Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

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

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Survivor Back Cover

Waiting on Wednesday – Either Side of Midnight and Inside Out

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For my latest edition of Waiting on Wednesday, I have a hankering for some compelling mysteries, so I am going to have a look at two upcoming novels featuring some very unique murders.

Either Side of Midnight Cover

The first of these books is the intriguing-sounding Either Side of Midnight by Australian author Benjamin Stevenson.  This upcoming book, which is currently set for release on 1 September 2020, has the compelling story hook of a disgraced journalist attempting to prove that a very public suicide was actually murder.  Either Side of Midnight will serve as a sequel to Stevenson’s debut novel, Greenlight, which was released back in 2018.  Greenlight was a fantastic and enjoyable Australian murder mystery novel that made amazing use of the true-crime documentary trope to produce an enjoyable and thought-provoking narrative, featuring a complex protagonist, Jack Quick, who had to deal with the consequences of manipulating evidence for television ratings.  This upcoming sequel will focus on Quick after he is released from jail, and it will be interesting to see how much this character has evolved from the first book.  I am really looking forward to this upcoming novel, and I am curious to see how Either Side of Midnight will measure up compared to Stevenson’s fantastic debut.  There is a lot to be excited for when it comes to this second novel, and I am rather keen to see how its extremely fascinating plot premise turns out.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An electrifying thriller with a mind-bending premise: One million viewers witness a popular TV presenter commit suicide live on air – yet his twin brother is convinced it was murder.

How can it be murder when the victim pulled the trigger?

At 9.01 pm, TV presenter Sam Midford delivers the monologue for his popular current affairs show Mr Midnight. He seems nervous and the crew are convinced he’s about to propose to his girlfriend live on air.

Instead, he pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the head.

Sam’s grief-stricken brother Harry is convinced his brother was murdered. But how can that be, when one million viewers witnessed Sam pull the trigger?

Only Jack Quick, a disgraced television producer in the last days of a prison sentence, is desperate enough to take Harry’s money to investigate.

But as Jack starts digging, he finds a mystery more complex than he first assumed. And if he’s not careful, he’ll find out first-hand that there’s more than one way to kill someone . . .

Inside Out Cover

The other complex murder mystery novel that has caught my attention is Inside Out by Chris McGeorge, which is set for release towards the end of the year.  McGeorge came onto the scene a few years ago and has been producing some amazing murder mystery novels that are twists on the classic locked room mystery novels.  His new upcoming novel, Inside Out, looks to be another captivating standalone book that contains an excellent sounding new mystery.  This novel has another fascinating story premise, and I cannot wait to see what the solution to this fantastic scenario is.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

Cara Lockhart has just commenced a life sentence in HMP New Fern – the newest maximum security woman’s prison in the country. She was convicted of a murder she is adamant she didn’t commit.

One morning she wakes up to find her cellmate murdered – shot in the head with a gun that is missing. The door was locked all night, which makes Cara the only suspect. There is only one problem – Cara knows she didn’t do it and she has no idea who did.

Being the only one who knows the truth, Cara sets about trying to clear her name, unravelling an impossible case, with an investigation governed by a prison timetable. Cara starts to learn more about her fellow prisoners, finding connections between them and herself that she would never have imagined.

Indeed it seems that her conviction and her current situation might be linked in strange ways…

I think that both of these upcoming novels sound really incredible and loaded with potential.  Either Side of Midnight and Inside Out should prove to be fantastic reads, and I cannot wait to see what dastardly and complex mysteries these two talented authors have produced.

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday – Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this latest Waiting on Wednesday article, I check out the urban fantasy novel, Dead Man in a Ditch, the sequel to Luke Arnold’s amazing debut, The Last Smile in Sunder City.

Dead Man in a Ditch Cover

I have got to hand it to the feature author of this article, Australian actor and writer Luke Arnold: he is going out of his way to make sure that 2020 is his year. Not only did he have his writing debut with his first novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City, one of the more impressive fantasy releases I checked out in early 2020, but he is bringing out a sequel to this excellent debut less than seven months later, with Dead Man in a Ditch, which is currently set to come out in September 2020.

The Last Smile in Sunder City was the first book in The Fletch Phillips Archives, which follows the titular protagonist, Fletch Phillips. The series is set in a world formerly dominated by magic and magical creatures, with humans living as an oppressed and overlooked underclass. However, this all changed when a group of humans, guided by a young and naïve Fletch, somehow destroyed all the magic in the world, leading to a chaotic new landscape in which the formerly magical creatures do their best to survive and humanity is on the rise thanks to their technology.

I really enjoyed The Last Smile in Sunder City when I read it earlier this year, especially as Arnold crafted together an exciting and compelling murder mystery storyline and set it in a unique and impressive new fantasy world, the distinct nature of which really helped to enhance the story. As a result, I am rather looking forward to seeing another fun story set in this inventive universe, and I am very curious to see how Dead Man in a Ditch stacks up to The Last Smile in Sunder City, and whether Arnold can follow with another great book.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The name’s Fetch Phillips–what do you need?

Cover a Gnome with a crossbow while he does a dodgy deal? Sure.

Find out who killed Lance Niles, the big-shot businessman who just arrived in town? I’ll give it shot.

Help an old-lady Elf track down her husband’s murderer? That’s right up my alley.

What I don’t do, because it’s impossible, is search for a way to bring the goddamn magic back.

Rumors got out about what happened with the Professor, so now people keep asking me to fix the world.

But there’s no magic in this story. Just dead friends, twisted miracles, and a secret machine made to deliver a single shot of murder.

Well, I like the sound of where this latest book is going. It looks like Arnold is going to combine together a bunch of competing mystery storylines and interweave them together into one intriguing narrative. It also looks like the protagonist is going to continue to explore the series’ overarching storyline about the disappearance of magic in the world, and the various attempts by the former magical creatures to recover their lost power. I have a lot of confidence that this second book from Arnold is going to be just as entertaining and exciting as The last Smile in Sunder City, and I am really looking forward to grabbing Dead Man in a Ditch later this year.

Where Fortune Lies by Mary-Anne O’Connor

Where Fortune Lies

Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 394 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From bestselling Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor comes another fun and intriguing Australian historical drama, Where Fortune Lies, which tells a multi-layered story of people seeking their fortunes in colonial Australia.

1879, Ireland. Anne Brown is a beaten-down young lady, hoping to escape the harsh life of poverty and misery she sees the rest of the women in her family experience. After a particularly cruel night which sees the one good thing in her life taken away from her, Anne flees her hometown, hoping to make a new life for herself in far-flung Australia.

Several months later in London, young gentleman Will Worthington and his sister Mari are shocked to discover that their recently deceased father has changed his will. Instead of the modest inheritance they were expecting, they find that all his money has been left to a mysterious pregnant painted lady who intends to resettle in Australia. With their social standing in London destroyed, Will and Mari, along with Will’s loyal best friend, artist Charlie Turner, follow their father’s mistress to Australia to seek their fortunes.

Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Will Mari and Charlie quickly befriend local businessman Tom McIntosh and his beautiful daughter, Alice, who Will falls in love with. While Will and Mari enjoy the opportunities afforded to them in Melbourne, Charlie spends time in the Victorian Alps with Alice’s brothers, Harry and Richie, and their wild group of friends, who show him how to live the rough colonial life. While there, Charlie finds his artistic inspiration through his work with the McIntosh boys and their wild horses, as well as his love for a mysterious exotic dancer. However, danger lies on the horizon, as Harry and Richie have been covertly engaging in the deadly trade of bushranging. Soon the fates of all these young people will hang in the balance, as tough choices, dangerous loyalties and harsh heartbreaks will impact them all.

Where Fortune Lies is another fantastic read from O’Connor, who has written some exceptional historical dramas in her five-year career. I read my first Mary-Anne O’Connor book last year, In a Great Southern Land, which told an excellent story about a group of people coming to Australia in the 1850’s to participate in the gold rush and subsequent uprising at the Eureka Stockade. I quite enjoyed In a Great Southern Land and I was rather pleased that my review of it was quoted on the back of the copy of Where Fortune Lies that I received. This latest novel follows a similar concept to O’Connor’s last book, with a diverse group of characters journeying to opportunity-rich Australia in order to seek a better life, and O’Connor is once again able to weave together a rich and compelling story of love, family drama and action in the Australian wilds, and I quite enjoyed the fun blend of story elements that the author was able to come up with.

Where Fortune Lies contains a strong character-based story that follows the lives and adventures of several characters who are drawn together by fate, love and family. O’Connor does a wonderful job of introducing these key point-of-view characters, whose story the reader finds themselves getting quite attached to. I really enjoyed the way that the author spaced out the various character threads, taking the time to explore the lives of each of the separate characters. While some of the character arcs do cross over quite a bit (for example, Charlie Turner directly interacts with all the other major characters and serves as a major bridging character), other characters are kept relatively separate from each other, with only a few scenes together. However, these characters arcs still have some subtle interactions, with their actions indirectly impacting other characters’ lives, or the two characters meet or discuss each other without realising who the other person really is. I liked the method of storytelling, as it allowed the reader to get to know each character individually and see the various struggles and difficulties that they are facing, as well as how they overcome them and evolve as people. I really enjoyed each of the character arcs that O’Connor explored, and I think that all of them came to a satisfying conclusion, especially as the various threads combine together at the end of the book with all the main characters finding their final fates. Each of these character-driven storylines had a good blend of adventure, adversity, romance and drama, which I think came together extremely well as an overall narrative.

I really liked the way that O’Connor once again dived back into Australia’s past, this time looking at the turbulent 1870s, and presenting the reader with another view of the country’s iconic colonial history. Where Fortune Lies contains some fantastic examination of various parts of old-school Victoria, including the busting metropolis of Melbourne, and it was interesting to see O’Connor’s depiction of the crossing to Australia and the things that immigrants back in this period would have experienced. Most of the story, however, takes place in the rugged wilds of outback Australia, particularly in the wilderness and small towns of the Victorian Alps. O’Connor presents a fascinating exploration of these communities, and I really enjoyed her depictions of people capturing the wild horses a la The Man from Snowy River. However, the highlight of this jaunt back into history has to be the author’s focus on the bushrangers, the dangerous highwaymen who stalked the Australian outback. A good part of the book’s plot revolves around some of the characters getting involved in bushranging out of desperation or greed, and it was rather intriguing to see how society perceived these criminals. There are a number of references to real-life bushrangers, such as the Kelly Gang and Captain Thunderbolt, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this exciting part of Australia’s history. All of this serves as an incredible background to this fun story, and I look forward to seeing what amazing part of Australia’s past O’Connor will explore in her next book.

Where Fortune Lies is another terrific Australian historical drama from O’Connor, who once again combines a captivating, character-driven narrative with an excellent depiction of Australia’s rich and vibrant history. This turned out to be an elegant and enjoyable read that features amazing romantic and dramatic plots, as well as an intriguing dive into the infamous bushrangers of Victoria. A fantastic new novel that once again sees O’Connor continues to shine as one of the most talented authors of Australian historical dramas.

A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill

A Testament of Character Cover

Publisher: Pantera Press (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Rowland Sinclair – Book 10

Length: 337 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Sulari Gentill returns with the 10th book in her bestselling Rowland Sinclair series, A Testament of Character, an intense and compelling new entry which was a lot of fun to read.

Gentill is an excellent Australian author who has written several amazing books since her 2010 debut. While her main body of work is the Rowland Sinclair series, Gentill has also written The Hero trilogy, a young adult fantasy trilogy based on classic Greek stories, and the standalone novel Crossing the Lines. I am mostly familiar with her Rowland Sinclair books, however, as I have read the last several books in this series, all of which have been extremely enjoyable due to their fantastic blend of history and mystery. The Rowland Sinclair books follow the adventures of the titular Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy left-wing Australian gentleman artist, and his three artistic friends in the 1930s, as they find themselves in the middle of several murder investigations. Each Rowland Sinclair book is a fun and entertaining part of my yearly reading calendar, and I have been looking forward to checking out A Testament of Character for a while now.

In 1935, after the horrors they experienced in Shanghai, Rowland and his bohemian friends Edna, Clyde and Milton are enjoying a leisurely holiday in Singapore before heading back to Australia. However, their travel plans are dramatically changed when Rowland receives tragic news. An old friend of Rowland from his Oxford days, Daniel Cartwright, has died suddenly, and he has appointed Rowland as the executor of his vast estate.

Detouring from Australia to Cartwright’s home city of Boston, Rowland and his companions arrive for the funeral and find themselves in the midst of controversy and familiar conflict. Not only was Cartwright estranged from the rest of his family, especially his brothers, who disapproved of his lifestyle choice, but it turns out he was murdered, and the police have yet to find any suspects. Even more mysteriously, Cartwright had only just written every member of his family out of the will, leaving all his money to an unknown man everyone claims does not exist.

Determined to carry out the last wishes of his dear friend, Rowland attempts to find the man who apparently meant so much to him. However, his investigation quickly turns sour, as he runs into numerous people who do not want Cartwright’s will to come to pass. Forced to scour Boston, New York and other parts of post-Depression America for leads, the four friends encounter all manner of dangerous and eccentric characters as they pursue their quest. However, none of them are prepared for the terrible truth they encounter, especially now that Cartwright’s killer has them in their sights.

A Testament of Character is an exciting and compelling novel that proves to be a fantastic new addition to the Rowland Sinclair series. Gentill has done an amazing job coming up with another captivating story that not only features an exciting and gripping mystery but which takes an intriguing look at America in the 1930s. This story contains the series’s usual blend of fun, intrigue and action, as the four exceedingly liberal protagonists get into all manner of trouble across conservative America. There are some rather impressive and at times dark scenes throughout this book, and Gentill has also included some major character developments that will appeal to long-term readers of this series. The end result is an exceedingly enjoyable and thrilling story of love, adventure and revenge which proved extremely hard to put down.

At the heart of this book lies a clever mystery storyline that revolves around the murder of the protagonist’s friend and the identity of the mysterious beneficiary of the will. Gentill crafts an excellent multi-layered mystery, with a number of surprising twists, turns and false leads on the way to the exciting conclusion. While I was able to guess a little bit in advance who the main perpetrator turned out to be, all the revelations that came out in the final confrontation were really impressive and helped wrap up the entire mystery storyline extremely well. I also thought that Gentill came up with a very compelling and memorable motivation for the various crimes featured within the book. Some of these reveals were a bit dark and shocking, but they did make for some very dramatic and captivating sequences throughout the book. Overall, I thought that this was one of the strongest mysteries to have so far been featured within one of the Rowland Sinclair books, and it served as an amazing centre to this entire fantastic book.

One of the most distinctive features of this whole series is the way that Gentill dives into the history and culture of the period in which the books are set. She has previously done a wonderful job of exploring parts of 1930s Australia, Europe and occupied Shanghai, and in A Testament of Character Gentill’s characters explore post-Depression America. This proves to be an excellent backdrop to the book’s superb story, and I loved the examination of the key cities of Boston and New York, as well as some rural areas of the country. Gentrill provides the reader with a fantastic and at times in-depth look at various parts of the 1930s American culture and society. This is done in two distinct ways, the first of which involves the protagonists exploring America as Australians, providing an outsider’s perspective of the events or places they visit (while constantly getting complemented for speaking such good English!). The second way is through Gentill’s inclusion of historical newspaper clippings at the front of every chapter. The use of these newspaper clippings is another recurring trait of the Rowland Sinclair series, and I have always enjoyed the way in which the articles relate to some cultural or historical aspect of the chapter the clipping fronts. Through the use of these methods, the author paints an intriguing picture about America during this period, which I think worked extremely well as a background to the main mystery plot. This is especially true as some of the motives and elements of the mystery revolve around the social attitudes and cultural expectations of the time, which the reader will need to have a bit of an understanding about. I have to say that I was glad that as part of this examination of historical America, Gentill also had a look at public opinion around the Nazis and fascists in the lead up to World War II, as this has been one of the more interesting story threads to follow throughout the series.

Another distinctive aspect of the Rowland Sinclair series is the way that Gentill writes a number of historical figures into the story, either as cameos or in major roles. The best previous example of this is easily the author’s inclusion of Eric Campbell and The New Guard (an ultra-right-wing Australian organisation in the 1930s) as recurring antagonists in some of the books, as these real-life historical figures are great foils to the progressive protagonists. Gentill continues to do this in A Testament of Characters, making great use of several iconic American historical figures to flesh out the story and create several memorable inclusions. Several of these historical figures have pretty major roles in the plot, including Joseph Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife and fellow author, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also some fun cameos from several other notable people, including Errol Flynn, a young JFK, Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, as well as several other characters who were in Boston or New York during the 1930s. There are also a ton of references to other unique figures in America during this time, including the Parker Brothers Company (Monopoly was released in 1935, and the protagonists of course end up playing a game), as well as a unique goat competition that was held in Central Park, of which Gentill of course names the winner. This is an extremely fun and amusing part of A Testament of Character, and I always enjoy seeing Gentill’s protagonists run into these real-life historical figures, especially as the author does a fantastic job examining and showcasing their personalities and motivations. I love how Gentill effortlessly works these people into the plot, and the reader is always left wondering who is going to appear next.

A Testament of Character is a superb and exciting new addition to the outstanding Rowland Sinclair series that is really worth checking out. Sulari Gentill has once again produced a fantastic mystery storyline that strongly benefits from the author’s clever dive back into 1930’s history. This results in a powerful and exhilarating novel which makes amazing use of its fun, distinctive inclusions and intriguing characters. I cannot wait to see what misadventures Rowland Sinclair and his friends get up to in their next book, and this is a truly wonderful Australian series with a real unique flair to it.

Waiting on Wednesday – Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. In my latest Waiting on Wednesday, I take a look at an intriguing sounding science fiction debut that is coming out in a few months, Stormblood by Jeremy Szal.

Stormblood Cover

Here at The Unseen Library, I am always on the lookout for fresh and exciting debut novels to read (make sure to check out my recent Top Ten Debuts of 2019 list), and I believe that I have found another amazing debut that could have some real potential. Stormblood is the first novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which is set to be released on 4 June 2020. This upcoming book sounds really cool, and I absolutely love the enthralling plot synopsis that has already been released.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, a biosoldier fighting for the intergalactic governing body of Harmony against a brutal invading empire. Now, he fights against the stormtech: the DNA of an extinct alien race Harmony injected into him, altering his body chemistry and making him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. It made him the perfect soldier, but it also opened a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.

But when Harmony tells him that his former ally Reapers are being murdered, Vakov is appalled to discover his estranged brother is likely involved in the killings. They haven’t spoken in years, but Vakov can’t let his brother down, and investigates. But the deeper he goes, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes, and Vakov discovers that the war might not be over after all. It’ll take everything he has to unearth this terrible secret, although doing so might mean betraying his brother. If his own body doesn’t betray him first.

A vibrant and talented new voice in SFF: alien technology, addictive upgrades, a soldier determined to protect his family, and a thief who is prepared to burn the world down . . .

This is a killer plot synopsis, and I personally think that any story based around this clever idea is going to be pretty darn awesome. Former alien-fighting biosoldiers dealing with an addiction issues attempting to investigate a murder and conspiracy is a really compelling concept, and I cannot wait to see how it turns out. I really think that Stormblood has a lot of potential as a book, and I will definitely be checking out this intriguing sounding science fiction novel when it is released.

Waiting on Wednesday – Aurora Burning, TRUEL1F3 and Empire of the Vampire

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this Waiting on Wednesday, I check out three intriguing books coming out later this year which have all been authored by Australian author Jay Kristoff.

Kristoff is a bestselling science fiction and fantasy author who is currently one of the top writers of young adult fiction in the world today. Kristoff has been absolutely dominating the young adult market ever since his debut in 2012, Stormdancer, the first book in The Lotus War series. Since then he has gone one to produce a number of impressive books, including his highly regarded The Nevernight Chronicle, which concluded last year, and The Illuminae Files, which he co-authored with fellow Australian Amie Kaufman. Kristoff is an impressively prolific writer who has the ability to produce a number of excellent books each year. In 2019 alone he produced three separate novels, Aurora Rising, DEV1At3 and Darkdawn, all of which were entries in three different series. I actually only became familiar with Kristoff’s work last year when I ended up reading two of his three 2019 releases, both of which really impressed me with their inventive, fast-paced stories that were loaded with cool science fiction elements and enjoyable humour. As a result, I fully intend to read all three of these upcoming books and thought it would be interesting to examine all three of them in this one Waiting on Wednesday post.

Aurora Burning Cover

The first one of Kristoff’s books to be released is the young adult fiction novel, Aurora Burning. Aurora Burning is the sequel to 2019’s Aurora Rising and is also the second book in The Aurora Cycle, which he is again co-writing with Amie Kaufman. Aurora Rising, which is set in the far future, followed a mismatched crew of youths who are members of an interstellar peacekeeping group. Their first mission sees them forced to go rogue and investigate the hidden secrets of a mysterious girl, Aurora, who they rescued from stasis aboard an ancient transport ship. This turned into a fantastic and action-packed thrill ride that I really enjoyed, and I ended up giving it a full five stars when I reviewed it. As a result, I am really keen to check out the sequel, especially as Kristoff and Kaufman are going to continue a number of the fun story threads from the first book. Aurora Burning is currently set for release 28 April 2020 and I have high hopes that it will be just as much fun as the first entry in this series.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Our heroes are back… kind of. From the bestselling co-authors of the Illuminae Files comes the second book in the epic series about a squad of misfits, losers, and discipline cases who just might be the galaxy’s best hope for survival.

First, the bad news: an ancient evil—you know, your standard consume-all-life-in-the-galaxy deal—is about to be unleashed. The good news? Squad 312 is standing by to save the day. They’ve just got to take care of a few small distractions first.

Like the clan of gremps who’d like to rearrange their favorite faces.

And the cadre of illegit GIA agents with creepy flowers where their eyes used to be, who’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on Auri.

Then there’s Kal’s long-lost sister, who’s not exactly happy to see her baby brother, and has a Syldrathi army at her back. With half the known galaxy on their tails, Squad 312 has never felt so wanted.

When they learn the Hadfield has been found, it’s time to come out of hiding. Two centuries ago, the colony ship vanished, leaving Auri as its sole survivor. Now, its black box might be what saves them. But time is short, and if Auri can’t learn to master her powers as a Trigger, the squad and all their admirers are going to be deader than the Great Ultrasaur of Abraaxis IV.

Shocking revelations, bank heists, mysterious gifts, inappropriately tight bodysuits, and an epic firefight will determine the fate of the Aurora Legion’s most unforgettable heroes—and maybe the rest of the galaxy as well.

TRUEL1F3 Cover

The second book of Kristoff’s that is being released this year is another young adult novel, TRUEL1F3, the third and final book in his LIFEL1K3 series. This series is set in the post-apocalyptic America and follows a cyborg, a mutant, a robot and a seemingly normal girl as they find themselves contending with warring mega-corporations, violent fanatics and vengeful murderous cyborgs. The LIFEL1K3 books started in 2018 with LIFEL1K3, which was one of the most popular young adult novels of the year and it was quickly followed up with a second book DEV1AT3 in 2019. TRUEL1F3, which is going to be released on 30 June 2020, follows on from a massive cliff hanger at the end of DEV1AT3 and is set to conclude this epic series with a bang. This book has a really exciting sounding plot synopsis as well as a truly excellent cover, and I am very curious to see how this amazing series ends.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Best friends have become enemies.

Lovers have become strangers.

And deciding whose side you’re on could be the difference between life and death.

For Eve and Lemon, discovering the truth about themselves–and each other–was too much for their friendship to take. But with the country on the brink of a new world war – this time between the BioMaas swarm at CityHive and Daedalus’s army at Megopolis, loyalties will be pushed to the brink, unlikely alliances will form and with them, betrayals.

But the threat doesn’t stop there, because the lifelikes are determined to access the program that will set every robot free, a task requiring both Eve and Ana, the girl she was created to replace.

In the end, violent clashes and heartbreaking choices reveal the true heroes…and they may not be who you think they are.

Empire of the Vampire precover

The final book that I am going to feature in this article is Empire of the Vampire, Kristoff’s first non-young adult fiction novel. It features a rather cool story set on a world where the sun failed to rise, which lead to humanity being conquered by the emerging vampire legion. I really like sound of this novel, and I have a strong feeling that it is going to be an epic and amazing book. I actually just featured Empire of the Vampire on my Top Ten Books I Predict Will be 5 Star Reads list, and I truly believe that based on its awesome sounding plot, this book has the potential to be a perfect five star novel. I am a tad uncertain when this book is going to be released, as I have seen release dates for both September 2020 and September 2021. However, no matter when it is released, I am really looking forward to checking it out.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Twenty-four years have passed since the last sunrise, and for almost three decades, the creatures of the night have walked the day without fear. Once, humanity fought bravely against the coldblood legions, but now, we exist only in a few scattered settlements—tiny sparks of light in a growing sea of darkness.

Gabriel de León is the last of the Silversaints, a holy order dedicated to defending realm and church, now utterly destroyed. Imprisoned for the murder of the vampiric king, Gabriel is charged with telling the story of his life.

His tale spans years, from his youth in the monastery of San Michon, to the forbidden love that spelled his undoing, and the betrayal that saw his order annihilated. Most importantly, Gabriel will tell the story of the Grail—the legendary cup prophesied to bring an end to the eternal night, whose location is known to a single person: A smart-mouthed teenage urchin named Dior.

Their journey with a band of unlikely allies would see Dior and Gabriel forge an unbreakable bond, and set the broken paragon on a road to redemption.

But now, the Grail is shattered. And with the cup of the Redeemer destroyed and the last Silversaint awaiting execution, what can bring an end to this undying empire?

As you can from the above, 2020 is going to be an amazing year for fans of Jay Kristoff. I am very excited for all three of these upcoming novels, especially as I know I am going to love each and every one of them.