The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 July 2019)

Series: Ghost Town – Book 2

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Michael Pryor revisits his Ghost Town young adult series with another entertaining and intriguing story, Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town.

Anton Marin is having an extremely odd gap year. As a member of an infamous outcast ghost-hunting family, Anton can see the ghosts that linger in our world, and he has recently taken up the family business. Working with his new partner, the English badass Rani Cross, Anton works to protect the people of Melbourne from the more dangerous types of ghosts while also ensuring that all the wandering spirits they encounter are helped on to the next world. However, even with Rani’s help, ghost hunting in Melbourne has recently gotten even more difficult as the city finds itself in the midst of a genuine ghost plague. A massive infestation of the most dangerous types of ghosts imaginable is wreaking havoc across the city, and even usually benign or harmless spirits are starting to attack people.

Anton and Rani’s problems are about to get even worse; a deadly cult of Trespassers, humans who use magic to control ghosts for their own ends, is in town and determined to capture anyone with ghost sight for use in their rituals. As Anton and Rani find themselves with a target on their back, Anton must deal with the return of his long-lost aunt Tanja. While Anton is overjoyed to have a member of his family back, he quickly realises that not everything with his aunt is as it seems. What secrets is Tanja hiding and what is her connection to the leader of this group of Trespassers? As secrets and occult dangers arise within Melbourne, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Michael Pryor is one of Australian’s most notable authors of young adult fiction, having written a number of fantasy and science fiction novels for a younger audience. Some of his most notable series include The Law of Magic, The Extraordinaries and his six entries in the long-running The Quentaris Chronicles. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is the second book in Pryor’s latest series, Ghost Town, and follows on from his 2017 release, Gap Year in Ghost Town. I initially thought that Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town was my first experience reading Pryor’s work, but I actually remember reading some of the books in The Doorways trilogy back when I was kid. While this was something like 20 years ago (and now I feel old), I do know that I greatly enjoyed these books and their clever concept, so I was excited to check it out.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an interesting and engaging piece of young adult fantasy with a number of cool features. Pryor has done a fantastic job combining a unique concept of ghost hunting with a group of enjoyable characters and grounded the story in the author’s home city of Melbourne. This results in a great piece of fiction that will do a wonderful job of enthralling a whole new generation of young Australian readers. For those readers who are only just coming onto this series, knowledge of the previous book is not a necessity to enjoy this sequel, as the author does a good job of re-introducing the characters, plot details and adventures that were featured in Gap Year in Ghost Town.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series is the overarching concept of a world haunted by real and potentially malevolent ghosts, and the adventures of the few individuals who can actually see them. Pryor has populated his story with all manner of different types of ghosts, each with their own specific characteristics, strengths and appearances. Readers will get to see the various ghosts that the protagonists go after, including the Lingers, Moaners, Thugs, Weepers and a new breed of zombie ghosts, just to name a few. All of these ghosts are really cool, and I enjoyed how this book started going into a little more detail about the origins of ghosts and the malevolent forces behind them. I also liked how the story also pivoted towards a more human antagonist in the form of the Trespassers, and it was intriguing to see how a group of people utilising the ghosts for nefarious purposes. It was interesting to see the protagonist’s ghost hunting techniques in action, and it results in some intense action sequences, especially when they have to fight ghosts and the Trespassers at the same time. This is an inventive and clever concept that helps make this series stand out from some of the other young adult fantasy books out there.

Another great distinguishing feature about this book is the author’s inclusion of a contemporary Melbourne setting. I love fantasy stories that utilise modern settings, and Pryor did an exceptional job bringing the city of Melbourne to life. The characters visit all manner of key landmarks in the city throughout the course of the story, and I really liked seeing locations I have visited featuring fights between ghost hunters and spirits. Pryor also uses the opportunity to showcase some of his favourite restaurants and cafes and it was nice to see an author insert elements of a city they clearly love into their story.

In addition to its intriguing concept and excellent setting, I was also impressed with the complex characters in Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town. The main protagonist is Anton, the funny and slightly odd heir to an exiled ghost hunting family with their own unique techniques for dispersing ghosts. Anton serves as the narrator and point-of-view character for the story, and he offers a fun and introspective narration to the book, while the revelations about certain family secrets offer up some interesting drama. The other main protagonist, Rani, is an extremely skilled sword-wielding badass who is a former member of an established ghost-hunting order from England and is an excellent female character for this series. Anton and Rani form a great team in this book, as the two of them find their groove as a partnership and work well against the threats they face. The character of Bec is an interesting third member of this partnership, as not only is she Anton’s oldest friend, who plays a cute game where they try to guess quotes from famous figures, but she is also Rani’s girlfriend, who they share an apartment and cat with. Bec really brings the team together, and there are some interesting examinations of the dynamics between the three of them, as each of them feels like they are the outsider in the group. There are also a few cool new additions to the series in this book, including a couple of Scottish ghost hunters, their ghost-hunting dog and a good antagonist in the form of the leader of the new cult of Trespassers.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an excellent piece of young adult fiction that is appropriate for a wide range of different ages and tastes. While there are a few dark scenes, such as a somewhat gruesome torture sequence, the vast majority of the book is appropriate for young teens and perhaps particularly mature young readers. I thought the author’s inclusion of a positive lesbian relationship between Rani and Bec was a really good feature for the young adult audience, and it was that was portrayed extremely well. I am also sure that young Australian readers, especially those living in Melbourne, will love to see these fantasy variations of locations they are familiar with, and it will hopefully invigorate their imagination.

Michael Pryor has done an amazing job following up Gap Year in Ghost Town, as he presents another compelling and enjoyable paranormal young adult adventure. With inventive ghosts, scary antagonists, great characters and a fantastic Australian setting, Pryor has once again shown why he is one of the leading authors of young adult fiction in Australia. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is definitely worth checking out, and it has a lot of features that should prove appealing to the younger teen audience.

DEV1AT3 by Jay Kristoff

DEV1AT3 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 17 June 2019)

Series: LIFEL1K3 – Book 2

Length: 423 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the most prolific young adult fiction authors, Jay Kristoff, comes the follow up to his electrifying 2018 smash-hit LIFEL1K3, DEV1AT3.

Over the last few years, Australian author Jay Kristoff has been one of the leading contributors to young adult fiction, writing several bestselling series. His works include The Lotus War series, the highly regarded The Nevernight Chronicles, and The Illuminae Files, which he co-wrote with fellow Australian Amie Kaufman. DEV1AT3 is actually the second of three Kristoff books being released this year, as he has already released the first book in his second collaborative series with Kaufman, Aurora Rising. Darkdawn, the third and final book in The Nevernight Chronicles, is set to be released in early September.

People who keep an eye on my blog may have noticed that I did a short review of DEV1AT3 a few weeks ago in a Canberra Weekly column. I have been meaning to write up an extended review of the book for a while now, as it was quite an enjoyable book with a lot of cool features. DEV1AT3 follows on from the incredibly popular first book, LIFEL1K3. The LIFEL1K3 series follows the adventures of four young friends in the dangerous post-apocalyptic remains of America, now controlled by rival mega-companies and gangs of religious fanatics.

DEV1AT3 is set in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic conclusion of LIFEL1K3, when the protagonist of the first book, Eve, found out the terrible truth of her origin: she is secretly a lifelike, an android who can ignore the Three Laws of Robotics. Worse, she is actually a replica of Ana Monrova, the daughter of the creator of the lifelikes, Nicholas Monrova, whose creations rebelled against him and killed his entire family. With the realisation that everything she has ever known is a lie, Eve begins to plot with the murderous Gabriel and the other lifelikes to find the comatose body of Ana. While Eve simply wants to kill the woman whose life she is imitating; the other lifelikes will use Ana’s body to unlock Monrova’s secrets in order to start a robot revolution.

Out in the post-apocalyptic wastelands surrounding Babel, Eve’s friends, Lemon Fresh, Ezekiel and Cricket, have seen better days. Not only were each of them forced to abandon Eve for different reasons but they must all face their individual consequence of the events that occurred within Babel. When unexpected events force them to separate, each of these friends find themselves in a whole world of trouble.

Lemon Fresh’s status as a deviate, a genetic mutant with the ability to manipulate electricity, has always landed her in trouble, but now she finds herself the ultimate pawn in a war between two of the major corporations that rule the land. Kidnapped by an agent of BioMaas Incorporated, Lemon eventually finds herself falling in with a band of fellow deviate teenagers, each with their own unique abilities, and whose leader, the Major, may hold the secrets to her past.

At the same time, the logika Cricket is stolen and sold to the Brotherhood, a group of religious fanatics determined to destroy every android, deviate and genetically modified being they can find. As the Brotherhood edges closer to a war with the Major’s deviates, Cricket is forced to fight as a robot gladiator while learning the dark secrets at the heart of the cult. Meanwhile, Ezekiel, the one lifelike with any love for humanity, teams up with an old enemy in order to track down Lemon Fresh and Cricket. However, when Ezekiel’s mission leads him into the path of Eve and his other lifelike brothers and sisters, he attempts to find a way to stop their destructive crusade and save his beloved Ana.

This was a fantastic piece of young adult fiction that does a wonderful job of following up the first book in the series. Kristoff tells an exciting story which not only continues the plot lines of the first book but which also takes the characters in some intriguing new directions. However, despite some differences in plot focus, the book continues to feature the cool allusions to other works of fiction that made the first book such a treat to read, and it continues to explore aspects of this intriguing post-apocalyptic setting. Readers who did not get the chance to read the first book, LIFEL1K3, last year will easily be able to start by reading DEV1AT3. Not only is the story quite accessible but it also starts off with an extremely detailed summary of the events and characters from the first book, which allows anyone to fully catch up with where the plot is.

One of the most interesting changes between this book and LIFEL1K3 is that the protagonist of the first book, Eve, is instead cast as an antagonist, and we end up seeing very little of the book’s plot from her point of view. Instead, the plot of DEV1AT3 is mostly split between the three perspectives of Lemon Fresh, Cricket and Ezekiel, who each have their own unique storylines. Each of these storylines is noticeably different, with all three of them making use of some unique features to help create an intriguing and emotionally strong story. The reader gets a real feel for all three of these point-of-view characters throughout the course of their individual plots, and several intriguing new side-characters are introduced. These separate storylines come together to form one amazing overall narrative, which ends with an amazing cliff-hanger for each of the main characters that will ensure readers will have to check out the final book in this series when it comes out.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the LIFEL1K3 series is that each of the books is marketed as a crazy mash-up of several different works of fiction. For example, the first book in the series had a real Alita Battle Angel crossed with Mad Max and Blade Runner vibe to it. Many of the references to the plots of various other media titles that were started in the first book are continued in DEV1AT3. For example, the whole Mad Max vibe of life in the wasteland is actually really enhanced in this book, as the vast majority of the story is spent out in the nuclear wastes and smaller outposts that make up the ruins of America, with a number of crazy car chases in souped-up doomsday vehicles featured throughout. We also get a deeper look at the whole Bladerunner aspect of the story, as Eve comes to terms with actually being a lifelike and attempts to get revenge for her creation.

In this second book, Kristoff’s plot also makes allusions to several other pieces of fiction in the three various storylines. For example, Lemon Fresh’s storyline is an interesting post-apocalyptic take on the X-Men, with the super-powered teen finding kinship with a group of similarly gifted individuals in a world that hates and fears them. The new deviates introduced in this storyline have a pretty cool range of powers, have all been attacked because of their abilities and even have a wise old mentor character in the Major. The various twists associated with this storyline are really clever, and it was interesting to see more deviates aside from Lemon. Ezekiel also has a great storyline within DEV1AT3. While much of his story is still tied up with his feelings for Eve, the lifelike copy of the woman he loves, and all the Bladerunner-esque emotions and thoughts he and his lifelike family experienced in the first book, Kristoff adds a fun new element to his storyline in this book. For much of his storyline, Ezekiel actually teams up with Preacher, the cyborg bounty hunter who was an antagonist of the first book. This is a very fun team-up, and it harkens back to a lot of classic odd-couple crime movies, with the two having a very rocky relationship that kind of improves as the story goes along.

I personally liked Cricket’s storyline the most. Cricket is a logika, a sentient robot who must obey the Three Laws of Robotics. Cricket, who was previously a small assistant robot, had his personality transferred into a massive combat robot in the last book. However, he is kidnapped by members of the Brotherhood, the insidious religious group fighting against Lemon Fresh’s new deviate brethren. Cricket, who has to obey all the orders given to him by the Brotherhood due to the Three Laws of Robotics, is forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial combats. This storyline gives the reader the best insight into the ranks of the Brotherhood, and Cricket uncovers certain secrets while working for them. With the whole Three Laws aspect, this storyline is obviously very reminiscent of the science fiction classic I, Robot; however, Kristoff comes up with some humorous takes on the Three Laws. Thanks to the assistance of the snarky logika Solomon (who I found to be one of the funniest characters in DEV1AT3), Cricket starts to learn how to utilise the loopholes in people’s statements, so he has a degree of freedom and he also makes use of a simple solution to counteract one of the laws, which was pretty funny. All of these references to these established pieces of fiction are great, and I really liked how the author adapted them to fit his compelling young adult story. I especially enjoyed seeing some complex science fiction ideas, such as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, explained to a younger audience, with some cool tweaks to make a more entertaining and modern story.

In addition to fun story and clever references to other works, one of the most interesting things about the LIFEL1K3 series is the cool post-apocalyptic setting that the author has come up with. The nuclear ruins of America always makes for an intriguing setting for a story, and I really enjoyed the cool combination that Kristoff makes in this series with savage nuclear wasteland and high-tech cities. The sheer amount of creativity that Kristoff utilises for the setting is really impressive, as this book alone features wars between rival corporations, desert-dwelling religious nuts, mutants, rebelling androids, bandits and mutated monsters. All of these are utilised extremely well in the story, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects of this broken world become apparent in the next instalment of this series.

DEV1AT3 is another wild ride from Jay Kristoff that I had a lot of fun reading. Featuring an excellent story that makes great use of references to some classic pieces of science fiction and fantasy, DEV1AT3 is a fantastic read that refuses to slow down for everything. This is a highly recommended read for the older young adult market, and it will also appeal to older readers. I am extremely curious to see where Kristoff takes this story next and look forward to another electrifying adventure in this mad-cap world.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 6 May 2019)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book 1

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The superstar team of Australian young adult fiction authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff comes together once more to create an outstanding, heartfelt and deeply entertaining new novel that may prove to be one of the best young adult books of 2019.

Kaufman and Kristoff are two of the biggest and most creative authors currently writing young adult fiction.  Kaufman is probably best known for her work with Meagan Spooner, where they have co-authored the Starbound trilogy and Unearthed series of books, the second book of which, Undying, was released earlier this year.  She is also in the process of writing her own Elementals series, with the second book, Scorch Dragons, released a month ago.  Kristoff first came into prominence with The Lotus War series, which debuted in 2012.  Since then he has also written The Nevernight Chronicle, the final book of which is set to be released in September, while his latest book, Lifel1k3, was one of the most talked about young adult releases of 2018.  Kristoff’s sequel to Lifel1k3, Dev1at3, is set to be released in a month, and he is currently working on an epic fantasy series, Empire of the Vampire, with the eponymous first book set to be released in September next year.

Kaufman and Kristoff have previously collaborated on the bestselling and award winning The Illuminae Files, a space opera epistolary series made up of three books which ran between 2015 and 2018.  Their latest collaboration, Aurora Rising, is another epic piece of young adult science fiction and is the first book in their planned Aurora Cycle series, which is currently set to feature another two books, released in 2020 and 2021.

Aurora Rising is set in the year 2380 and follows a spacefaring team of young adventurers as they attempt to save the galaxy.  In the future, humans have expanded out deep into the Milky Way, with fast intergalactic travel made possible through the Fold, dangerous space found on the other side of literal folds in the universe.  The Aurora Legion are an independent peacekeeping force made up of humans and several friendly alien races.  In order to complete their various humanitarian, exploration and peacekeeping missions, the Aurora Legion sends teams of young legionnaires, who can better withstand the rigors of the Fold, into the field.  Each team is made up of six highly trained and skilled individuals, who together can solve any problem they encounter.

Tyler Jones is the star graduating cadet of the Aurora Academy, who, thanks to his dedication and ability, will be given first pick of his fellow graduating cadets to form an elite team.  However, when an unscheduled joyride forces him to perform a risky rescue in the Fold, he misses the cadet draft, leaving him with a team of the cadets none of the other graduating squad leaders wanted.  These include (the descriptions were copied from the blurb due to accuracy):

  • His sister, Scarlet – A cocky diplomat with a blackbelt in sarcasm;
  • His best friend, Cat – A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into her squad leader, in case you were wondering;
  • Zila – a sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates;
  • Finian – a smart-ass tech-whiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder;
  • Kal – an alien warrior with anger management issues.

Forced to make the most of his bad luck, Tyler leads his team on a routine mission that quickly turns hairy when a hostile force of aliens seek to destroy them.  However, genocidal aliens are the least of their problems, when they discover that the girl Tyler saved in the Fold, Aurora O’Malley, has stowed away on their ship.  Aurora, the only survivor of a colony ship long thought lost, is 200 years out of time and desperate to figure out what happened to her colony and the family she left behind.  The squad discovers that she is far more significant than they could ever imagine when she displays strange abilities and impossible knowledge of both the past and future.  When shadowy government agents attempt to arrest Aurora, the squad are forced to go rogue to solve the mystery and end up in a race to save the galaxy.

Aurora Rising is a spectacular read, as these skilled authors take the reader through an intense young adult science fiction adventure in an intriguing new universe.  The book’s story as a whole is an outstanding mixture of intense action, enjoyable science fiction elements and excellent character work, all wrapped up with clever storytelling that is both compelling and humorous.  There are a number of great scenes and epic moments throughout this book that really highlight this book’s unique style and the writer’s ability to tell a story.  For example, I personally liked an extended sequence that followed the protagonists as they embarked on an elaborate and seemingly impossible heist on a massive space station ruled by a vicious crime lord.  The overall result is a near perfect read that I had an absolute blast checking out.  This is an amazing piece of young adult fiction, with enough action and relatable characters to appeal to all manner of potential teen readers.  Older science fiction readers will also have a great time with this book, especially as it sets up a captivating and ambitious new trilogy that will appeal to a huge and diverse audience.

This book is told from the first-person perspectives of the book’s seven protagonists, which includes Aurora and all six members of Tyler’s squad, each of whom gets a series of chapters throughout the book to tell the story.  Kaufman and Kristoff make good use of the chapters each of the characters narrate and the reader gets a good idea of each character’s individual personality, as well as important snippets into their individual backstory.  The authors also try to differentiate these chapters out a bit for some of the characters.  For example, Zila’s chapters are rather short, blunt and analytical in nature, matching her personality, while Scarlet’s chapters feature her listing off the humorous pros and cons of her ex-boyfriends, figuring out which ones to stay in contact with.  I really enjoyed how the authors told the story through these seven separate narrators, as not only did it bring me closer to the characters but it allowed the authors to showcase various perspectives of some of the more impressive sequences and events, allowing for a fuller and more intense story.

Aurora Rising features an outstanding complement of main characters, as each member of the squad, including Aurora, are looked at in some detail.  I was very impressed with how the authors where able to create such expansive and intriguing backstories for all seven main characters, as each of them has their own issues or concerns.  For example, Tyler and Scarlett are living in the shadow of their dead father’s heroics and trying to make him proud, Cat is deeply in love with Tyler and is having a hard time keeping her feelings in check, and Zila struggles with her disconnection with other people brought on by her tragic past.  Other examples include the team’s two alien members: Finian, who to hides his feelings of abandonment behind his brilliance and snark; and Kal, who is torn between guilt about what his race’s warrior caste, of which he is a member, has done to his home planet and his surprising feelings for one of the other members of his squad.  Aurora is perhaps one of the most complex characters, waking after 200 years to find that everything and everyone she knew is dead and parts of her past have been hidden for nefarious reasons.  Add into that her discovery of uncontrollable mental abilities and the feeling that something mysterious is guiding her and she has a lot to worry about.  One of the best things about this book is that whilst all seven characters are fairly complex individually, the book’s true strength revolves around the fact that when these characters come together they are an extremely dysfunctional crew.  The crew starts off as a rebellious and overly sarcastic mess unable to work together effectively, even with their individual abilities and strengths.  However, as the book continues, they do learn to cooperate to a degree, and the reader is made to really care for them, both individually and as a whole.  I loved how these character relationships expanded and strengthened throughout the book, and I had a lot of fun with this humorous and entertaining group of people.

I really enjoyed the universe that Kaufman and Kristoff crafted to fit around this enjoyable and intriguing story.  Visions of humanity’s future can always be a bit hit or miss, but I thought that the science fiction setting that the authors utilise in this book, which sees humanity expanding and interacting with other races while dark secrets and wars build up in the background, to be a fun and well-thought-out setting.  The characters visit an interesting and inventive number of locations through the book, all of which really add to Aurora Rising’s adventure and action.

I liked the author’s concept of the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic peacekeeping organisation that sends teenage operatives into action due to science fiction reasons.  One of the things I quite enjoyed about this was how these teams were designed to have six members whose joint abilities and specialities would allow them to anticipate and overcome any problem.  As a result the teams are made up of:

  • Alphas – leaders
  • Faces – diplomats
  • Aces – pilots
  • Gearheads – mechanics/inventors/technicians
  • Tanks – combat specialists
  • Brains – science officers/medics

This team breakdown proved to be quite an interesting concept, even if they do sound like party roles in a MMORPG (tank, healer, DPS etc).  I liked this idea and the various characters slid into the roles quite effectively.

I also had a lot of fun with the universe-expanding insertions that Kaufman and Kristoff placed before a number of the book’s chapters.  These insertions are written as information pages being read by Aurora on her uniglass, an AI tablet called Magellan, who has a playful sense of humour and who also provides some amusing commentary within the story.  These information pages provide the reader extra information about the universe, including about the Aurora Legions, the roles of the squads’ various members, the history of the universe, alien species, locations the protagonists visit and other relevant inclusions.  While each of these pages contains universe factual information, Magellan adds humorous twists to each of these pages which are very entertaining and really fit into the easy going and entertaining mood of most of the book.  However, these information pages do change and get more serious in the darker parts of the book, which also helps prepare the reader for the shift in mood.  I loved these inclusions, not only appreciating the inventive universe building they allowed, but also the fun take on the classic idea of in-universe media inclusions.

Aurora Rising is an absolutely fantastic book that blasts off with action, humour and amazing characters to create a deeply compelling and relentlessly entertaining story.  Australian authors Kaufman and Kristoff are an outstanding writing duo, and their latest collaboration is an amazing piece of young adult fiction that brilliantly establishes their new trilogy and ensures that future instalments of the Aurora Cycle will be some of the most sought after young adult books for 2020 and 2021.  Aurora Rising comes highly recommended from me, and it is one of my favourite new young adult books of 2019 so far.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

Flight Risk by Michael McGuire

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Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Publication Date – 7 January 2019

 

From Australian thriller author Michael McGuire comes a fast-paced story of death and mysterious disappearances in the skies which takes the reader on a high-octane thrill ride.

Every day, thousands of planes fly across our skies, transporting huge numbers of people and goods from one end of the world to the other.  Many countries’ economies depend on the successful flights, and people have placed their trust in these machines to carry us.  So when a plane mysteriously disappears without a trace off the coast of Australia, it sends shockwaves throughout the entire system.

Ted Anderson is a disgraced former pilot who has found work as an investigator in a top-secret Australian government intelligence agency.  Sent by his bosses to find the missing plane, Ted travels to Indonesia to investigate the pilots.  But as he uncovers strange clues in one pilot’s apartment, another plane disappears, and then a third.  Like the first plane, no trace of these other missing aircrafts or their passengers can be found, and no organisation is claiming responsibility for the disappearances.

As the world descends into chaos and most people refuse to fly any more, a sudden need to escape from a squad of Indonesian police sees Ted forced onto a CIA plane to New York.  While waiting for a flight home to Australia in a nearly deserted JFK airport, Ted observes a suspicious pilot about to leave on a trip to the Ukraine.  With all his instincts screaming that this pilot’s plane will be the next one to disappear, Ted makes an insane choice and gets on the plane.

This is the second book from McGuire, following his 2017 political thriller debut, Never a True Word.  This sounded liked an exciting thriller from a relatively new Australian author, and I was eager to see how McGuire would present an Australian espionage edge to this sort of story.

Following several high-profile disappearances or crashing of airplanes in recent years, the potential dangers of air travel have been made obvious to most people; therefore it was a bold choice by the author to focus a story around this.  A lot of the suspense in this novel is based on the realistic dread that the characters within the story must be feeling as they contemplate the disappearances occurring.  The sequence where the protagonist finds himself waiting in a plane that is potentially about to disappear is particularly harrowing, and the reader is able to feel the protagonist’s apprehension and worry.  The results of these missing planes are also pretty gruesome in places, which adds to this storyline’s intense nature.  I felt that McGuire did a fantastic job of crafting a fairly interesting mystery thriller out of this story premise.  The eventual reveal of who or what is behind it is pretty intriguing and sets up some potential follow-up novels that will be worth checking out.

One of the main things you can say about this book is that it is extremely fast paced, which allows the reader to read through it rather quickly.  There is barely a quiet moment, as the protagonist jumps from one situation to the next, attempting to uncover who or what is behind the disappearing airplanes.  I rather liked this fast-paced approach to the story, as it fitted with the intense story content and reflected how quick and intense real-life intelligence agencies would jump into investigating events such as the disappearing planes featured within Flight Risk.  This book is not as action-packed as you would expect from a thriller novel, but the author is still able to convey an exciting and compelling tale that keeps the reader on their toes.  In addition, there is an extremely electrifying sequence in the air which serves as the book’s set piece.  These inclusions mean that Flight Risk is very easy to read, which provides the reader with vast amounts of fun and some significant thrills in the right places.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about Flight Risk was the portrayal of how an Australian intelligence organisation would react to a devastating event such as those examined within this book.  It was pretty cool seeing an Australian intelligence agent being at the centre of this world-wide event, and I enjoyed getting a look into his viewpoint about intelligence gathering.  I thought it was intriguing to see McGuire’s depiction of the differences between Australia’s intelligence assets and other countries, such as America.  For example, the Australian protagonist gets an iPad and some fake IDs as his gear, while his American counterpart gets a whole team and a military jet to investigate the disappearing planes.  I enjoyed this realistic and noticeable difference between the American and Australian agents and their resources, and thought it added a unique element to the book.  I also thought that the author’s examination of the world-wide implications of multiple disappearing planes was very clever and I liked the author’s look at the economic and social aspects of such an event.

Overall, I found Flight Risk to be an exciting new novel from Australian author Michael McGuire and I enjoyed the fast-paced action, enjoyable thriller elements and an intriguing new examination of Australia’s spy agencies and their place in the world’s intelligence communities.  I did find the overall lack of any significant female characters a bit concerning, but I enjoyed the book’s story and thought this was a great piece of Australian thriller fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

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Publishers: Orion

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Legendary crime author Michael Connelly returns for another clever and technically detailed crime thriller that teams up his iconic and most utilised protagonist, Harry Bosch, with his recently created female protagonist, Renée Ballard.

In the chaotic world of the LAPD, Renée Ballard is an outsider who has found herself permanently on the graveyard shift of the Hollywood beat.  Returning to the near-abandoned station after a callout, Ballard is surprised to find a stranger rifling through her unit’s filing cabinets.  The intruder is maverick retired detective Harry Bosch, formally of the LAPD, now currently working as a contractor for the San Fernando police.

Bosch is working a cold case for personal reasons.  The victim, a 15-year-old runaway, Daisy Clayton, was brutally murdered several years before and Bosch has gotten close to the girl’s devastated mother.  Initially kicking him out the station, Ballard’s subsequent investigation of Bosch’s actions reveals the full details of the case to her and she finds herself drawn to Bosch’s hunt for justice.  As the two outsider detectives join forces in order to solve the case, they are once again thrust into the grimy underworld of Hollywood.  But as they attempt to find justice, a cornered killer, departmental politics and the dangerous suspects of the two detectives other investigations may cause the case to come crashing down around them.

Michael Connelly is a prolific and award-winning crime novelist who has been writing since 1992.  During that period he has written over 30 books, all of which are set in the same shared universe.  Connelly’s debut book, The Black Echo, introduced his most iconic character, Harry Bosch, who has been the protagonist of 21 of Connelly’s books, as well as being a supporting character in several other books.  Due to the author’s focus on this character, Connelly’s extended crime universe is often referred to as the Harry Bosch universe.  Connelly has also written a number of other thrillers in this universe, featuring several other protagonists, such as lawyer Mickey Haller, reporter Jack McEvoy and investigator Terry McCaleb.  Many of the characters introduced in previous books often have small roles in later books, while Bosch has had interactions with most of Connelly’s other protagonists.  The second protagonist in Dark Scared Night, Renée Ballard, is a more recent creation who was introduced in the 2017 novel The Late Show, and this is her first interaction with Bosch in Connelly’s wider universe.

Outside of the literary world, Connelly’s works have been adapted to film and screen.  His Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into the current Bosch television series, which will air its fifth season in 2019.  Two of his books have also been adapted into movies.  His novel, Blood Work was adapted into film in 2002 with Clint Eastwood, while his first legal novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted into film in 2011 with Matthew McConaughey.

Dark Sacred Night is an excellent piece of crime fiction that presents the reader with a series of interesting investigations, told from the perspectives of two fantastic police protagonists.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, which is jointly narrated by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver, and runs for 10 hours and 39 minutes.  Dark Sacred Night primarily focuses on the investigation into a cold case of a young runaway girl who was brutally killed nine years previously.  This central case is massively intriguing and takes the reader deep into the sordid and disturbing criminal nightlife of Hollywood.  The main case is a gritty and unique investigation as the protagonists are forced to rely on different methods than they would usually utilise to solve the case.  Rather than having any recent evidence, the detectives are forced to rely on old interviews and pieces of police intelligence to identify any potential suspects or witnesses.  This is an intriguing way to investigate an old crime, and I really enjoyed the way they were forced to utilise this less substantial evidence to find their killer.  This method results in the protagonists identifying and investigating several distinctive suspects, and the reader is presented with a series of false leads and suggested possibilities.  I was able to identify who the killer was quite early in the book, but I still had a lot of fun following the investigation to its conclusion.

I really enjoyed the way that Connelly seeded a large number of smaller cases throughout the novel for the protagonists to solve, as well as a number of examples of police work in action.  There is an interesting split here as Ballard, the full-time detective, is given a series of more official and everyday crimes to solve, such as a suspicious death, a missing persons, a theft, trespassing and a kidnapping that she investigates to various degrees throughout the book.  Bosch, on the other hand, only has one case, an old, unsolved gang execution that he is pursuing in San Fernando and which is the focus for a good portion of his chapters.  The inclusion of these smaller cases is a clever move from Connelly as it breaks up the story from a pure focus on the main case and presents a wider viewpoint of crime and policing in the book’s setting.  It also allows the author to showcase his protagonists’ divergent investigative skills and presents the readers with an additional number of compelling mysteries and adventures that they can sink their teeth into.  Some of these additional cases tie into the main mystery in some surprising ways and clues or suspects may be revealed through this.

All of these mysteries do an amazing job showing of the author’s obvious knowledge of police procedures and law enforcement techniques.  Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has an amazing grasp of the minutiae of police work and he expertly inserts these details into his story.  As a result his police characters mostly investigate crimes, examine evidence and file the paperwork in a way that feel extremely realistic and which adds a huge amount to the books authenticity.  Connelly’s police characters even feel like real cops, as the way that they act or think feels like real life police would act.  All of this combines with the amazing mysteries to create a first-rate piece of crime fiction.

Dark Sacred Night is the first time that Connelly’s main protagonist, Bosch, engages with the author’s newest protagonist, Ballard.  There are some interesting similarities between the two characters, which makes for a great story.  Both detectives have a similar maverick style when it comes to investigating crimes, and both have been screwed over by LAPD politics and had their careers impacted as a result.  As a result, both characters are dogged in their pursuit of criminals, especially those guilty of sex crimes, and both are willing to bend the rules to get their suspects.  However, the main difference between them is how far they will go to get justice.  While Ballard is happy to bend rules, she doesn’t go too far over the line or deliberately hurt or damage her suspects.  Bosch on the other hand has a much more flexible idea of where the line is and engages in some questionable behaviour that could be seeing as going too far. The two characters work well together during this book, and I hope that Connelly continues to use his latest protagonist in the future, especially as there are some interesting stories available when it comes to her complex police past.

The audiobook version of Long Dark Night is a great way to enjoy this crime novel and I found that I quickly powered through the book with this format.  The audiobook format utilises two separate narrators to describe the adventure contained within, broken up by whichever protagonist is narrating that chapter.  For example, Christine Lakin narrates the chapters told from Ballard’s point of view, while Titus Welliver narrates Bosch’s chapters.  Both of these narrators have great voices for their central characters, and both of them fit in perfectly in this gritty crime drama.  Lakin captures Ballard’s character perfectly, and you get a real sense of the no-nonsense and wary personality that is Ballard every time you hear Lakin’s voice.  Welliver’s voice, on the other hand, is deep and gruff and really fits Bosch’s old school and veteran personality.  Overall there is some fantastic voice work in the audiobook format of Dark Sacred Night, and I found that listening to this mystery really drew me into the middle of this investigation and helped me remember certain details and clues.

This latest book from veteran crime author Michael Connelly is a fantastic mystery thriller that draws the reader in with two outstanding protagonists and a series of captivating mysteries.  Dark Sacred Night is written in a way that is very easy to get into and the reader can enjoy the full mystery without any details of the previous books in Connelly’s shared universe.  As a result, despite it being such a late book in this long-running series, Dark Sacred Night is also the perfect place to start your investigation into the crime sensation that is Michael Connelly.  First rate crime fiction at it’s very best, this is an outstanding release from Connelly that is guaranteed to draw the reader into the dark and intriguing world of mysteries.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars