Call of Empire by Peter Watt

Call of Empire Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 October 2022)

Series: The Colonial series – Book Five

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Australia’s master of the historical adventure returns with another deeply exciting and highly intriguing character driven read that follows one historical family as they embark on war and adventure across the world, Call of Empire by Peter Watt.

Towards the end of each year, I always know that I am about to have my historical action and adventure quota filled as the new Peter Watt is coming out.  Watt has been a particularly enjoyable and compelling Australian author for years, producing intriguing historical fiction books with a focus on Australian history.  His works have so far included the long-running Frontier series and his compelling Papua trilogy, both of which contained some remarkable historical adventures.  However, I personally have been really getting into his currently body of work, The Colonial series, which I have had a wonderful time reading in recent years.

The Colonial series started of back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, an intriguing read that followed young Australian Ian Steele in 1845 as he switched places with an English nobleman to take up his commission in a British regiment.  Becoming Captain Samuel Forbes, Steele found himself drawn into several of England’s deadly 19th century wars, while also forced to confront several dangers back in England as the real Samuel Forbes’ family sought to have him killed.  This fantastic series continued for two more books, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain, both of which were excellent reads.  Watt continued the series last year with The Colonial’s Son, which jumped ahead a couple of decades to follow the main character’s oldest son as he followed in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier in the Queen’s army.  I had a great deal of fun with these exciting books, and I was very happy when I received the next entry in the series, Call of Empire.

Starting in 1885, several years after the conclusion of The Colonial’s Son, Call of Empire sees protagonist Ian Steele finally living the quiet life in New South Wales, enjoying time with his family and friends, and expanding his business empire.  However, the British Empire is constantly finding itself in conflict across the globe, and soon the young New South Wales colony is called upon to send troops to assist the British campaign in Sudan.

Determined to serve the Empire once again, Ian’s oldest son, Josiah, takes a commission in the New South Wales army and journeys to Africa to fight the Sudanese forces for the British.  However, his decision will alienate him from the love of his life, Marian Curry, who is determined that he stop fighting in imperialistic wars.  At the same time, Ian’s younger son, Samuel, is learning the family business out in the Pacific with the family’s friend, Ling Lee.  However, Samuel and Lee are soon dragged into a dangerous plot to smuggle guns for the Chinese, as Lee’s obsession with freeing China from European control leads them into mortal danger.

Soon the entire Steele family finds themselves in deep trouble across the world, and only the most daring of actions will help them survive.  But as the Empire’s wars continue and the Steele family and their friends are drawn into even more conflicts, can even their legendary luck continue?  Death and tragedy awaits them all, and soon the Steele family will face a loss they never expected.

This was another fantastic and deeply exciting novel from Watt, who continues to dazzle with his fast-paced writing and impressive historical insights.  I loved the awesome story contained in Call of Empire, and I ended up powering through this book in less than a day.

Watt produces another exciting and ultra-fast paced story for Call of Empire that takes the reader on a wild and captivating journey through some interesting parts of late 19th century history.  Starting in 1885, Call of Empire primarily follows the three male members of the Steele family as they attempt to overcome the various challenges they face in their respective endeavours.  Watt tells a multi-layered, multi-generational, character driven story that follows multiple characters simultaneously as they engage in their own story.  This means that readers are often treated to a range of different storylines in the same chapter, having one character engaged in war, while another deals with issues at home, and at the same time a third finds themselves caught up in adventures at sea.  This makes for quite a complex read, although the range of storylines are well balanced and never oversaturate or confuse the story.  Indeed, Watt is a pretty clear and concise writer, and the reader is able to have a lot of fun with several of the storylines at the same time.  Watt features an outstanding range of storylines throughout Call of Empire, and I loved the blend of war, politics, exploration, business, romance, character development and legal concerns that were featured at various points throughout the 15 year long plot.  This reminded me a lot of the author’s previous Frontier novels, especially the focus on one big family, and I had a wonderful time seeing the elaborate narrative he wove around his characters.  Watt really takes this story in some interesting directions, and there are a few big surprises, as well as some tragedies that established readers of this series will be hit hard by.  This proved to be quite an addictive read, and I loved seeing his characters continue to traverse through life in their chaotic and adventurous ways.  The book ends at the start of the new century, and it looks like Watt will be taking his characters in World War I next time, which I am sure will be suitably traumatic.

Easily my favourite thing about this book was Watt’s excellent dive into the always eventful colonial history of Australia.  In particular, Watt examines several lesser-known wars and conflicts from the 19th century, with a particular focus on the role of New South Wales.  This starts early in the plot with one of the characters getting involved in the Suakin Expedition in Sudan, which was part of the larger Mahdist War.  This deployment saw a battalion of New South Wales soldiers travel to Sudan as part of the war effort and was the very first military force to be raised and deployed overseas by Australia.  While there wasn’t a lot of fighting involved with this campaign, I was deeply intrigued by the history and the politics behind it, and Watt did a wonderful job of exploring it in great detail throughout the book by inserting his characters.  Watt continued this trend throughout the rest of the book, which saw several of his characters involved in both the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion in China.  Both conflicts had Australian soldiers involved, fighting on the side of the British, and Watt took exquisite care to explore what role the Australians played in them, and how they came to be involved in the conflict.

Out of all of them, I particularly enjoyed the captivating examination of the Boer War in Africa, which was one of the more deadly wars Australians fought in during the 19th century.  This war, and one of the character’s roles in it, dominated a good part of the book, and Watt did an amazing job of bringing different parts of the conflict to life.  The author really captured just how dark and bloody this war was, from snipers in the African bush, to the horrors inflicted on the Boer settlers.  However, Watt saves some of his best writing for the Battle of Elands River, a protracted battle that saw the Boers surround a force of Australians and their allies in a brutal siege for 13 days.  Naturally, one of the characters is right in the middle of this fight, and Watt really showcased the carnage and terror that the Australians would have felt being surrounded and bombarded.  I honestly didn’t know a great deal about some of these early Australian military conflicts, and it was absolutely fascinating to see them come to life in the hands of this talented author.  Having this great historical background really enhanced the overall quality of the novel, and I had a wonderful time diving back into these sometimes overlooked parts of Australian military history.

As I mentioned above, Call of Empire was a very character focused book that featured a range of fantastic point of view protagonists through whose eyes the story unfolded.  Watt features a great combination of characters, with a compelling mixture of younger figures who were the focus of The Colonial’s Son, and even a few characters from the first three Colonial books.  There was quite a range of different character storylines in Call of Empire, and you swiftly get drawn into the various unique adventures of each of the characters.  It was fascinating to see how the older characters had evolved since their original adventures, and I liked how Watt started focusing more on the next generation, including by expanding the role of the younger Steele son, Sam, who had an amazing outing here.  There is a great examination of the events that help to form these figures character, and it was fantastic to see them overcome so much adversity at various parts of their life.  I will say that some of the male Steele characters did tend to blend personality wise as the book proceeded, mostly as they are cut from the same adventurous cloth, but you still grow to like all of them, and you ended up getting touched when bad things happen to them.  There are some very interesting and powerful developments that hit the main characters in this book, and this ended up being a very key novel in the family history.  I had a wonderful time seeing the latest exploits of the Steele family, and with the next generation being introduced towards the end of the book, you know that they have even more adventures to come.

Peter Watt continues to showcase his talent as Australia’s premiere author of the Australian historical adventure with his latest Colonial novel, Call of Empire.  Bringing back several of his fantastic protagonists from the previous books, Watt crafts together another exciting read that dives into some intriguing parts of Australia’s military history.  Fast paced and full of awesome action, Call of Empire is another amazing read from Watt, and one that I had a lot of fun getting through.

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Waiting on Wednesday – Retribution and Headcase

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 my latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out two fantastic upcoming crime fiction novels from some of the very best authors Australia has to offer.

Due to my location I tend to receive a lot of fiction written by Australian authors and I have really grown to appreciate the talent that my countrymen have for writing brilliant crime fiction reads.  I have already had the pleasure of reading some truly impressive Australian murder mysteries and thrillers this year, including several great debuts.  However, for this post I want to highlight two outstanding sequels coming out later this year that I am very excited for.  Both books are written by exceptional writers, and I can’t wait to see how their respective series continue.

Retribution Cover

The first book I want to look is Retribution by Sarah Barrie.  Last year Barrie presented an incredible and deeply powerful book in Unforgiven, a gripping Australian thriller that ended up being one of the best Australian fiction releases of 2021Unforgiven followed former child abuse victim turned vigilante, Lexi Winter, who spends her days hunting down and destroying paedophiles around Sydney.  However, Lexi is forced to work with the detective who failed her years ago when evidence emerges that suggests that the monster from her past is still out there.  This resulted in an impressive and deeply captivating read that saw Lexi and the police dive into a particularly dark part of Sydney’s criminal underbelly only to be thwarted at every turn by a master manipulator.  I had an outstanding time with this book, and I was utterly enthralled all the way to the final epic twist, especially as Barrie left the story open for a potential sequel.

This sequel is set for release in a few months’ time with the intriguing follow-up RetributionRetribution, which has a release date of 30 November 2022, will bring back the main characters from the first book and set them on a new thrilling case, as threads from the previous investigation continue to haunt them.  I am quite excited for this new book, especially as it will feature an evolution for the compelling main protagonist, while also continuing the dark crime fiction elements that Barrie set up so well in the first book.  I have no doubt that this is going to be one of the most intense Australian reads of 2022 and I can’t wait to see how this latest mystery unfolds.

Plot Synopsis:

Once a vigilante, she’s now a cop … but she still plays by her own rules. A fast-paced, suspenseful thriller for readers of Candice Fox and Sarah Bailey.

Ace hacker, ex-prostitute, Jack Daniels drinker and part-time vigilante Lexi Winter returns, now working with the police – mostly – with a new enemy in the target and an old foe at the back of her mind.

Most probationary constables would baulk at chasing a drug dealer into a train tunnel in the dead of night. Not Lexi Winter. She emerges injured but alive, to face the wrath of her boss. Lexi may now be in uniform, but she has as much trouble with authority as ever, and is quietly using her hacking skills to investigate a notorious drug-dealing Sydney crime family with links to her old prey, the paedophile Damon Vaughn.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Finn Carson investigates a death on a Sydney building site … which oddly enough, leads him to the picturesque Wondabyne station on the Hawkesbury River, and Inspector Rachael Langley oversees an investigation that could tie it all together. Lexi holds the key … if only she’ll toe the line …

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The next upcoming book I want to highlight is Headcase, written by fellow Canberran Jack Heath.  Heath is swiftly working his way up the list of Australia’s best crime fiction authors, especially as he has delivered some absolutely cracking reads in the last couple of years.  While he has written some great young adult thrillers, Heath is probably best known for his ongoing Timothy Blake series, which follows a deranged cannibalistic serial killer as he investigates impossible crimes throughout America.  The Timothy Blake books are thrilling, gory and utterly entertaining reads, and I had a lot of fun with the last book, Hideout (one of my favourite Australian releases of 2020), which saw Blake trapped in a house with a group of other serial killers, which predictably resulted in a massive bloodbath.  I also deeply enjoyed Heath’s last book, Kill Your Brother, a five-star read that saw a woman caught in a terrible situation where the only way to survive is to kill a fellow captive, her beloved brother.  Loaded with clever twists and with some amazing characters, Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read that has made extremely keen in checking out anything else Heath releases.

Headcase Cover

Luckily for me, Heath has a new book coming out in a few months’ time, and I am very happy to see that it is another Timothy Blake thriller.  This new Timothy Blake entry, which is set for release around the same time as Retribution, has the very intriguing title of Headcase, and it sounds like it is going to be quite the awesome read.  Following the psychotic Blake as he investigates a mysterious murder of a Chinese astronaut in a highly secure NASA base, Headcase sounds pretty damn epic book that will blend together a spy thriller narrative, with the dark psychological aspects of Heath’s amazing protagonist.  I have a feeling that Headcase is going to be one of the craziest books of 2022 and I will love every single second I spend reading it.

Plot Synopsis:

Timothy Blake returns in a tense, unputdownable thriller from the author of Hangman.

A Chinese astronaut is found dead in a NASA training environment in Houston, Texas. No one can explain how he got there. Amid fears of a diplomatic catastrophe, the CIA dispatches Timothy ‘Hangman’ Blake to investigate, because a convicted kidnapper works in the facility – someone Blake put away a long time ago.

Blake is deeply insane, afflicted by terrible urges he can barely control – but he’s also brilliant. Zara, his beautiful and deadly CIA handler, suspects a secret Chinese spacecraft is surveilling the United States, but Blake can see something much more sinister is going on. Something connected to the kidnapping seven years ago, to the technologies being developed at NASA, and to the serial killer known as the Texas Reaper.

Will Blake survive long enough to uncover the truth? And if he does, will anyone even believe him?

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Waiting on Wednesday – Red Dirt Road by S. R. White

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 latest entry, I check out an intriguing and fantastic upcoming new Australian murder mystery novel with Red Dirt Road by S. R. White.

Red Dirt Road Cover

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Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a fantastic novel from a new-to-me author, S. R. White, with PrisonerPrisoner was an awesome and compelling crime fiction read that featured a complex and deeply impressive investigation in the remote Australian outback.  Emphasising interrogation scenes and clever crime scene investigation, this was an extremely good piece of Australian crime fiction that I had an outstanding time reading.  As such, I have been very interested in reading more books from White, and I was very happy to find out that he has a new novel coming out in a few months’ time.

This new novel from White is Red Dirt Road, which is currently set for release in January 2023.  Red Dirt Road has another great sounding narrative to it that will see White’s recurring protagonist, Detective Dana Russo, travel to a new town and investigate two crazy murders.  Set in a very remote location, it appears that Russo will be trapped in town with the potential murderer and must work to uncover why and how this crime occurred.  I really love the sound of the cool plot that White has come up with for Red Dirt Road, and I have a strong feeling that this is going to be one of the better Australian novels of 2023.  I love the sound of this unique case and I look forward to grabbing this book next year.

Synopsis:

One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.

In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.

With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?

Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.

But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.

A gripping and vividly atmospheric story from the international bestseller, this is a searing story perfect for fans of Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Garry Disher.

Quick Review – Conviction by Frank Chalmers

Conviction Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 354 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Australian crime fiction debut hits keep on coming with the excellent and highly exciting first novel from Frank Chalmers, Conviction, with takes the reader on an amazing journey back into 1970s rural Australia.

Plot Synopsis:

A town ruled by fear. A cop who won’t be broken. A pulse-pounding debut thriller that pulls no punches.

A STUNNING NEW VOICE IN CRIME FICTION

Queensland in 1976 churns with corruption. When Detective Ray Windsor defies it, he is exiled deep into the state’s west. It’s easy out there to feel alien in your own country.

Royalton is a town on its knees, stricken by drought, riven by prejudice, and plagued by crimes left largely uninvestigated by the local police chief, Kennedy, and his elusive boss.

Mutual dislike between Kennedy and Ray gradually turns ugly as Ray and his new partner, Arshag, uncover a pattern of crimes that no one seems concerned about solving. But when two girls from local immigrant families are found dead and another disappears, Ray and Arshag are forced to take the law into their own hands. Not knowing who to trust, nor how deep the corruption runs, how long will it be before their lives are also threatened?

A spare and uncompromising crime thriller that pulls no punches.


Conviction
is a compelling and fun crime fiction thriller that sets a bold protagonist against a brace of criminals and dirty cops in a remote and hopeless town.  Essentially reading like a contemporary Australian western, with protagonist Detective Ray Windsor acting as the new sheriff in town, Chalmers crafts together a compelling read that is very easy to get through.

Conviction has a very interesting and complex story to it that sees the new cop arrive in the remote town of Royalton and get caught up in a series of crimes.  Not only is he forced to deal with the corruption of his peers and a local crime ring that has been stealing stock and damaging the local farms, but he is also investigating two recent violent deaths of young immigrant women.  This results in quite a fantastic series of investigation elements, as Detective Windsor attempts to solve these crimes while being constantly hampered by his colleagues.  The novel also deals with Ray’s attempt to integrate into the Royalton community, and he soon finds some unexpected connections and friends which draw him in.  Taking place over the course of several months, Conviction’s plot goes in some exciting and intense directions, and the reader is provided with intriguing plotlines that are loaded with action and excitement.  The eventual reveals lead to some big moments, and while the identity of the book’s villains is well-foreshadowed and not especially surprising, watching the protagonist attempt to overcome them is fun.  This ended up being a great and enjoyable piece of Australian fiction, and I had a good time getting through this awesome debut.

Like many impressive Australian crime fiction novels, one of the best things about Conviction is its excellent setting in a rural Australian town.  Royalton is a compelling location, which even in the 1970s, is starting to fall apart and feel the strain as more and more people left the country to live in the big cities.  Royalton has many of the best features that make up a small-town setting, from the sunburned countryside, the various surrounding farms, the neglected buildings within the town itself, as well as a colourful cast of people living in it.  I felt that Royalton in Conviction was a pretty good example of this compelling Australian setting, and the intriguing historical context makes it stand out from other recent Australian crime fiction books.  I particularly liked how Chalmers depicted the town as having a large migrant population, which is an accurate representation of most of Australia, and the stratification of classes that resulted based on nationality and culture gave the story another fascinating dimension that I felt added a lot to the story.  The farms surrounding the town are also under siege by an organised group of criminals who are working to bankrupt them for their own nefarious reasons, and this adds to the tension in Royalton.  All this proves to be rich ground for the intense and compelling crime fiction narrative that Chalmers crafted together, and I felt that this was an amazing setting for Conviction.

However, the best thing about Conviction was the eclectic and troubled group of characters who can be found within.  The author comes up with some great and flawed figures throughout Conviction, and the reader soon gets some intriguing views of the sort of people who would live in such a remote and troubled town.  Naturally most of the focus is on Detective Ray Windsor, who immediately finds himself in all manner of trouble once he arrives in Royalton.  Now, I must admit that I had a hard time liking Windsor in this book, as he is a bit of an over-the-top hero who is prone to violence at a drop of hat.  While this attribute does help him out in some of the situations, I was never too attached to him as a character, especially when he flew off the handle.  Still, I liked the compelling background that Chalmers attributed to Windsor, especially his dark childhood, and the portrayal of an honest cop sent out to the country as a punishment was well explored.  There are some great moments with Windsor in the book, and I did enjoy seeing his take on the case and the corruption going on around town.  The author also did a good job setting up Windsor’s growing attachment to Royalton, especially once he gets to know the people within.  This, as well as his commitment to getting the job done, eventually win the reader over, and you are rooting for him to succeed as the story continues.  The rest of the cast are also really good, and I deeply enjoyed some of the other characters featured within Conviction.  I felt that Chalmers did a particularly good job with the villains of this book, and it was satisfying to see Windsor standing up to them and finally bringing them to justice.  An awesome group of characters that Chalmers did a good job bringing to life.

Overall, I felt that Conviction was a pretty awesome novel that the debuting Frank Chalmers should be proud of.  This fantastic novel has a great crime fiction narrative that not only crosses into historical fiction territory but which works as an exceptional example of a rural Australian story.  All these elements work extremely well together, and I had a blast getting through Conviction, which is really worth checking out.

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The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 August 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Debuting author Vikki Petraitis delivers an impressive and deeply moving Australian thriller skilfully set around the powerful subject of sexual violence with The Unbelieved.  This is Petraitis’s first novel, which has been receiving a large amount of buzz, including some awards.  As such, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it had a very interesting plot, and this ended up being one of the most compelling and memorable Australian debuts of 2022.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has spent many years investigating terrible and destructive crimes in Melbourne.  After one case goes horribly wrong, Antigone decides to seek the quieter life and moves to her grandmother’s house in the Victorian coastal town of Deception Bay, where she was raised.  However, her attempts at finding peaceful policing quickly go up in smoke when a series of drug assisted sexual attacks occur throughout Deception Bay and the neighbouring towns.

After a sting operation at the local pub reveals a suspect who attempts to drug her, Antigone believes that they have perpetrator dead to rights.  However, they are soon forced to let him go when the male witnesses to the event refuse to cooperate and her superior attempts to brush the case under the rug.  Reaching out to the community, she finds a wall of silence and shame surrounding sexual crimes in Deception Bay, which has failed to lead to any convictions in the town.

Determined to stop the attacks no matter what, Antigone continues her investigation against her superior’s wishes, and uncovers a series of attacks across town.  Attempting to break through the fears of the women of Deception Bay, Antigone and her partner begin closing on the information they need.  However, Antigone also finds herself under threat from all corners and must work swiftly before she is shut down for good.  But can she succeed before another girl is attacked, and what happens when the darkness from her past rears its ugly head again?

Wow, I was not prepared for just how good and moving The Unbelieved was going to be.  Vikki Petraitis has really shown off her skill and talented as a writer with her first book, presenting a powerful read on an extremely relevant subject that strikes the reader hard.  Featuring an exciting and very clever mystery storyline that also intensely examines violence against women in Australia, The Unbelieved is an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At its centre The Unbelieved has an exceptional multifaceted narrative that follows detective Antigone Pollard as she finds herself investigating terrible events occurring around Deception Bay.  Detective Pollard initially attempts to stop a series of sexual attacks, but she soon becomes involved in several other cases while trying to fit in to the community, despite opposition from some of its male residents.  As her case develops and more victims come forward, Pollard also finds herself investigating a suspicious death, a historical murder-suicide, a series of domestic violence cases, and more.  These investigations are often hampered by her superior and problematic members of the community, and Pollard also finds herself being threatened or attacked as she attempts to do her duties.  At the same time, elements from her past in Melbourne are revealed through a series of well-crafted flashbacks that expand on her motivations and begin to bleed into her current cases, especially once a prior suspect is brought back into the light.

Petraitis takes the story in some interesting directions throughout the course of The Unbelieved, and I loved the fantastic combination of the compelling yet heartbreaking cases that are explored throughout.  This investigation angle is well balanced with the character development of the protagonist, as well as the emotional exploration of several interesting supporting characters, and you really get involved in the narrative and the character’s fates as The Unbelieved continues.  The story becomes more complex as the book unfolds, and the protagonist finds herself caught up in a devious local conspiracy that seeks to take her down at the same time.  There are some brilliant twists and reveals throughout the plot, and I loved how several of the storylines developed.  The entire book was very well paced out, and I found myself getting really absorbed in so many key elements of the plot, especially as the author blends compelling investigations with dark, emotional examinations of the victims.  This all leads to up to a moving, thought-provoking and extremely satisfying conclusion that will leave every reader caught up in the plot happy.  I particularly enjoyed the final twist that Petraitis left the story on, and the way it was hinted at through the rest of the novel was extremely clever.  I honestly had such a remarkable time reading this great narrative, and there are so many excellent story elements to enjoy within it.

Easily the most distinctive part of The Unbelieved is the author’s detailed and powerful examination of the current situation of sexual and domestic violence in Australia.  Most of the book’s plot revolves around the investigation and attempted conviction of multiple sexual predators, and the author does not hold back in showcasing just how dark and damaging these sorts of cases can be.  Multiple viewpoints of the impacts of these crimes are examined throughout The Unbelieved, and readers are in for some emotionally devastating moments as you see so many of the different aspects of them.  There is a particularly good and dramatic look at how police investigating sexual crimes are impacted, especially when they are unable to get justice for the victims.  More importantly, Petraitis spends a lot of time exploring how Australian society perceives sexual crimes, and the book is loaded up with characters who don’t see them as a big deal or attempt to blame the victim.  There are multiple interludes within The Unbelieved that show short transcripts of interviews with people involved with these crimes, either as a witness or the accused, and the unguarded and unsupportive comments they make are both enlightening and a little infuriating.  Throw in some comments and interviews by the author’s accurate depiction of a typical Australian radio shock jock, which really boil the blood, and you have an excellent depiction of some of the main issues and attitudes towards sexual crimes, such as victim blaming.  These issues become a key part of the book’s plot, especially when the system fails so many victims, and it leads to some extremely emotional and painful moments.  I felt that Petraitis did a spectacular job working this confronting subject into the plot of her novel, and it certainly gave The Unbelieved a powerful edge that is hard to ignore.

I also really appreciated Petraitis’s examination of regional towns in Australia, which proves to be a great setting for this compelling book.  Rural and remote settings are always an excellent feature of Australian fiction, and I think that Petraitis used it extremely well in The Unbelieved.  The transfer of a big-city cop to the small town she grew up in results in a great change of pace for the protagonist, and the change in priorities and issues helps to add to the narrative complexity of The Unbelieved.  The use of this small-town setting comes into play throughout The Unbelieved in multiple intriguing ways, from the constant spread of rumours, the lack of secrets, and the fact everyone knows each other, and I liked how this affected several aspects of the police investigation plot line.  However, the most important part of this setting is the wall of silence that springs up during the book.  Many people know about the sexual and domestic violence going in in Deception Bay, but are unwilling to talk for various reasons, often keeping secrets from the police.  This becomes a key complication in the investigation, and it was fascinating and moving to see the protagonist attempt to overcome it.  As such, I felt that this small-town setting worked extremely well for The Unbelieved’s plot, especially with its specific criminal focus, and it definitely enhanced the story for me.

The final thing that I need to highlight is the excellent protagonist that Petraitis works the story around in Detective Antigone Pollard.  Pollard is an emotionally charged badass who has returned to her hometown after a devastating case in Melbourne, and now finds herself amid all manner of dark criminal activity.  While she is raw from the impacts of her last case and there are some dramatic moments surrounding here, the author portrays her as a practical and very capable cop, who takes charge and starts to clean up Deception Bay.  I really do think that Petraitis hit the right balance of vulnerable and determined in Pollard, and you grow quite attached to her as the book continues, especially once you learn the full extent of her last case.  Combine Pollard with several other fantastic characters in The Unbelieved, such as her partner, Detective Senior Constable Warren “Wozza” Harvey, and her loyal dog, Waffles, as well as some slimy villains, and you have a great cast for The Unbelieved that really add to the overall quality of this remarkable book.

With her impressive debut novel, The Unbelieved, Vikki Petraitis has set herself up as an exceptional talent in the Australian crime fiction game and she is a major new author to watch out for.  The Unbelieved has an outstanding crime fiction narrative to it that does an amazing job balancing a compelling mystery storyline with powerful dive into a sensitive and highly relevant subject.  Thanks to its well-written plot, clever mystery, distinctive setting and great characters, The Unbelieved comes together perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to put down.  While this book might be best avoided by those readers triggered by depictions of sexual violence, I cannot recommend this powerful novel enough, and it stands as one of the better Australian crime fiction books and debuts of 2022 so far.

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Quick Review – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt Town Cover

Publisher: Macmillian (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 359 0ages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author Hayley Scrivenor presents her powerful and excellent debut novel with the powerful and dramatic Australian mystery, Dirt Town.

Plot Synopsis:

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing.

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie’s going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can’t be gone, Ronnie won’t believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can’t reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

Five days later, Esther’s buried body is discovered.

What do we owe the girl who isn’t there?

Character-rich and propulsive, with a breathtakingly original use of voice and revolving points of view, Hayley Scrivenor delves under the surface, where no one can hide. With emotional depth and sensitivity, this stunning debut shows us how much each person matters in a community that is at once falling apart and coming together.

Esther will always be a Dirt Town child, as we are its children, still.


Dirt
Town was a fantastic and clever novel that contains a lot of interesting elements and moving parts to it that I had an amazing time reading.  Set in the small Australian country town of Durton in late 2001, the crux of Dirt Town’s plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of local schoolgirl Esther, who vanishes on her way home.  The subsequent search and police investigation into the disappearance soon involves several different inhabitants of Durton, including Esther’s friends, family and other connections, many of whom are dragged into the case over the course of the following days.  The investigation and the eventual reveal of what happened to Esther slowly but surely tears the town of Durton apart, as everyone’s secrets come spilling out.

The story focuses on several intriguing protagonists, including Esther’s best friend, Ronnie, who attempts to find her without really realising what is going on; their fellow schoolmate Lewis, who witnessed something relevant to the case but is unable to say anything out of fear of being outed; the various relatives to the children; the cops that come to investigate; and more.  This strong focus on these complex characters allows Scrivenor to weave together a compelling and exciting tapestry of personal stories that are altered for the worse when Esther goes missing.  All the characters react to the disappearance in different ways, and the reader gets a deep and captivating look into their lives, which often reveal long-buried secrets, fears and insecurities that the investigation brings to the light.  At the same time, the hunt for the missing child reveals other crimes going on around Durton, and everyone is moved in some way by the events of the narrative.  The eventual reveal about what happened to Esther and who was involved is very intense, and I really loved the clever, heartbreaking twist that Scrivenor utilised here.  The author layers the story with some clues, but it is still shocking to see what unfolded, and the series of events that led up to it and followed from there.  Dirt Town ends with a satisfying, if very bittersweet, conclusion, and I really appreciate the impressive debut narrative the Scrivenor produced here.

This was a pretty moving and distinctive novel, as Scrivenor blends several genres together into a single riveting tale.  While mostly framed as a mystery novel, Dirt Town also has a strong drama aspect to it, especially when it comes to examining the lives and secrets of the various townsfolk.  This ensures that you get quite a lot of unique character interactions throughout Dirt Town, and it was very moving and powerful to see how everyone was impacted by the events of the plot, often in quite substantial and painful ways.  It is also a particularly good piece of rural Australian fiction, as Scrivenor, who grew up in a small country town herself, does an amazing job portraying the tight-knit community, isolated landscape, and the feeling of decline that many of these towns experience during times of hardship.  Scrivenor added in a distinctive, disassociated chorus narrator, which is essentially the joint voice of the town, which produces some poetic and insight examinations of the impacts that the case has on the town and its people, as well as providing compelling insights into how the town is generally faring.  These separate elements blend well into a captivating and moving story, and you can find yourself getting quite drawn into Dirt Town as a result.

Overall, I felt that Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor was an outstanding and very distinctive debut novel, and one that sets Scrivenor up as an interesting rising talent in Australian fiction.  A recommended read, especially for those who love complex stories in Australia’s unmatched rural setting, Dirt Town was an outstanding book that is well worth checking out.

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The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth

The Crimson Thread Cover

Publisher: Vintage Books Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s premier authors presents another compelling and powerful historical drama with The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth.

Kate Forsyth is a very talented Australian author whose work I have long been a fan of.  While Forsyth is best known these days for her intense historical dramas, I personally am a big fan of her The Witches of Eileanan series, which I read when I was younger.  The Witches of Eileanan books, which were Forsyth’s debut series, follows a group of powerful magical users in a troubled fantasy realm filled with dragons, mages and monsters, as they attempt to overthrow a dark anti-magic tyrant and save the world from multiple impending threats.  Filled with great characters, impressive magic, a complex setting and some brilliant and occasionally dark storylines, this was a particularly awesome and epic series, and it was among the earliest fantasy books that I ever checked out.  I deeply enjoyed The Witches of Eileanan books and the sequel Rhiannon’s Ride series, and I have been meaning to reread them all for a while.  In the meantime, I decided it would be good to check out one of her more recent works with The Crimson Thread.  This intriguing and captivating historical drama is a lot more consistent with Forsyth’s current writing focus and I was very interested in seeing something from this genre.

By May 1941, the Nazis have conquered Greece and the island of Crete lies before them as the next land to control.  As the island prepares for invasion, young Cretan woman, Alenka, attempts to find some semblance of normality amongst the chaos, but chance meetings with two Australian soldiers stationed on the island will change her life forever.  When the Germans finally invade Crete in a massive and long-running battle, Alenka finds herself stuck in the middle of the fighting and eventually chooses to hide the Australians when the Germans win.

These two soldiers are Jack and Teddy.  Lifelong best friends, the rambunctious Teddy and the shy, scholarly Jack, joined the army together to see the world, only to get caught up in the chaos of the war.  Separated during the retreat to Crete, Jack and Teddy manage to reunite on the island, with both falling for the alluring Alenka upon meeting her.  When the Germans invade and they are trapped behind enemy lines with no hope of escape, both go to ground, seeking out help from Alenka and her allies in Crete’s resistance movement.

As the Germans tighten their hold on the island, Alenka, Jack and Teddy find themselves in constant danger as they attempt to find some way for the Australians to escape.  However, their attempts to evade the Nazis are not their only trouble, as Jack and Teddy’s once close friendship starts to deteriorate through jealously and anger.  Worse, Alenka’s brother, Axel, is a dangerous Nazi collaborator, whose long simmering anger and resentment threatens everything Alenka holds dear.  As Axel searches for a way to destroy his sister and her friends, all will be forced to make some hard choices, both on the battlefield and in love.

This was a deeply moving and highly detailed historical drama from Forsyth that I had a wonderful time reading.  Balancing a captivating historical tale of invasion in a unique World War II setting with a powerful tale of romance, broken friendships and family betrayals, The Crimson Thread is an outstanding novel which really highlights Forsyth’s impressive skill as an author.

The Crimson Thread has an excellent and fast-paced narrative that quickly drags readers in with the wartime action and keeps them there with the subsequent drama and tragedy.  Told from various intriguing perspectives, The Crimson Thread does a great job of quickly introducing you to the key characters and settings before bringing the terror in the form of a sudden and devastating Nazi invasion.  What follows is captivating tale of survival, endurance and resistance, as the three central protagonists attempt to evade and outwit the occupiers while also dealing with their own simmering feelings of love, betrayal and jealousy.  Forsyth weaves together some hauntingly tense and moving scenes throughout this narrative, as you see the characters thrust into all manner of dangerous and tragic circumstances amid the horrors of war.  The entire narrative has an excellent blend of action, high-stakes espionage and deep personal drama that I found myself really drawn to, all of which fits together perfectly with the distinctive setting and period.  The entire narrative takes place over the course of several years, and I deeply appreciate the long-term storylines that Forsyth utilised as you got to see the various characters grow and change throughout the war, often for the worst.  I loved the focus on camaraderie, identity and historical pride that was worked into the story, and all the unique plot points come full circle by the end.  Forsyth ends the entire excellent story of survival and war on a tragic, but hopeful note, and while you may end up with some conflicting feelings about the fates of some of the focal characters, readers are going to come away from The Crimson Thread both moved and satisfied with the story conclusion.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about books set during World War II are the sheer number of unique stories that can be written, as there were so many different battlefields, conflicts and personal dramas that resulted from them.  While I am fairly knowledgeable about history and World War II, I honestly knew very little about the occupation of Crete during the war, nor did I realise that Australian and New Zealand soldiers were stationed there when the Germans invaded.  As such I was pretty in the dark when it came to the historical context of the novel, but Forsyth was well on hand here and spent substantial time exploring the entire Nazi conquest and occupation of Crete during the war.  Everything is covered here, including the initial 11-day battle to take control of the island, the subsequent disorganised evacuation of Allied forces, the harsh occupation of the Cretans, which included several massacres, the resistance movements, and everything else that occurred from first day to the end of the war.  I was particularly intrigued by the role that Australian troops played during this conflict, and Forsyth made sure to really highlight why they were there and the various hurdles they faced during this war, including being trapped behind enemy lines with few options to escape.  All of this is worked into the story in a clever and impressive way, and the various characters find themselves involved in many of the key events, either as witnesses or participants.  You really find yourself getting drawn into the midst of these compelling historical events, and I personally found it incredibly fascinating to see them, especially as Forsyth did some substantial research for this book.

I also really appreciated Forsyth’s dive into the culture, history and iconic landscape of the main setting of Crete.  Most of this book takes place on this beautiful island, and I felt that Forsyth really captured the heart and soul of Crete and its people throughout the story.  There are some compelling dives into the identity and culture of the Cretan people, including the importance of their dress, their customs, their speech, and their defiant nature.  Due to most of this explanation being done to show the undercover Australian citizens how to blend, it proves to be very informative, and readers without much pre-knowledge of Crete come away with a lot of detail and appreciation for its people.  There are also some fun dives into the history of the island, particularly its ancient association with legend of the Minotaur and palace of Knossos.  Due to my background in archaeology, I found this to be extremely interesting, especially as there are also some compelling depictions and discussions about the famous excavations that took place on Crete during this period.  Throw in some breathtaking and highly detailed descriptions of the various environments and settlements on Crete, including its treacherous and massive mountains, which serve as a great setting for some particularly intense scenes, and you get an outstanding appreciation for this island.  All of this is utilised in The Crimson Thread’s story really well, as the characters, like the reader, really get to know the island and how it impacts many of their decisions and actions.

Forsyth also came up with some excellent and distinctive characters for The Crimson Thread, and their unique and emotionally rich storylines are a powerful part of this great book’s story.  This includes Alenka, who finds herself caught between her culture, her troubled family past, and her attraction to the two Australian soldiers she grows close to.  Despite primarily being shown as a strong and clever woman, Alenka goes through some real tragedies and trauma in this book that slowly wear away at her psyche.  I found it fascinating to see her growth throughout the book, as well as her attempts to overcome the various obstacles and indignities that come her way.  Alenka was really well counterbalanced by her brother, Axel, a dark and dangerous youth who serves as the book’s central antagonist.  Initially shown as a youth who grows into a dangerous teenager throughout the narrative, Axel is a complex figure.  A half-Cretan boy who is the result of an extramarital affair with a German archaeologist, Axel has borne the shame of his heritage for most of his life and endured the ridicule and disdain of everyone on the island.  Focusing on his German heritage, Axel becomes obsessed with Hitler and the Nazis and quickly grows to be a valuable collaborator for the occupiers, helping them root out the resistance and hidden Allied soldiers.  While he is an extremely repulsive and evil figure, you fully understand while he idolises the Nazis and tries to join them because of how well Forsyth explored Axel’s motivations and past.  Forsyth writes a very dark storyline around Axel, and it was fascinating to see him corrupted by both his own unfair past and the invading Nazis.

The other two main characters are the Australian soldier protagonists, Jack and Teddy.  Despite being old friends, these two are very much the opposite of the other, with Teddy being a wild, confident and arrogant figure, while Jack is a kind and shy man with a stutter.  While you wouldn’t think that they would be friends, Forsyth does a good job establishing their bond, and you fully understand why they are close to each other.  Both characters are interesting in their own right, and I appreciated how Forsyth highlighted their differences and showed how their relationship eventually broke down over their mutual attraction to Alenka.  Teddy’s slow crawl from causal larrikin to arrogant jerk is subtle, but well formed, and the author shows some compelling, but damning, change in views in his mind throughout The Crimson Thread.  Jack, on the other hand, grows from unconfident scholar to strong-willed fighter, all thanks to his love of Alenka.  I loved how Forsyth showed all his artistic skills and passions, such as poetry, as a strength, and it was pretty fun to see him succeed in the specialised spy school both characters end up in.  This poetry actually had an interesting role in the wider book, and you can see a great example of it at the start of different chapters.  Forsyth really excelled at creating some amazing and captivating character arcs throughout The Crimson Thread, and I had an outstanding time getting close to these figures and experiencing their triumphs and dark pains.

Overall, The Crimson Thread was a wonderful and deeply moving read that ended up being one of the better historical dramas I have read this year.  Kate Forsyth continues to shine as an extremely talented Australian author, and I had fun exploring a book from her current genre of choice.  Featuring some damaged characters, a powerful story and some exquisite dives into Crete and its wartime history, The Crimson Thread is a captivating and clever novel that I had an outstanding time reading.

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Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2022 is proving to be quite the year for Australian crime debuts, with several compelling and thrilling read already out.  However, one of the more impressive recent debuts is probably the amazing release by new Canberran author Shelley Burr, Wake, a gripping and powerful crime thriller that takes the reader on a wild and emotionally charged ride.

Nannine is a small rural town in the harsh heart of New South Wales, punished by drought and slowly declining as the local agriculture industry starts to deteriorate.  However, Nannine will always have one harrowing claim to fame: the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn McCreery.  In 1999, young Evelyn disappeared from her rural house in the dead of night, right from the bedroom that she shared with her twin sister, Mina.

Now, 19 years after Evelyn’s disappearance, Mina lives a reclusive life on the destocked family farm, desperately seeking some shreds of normality.  However, the shadow of the unsolved case and the subsequent massive media storm that bombarded her family still haunts her, especially as many question whether she had a role in the tragic events, while others constantly attempt to claim the massive reward the family posted.  However, despite the time and her attempts to not get involved in the craziness again, Mina finds old wounds reopened when Lane Holland arrives in town.

Lane is a private investigator and failed Federal Police cadet who has made a living out of cracking cold cases involving missing girls.  Interested in claiming the substantial reward, Lane begins his own in-depth investigation of Evelyn’s disappearance, and his determination and insights soon grab Mina’s attention and she finds herself drawn close to Lane.  However, Lane has his own personal reasons for solving the case, and his dark ghosts could end up dragging Mina down with him.

This was an excellent and captivating debut novel from Shelley Burr, which is already gaining some major recognition, including some major Australian awards.  While I knew I was likely to enjoy this amazing novel, I ended powering through Wake in a day as I got really hooked on its compelling and intense outback story.

I deeply enjoyed Wake’s awesome story, especially as Burr makes sure that it contains all the necessary elements to grab your attention.  This novel starts in the modern day, 19 years after the disappearance that rocked Nannine, and sees newcomer Lane Holland arrive to attempt to solve the case.  The introduction of this sleuth character helps to jumpstart the narrative, especially as his new investigation allows the reader to find out all the relevant details about the old case, while also revealing the lasting issues it had on the various protagonists, including the long-running infamy of being involved with such a major case.  Most of the first half of the book revolves around Lane trying to find his feet in the investigation and get close to Mina, while also finding himself involved in a separate case involving another missing girl.  At the same time you get to know Mina from her perspective, and find out just how messed up she is because of the disappearance and media scrutiny.  All the key characters, major story elements, hints and settings are perfectly set up in the first half of Wake, and the captivating mystery and damaged characters really drag you in and ensure that you become deeply invested in seeing how the case unfolds.

After some big reveals about halfway through the novel, the story intensifies even further, especially once you fully understand Lane’s drive and get to know the characters even better.  There are some compelling twists and turns in this second half of the book, with multiple theories and red herrings to cleverly distract the reader, while major personal moments hit all the key characters.  This all perfectly sets up the big finale, as all the plot points, tragic backstories and hidden hints come together extremely well for the major reveal.  I really liked how Wake’s story concluded, and I think both the solution to the mysteries and the resolution of all the character arcs was pretty ingenious, especially with how well it tied together the various character’s secrets, histories and regrets.  Overall, the reader will come away very satisfied with how everything is tied up, and this ended up being a very impressive and compelling narrative that was well-paced and loaded with some great surprises, major moments, and a very intriguing central mystery.

There were many cool elements to Wake that I deeply enjoyed and which I felt helped to enhance the mystery-laden story.  I liked the rural setting of Nannine, a fictional town that captures the heart of feel of many rural Australian communities, especially those that are suffering from many issues such as drought and the slow decline of the agricultural economy.  This decaying agricultural town serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing story, and you really get to see how the small-town vibes and attitudes affect the investigation of the case.  I also appreciated the fantastic dive into the over-the-top press coverage that surrounds famous crime cases.  The disappearance attracted a massive media focus, and Burr spends a lot of time exploring how it initially covered the case, how it morphed over the years, and the lasting impact that growing up as a media sensation had on both Mina and the other supporting characters from Nannine.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of how the case became a favourite of true-crime fanatics, which is primarily shown through a series of posts on the murder forum that appears in front of multiple chapters.  These posts highlight the attitudes, theories, mindsets and more of the true-crime internet community and serves as an intriguing weather vane for the wider Australian community.  I loved these posts, not only because they were entertaining and realistic but because it proved to be a great way to provide the reader with some interesting context while also having some impacts on the main story.  Throw in the great way that Burr utilised several flashback sequences, some hidden clues in character names, some clever insights into missing person cases, and other outstanding elements, and you have a really impressive book that will easily keep your attention.

I also need to highlight Wake’s awesome damaged characters that the plot focuses on.  Burr has come up with some sensational and powerful story arcs for these great characters, and their various histories, connections and life events add some excellent emotional heft to the story that I really enjoyed.  This includes Mina McCreery, who serves as a major point-of-view character for most of the plot.  Mina is the twin of the disappeared Evelyn, and has spent the last 19 years living in her disappeared sister’s shadow.  Not only did she have to deal with the emotional backlash of her sister being either killed or abducted but she also had to experience the intense media scrutiny and other issues associated with the major case, especially as her mother ended up becoming a media sensation to keep the focus on Evelyn’s case.  Due to this, the strained relationship she had with her sorrowful mother, and certain suspicions from some that she had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, Mina now lives a solitary life, avoiding most people and not having many friends.  This makes her rather standoffish, angry and a little paranoid (for good reason) for most of the novel, and she has a hard time connecting to anyone, especially Lane.  The events of this book really shock her in some major ways, as the years of repressed trauma and emotional uncertainty come to the surface again, especially once secrets and long-hidden truths come to the surface.  I felt that the author did an amazing job highlighting all the major issues contained within Mina’s psyche, and the subsequent emotional moments were a fantastic and powerful part of the book.

Aside from Mina, the other major character in Wake that I need to discuss is private investigator Lane Holland, who arrives in Nannine to investigate the case.  Burr created something really impressive in Lane, a former police cadet turned private investigator, as he ends up having one of the more intense and memorable character arcs in the entire novel.  Initially seen as an unwelcome outsider by most of the other characters, apparently interested in only the reward money, Lane is able to prove himself to Mina and other characters and manages to gain their trust.  However, everything you think you know about Lane is blown out the water when you find out his surprising connection to the case, as well as his motivations for investigating it.  Burr sets up the connections extremely well in the early parts of the novel, putting in several clever hints and suggestions, while also doling out useful flashbacks to Lane’s past that explain everything.  These revelations, as well as some insights into Lane’s personal history and motivations, help to both intensifies the story, while also dragging you closer to Lane as a character, hoping that he will succeed for everyone’s goods.  Burr takes Lane’s character arc into some very dark, by captivating, directions, and his entire story comes together in a brilliant and powerful way, especially with some major decisions made towards the end of the book.  These two excellent, intense, and very damaged central characters, really acted as the heart-and-soul of Wake, and I was really drawn into the outstanding narrative Burr wove around them.

With her excellent debut novel, Wake, Shelley Burr has successfully entered the world of Australian crime fiction in a big way.  Featuring a captivating and distinctively dark murder mystery narrative that sees damaged characters bring a notorious cold case into the light, Wake was a gripping and deeply thrilling read that I had a fantastic time reading.  A moving and enthralling novel, Wake was an exceptional Australian crime debut and I am extremely excited to read more stories from Burr in the future.

Wake Cover 2

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One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

One Foot in the Fade Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Fetch Phillips – Book Three

Length: 439 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising fantasy authors, Luke Arnold, returns with the third novel in his Fetch Phillips series, the fantastic and impressive One Foot in the Fade.

Back in 2020, Australian actor turned author Luke Arnold made his fantasy debut with his first Fetch Phillips novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City.  This very clever and intense read, which ended up being one of my favourite debuts of 2020, was set in the unique landscape of Sunder City, a formerly majestic fantasy city facing hard times in a world that has just lost all its magic, causing all the fantasy creatures and beings who lived there to become deformed and dying beings.  The story focused on the character of Fetch Phillips, a human private investigator responsible for the disaster, who tries to redeem himself by helping the disenfranchised former magical beings.  Arnold followed it up later that year with a sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, which was just as impressive and exciting as the first book.  Both these novels were extremely good, and they perfectly set up Arnold’s intriguing and magic-less universe.  I have been rather keen to see how the story continues so I was quite excited when I received a copy of the third book, One Foot in the Fade, a few weeks ago.

A new dawn has risen in the formerly magical Sunder City.  Under the leadership of human business mogul Thurston Niles, the city is entering a technological age, leaving behind its mystical roots and providing everyone, both human and former magical being, with cars, guns and electricity to service their needs.  Most are content with the new way of life, all except man-for-hire Fetch Phillips.  Still ridden with guilt for the role he played in destroying the world, Fetch spends his days taking on odd jobs for former magical beings while also desperately searching for any way to bring back the magic.

After his latest assignment, recovering stolen artefacts still containing traces of their power, ends badly, Fetch’s hopes for bringing back magic are at an all-time low, until a new clue literally and fatally lands at his feet.  An Angel has fallen from the sky at a great height, his formerly decayed wings once again feathered and whole, clearly the result of magic.  But who or what is responsible for reinvigorating the unfortunate Angel’s magic?

Desperate to uncover the roots of this new mystery, Fetch discovers a former Genie, Khay, whose body is slowly losing its hold on reality.  Still apparently capable of granting wishes, including returning a person’s magic to them, Khay may be the best chance for Fetch to redeem himself.  However, in order to make her powerful enough to bring magic back, Khay requires a legendary crown located at the deadly and isolated Wizard city of Incava.  Pulling together a small team, Fetch embarks for Incava to reclaim the crown.  But the further Fetch goes on his quest, the more he begins to realise that not everything is as it seems.  Blinded by his obsession with magic and redemption, Fetch walks a dangerous path that may end up damning him once again.

This was another extremely awesome read from Arnold who continues to showcase his impressive talent as a fantasy author.  One Foot in the Fade did a brilliant job continuing from the previous Fetch Philips novels, and I loved revisiting the deformed and depressed world of Sunder City.  Loaded with complex characters and powerful settings, this latest story was particularly captivating, and I think that One Foot in the Fade is probably Arnold’s best novel yet.

I really appreciated the powerful and intriguing narrative contained with One Foot in the Fade as Arnold has come up with some deeply fascinating and intense storylines that make this novel very hard to put down.  Taking place shortly after Dead Man in a Ditch, One Foot in the Fade’s story places Fetch Phillips right into the action as he attempts to recover some magical artefacts.  Thrown off by his villainous corporate antagonist, Fetch falls into despair, only to immediately find a dead angel whose magic has been returned to them.  This leads him into a hunt for the being responsible for the miracle, quickly finding Khay, who reunites his faith and hope in magic.  Bringing together a new team of comrades, Fetch travels outside of Sunder City on an epic quest to retrieve a legendary magical crown in order to empower Khay’s abilities.  This works as a particularly fun and exciting centre to the entire narrative, and Arnold really pumps up the action and danger in this part of the book, seeing the protagonists deal with all manner of dangers, deadly creatures, former allies with their own agendas, a mysterious secret society, a giant Minotaur, and even some surprising and very dark magic.

I had an absolute blast with the first two-thirds of the novel, especially with all its action, intriguing new characters and world building; however, it is the final third that really turns One Foot in the Fade into something truly special as Arnold adds in some intense and intriguing twists.  Despite Fetch’s best efforts, everything turns pear-shaped on him as some of the supporting characters are revealed to be far darker and more damaged than he ever believed.  Thanks to some big and dramatic tragedies, Fetch is forced to make some hard decisions that will deeply impact him and change the entire course of the story.  These later twists and revelations are pretty well set up throughout the first two-thirds and the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which Arnold brought the entire story together in such a clever and enjoyable way.  While there are a few excessive plot points that slightly distract the main story, One Foot in the Fade’s narrative was pretty tight and never really slows down.  I love the cool blend of dark fantasy, detective noir and urban fantasy elements contained within this impressive read, and Arnold has come up with a pretty bleak, character-driven narrative that really gets to the heart of the protagonist while also exploring the possibilities of redemption.  The reader will find themselves getting quite drawn into this epic story, and I myself powered through most of it in a single night.  Despite the author’s best efforts to recap the necessary background, One Foot in the Fade is a little hard to read by itself and I feel that most readers should read the first two books in this series first, although this is hardly a chore.  I really enjoyed the hopeful end note of this third novel, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of the series goes from here.

While the Fetch Phillips novels all have great narratives to them, their best qualities are the unique and striking settings.  Primarily set in the once majestic and glorious Sunder City on the fantasy continent of Archetellos, the stories generally explore how the city has changed since magic left the world.  The first two books in this series saw Sunder City as a decaying metropolis, filled with depressed and dying magical beings who were trying to adapt to the new world.  However, in the second book, an industrious human company is starting to provide technological alternatives to everything formerly powered by magic.  Since then, the entire feel and tone of the city has changed, with Sunder City transforming into an industrious and factory orientated city, with 1920’s-esque technology like cars, firearms (that everyone carries) and neon signs.  I really appreciated the brilliant and logical way that Arnold keeps changing the feel and look of his great setting every novel, especially as every change seems to match the series’s overarching noir feel.  I had a lot of fun seeing the comparisons between the setting’s current technology and the former magical glory, and watching the protagonist compete against the march of progress.  Arnold doubles down with the world building in One Foot in the Fade, with some interesting new additions that I found really fascinating.  Not only are we introduced to multiple new magical races, all of whom have been impacted by the death of magic in their own unique ways, but a large portion of the novel takes place outside of Sunder City, as the characters head to another former major settlement, the Wizard city of Incava.  The journey to and into Incava showcases multiple new interesting features about the larger continent of Archetellos, and I appreciated how much time Arnold put into expanding it.  Incava itself proves to be a particularly haunting and deadly setting for a good part of the book, and the various dangers within really amp up the action-packed story.  Overall, Arnold remains well on top of the cool settings in this novel, and readers will once again be entranced by the fantastic and distinctive setting of this series.

One Foot in the Fade also boasts a great array of complex and damaged characters whose personal journeys and intense pain really enhance the impressive narrative.  This is particularly apparent in series protagonist and first-person narrator Fetch Phillips, a man with a particularly intense backstory.  Due to bad choices in his past, Fetch is moderately responsible for the death of magic in the world and all the bad things that went with it.  This led him into an extremely dark spiral and he has spent the rest of the books trying to redeem himself.  However, this has not been easy, especially as he was forced to go up against his magical mentor and best friend in the second novel and his guilt is at an all-time high at the start of One Foot in the Fade.  As such he is particularly obsessed with bringing back magic in this novel and embarks on the quest to repower his new Genie friend and redeem himself no matter the cost.  This obsession blinds him (and by extension the reader) to the risks of what he is doing, and he ends up endangering his friends, while also ignoring some troubling signs from other characters that hinted at the books tragic ending.  This is easily the most obsessed we have seen Fetch throughout the entire series, and it really fits into his brilliantly written character arc which sits at the core of the moving narrative.  Watching him continue to try and fail is always very heartbreaking, and you really feel for Fetch throughout this novel, even with all the mistakes he’s made.  As such, he serves as an excellent centre for the story, and I have a great time following his personal tale, especially as Arnold has also imbued him with a good sense of humour.  The author also sets up a few intriguing character developments and changes throughout One Foot in the Fade that I think will lead to some very compelling storylines in the future, so I look forward to seeing where Fetch goes in the future.

Aside from Fetch, Arnold has filled this novel with a substantial collection of excellent supporting characters, each of whom adds their own distinctive flair to the narrative as well as a complex and often damaging relationship with the protagonist.  One Foot in the Fade features a combination of new and existing supporting characters, and it was interesting to see who returned after the events of the last book.  It was great to see more of former Witch and academic Eileen, one of Fetch’s main compatriots, who helps him throughout most of the book.  Eileen serves as Fetch’s sense of reason, and her more measured approach to the tasks at hand balance well with the protagonist’s more impulsive nature.  I also enjoyed seeing more of futurist company leader Thurston Niles, who is serving as something of an overarching series antagonist.  Thurston, who was introduced in the second book, is the human businessman whose company is responsible for the industrialisation of Sunder City and all its new technology.  While his appearances are a little brief in this novel, he serves as an excellent alternative human character to Fetch and I am really enjoying their rivalry.  Despite appearing as the villain due to his desire to replace magic completely with technology, Thurston has more layers and he actually appears to enjoy Fetch’s efforts to bring back magic.  Their various interactions in this novel are pretty entertaining, and I look forward to seeing their conflict continue in the rest of the series.

The author also introduces several great new characters in One Foot in the Fade, and their interesting and often self-contained storylines are pretty impressive.  My favourite was Theodor, a Werewolf adventurer who Fetch and his friends hire to help get to Incava.  Despite being disfigured and partially disabled (Werewolves and other shape-changers were also partially transformed into dark human-animal hybrids without their magic), Theodor is a badass hunter and tracker who quickly becomes one of the more likeable figures in the novel.  Theodor serves as a mentor to many of the characters, especially Fetch, and it was fun to watch him teach the city slickers how to survive out in the wilds.  Due to the way that Theodor’s storyline in One Foot in the Fade ends I am very curious to see if or how he returns in the future, and I am sure that Arnold will come up with some plot points elements for him.  The other impressive new character was Khay, the Genie who serves as the book’s sentient McGuffin.  Arnold paints a tragic picture around Khay as a Genie literally fading away due to the death of magic.  Only able to survive through certain magical objects and granting wishes to people, namely returning their magic, Kay is just as obsessed as Fetch to achieve their objective.  However, there is a powerful and captivating alternate side to Khay, and the consequences of her actions will have some lasting impacts in the entire series.  These outstanding characters, and more, are an impressive and very important part of One Foot in the Fade, and I really appreciate how much effort Arnold put into making them so relatable and memorable.

With One Foot in the Fade, Australian author Luke Arnold continues to showcase his amazing literary talent, bringing together an epic new story with his already distinctive characters and settings.  Thanks to the powerful and intense new narrative, this third Fetch Phillips novel is probably Arnold’s best novel so far and it is really worth checking out.  I cannot wait to see how Arnold impresses me with the next book.

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