Quick Review – The Chase by Candice Fox

The Chase Cover

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 449 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Australian thriller author Candice Fox returns with another fast-paced and intriguing thriller novel, this time utilising an extremely fun prison break premise to create The Chase, a compelling and addictive read.

Candice Fox is a bestselling Australian author who debuted in 2014 with Hades, the first novel in her Archer & Bennett trilogy, a fantastic Australian crime series that followed two very damaged detectives.  She then followed that up with her Crimson Lake trilogy, as well as collaborating on the Detective Harriet Blue series with James Patterson.  Since then Fox, has written a couple of standalone crime fiction novels set in America, including the 2020 release Gathering Dark, which is the only previous novel of Fox’s that I have read and which proved to be a fun and fantastic book.  As a result, I was interested in reading more of Fox’s work, especially after I saw what kind of story her new novel would feature. 

Synopsis:

When more than 600 of the world’s most violent human beings pour out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility into the Nevada Desert, the biggest manhunt in US history begins.

But for John Kradle, this is his one chance to prove his innocence, five years after the murder of his wife and child.

He just needs to stay one step ahead of the teams of law enforcement officers he knows will be chasing the escapees down.

Death Row Supervisor turned fugitive-hunter Celine Osbourne is single-minded in her mission to catch Kradle. She has very personal reasons for hating him – and she knows exactly where he’s heading . . .

I am sure that I was not the only person drawn in by The Chase’s cool plot synopsis, I mean, 600 convicts escaping from prison at the same time, who can resist that?  I really enjoyed this book’s awesome story and I ended up finishing the entirety of The Chase in just over a day.  This was mainly because The Chase had such a strong and captivating start to it, with someone using deadly blackmail to instigate a mass breakout as cover to free one unknown prisoner.  This was one of the more awesome starts to a novel that I have seen, and I really loved the initial moments of this story, with the prisoners all heading off in various directions, including protagonist John Kradle, while other protagonist Celine Osbourne is left in shambles with all her Death Row charges escaping.

Fox soon breaks this narrative up into several smaller stories; you follow Kradle as he makes his escape, you also see Osbourne dealing with the fallout of the escape, and there are short descriptions of some of the other escapees and the people that encounter them.  The main two storylines surrounding Kradle and Osbourne continue in an awesome way towards the middle of the book.  I had a great time seeing Kradle attempt to evade the police and overcome an insane killer who is tagging along with him, while also heading home to solve the murder of his wife and child.  Osbourne’s story was also very compelling, as it details some of the initial hunts for the escaped fugitives, the investigation into who was responsible for the breakout, and the start of Osbourne’s obsessive hunt for Kradle.  The various smaller stories of the other escapees prove to be fun interludes to the main narratives, and Fox also includes key flashbacks to enrich the backstory of her central protagonists and showcase the reasons for emotional and combative history with each other.

Unfortunately, I found the last half of The Chase to be somewhat of a letdown after its outstanding beginning.  Kradle’s hunt for his family’s killer soon becomes one of the least interesting parts of the entire book, especially as it has no connection with the wider breakout.  His investigation is also loaded with way too many coincidences, unusually helpful witnesses, and strange motivations.  The eventual reveal of the killer was honestly pretty weak, and Kradle’s entire storyline only concludes satisfactorily due to a serendipitous appearance from a supporting character.  I was also not amazingly impressed with the identity of the person behind the prison escape, and I think that Fox missed a few opportunities, such as maybe tying Kradle’s personal investigation into a larger conspiracy.  Still, there were some fantastic highlights in this second half of the book, including Osbourne’s gradually changing relationship with Kradle, the action-packed conclusion to Osbourne’s hunt for the organisers of the prison break, as well as the extended and entertaining storyline of one escapee who managed to make the most of their situation.  While I would have loved a couple more extended storylines about some other outrageous inmates, I think that this was an overall good narrative, and I did have a lot of fun getting to the end.

I did really enjoy several of the characters featured in this fantastic novel.  The most prominent of these is John Kradle, the Death Row inmate accused of killing his wife and son.  Kradle is a likeable character, and you are quickly drawn into his desperate hunt for the person who framed him.  Fox makes great use of several flashback sequences to explore Kradle’s past, which paints an intriguing picture of a former recluse who eventually finds love and ends up raising a son by himself.  The reader does a feel a lot of sympathy for this unusual character, and he proves to be a fun protagonist to follow.  The other major character in The Chase is the supervising prison guard of Pronghom Correctional Facility’s Death Row, Celine Osbourne.  Osbourne is a strong and independent character who becomes obsessed with hunting Kradle and dragging him back to Death Row.  I really enjoyed Osbourne as a character, especially as Fox comes up with a very traumatic and clever backstory for her that perfectly explains her obsession.  Both lead characters serve as perfect focuses for The Chase’s narrative, and I had a great time seeing how their arcs unfolded, even if one was a little weaker than the other.

Fox also made use of several great side characters throughout The Chase.  My favourite is probably street hustler Walter Keeper, better known as Keeps, the one inmate at Pronghom who did not escape, as he was due to be released.  Keeps is dragged into Osbourne’s hunt for Kradle somewhat against his will due to his knowledge and intelligence.  Keeps serves as a good supporting act to Osbourne for much of the book, although his character arc goes in some very entertaining and ironic directions as the narrative progresses.  I also quite enjoyed tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, US Marshal Trinity Parker, who leads the manhunt.  Parker is a very entertaining character who serves as a perfect foil to Osbourne’s obsessions, mainly due to her absolute refusal to take any BS from her.  While I do think that Parker was a little over-the-top at times, she was still a fun addition to the cast.  The final character I want to talk about is one of the escapees, Old Axe.  Axe is a geriatric inmate who escapes from Pronghom on a whim and slowly makes his way to freedom.  I quite enjoyed the various sequences that highlighted Axe’s escape efforts, even if they were tinged with a sinister edge, but his arc was one of the more distinctive parts of the book.  All these characters were great, and I was really impressed that Fox was able to introduce them, build up their backstory and also provide satisfying conclusions for all of them in just one novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Chase and I felt that Candice Fox wrote a very entertaining and compelling narrative.  While this book did have its flaws, I had a fantastic time getting through it and readers will find it very hard to put this exciting novel down.  This was an awesome and addictive thriller, and I cannot wait to see what this amazing Australian author comes up with next.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

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Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback Edition  – 2 January 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 320 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.

In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns.  Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found.  As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas.  For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son.  But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.

However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp.  As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny.  But is he truly her missing son?  There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.

As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins.  However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.

This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events.  Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader.  I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible.  I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century.  Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four.  After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity.  In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child.  I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book.  As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story.  This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.

For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book.  Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case.  I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers.  I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child.  I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.

I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book.  There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book.  Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation.  The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case.  Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings.  All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.

Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story.  There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts.  It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it.  I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

You think you know the story of Dracula?  Prepare to have your understanding of one of history’s greatest horror novels completely turned on its head as Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew presents a captivating new story of horror based off Bram Stoker’s notes and his original version of the iconic book.

The year is 1868, and a young Bram Stoker has barricaded himself in the top room of an abandoned abbey.  This room has crosses carved on every wall, mirrors hanging from every angle and garlic smeared around the door frame, while Bram himself is armed with roses, holy water and a rifle.  Outside the room lurks an ancient evil, its greatest desire to enter the room and claim the man waiting within.  As Bram waits for the sun to rise, he writes in his journal, desperate to describe the events that lead to this moment.

The tale he tells is an intriguing tale of horror and mystery set in the midst of 19th century Ireland.  Bram was born a sickly youth whose constant illness stopped him from leaving his bed for most of his early life.  One of the few points of comfort in his life was his nanny, Ellen Crone, who nursed him through the worst of his maladies.  Bram seemed destined for a short life, until one day a miracle occurs and Bram’s sickness is cured by the mysterious intervention of Nanny Crone.  But as Bram and his sister Matilda investigate the suspicious behaviour and abilities of Nanny Crone, she disappears, leaving behind questions about who, or what, she really was.

Years later, it appears that Ellen Crone has returned, as strange and bloody events haunt the lives of Bram, Matilda and their older brother Thornley.  As they investigate further they find that the mysterious Ellen Crone has not aged a day, is accompanied by those who died years earlier and has a strange hypnotic hold over Bram.  But even as the siblings attempt to find answers, they soon realise a far more powerful and malevolent creature is hunting in Ireland, one who will forever change the life of the Stoker family.

This is one of the most intriguing books of 2018, as it is a reimagining of the origin of one of the world’s most iconic horror novels, Dracula, which was originally published in 1897 by author Bram Stoker.  The authors of this new book are the team of established horror writer J. D. Barker, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker.  This is not the first Dracula book that Dacre Stoker has had his hand in, as he also wrote the 2009 book, Dracula the Un-dead with Ian Holt, which serves as the official sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracul is a clever and compelling read that takes a deeper look at the story behind the classic horror novel.  The plot of this novel is apparently based upon Bram Stoker’s notes, journals and around 100 pages that were culled from the original draft of Dracula by his editors.  As a result, the authors of Dracul strongly hint that Bram Stoker and his family actually encountered a vampire, and that his experiences led him to publish Dracula as a warning to people about the dangers that were hidden around them and the apparent weaknesses of these creatures.  There is a great quote at the very start of this novel that the authors attribute to Bram Stoker and indicate was part of Dracula’s original preface: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

This new novel by Stoker and Barker is an outstanding piece of fiction.  Not only is it a powerful piece of horror fiction in its own right but it has a number of clever and intriguing connections to Dracula.  The horror elements of this book are fantastic, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the dread that surrounds the protagonists as they investigate the horrors that surround them and their family.  There are a number of great scenes throughout this book where the characters encounter supernatural elements that slowly seek to drive them mad with fear or horror, and the attacks come from a variety of sources.  I have to mention the fact that the monster who inspires Dracula is particularly fearsome in Dracul and the authors really paint him as a powerful and soulless being far beyond the comprehension of the human protagonists.  I really loved the overall story of Bram and the other Stokers as they find themselves bound to this adventure at an early age and slowly encounter all the horrors around them.  There are some very clever turns throughout this book, and there are some surprising twists.  This is a great chronicle of Bram’s life and the writers even try to answer some interesting unanswered questions, like why Bram Stoker left instructions to have his body immediately cremated upon his death, an unusual custom for the time.

I really loved the way that this story is told, especially as Stoker and Barker have set large portions of this story out in a similar manner to the original Dracula novel.  Like Dracula, a large part of Dracul’s story is told in an epistolary format, featuring a series of diary entries from Bram and Thornley Stoker, as well as several letters from Matilda Stoker.  This serves to provide the reader with a large amount of backstory to the Stoker lives and show how they initially met their first vampire and the crazy events that followed them uncovering her secret.  This epistolary format is used for around the first two thirds of Dracul, and these journal entries are interlaced with short chapters set in the story’s present, with Bram stuck at the top of a tower and an evil force trying to get into him.  These scenes are particularly awesome, as they show strange forces trying to get through the door in front of Bram, while the protagonists utilise a number of techniques to force it back.  As the book continues, the reader is given a view into why Bram is up in the tower, what he is facing and the truth to everything that is happening to him, revealing a completely different story than you were expecting.  All of this is a fantastic and unique way to tell this story, and I felt it added a lot to the book, especially as the lack of knowledge about what Bram was facing in the tower at the start of the book really increased the book’s early horror elements.  These notes are also an item within the story, as the characters combine their journals together and the letters to Nanny Crone appear in a number of places that the protagonists are exploring.  At one point, the characters even arrange some of the older journals together to form a more coherent story, indicating that these journals and letters formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and play into the idea that the events of Dracul could have actually happened.

While this book is a fantastic horror novel in its own right, fans of Dracula will appreciate how this book calls back to the original novel in a number of captivating ways.  For example, the major character of Nanny Crone has her backstory explored at one point and her real name is revealed to be Countess Dolingen of Gratz.  Fans of Stoker’s work may recognise her as a vampiric character featured in Bram Stoker’s 1914 short story, Dracula’s Guest.  While very little about this character was revealed in Dracula’s Guest, Stoker and Barker flesh her out in this book, creating a fascinating backstory for her and an interesting connection to Dracula, perhaps even explaining why she featured in Dracula’s Guest.  There are a number of other interesting features of Dracul that call back to the original novel.  For example, a large part of Dracul is set in Whitby, England, a major setting in Dracula.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of real life historical figure Ármin Vámbéry as a major character in this book.  Vámbéry, a noted scholar and a close friend of Bram Stoker, is considered by some to be the inspiration for Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and in Dracul he plays a similar role, understanding the threat that is before them and providing the Stokers with the tools to fight against the Vampires.  I also really appreciated the vampiric lore that Stoker and Barker put into Dracul, as the vampire characters only have the vampiric traits found around the time that Dracula was published, and not the ideas that have been included in more recent versions of the vampire legend.  As a result, Dracul comes across as an intricate and clever tribute to Dracula, which fans of the original novel will greatly appreciate.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker have produced an incredibly exciting and deeply fascinating novel that breathes new life into the familiar story of Dracula.  Setting the plot around the life of a pre-Dracula Bram Stoker and his family is an amazing idea that works incredibly well to create a dark and captivating horror story.  One of the more unique books of 2018, Dracul is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have an appreciation for one of fiction’s greatest and most iconic monsters.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Five Stars