After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson

After the Lights Go Out

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Publication Date – 1 August 2018

 

From bestselling Australian author Lili Wilkinson comes After the Lights Go Out, an incredible and powerful young adult adventure set in the heart of the bush that asks the impossible question: should a person choose family or community in an emergency?

Seventeen-year-old Prudence Palmer is a young woman living outside the small Australian outback town of Jubilee with her father, Rick, and her younger twin sisters, Grace and Blyth.  To the other inhabitants of the town, they are just another mining family, living close to Rick’s workplace.  However, they are actually hiding a much deeper secret: they are doomsday preppers.  Convinced that the world will soon suffer some form of imminent catastrophe, Rick has moved his daughters off the grid to Jubilee and has constructed a hidden bunker out the back of his property.  Filled with a substantial amount of food, medicine, equipment, weapons and entertainment, the bunker has everything they need to survive the end of the world.  The girls have also been trained to survive and are ready to react against a variety of scenarios.

While Rick is sure a world-changing disaster is just around the corner, Pru is less certain, and is happy to keep her family’s activities a secret.  So it is a great shock to her when something actually happens and every electrical device, modern car and generator in Jubilee suddenly fails.  With Rick gone, Pru and her sisters must suddenly implement their survival plan without their father’s guidance and make the hard decision to hide their bunker and supplies from their friends in the town.  With food, water and medicine becoming scarce, and with no transportation, communications or other vital necessities, the town starts to fall apart.  As the situation gets even worse, Pru and her sisters must decide between helping their friends or doing as they have been trained and survive alone.

Lili Wilkinson is an exciting Australian author who has produced 10 intense and dramatic young adult novels since her 2006 debut, Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc.  Her eleventh novel, After the Lights Go Out is an outstanding standalone book that could potentially replace Tomorrow, When the War Began as the go-to disaster story for Australian young adult audiences.  This book contains a dramatic and moving main story that plunges the world into chaos and places the potential survival of a small town in the hands of one young woman.

At the heart of this book lies a tough moral dilemma for the narrator Pru when she must decide between helping her local community and guaranteeing her family’s survival.  Pru’s father, Rick, a hardcore survivalist, has stocked the family bunker with enough supplies to keep Pru and her sisters alive for several years.  He has also taught his daughters to never help anyone but themselves, and to keep all their supplies for the family.  When a disaster strikes and Rick goes missing, it is up to Pru and her sisters to make the decision, and at first they choose to keep the bunker and supplies hidden from their friends in Jubilee.  As the situation in the town gets worse, Pru’s guilt conflicts with her father’s training and instructions.  This internal debate is intensified when she falls in love with newcomer Mateo and watches him and his mother doing everything they can to save the townsfolk, despite the fact they are not locals and have no significant connection to people living there.  Watching Pru’s internal struggle and the external debate with her sisters is intense, and the reader is left wondering what they would do in a similar situation.  How Pru’s eventual decision affects her family and her relationships with the people of Jubilee is very memorable, and hits all the right emotional notes in this excellent story.

After the Lights Go Out contains an intriguing examination of the doomsday prepper phenomenon that is currently occurring around the world.  The main character’s father believes every single conspiracy theory that exists and is determined to prepare his daughters for anything.  It is clear that Wilkinson has done some significant research into survivalists and their various techniques, and as a result her characters are prepared for every doomsday scenario and have a ton of supplies and a high-tech bunker at their disposal.  There is a lot of discussion and exposition about the various survivalist conspiracies, plans to live in an altered world, the necessary techniques and the ideal supplies that every prepper should have.  Despite most doomsday preppers being American, many of the techniques in this book have an Australian flavour to them, as the girls know the local fauna, flora and means of survival out in the harsh bush conditions.  While every preparation the Palmer family has undertaken is fascinating to read about, I found the examination of the improvised medical techniques the characters use to be particularly outstanding.  This includes including one memorable and somewhat graphic sequence where the narrator needs to perform some rudimentary dentistry.  Overall, the use of the doomsday preppers’ planning and theories is an incredibly intriguing part of this story that provides the reader with some cool facts and the results of the author’s in-depth research.

Wilkinson has also populated the book with some excellent characters who really bring the story together.  While the Palmer sisters are good central characters and Pru is a great narrator who has to make a huge range of tough decisions, the best character has to be the Palmer father, Rick.  Rick is a crazed survivalist who is convinced that the world is about to end and whose paranoia has driven him to outback Australia.  When one of his disaster scenarios actually comes true, he becomes even more erratic, and watching his fears overcome his love for his daughters is very tragic to behold.  There is also Mateo, the young American tourist and liberal city-slicker who is essentially the opposite of Pru when it comes to life experiences.  The relationship between him and Pru is nice.  It evolves at a natural pace and offers the reader some different insights into the situation and the motivations of the Palmer sisters.  Another effective character is Keller Reid, the older boy with an unhealthy obsession with Pru’s younger sisters.  Keller is a particularly despicable character who serves as a very annoying minor antagonist who moves the plot around.  Watching him through the narrator’s eyes, you cannot help but hate him and hope he gets some eventual comeuppance.  The other townsfolk of Jubilee are a good mixture of characters, and it’s nice seeing them come together as a community rather than break down and kill each other as Rick believed they would.

Another part of this book that stood out to me was Wilkinson’s use of the powerful Australian landscape and the examination of small country towns.  The author provides some vivid images of the distinctive Australian bush, and looks at the various features that make it an intriguing backdrop for a story about survivalists.  The author also produces some exceptional portrayals of the close communities that exists in small town Australia and how they their isolation might be both a benefit and a detriment to their survival in a doomsday scenario.  It is definitely a unique setting for a catastrophe novel such as After the Lights Go Out, and one which I felt really added to the beauty and intensity of the story.

I really enjoyed this book and thought it was an incredible piece of literature from Wilkinson.  Because of its excellent story and the phenomenal look it takes at survivalists and their viewpoint of the world, I think this book is perfect for its intended young adult audience, which could prove to be very empowering and enjoyable read for them.  Parents should aware that there are some adult moments and a couple of graphic scenes, but this excellent and informative story is worth the risk.  After the Lights Go Out is a deep and powerful five-star book that provides its readers with an excellent examination of doomsday preppers.  This is definitely one of the best young adult books I have read this year and I cannot recommend this outstanding Australian book enough.

My Rating:

Five Stars

All-New Wolverine: Volumes 1 – 6: Complete Series by Tom Taylor

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Dates:

All-New Wolverine Vol. 1: The Four Sisters – 24 May 2016

All-New Wolverine Vol. 2: Civil War II – 8 November 2016

All-New Wolverine Vol. 3: Enemy of the State II – 3 May 2017

All-New Wolverine Vol. 4: Immune – 29 November 2017

All-New Wolverine Vol. 5: Orphans of X – 27 February 2018

All-New Wolverine Vol. 6: Old Woman Laura – 24 July 2018

 

Prepare yourself for an all-new Wolverine in this exciting new series from Tom Taylor and a skilled team of Marvel artists, as one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe, X-23, rises to take the place of one of comic’s most beloved superheroes.

Following the death of the original Wolverine, Logan, in the 2014 series Death of Wolverine, Marvel chose to elevate his clone and surrogate daughter, X-23, to the role of Wolverine.  Starting in 2015, the All-New Wolverine series followed X-23 as she took on the moniker of Wolverine and made it her own.  Originally running between November 2015 and May 2018, the series is made up of 35 issues.  These issues have been assembled together into six collected editions, which were released between May 2016 and July 2018.  With the upcoming return of the original Wolverine to the Marvel Universe, All-New Wolverine has been cancelled, and the character has reverted back to the X-23 moniker, with a new X-23 series having just started.

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I have been a major fan of X-23 for years, and find her to be one of the most interesting characters in the entire Marvel Universe.  As a result, I was excited to see how she would be utilised as the new Wolverine, and have been keenly collecting all the volumes in this series.  I had originally intended to review the latest volume, Old Woman Laura, by itself; however, as this volume ends the series, I thought I would take this opportunity to review the entire series in one go.

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The protagonist of this series, the brand new Wolverine, Laura Kinney, is a fascinating example of character creation, and it has been intriguing to see how this character has evolved over the last 15 years.  Originally known by the code name X-23, the character was first introduced in 2003, in the season 3 episode of the X-Men Evolution animated television series, X23, and was established as a female clone of Wolverine created by an evil scientific organisation.  In her first appearance in X-Men Evolution, X-23 took out every single X-Man and went toe-to-toe with Wolverine himself, only stopping when he broke through to her emotionally.  This was a surprisingly dark episode for kids cartoon, but the fun appeal of a young female Wolverine and her sheer badassary quickly made Laura a fan favourite character, and her transference in the comic universe was quickly established.  These days most people would recognise the character from her amazing appearance in the 2017 film Logan, played by young actor Dafne Keen, which showed a slightly altered version of her origin story.

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Her first appearance within the main comic Marvel Universe happened in the 2004 series NYX, where she was shown to be living in New York City.  She was later introduced to the X-Men in Uncanny X-Men 450, with her origin story fleshed out in two limited series.  The first of these series, Innocence Lost, looked at her creation, early life, training and missions as part of the institute that created her, as well as the relationship she had with her mother and their attempts to escape the institute.  The second series, Target X, follows on directly after Innocence Lost and focuses on Laura’s attempts to start a life outside of the institution, her interactions with her mother’s family and the pursuit that would haunt her for the rest of her life.  This second short series also shows how she ends up in New York in NYX and her first interactions with Wolverine, and is framed as a retelling of her life story to Captain America and Daredevil.  Both of these series are extremely well written and serve as an excellent introduction to the character.

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After her introduction, X-23 appeared in a number of different series including Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, New X-Men and Marvel Team-Up.  She was a major character in Volume 3 of X-Force and appeared in key roles in several of the larger X-Men storylines.  She obtained another X-23 series in 2010, before having starring roles in Avengers Academy, Avengers Arena and All-New X-Men.  Following The Death of Wolverine, Laura was involved in some of the following storylines dealing with his death before taking up the role of Wolverine herself.

This series was created by Australian author Tom Taylor and a rotating roster of Marvel authors.  Taylor has a range of writing experience in a number of different formats, including theatre, musicals, books and television, and has also created an animated series, The Deep.  Over the last 10 years, Taylor has worked on several different comic books, including several Star Wars series, some Injustice series, Superior Iron Man and Green Lantern Corps.  The original art style and new character design for the series was developed by veteran artist David Lopez, and the other artists closely replicated his style.

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The first volume of the All-New Wolverine, The Four Sisters, sees Laura newly in the role of Wolverine and keen to honour the name by becoming a non-lethal hero.  In this volume, she encounters four clones of herself that are being hunted by the sinister corporation who created them.  In order to save them, Laura must work with several other Marvel heroes, such as Dr Strange, Wasp and her boyfriend, Angel (the young one transported from a past timeline).  The volume ends with Laura taking in one of the surviving clones, the young girl Gabby, who becomes one of the main characters in the series.  This book is a fantastic introduction to this new incarnation of the character, and it sets the tone for the rest of the issues.

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Volume 2 of the series, Civil War II, starts with Laura teaming up with Squirrel Girl in a zany escapade to save a squirrel Laura wronged in the previous volume, while also introducing the actual wolverine Jonathan, who becomes Laura and Gabby’s pet.  The second adventure in this volume sees Laura and Gabby help SHIELD, Iron Man and Captain Marvel fight against the giant monster Fin Fang Foom.  During this story, Laura and Gabby encounter and rescue the Old Man Logan version of Wolverine.  While the first two issues are both fun significant, the main storyline of this volume ties into the Civil War II crossover event.  The Inhuman Ulysses has a vision of Logan killing Gabby, so SHIELD and Captain America attempt to intervene, but the confusion and chaos that follows only results in tragedy.  This sees an exciting tie-in to one of Marvel’s more intriguing and high-profile recent crossover events, and this volume also helps highlight the discord and disagreement that the other Marvel heroes were experiencing in the main Civil War II event.  Seeing Logan’s alternate world connections to Laura and Gabby is rather interesting, and the reveal of Gabby’s full potential as Laura’s main side character is amazing.

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The third volume, Enemy of the State II, sees the return of Laura’s arch-nemesis and sadistic former handler, Kimura, who is once again determined to make Laura’s life a living hell.  After engineering the massacre of a small town with Wolverine present, Kimura forces Laura and Gabby into hiding as part of a terrible plan to control Laura once again.  However, Gabby, with the help of Angel, Gambit, young Jean Grey and Nick Fury Jnr, has a plan to free Laura once and for all from the terror of Kimura.  This is probably the most emotional volume in the series, dealing with the protagonist’s biggest fear: being turned into a killing machine once again.  Enemy of the State II is strongly connected to both of the original X-23 series, especially Target X, and represents a massive turning point for the character.  It is fantastic to see some of these storylines concluded and Laura given the happy ending she’s been denied for so long.

All-New Wolverine Volume 4 Cover

Volume 4, Immune, takes Wolverine up into the stars for an intergalactic adventure.  When an alien ship crash lands on Roosevelt Island, the dying alien child piloting it has time to whispers one name: Laura Kinney.  Within minutes, the island is infected with a fast-acting alien virus and is immediately quarantined.  Laura travels to the island and must work with Gabby, Ironheart, Logan, Daken and Deadpool to cure the disease.  Laura, Gabby and Jonathan than travel into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy in order to trace the origins of the alien virus, but they find a far more dangerous threat on the planet they visit.  This is a very fun volume that includes some notable team-ups, while at the same time really highlighting Laura’s potential for heroism.  This serves as a fantastic example of a really well-done one-off intergalactic adventure for a terrestrial based series and proves to be very entertaining.  It is probably the most laugh-out-loud funny volume in the series, with some remarkable interactions with characters such as Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

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The fifth volume of this series, Orphans of X, goes deeper into the mythology of Wolverine, as the only weapon that had the power to kill him, the Murumasa Blade, is recovered and unleashed upon his children.  A mysterious organisation known as the Orphans of X is hunting down and killing all of the Marvel mutants with claws and a healing factor.  Laura, Gabby and Daken must find a way to defend themselves from these devastating and well-coordinated attacks, but find themselves conflicted once they find out the truth behind the Orphans of X.  This is another heavy and emotional volume with a great story premise behind it.  This one ties into both Innocence Lost and Target X, and shows the devastating consequences of the Laura’s childhood missions.
All-New Wolverine Volume 6 Cover.jpg

The final volume, Old Woman Laura, contains an interesting mixture of stories.  The first issue features Gabby and Deadpool teaming up to take down the scientific laboratory that Jonathan was rescued from in Volume 2.  The second story follows on from the Orphans of X storyline, and sees Laura and Amber Griffen, the daughter of one of Laura’s first kills, team up to take down the person who ordered the hit.  The final story is set far in the future and sees an older Laura and Gabby go on their final mission together in order rescue their long-lost sister, Bellona, from a dystopian landscape ruled by Dr Doom.  These are some intriguing and diverse stories, and it serves as a good wrap-up to the entire series.  The two team-ups in the first two adventures are very fun, while the issues showing the potential future for All-New Wolverine’s main characters is an intriguing and emotional affair that has some nice closing thoughts for this series.

A recurring theme throughout this series is Laura’s attempt to build on her character and to move past her childhood of being raised to be a vicious killer.  Now, as Wolverine, she’s trying to live up to the legacy of her father, the original Wolverine, and become a non-lethal superhero, even though she will still maim many of her opponents.  Taylor does a good job of conveying the guilt and responsibility that Laura feels.  There are times where Laura thinks back to her past with Wolverine, seeing herself in his shoes.  Like the original Wolverine, Laura establishes and maintains relationships with many of the other heroes in the Marvel Universe, most of whom find her to be a worthy replacement for Wolverine, even if they are surprised that she wanted to take on the mantle.  There are also elements of family involved in this story, as not only does Laura take responsibility for Gabby, but she becomes closer to members of the Wolverine family, including Daken and Old Man Logan.

This series is a bit lighter than you’d expect of a series focusing on Wolverine or X-23, and perhaps this ties into the overarching feeling of redemption that Taylor was trying to infuse into the story.  There is actually a huge amount of humour included within the various issues, including several crazy adventures and some real laugh-out-loud moments.  Examples of this include Squirrel Girl randomly showing up to declare that Laura has “wronged the squirrel world” and bringing along a real life wolverine to help get her point across (she was under the impression that Wolverine could understand real life wolverines, just like Squirrel Girl can understand squirrels).  Another of the series’ really funny scenes occurs when a serious conversation is interrupted by two burglars who break into the apartment and come face to face with Wolverine, Old Man Logan and Gabby.  Having all three characters break down laughing as they consider just how unlucky these burglars are is a fun, hilarious scenario.

While All-New Wolverine has a somewhat lighter tone, Taylor is still able to produce some deep and emotional stories throughout the series.  Many of these darker and more emotional stories are tied into the main character’s tragic past.  It is great to see several of the old storylines wrapped up, and I was glad to see Laura reunited with the family who was forced to go into hiding.

For me, one of the best parts of the All-New Wolverine is the introduction of new character Gabby, who becomes the secondary protagonist of this series.  Gabby is a young clone of Laura who has many of her abilities and training.  However, due to protection she experienced from her clone sisters, Gabby grew up without the emotional damage that Laura and other members of the Wolverine family experienced.  As a result, Gabby has a very funny and bubbly personality, as well as kick-ass combat skills, retractable claws and a healing factor.  Given the moniker Honey Badger, Gabby ends up accompanying Laura on a range of missions, and proves to be quite a capable field agent.  Much of the series’ comedy comes about because of her antics, as well as her humorous interactions with other members of the Marvel Universe, which sees her pull funny moments and comments out of several usually serious characters.  Her instant friendship with Deadpool is comedy gold, and the two play off each other wonderfully, easily stealing the show in the issues they feature in together.  Despite her major humorous overtones, Gabby does get serious when it comes to protecting her family, and she has several intense moments, as well as scenes where she makes scary threats in order to protect her sister.  Laura’s relationship with Gabby is a major part of the series, and it is great to see Laura mirror the role Wolverine had in her life as a mentor and parent.  Gabby is definitely one of my favourite new Marvel characters of the last couple of years, and I’m really hoping that she’ll have a similar role in the new X-23 series and will continue to have some insane adventures in the future.

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Lopez and the other artists of the All-New Wolverine series have created a great style for this series, and I loved the new costumes that they pulled together for Laura, as well as the original and unique look of Gabby.  There are some slight variations in drawing style between the various books, but the artists keep the style somewhat consistent throughout the series.  There are a number of drawn scenes throughout the book that are particularly beautiful or memorable for various reasons.  The final battle between Laura and Kimura in Volume 3 is very dark and brooding, but the artists are able to show the raw emotion on Laura’s face as she finally frees herself from Kimura’s shadow.  I was also particularly drawn to the striking drawings of the Hand assassins in Volume 5, where the assassins wore the masks of the Orphan X organisation.  The artists are also able to draw some funny pieces into their work.  The potential comic cover art that Gabby imagines when she finally comes up with a superhero moniker, Honey Badger, is fantastic, especially as several classic Wolverine covers are replaced with Gabby’s evilly smiling face.  I can also barely describe the awesomeness of the drawings in Volume 4 of the series, which see Gabby and Jonathon play with Baby Groot in the background in several funny scenes.  Overall, the art displayed in this series is fun and has many uses to enhance the story.

Overall, All-New Wolverine is a fantastic, entertaining and really enjoyable series that promotes one of Marvel Comics’ most unique characters into the role of Wolverine.  Featuring some amazing uses of humour, an excellent new supporting character and some deep, emotional storylines, this is an incredible series that is well worth getting into.  I am definitely keen to check out the new X-23 series that has just been released, and I will also be looking into the new X-Men Red series from the Australian creator of All-New Wolverine, Tom Taylor, which will feature both Laura and Gabby.  A perfect read for long term fans of the X-23 and the X-Men series, and also a great introduction to the comic universe if you loved X-23 in Logan.

My Rating (Series and Each Volume):

Five Stars

Restoration by Angela Slatter

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Five Stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Honourable Thief by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

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Publisher: Macmillan Australia

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

In her first solo novel, Australian Meaghan Anastasios has produced a deeply compelling historical drama that combines a thriller storyline with an archaeological investigation into one fun and invigorating narrative.

In 1955, world-renowned archaeologist and war hero Benedict Hitchens has been living a life of academic exile in Istanbul.  His promising archaeological career and professional reputation were destroyed after a chance encounter with the mysterious Eris, who held a horde of ancient treasures that validated the legends of the Iliad.  When Eris and her treasures suddenly disappear, Ben’s attempts to find her result in suspicion from the authorities and disbelief from the world at large.  His only tangible proof of the encounter is a small tablet that hints at the existence of Achilles, Ben’s archaeological obsession.

Now, Ben embarks on an ambitious plan to flush out the people responsible for Eris’s disappearance, hoping to bring her to justice and salvage his life and reputation.  The clues that he uncovers take him on a quest to find the tomb of Achilles, travelling through Greece, London and Turkey in order to locate one of the world’s greatest treasures.  However, a shadowy group is manipulating Ben at every turn.  Can Ben find the Achilles’s tomb before the ghosts of his past catch up with him?

Despite this being her first solo book, Anastasios is already a successful author, having previously teamed up with her husband to produce the historical drama The Water Diviner, which was adapted into a movie starring Russell Crowe.  While this book does not appear to be connected to Anastiasios’s previous work, both stories are primarily set in Turkey and focus on key events in the country’s history.  The Honourable Thief does contain a fun little callback to her other novel when its main character is at one point nicknamed ‘the Water Diviner’ due to his uncanny ability to find archaeological material.

The overall story that Anastasios presents with The Honourable Thief is a fantastic narrative that combines mystery and suspense aspects, great historical fiction elements, exploration of Greece and Turkey, and a whole lot of archaeology.  There is a great focus on the impact of World War II on Greece, especially Crete, as well as a detailed examination of Turkish history and culture.  Having the protagonist work on uncovering both an archaeological investigation and a conspiracy around missing artefacts is an interesting combination that creates a very interesting story.  The ties to the stories of the Iliad as the protagonist examines the possibility of finding the tomb of Achilles are fascinating and will appeal to fans of the classics.

The author has split The Honourable Thief into two parts and three separate timelines.  Part I of the book only briefly touches on the storyline set in 1955, and instead focuses on the events in the protagonist’s life that led up to the latest timeline.  One of these storylines looks at Ben’s early life during the 1930s and 1940s, including his experiences during World War II.  The second storyline is set in the early 1950s and focuses on the events that led up to Ben losing his reputation and the beginnings of his self-destructive life in Istanbul.  Part II of the book mostly contains the 1955 storyline, and follows Ben’s quest to clear his name.

This split into three distinct storylines is a great way to highlight The Honourable Thief’s intricate narrative, and it was interesting to focus on the earlier timelines in the first half of the book.  This also allows the main plot to continue almost uninterrupted in the second half of the book, ensuring that the reader can completely focus on the intense and electrifying adventure set around the protagonist’s hunt for answers.  This formatting decision was a great change of pace from other novels that slowly reveal their protagonist’s past through the course of the entire story.

While the vast majority of The Honourable Thief is told from the protagonist’s point of view, some very short chapters that buck this trend have been added into Part II of the book.  These smaller entries are inserted before the longer chapters that focus on the protagonist and contain brief, shadowy conversations between the story’s villains.  During these chapters, these hidden characters discuss and analyse the actions of Ben and work out ways to manipulate him further.  The identities of these conspirators are not revealed within these chapters, which builds intrigue as the reader tries to work out who they are.  These short chapters are a terrific addition to the book, as they provide the story with some short, but stimulating, breaks in the narrative.  It also adds a completely new perspective to the story and allows the reader insight into the machinations of the book’s antagonists.

Anastasios has created an interesting and memorable protagonist for her excellent story.  When Benedict Hitchens is introduced, he is a disgraced and self-destructive character who does not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the audience.  However, the author’s clever use of the separate storylines allows the reader to view his backstory, which explores his obsession with finding Eris and Achilles.  Both earlier timelines are vital in explaining the character’s motives and emotional baggage, turning Ben into a tragic and sympathetic character.  It is also fascinating to see the changes that have happened to the character during the various timelines.  For example, his experiences change his entire outlook on life and make him more likely to engage in reckless actions.  It also changes his style of archaeology as he goes from the academically accepted practice of carefully digging trenches and laboriously recording every single detail, to a more reckless technique reminiscent of a tomb raider like Indiana Jones.  Anastasios has included an interesting character flaw for her protagonist: despite him being a brilliant archaeologist, he keeps falling for a series of blindingly obvious manipulations, which becomes quite frustrating for the reader to watch.

The reader may find it is possible to predict many of the book’s various twists well in advance, and that lessens the impact of the story.  The eventual reveal of who the antagonists are also was not too uprising.  However, there is one significant, if not slightly ridiculous, twist in the last few pages of the book that nobody is likely to see coming.  While these negative aspects are slightly detrimental to the story, I felt that the all the book’s other amazing elements more than make up for it and turn The Honourable Thief into a captivating and highly enjoyable read.

This fantastic novel is a superb first solo outing from Anastasios, who has crafted an excellent story of betrayal, mystery and adventure, all bound together with archaeology and history.  Cleverly utilising three separate timelines into one compelling narrative, The Honourable Thief is a powerful and distinctive read that will appeal to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 28 May 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars