent piece of comedy that also contains some intriguing mystery elements and a unique settings with ties to the crime classic Brighton Rock.  This five-star book comes highly recommended and is guaranteed to leave you laughing for hours.  I am already looking forward to the next Constable Twitten Mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Special thanks need to be given to my partner, Alex, who, on top of her usual editorial expertise for my reviews, happens to be a geek for BBC Radio 4 comedies and was able to help me properly analyse A Shot in the Dark without spoiling the identity of Brighton’s greatest criminal mastermind.

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Those looking for an entertaining, intriguing and different take on the horror genre should investigate Dreadful Company, the latest book from author Vivian Shaw, which contains a thrilling story based around the doctor to your favourite fictional monsters.

Greta Helsing is London’s medical practitioner for the undead, providing specialised treatment to the city’s hidden community of ghouls, vampires, mummies and zombies.  After being called to Paris to attend a supernatural medical conference, Greta’s plans to enjoy a stimulating discourse and debate on monster medicine is ruined when she is suddenly kidnapped off the street.  Her abductors turn out to be a coven of young and murderous vampires led by the unhinged Corvin, who bears a particular grudge against Greta’s vampire friend Ruthven.  Even more concerning, a member of Corvin’s coven is using magic to summon small and friendly magical creatures.  While the creatures may be harmless, the ripples they are causing in reality are not, and represent a significant threat to our world.

While Greta is trapped in the tunnels and catacombs below Paris, her friends arrive in the city to save her.  Legendary elder vampire Ruthven and Greta’s vampyre boyfriend, Sir Francis Varney, team up with Paris’s guardian werewolf, two immortal paranormal investigators and the city’s resident demon to free Greta and put an end to the dimensional instability.  But Greta and her companions are about to find out that there are weirder and more dangerous things than a collection of bloodthirsty vampires in the tunnels underneath Paris.

Dreadful Company is Shaw’s follow-up to her 2017 debut novel, Strange Practice, and is the second book in her Dr Greta Helsing series.  Dreadful Company returns several of the protagonists from the first book while also adding in a healthy number of new and exciting characters.  A third book in the series is already planned; I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Grave Importance next year.

Shaw’s latest book contains a fun and electrifying adventure that pits several ancient beings and their doctor against a coven of vampires and the magical catastrophe they have created.  The author tells her story through a range of characters to show many different perspectives of the adventure taking place.  Not only is every single protagonist – including returning characters Greta, Ruthven and Varney, as well as new characters the werewolf St Germain, the remedial psychopomps Brightside and Dammerung and the demon Irazek – a point of view character, but so are several of the young vampires who serve as the book’s antagonists.  This allows Shaw to tell a much wider story.  Not only is the central adventure explored in greater detail from a several angles, but the motivations, shared histories and the underlying thought processes of the story’s key players are presented to the reader.

Shaw has made a smart decision to change the book’s main setting from London to Paris.  Many writers can get bogged down in one location during their series, but Shaw did a fantastic job adapting her story to a completely new and unique cityscape, a trend that she will apparently continue to follow in her 2019 addition to the series.  Shaw makes full use of several iconic Paris locations, particularly the catacombs and tunnels underneath the streets, which are the perfect setting for a horror story.  Overall, Dreadful Company contains a rather exciting adventure story that makes spectacular use of its horror and fantasy elements, while also making use of the humour and history of its many point-of-view characters to lighten the darker tone of the book and create a unique and entertaining read.

I was extremely happy that Shaw included more examples of monster medicine within Dreadful Company.  The examination of the medical techniques used on supernatural characters was one of the best features of Strange Practice, and was a very unique and compelling element of this first book.  There are a number of wonderful general monster medicine scenes throughout the book, including a supernatural medicine conference where topics include ‘An overview of the various treatment modalities for tissue degeneration in Class A revenants’ (how to stop bits falling off zombies).  Readers will really enjoy Dreadful Company’s interesting focus on the medicine of vampires.  Shaw did spend a little time exploring the biology and treatment of vampires in the first book, which is expanded upon in Dreadful Company.  There are several discussions about vampire anatomy and physiology, including some of the features of the different vampire subspecies.  There is also a detailed look at the effect of certain substances on vampiric characters, including drugs and garlic, as well as the surprisingly devastating absinthe.  The protagonist is also forced to treat a number of different vampire characters for a variety of different conditions, including an overdose, stab wounds and an infection caused by a ghoul bite.  Once again, Shaw’s inclusion of monster medicine was an amazing part of this book, and I am looking forward to the third novel in the series, Grave Importance, which will focus on the care of mummies.

Aside from the examination of vampire biology, Shaw has also included a fascinating look into the different vampire mentalities, particularly when it comes to the old school versus the young bloods.  The two elder vampire characters, Ruthven and Varney, are reformed from their violent past and are instead trying to live normal and peaceful lives alongside humans.  The younger vampires, on the other hand, are bloodthirsty creatures who don’t follow any rules, kill indiscriminately and indulge in drugs and wanton behaviour.  The differences between the behaviours of these two different types of vampires are quite noticeable, especially when the younger vampires try to live up to all of the vampire stereotypes, such as sleeping in coffins, wearing elaborate clothes and makeup, making up dumb names for themselves, developing a superiority complex and trying out various ways to make themselves glitter.  While these inclusions are extremely fun, the readers will really experience chills when they see how angry the usually calm characters Ruthven and Varney get when they encounter these younger vampires and realise what taboos they have broken.

In addition to the creative and captivating use of vampire characters throughout the book, Shaw has referenced several other classic horror creatures and villains.  There are several allusions to Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, with the protagonists actually visiting the Phantom’s underground lair at one point.  There are also other creatures, such as magically summoned hair monsters, well monsters and a whistle-summoned spirit, all of which play an interesting role in the plot.  Some great humour also comes from the inclusion of several ghosts, many of whom can be found having a lively party in Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise cemetery.  Highlights of this scene include a snarky Oscar Wilde and a musical Jim Morrison, both of whom have some great interactions with the new characters, Brightside and Dammerung.

Dreadful Company sees new author Vivian Shaw return with another fun and thrilling horror novel that contains a fast-paced adventure and a light comedy enhance tone.  Shaw has invested in a range of new characters, a fresh setting and some appealing fantasy and horror elements.  The author’s clever and memorable inclusion of monster medicine once again shines through as the book’s best feature, as well as the detailed examination of the vampire psyche.  An absolutely amazing second outing from Shaw, Dreadful Company is a fantastic read that will prove to be both unique and captivating to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

City of Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Publisher: Hyperion

Australian Publication Date – 31 July 2018

World Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

Young adult fantasy author Andrew Shvarts has a dramatic return with City of Bastards, an explosive and incredible follow-up to his electrifying 2017 debut.

After her father’s declaration of rebellion against the crown, Tilla, bastard daughter of Lord Kent, turned against him by rescuing the king’s daughter, Princess Lyriana, from his clutches.  Fleeing her father’s lands in the west of the Kingdom of Noveris, Tilla, Lyriana, and Tilla’s boyfriend, Zell, make the journey to the capital city of Lightspire, the opulent and magical city where Lyriana’s father reigns.

Attempting to put aside the horrors she experienced while fleeing from the west, Tilla settles down in a life of luxury as a student in the city’s prestigious university.  However, not everything is as shiny and golden as Tilla had hoped it would be.  She faces ostracism from the most of the city’s population as her father continues to wage war against the kingdom.  On top of that, Zell appears unsatisfied with city life and is growing distant from her.  Tilla and Lyriana are still mourning the death of Tilla’s brother, Jax, and not even their hard partying lifestyle is making them feel any better.

Their new lives are only destined to last for so long before disaster strikes.  When Tilla finds her roommate dead, she knows that a mysterious mage she encountered is behind the death.  But no-one seems willing to believe her, and the death is quickly ruled a suicide and pushed under the rug.  When she is then attacked by the rogue mage, something considered impossible, Tilla begins to realise that there is something very rotten in the heart of the Lightspire.  With her father apparently keeping the king’s invincible army of mages at bay, and shadowy cultists sowing chaos in the city, Tilla uncovers a terrible plot that could shake the entire foundation of the kingdom.  With the king’s inquisitor hunting her as a traitor and the whole word turned against her, can Tilla and her friends stop the evil unfolding in front of them before it’s too late?

City of Bastards is Shvarts’s second book, and is the sequel to last year’s release, Royal Bastards.  This is a fantastic new series of young adult fantasy books, with a third entry already planned for 2019.  These books are marketed towards a young adult audience, but this is a series that will also prove to be massively appealing to older readers as well.  Fair warning to parents: this is probably not the best series for younger readers, as the huge amounts of drugs, drinking, sex and teen angst make this books more appropriate for an mid to older teenage audience.

This novel contains a truly captivating story of intrigue and murder in the heart of a magnificent and magical city.  Shvarts combines some excellent thriller and fantasy elements together to create a superb overall narrative, which includes a large-scale conspiracy that proves to be particularly impressive.  There is a well-written and absorbing investigation angle getting towards the conclusion of this plot, and the full scope of this conspiracy is very elaborate and uses some intriguing magical elements.  There are a number of surprising twists, betrayals and dramatic reveals that will hook the readers, while the conclusion of the story is epic in its size and consequences.  Overall, this is an extremely compelling fantasy thriller story that has not been simplified for a younger audience.

Shvarts has also created an intricate and intriguing cityscape that serves as an excellent setting for the story.  There are some memorable locations visited throughout the course of the narrative, and the author does a fantastic job showing the differences between the richer areas of the Lightspire and the districts where the everyday citizens live.  Exploration through the city by the protagonist highlights this class difference and the corruption of the rich, all of which forms a significant story element later in the book.  The author also introduces some fascinating fantasy elements, such as large-scale magical messages, unique methods of transportation, rebellious anti-magic fanatics, the kingdom’s hidden magical heart and substantial catacombs under the city that hold dark and powerful secrets.  All of these elements play a significant role in City of Bastards’ story, and meld in perfectly with the protagonist’s investigation and the vast underlying conspiracy.

The entirety of City of Bastards is narrated by the book’s protagonist, Tilla.  Shvarts does an amazing job of capturing the essence of a modern teenager in the book’s narration, and the reader really feels that they are accompanying a rebellious young woman on her quest throughout the city.  As a result, the book is filled with sarcasm, funny jokes, humorous observations and a certain amount of complaining about the situation.  The story is also infected with a bit of teen angst, which is amusing to see amongst storylines dealing with the future of a civilisation and will no doubt prove to be relatable to many readers.  In addition to the humour, this narration also allows the reader to see the protagonist’s many vulnerabilities throughout the course of the story.  Overall, the protagonist’s narration adds a lot to this book, and is definitely one of its more appealing features.

A highlight of the book has to be the realistic focus on trauma and the powerful consequences of the first book.  Some of the very best young adult books are those which do not shy away from heavy topics, featuring gritty and realistic portrayals of trauma and PTSD as they try to highlight the often unseen or unconsidered costs of their character’s attempted heroism or battles for survival.  In City of Bastards, Tilla, Lyriana and Zell spend a significant amount of time dealing with the terrible things the encountered in the first book, including the death of Jax, Tilla’s brother and Lyriana’s love interest.  Lyriana’s transformation is the most dramatic, as is she suffering not only from Jax’s loss but also from the guilt and trauma following her decision to break her oath of pacifism and kill someone with her magic.  As a result, she turns from the sensible and respectful character she was in Royal Bastards to a hard-drinking wreck who acts out in a number of different ways and has a hard time dealing with her feelings.  Tilla is also traumatised by the death of Jax, and while at times she seems to be processing it better, her depression is compounded by the dramatic changes in her life and the outright disdain that many characters show her.  Overall, this realistic portrayal of trauma and vulnerability in the characters is very well written and adds a real emotional edge to the story.

City of Bastards is an amazing piece of young adult fantasy that makes substantial use of its new setting to create an epic, conspiracy-laden storyline that proves to be exceedingly captivating.  This is a powerful sequel to Andrew Shvarts’s first book, and fans of Royal Bastards will be entranced by the author’s focus on the first book’s devastating consequences.  This is one of the best pieces of young adult fiction of 2018.  I had a real hard time putting this book down, and it comes highly recommend.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Paradox by Catherine Coulter

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 31 July 2018

 

Those looking for an intense and stimulating piece of crime fiction should look no further than the new book in the long-running FBI Thriller series, Paradox, which combines a clever murder mystery with a dark psychological thriller.

FBI Agents Sherlock and Savich wake up to their worst nightmare: an armed man in their son’s bedroom.  Only just managing to foil the potential kidnapping, Sherlock and Savich are confronted by the terrible fact that their son is being targeted by someone trying to get to them.  A few days later, in the small town of Willicott, Maryland, Police Chief Ty Christie witnesses a murder on the lake from the deck of her house.  Both of these crimes are connected to an escaped prisoner from a mental institution and a terrifying ghost from Sherlock and Savich’s past.  Things get more complicated when the lake is dredged for the victim’s body and a surprise discovery is made: the skeletal remains of several bodies that have been lying on the lake bed for years.  As the FBI is called in to investigate, Ty must face the disturbing reality that her home may have been used as the dumping ground for a serial killer.

Splitting their attentions between the two cases, Sherlock and Savich hunt for a deranged killer with a serious grudge against them, but are they prepared for just how crazy their quarry is?  At the same time, Ty and her new FBI partner, Sala Porto, start to investigate the recovered bodies.  A distinctive belt buckle may prove to be their best lead, but this discovery will have some unexpected consequences in another small town.  How are these cases connected, and what devastating secrets will be uncovered as a result?

Coulter is an extremely prolific author, having written a huge number of books since her 1981 debut.  Paradox is the 22nd book in Coulter’s long-running FBI Thriller series, which has been published annually since 1996, with only one gap in 2006.  The FBI Thriller series follows the investigation of a wide range of mysteries and crimes by members of the FBI, with many of the featured characters recurring through the various books.  At the same time, Coulter has co-written the A Brit in the FBI books with J. T. Ellison.  A Brit in the FBI is a sister series to the FBI Thriller franchise, which features several characters from the original series and already contains five books, including the 2018 release The Sixth Day.

Before this book, I had not read any of the other entries in the FBI Thriller series, and I was a little worried I might have trouble following the story of Paradox as a result.  However, I was pleasantly surprised about how easily it was for me to jump into the plot of this book and enjoy the intriguing mysteries planted within.  It is important to note that a significant part of the story does link back to the 13th entry in the series, Knockout.  Coulter does an amazing job summarising all the relevant detail of this previous book and ensuring that the readers of Paradox are well informed of the events that could have an impact on this current case.  This book also plays host to a huge range of characters employed by the FBI.  While I knew that the main two agents, Sherlock and Savich, have appeared multiple times before as the main protagonists, I was uncertain about how many times any of the other characters may have appeared in previous books in the series.  As a result, their inclusion and actions might not have had as much impact on me as they were supposed to, although I don’t think this takes too much away from the story.  As a result, while Paradox will be particularly appealing to those readers who have enjoyed the FBI Thriller books before, new readers can easily come into the series at this point and still enjoy this excellent murder mystery.

Paradox’s story is split between two separate investigations, both of which are very different in scope and content.  The focus of recurring protagonists, Sherlock and Savich, mainly involves the hunt for a deranged character from their past who is targeting several people he holds a grudge against.  In the other storyline, new characters Ty Christie and FBI Agent Sala Porto are investigating the bodies found within the lake, and find themselves on the hunt for a previously undiscovered serial killer.  Both cases are exceedingly interesting and offer different things to the reader.  The hunt for the fugitive who has committed recent crimes becomes a desperate game of cat and mouse between the investigators and the killer, and both sides have trouble predicting the actions of the other.  As a result, this storyline is faster paced and set in a bunch of different locations.  This storyline also relies on a darker psychological tone to stand out rather than dramatic twists, although there are a few noteworthy reveals for the reader to keep an eye out for.

The investigation into the bones on the bottom of the lake comes across as a more traditional murder mystery, as the characters associated with this case look at clues, follow evidence and interrogate a range of suspects.  This story has a more fixed setting, which mostly focuses on a small town located near the lake, although there are a few detours to other locations.  The examination of the connected and trusting nature of a small town is a great feature, as there are quite a few secrets and lies hidden within this friendly setting, as well as quite a few suspicious characters who show an interest in the case.  This storyline turns out to contain quite an intricate mystery that contains a huge range of twists and surprises that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.  The final reveals are quite dramatic and have significant impacts on several characters that are introduced.  This is an amazing piece of murder mystery fiction.

While these two storylines are ostensibly separate from each other, there is a bit of crossover between them.  The two teams of investigators are constantly in communication with each other, and there are several discussions about their respective cases.  In addition, one of the characters who is mainly investigating the bones in the lake, FBI agent Sala Porto, has a significant personal stake in finding the fugitive that Sherlock and Savich are hunting for, as one particular murder the antagonist commits haunts him throughout the book.  As a result, he and Ty also meet some people associated with the hunt for the fugitive, and also make a significant break in the case towards the end of the book that adds a whole new dimension to the story.  Both storylines are very well written and ensure that the readers get a variety of different elements to entertain and intrigue them.

An interesting feature of Paradox is the way that Coulter tells her story from a huge range of separate viewpoints, which helps create an interesting and unique tone for this book.  While a large part of the story is told from the point of view of Ty and the FBI agents Porto, Sherlock and Savich, other characters also tell a substantial part of the story.  The book’s main antagonist, the fugitive being pursued by Sherlock and Savich, probably has the next largest point-of-view scenes within the book.  These chapters are particularly dark, and the insight into his mind and psyche that result from these scenes are noticeably intense and chilling.  It is also fascinating to see the fugitive’s mindset as he tries to attack the people he hates, while at the same time avoid capture by the FBI.  Paradox also makes use of a range of other smaller side characters, especially in the storyline where Ty and Porto investigate the bones found in the lake.  These viewpoints are often brief, but are usually tied in to the relevant investigation and provide some interesting details about the suspects, as well as provide some background history to the case.  There is a lot of extra detail added to some of the periphery characters, as well as a significant amount of discussion especially the relationships and past that some of these minor characters had.  This focus on some of the supporting characters contributes a lot to the book’s unique tone, although at times it does feel unnecessary to go into such details.

One of the Paradox’s key highlights is the antagonist Coulter uses for the fugitive killer arc that Sherlock and Savich are investigating.  Without going into too much detail, as even mentioning the character’s name may spoil the story for long-term fans of the FBI Thriller series, this antagonist is a fantastic and memorable addition to the story.  The chapters focused on this antagonist are excellently written and turn Paradox into a partial psychological thriller, as it examines a rather unhinged character.  This character is definitely a stand-out part of this book, and represents a great return from a previous entry in the FBI Thriller series.

The latest book from bestselling author Catherine Coulter, Paradox, is an outstanding piece of modern crime fiction that presents two enthralling crime based storylines that compliment each other, working together to create a highly enjoyable and intriguing overall narrative.  Dark, clever and character driven, Paradox is an excellent addition to the long-running FBI Thriller series that will be equally appealing to both long-term fans of the franchise and causal readers looking for a new mystery fix.

My Rating:

Four stars

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 2 August 2018

 

One of modern literature’s quirkiest writers returns after a six-year hiatus to produce the eccentric and incredibly entertaining new release, Early Risers.

In an alternate version of our Earth, the entire world freezes over each winter, plunging the planet into a deep cold for the entire season.  Humanity has adjusted to this different climate by developing ways to hibernate each winter, sleeping through the long, cold months in specially designed habitations and ensuring that their bodies have enough stored fat to keep them alive.  Only a few weird and unconventional individuals choose to ignore their bodies’ need to sleep, and instead spend winter awake.  One such group are the Winter Consuls, a collection of misfits and rogues responsible for ensuring the safety of the sleeping population, whilst also patrolling against the horrors of the winter world.

In Wales, Charlie Worthing is about to experience his first winter as a new recruit in the Winter Consuls.  His first mission sees him drawn to Sector Twelve, base of the powerful HiberTech company and one of the most disreputable areas of the country, known for its controversial Winter Consuls.  Trapped within this sector, Charlie must contend with all the dangers that winter can hold.  Between the cold, his desire to fall asleep, the stamp-collecting addicted Villains, the mindless and cannibalistic Nightwalkers and the possibly mythical WinterVolk, Charlie is unlikely to survive his first winter.

However, all these threats pale in comparison to the damaging potential of a viral dream being passed around the inhabitants of Sector Twelve.  When Charlie starts to have the same dream, he finds himself thrust into a dangerous conspiracy with world changing consequences.  As Charlie becomes a target, he must work out who in this unforgiving world he can really trust, and who is using him to further their own aims.

Jasper Fforde is an exceptional author who has produced several novels since his 2001 debut, all of which were remarkable and very different from your standard read.  With an unusual style and superb skill, Fforde’s work is reminiscent of some of the novels produced by authors such as Terry Pratchett or Lemony Snicket.  Fforde has created some enjoyable and addictive reads over the years, including Shades of Grey, the Nursery Crime Division books and his exceptional Thursday Next series.  Early Riser is a standalone novel that takes the reader to another unique alternate Earth and presents them with an intriguing and very original story.

Fforde has a pattern of creating unique worlds to act as settings for his entertaining narratives.  These worlds often have elaborate rules and details that make the book’s story very distinctive.  For example, Shades of Grey is set in a world where people can only perceive limited shades of colour and social hierarchy is determined by how many shades and hues a person can identify.  The Thursday Next series is set in an alternate version of Earth where the Crimea War never ended, time travel exists and journeys into the literary world is both possible and heavily policed by characters from famous books.

Fforde continues this trend in Early Riser, creating another detailed alternate Earth setting.  This version of Earth experiences exceedingly cold winters and humanity has to hibernate each year as a result.  This is an absolutely eccentric and inventive concept, and it is fascinating to see how Fforde adapts a new fictional world around it and looks at how humanity has adapted to having to hibernate.  Like several of his other books, the story of Early Riser is set within this world’s version of Wales.  There is a focus on different types of technologies, especially those that help people successfully hibernate, different buildings and new societal norms.  One example of this is the concept that, in this colder world, larger, fatter people are more desirable and socially acceptable as they are more likely to survive their hibernation period, whilst skinny people, or those who choose not to hibernate, are seen as detrimental wastes of space.  Fforde further backs this up by creating an inventive alternate history for the world, including some funny and satirical depictions of an appropriately altered entertainment world.  Many elements of these alternate histories and new social norms are told directly within the story, but Fforde also fleshes out these ideas with a huge range of extra and very humorous details in footnotes and in-universe book excerpts at the start of every chapter.

Fforde has also ensured that Early Riser is particularly memorable by filling his story with a range of interesting and creative characters and threats.  Throughout the book, the protagonist encounters and examines the history, background and lore behind the threats roaming around the winter.  These include the Villains, aristocratic thieves who are the descents of British nobility who act in a stereotypically upper class way and are obsessed with stamp collecting and obtaining domestic servants through force.  There are also Nightwalkers, humans whose minds failed to withstand the hibernation process.  As a result, the Nightwalkers have been reduced to a zombie-like state and are potentially cannibalistic, although their urges can be controlled with comfort food.  Fforde has also included the mysterious WinterVolk, supernatural beings who reside in the winter world and have certain powers and tendencies.  There is particular focus on the Gronk, one of the newer WinterVolk, and the author includes discussions about the Gronk’s formation, its first appearance, its habit of taking the unworthy and only leaving behind their carefully folded clothes in the snow, all while singing Rodgers and Hammerstein hits.  In addition there are a range of wacky side characters throughout the series.  These side characters usually have some sort of zany quirk or a distinctive characteristic that proves to be entertaining for the reader whilst the protagonist often has to play straight man.  The standout example of this has to be the two one-eyed women who are both trying to get the protagonist on their side and who share an interesting connection with each other.  All of these imaginative literary inventions combine into one substantial and unforgettable story that will charm the reader with its quirky and fun nature.

While it is easy to focus on the unusual and humorous inclusions that Fforde has filled Early Riser with, readers will also enjoy the book’s compelling story.  The narrative is very stimulating and enjoyable, as it initially focuses on the protagonist’s introduction to life in the winter world, and then shifts to him attempting to unravel the conspiracy surrounding Sector Twelve.  Like many of the other inclusions within this book, the conspiracy is very complex and a tad strange, but it works well as the focus for a central investigative narrative.  Readers will enjoy the journey to the end of the mystery, and there are a few interesting twists along the way.  Overall, I thought that the inclusions and elements mentioned above worked well with the mystery, and while many of the solutions and suspects are bizarre, the book’s many unique inclusions do not overwhelm the story, but instead enhance it, resulting in a great story.

Jasper Fforde has once again produced a distinctive piece of literature that stands out thanks to its elaborate and original concept, its many fun story details and inclusions, and a solid and gripping central story.  Some readers may find the plot and story elements a bit weird, but this book will easily charm those who get in to Early Riser’s unashamed quirkiness and silly nature.  This is definitely one of the most inventive books of this entire year and a creative and exceptional new read from a fanciful and fantastic author.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Restoration by Angela Slatter

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

One of the very best authors of Australian crime fantasy returns with another outstanding release in her fast-paced and exceedingly entertaining Verity Fassbinder series.

In a world where the magical beings known as the Weyrd remain hidden from the Normal, non-magical population, Verity Fassbinder is a half-Weyrd, half-human agent for Brisbane’s Weyrd Council and is charged with policing the city’s Weyrd population.  However, following an adventure to the underworld, Verity has been forced into the employ of a crazed fallen angel, and must take up his quest to find two secretive artefacts hidden in Brisbane.  In order to protect those she loves from her murderous new employer, Verity has sent her family away and resigned her position with the Weyrd Council.  Saddled with a murderous Kitsune, Joyce, as a driver and spy, Verity must find a way to recover these mysterious two items without giving ultimate power to the creature holding everything she love hostage.

As if her involuntary quest wasn’t hard enough, Verity is also forced to contend with a myriad of other problems from Brisbane’s Weyrd population.  The vengeful sorceress Dusana Nadasy is back in town, determined to kill Verity for the role she played in the death of her family.  The angel Tobit is refusing to take Verity’s calls, Weyrd Council politics is seriously starting to annoy her, literal ghosts from her past are haunting her and her friends the Norns have developed strange new powers.  Finally, her contact in the Brisbane police, Inspector McIntyre, needs her help investigating a series of desecrated corpses of Normal women found around Brisbane whose bodies show the distinctive impact of Weyrd magic.  What Verity does not know is that all of these strange occurrences will play a part in her quest for the fallen angel’s prize and will change her life forever.

Restoration is the third book from Australian author Angela Slatter and represents the third book in her Verity Fassbinder series.  Restoration is an exceptional example of the benefits of combining two genres, and contains incredible fantasy and mystery elements blended together into a powerful final narrative set in modern day Brisbane.

Throughout Restoration, Slatter has surrounded her central storyline with an elaborate series of smaller mysteries and adventures, all of which cleverly tie into the protagonist’s hunt for the artefacts.  Each of the smaller plot lines and investigations is very interesting, and readers will be amazed about how interlocked the story really is.  Those who have read the previous books in the Verity Fassbinder series will also enjoy how Slatter expertly utilises elements and plot lines from the earlier books in the series throughout Restoration.  This is a fun feature, and really shows off how much planning and foreshadowing Slatter included in her first two books, as even minor observations and actions from the earlier books have some big impacts in the latest volume.  Despite this, Restoration is still an excellent book to come into this series with.  The author makes sure all the relevant details of the last two books are fully explained and explored.  As a result, new readers will be able to follow everything that is happening within Restoration, while also being tempted to check out the earlier books in this fabulous series.  Fans will enjoy how the storylines and side quests come together in the end of the book for a big and exciting confrontation sequence that serves as an epic conclusion to the first three books in the Verity Fassbinder series.

In addition to the book’s strong mysteries, the author has also included a range of enticing fantasy elements for the readers to enjoy.  The huge variety of fantasy aspects included within Restoration have been pulled together from a range of different cultural backgrounds.  As a result, the book’s protagonist interacts with creatures that have their origins in Greek, Germanic, Norse and Japanese mythologies and culture, as well as the usual ghosts, magic users and generally powered individuals.  There are also strong components from the Judeo-Christian religion that play a significant part in the story and which tie in well with the other fantasy elements.  The great mystery elements mentioned above work in conjunction with these fantasy features to create an amazing story.  Slatter comes up with some terrific fantasy based motives, plots and suspects for the reader to enjoy, and this helps create an intriguing and entertaining overall narrative.  The protagonist’s hunt for the artefacts, the “grail” and the “tyrant”, leads to a greater insight into this universe’s magical and religious roots, and turn into some intriguing pieces of this universe’s lore.  In addition, the protagonist’s curiosity about her Weyrd ancestors leads to her finding out some fascinating facts about their history, as well as a detailed bit of fictional mythology from Slatter.  This focus on the family she is descended from also hints at these characters being involved in future additions of this series, and will no doubt prove to be excellent antagonists.  Overall, the book’s fantasy elements are highly enjoyable and add sufficient wonder and enhancement to an already outstanding book.

Restoration is mostly set within the Australian city of Brisbane and its local environs.  Slatter, a Brisbane local, has created a detailed and personal depiction of her city and it serves as a fun location for this book’s plot.  People familiar with Brisbane will appreciate the descriptions of city and enjoy the concept of a hidden and chaotic fantasy world lying just below its surface.  Special note should be given about the inclusion of the University of Queensland, Slatter’s alma mater, as a setting within the book, and it is always fascinating to see a location that the author is familiar with and passionate about.

Slatter has continued to use the humour-laden tone of writing that was such a standout of the first two books in the Verity Fassbinder series.  The protagonist is a remarkable character who does not care who she annoys or who gets in her way as she tries to achieve her goals.  This nonconformist attitude and general disregard for the rules for the Weyrd Council has a great way of getting the reader to support her, and as a result she has always been a very likable main character.  The jokes and humour that inhabit the narrative as she encounters a range of strange and dangerous situations help lighten the tone of the dark investigations she is involved with.  Things get serious towards the end, especially when the protagonist’s family gets involved and this helps raise the stakes in the readers mind, although some humour is still involved.  Audiences will love the sass and humorous observations that inhabit this whole book, and it fits in well with the overarching urban fantasy crime narrative that Slatter has cultivated.

Restoration is another superb read from Angela Slatter and an outstanding addition to one of the best fantasy crime series in the world today.  The books in this series are up there with The Dresden Files and the Peter Grant series, and are fantastic examples of this combination of genres.  The third book in this Australian series makes full use of its elaborate mystery, intriguing fantasy elements, exciting Brisbane setting and distinctive humour to create an extraordinary read that comes highly recommended.

My Rating:

Five Stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars