The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt

The Queen's Captain Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Colonial series – Book Three

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s top historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, wraps up his ultra-exciting Colonial series with the third and final novel, The Queen’s Captain.

Watt is a fantastic Australian author who has written a huge collection of amazing historical fiction novels, most of which are set in Australia or feature Australian characters.  I have been a fan of Watt’s books for several years now and I have been particularly enjoying his current body of work, the Colonial series.  The Colonial books, which started back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, follow the adventures of Ian Steele, a colonial blacksmith who manages to enlist as an officer in the British army under the name Captain Samuel Forbes, taking the identity of a friend who wished to sit out his military service.  While the real Samuel leaves to go to America, Ian fights in his place for a period of 10 years, which will allow Samuel to claim a substantial inheritance from his ruthless family.  This has so far been a really fun series, and I enjoyed reading The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger.  I have been looking forward to reading this third novel in the series for some time now and I was very excited when I received my copy, especially because the back cover quoted my Canberra Weekly review of The Queen’s Tiger.  I ended up having an awesome time reading this book, and it proved to be another fast-paced and compelling read.

In October 1863, Ian Steele is still fighting for the British crown as Captain Samuel Forbes, known to his men as the Queen’s Colonial.  After helping to put down the Indian Mutiny, Samuel and his comrades, including his long-time friend Sergeant Major Conan Curry, are fighting the Pashtun in the treacherous mountain passes on the north-western frontier of India.  With only a few months left until the 10-year deal with the real Samuel Forbes concludes, Ian is determined to survive so he can claim his reward and finally settle down.  However, with his typical bad luck, he finds himself drawn into several high-profile missions, including a dangerous operation to eliminate a murderous rebel army camped in the jungle.

As Ian fights for Queen and country, his friends are engaged in their own adventures.  In America, the real Samuel Forbes has followed the man he loves into battle, become a lieutenant in the Union army to fight the Confederates.  Back in London, Ella, the women Ian loves, has entered into an unhappy marriage to Russian Count Nikolai Kasatkin.  Determined to have one piece of happiness, Ella attempts to reclaim the son she had with Ian, but the jealous Nikolai will do the unthinkable to spite her.  At the same time, Samuel’s ruthless older brother, Charles Forbes, continues his relentless bid for power and money, while still determined to prove that the Samuel serving in the British army is an imposter.

All of this will come to a head down in the colonies in 1864.  As Ian is transferred to New Zealand to provide advice to the soldiers fighting against the determined Maori, he will come face to face with an old enemy, and the final chapters of his story will be told.  Friends will die, people will be changed in unexpected ways and the Queen’s Colonial will fight his last battle.  How will the story end?

The Queen’s Captain was another excellent novel from Watt, who has produced an exciting and fascinating conclusion to his latest series.  Like the rest of the books in the Colonial series, The Queen’s Captain is an extremely fast-paced story told from a series of different character perspectives around the world.  The book is broken up into two distinctive parts (although the second part only contains the last 100 pages) and features a number of compelling action and intrigue orientated storylines.  This is an extremely easy novel to get into, even for those readers who have not previously enjoyed the Colonial series, and I was able to finish it off in a short period of time as I got caught up in the various battles and double-crosses.  Watt really took this final entry in his series in some interesting directions, and readers will be intrigued by the various ways he finishes up the Colonial books.  There was a real focus on wrapping up every single storyline and character arc throughout The Queen’s Captain, and I really enjoyed the way in which Watt brought the series to end, especially as the overarching narratives comes full circle.  Overall, I felt that The Queen’s Captain was a fantastic way to conclude the Colonial series and readers are in for a real treat with this book.

Like all of Watt’s novels, The Queen’s Captain makes use of a substantial number of point-of-view characters to tell the story.  This is a combination of some of the established characters from the previous Colonial novels as well as several new characters.  This makes for a rather intriguing, character driven novel, especially as Watt was apparently determined to wrap up as many character arcs as possible for this final entry in the series.  There is a particular focus on the characters of Ian, Samuel, Ella, Charles, and Ian and Ella’s child, Josiah, although many of the other point-of-view characters get their time to shine and Watt ensures that they have a decent backstory.  I have really enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop over the course of the series, and it has been rather heart-warming to see how the hard events of their lives has changed several of them.  I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of the real Samuel Forbes in The Queen’s Captain, as he had a fantastic arc in this book.  Samuel, whose hatred of war is a major plot point of the series, actually joins the Union army in this book, following his love James Thorpe into battle, and while he still detests being a soldier, he shows some natural flair as an officer.  I thought that this inclusion in the book was extremely fascinating, and I loved how Samuel’s arc in this book mirrored that of his body-double Ian, with both of them gaining a reputation for courage and bravery from their soldiers, and both gaining an affectionate nickname from their men, with Samuel becoming known as “the Limey Officer”.  Samuel’s storyline in this book is really good, full of all manner of tragedy, heartbreak and dramatic moments, and readers will be deeply surprised how it ends up.  I also have to highlight the character of Charles Forbes in this book.  Charles serves as the series’ main antagonist, as he is determined to bring down both Ian and Samuel while gaining as much power as possible.  Charles is an extremely slimy villain who the reader cannot help but dislike, and I know I had a rather good time seeing him gradually get some comeuppance in this book.  I also quite enjoyed the various ways in which Watt provided conclusions to nearly all the side-characters featured in the series.  Some of these are rather entertaining (I had a good laugh at one in particular), and it was great to get some closure on all of these excellent characters at the end. 

The major highlights of this book are the awesome and thrilling action sequences as The Queen’s Captain’s characters journey through several intense and dangerous battlefields around the world.  The Queen’s Captain features several interesting and impressive battle scenes from around the world and possibly has the greatest variety out of all the books in the Colonial series.  Not only do you have a number of great sequences in India as Ian fights both the Pashtun in the mountains and a group of rebels in the jungle, but you also have battles from the American Civil War as Samuel fights against the Confederates.  There are also some sequences that feature the Maori fighting against the British and the New Zealand settlers which really stand out, despite the fact that this particular conflict only occurs for a short while towards the end of the novel.  Watt has clearly done his research around these battles, as they are loaded with historical detail about the typical combatants and the weapons and tactics they utilised.  The author does an amazing job bringing these sequences to life, and you get a real sense of the desperation and the horror that the participants would have felt on these fields.  I particularly enjoyed the author’s examination of the differences between small-scale guerrilla skirmishes (several of which occur throughout The Queen’s Captain), compared to the larger-scale battles of the past, and Watt includes several hints about how combat was likely to occur in the future.  All these action scenes are extremely awesome to read and they are a great part of The Queen’s Captain, especially as they help the plot to move along at a faster pace.

The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt was another amazing and enjoyable historical fiction novel that takes the reader on a series of fast-paced adventures around the world.  Watt has done an awesome job wrapping up his Colonial series and readers will have a fantastic time seeing how he has concluded the various storylines and character arcs he has set up over the previous two novels.  A fun and exciting read, The Queen’s Captain comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what cool series Peter Watt comes up with next.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best authors of fantasy fiction, the legendary Garth Nix, returns with a fun and creative new young adult novel, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London.

Garth Nix is an interesting and talented writer who has been writing since the 1990s, when he debuted with The Ragwitch.  Since then he has gone on to write a huge number of fantasy series and novels, most of which are aimed at a younger audience, including The Seventh Tower, The Keys to the Kingdom and the Troubletwisters (cowritten with Sean Williams).  However, his most famous body of work has to be The Old Kingdom young adult series, also released as the Abhorsen series.  The Old Kingdom books, which started with Sabriel in 1995, follow the adventures of the Abhorsens, a noble clan of necromancers who protect their kingdom from the undead and evil necromancers.  I read Sabriel and some of the follow-up books when I was a lot younger, and it remained one of my favourite series growing up (although I do need to reread it, especially as a new novel in the series is coming out next year).  Because of how much I enjoyed this series from Nix, in recent years I have kept an eye out for any recent books he has released and I was lucky enough to read his 2019 release, Angel Mage, an entertaining standalone novel that re-imagined The Three Musketeers with magic-granting angels.  Due to how much I enjoyed Angel Mage last year, I decided to also try Nix’s 2020 release, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I really enjoyed how it turned out.

In a slightly alternate London in 1983, student Susan Arkshaw has arrived in the city shortly after her 18th birthday to find work and to prepare herself for university life.  However, Susan is also on a mission to find out who her father is.  Despite not knowing his identity or how her mother met him, Susan is certain he lives in the city and is determined to track him down.  Her first lead, an old friend of her mothers, seems promising, until he is turned to dust by a silver hatpin wielded by a mysterious and flamboyantly dressed young man, Merlin St Jacques.

After rescuing her from gun-toting thugs and several deadly and mysterious creatures, Merlin reveals that he is a left-handed bookseller, one half of a secret organisation of magical booksellers who police the Old World of legend and magic and ensure that it does not intrude on normal people.  Merlin is undertaking his own mission to find the person responsible for the death of his mother and is initially content with letting Susan go about her own business in town.  However, when several of the magical and dangerous denizens of the Old World start to attack Susan, it becomes clear that something does not want Susan to find her father.

Drawn into the secret world of magical booksellers and ancient legends, Susan begins to understand the true depths of the world surrounding her.  Working with Merlin and his sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller, Susan attempts to uncover the secrets of her past in order to discover why anyone would be interested in her.  It soon becomes apparent that Susan is the key to a terrible and dark plot that threatens the natural order of the world and could lead to the destruction of the booksellers.  Can Susan and her new friends face down the dark forces coming towards them, or will the mythic hordes of the past be unleashed on an unsuspecting world?

With The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Nix has come up with another exciting and compelling young adult fantasy novel that was a lot of fun to read.  This new book from Nix is a creative and action-packed novel that follows a bold protagonist as they run headfirst into the midst of a dangerous supernatural world policed by a strange collection of booksellers.  The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a standalone novel (with potential to grow into a series), and Nix does an excellent job setting the scene for the narrative at the start and ensuring readers quickly become familiar with the unique new world he has come up with.  I did find that it took me a little while to get into the book, but once I got really involved with the plot the rest of the book flew by and I was able to finish it off rather quickly.  This was a really fast-paced story, loaded with all manner of supernatural fights, weird and creative inclusions and a couple of interesting twists, that all comes together into an excellent narrative that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

The major highlights of this book are the crazy and inventive creative elements that Nix has come up with.  I love the whole idea of a group of eccentric, combat-trained and magically powered booksellers fighting dangerous creatures, and Nix obviously had a lot of fun coming up with them and introducing the unique elements of their organisation.  It was really fun to learn about this unique group of magical heroes, including their various talents, techniques and internal politics.  The inclusion of a group of booksellers who have a magical base beneath some of London’s premier bookshops, also ensures that there are innumerable literary references featured throughout The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I had fun identifying all of them and seeing which book would be casually mentioned next.  There is also an intriguing variety of different magical beings and creatures that the protagonists encounter throughout their journey, including some childlike goblins who trap people in a magical renaissance fair, stalking scarecrows, giant mystical wolves and a series of frightening undead corpses.  All of these elements are really cool and immensely creative, and it was a lot of fun to see the protagonist encounter them throughout the course of the book.  I really think that this new fantasy location has a lot of potential for other novels and I hope that Nix chooses to visit this alternate version of London at some point in the future.

I also enjoyed the great characters that Nix featured in this book.  The story is primarily told through the perspective of Susan, a young woman who is encountering a lot of these supernatural elements for the first time.  Susan is an excellent central character, who manages to take each and every new encounter and opponent in her stride, while also providing the reader with a newcomer’s viewpoint to the weird and wonderful Old World of magic.  While Susan is a good main character, you cannot help but enjoy the antics of Merlin St Jacques, the left-handed bookseller who introduces Susan to magic and serves as her protector and love interest.  Merlin is a cocky and funny character who has a love of fancy clothes (he has innumerable outfits), and a penchant for crossdressing.  Merlin serves as a great comic relief character for most of the story, although he isn’t afraid to get serious at times, especially when forced to deal with the tragic death of his mother or the consequences of his own mistakes.  This group of main characters is rounded out by Merlin’s twin sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller (which gives her a different set of magical powers and responsibilities).  Vivien serves as a counterbalance to Merlin’s more eccentric tendencies, acting as the more sensible member of the trio and serving a vital story role as a result.  These three young main characters are also backed up by a range of distinctive and enjoyable side characters, including the various booksellers, each of whom has a unique design aesthetic.  All of these characters help to make a great story, and it was a lot of fun to see this adventure take place in front of their eyes.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is another excellent novel from Australian author Garth Nix, who once again presents the reader with an exciting and clever young adult fantasy novel.  Thanks to its great story, amazing creative elements and compelling characters, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is an awesome read that will be enjoyed by its intended younger audience while also remaining appealing for an older audience.  This is a really fun book to check out, and I look forward to seeing what crazy adventure Nix comes up with next.

The Erasure Initiative by Lili Wilkinson

The Erasure Initiative Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the brightest and best Australian authors, Lili Wilkinson, returns with another intense and captivating young adult fiction novel that takes the reader on a clever thrill ride, The Erasure Initiative.

Lili Wilkinson is an extremely talented writer who has written several bestselling young adult fiction novels since her 2006 debut, Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc.  I first really got into Wilkinson’s work back in 2018 when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out was an incredible and amazing young adult fiction novel that followed the daughter of a survivalist in outback Australia as she attempted to navigate a real-life apocalyptic event.  This was a truly impressive novel, and not only did I give it a full five-star rating but I also consider it to be one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have ever read.  As a result, I was extremely excited when I saw that Wilkinson had a new book coming out, especially as The Erasure Initiative had such an awesome-sounding plot behind it.

A teenage girl wakes up on an advanced self-driving bus.  She has no memory of who she is, where she is or what she has done in her past.  The only clue to her identity is a nametag that reads CECILY.  But she is not alone.  On the bus with her are six other people, some who seem familiar and some who do not.  These include an attractive guy, a beautiful girl with severe anger issues, a brilliant high schooler, a tattooed man with violence boiling just beneath the surface, an extremely confident and controlling women and a disorientated old lady.  Like Cecily, none of the other people on the bus appear to have their memories, but each of them has a secret worth dying for.

As Cecily and her new acquaintances attempt to make sense of who they are and what is happening to them, a series of ethical questions are posed to them.  Each person on the bus must participate and choose an outcome to a hypothetical scenario, with the decision the majority chooses taking place before their eyes.  Soon, the participants are tested in even more shocking ways, as the various ethical questions become personal and deadly.  Determined to find a way out of this situation, the passengers attempt to uncover the truth behind their incarceration on the bus.  But the deeper they dig the more secrets about their past are revealed and the more discord grows amongst them.  How are each of these people connected and what actions in their past resulted in them being placed on the bus?  More importantly, what is the Erasure Initiative and what impact will it have on all of them?

This was a heck of a novel from an author who I am a major fan of at the moment.  Wilkinson did an outstanding job crafting together this compelling and thought-provoking standalone novel which combines an extremely gripping and clever storyline, with some rather fantastic and inventive ethical dilemmas.  The end result is an impressive young adult fiction novel that I absolutely loved and which I was able to read in extremely short succession, especially once I became addicted to The Erasure Initiative’s captivating narrative and needed to find out how the book would end.

I really have to highlight the incredible narrative that Wilkinson came up with for this fantastic novel.  The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Cecily (if that is her real name!) and shows her slowly unwind the events occurring around her.  Wilkinson starts the story off strong, presenting the reader with a series of enticing mysteries, including who the main characters are, what they are doing on the bus, who is behind their predicament, and what secrets each character’s apparent amnesia hides.  As the story progresses and the characters start to get a sense of who they are and how they feel about each other, they are beset not only with the strange ethical questions but with a series of hints at their past and what they are there for.  This is assisted by a series of in-narrative documents and articles that appear at the start of multiple chapters, providing the reader with more clues towards the character’s past lives.  These hints and reveals are done perfectly by Wilkinson, with a lot of the key information initially redacted to give readers a basic shape of the character’s past and personalities, without revealing the whole picture.  This all leads into the story’s big reveals that start about halfway through the book.  While I was able to predict a couple, including who the novel’s antagonist was, there were quite a few reveals I did not see coming, and one in particular had me reeling at its cleverness and the author’s excellent use of misdirection.  By the end of the book, all of the various twists and secrets come together perfectly, and the overall conclusion of the novel is extremely satisfying, especially as I quite enjoyed where the characters ended up.  Overall, this was a pretty epic story, and I really enjoyed seeing how it turned out.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Erasure Initiative’s story was the way that the author examines ethics and how humans view right and wrong.  The novel follows several amnesiac characters as they are forced to participate in a series of ethical dilemmas, most of which are some variation of the ‘trolley problem’.  Watching the characters react to the numerous variations of the problem and try to come up with the answer they think is right is really quite fascinating, especially when it is influenced by several additional factors, like who is involved, certain alterations in a person’s appearance and more.  All of this results in a number of thought-provoking scenarios for the characters, which is further complicated by the people not knowing who they are thanks to their amnesia.  This leads to all manner of additional fascinating examinations of self and personality as the people try to determine who they are based on the few clues or details they have been given, like attempting to work out whether the people who woke up with a certain colour shirt are law-abiding citizens or criminals.  I really liked the various reflective looks at people’s personalities, as the characters looked in on themselves or passed judgements on their fellow passengers.  The eventual reveal of the cause of the amnesia and the forced ethical examinations results in even more discussions about morals and personalities, as the characters come to terms with who they are and what choices they made in their previous lives.  All of this added an extremely compelling and interesting edge to the entire story, which certainly makes The Erasure Initiative stick out and become even more memorable.

Like most of Wilkinson’s work, The Erasure Initiative is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I can guarantee that this is the sort of book I would have really appreciated when I was a teenager.  As I have mentioned above, this book contains quite an impressive story, and one of the great things about it is that it does not talk down to its intended audience.  Indeed, Wilkinson has included some very complex and clever themes about identity, personality, decision making and ethical behaviour that I feel younger readers will really appreciate and take the time to consider.  Many of the characters and their decisions will easily resonate with a teenage audience, and this is a very worthwhile book for them to check out.  The book does contain some mature themes and content which potentially makes it a bit inappropriate for younger readers and early teens, although most of the inclusions are tastefully done and in keeping with current social norms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that is extremely accessible to older readers, and I feel that there is a lot in The Erasure Initiative for post-teen readers.

With The Erasure Initiative, amazing Australian author Lili Wilkinson has once again produced an incredible and powerful young adult fiction novel that comes highly recommended.  I loved the amazingly clever story, especially thanks to the memorable ethical elements and this is a fantastic novel for a huge range of different readers.  Wilkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian authors, and I cannot wait to see what outstanding story she comes up with next.

Waiting on Wednesday – Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday entry I take a look at Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke, an excellent sounding upcoming fantasy novel that serves as a sequel to one of my favourite books from 2018, City of Lies.

Hollow Empire Cover 2

City of Lies was an impressive and clever debut from Australian author (and fellow Canberran) Sam Hawke that I absolutely loved when it came out.  Hawke’s first book was an amazing fantasy novel that followed a pair of siblings trained in the art of poison detection as they attempted to save their friend and their city from an invading army and the sinister conspiracy behind it.  I loved the combination conspiracy and siege storyline and it proved to be an outstanding and deeply captivating read.

I have been hoping a sequel to City of Lies for some time now and I was deeply excited when I saw that Hollow Empire was coming out soon.  This second book from Hawke, which will be the second and final entry in her Poison War duology, is currently set for release in early December 2020, and it looks like it is going to be another epic and enjoyable read.

Synopsis:

You never get used to poisoning a child . . .

Two years after a devastating siege tore the country apart, Silasta has recovered. But to the frustration of poison-taster siblings Jovan and Kalina, sworn to protect the Chancellor, the city has grown complacent in its new-found peace and prosperity.

And now, amid the celebrations of the largest carnival the continent has ever seen, it seems a mysterious enemy has returned.

The death of a former adversary sets Jovan on the trail of a cunning killer, while Kalina negotiates the treacherous politics of visiting dignitaries, knowing that this vengeful mastermind may lurk among the princes and dukes, noble ladies and priests. But their investigations uncover another conspiracy which now threatens not just Silasta and the Chancellor but also their own family.

Assassins, witches and a dangerous criminal network are all closing in. And brother and sister must once more fight to save their city – and everyone they hold dear – from a patient, powerful enemy determined to tear it all down . . .

I really like the sound of the above synopsis as it looks like Hawke has come up with another compelling and fanatic story.  I love the idea of the two siblings once again investigating a complex, multilayered conspiracy that is set to engulf their city and loved ones, and having it set around a massive festival playing host to various dangerous parties and rivals sounds really intriguing.  I am really hoping that this sequel features more of the poison-based plot elements that made City of Lies such a distinctive read, as seeing the protagonist countering the various poisoning attempts was a fantastic highlight of the first book.  I am also really curious to see how the author continues the story from City of Lies as well as how she intends to finish off the series.

Based on the strength of Hawke’s debut alone, I am already excited for Hollow Empire and I am extremely confident that I am going to enjoy this next entry in the series.  When combined with the fantastic sounding plot, I have no doubt that Hollow Empire is going to be an impressive and exciting read and I fully expect it to be one of the best fantasy novels of 2020.

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I preview an upcoming Australian historical fiction novel that I am really looking forward to, The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt.

The Queen's Captain Cover

Peter Watt is a talented Australian author who is best known for his amazing historical fiction novels that focus on the adventures of heroic Australian characters throughout various points of history.  I was a major fan of his long running Frontier series (check out my Canberra Weekly reviews of the last two books in the series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above), which followed two rival families as they battled throughout several turbulent periods of Australian history, and I have also been really getting into his most recent releases, the Colonial series.

The Colonial books are a fun and action-packed historical fiction series set in the 19th century which follow the complicated lives of two characters, Ian Steel and Samuel Forbes, as they engage in an elaborate deception.  Ian is a colonial Australian blacksmith who dreamed of joining the Queen’s army and fighting around the world.  His dreams became reality when he befriends Samuel Forbes, the heir to a rich English family who bears a striking resemblance to Ian.  Samuel is estranged from his overbearing father and villainous older brother, who are determined that he will not inherit anything from them.  However, Samuel can receive a vast inheritance if he serves as an officer in the British army for a period of 10 years.  Unfortunately, Samuel is somewhat shellshocked after his initial posting in the army and strikes a bargain with Ian to switch places so that Ian can serve his commission and claim the inheritance.  While Samuel hides himself in America, Ian, who has a natural aptitude for fighting and command, takes up this new identity and position in the army and fights through several campaigns, including in the Crimean War and the against the rebelling Sepoys in India.  Both of these protagonists must also contend with the manipulations of Samuel’s suspicious brother and father, who attempt to both kill Ian and identify him as an imposter, and the novels also focus on Ian and Samuel’s friends, comrades and love interests.

This has so far been an extremely enjoyable series, and I loved the character-driven stories and the depictions of various historical battles around the world.  I have read both of the preceding two Colonial books, The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger, and not only were the amongst some of the strongest historical fiction novels of their respective release years, but I also consider them to be the best pieces of Australian fiction that I have read.  As a result, I am quite excited to get my hands on a copy of the upcoming third novel in the series.  This third novel, The Queen’s Captain, is currently set for release on 10 November 2020 and it sounds like Watt has come up with a rather interesting plot for this next book.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In October 1863, Ian Steele, having taken on the identity of Captain Samuel Forbes, is fighting the Pashtun on the north-west frontier in India. Half a world away, the real Samuel Forbes is a lieutenant in the 3rd New York Volunteers and is facing the Confederates at the Battle of Mission Ridge in Tennessee. Neither is aware their lives will change beyond recognition in the year to come.

In London, Ella, the love of Ian’s life, is unhappily married to Count Nikolai Kasatkin. As their relationship sours further, she tries to reclaim the son she and Ian share, but Nikolai makes a move that sees the boy sent far from Ella’s reach.

As 1864 dawns, Ian is posted to the battlefields of the Waikato in New Zealand, where he comes face to face with an old nemesis. As the ten-year agreement between Steele and Forbes nears its end, their foe is desperate to catch them out and cruel all their hopes for the future… 

I very much like the sound of where this third novel is going.  The Queen’s Captain looks set to follow its protagonists through several new historical battlefields, as both Ian and Samuel find themselves fighting for their lives.  I am rather intrigued to see what events drag Samuel into the American Civil War, as this is the last place you would expect a rich British tourist with a dislike for war to end up. Having Samuel engaged in the sort of activities he was trying to avoid when he made his plans with Ian should add some compelling edges to the narrative.  Ian is also heading into some interesting warzones, as not only will he continue his campaigns in India but he will be transferred to New Zealand.  I have to admit that I really do not know that much about the British army’s conflicts in New Zealand and I am curious to see what occurs when Ian is posted there.

It also sounds like there is going to be lot more of the intrigue and double-dealing that surrounds the deal between Ian and Samuel, and no doubt Samuel’s brother, and perhaps other antagonists of the series, will be attempting to expose or kill them.  Ian’s redeployment to New Zealand will probably be a major part of this, as this was Samuel’s initial military post before he struck a deal with Ian.  It is extremely likely that some of the soldiers already posted in New Zealand will have some memory of the original Samuel and will therefore have some inkling that Ian is an imposter, which will place both protagonists in a different form of danger.  I am also looking forward to the storyline surrounding Ian’s main love interest, Ella, as she deals with an unhappy marriage that she tries to escape.  Watt has cultivated several fantastic supporting characters for this series, including Ella, and I am curious to see how their various storylines continue.

Overall, I have extremely high hopes for The Queen’s Captain, which should prove to be an excellent and enjoyable read for the end of the year.  I have had an amazing time reading the first two novels in this fun and exciting series and I am sure that this third novel will prove to be another impressive read.

Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2020)

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of the Australian thriller, Tony Park, is back with Last Survivor, another intense and action-packed novel that explores the turbulent and beautiful continent of Africa.

Tony Park is an awesome Australian author who has been writing some great thriller novels since his 2003 debut, Far Horizon.  I have been really getting into Park’s fantastic books over the last couple of years and I really appreciate their excellent adventure storylines, as well as the author’s outstanding use of Africa as a background setting for all his books.  I rather enjoyed his 2018 release, Scent of Fear, and I had an amazing time reading last year’s Ghosts of the Past which had some impressive historical fiction elements to it.  As a result, I was very excited when I received my copy of Last Survivor and not just because it quoted my Canberra Weekly review for Ghosts of the Past on the back (see below).  Last Survivor is the 18th novel written by Park and it also serves as the fourth book to feature his recurring protagonist, Sonja Kurtz.

In Last Survivor, freelance intelligence agent Sonja Kurtz is back and on the trail of a terrorist organisation who are financing themselves through the smuggling of rare cycads.  This story starts with Joanne Flack, treasurer of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, on the run from her home in South Africa, accused of stealing an extremely valuable cycad worth millions of dollars.  However, when Joanne is attacked by a terrorist operative in the heart of London, she flees back to Africa, where she knows how to hide.

Following a dangerous operation in Mali, Sonja Kurtz is given a new mission by her contact in the CIA, who wants her help tracking down Joanne and finding out what she knows about the terrorists who attacked her.  Teaming up with former Fish and Wildlife Services investigator Rod Cavanagh, who has significant history with Joanne Flack, Sonja travels Africa to initiate contact.  However, the moment that Sonja finds her Joanne they are attacked by a team of heavily armed killers, determined to take her out.

With their CIA contact down and everyone now trying to kill them, Sonja, Joanne and Rod flee deeper into Africa seeking refuge where they can.  In order to protect Joanne, they need to work out who is funding their attackers and what their interest in the cycad is.  To that end, Sonja infiltrates the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society in order to use them as a cover for her investigation.  However, it soon becomes clear that someone in the Society is working for the terrorists, and Sonja and her friends will have to tread carefully if they are to survive the forces coming for them.

Now, that was a fun read.  Park has once again produced another deeply exciting, high-octane thriller that drags the reader in and keeps them engaged until the bitter end.  I really loved this amazing read which combines a fantastic story with a captivating modern-day setting and a focus on a new and unique real-world issue.  Last Survivor is a very easy book to get into and it mostly serves as a great standalone novel.  Readers unfamiliar with Park’s work do not need to check out any of the author’s prior novels first, not even the previous books that featured Sonja Kurtz as a protagonist.  However, those long-term fans of Park will love seeing more of his unique style, as well as the return of one of his few reoccurring characters.

Park has come up with an outstanding and enjoyable thriller storyline for Last Survivor which was addictive, clever and very exciting.  The story revolves around the hunt for a rare cycad, and the protagonists’ attempts to stop the terrorist organisation attempting to obtain it to finance their operation.  This proves to be a fantastic narrative that combines a clever spy thriller story with great character development and impressive action sequences.  The author utilises a number of separate character perspectives to tell the story, allowing for an expansive and enjoyable narrative that splits into several separate plot lines.  I also liked all the fun characters that Park introduced throughout this book, from the troubled Joanne Fleck, whose significant past with Rod Cavanagh adds a lot of drama to the story, to the members of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, heavily armed plant enthusiasts who have a traitor amongst their ranks.  It was also great seeing more of his recurring character, Sonja Kurtz, an aging spy with commitment and trust issues, whose burning love for Africa matches the author’s.  This story goes into some enjoyable directions, and there are several great twists and turns throughout it punctuated by a number of amazing action sequences to really drag in the reader’s attention.  I particularly liked the unique and extended battle sequence that served as the book’s conclusion and it was both intense and entertaining to watch Kurtz and her rag-tag team of elderly African gun-nuts go up against a group of terrorists and criminals.  All of this makes for a fantastic read and I found myself swiftly getting through the entire book in very quick fashion.

Another awesome element of this book is the way that Park once again sets the story throughout various parts of Africa.  Park has a clear and sustained love for Africa, as all his novels are based in or around the continent, which always proves to be an excellent literary setting.  This is once again true for Last Survivor, as the story jumps around various parts of multiple countries such as South Africa, Mali and Zimbabwe.  Each of these different countries prove to be great locations for this book and Park expertly examines several social and political realities of living in these countries, working them into the plot of the story in a compelling and enjoyable manner.  While it is great learning more about these African countries, the real magic occurs when Park takes the story out into the African wilds.  Not only does this prove to be an awesome location for the book’s intense action sequences but the author always provides such powerful and endearing descriptions of the wilderness and its animal inhabitants.  Park’s sheer love of the African countryside really shines through every time that a character considers their surroundings and he always manages to bring these locations to life.  I also like the way that Park uses his stories to examine parts of Africa that he is really passionate about, such as highlighting the damage and evils of illegal poaching, lauding various anti-poaching groups and patrols that are trying to oppose them, and also looking at the various national parks and nature preserves that exist across the various countries.  All of this really makes for a fantastic setting, and I cannot wait to see what new aspects of Africa that Park reveals in his next book.

As I mentioned above, Park routinely uses his thriller novels to throw a spotlight on the evils of poaching in Africa and the organisations and community groups who attempt to combat it.  While there is still a lot of that within this novel, the story mainly focuses on a fascinating new illegal operation that has taken root in Africa, the smuggling of rare cycads.  Cycads are ancient seed plants that have existed since the Jurassic, and while many species can be found around the world, several species are currently on the brink of extinction.  This apparently has led to a thriving smuggling market in Africa with many rare specimens illegally taken out of the country and sold off to rich collectors around the world.  Park really dives into this new illegal trade throughout the book with the story filled with a number of intense discussions about what cycads are, their various biological properties, why some of them are so rare and valuable, and how they are currently becoming a major source of financing for smugglers and terrorists.  This proves to be extremely fascinating, and I really appreciated the information I received learning more about cycads, a subject that I really did not too much about prior to this book.  The illegal cycad smuggling also plays really well into the book’s amazing thriller story, and I really enjoyed how an intense action story revolved around people smuggling plants and the lengths people will go to obtain them.

Last Survivor is another deeply impressive thriller novel from Tony Park, who has once again produced a clever, relevant, and intensely action packed read which you find extremely hard to put down.  I had an incredible time seeing another one of Park’s amazing adventures take place amongst the African wilds and I really love the unique elements he adds to the story.  This is a fantastic and compelling book and it comes highly recommended.

Last Survivor Back Cover

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an epic and elaborate science fiction debut?  Then you will definitely want to check out Stormblood by Australian author Jeremey Szal, a compelling and ingenious novel that was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

In humanity’s far future, our species has just emerged from a brutal and destructive civil war between the seemingly benevolent Harmony and the ruthless Harvester empire.  Harmony were able to win the war by creating the Reapers, elite soldiers who were injected with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race, which permanently altered their bodies, making them stronger, faster and more effective soldiers.  However, stormtech also had terrible side effects, making the host become addicted to their own adrenaline, which impacted on their minds and dramatically increased their natural aggression.

When the war ends, millions of Reapers are left shells of their former selves, having to deal with the terrible addictive impact of the alien DNA in their system, while stormtech became widely traded as an illicit drug across the galaxy.  Amongst these former soldiers is Vakov Fukasawa, a member of an elite Reaper fireteam, who has managed to overcome his addiction to stormtech and now makes a living taking on dangerous odd jobs on Compass, a mega-city built into a massive asteroid.  Vakov has grown vastly disillusioned with Harmony and their methods, but when he is approached by their agents to assist with an investigation, he is once again compelled into their service.

Somebody is killing his fellow former Reapers by poisoning the stormtech being passed around the city.  In order to save the comrades he fought beside, Vakov agrees to help with the investigation, especially when it is revealed that Harmony’s only lead is Vakov’s estranged brother.  However, the more Vakov investigates, the more people keep trying to kill him, and he soon finds himself caught in a vast conspiracy that threatens Compass and the entirety of Harmony.  Can Vakov put a stop to this horrifying plot, or will untold death and destruction rain down on him and everything he fought for?

Stormblood is an intriguing and impressive new science fiction novel that takes the reader on an action-packed thrill ride.  This is the debut novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which also serves as the first book in his The Common series of books.  I have been looking forward to this science fiction release for a while as I thought it sounded like a rather interesting novel, and I was really glad when I received a copy.  I ended up having a fantastic time reading this amazing and clever novel, and it is one of the best debut books I have so far read this year.

At the centre of this novel lies a captivating and exciting narrative that follows the adventures of the book’s primary protagonist, Vakov Fukasawa, as he tries to uncover who is trying to kill all his fellow former soldiers.  This results in a fast-paced military thriller storyline filled with all manner of action and adventure as Vakov jumps from one lead to the next in order to get to the bottom of the plot he is investigating.  This story goes in some dramatic directions, and I had fun unravelling the complex conspiracy storyline that emerged.  The combat comes very hot and heavy throughout the entirety of the story, with some unique science fiction elements added in to really make them pop.  Readers should also be prepared for some rather dark sequences, such as a rather claustrophobic torture scene.  Szal also spends a lot of time building up and exploring his protagonist, Vakov, showing him to be a complex character who is haunted by his past and strongly concerned for the people he is close to.  Several chapters within this book are dedicated to showing the events that formed him, including his traumatic childhood and his military service.  There is also a compelling focus on the strained relationship between Vakov and his brother, which becomes a major part of the plot as the two eventually face off as adversaries in some fantastic dramatic scenes.  I became really engrossed with this elaborate storyline and I ended up reading the entire book rather quickly, despite its somewhat substantial length.  An overall outstanding story, I cannot wait to see what happens in the next books in the series, but I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy them.

One of the key highlights of Stormblood is the outstanding new science fiction universe that Szal has come up with as a setting for the story.  Szal clearly has considerable imagination, as he produces a vast and exhilarating science fiction location populated with a multitude of different people and alien races.  The majority of the story is set within the gigantic space city of Compass, an amazing expanse of different places, climates and structures, all laid out in vertical levels.  This was a really cool place to explore, and this is clearly the tip of the iceberg as Szal hints at a number of other intriguing locations and planets throughout the book, and I can easily see future entries in the series expanding out to a bunch of other locations.  I was also extremely impressed with all the different technology, biological enhancements, spaceships, and alien races that appeared throughout the novel.  There are a number of new and fantastic science fiction ideas here, and I really enjoyed the way that Szal worked all of these technologies and aliens into the book’s plot, especially as most of them provide some amazing enhancements to the story.  A number of the book’s intense sequences really stand out due to the technology that the author comes up with, such as weird weapons, advanced combat suits, all manner of enhanced opponents, and a particularly freaky security room that is keyed to a person’s biology (you do not want to know what happens when the owner dies).  All these proved to be a lot of fun, and Szal has an awesome and imaginative vision of the future.

Out of all the cool science fiction elements in this book, I really have to highlight stormtech, the alien DNA that is injected into humans to give them enhanced abilities.  Stormtech is a key part of Stormblood as a plot device and because of the impacts that it has on the book’s point-of-view character.  Quite a lot of the story is dedicated to examining the transformative qualities of stormtech and the effects that it has had on former Reapers like Vakov.  In particular, the alien DNA has left him addicted to his own adrenaline, and it is constantly driving him to perform risky or aggressive acts so that he can get the accompanying adrenaline high.  This proved to be a fascinating part of Stormblood’s story, as the author spends a lot of time examining how stormtech impacts his protagonist’s mind and his constant struggle to control it.  Several of the flashback scenes are particularly well utilised here, as they show Vakov and his fireteam’s initial experiences with stormtech during the war and the terrible effects it had on them the more action they saw.  The version of Vakov who was introduced at the start of the main story is one who has managed to gain command over his addiction, although he is constantly struggling to maintain that control, especially as the events of plot compel him into more and more dangerous situations and new experiences with experimental stormtech, resulting in some dramatic consequences.  This was an extremely captivating aspect of the Stormblood’s narrative, and Szal does an outstanding job examining the impacts of addiction on the protagonist and then using it to add additional compelling layers to his main character.

Stormblood is an excellent and exciting science fiction novel from talented new Australian author Jeremy Szal.  Szal’s creativity and ability to tell a complex and thrilling story really shines through in his debut book, and I had an outstanding time enjoying this epic read.  I fully intend to grab the second book in this series when it comes out and I have a feeling that Szal is going to have a major impact on the science fiction genre in the next few years.