Quick Review – City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

City of Vengeance Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Cesare Aldo – Book One

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive debuting author D. V. Bishop comes a powerful and exciting historical murder mystery set in the heart of 16th century Florence with the amazing City of Vengeance.

Synopsis:

Florence. Winter, 1536. A prominent Jewish moneylender is murdered in his home, a death with wide implications in a city powered by immense wealth.

Cesare Aldo, a former soldier and now an officer of the Renaissance city’s most feared criminal court, is given four days to solve the murder: catch the killer before the feast of Epiphany – or suffer the consequences.

During his investigations Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the volatile ruler of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. If the Duke falls, it will endanger the whole city. But a rival officer of the court is determined to expose details about Aldo’s private life that could lead to his ruin. Can Aldo stop the conspiracy before anyone else dies, or will his own secrets destroy him first?

City of Vengeance is an awesome and powerful historical murder mystery that I have been looking forward to for a while.  New author Bishop has come up with an excellent story that expertly combines great characters, intense historical detail, and a clever murder mystery into an awesome and exciting tale.  I had an outstanding time getting through this amazing book, and this might be one of the better debuts of 2021 that I have so far read.

Bishop has produced an extraordinary narrative for his debut book which I deeply enjoyed and found myself quickly engrossed in.  This book contains an excellent mystery which is actually a clever adaptation of a real-life historical murder and conspiracy in renaissance Florence which the protagonist, Cesare Aldo, finds himself investigating and attempting to stop after several other related crimes are discovered.  Bishop builds a fantastic and intense story around this investigation as the protagonist goes up against several powerful foes and is forced into deadly situations as his opponents attempt to stop him.  There is also a great secondary storyline about a separate murder which is being investigated by both Aldo and his associates at Florence’s criminal court.  While this other murder is not directly connected to the main murder and conspiracy, they do highlight some of the personal issues surrounding the protagonist and provide some intriguing opportunities for a dastardly secondary antagonist.  I loved the author’s great use of multiple perspectives throughout this narrative, and he really comes up with some intense, action-packed moments as Aldo is forced to fight for his life.  This story ended up having some amazing twists to it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the events of 16th century Florence, and the reader is constantly left on their toes as they witness all the crazy events unfold.  I particularly loved the final sequence in the book, mainly because it was an extremely cathartic moment for both the protagonist and the reader, and it served as the perfect end to this dark and captivating tale.  This was an overall incredible narrative, and I am really glad I got to check it out.

Easily one of the best highlights of this fantastic book was the impressive and realistic setting of renaissance Florence that Bishop brought into being.  The author has clearly done their research when it comes to this iconic Italian city as the reader is shown a detailed and complex view of the city throughout the book.  The various characters explore different parts of this historical location, and you get a real sense of the scale and culture of this city.  I really appreciated the way in which Bishop attempts to highlight interesting parts of day-to-day life in Florence during this period, and I also deeply enjoyed the examination of the city’s justice system, leadership, and political placement in the rest of Italy.  The author also utilises a range of different Italian terms and words into the text in a bid to increase the narrative’s authenticity.  I really liked this clever use of language throughout the book, especially as it enhanced the storytelling without disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Several major figures in Florence’s history also make an appearance, and I was deeply impressed by the way in which Bishop portrays them, as well as the infamous historical events that they are connected to.  I thought that the author did a great job cleverly tying these real-life figures into the exciting plot of City of Vengeance, and it was cool to see their unique tales unfold.  All this really helps to elevate City of Vengeance as a historical fiction novel and this was a captivating and clever dive back into 16th century Florence.

I also quite enjoyed the characters featured in this great novel.  On top of the historical figures who are seamlessly fitted into the narrative, Bishop has also come up with a collection of fantastic fictional characters who the main story revolves around.  While I enjoyed all these characters, I must highlight two in particular: the main protagonist Cesare Aldo and secondary antagonist Cerchi.  Aldo is an excellent hero for this book thanks to his dedication to justice, his maverick personality, his quickness with a blade and his investigative prowess, all of which help him attempt to solve the difficult crime before him.  Aldo gets into some very rough scrapes in this book, and it was a lot of fun to see him get through them and survive.  The risks are especially high since the detective also has to hide his sexuality in order to survive.  This was a fantastic character element for Bishop to include and it certainly amped up the difficulties for the protagonist, especially when he is forced to contend with people like Cerchi.  Cerchi is a fellow investigator in Florence’s criminal court, and in many ways he is the direct opposite of Aldo, in that he is a snivelling, corrupt and selfish individual who cares more about lining his own pocket than justice.  Cerchi spends most of the book attempting to undermine Aldo while also blackmailing prominent homosexuals in the city for large amounts of money.  This leads to even greater conflict with Aldo, especially as Cerchi suspects Aldo’s secret, and this adds a whole new level of drama and suspense to the narrative.  I really liked the inclusion of Cerchi in the story as he was a particularly despicable and unlikeable character who the reader quickly grows to hate and beg for his downfall.  Both characters have some great storylines throughout this book, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which their combined arc ends.

In the end I really enjoyed this exceptional first novel from D. V. Bishop which was a lot of fun to read.  Thanks to its awesome blend of history, mystery and clever characters, City of Vengeance has an exciting and captivating narrative that proved extremely hard to put down.  I was deeply impressed with the way that the author utilised his knowledge of 16th century Florence to create a powerful and compelling tale of murder and conspiracy, and readers are in for a real treat with this fantastic debut.  I look forward to seeing what Bishop comes up with next and I particularly hope that he revisits Cesare Aldo and Florence in his future novels.

Quick Review – The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.

Synopsis:

‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story.  Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school.  The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II. 

The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist.  Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war.  Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers.  This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships.  I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists.  Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict.  These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past.  However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch.  Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative.  This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything.  I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.

One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II.  Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all.  I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period.  The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939.  Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates.  While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it.  I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.

I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story.  Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school.  Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school.  This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down.  Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have.  I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor.  These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality.  Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her.  These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.

Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations.  An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

Quick Review – The Art of Death by David Fennell

The Art of Death Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 4 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 422 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

2021 is definitely proving to be a great year for debut novels and one of the most intriguing examples of this is the fantastic murder mystery, The Art of Death by David Fennell.

Synopsis:

Death is an art, and he is the master . . .

Three glass cabinets appear in London’s Trafalgar Square containing a gruesome art installation: the floating corpses of three homeless men. Shock turns to horror when it becomes clear that the bodies are real.

The cabinets are traced to @nonymous – an underground artist shrouded in mystery who makes a chilling promise: MORE WILL FOLLOW.

Eighteen years ago, Detective Inspector Grace Archer escaped a notorious serial killer. Now, she and her caustic DS, Harry Quinn, must hunt down another.

As more bodies appear at London landmarks and murders are livestreamed on social media, their search for @nonymous becomes a desperate race against time. But what Archer doesn’t know is that the killer is watching their every move – and he has his sights firmly set on her . . .

He is creating a masterpiece. And she will be the star of his show.

This first book from Fennell ended up being quite an enjoyable and intriguing read as this new author has come up with a compelling and dark murder mystery with some great surprises to it.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago and became quite intrigued by the plot synopsis and the extremely cool cover art by Nick Stearn.  I had a fun time getting through it, thanks to the captivating group of characters and clever mystery it contained, and this ended up being a fantastic novel to check out.

At the centre of this fantastic debut novel is a rather good mystery that revolves around a callous and inventively deranged serial killer who kidnaps and kills people in order to feature them in his art show.  The Art of Death’s story follows this case from the discovery of the first three bodies, contained in a gruesome art display in Trafalgar Square, to its epic conclusion after the police engage in a lengthy investigation.  This proved to be a complex and exciting investigation, as the police characters are constantly one step behind the brilliant and sadistic killer as he works to finish off his masterpiece.  This results in a thrilling storyline as the police are forced to rush around and try to save the potential victims once the killer starts broadcasting their upcoming deaths online.  Fennell makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to show off the various sides of this case, whether it be the police investigation or the killer’s sick plans as they kidnap several people from around London with the help of social media.  Fennell also adds an extra layer to the story when the killer starts to deliberately target and mess with the protagonist of the story in an attempt to draw them into his web.  All of this leads to a fantastic and intense conclusion, and I loved some of the twists that Fennell introduced into the story, including some misleading suspects and compelling circumstances.  I had an awesome time getting to the bottom of this dark and disturbing case and I thought that this was a great first mystery from this new author.

The best parts of this great novel were some of the distinctive and damaged characters featured throughout.  The most notable are probably the protagonist, Detective Inspector Grace Archer and the antagonist, the serial killer/artist known as @nonymous.  I thought that the character of Archer was an impressive cop protagonist, a no-nonsense, recently promoted female DI who takes the lead in the case over less capable colleagues.  Archer proves to be a great central character of this book, and I enjoyed seeing her attempt to balance this trying case with her own complex personal life and the distain of several of her colleagues who she has previously alienated with a police corruption case.  Fennell also works in a compelling angle which reveals that Archer was herself a survivor of a serial killer when she was younger, something which still haunts her to this day.  This proved to be an intriguing facet of Archer’s character and one that impacts her role in the main case, although I think that it could have been worked into the main story a little better.

I also very much enjoyed the main antagonist, @nonymous, and Fennell did a fantastic job coming up with a vile and irredeemable killer.  @nonymous is essentially an evil, murderous Banksy who stalks his prey through social media and live-streams his killings as a form of art.  I found myself really disliking this character due to his ego, his belief in his artistic “genius” and the way he ruthlessly preys on people with low esteem, especially as you see several terrible sequences from his point of view.  However, this worked well in the context of the book, as the reader cannot wait to see him fail, and it really amps up the anticipation in the story.  I also appreciated the way in which the killer becomes obsessed with the protagonist and it adds a great additional edge to their story.  I was able to predict who the killer was early in the novel, despite a couple of clever attempts from Fennell to throw the reader off the trail.  Still, the author sets the reveal up really well and final confrontation between @nonymous and the protagonists is thrilling and suspenseful.  Overall, this was an amazing use of characters, and I appreciate the complex protagonist and killer that the author created.

The Art of Death is an awesome debut murder mystery from new author David Fennell which I had a fantastic time reading.  Thanks to this book’s compelling mystery and clever characters readers will quickly become engrossed in the fantastic story and will have fun seeing how the case comes to an end.  I look forward to seeing what Fennell comes up with next, especially if he reuses the intriguing protagonist introduced in his amazing debut.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at a fantastic and fun sounding upcoming debut, The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox.

The Dying Squad Cover

I have mentioned a few times recently that 2021 seems to be shaping up to be a particularly great year for literary debuts and I have already read or highlighted several impressive examples in the last three months.  This trend of awesome debuts looks set to continue later in the year with the release of the intriguing and compelling novel, The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox.

The Dying Squad is an amazing sounding urban fantasy crime novel that is currently set for release in July 2021.  This will be the first book from English filmmaker Simcox, and will follow a murdered detective who attempts to escape purgatory by solving his own recent murder as part of the “Dying Squad”, helped by a spirit guide named Daisy May while slowly losing his memories.  I love the sound of this cool plot idea and I am curious to seeing how Simcox combines the fantasy and mystery elements together and I am hoping for an impressive and captivating read.  Based on the synopsis below, I think that this book has a fair bit of potential and I look forward to seeing how it turns out, especially as it seems the sort of novel that could  evolve into a great, long-running series.

Synopsis:

DYING IS HELL . . . SOLVING YOUR OWN MURDER IS PURGATORY

When Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus storms a Lincolnshire farmhouse, he expects to bring down a notorious drug gang; instead, he discovers his own dead body and a spirit guide called Daisy-May.

She’s there to enlist him to the Dying Squad, a spectral police force made up of the recently deceased. Joe soon realises there are fates far worse than death. To escape being stuck in purgatory, he must solve his own murder. A task made all the more impossible when his memories start to fade.

Reluctantly partnering with Daisy-May, Joe faces dangers from both the living and the dead in the quest to find his killer – before they kill again.

Throwback Thursday – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 April 2000)

Series: Dresden Files – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For my latest Throwback Thursday I finally check out the first novel in the epic and highly acclaimed Dresden Files series, Storm Front, by legendary author Jim Butcher, which is an amazing and impressive read.

Jim Butcher is an outstanding author who has been dominating the fantasy market for nearly 20 years.  While he has written a couple of series, including his Codex Alera books, and some standalone novels, such as the tie-in novel Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, Butcher is easily best known for his Dresden Files novels.  These books follow the adventures of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only official wizard, who solves magical crimes and serves as a protector of the innocent against a range of supernatural threats.  This series has been running since 2000 and with 17 current entries (the 18th is on the way) it is generally considered to be the gold-standard of urban fantasy series.  While I have always heard amazing things about these books, I arrived a little late to the party, having only read the 17th book, Battle Ground, last year.  Battle Ground was a pretty epic read, containing an off-the-chain fantasy war in the heart of the city, and it ended up being one of my favourite novels (and audiobooks) of 2020.  Due to how much I enjoyed this latest book, as well as a general desire to explore the rest of the series, I decided to go back and read the first entry in the series, Butcher’s debut novel, Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is a man who leads an interesting life.  As the only openly practicing magic user in Chicago (his name is even in the phonebook under wizard), Harry scrapes a living investigating small and unusual cases, such as finding lost items and performing paranormal investigations while trying to avoid the attentions of the White Council, a governing body of magical practitioners who have placed Harry on a lethal probation.  However, his latest cases are about to make his life very complicated in ways he never expected.

Two people have been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner, with their hearts bursting out of their chests during an act of passion.  Called in by the Chicago P.D., which has him on retainer as a magical consultant, Harry determines that their deaths were caused by the darkest of spells.  Despite being forbidden by the White Council to know anything about the deadly arts, Dresden begins to dive into the case, determined to find out who is responsible and how they did it.  At the same time, Monica Sells, a local housewife, has provided Dresden with a great deal of money to find her missing husband, someone who has apparently had his own recent misadventures with magic.

As Harry investigates both the murder and the disappearance, he finds himself under attack from all sides.  Not only does the most feared gangster in Chicago want him to drop the case, but the White Council views him as the prime suspect in the deaths due to his deadly past.  Worse, a shadowy figure wants him dead and is unleashing dangerous magical creatures upon him.  However, you cannot keep a good wizard down, and Harry plans to use every trick at his disposal to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even if it burns every bridge he has.

Well, that was a pretty awesome read, and one that I wish I had checked out a very long time ago.  Storm Front is an exciting and clever book that combines a compelling story with some great characters, an interesting urban fantasy setting and a fantastic, humour laden tone, all of which come together into an impressive novel.  Storm Front also serves as an excellent first novel in the wider Dresden Files series, and it was extremely interesting to see it after previously reading a more recent entry in the series.  I had an amazing time with this novel and, while it is a tad rough in places, especially compared to Butcher’s later work, I must give Storm Front a full five-star rating.

At the centre of Storm Front lies a particularly good fantasy murder mystery narrative that sees the protagonist take on some challenging cases that result in death and destruction raining down on his life.  The story starts up quickly with Dresden, whose role as a wizard is more like a supernatural PI, being employed to find a missing husband, while also helping the police solve a twisted magical double murder.  This results in a fast-paced narrative that sees Dresden investigate both cases in his own unique way, which results in dangerous complications as people attempt to either discourage him or outright kill him.  I loved how the story read a lot like a hardboiled detective fiction novel, albeit with a lot more quips and amusing jokes, and this style of writing worked extremely well with the magical elements featured throughout the book.  The narrative gets more complex as the book progresses, with additional side characters, greater lore inclusions and more sophisticated dangers, and I felt that the author was able to work all of this into story extremely well, ensuring that the reader becomes enthralled with the intense magical action, entertaining characters, and outlandish threats.  The author also throws in some clever twists, which includes the protagonist becoming the main suspect in the murders, resulting in a lot of tense and dangerous situations as he tries to avoid everyone coming after him.  All of this leads up to an epic and fantastically written conclusion which pulls all the threads of the story together and ensures that the reader is left wanting more.  If I had to make one criticism about the book, it would be that the identity of the main antagonist/murder is extremely obvious right from the outset, and that ruins a lot of the surprises that the author was clearly hoping for.  However, I still really enjoyed Storm Front’s captivating tale, and it is worth hanging around to see the story unfold.  Overall, I felt that this was an exceedingly strong story and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on it.

Easily the top highlight of this book is the outstanding protagonist and narrator, Harry Dresden (full name: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, named after famous stage magicians), the rogue and public wizard.  Dresden is an amazing and entertaining protagonist who the reader quickly becomes attached to thanks to his antics, morality, unpredictable nature and skills as magic user.  I always enjoy smartass characters, and Dresden is one of the better ones I have read.  A lot of the book’s excellent comedic undertones are thanks to Dresden’s dry and timely sense of humour as he provides some excellent quips and commentary, both out loud and in his head.  Despite being a mostly funny character, Butcher ensures that his protagonist has a hard and dark edge to him that helps to make him even more compelling and intriguing to follow.  Not only does the reader get an in-depth and comprehensive look into his troubled psyche, especially when he is experiencing guilt, trauma or despair, but there are some intriguing hints at his dark past, some of which come into play throughout the book.  I also liked how the author set up and explored Dresden’s magical ability, especially as the protagonist is not the most powerful magical user out there, although he makes up for it through trickery, training and intelligence.  I particularly liked the way in which he was able to defeat an antagonist with substantially more raw magical power with some simple tricks or the use of some psychology, and the author did a great job highlighting his protagonist’s analytical thinking as one of his key strengths.  I also have to say that I really enjoyed the fantastic look that Butcher sets up for his character, with the black duster, the staff and the Blue Beetle car, making him a very distinctive figure.  This ended up being an outstanding introduction to the character, and it will be interesting to see how he develops to the powerful badass that later appears in Battle Ground.

In addition to Dresden, the author also features an interesting collection of characters throughout Storm Front who add some additional, exciting layers to the overall story.  Each of the supporting characters in this novel is very well-written and layered, featuring some intriguing histories (although they all have secrets that will be revealed later).  Many of these characters become major figures in the larger Dresden Files series, and this serves as an excellent introduction to them.  Of all the characters a few really stood out to me, including Bob, an air spirit who inhabits a skull in Harry’s lab.  Bob is a fun, if unusual, character who has a somewhat perverted/voyeuristic streak that causes Harry all manner of trouble and leads to some very entertaining moments throughout the book.  I also quite liked the introduction of Karrin Murphy, the hardnosed Chicago detective who utilises Dresden as her magical consultant.  Karrin is a great no-nonsense character who is one of the few people to call Dresden out on his actions and who has a complex relationship with him in this book.  I really must highlight the introduction of “Gentleman” John Marcone, Chicago’s premier crime boss who is antagonistic towards Dresden for much of the book.  Marcone is portrayed is a stone-cold killer with a hidden past, and there are some great hints at what sort of recurring character he becomes in future entries in this series.  I also thought that the overall antagonist of this novel was pretty good and served as a great counterpoint to Dresden throughout the book.  Despite the identity of the antagonist being rather obvious for much of the novel, I felt that Butcher provided them some complex motivations for their actions in Storm Front, and it was intriguing to see how they slid down into using dark magic.  This antagonist has a couple of fantastic scenes in this novel, and I particularly liked the clever way in which their storyline came to an end.  Each of these side characters added so much to the book’s plot, and I had an amazing time getting to know them.

I also really enjoyed the amazing urban fantasy setting that Butcher came up with for Storm Front.  This series is set in a world where magic is semi-hidden from mortals, although there is substantial dangerous magical activity occurring in the underbelly of cities like Chicago.  The author does a great job of setting up the basics of this fantasy reality throughout the first book, and the reader is given an effective rundown of all the unique features and limitations of magic and magical creatures for these books.  Butcher made the smart choice of starting small with this first book, and while there are mentions of the wider magical world, enough to draw the curiosity of the reader, for the most part the magical elements are limited to what is relevant to the story.  I liked that the reader was not overwhelmed with lore right off the bat, especially as this allowed them to enjoy the cool story, but it is clear a lot of what was mentioned will be explored in far greater detail in the future.  The grimy and dangerous magical cityscape also served as an awesome background to the noir style story contained within Storm Front, and it was great to see the character get involved with both the criminal and magical underbelly of the city.  I had a lot of fun with this setting, and I look forward to learning more about the rules and hidden magical lore in the future.

Considering how outstanding my previous experience with a Dresden Files audiobook was, there was no way that I was not going to check out Storm Front’s audiobook format, especially as it was once again narrated by Spike himself, James Marsters (I also loved him in Torchwood and Smallville, but he was at his best in Buffy and Angel).  Unsurprisingly I had an incredible time listening to Storm Front’s audiobook and I ended up knocking it out in a couple of days, especially as it has a relatively short runtime of 8 hours.  This was an incredible audiobook, not only because the great story translated really well into the format, but also because of Marsters’ fantastic narration.  Marsters did an outstanding job narrating this story at a quick pace, drawing listeners into the story while also utilising a voice that perfectly fits Storm Front’s tone.  I also really appreciated the way in which Marsters dove into the role of the central protagonist, Harry Dresden, and he really brings this maverick character to life throughout the production, especially when it comes to encapsulating Dresden’s dry wit, strange sense of humour and enthusiasm.  Marsters did use similar voices for some of the supporting characters, however listeners are able to easily follow the story without getting confused about who is talking.  Overall, this was a pretty good performance from Marsters (this was actually one of the first audiobooks he narrated), and I know that he gets a lot better in later books, with some varied voices and even greater enthusiasm as a narrator.  As a result, I fully intend to check out the rest of the Dresden Files novels in their audiobook format and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this series do the same.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and captivating debut novel that more than lives up to all the hype that has been generated about it in the last 20 years.  Thanks to the cool story, great characters, and fantastic setting, this was an awesome book to read, and I loved seeing this maverick wizard solving supernatural crimes in Chicago.  Storm Front also served as an incredible introduction to the wider Dresden Files novels, and I was glad to see how this entire epic series started.  I fully intend to go back and check out this entire series over the next couple of years and I am very excited to see what over intense and entertaining adventures Butcher has come up with in.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Debut Novels of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants get a freebie to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I thought that I would take this opportunity to highlight some of the best debut novels from 2020.  I really wanted to highlight some of the best debut novels of last year and I had originally intended to do this list a little earlier, but I could not fit it into my schedule, so I leapt at this chance.

2020 proved to be a fun year for new novels as several fantastic authors appeared on the scene.  I was lucky enough to receive an excellent selection of debut novels from across several different genres last year, and many of these debuts proved to be exceptional and outstanding reads.  As a result, I was easily able to come up with 10 impressive releases for this list and each of the entries below come highly recommended, especially as several were amongst my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I also decided to feature a couple pre-2020 debut novels that I read last year in the honourable mentions section to highlight these as well, as they were some impressive and captivating reads.  The result was a pretty awesome list, so let us see what made the cut.

 

Honourable Mentions:


We Are The Dead
by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

 

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

 

Top Ten List:


Stormblood
by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

 

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

 

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

 

The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat

The Viennese Girl Cover

 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

 

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

 

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem Cover

 

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds Cover

 

Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlings

Assault by Fire Cover

 

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

 

That’s my Top Ten list for this week. I am pretty happy with the varied collection of debut novels I read last year, and I think that all the above authors are going to go on to do amazing things.  Several of them already have second novels on the way this year, and I fully intend to grab them when they come out.  2021 is also shaping up to be an excellent year for debut novels, and I have already enjoyed a couple of awesome debuts that will no doubt make the 2021 version of this list.  While I spend this year compiling which debuts of 2021 are my favourite, make sure to let me know what your favourite 2020 debut novels are in the comments below.

Quick Review – The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 11 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Interested in reading a compelling and clever science fiction novel that takes place across multiple alternate dimensions? You need to check out The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, one of the most fascinating debuts of 2020.

The Space Between Worlds was an intriguing novel that I was lucky enough to receive and read last year.  This fantastic first novel from Johnson was an exciting and deep read, but I completely failed to review it after finishing it and I have been meaning to write something up for a while.  As we have just gotten into the second month of 2021, I have finally had a chance to rectify this by doing a quick review of The Space Between Worlds, which was a truly impressive and captivating first outing from Johnson.

Synopsis:

A stunning science fiction debut, The Space Between Worlds is both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

‘My mother used to say I was born reaching, which is true. She also used to say it would get me killed, which it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.’

Born in the dirt of the wasteland, Cara has fought her entire life just to survive. Now she has done the impossible, and landed herself a comfortable life on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, she’s on a sure path to citizenship and security – on this world, at least.

Of the 380 realities that have been unlocked, Cara is dead in all but 8.

Cara’s parallel selves are exceptionally good at dying – from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun – which makes Cara wary, and valuable. Because while multiverse travel is possible, no one can visit a world in which their counterpart is still alive. And no one has fewer counterparts than Cara.

But then one of her eight doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, and Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her earth, but the entire multiverse.

Johnson has come up with a very compelling story in The Space Between Worlds that follows Cara, who makes a living hopping across alternate realities to obtain useful data and information that her parent company can utilise.  Cara, who originally lived in a violent wasteland slum outside the gleaming city where her employers are based, is given a new reality to visit when her doppelganger from that reality apparently dies.  However, when she arrives at the new world, she finds that not everything is as it seems, and she encounters a vastly different and infinitely more dangerous version of the town that she grew up in.  Her visit to this reality places her in even more danger when it uncovers some long-buried secrets about her own world, including something from Cara’s own past that she has long tried to keep hidden.  This was an extremely compelling and fast-paced story that proved very easy to get addicted to.  Johnson’s narrative is filled with some fantastic and impressive twists and turns as Cara finds herself amid a dark conspiracy that has its roots in the dimensional travel that keeps her employed.  While it is easy to read this book only for the cool science fiction thriller elements, readers will also become enthralled with the deep character moments as the protagonist tries to come to term with who she is and whether all the versions of her are cursed or damaged in the same way.  All of this makes for an excellent story which is extremely fun to read.

My favourite part of The Space Between Worlds had to be the exceptional alternate reality elements that were such a distinctive part of the book’s plot.  In this dystopian future, Earth contains at least 380 alternate realities that can only be visited by someone whose duplicate in that universe is already dead.  Each of these realities is slightly different, with differing personal decisions resulting in changes to the lives and personalities of its inhabitants.  Johnson did a fantastic job introducing the entire concept around the alternate reality travel to the reader, including with a few entertaining quotes and anecdotes, and I liked how the author envisioned how travelling between dimensions could be utilised and how it could happen.  The scenes featuring the jump to the alternate realities are really trippy, and I loved the quasi-religious nature that those interdimensional travellers take as they view the space that exists between realities.

While all the theory, science and practicalities behind Johnson’s version of reality-jumping is cool, the real beauty is the way in which the author works it into the plot of the book.  Throughout the course of The Space Between Worlds you see several different alternate versions of the same dystopian future, and it was really intriguing to see the subtle differences between them.  The real shock is when the latest world Cara visits turns out to be completely upside down, as several key people in her lives have changed dramatically, including Nik Nik, a brutal warlord to whom Cara’s destiny is constantly tied no matter which reality they are in.  Seeing a completely different version of some of the featured characters in this novel really drives home just how significant a single moment can be and how certain events can change everything about someone.  The author works a lot of the cool revelations, similar character histories and unique details about each character across the cosmos into the overarching plot, helping to create a thrilling tale with some powerful and intense character studies.  I had an outstanding time seeing these cool alternate reality science fiction elements coming into play throughout the book and they proved to be a fantastic and clever addition to the narrative.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson was an extremely compelling and cleverly inventive science fiction debut that is really worth checking out.  I loved the complex and fascinating tale of choices, fate and thrilling betrayals that the author wove through the course of this book, and this was a fantastic book to check out.  I look forward to seeing what Johnson will cook up next and I am sure that it will result in another intriguing and captivating read.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

The Frenchman Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 19 January 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 392 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the world of international espionage as debuting author Jack Beaumont delivers an impressive and deeply authentic spy thriller with The Frenchman.

In these turbulent times, France faces threats from innumerable international enemies and terrorist attacks, and it falls to the members of the DGSE, also known as The Company, France’s famed foreign intelligence service, to discover dangers in their infancy and eliminate them.  Alec de Payns is one of the top operatives of the top-secret Y Division of the DGSE, who take on the Company’s most dangerous international assignments.  With a speciality in manipulating targets into turning against their country or revealing their secrets, de Payns is the man on the ground in many of these missions, ensuring that terrorists operations and illegal weapons programs pose no threat to his country.

During his latest operation in Palermo, Sicily, de Payns attempts to infiltrate a dangerous terrorist group who have their sights set on attacking France.  However, before their planned contact and surveillance can begin in earnest, de Payns’s cover is blown and he is forced to flee from the scene, leaving behind two dead bodies.  Returning to Paris, de Payns begins to suspect that he was betrayed by a fellow agent, forcing himself to consider that his life and the lives of his young family may be in danger.

With the threat of a potential traitor hanging over him, de Payns is sent on another urgent mission to Pakistan to investigate a secretive biological weapons facility that is rumoured to be producing a weaponised bacteria for an attack on France.  In an attempt to gain information from within the facility, de Payns begins to establish a new identity to get closer to a person connected to the bacteria production.  However, when he is once again compromised, de Payns must find out who has betrayed him and what their sinister plans for Paris are.

The Frenchman is a clever and exciting spy thriller from an intriguing new author that takes a detailed and captivating look at French foreign intelligence.  This amazing new novel was written by Jack Beaumont, a pseudonym of a former French special operator who worked as part of the DGSE secret service.  Having relocated to Australia, Beaumont has utilised his experiences to create an enthralling spy thriller, packed full of impressive detail and with a central character strongly based around the author himself.  This results in an extremely thrilling and compelling novel that I found to be extremely addictive and which was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

This cool novel contains an epic and impressive story that sees the protagonist engage in a series of high-stakes espionage missions across the world.  Told primarily from the point of view of the main character, Alex de Payns, The Frenchman’s narrative starts of as one of standard international espionage, with the complex and damaged protagonist engaging in some standard missions.  However, the narrative quickly takes a turn into more dangerous territory when de Payns’s cover is blown and it is suspected that someone within his organisation set him up.  Now forced to not only investigate a dangerous weapons facility but also determine who betrayed him, The Frenchman quickly becomes an impressive tale of treachery, paranoia and deceit, with de Payns finding his attention drawn in several different directions.  Beaumont has crafted together an excellent and compelling narrative here, which unfolds in a methodical and deliberate pace.  Every story element is intricately connected, and the reader has an excellent time seeing the protagonist engage in his operations while also attending to his personal missions and his fears over the mysterious traitor in the organisation.  The author ensures that the story goes in some intriguing directions, with some captivating and suspenseful high-stakes scenes pulling the protagonist, his family and innumerable French citizens into lethal danger.  Beaumont sticks in some great twists, especially around the DGSE traitor subplot, and I particularly loved the clever, if somewhat dark, ending.  This amazing story blends in well with the author’s intriguing main protagonist and the insanely authentic detail to create an outstanding spy thriller that readers should be able to power through extremely quickly.

It is impossible to talk about The Frenchman without discussing the sheer level of detail that Beaumont shoves into the novel as he delves into the various aspects of spycraft and modern-day espionage operations.  Readers get a major crash course in every aspect of French intelligence work, from how the organisation works, what sort of operations they run and the sort of people who are employed as French spies.  There is also a huge focus on tradecraft, as the author meticulously details all the various tricks and procedures that operatives are required to perform during operations.  Beaumont features so many cool examples of tradecraft throughout this book, including the creation and maintenance of legends, coming up with cover stories while undercover in other nations, the manipulation and management of contacts for information and how to run a successful surveillance operation.  There is also a huge amount of focus on the various procedures operatives go through in everyday life, not just when they are on missions, including all the different countersurveillance and strategic movements that the protagonist utilises to ensure he is not being followed home.  I also liked how the story depicted espionage missions as relatively low-key and less exciting than people familiar with Hollywood blockbusters would expect.  Rather than the protagonist engaging in major action sequences or single-handedly taking out every single terrorist or spy he encounters, he instead performs complex surveillance operations or discrete undercover contacts, which allows his team to build up the intelligence they need to send in proper combat specialists.  All of this proves to be incredibly fascinating, if a little overwhelming, and I really loved the sheer amount of authenticity that Beaumont brings to The Frenchman by exploring this tradecraft.  While the story did occasionally get bogged down in jargon and acronyms, the author’s attention to detail and impressive insights made for a much more realistic story, which really stands out from some of the other spy thrillers out there.

In addition to this comprehensive examination of tradecraft and international espionage, I was also impressed with how Beaumont examined the psyche of an intelligence operative, highlighted the various struggles that people in this profession experience.  As the story is primarily told from de Payns’s point of view, the readers get a great view of how his job as a spy impacts him: increased stress, panic attacks and a major sense of guilt due to some of the deaths attributed to him.  The Frenchman also examines the strains that this job has on operative’s family life, and the author makes it clear that most marriages to spies do not last due to the constant secrecy and uncertainty.  Beaumont does a particularly good job exploring this through de Payns, as the protagonist is constantly forced to keep things from his wife, while also disappearing for days at end, reappearing mentally wearied and afraid.  These problems are further exacerbated by the overwhelming sense of paranoia that de Payns carries with him as he is constantly worried that his enemies will find out about his family and use them to manipulate or destroy him.  For example, he becomes increasingly suspicious of a new family friend who his wife and kids welcome into their lives, and he spends time investigating them and their family, trying to determine if they are threats.  Due to the story being told from de Payns’s perspective, this new character appears extremely suspicious, and the reader is uncertain whether they are an actual threat or a red herring brought on by the protagonist’s paranoia.  This portrayal of the mindset of the spy is deeply compelling, and I really liked that the author took the time to dive into this, especially as he probably utilised his own experiences to make it even more detailed and realistic.

Debuting author Jack Beaumont has produced an epic and exciting read with The Frenchman, a clever and deeply compelling spy thriller that ruthlessly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go.  Filled with intense amounts of detail and dripping with authenticity, The Frenchman is an impressive and highly enjoyable novel that is strongly recommended.  I had an absolute blast with this debut and I really hope that Beaumont continues to write more intriguing spy novels in the future.