Quick Review – Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

Stay Awake Cover 2

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 16 August 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s most talented crime fiction writers, Megan Goldin, returns with another powerful and captivating read, Stay Awake, a unique and gripping novel that deals with memory, murder and a ton of traumatic suspense.

Over the last few years, crime fiction fans have been getting more and more impressed with the outstanding writings of Australian author Megan Goldin.  Goldin has so far written several epic and clever thrillers, and I have had a lot of fun reading two of her most recent books, The Escape Room (one of the best Australian books of 2018) and The Night Swim (one of the best Australian books of 2020).  Both of these books had outstanding plots, whether it was The Escape Room’s twisty tale of revenge or The Night Swim’s deep and emotionally charged story of justice for women, and I cannot recommend them enough.  After having such an epic time with her previous novels, I was very excited when I received a copy of Goldin’s latest book, Stay Awake, last year.  Featuring an outstanding story with an awesome hook to it, Stay Awake was an epic read that lived up to all my expectations.

Plot Synopsis:

Liv Reese wakes up in the back of a taxi with no idea where she is or how she got there. When she’s dropped off at the door of her brownstone, a stranger answers―a stranger who now lives in her apartment and forces her out in the cold. She reaches for her phone to call for help, only to discover it’s missing, and in its place is a bloodstained knife. That’s when she sees that her hands are covered in black pen, scribbled messages like graffiti on her skin: STAY AWAKE.

Two years ago, Liv was living with her best friend, dating a new man, and thriving as a successful writer for a trendy magazine. Now, she’s lost and disoriented in a New York City that looks nothing like what she remembers. Catching a glimpse of the local news, she’s horrified to see reports of a crime scene where the victim’s blood has been used to scrawl a message across a window, the same message that’s inked on her hands. What did she do last night? And why does she remember nothing from the past two years? Liv finds herself on the run for a crime she doesn’t remember committing as she tries to piece together the fragments of her life. But there’s someone who does know exactly what she did, and they’ll do anything to make her forget―permanently.

In the vein of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and Christopher Nolan’s cult classic Memento, Megan Goldin’s Stay Awake is an electrifying novel that plays with memory and murder.

This was a fantastic and captivating read by Goldin that really highlights her amazing ability as an author.  Stay Awake is a fast-paced and exceedingly addictive novel that grabs your attention early on and refuses to let go thanks to its very clever story.  Starting off with the main character, Liv Reese, finding herself covered in blood and with everything she thought she knew gone or altered around her, Goldin sets up an incredible introduction that sets up an amazing follow up story.

The book gets even more interesting once the author introduces Liv’s peculiar situation: thanks to a past trauma, her mind resets itself each time she goes to sleep and she cannot remember anything from the past two years.  This results in a brilliant story, which features three separate intriguing perspectives of events.  Not only do you get the exciting main story of a confused Liv running through New York City, attempting to get to grips with her lost life, but you also see events from two years in the past which led up to the trauma that claimed her memory.  At the same time, the book also follows Detective Darcy Halliday, who is assigned to investigate a dead body connected to Liv, and soon becomes obsessed with finding the amnesiac protagonist.  These three major plot lines are expertly weaved together as the book continues and you soon find yourself drawn into the exciting mystery of who Liv is and whether she committed the murder that Darcy is investigating.  Goldin also amps up the story by having Liv being chased by a mysterious figure who is intent on finding and killing her to protect their secret.

However, the real highlight of Stay Awake’s story has to be the continued memory lapses experienced by the protagonist throughout the course of her chapters in the present.  Due to her condition, Liv actually loses her memory several times throughout the course of her storyline, causing her mind to completely reset to two years in the past.  This is a very fascinating character element, and I felt the author used it extremely well.  It is very compelling and a little scary to watch Liv make the same mistakes and visit the same people repeatedly, especially as she has no knowledge of the last two years, such as certain deaths or relationships.  Watching her come to grips with her chaotic life, only to lose it again in the next chapter, is simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating, and you honestly cannot tear yourself away from this gripping book.  Thanks to the killer using Liv’s condition against her, the story further devolves into a dark and unique game of cat and mouse, with Liv forced to find answers about her life while avoiding a danger that she unaware exists.  Everything comes together extremely well as the book concludes, and I loved the clever solution to the main mystery of Liv and the various murders, especially as the hints to it are subtly laid down in the three alternate plot lines, even if the protagonists doesn’t remember them.  A truly awesome crime fiction narrative that is expertly written by its talented author, who has produced another very unique crime story.

Overall, I was once again deeply impressed with Goldin, and I felt that Stay Awake was a particularly great novel from her.  Goldin really pulls together a distinctive crime fiction story in this standalone thriller, and I was really glad that the amnesia angle of her plot paid out so effectively.  Stay Awake really helps to cement Goldin as one of Australia’s, and the world’s, most inventive new authors, and I cannot wait to read her next book, Dark Corners, which is set for release later this year.

Stay Awake Cover

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Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher

Dead Man's Hand Cover

Publisher: Ace (Hardcover – 29 November 2022)

Series: The Unorthodox Chronicles – Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Murder, magic and mayhem are about to be unleashed in the impressive urban fantasy debut from exciting new author James J. Butcher, Dead Man’s Hand.

I think it is fair to say that no recent urban fantasy book has intrigued me more than the compelling Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher.  Not only did it have a striking cover, a cool name, and an awesome synopsis, but the author himself is very interesting.  Despite the fact this is his first novel, Butcher is a name that comes with some expectations, due to him being the son of legendary fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Jim Butcher has pretty much set himself up as the gold standard of urban fantasy fiction thanks to his iconic Dresden Files series that follows wizards in modern Chicago.  I am a pretty big fan of the Dresden Files and when I first heard that Jim Butcher’s son was releasing his own book, I was immediately curious about it.  As such, I made sure to get a copy of Dead Man’s Hand as soon as it came out, and I was very happy that I did.  The first book in his series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, Dead Man’s Hand was a superb read that I had an amazing time getting through.

On the mean streets of Boston, a dark murder has occurred whose ramifications will shake the city’s magical community.  The victim was Samantha Mansgraf, an extremely powerful witch and one of the most effective agents of the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, the government department that polices magic users and keeps the peace between the ordinary Usuals and the paranormal Unorthodox.  Her body has been found mangled and tortured, and the only clue is a secret message she left behind which simply reads, “Kill Grimsby.”

This message can only relate to one person, Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, whose future as an Auditor for the Department of Unorthodox Affairs was unceremoniously ruined by the victim.  Now working in a terrible fast food job extremely close to where Mansgraf was killed, Grimsby seems the most likely suspect for her murder.  However, there is one major flaw in this theory; Grimsby is magically incapable of committing the crime.  Only able to cast a few minor spells and hampered by an old injury, there is no way that Grimsby could have killed the victim.  But this fact isn’t going to be enough to stop everyone coming after him.

Targeted by both the Department and the monsters actually responsible for Mansgraf’s murder, Grimsby finds himself in a whole lot of trouble.  His only hope of survival is to team up with Mansgraf’s old partner, the legendary Huntsman Leslie Mayflower, an expert at killing all things magical, and find out who is really behind this gruesome murder.  However, Grimsby and Mayflower soon find themselves caught in the midst of a deadly magical conspiracy, one where every potential loose end needs to be killed.  To survive, Grimsby and Mayflower will need to dig deep and uncover the darkest secrets from Boston’s magical community.  However, can an old broken down Hunstman and a failed witch manage to take on the evil coming for them, or are they about to be as dead as Mansgraf?

Butcher comes out the gate swinging with his first magical adventure, and I really enjoyed the result.  Dead Man’s Hand is a clever and cool new novel that sets up Butcher’s planned series while also presenting the reader with a captivating character driven story, filled with mystery, murder and magical mayhem.  I managed to knock this book out in a couple of days, and it proved to be a wonderful and impressive debut.

Dead Man’s Hand has a great urban fantasy narrative to it that follows two interesting and complex characters caught in the middle of a magical conspiracy.  Butcher kicks the story off quickly, with Mayflower getting involved in the hunt for his former partner’s killer, which leads him to Grimsby, who is initially a suspect, until it becomes very clear he couldn’t have pulled off such a destructive killing.  When Grimsby is attacked by the apparent murderer, the two start to work together and they focus their investigation into finding a dangerous artefact that the victim had hidden before her death.  That leads them into all manner of trouble, including demonic gangsters, freaky constructs, and Department agents, all of whom are coming after them with lethal intent.  This results in a great twisty and slick narrative, as the characters need to uncover multiple mysteries while also confronting the many unusual creatures coming for them.  There are several great action-packed confrontations loaded into this book, and Butcher makes excellent use of his distinctive new magical universe to create some memorable sequences.  Everything leads up to a big and powerful conclusion where, after some personal betrayals, the two protagonists are forced to come together to take out the culprit and save the day.  While the ultimate reveal of who the killer is was a little predictable, Butcher did it in an entertaining way and the stakes were pretty damn high by the end of it.  Butcher also ramped up the tension for the final confrontation and you honestly had no idea how the book was going to conclude and who was going to pull through.  I was personally hooked all the way to end and I came away pretty happy with the conclusion, especially as Butcher sets up some potential sequels in the future and I have a feeling that this is the first entry in an awesome long-running series.

I quite enjoyed Butcher’s writing style for Dead Man’s Hand and I think that the excellent story came across really well in the end.  The story moved at a very quick pace, and Butcher really did not slow down for anything, hitting the reader with a ton of action, intrigue and moving character development from start to finish.  Like most good urban fantasy novels, Dead Man’s Hand had a fantastic blend of mystery and fantasy elements, and you are soon swept up in the hunt for the magical killer, especially as it reveals a complex and deadly conspiracy.  This helped to create quite a compelling and exciting read, which comes across like a buddy-cop romp thanks to the entertaining partnership between the two main characters.  The story is broken up between these two character’s perspectives and you get to see how they come together as a dysfunctional but effective team, and I loved the fun veteran/extreme-rookie dynamic that their partnership achieved.  Butcher further enhances the story by featuring a ton of comedic humour, most of which was brought in by the chatty and snarky main character.  Readers will no doubt notice that Butcher took some inspiration from his father when it came to writing humour, especially when it came to the main character’s snark, as well as some of the very over the top scenes and inclusions.  There are some pretty ridiculous moments, especially surrounding the character of Grimsby (his stint as a food entertainer was fun at the start), and things only get more over the top as you go (let’s just say that there is something very interesting in a box, and leave it at that).  While this was amusing, I was glad that most of the focus remained on the more serious elements of the book, which came together extremely well.  This ended up being a very strongly written book, especially for a debut, and I was pretty impressed with Butcher’s great style and writing ability.

Butcher’s series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, has an interesting urban fantasy setting to it, and I was impressed with the new world.  While I am sure that some will try to unfairly compare it to his father’s urban fantasy world, I felt that Butcher did a good job making it stand out on its own the reader is successfully introduced to many cool key details in this first book.  This series takes place in a version of Boston where the world is aware that magic exists, and magical creatures and magic users are kept in line by the Department of Unorthodox Affairs and their deadly agents known as Auditors.  I was quite intrigued by the inherent bureaucracy surrounding an unhidden magical world and it was fun how wizards are treated in a world where people are aware of them.  The visible magic itself is pretty simple, but effective, with magic users drawing their own inner-magic (Impetus) from within and launching it out using simple keyword spells.  Some of the effects of these spells are pretty fun and the protagonist manages to achieve a lot with some very basic combinations.  Butcher further populates his world with some freaky magical creatures, who give the book a darker and intense edge, especially those human familiars, who make for quite an effective and deadly enemy.  However, one of the most distinctive features of this universe is the Elsewhere, a dark, alternate magical realm that most wizards can perceive and which have its own rules.  The Elsewhere is so weird and crazy that all magic users need eye protection on all the time or else they will be driven mad by the things they see.  One excellent extended sequence sees the protagonist forced to visit the realm (which can be achieved by travelling through mirrors), and it came across as a pretty gruesome place to journey, thanks to all the creepy creatures and its inherent time dilation.  I loved all the cool details contained in this new world and I am quite excited to see how Butcher plans to expand on it in the future.

Aside from the amazing story and intriguing fantasy elements, one of the main strengths of Dead Man’s Hand was its excellent main two characters, who Butcher uses to great effect as alternating narrators of the story.  Both central protagonists are very damaged and complex in their own ways, and their eventual team-up helps them both to develop and escape the ruts they find themselves in at the start of the book.  The main character is Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, an orphaned wizard who was badly scarred as a child in a fire that killed his family.  Grimsby previously attempted to become an Auditor for the Department, but he found his path blocked by the murder victim, mainly due to his inability to do complex spells and because his scars weaken his magic.  Now trapped in an embarrassing dead-end job, Grimsby starts the book off depressed and resentful, with zero confidence in himself.  However, this changes as the story continues and he is able to prove himself to his new mentor character, Mayflower, who, while gruff, helps mould him into a better person.  The one thing he cannot change is his motor mouth as Grimsby is constantly talking and joking, giving off a magical level of snark.  Much of the book’s humour comes from Grimsby’s irreverent view of the world and there are some great jokes flying out his mouth here.  I also loved seeing Grimsby’s inventiveness throughout the book, especially as he can only really cast three weaker spells, which requires him to be very imaginative in how he uses them, especially in self-defence.  There are also some fantastic storylines surrounding his traumatic past, as well as some more contemporary storylines about whether he actually belongs in this dangerous lifestyle or whether he should seek a quieter life.  While it would be easy to compare Grimsby to another snarky urban fantasy protagonist (say the one written by Butcher senior), I think that Grimsby stands on his own, and there are still quite a few layers for Butcher to uncover in the future.

The other major character is Leslie Mayflower, better known as the Huntsman, a bitter retired agent who specialises in killing magical creatures and beings.  Eternally grouchy and bitter at the Department, Mayflower dives into the case seeking revenge and comes across Grimsby, eventually partnering with him.  Mayflower is the direct opposite to Grimsby for much of the book, and I loved how Butcher portrayed him as a past-his-prime killer who returns for one last job.  Shown to be full of regret, self-loathing and a desire for revenge, Mayflower was a powerful part of the book, especially once Butcher pairs him with Grimsby.  These two made for a great team, and watching the positive Grimsby start to have an impact on Mayflower’s personality was a fun part of the book.  Despite still being mistrustful for most of the book, Mayflower soon grows to appreciate the partnership with Grimsby, and it was quite moving to see the character have something to live for again.  While you do see a lot of his personality and intensity in Dead Man’s Hand, I liked that Butcher was a little vague when it came to his past, and I am hoping that the author will dive into more of his history in future books.  Both central protagonists were extremely well written and very damaged in their own way, and this makes for a great story focus, especially as there are some excellent scenes when they start working together.

Overall, I thought that Dead Man’s Hand was an excellent and captivating first book from James J. Butcher, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading.  Fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with all manner of magical chaos, Dead Man’s Hand served as a powerful and enjoyable first entry in the author’s new series, and it comes highly recommended as a result.  I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this series when it comes out and I look forward to seeing how Butcher’s career progresses from here.

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Quick Review – Conviction by Frank Chalmers

Conviction Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 354 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Australian crime fiction debut hits keep on coming with the excellent and highly exciting first novel from Frank Chalmers, Conviction, with takes the reader on an amazing journey back into 1970s rural Australia.

Plot Synopsis:

A town ruled by fear. A cop who won’t be broken. A pulse-pounding debut thriller that pulls no punches.

A STUNNING NEW VOICE IN CRIME FICTION

Queensland in 1976 churns with corruption. When Detective Ray Windsor defies it, he is exiled deep into the state’s west. It’s easy out there to feel alien in your own country.

Royalton is a town on its knees, stricken by drought, riven by prejudice, and plagued by crimes left largely uninvestigated by the local police chief, Kennedy, and his elusive boss.

Mutual dislike between Kennedy and Ray gradually turns ugly as Ray and his new partner, Arshag, uncover a pattern of crimes that no one seems concerned about solving. But when two girls from local immigrant families are found dead and another disappears, Ray and Arshag are forced to take the law into their own hands. Not knowing who to trust, nor how deep the corruption runs, how long will it be before their lives are also threatened?

A spare and uncompromising crime thriller that pulls no punches.


Conviction
is a compelling and fun crime fiction thriller that sets a bold protagonist against a brace of criminals and dirty cops in a remote and hopeless town.  Essentially reading like a contemporary Australian western, with protagonist Detective Ray Windsor acting as the new sheriff in town, Chalmers crafts together a compelling read that is very easy to get through.

Conviction has a very interesting and complex story to it that sees the new cop arrive in the remote town of Royalton and get caught up in a series of crimes.  Not only is he forced to deal with the corruption of his peers and a local crime ring that has been stealing stock and damaging the local farms, but he is also investigating two recent violent deaths of young immigrant women.  This results in quite a fantastic series of investigation elements, as Detective Windsor attempts to solve these crimes while being constantly hampered by his colleagues.  The novel also deals with Ray’s attempt to integrate into the Royalton community, and he soon finds some unexpected connections and friends which draw him in.  Taking place over the course of several months, Conviction’s plot goes in some exciting and intense directions, and the reader is provided with intriguing plotlines that are loaded with action and excitement.  The eventual reveals lead to some big moments, and while the identity of the book’s villains is well-foreshadowed and not especially surprising, watching the protagonist attempt to overcome them is fun.  This ended up being a great and enjoyable piece of Australian fiction, and I had a good time getting through this awesome debut.

Like many impressive Australian crime fiction novels, one of the best things about Conviction is its excellent setting in a rural Australian town.  Royalton is a compelling location, which even in the 1970s, is starting to fall apart and feel the strain as more and more people left the country to live in the big cities.  Royalton has many of the best features that make up a small-town setting, from the sunburned countryside, the various surrounding farms, the neglected buildings within the town itself, as well as a colourful cast of people living in it.  I felt that Royalton in Conviction was a pretty good example of this compelling Australian setting, and the intriguing historical context makes it stand out from other recent Australian crime fiction books.  I particularly liked how Chalmers depicted the town as having a large migrant population, which is an accurate representation of most of Australia, and the stratification of classes that resulted based on nationality and culture gave the story another fascinating dimension that I felt added a lot to the story.  The farms surrounding the town are also under siege by an organised group of criminals who are working to bankrupt them for their own nefarious reasons, and this adds to the tension in Royalton.  All this proves to be rich ground for the intense and compelling crime fiction narrative that Chalmers crafted together, and I felt that this was an amazing setting for Conviction.

However, the best thing about Conviction was the eclectic and troubled group of characters who can be found within.  The author comes up with some great and flawed figures throughout Conviction, and the reader soon gets some intriguing views of the sort of people who would live in such a remote and troubled town.  Naturally most of the focus is on Detective Ray Windsor, who immediately finds himself in all manner of trouble once he arrives in Royalton.  Now, I must admit that I had a hard time liking Windsor in this book, as he is a bit of an over-the-top hero who is prone to violence at a drop of hat.  While this attribute does help him out in some of the situations, I was never too attached to him as a character, especially when he flew off the handle.  Still, I liked the compelling background that Chalmers attributed to Windsor, especially his dark childhood, and the portrayal of an honest cop sent out to the country as a punishment was well explored.  There are some great moments with Windsor in the book, and I did enjoy seeing his take on the case and the corruption going on around town.  The author also did a good job setting up Windsor’s growing attachment to Royalton, especially once he gets to know the people within.  This, as well as his commitment to getting the job done, eventually win the reader over, and you are rooting for him to succeed as the story continues.  The rest of the cast are also really good, and I deeply enjoyed some of the other characters featured within Conviction.  I felt that Chalmers did a particularly good job with the villains of this book, and it was satisfying to see Windsor standing up to them and finally bringing them to justice.  An awesome group of characters that Chalmers did a good job bringing to life.

Overall, I felt that Conviction was a pretty awesome novel that the debuting Frank Chalmers should be proud of.  This fantastic novel has a great crime fiction narrative that not only crosses into historical fiction territory but which works as an exceptional example of a rural Australian story.  All these elements work extremely well together, and I had a blast getting through Conviction, which is really worth checking out.

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The Coward by Stephen Aryan

The Coward Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Audiobook – 28 April 2021)

Series: Quest for Heroes – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for a legendary quest with a complex and damaged hero as bestselling author Stephen Aryan presents the first book in his new fantasy duology, The Coward.

Aryan is an awesome fantasy author who has been writing some great books over the last few years.  Aryan debuted back in 2015 with Battlemage, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, which focused on a brutal magical war.  After finishing this initial trilogy, Aryan released a sequel trilogy, the Age of Dread trilogy, which was set 10 years after the events of the first trilogy, which focused on the consequences of the first trilogy, especially the fear and prejudice its magical war brought on every mage in this fantasy world.  I ended up reading the second book in this trilogy, Magefall, and quite enjoyed its interesting story.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to finish the trilogy off or go back and check out some of the earlier books, which I kind of regret.  But I did get the chance last year to read the first book in his new series, The Coward, the first instalment of the Quest for Heroes duology.

Everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows the legend of Kell Kressia, the most renowned hero in all the lands.  At the young age of 17, Kell volunteered to join a band of legendary warriors and heroes on their greatest quest ever: travelling to the far north and killing the Ice Lich to save the world.  Twelve men ventured to the north, and only Kell returned, having slain the Ice Lich, leaving the land’s greatest heroes behind in death.  Kell’s fame as a hero spread throughout the land thanks to song and story.  However, not everything you hear in stories is true.

Ten years later, Kell is living the simple life on his family’s farm, content with the peace and quiet and avoiding people where possible.  However, fate has a funny way of catching up with heroes, and when word reaches the kingdoms of further trouble in the north, Kell is called for once again.  A terrible evil is said to have taken root in the fortress of the Ice Lich, and their power threatens the entire world.

Taking up his famous sword and ready to revisit the dangers up north, Kell sets out.  However, Kell is carrying a dark and desperate secret: he is no true hero; instead he is just a lucky man broken by his experiences and with no intention of returning to hell.  However, caught up in his own legend, and with a new band of heroes forming around him, Kell has no choice but to once again venture forth, even if it means his death.  Everyone is convinced that Kell will once again save the world, but can the hero win when he doesn’t even believe in himself?

This was a fantastic and clever fantasy novel from Aryan that I had an excellent time reading.  Aryan came up with an outstanding story for The Coward, based on a complex protagonist forced to relive his worst experiences.  I deeply enjoyed this cool novel and I managed to power through its entertaining and compelling narrative in no time at all.

The Coward has an awesome and captivating plot that quickly draws the reader in and ensures that they are held captive by the compelling quest.  I was honestly a fan of this book the moment I read the first line: “Kell Kressia, slayer of the Ice Lich and saviour of the Five Kingdoms, tripped on a rake and fell into a pile of horse shit.”  This perfectly set the scene for the entire novel, and showcased Aryan’s fun and compelling take on classic fantasy quest heroes.  The story initially develops primarily around Kell and showcases his severe emotional damage, as well as the fact that the legendary events of the past are mostly false, no matter what the bards and histories say.  Quickly dragged back into the fray by an ambitious king, Kell is tasked with travelling back to the scene of his last adventure and killing whatever evil he discovers there.  Naturally Kell, having learnt his lesson the first time, graciously accepts the request, and then tries to run away the first chance he gets.  However, thanks to a starstruck young man following in his footsteps, Kell is trapped into the mission and decides the best way to survive is to recruit a new bunch of heroes, and soon pulls together a small, eclectic group of rogues and warriors to take up the quest.

Most of these events take place in the first half of the book, and you really get to grips with the central characters while also fully understanding Kell and his pain.  Interspersed with flashbacks to the true story of the original quest, Aryan does a wonderful job of painting the risks of the upcoming journey to the reader, and you know that some brutal events are in store for the protagonists in the future.  At the same time, there is an excellent subplot that shows political intrigue throughout the Five Kingdoms, as a nefarious church attempts to take control of the lands, while the kings use Kell and his quest as pawns in a great political game.  This results in some dangerous moments for the protagonists on their way to their destination, and I liked the compelling and thrilling change of pace the dive into court politics presented.

Everything leads up to the big trek up North that dominates the second half of the book.  What follows is a bleak and captivating series of events that ensures that Kell and his companions hit every single monster and deadly creature that the author could think off, including wraiths, cunning ice sharks and an aggressive herd of lethal arctic beasts.  These scenes are all written extremely well, and Aryan does an excellent job of showcasing the deadly stakes of the mission, and there is even a memorable, and frankly surprising, tragedy just before the final major sequence.  This sequence, which sees the heroes re-enter the Ice Lich’s fortress, is paced extremely well, and leads to a brutal and intense final confrontation with their enemy.  While I did think that Aryan was a little too mysterious when it came to who or what this antagonist was, they certainly left their mark on the story, and it was fascinating to see their impacts.  Aryan fits in a couple of concluding chapters to set up the characters for the next book, while also containing some interesting surprises that will come into play in the future.  The reader comes away from The Coward extremely satisfied, and I felt that this was a very well-crafted narrative that not only stands on its own, but which leaves the reader curious to find out what happens next.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Aryan set this entire narrative up, and I felt that all the distinctive narrative threads fell into place extremely well.  Running at a swift and enjoyable pace, The Coward’s fantastic and elaborate story quickly drags you in, especially with its focus on a damaged protagonist and his new quest.  The author was extremely good at balancing deep and damaging character insights with a fast-paced action narrative, and you really had to feel for the protagonist as he revisited his trauma, while also selfishly encouraging him to keep going with the quest.  There is an excellent layer of dark humour over the entire story, and I liked how the action and adventure of the main storyline was well balanced by the alternate scenes of political intrigue that also set up the main villain of the second book.  I also deeply appreciated the captivating and clever dive into the dark side of an epic fantasy quest, and the traumatic memories of the events really shape the protagonist and the narrative in some excellent ways, while also proving to be an interesting and fun alternate perspective of classic fantasy novels.  Aryan features several fun allusions and homages to other iconic fantasy works in this book, and I appreciated his distinctive take on how a classic fantasy story adventure would really go.

I also quite enjoyed the fantastic and impressive new fantasy landscape that Aryan introduced in The Coward.  This first book is set in the Five Kingdoms, a collection of lands who are currently experiencing hardship, especially with a poor harvest and the increasing cold.  Despite the efforts of the authoritarian Church of the Shepherd to quash them, rumours abound that the Five Kingdoms are facing a threat from the north again, just like they did years before.  Aryan does a great job setting up the Five Kingdoms, and you swiftly get an idea of the many problems and conflicts befalling them, especially as their church is slowly increasing its influence and power, attempting to undermine its kings.  This proves rich ground for the early part of the narrative, and it was amazing to get introduced to this land.  I particularly loved the exploration of the myth of the protagonist throughout the lands, and the impact it had on the people, both in terms of morale and celebration, as well as politically.  Having multiple characters recite a famous in-universe retelling of the original quest was particularly fun, especially as the inconsistencies and blatant lies attached to them soon become extremely apparent.  The best setting in the entire book, however, was easily the North, were much of the second half of the book takes place.  Although it is similar to other famous fantasy winter landscapes, Aryan works to make his fairly distinctive, especially with the unique creatures and threats that lurk within.  The author really makes the landscape seem as brutal, barren and isolated as possible, and it is very intense to see the characters travel through it, particularly when Kell encounters remnants of the original quest, and is forced to relive his previous horrors again.  I had a lot of fun exploring Aryan’s intriguing world in this book and I look forward to seeing how it is expanded out in the sequel.

While I deeply enjoyed the narrative and had a great time exploring the new fantasy realm, easily the best thing about this book is the character work.  Aryan has done a real masterclass with some of the characters in The Coward, and you swiftly get attached to the main band of heroes, especially the protagonist Kell Kressia, all of whom are damaged or hiding something.  Watching them endure through terrible hardship and come together as a group is just wonderful, and I loved how attached I ended up feeling them as the novel progressed.

Most of the focus of the plot is directed to Kell Kressia, the titular coward.  Kell is a fantastic and memorable figure who draws you in with his unique story of woe.  The lone survivor of a legendary quest he undertook as a naïve teenager, Kell suffered a lot during the previous journey, and despite the renown and love lauded upon him, Kell ended up with nothing to show for his quest and has lived a simple life ever since.  In the current story, Kell has grown up significantly and is now content to be alone.  However, when he is sent on another quest, he attempts to flee, only to be dragged in against his will.  I really appreciated the development that Aryan put into Kell, especially as I figured that the twist would be that he’s a fraud.  However, despite the title, you realise that Kell isn’t really a coward; instead he is a deeply traumatised man who is now wise enough not to repeat the mistakes of his youth.  Rather than seeking battle, he tries to avoid it, but when he is forced to complete the quest, he reveals himself to be quite competent and able to lead his companions, even if he doesn’t want to.  I had an amazing time with Kell in this book, and you really sympathise with him once you find out the whole truth behind him.  I loved seeing how much he matured since the original quest, and the canny and realistic new hero is a very understandable figure as a result.  Aryan builds in a bit of closure for Kell in The Coward, especially as he comes to terms with the dark events from his past and finally starts to move on, but he does have to suffer some more tragedy along the way.  I also liked seeing him manipulate and utilise his status as a legendary hero throughout the book, even if he doesn’t believe it, and it was fun to see people who knew in the past underestimate him, not realising how much he’s grown up.  Kell is an excellent and impressive protagonist, and I can’t wait to see what Aryan puts him through next.

Another major character I need to highlight is Gerren, a young and idealistic teenager.  Following Kell’s example from the stories, Gerren finds Kell on his quest and stubbornly follows along, attempting to become a hero in his own right, despite Kell’s many attempts to get rid of him.  Realising that Kell doesn’t want to be there and means to run away, Gerren becomes quite angry and uses Kell’s own legend to trap him in the quest.  However, the further he travels with Kell and the heroes, the more he realises that Kell was right, and he soon regrets his decision.  I loved how Aryan used Gerren in The Coward, as the character essentially ends up being a younger version of Kell, making all the mistakes that his hero did, and becoming a dark mirror to him.  Watching Gerren mimic Kell’s life is pretty moving for all involved, and I loved seeing Kell’s reaction, especially as he tries to save Gerren from all the pain he suffered, which results in some amazing scenes.  Aside from being an emotional anchor on Kell, Gerren also goes through quite a lot of development in his storyline, as he grows from naïve kid to serious adventurer.  Watching his resentment to Kell grow and then fade when he realises what Kell was trying to protect him from is amazing, and you really wish that he would turn back at some point, not just for his sake but for Kell’s.  You also grow really attached to Gerren as the book goes on, and he served as an intriguing companion to the protagonist and really helped amp up the dramatic heft of Kell’s trauma.

Aside from Kell and Gerren, I really must highlight the rest of the fantastic band of heroes that travel with him, as Aryan brings together an eclectic and complex group, each of whom are there for very different reasons.  This includes the mysterious but entertaining bard Vahli, the hilarious pairing of Bronwyn and Malormir, two outrageous heroes with many a tale behind their deeds, and the monstrous but heroic non-human character of Willow.  Willow is probably the most intriguing out of these, as her entire species is something of a mystery, with a strange connection to the events of the plot.  Willow grows to be quite a significant figure as the book continues, and I am looking forward to seeing how the author expands on her in the future.  All these characters and more (the villainous Revenant Mother Britak was a fantastic secondary antagonist), were very impressive, and their unique and powerful adventure, as well as the many deep secrets in their past, help to turn The Coward into an exceptional character driven novel.

Like many great epic fantasy books, I would strongly recommend The Coward’s audiobook format.  Narrated by actor Matt Wycliffe, The Coward flows along at an excellent pace as an audiobook, and you really get caught up in the adventure and epic fight scenes out on the snow.  Wycliffe does some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters, and you really get caught up in their personalities and emotional depths through this narration.  With a run time of just under 15 hours, this is a slightly lengthy audiobook to get through, but I found myself powering through a very short amount of time thanks to the compelling story and characters.  A wonderful way to enjoy this amazing and clever novel.

Overall, The Coward by Stephen Aryan was one of the more captivating and intriguing fantasy novels of 2021 and it is one that is well worth checking out.  I loved elaborate narrative and impressive character work in this outstanding read, and readers will find themselves getting dragged into its compelling adventure tale.  I had an exceptional time with The Coward last year, and I really regret not reviewing it sooner.  I will hopefully read the next book in this duology, The Warrior, in the coming weeks, and I have no doubt it will be just as awesome as The Coward.

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Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2022 is proving to be quite the year for Australian crime debuts, with several compelling and thrilling read already out.  However, one of the more impressive recent debuts is probably the amazing release by new Canberran author Shelley Burr, Wake, a gripping and powerful crime thriller that takes the reader on a wild and emotionally charged ride.

Nannine is a small rural town in the harsh heart of New South Wales, punished by drought and slowly declining as the local agriculture industry starts to deteriorate.  However, Nannine will always have one harrowing claim to fame: the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn McCreery.  In 1999, young Evelyn disappeared from her rural house in the dead of night, right from the bedroom that she shared with her twin sister, Mina.

Now, 19 years after Evelyn’s disappearance, Mina lives a reclusive life on the destocked family farm, desperately seeking some shreds of normality.  However, the shadow of the unsolved case and the subsequent massive media storm that bombarded her family still haunts her, especially as many question whether she had a role in the tragic events, while others constantly attempt to claim the massive reward the family posted.  However, despite the time and her attempts to not get involved in the craziness again, Mina finds old wounds reopened when Lane Holland arrives in town.

Lane is a private investigator and failed Federal Police cadet who has made a living out of cracking cold cases involving missing girls.  Interested in claiming the substantial reward, Lane begins his own in-depth investigation of Evelyn’s disappearance, and his determination and insights soon grab Mina’s attention and she finds herself drawn close to Lane.  However, Lane has his own personal reasons for solving the case, and his dark ghosts could end up dragging Mina down with him.

This was an excellent and captivating debut novel from Shelley Burr, which is already gaining some major recognition, including some major Australian awards.  While I knew I was likely to enjoy this amazing novel, I ended powering through Wake in a day as I got really hooked on its compelling and intense outback story.

I deeply enjoyed Wake’s awesome story, especially as Burr makes sure that it contains all the necessary elements to grab your attention.  This novel starts in the modern day, 19 years after the disappearance that rocked Nannine, and sees newcomer Lane Holland arrive to attempt to solve the case.  The introduction of this sleuth character helps to jumpstart the narrative, especially as his new investigation allows the reader to find out all the relevant details about the old case, while also revealing the lasting issues it had on the various protagonists, including the long-running infamy of being involved with such a major case.  Most of the first half of the book revolves around Lane trying to find his feet in the investigation and get close to Mina, while also finding himself involved in a separate case involving another missing girl.  At the same time you get to know Mina from her perspective, and find out just how messed up she is because of the disappearance and media scrutiny.  All the key characters, major story elements, hints and settings are perfectly set up in the first half of Wake, and the captivating mystery and damaged characters really drag you in and ensure that you become deeply invested in seeing how the case unfolds.

After some big reveals about halfway through the novel, the story intensifies even further, especially once you fully understand Lane’s drive and get to know the characters even better.  There are some compelling twists and turns in this second half of the book, with multiple theories and red herrings to cleverly distract the reader, while major personal moments hit all the key characters.  This all perfectly sets up the big finale, as all the plot points, tragic backstories and hidden hints come together extremely well for the major reveal.  I really liked how Wake’s story concluded, and I think both the solution to the mysteries and the resolution of all the character arcs was pretty ingenious, especially with how well it tied together the various character’s secrets, histories and regrets.  Overall, the reader will come away very satisfied with how everything is tied up, and this ended up being a very impressive and compelling narrative that was well-paced and loaded with some great surprises, major moments, and a very intriguing central mystery.

There were many cool elements to Wake that I deeply enjoyed and which I felt helped to enhance the mystery-laden story.  I liked the rural setting of Nannine, a fictional town that captures the heart of feel of many rural Australian communities, especially those that are suffering from many issues such as drought and the slow decline of the agricultural economy.  This decaying agricultural town serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing story, and you really get to see how the small-town vibes and attitudes affect the investigation of the case.  I also appreciated the fantastic dive into the over-the-top press coverage that surrounds famous crime cases.  The disappearance attracted a massive media focus, and Burr spends a lot of time exploring how it initially covered the case, how it morphed over the years, and the lasting impact that growing up as a media sensation had on both Mina and the other supporting characters from Nannine.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of how the case became a favourite of true-crime fanatics, which is primarily shown through a series of posts on the murder forum that appears in front of multiple chapters.  These posts highlight the attitudes, theories, mindsets and more of the true-crime internet community and serves as an intriguing weather vane for the wider Australian community.  I loved these posts, not only because they were entertaining and realistic but because it proved to be a great way to provide the reader with some interesting context while also having some impacts on the main story.  Throw in the great way that Burr utilised several flashback sequences, some hidden clues in character names, some clever insights into missing person cases, and other outstanding elements, and you have a really impressive book that will easily keep your attention.

I also need to highlight Wake’s awesome damaged characters that the plot focuses on.  Burr has come up with some sensational and powerful story arcs for these great characters, and their various histories, connections and life events add some excellent emotional heft to the story that I really enjoyed.  This includes Mina McCreery, who serves as a major point-of-view character for most of the plot.  Mina is the twin of the disappeared Evelyn, and has spent the last 19 years living in her disappeared sister’s shadow.  Not only did she have to deal with the emotional backlash of her sister being either killed or abducted but she also had to experience the intense media scrutiny and other issues associated with the major case, especially as her mother ended up becoming a media sensation to keep the focus on Evelyn’s case.  Due to this, the strained relationship she had with her sorrowful mother, and certain suspicions from some that she had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, Mina now lives a solitary life, avoiding most people and not having many friends.  This makes her rather standoffish, angry and a little paranoid (for good reason) for most of the novel, and she has a hard time connecting to anyone, especially Lane.  The events of this book really shock her in some major ways, as the years of repressed trauma and emotional uncertainty come to the surface again, especially once secrets and long-hidden truths come to the surface.  I felt that the author did an amazing job highlighting all the major issues contained within Mina’s psyche, and the subsequent emotional moments were a fantastic and powerful part of the book.

Aside from Mina, the other major character in Wake that I need to discuss is private investigator Lane Holland, who arrives in Nannine to investigate the case.  Burr created something really impressive in Lane, a former police cadet turned private investigator, as he ends up having one of the more intense and memorable character arcs in the entire novel.  Initially seen as an unwelcome outsider by most of the other characters, apparently interested in only the reward money, Lane is able to prove himself to Mina and other characters and manages to gain their trust.  However, everything you think you know about Lane is blown out the water when you find out his surprising connection to the case, as well as his motivations for investigating it.  Burr sets up the connections extremely well in the early parts of the novel, putting in several clever hints and suggestions, while also doling out useful flashbacks to Lane’s past that explain everything.  These revelations, as well as some insights into Lane’s personal history and motivations, help to both intensifies the story, while also dragging you closer to Lane as a character, hoping that he will succeed for everyone’s goods.  Burr takes Lane’s character arc into some very dark, by captivating, directions, and his entire story comes together in a brilliant and powerful way, especially with some major decisions made towards the end of the book.  These two excellent, intense, and very damaged central characters, really acted as the heart-and-soul of Wake, and I was really drawn into the outstanding narrative Burr wove around them.

With her excellent debut novel, Wake, Shelley Burr has successfully entered the world of Australian crime fiction in a big way.  Featuring a captivating and distinctively dark murder mystery narrative that sees damaged characters bring a notorious cold case into the light, Wake was a gripping and deeply thrilling read that I had a fantastic time reading.  A moving and enthralling novel, Wake was an exceptional Australian crime debut and I am extremely excited to read more stories from Burr in the future.

Wake Cover 2

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One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

One Foot in the Fade Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Fetch Phillips – Book Three

Length: 439 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising fantasy authors, Luke Arnold, returns with the third novel in his Fetch Phillips series, the fantastic and impressive One Foot in the Fade.

Back in 2020, Australian actor turned author Luke Arnold made his fantasy debut with his first Fetch Phillips novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City.  This very clever and intense read, which ended up being one of my favourite debuts of 2020, was set in the unique landscape of Sunder City, a formerly majestic fantasy city facing hard times in a world that has just lost all its magic, causing all the fantasy creatures and beings who lived there to become deformed and dying beings.  The story focused on the character of Fetch Phillips, a human private investigator responsible for the disaster, who tries to redeem himself by helping the disenfranchised former magical beings.  Arnold followed it up later that year with a sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, which was just as impressive and exciting as the first book.  Both these novels were extremely good, and they perfectly set up Arnold’s intriguing and magic-less universe.  I have been rather keen to see how the story continues so I was quite excited when I received a copy of the third book, One Foot in the Fade, a few weeks ago.

A new dawn has risen in the formerly magical Sunder City.  Under the leadership of human business mogul Thurston Niles, the city is entering a technological age, leaving behind its mystical roots and providing everyone, both human and former magical being, with cars, guns and electricity to service their needs.  Most are content with the new way of life, all except man-for-hire Fetch Phillips.  Still ridden with guilt for the role he played in destroying the world, Fetch spends his days taking on odd jobs for former magical beings while also desperately searching for any way to bring back the magic.

After his latest assignment, recovering stolen artefacts still containing traces of their power, ends badly, Fetch’s hopes for bringing back magic are at an all-time low, until a new clue literally and fatally lands at his feet.  An Angel has fallen from the sky at a great height, his formerly decayed wings once again feathered and whole, clearly the result of magic.  But who or what is responsible for reinvigorating the unfortunate Angel’s magic?

Desperate to uncover the roots of this new mystery, Fetch discovers a former Genie, Khay, whose body is slowly losing its hold on reality.  Still apparently capable of granting wishes, including returning a person’s magic to them, Khay may be the best chance for Fetch to redeem himself.  However, in order to make her powerful enough to bring magic back, Khay requires a legendary crown located at the deadly and isolated Wizard city of Incava.  Pulling together a small team, Fetch embarks for Incava to reclaim the crown.  But the further Fetch goes on his quest, the more he begins to realise that not everything is as it seems.  Blinded by his obsession with magic and redemption, Fetch walks a dangerous path that may end up damning him once again.

This was another extremely awesome read from Arnold who continues to showcase his impressive talent as a fantasy author.  One Foot in the Fade did a brilliant job continuing from the previous Fetch Philips novels, and I loved revisiting the deformed and depressed world of Sunder City.  Loaded with complex characters and powerful settings, this latest story was particularly captivating, and I think that One Foot in the Fade is probably Arnold’s best novel yet.

I really appreciated the powerful and intriguing narrative contained with One Foot in the Fade as Arnold has come up with some deeply fascinating and intense storylines that make this novel very hard to put down.  Taking place shortly after Dead Man in a Ditch, One Foot in the Fade’s story places Fetch Phillips right into the action as he attempts to recover some magical artefacts.  Thrown off by his villainous corporate antagonist, Fetch falls into despair, only to immediately find a dead angel whose magic has been returned to them.  This leads him into a hunt for the being responsible for the miracle, quickly finding Khay, who reunites his faith and hope in magic.  Bringing together a new team of comrades, Fetch travels outside of Sunder City on an epic quest to retrieve a legendary magical crown in order to empower Khay’s abilities.  This works as a particularly fun and exciting centre to the entire narrative, and Arnold really pumps up the action and danger in this part of the book, seeing the protagonists deal with all manner of dangers, deadly creatures, former allies with their own agendas, a mysterious secret society, a giant Minotaur, and even some surprising and very dark magic.

I had an absolute blast with the first two-thirds of the novel, especially with all its action, intriguing new characters and world building; however, it is the final third that really turns One Foot in the Fade into something truly special as Arnold adds in some intense and intriguing twists.  Despite Fetch’s best efforts, everything turns pear-shaped on him as some of the supporting characters are revealed to be far darker and more damaged than he ever believed.  Thanks to some big and dramatic tragedies, Fetch is forced to make some hard decisions that will deeply impact him and change the entire course of the story.  These later twists and revelations are pretty well set up throughout the first two-thirds and the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which Arnold brought the entire story together in such a clever and enjoyable way.  While there are a few excessive plot points that slightly distract the main story, One Foot in the Fade’s narrative was pretty tight and never really slows down.  I love the cool blend of dark fantasy, detective noir and urban fantasy elements contained within this impressive read, and Arnold has come up with a pretty bleak, character-driven narrative that really gets to the heart of the protagonist while also exploring the possibilities of redemption.  The reader will find themselves getting quite drawn into this epic story, and I myself powered through most of it in a single night.  Despite the author’s best efforts to recap the necessary background, One Foot in the Fade is a little hard to read by itself and I feel that most readers should read the first two books in this series first, although this is hardly a chore.  I really enjoyed the hopeful end note of this third novel, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of the series goes from here.

While the Fetch Phillips novels all have great narratives to them, their best qualities are the unique and striking settings.  Primarily set in the once majestic and glorious Sunder City on the fantasy continent of Archetellos, the stories generally explore how the city has changed since magic left the world.  The first two books in this series saw Sunder City as a decaying metropolis, filled with depressed and dying magical beings who were trying to adapt to the new world.  However, in the second book, an industrious human company is starting to provide technological alternatives to everything formerly powered by magic.  Since then, the entire feel and tone of the city has changed, with Sunder City transforming into an industrious and factory orientated city, with 1920’s-esque technology like cars, firearms (that everyone carries) and neon signs.  I really appreciated the brilliant and logical way that Arnold keeps changing the feel and look of his great setting every novel, especially as every change seems to match the series’s overarching noir feel.  I had a lot of fun seeing the comparisons between the setting’s current technology and the former magical glory, and watching the protagonist compete against the march of progress.  Arnold doubles down with the world building in One Foot in the Fade, with some interesting new additions that I found really fascinating.  Not only are we introduced to multiple new magical races, all of whom have been impacted by the death of magic in their own unique ways, but a large portion of the novel takes place outside of Sunder City, as the characters head to another former major settlement, the Wizard city of Incava.  The journey to and into Incava showcases multiple new interesting features about the larger continent of Archetellos, and I appreciated how much time Arnold put into expanding it.  Incava itself proves to be a particularly haunting and deadly setting for a good part of the book, and the various dangers within really amp up the action-packed story.  Overall, Arnold remains well on top of the cool settings in this novel, and readers will once again be entranced by the fantastic and distinctive setting of this series.

One Foot in the Fade also boasts a great array of complex and damaged characters whose personal journeys and intense pain really enhance the impressive narrative.  This is particularly apparent in series protagonist and first-person narrator Fetch Phillips, a man with a particularly intense backstory.  Due to bad choices in his past, Fetch is moderately responsible for the death of magic in the world and all the bad things that went with it.  This led him into an extremely dark spiral and he has spent the rest of the books trying to redeem himself.  However, this has not been easy, especially as he was forced to go up against his magical mentor and best friend in the second novel and his guilt is at an all-time high at the start of One Foot in the Fade.  As such he is particularly obsessed with bringing back magic in this novel and embarks on the quest to repower his new Genie friend and redeem himself no matter the cost.  This obsession blinds him (and by extension the reader) to the risks of what he is doing, and he ends up endangering his friends, while also ignoring some troubling signs from other characters that hinted at the books tragic ending.  This is easily the most obsessed we have seen Fetch throughout the entire series, and it really fits into his brilliantly written character arc which sits at the core of the moving narrative.  Watching him continue to try and fail is always very heartbreaking, and you really feel for Fetch throughout this novel, even with all the mistakes he’s made.  As such, he serves as an excellent centre for the story, and I have a great time following his personal tale, especially as Arnold has also imbued him with a good sense of humour.  The author also sets up a few intriguing character developments and changes throughout One Foot in the Fade that I think will lead to some very compelling storylines in the future, so I look forward to seeing where Fetch goes in the future.

Aside from Fetch, Arnold has filled this novel with a substantial collection of excellent supporting characters, each of whom adds their own distinctive flair to the narrative as well as a complex and often damaging relationship with the protagonist.  One Foot in the Fade features a combination of new and existing supporting characters, and it was interesting to see who returned after the events of the last book.  It was great to see more of former Witch and academic Eileen, one of Fetch’s main compatriots, who helps him throughout most of the book.  Eileen serves as Fetch’s sense of reason, and her more measured approach to the tasks at hand balance well with the protagonist’s more impulsive nature.  I also enjoyed seeing more of futurist company leader Thurston Niles, who is serving as something of an overarching series antagonist.  Thurston, who was introduced in the second book, is the human businessman whose company is responsible for the industrialisation of Sunder City and all its new technology.  While his appearances are a little brief in this novel, he serves as an excellent alternative human character to Fetch and I am really enjoying their rivalry.  Despite appearing as the villain due to his desire to replace magic completely with technology, Thurston has more layers and he actually appears to enjoy Fetch’s efforts to bring back magic.  Their various interactions in this novel are pretty entertaining, and I look forward to seeing their conflict continue in the rest of the series.

The author also introduces several great new characters in One Foot in the Fade, and their interesting and often self-contained storylines are pretty impressive.  My favourite was Theodor, a Werewolf adventurer who Fetch and his friends hire to help get to Incava.  Despite being disfigured and partially disabled (Werewolves and other shape-changers were also partially transformed into dark human-animal hybrids without their magic), Theodor is a badass hunter and tracker who quickly becomes one of the more likeable figures in the novel.  Theodor serves as a mentor to many of the characters, especially Fetch, and it was fun to watch him teach the city slickers how to survive out in the wilds.  Due to the way that Theodor’s storyline in One Foot in the Fade ends I am very curious to see if or how he returns in the future, and I am sure that Arnold will come up with some plot points elements for him.  The other impressive new character was Khay, the Genie who serves as the book’s sentient McGuffin.  Arnold paints a tragic picture around Khay as a Genie literally fading away due to the death of magic.  Only able to survive through certain magical objects and granting wishes to people, namely returning their magic, Kay is just as obsessed as Fetch to achieve their objective.  However, there is a powerful and captivating alternate side to Khay, and the consequences of her actions will have some lasting impacts in the entire series.  These outstanding characters, and more, are an impressive and very important part of One Foot in the Fade, and I really appreciate how much effort Arnold put into making them so relatable and memorable.

With One Foot in the Fade, Australian author Luke Arnold continues to showcase his amazing literary talent, bringing together an epic new story with his already distinctive characters and settings.  Thanks to the powerful and intense new narrative, this third Fetch Phillips novel is probably Arnold’s best novel so far and it is really worth checking out.  I cannot wait to see how Arnold impresses me with the next book.

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Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

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The Twice-Dead King: Reign by Nate Crowley

The Twice-Dead King - Reign Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 15 January 2022)

Series: The Twice-Dead King – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The fate of Oltyx and his necron dynasty is revealed in Reign, the epic and impressive second entry in The Twice-Dead King series of Warhammer 40,000 novels by Nate Crowley.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to the fantastic and compelling Warhammer 40,000 novel, The Twice-Dead King: Ruin, which followed an exiled necron prince, Oltyx, one of the heirs to the Ithakas Dynasty.  After defending a barren rock in the far reaches of space for centuries, the immortal, metal-coated Oltyx soon encounters a grave threat of an invading alien fleet and is forced to break his exile and head back to his dynasty’s capital planet.  However, he soon discovers that his father, the king, and his court have been infected by a terrible madness and he must find a way to claim power and unite the remnants of his people before it is too late.  I had an outstanding time with Ruin and I was extremely excited when the planned second half of the series, Reign, came out a couple of weeks ago.

Reign takes place directly after the events of Ruin and sees Oltyx, now king of the Ithakas necrons, attempting to find a way to preserve his people after his capital planet was destroyed by the massed forces of the human Imperium.  With the remnants of his people crammed aboard his fleet, Oltyx searches for a safe planet to claim as their new home.  However, the forces of the Imperium are relentless in their mission to destroy all Xenos, and Oltyx’s fleet soon finds itself under pursuit from their massive crusade fleet.  At the same time, Oltyx is forced to deal with the vicious politics of the necron court, with the bickering and scheming nobles hoping to gain power at his expense.

However, the further the necrons run, the more apparent it becomes that the humans will never leave them alone.  Spurred on by his most loyal advisors, Oltyx embarks on a risky plan to find an ancient planet, said to be ruled over by a deadly king and his hordes.  Making use of long-lost technology, Oltyx and his people undertake a deadly trip towards their goal.  However, a far greater threat soon emerges in the very heart of his ship.  The flayer curse that has long infected his people and which drove Oltyx’s father mad has returned, and soon thousands are infected.  Forced to take drastic actions to save his people, Oltyx soon learns the full weight of responsibility and loneliness that all kings must bear.  But this king has a dark secret that will threaten the entire Ithakas Dynasty.  Can Oltyx control the dark urges that reside deep within his soul or will a new twice-dead king rise to reign over the Ithakas necrons?

Reign is an epic and exciting sequel to the first The Twice-Dead King novel, and I had a brilliant time getting through this compelling and fantastic novel.  This book has an excellent story that dives deep into the Warhammer 40,000 lore to explore one of the more mysterious races in the canon while focusing on a conflicted and damaged protagonist.

This latest The Twice-Dead King book had an intense and impressive narrative that I found myself incredibly drawn to.  Reign directly follows on from Ruin and continues several great storylines and character arcs established in the first book.  The book opens with the necrons on the run after the destruction of their crown world by the Imperium, and the recently crowned Oltyx desperately trying to produce a solution while also being assailed by doubts and regrets of his new position.  It really does not take long for the action to kick off, with the Imperium continuing their chase while Oltyx is assailed from within his own ship by treachery, dissention and doubt.  What follows is an intense chase storyline as the necron fleet tries to outrun their pursuers as Oltyx leads them to potential sanctuaries.  This eventually finds the necron travelling through a featureless void for the last half of the book, where they encounter greater internal problems as the terrifying flayer curse rears its head throughout the ships.  This results in some incredibly scary and powerful scenes that dives deeps into the protagonists’ insecurities and fears as he starts a brutal reign over his people.  All this leads up to epic conclusion, which not only features a brilliant fight scene between necrons and Space Marines, but then takes the protagonist on a deep journey to the heart of his enemies and himself.  There are some clever and powerful moments throughout the entire book, and I loved how several inclusions or continued throwaway lines really paid off.  I enjoyed how this book ended and Crowley leaves the narrative open for a follow-up, as there are a few questions left unanswered that I would really like to find out about.

Crowley has a great writing style that I felt really enhanced the intriguing and captivating Warhammer story contained within Reign.  The book’s narrative is well paced, with the plot jumping perfectly between great action sequences, touching character moments and freaky near-horror spots.  The author really lays in the detail during these scenes and the reader is swiftly drawn into the elaborate world of the necron, from the outrageous characters to the massive ships and artifacts.  This level of detail really brought the powerful narrative to life, and I was impressed with how epic and cool it made the various action sequences appear.  I particularly loved one elaborate fight sequence that saw the protagonist and his guards face off against the very best of the Angels Encarmine, including a full Death Company and a Chaplain.  This led to a destructive and intriguing duel, featuring some interesting similarities and a great clash of martial styles.  Reign is primarily a book for the dedicated Warhammer fan, especially as it focuses on an obscure race from deep within the lore.  You also really need to read the preceding book, Ruin, first, as all the key storylines follow through from there.  Some readers could probably get away with only reading the second book, especially as Crowley provide some detailed refreshing context and explanation, but I would strongly suggest going from the start to get the full experience of this fun and addictive read.

I deeply enjoyed how much Warhammer 40,000 lore that Reign features, especially as it dives into the heart of one of the most interesting factions, the necrons.  The necrons, ancient aliens with an ancient Egyptian motif who were made immortal by being encased in metal, are a fascinating race who are somewhat underutilised in Warhammer extended fiction.  However, throughout The Twice-Dead King novels, Crowley has done a wonderful job of examining everything important about the necrons and he soon expands your view of this mysterious and long-dead race, turning them into a very captivating and personable group.  Crowley really dives into the lore of the necrons, focusing on everything, such as their history, their emotions, technology, philosophies, physiology, strengths and their weaknesses.  There is a great focus on the many mental conditions impacting them thanks to their transition from flesh to metal, including the flayer curse which drives them insane and forces them to cut off the skin of their opponents and attempt to eat their flesh, despite their inability to consume anything.  The author brings each of these conditions to life, especially in Reign, and watching the various necron characters attempt to overcome the curses coming for them and impacting their friends is deeply fascinating and powerful.

I really enjoyed the intense sense of tragedy and decline that Crowley installs in the various necron characters, and you swiftly start rooting for them, despite the universe usually portraying humans as protagonists.  There are some major necron moments in this novel, and I loved the range of interesting characters, desolate settings and powerful technology that Crowley cleverly features.  You also must love seeing the rest of the universe through the necron’s ancient and somewhat arrogant eyes, as it makes for some amusing insights.  It was particularly fun to see their opinions about the human fleet coming after them, including the Space Marines of the Angels Encarmine, and their constant disbelief at their crudity and apparent success is a fun part of the book.  The Angels Encarmine are actually an interesting mirror to the necrons, as the Space Marines have also attempted to become better by enhancing their weak initial flesh.  The Angels Encarmine, a successor chapter of the Blood Angels, also share a similar bloodlust, insanity and desire for killing that the necron flayed ones have, and their appearance during the Black Rage is very similar to necrons suffering from flayers curse.  I deeply enjoyed this excellent and captivating examination of this part of the Warhammer 40,000 canon and Crowley has a brilliant understanding of this complex universe.

I also really enjoyed seeing the continued journey of the main character and sole point-of-view character, Oltyx, who is now the king of his dynasty.  Oltyx is a great, damaged character who went through substantial growth in the last novel as he attempted to become a worthy prince and regain his honour, only to discover that his father, the king, had gone insane with the flayer curse, which forced Oltyx to kill him.  Reeling from this and the death of his brother by the humans, Oltyx takes control as the new king and instantly finds himself overcome with responsibility as external and internal threats threaten to overwhelm him.  It is extremely captivating to watch Oltyx attempt to deal with the various dangers and concerns of a king, especially as he is wracked with guilt over his many mistakes and riven with indecision over the best course from his people.  Thanks to his own internal suffering, insidious visions from the past and his own brush with the flayer curse, Oltyx makes some terrible decisions throughout Reign, and his slow descent towards tyranny and insanity is brilliantly portrayed.  The subsequent and intriguing evolution of his character is set up extremely well, and it results in some major changes for Oltyx.  I really hope that Crowley will continue the story of Oltyx in the future as there is still a lot of development and story to follow there.

Like most Warhammer novels I have checked out, I chose to enjoy Reign in its audiobook format, which ended up being a great decision.  Having the complex and detail laden story read to me really helped to cement all the key detail of Reign in my head, and it really helped to paint an incredible picture of the various settings, events and battles.  It also was a pretty quick way to enjoy this great book, as, with a runtime of around 12 hours, most fans can power through Reign in no time at all.  I must highlight the impressive narration from Richard Reed, who also lent his voice to the first book in the series.  Reed has a brilliant voice that does an excellent job bringing all the ancient, proud and inhuman necron characters to life.  I loved the magnificent and powerful tones he gave to the main character and point of view character Oltyx, and the entire rest of the cast are given extremely cool and fitting voices that highlight their distinctive and mechanised personalities.  Reed ensures that the various mental diseases and age-related degradations that the necron characters are suffering really comes through in his voicing of them, and the occasional stutter or lengthy pause between words helps to highlight just how decrepit some of the ancient necrons is an excellent touch.  This was a brilliant and addictive way to enjoy this second The Twice-Dead King novel, and I would strongly recommend Reign’s audiobook to all Warhammer fans.

Nate Crowley continues to shine as a brilliant and talented author of Warhammer fiction, as his latest book, The Twice-Dead King: Reign, was such an awesome read.  Continuing the great narrative set up in Ruin, Reign was an amazing sequel that continued to dive down into the troubled mind of its cursed, necron protagonist.  I loved the amazing and captivating story that followed, especially as it showed the necron in all their bloody glory and revealed just how complex they can be.  A must read for all fans of Warhammer 40,000 fiction; Reign is an outstanding book that I just could not get enough of.

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Kill Your Brother by Jack Heath

Kill Your Brother Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s most brilliant and potentially psychotic crime fiction authors, Jack Heath, returns with a powerful and captivating thriller, Kill Your Brother, which was one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I read all year.

Would you kill your brother to save your own life?

That is the question that Elise Glyk is forced to ask herself after being placed in an impossible situation.  Elise, a disgraced athlete hated by the entire country, is a woman on a mission.  Her brother, Callum, a popular local teacher, has been missing for a month, and the police have been unable and unwilling to find him.  Determined to locate Callum, Elise’s investigation eventually leads her to a dilapidated local farm, where she is shocked to discover her brother being held prisoner in a modified septic tank.  However, before she can rescue him, Elise is captured and thrown into the same hole as her brother.

Their captor is heartbroken former sheep farmer Stephanie Hartnell, who believes that Callum is responsible for her daughter’s death and has been attempting to force him to confess to his supposed crimes.  However, Stephanie doesn’t have room for two prisoners, and while she doesn’t want to hurt the innocent Elise, she needs to make sure that she won’t immediately go to the police.  To that end, she offers Elise a deal: kill your brother and you’re free to go.

Not even considering the deal, Elise attempts to find another way to gain their freedom.  Trying to find a way to escape while also working to prove Callum’s innocence to Stephanie, Elise hopes that someone will eventually be able to find them before time runs out.  However, the more Elise digs into her brother’s story, the more inconsistencies she discovers.  What is her brother really hiding, and how will either sibling react when the truth comes out?

Kill Your Brother was an awesome and impressive novel that I powered through in a couple of days due to its incredible narrative and amazing twists.  This was a great standalone book from Jack Heath, an author from my home city of Canberra, who has written some fantastic thrillers over the years.  This includes his bestselling Timothy Blake series, the third book of which, Hideout, was one of my favourite pieces of Australian fiction in 2020Kill Your Brother was originally released as an Audible original audiobook, with the paperback version I read subsequently rewritten and adapted into a novel format.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and it was an excellent and impressive Australian thriller.

This book has an incredible story that takes the reader on a powerful thrill ride that they cannot get off if they tried.  Told using several character perspectives, Kill Your Brother quickly launches into the book’s deadly and compelling scenario, with Elise, a universally hated woman, attempting to find her brother.  Her hunt, which has been going on for months, has been largely unsuccessful, and the evidence found at her brother house’s, combined with her own reputation, means that everyone in her life constantly brushes her off.  However, Elise’s perseverance pays off when she finds Callum being held in a septic tank in Stephanie Hartnell’s backyard.  Posing as a private investigator, Elise tries to reason with Stephanie while plotting an escape, but she is soon forced into the ultimate no-win situation when given the option to kill her brother.  From there, the story devolves even further, with several escape attempts and mounting danger from their captor, and the two siblings turning against each other as their situation gets more desperate.  As the story progresses, several viewpoints on the situation and the events leading up to it are presented.  As the protagonist attempts to survive you get an interesting view of what Callum is accused of, and the eventual reveal of the full picture really influences the rest of the narrative.  This all leads up to the gripping and deadly finale in which every secret comes out and no-one is left untouched by the revelations and accompanying violence.

I really cannot exaggerate how awesome this cool narrative is.  Heath has gone out of his way to make Kill Your Brother’s story as clever and thrilling as possible, and I loved every single second that I spent reading it.  This book is filled with some brilliant twists and reveals, and Heath does a wonderful job of setting each of them up and slowly revealing them as the book progresses.  I honestly did not see half the twists coming and I loved how several small and seemingly inconsequential details eventually come back with amazing significance towards the end.  Heath also perfectly utilises a series of flashbacks that examine Elise’s past, showing why she is so disliked, while also revealing several clues about her family and the circumstances that lead to her brother’s imprisonment.  This was a really good standalone read, and potential readers are guaranteed a satisfying ending after getting stuck into the unique mystery and scenario.  I deeply enjoyed how this novel flowed, and there were no obvious issues with this being an adaption of an audiobook novella.  The impressive combination of character history, twisty writing and fast-paced storytelling ensured that I was deeply addicted within a few pages of starting.

One of the things that I must highlight is the fantastic central protagonist, Elise.  Elise is a brilliantly complex and sympathetic figure due to her complicated and tragic past, which has led to her current ostracism from her community and the hatred of the entirety of Australia.  I really enjoyed the impressive and complex backstory that surrounds this interesting and unique protagonist, especially as Heath did a great job of gradually introducing the full character history as the book progressed.  The whole angle is perfectly portrayed, including her motivations and the distinctly unfortunate events surrounding her disgrace, as well as the predicted reaction of the ordinary Australian sports fans.  This compelling and damaging backstory gives her quite an interesting insight and set of emotions regarding the events around her, as well as some intense determination to survive no matter the odds.  This helps produce a really fascinating character driven narrative, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the captivating and emotionally rich development that surrounded this brilliant protagonist.

I also deeply appreciated the way that Heath captured the feel of small-town Australia in his writing.  Most of the story is set in the fictional town of Warrigal, which draws a lot of inspiration from the small rural settlements throughout Australia, such as Braidwood, where Heath apparently wrote a good portion of this novel.  I really think that Heath did an amazing job of portraying the attitudes and mindsets of people in these sorts of locations, and you get an impressive sense of the location.  Watching the protagonist attempt to deal with the challenges of being the biggest pariah in her small town is pretty fascinating, and it was also compelling to see some of the limitations of a police investigation in this location, especially when it comes to locating a missing teacher.  The impacts of growing up in such a location also become a major part of the protagonist’s backstory, especially as the pressures of succeeding and representing her family and town drive her to make some mistakes.  I also must highlight the tiny pit that the protagonist and her brother find themselves held captive in.  Heath ensures that the reader gets the full sense of claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped as the book progresses, especially once the characters become weaker and start turning on each other.  This intense and claustrophobic setting really helps to amp up the tension, and you will feel very uncomfortable during the scenes set down there.  Finally, I had a lot of fun with the author’s occasional visits to Canberra throughout the book, mainly because it was interesting to see the author’s take on my home city.  Overall, these settings are perfectly portrayed and the reader gets a real sense of them, especially the small-town lifestyles.  These work in the narrative extremely well, and it was a lot of fun to see the various characters’ experiences and impressions of them.

Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read from Jack Heath, who is quickly becoming one of Australia’s most impressive thriller writers.  This brilliant, dark and exceedingly clever thriller takes the reader on an incredible ride, and I loved seeing all the unique and captivating twists and turns that Heath came up with.  Focused around an amazingly complex protagonist and making full use of the rural Australian landscape, Kill Your Brother’s story is just incredible, and I am still reeling about some of the twists it contains.  This is a highly recommended read that gets a well-deserved five-star rating from me.  I am extremely excited to see what Heath writes next.

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Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

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