Quick Review – Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Death Notice Cover.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

English Edition Translated by Zac Haluza

Publication Date – 14 June 2018

 

This is a book I read earlier in the year, but I did not get a chance to write a review for it until now.  Death Notice is an intricate murder mystery thriller from bestselling Chinese author Zhou Haohui, originally written back in 2014.  The first English translation was released in June of 2018.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An elite police squad hunts a manipulative mastermind out to publically execute criminals the law cannot reach. A wild thriller and deadly game of cat-and-mouse from one of China’s most popular authors. For fans of Jo Nesbo, Se7en, and Hong Kong police cinema.

The brutal murder of respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming sends shockwaves through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s stunning Sichuan Province. He had been obsessed by an unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder case, until an entity calling themselves Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) releases a terrifying manifesto. Is the manifesto a sick joke, or something more sinister? Soon, the public starts ‘nominating’ worthy targets for Eumenides to kill, and two days later, Sergeant Zheng is dead.

Eumenides’ cunning game is only getting started. The police receive a “death notice,” a chilling note announcing the the killer’s next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. The note is both a challenge and a taunt to the police. When the first victim dies in public, under their complete protection, the police are left stunned. More death notices are coming. The chase is on.

Death Notice is an explosive, page-turning thriller filtered through a vibrant cultural lens. Zhou Haohui expertly adds an exhilarating new perspective to the twists and tropes of the genre all fans love, making for a uniquely propulsive and entertaining read.

I found Death Notice to be an extremely enjoyable piece of crime fiction that I was able to power through in a short amount of time.  The overall mystery of this book is quite complex, as the investigative team has to investigate this modern set of killings as well as the original murders which occurred some 18 years previously.  There are a lot of fantastic twists and turns throughout the book as various reveals about the characters in the book are brought to light.  I loved seeing how all the pieces of this mystery came together, and thoroughly enjoyed the overall conclusion about who was behind it, their motivation and their legacy.

While the overall mystery is really clever, I loved the intricate ways in which the antagonist was able to manipulate the police in order to kill the targets they were protecting.  Not only does the killer come up with some elaborate plans to take out his intended victims, he is often able to get the police to do his bidding.  There are some great scenes showcasing this throughout the book, as well as some great reveals about the police characters and why they are able to be manipulated.

The setting of this book is also pretty intriguing, especially as it is not a setting Western crime readers would likely be familiar with.  The book is set in the Chinese city of Chengdu, and I am willing to bet many Western readers have never even heard of that city before.  This provides the reader a unique setting where they do not know the rules or how the police investigate crimes.  The author’s interpretation of Chinese criminal investigation is quite fascinating and readers can enjoy the similarities or differences between this and Western crime fiction.  I also liked how the book was set back in 2002, in the early days of public internet technology.  It was interesting to see how different this recent time period was technology–wise, and it offered some intriguing elements to the story.

Overall, Death Notice is an outstanding piece of crime fiction, with an intricate story and a compelling setting.  This is an easy book for Western audiences to enjoy, and readers should find this piece of Chinese crime fiction quite intriguing.  I hope that we will get more translations of Zhou Haohui’s work in the future, especially ones that continue the captivating story started in this incredible book.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Ascension by Victor Dixen

Ascension Cover.jpg

Publisher: Hot Key Books

English Edition Translated by Daniel Hahn

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

The first book in the bestselling French Phobos series is finally here.  Ascension is a fun guilty pleasure read geared towards a young adult audience that explores the dark side of reality television.

In the near future, a private company has bought NASA and is about to send the first humans to Mars as part of the Genesis program.  However, this will not be a typical voyage to another planet; it will be the most ambitious reality television show of all time.  The international group of young astronauts has been chosen through a worldwide contest, and the entire voyage into space will be broadcast back to Earth to be viewed by the masses.  Not only will these six young men and six young women colonise Mars but they will also be expected to pair up into couples by the time they reach Mars through an insane bought of speed-dating.

The boys and girls will be placed into separate bays of the same spaceship and will only be allowed to interact with the person of their choosing for six minutes each week.  In these six minutes they will meet and try to seduce their counterparts and attempt to determine who their perfect match is.  By the end of their trip, each of them must choose a partner to marry and live with once they reach the red planet.

For one of the contestants, Léonor, the Genesis program is her chance to escape from a planet where she has only ever experienced pain.  The one-way trip is the biggest opportunity of her life and she is eager for glory and love.  But as they move further away from Earth, Léonor begins to learn that this journey is far more dangerous than she had expected.  A deadly conspiracy surrounds this journey and it is far too late for regrets.

Ascension is written by Victor Dixen, a French author who has contributed multiple series to the Young Adult genre.  His previous works included a reimagination of classic fairy tales in the Animale series, and the science fiction based The Strange Case of Jack Spark series.  Ascension is part one of his exciting Phobos series, which was first published in France back in 2015.  Phobos will be the first of Dixen’s series to be translated into English, with the next two books in the series, Distortion and Collison both set to be published in English within the next year.

Ascension is a fantastic book with a lot of parts to it that make for a highly compelling and interesting read.  The overarching concept of a space exploration being turned into a reality television contest is a little crazy, but Dixen has some great explanations for this plot set-up that sound actually plausible and realistic.  With the current political craziness around the world and humanity’s constant fascination with reality television, you can’t help but think that this could be a distinct possibility.

Dixen is a talented author who is able to perfectly recreate the feel of a large-scale reality television show within his book, with all of the worst parts included.  The male and female contestants are kept apart from each other for the whole journey and are constantly aware of the world watching them through all the cameras, and they act accordingly.  Dixen shows off the various ways the producers are trying to manipulate the contestants, such as misleading messages from their host and group showings of each contestant’s ratings and accrued prize money, all in the name of creating drama.  There are also a number of scenes that show large groups of people watching the show and becoming obsessed with it in a way reminiscent of the early days of Big Brother and American Idol.  There are fun inclusions to show this off, such as having scenes where people back on Earth change their hairstyles and looks to match their favourite contestant, the contestants’ home countries showing massive support for them, and a fun scene where a cynic has to listen to other people gossip about the show.

While the parts of the book reminiscent of a typical reality television show are fantastic by themselves, they are taken to a whole other level when they are seen in conjunction with the backstage production meetings scenes.  Reality television show production meetings are probably already fairly sinister but Dixen is really able to amp this up by showing the show’s producers and host engaged in some ominous discussions involving deaths, murder, manipulation and their own bonuses.  Ascension contains a great main antagonist in Serena McBee, the host.  Serena is pretty much the ultimate villain for young people, as she acts like their friend while she tries to manipulate them, thinking she knows everything about them and how to control them.  All of these sinister surroundings create a compelling read that will really draw the reader in.

I have to admit that when I started to read Ascension the last thing I thought I would be interested in would be the potential relationships between the contestants.  However, Dixen puts significant effort into introducing the 12 contestants and describing their personalities and histories, ensuring the reader becomes invested in their futures.  While Léonor is the main character that the author focuses on, the reader is also shown many of the dating segments that the other contestants are involved with to dramatic effect.  There are also a number of discussions between the female characters as they discuss their tragic histories, their hopes for the future and who their preferred partners will be.  As a result, the reader does find themselves really caring about the characters becoming extremely interested in who will end up with whom.

Dixen also enhances his terrific narrative inclusions, sinister overtones and compelling character interactions with a range of useful visual elements included in the text.  These include flyers for the show, tables with the results of the contestants’ prize money and survey results, and detailed technical diagrams of the spaceship and the Mars habitations.  The diagrams of the ship help the readers visualise the ship and habitats, while the flyers and tables make them feel like part of the show’s audience.  These elements are well used within Ascension and are a great addition to the book.

Ascension by Victor Dixen is an exciting and invigorating young adult read that can now finally be enjoyed by an English-speaking audience.  Readers will love how the author has included an extremely realistic reality television setting into a dramatic science fiction story filled with all the emotion and manipulation you would expect from the trashiest of dating shows out there.  This crazy and brilliant read should captivate the young adult audience of the English-speaking world, just like it did with its French-speaking audience, and I will be keeping an eye out for the next two parts of this series.

My Rating:

Four stars

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski

Season of Storms Cover.jpg

Publication: Gollancz

English Edition Translated by David A. French

Publication Date – 19 April 2018

 

The legendary Andrzej Sapkowski returns with a fun and exhilarating addition to one of the best fantasy franchises to ever come out of Europe, The Witcher.

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a powerful mutant tasked with protecting ordinary people from the monsters that infest the various kingdoms and lands of the Continent.  Witchers wield a range of weapons in the fight against evil, from magical signs to powerful potions.  However, their main weapons are two swords: one made of steel, the other made of silver.  These swords are a symbol of status for a Witcher and are irreplaceable.

However, after being falsely arrested by corrupt city guards, Geralt’s swords disappear, having been stolen by unknown thieves.  Upon his release, Geralt will move heaven and earth to reclaim his weapons.  But all manner of people desire the weapons of a Witcher, and his search only throws up false leads.

The theft could not have come at a worse time.  In order to obtain his freedom, Geralt is coerced by the sorceress known as Coral into hunting a demon around the sorcerer stronghold of Rissberg.  Geralt must determine who among the fortress’s scheming sorcerers is summoning the demon forth, and stop their rampage.  At the same time, he and his old friend Dandelion must contend with the various plots taking place within the court of the King of Kerack as his heirs battle for power.

Can Geralt contend with the foes set against him, or will the loss of his faithful swords result in his destruction?

Sapkowski is one of the most popular and well-known writers of fantasy fiction in Central and Eastern Europe, where his books have achieved a cult following.  Sapkowski is best known for The Witcher series of books.  This series, which was mostly written in the 1990s, focuses on the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia and his adventures throughout Sapkowski’s dark fantasy landscape.  These books served as the basis for the popular video game series of the same name, which is how many people would be familiar with Sapkowski’s characters and stories.  The Witcher books were also adapted into both a movie and television series in Poland, called The Hexer, and Netflix has recently commissioned a new American television series based on the books, also called The Witcher, which is currently in the early stages of production.

Season of Storms is the latest The Witcher book Sapkowski has released.  It was originally published in 2013 in Polish, but an English translation of the book has only just been published.  This is a standalone book that is set between some of Sapkowski’s original short stories which were captured in his second book, The Last Wish.  While Season of Storms is a standalone book, it does contain a number of hints to some The Witcher stories chronologically set after it.  It also features a number of characters from the other books in the series, including a series of interludes that focus on Nimue, who appeared in two previous books and who many may recognise as the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legends.  The scenes featuring Nimue in Season of Storms are set more than a hundred years after the rest of The Witcher books and contain some potential hints about the eventual fate of the series’ main characters, as well as some cryptic discussions between characters that could be open to some interesting interpretations.  As a result, people who have read the other books in the franchise will really appreciate Season of Storms for these call-backs and references.  However, while the book may be especially appealing to past readers, it is also a perfect place for readers unfamiliar with Sapkowski’s work to get started, as it does not rely on other books in the series for plot details.

Sapkowski continues to explore his fantastic fantasy world in this latest book, as Geralt quests into new areas of the Continent.  Most of the story focuses on locations and settings not previously explored in previous books of the series, giving fans of this franchise a much wider view of this detailed fantasy world.  Knowledge of the world is also expanded through the fun use of excerpts from in-universe fictional books, which offers a range of entertaining facts and jokes.  Readers will also be impressed by the wide number of foes and monsters that Sapkowski has fit in this book.  Throughout the story Geralt has to contend with magical mutations, humanoid hybrids, powerful magic users, werewolves, kitsunes, gangsters and marauding soldiers.  This rich array of opponents adds a lot to the story’s excitement and is wildly appropriate for a story about a monster hunter.

Another notable part of Season of Storms is the range of intriguing mysteries Geralt needs to solve in order to complete his quest and survive.  These mysteries are interspersed throughout the story’s fantasy adventure and include the main mystery of who stole Geralt’s swords, the political mysteries in the Kingdom of Kerack and the investigation into why summoned demons are attacking communities in the forest.  These mysteries have a large level of sophistication and do a great job of keeping the readers interested and intrigued throughout the book.  The various mysteries also combine really well with the book’s fantasy elements and strike a good balance within the book.  This exceptional combination of elements within Season of Storms impressively captivates the readers and creates an enticing overall story.

The latest book in The Witcher franchise is a brilliant new adventure that stands just to the side of the previous short stories and established longer series.  Season of Storms provides pulse pounding adventure in Sapkowski’s beloved fantasy world while also telling a series of intense interlocked stories that make great use of several riveting mysteries to drag in the reader’s attention.  This is definitely a strong recommendation for those readers who have enjoyed Sapkowski’s literary works in the past.  However, general fantasy fans and those who have only experienced The Witcher franchise through the games will enjoy this excellent and electrifying read.

My Rating:

Four stars