She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.

Throwback Thursday: The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man Cover

Publisher: Audio Studios (Audiobook – 29 September 2009)

Series: Gray Man – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I check out the debut novel of impressive thriller author Mark Greaney, The Gray Man.

Over the last few years, I have been really enjoying some of the latest novels from the amazing Mark Greaney, one of the leading authors in the spy thriller genre.  Having previously worked with Tom Clancy on his Jack Ryan series, Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  I have managed to check out the last three novels in this great series, which have been some pretty awesome reads, including Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of the best books and audiobooks I have so far read this year).  I also really enjoyed the outstanding military thriller he did with H. Ripley Rawlings, Red Metal, which ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019).  I have long been meaning to go back and check out the earlier books in the Gray Man series, especially as there is a big Netflix adaption coming out soon (directed by the Russo brothers and starting Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans).  I finally got the chance a few days ago to read the first Gray Man novel, which was also Greaney’s debut book, and I am extremely gad that I did as The Gray Man proved to be an exceptional novel with boundless action.

Court Gentry was the very best operative the CIA ever had, and for years he helped take down vital targets the world over.  However, his career in government espionage came to a violent end when Gentry was set up and burnt, becoming one of the most wanted men in the world with a shoot-to-kill order on his head.  With the entire intelligence community gunning for him, Gentry disappeared into the shadows, becoming a private assassin.  Despite his murky profession, Gentry keeps his humanity by only accepting contracts on those people he believes deserve to die.  After years of taking out the very worst gangsters, war criminals and terrorists in impossible situations, Gentry has gained a legendary and is known throughout the business as the Gray Man.

However, after his latest job sees him assassinate a high-ranking member of the Nigerian cabinet, Gentry suddenly finds himself under attack like never before.  The outgoing president of Nigeria now wants the Gray Man dead, and with a powerful French company on the hook for a billion-dollar contract, he has the perfect tool to get his vengeance.  Led by former CIA officer Lloyd, the French company have organised for a team of hitters to take Gentry down for good, but when their first strike fails, they must get inventive.

Taking Gentry’s handler and his family hostage, Lloyd gives Gentry an ultimatum, travel to their compound in Normandy within the next day or he will kill the hostages, including two young girls.  Determined to save his friend’s family, Gentry is forced to traverse the entirety of Europe to get to his target.  However, between him and his destination are 12 elite kill teams from around the world, each of them competing for a massive bounty on his head.  With every eye on the continent watching out for him and no possible backup, Gentry will need to fight his way through more than 100 killers if he is to succeed.  For most men this would an impossible task, however, the Gray Man is anything but ordinary and he is about to show the world why he is the absolute best.

Well damn, now this was an incredible thriller.  I actually managed to power through the audiobook version of The Gray Man in two days especially once I got stuck into the incredible story.  Loaded with a ton of action of spy thriller excitement, this was such a fun and action-packed read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed The Gray Man’s exciting and compelling narrative, which takes the reader on a wild ride through death and destruction.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the book started, as the slaughter of Taliban soldiers in Iraq seemed a tad over-the-top for an introduction scene, it honestly does not take long for the rest of the story to get incredibly addictive and fun.  The moment that the antagonists start targeting Gentry, all bets are off and what follows is an incredible blend of action, adventure and spy tradecraft that is very hard to put down.  I loved the central story concept of Gentry forced to fight his way across Europe, and Greaney did a great job setting this entire scenario up.  This results in an awesome central section of the novel, where Gentry slowly moves through Europe towards his goal, with everyone in the way trying to kill him.  The action and intensity of these scenes are first rate, and I loved the slow, deliberate war of attrition that the antagonists wage against Gentry, with the protagonist forced to contend with a lack of equipment, allies, and later in the book, blood.  This exceptional story eventually leads up to a massive conclusion, with a wounded Gentry storming the castle and facing off the people who have expended a lot of effort into killing him.  The entire story is wrapped up extremely well, and readers are left very satisfied and happy with how everything turns out.  I had a fantastic time getting through this outstanding story, and there was honestly not a single second that I wasn’t amazingly entertained.

Due to its status as the initial novel in the series, The Gray Man has a very self-enclosed narrative, which ensures that all the main storylines are wrapped up by the final page.  While it does serve as a really good introduction to the protagonist and his unique situation, I found The Gray Man works well as a standalone novel, and it does not rely too heavily on details revealed in the later novels.  There are a lot of great features to this book, and I must highlight the incredible action sequences.  The intense violence and powerful fight scenes are beautifully written, and the reader gets a good sense of the characters interactions with his foes.  I also really appreciated the author’s depiction of tradecraft and spy skills, with the characters using all manner of intelligence tricks and assets to try and win.  Greaney makes really good use of multiple character perspectives throughout The Gray Man to highlight the battle of wits between the various players, and I liked how it also increased how impressive and brutal some of the action scenes were.  While I could have probably done without the sections told from the perspective of one of the eight-year-old granddaughters, the rest work extremely well to create a detailed and richer spy thriller.  I loved seeing the opposition put their plan into action to hunt down Gentry, and it was really great to see all the sides of this adventure.  It was particularly fun to see the antagonist’s reactions as Gentry continues to survive against the odds, and the added note of desperation was pretty entertaining.

I also must highlight the great characters featured within The Gray Man, which really helped to enhance this already awesome story.  They are led by impressive action hero Court Gentry (a great name, BTW), who is perfectly built up throughout the novel as a superhuman spy, thanks to his skill, intelligence, and pure stubbornness.  Gentry has a hell of an ordeal in this novel, forced to fight against impossible odds while being hunted by literally everyone in Europe.  Greaney does a good job introducing the key parts of his protagonist’s personality and history throughout the novel, and you really get a good sense of who Gentry is.  I also loved how Greaney showed Gentry slowly getting worn down as the novel progressed, which felt pretty realistic, especially after all the opponents who try to kill him.  These various injuries slow him down and make him sloppy as the narrative progresses, so much so that he is barely standing by the time he gets to the final showdown.  It was fun to see the other characters debating the truth behind Gentry’s previous missions, especially as he has built up a reputation for impossible tasks.  The constant discussion about what he achieved is really entertaining, especially as it causes several antagonists some major apprehensions.  While substantial parts of his history, such as why he was betrayed by the CIA, are not examined here, you still get some great details about him, and I look forward to seeing what else is revealed in the books I haven’t read yet.  In some ways Gentry was a little one-dimensional in The Gray Man and could have used some more depth, especially around his motivations and his feelings about his betrayal from the CIA.  However, this was a great introduction to this ruthless killer with a heart of gold, and readers will enjoy this first great adventure.

In addition to Gentry, Greaney came up with an excellent group of supporting characters who serve as alternate point-of-view characters throughout the novel.  Due to the plot being about Gentry being hunted by everyone in Europe, most of the alternate perspectives are antagonists, and I had fun with the cool group of villains that Greaney featured in this novel.  Each of these antagonistic characters are well utilised and introduced, even if they have a short shelf-life, and I appreciated some of the time put into building them up.  My favourite, or least favourite, of these is central antagonist Lloyd.  Lloyd is a former CIA analyst turned private-sector lawyer who, after stuffing up and forcing his company to work for the Nigerians, sets his company after Gentry.  Greaney went out of his way to make Lloyd as unlikeable as possible, with the character being extremely arrogant, petty, insecure, and vicious, especially as the novel proceeds and he faces setback after setback.  Every scene he is in is a lot of fun, mainly because he is such an annoying figure in them, and this ensures that the reader is constantly barracking for Gentry, hoping that he wins so that he can punch Lloyd in the face.  I had a wonderful time hating Lloyd throughout this book, and I cannot wait to see Chris Evans’s take on him in the upcoming film adaption.

As I mentioned above, I ended up checking out The Gray Man on audiobook, which proved to be an awesome way to enjoy this excellent book.  The Gray Man audiobook has a decent run time of just over 11 hours, and I found myself flying through it in no time at all.  This audiobook format proved to be the perfect way to enjoy this great book, especially as the many intense action sequences come to life extremely well while being narrated.  I absolutely must highlight the book’s amazing narrator, Jay Snyder, who has since narrated all Greaney’s Gray Man novels.  Snyder has an amazing voice for thrillers, and he ensures that the plot of this book moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  I also deeply enjoyed the various voices that he produced, as every character featured within this novel had a very fitting and distinctive voice.  I particularly appreciated the slimy and cocky voice that he gifted to main antagonist Lloyd, which gave the man a cowardly, bureaucratic voice (it honestly reminded me a little of Cyril from Archer), and really helped to make him even more unlikeable.  Snyder also does some fantastic accents for the various international characters featured in the novel, and each of them worked extremely well.  Overall, this was an exceptional way to check out this book, and I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in this novel.

The Gray Man is an incredible and deeply entertaining debut from Greaney and it is one that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This great book had an awesome narrative, loaded up with a ton of action, mayhem and fun characters, and it swiftly turned into an intensely addictive and thrilling read.  Greaney sets up a lot of elements for his future series, and I am really glad that I went back to see where this fantastic series started.  This book comes highly recommend, and if you are a thriller fan, you will love this book.  I am definitely going to have to check out the rest of the Gray Man novels I am missing, and I am looking forward to seeing what over incredible stories that Greaney has in store for me.

Quick Review – Falling by T. J. Newman

Falling Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 6 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 290 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare to never feel safe on a plane again after reading the exciting debut thriller from author T. J. Newman, Falling.

Synopsis:

You just boarded a flight to New York.

There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.

For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.

The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.


Falling
is an intense and exhilarating novel with an intriguing plot idea about a pilot being blackmailed into crashing a plane.  This was the very first novel from author T. J. Newman, a real-life flight attendant, who cleverly utilises knowledge from her career to produce this exciting read.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Falling a little while ago, and I managed to power through it in a few short days thanks to its compelling and fast-paced narrative.

I was a fairly hooked with Falling’s story from the very beginning thanks to a very memorable opening line: “When the shoe dropped into her lap the foot was still in it”.  This great line, despite being part of a somewhat unexplained dream sequence, and it does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the novel.  The story proper gets off to a great start, with the entire scenario set up quickly and the danger to the plane shown in short order.  The book swiftly splits into several separate storylines for the pilot, the pilot’s family, the kidnapper, a flight attendant marshalling the passengers in the back of the plane, and the FBI agent attempting to save the victims.  This mixture of different perspectives produces a rich and intense narrative, and it was great to see the various parts of this dark situation.  This is a very fast-paced narrative with no slow moments at all, at Newman adds in some great twists and turns as the story continues.  There is a great blend of action in the air and action on the ground as the various characters attempts to come to terms with the situation and either save the plan or the pilot’s family.  This all leads up to a big, exciting climax, with the various storylines coming to a great end.  I enjoyed the fantastic story featured in Falling, especially as it was anchored to a compelling cast of characters.  The motivations for the kidnapper were very interesting and well set up, and it was great to see who else was involved in the case.  Some of the supporting characters, such as the sassy attendant known as Big Daddy, were quite entertaining, and Newman ended up wrapping some awesome storylines around them.  This great story really grabs your interest and attention.

A major thing that I really appreciated about Falling was the amazing amount of detail about planes, flight procedure, and the duties and responsibilities of pilots and cabin crew that Newman added to the story.  The author made exceptional use of her experiences in her career to give these parts of the book some impressive realism, and you really get a sense of what it is actually like up in the plane.  This is particularly true when it came to the parts of the book revolving around the hijacking and potential crash, as Newman, who has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the subject (which admittedly is a tad concerning for a flight attendant), does a great job detailing all the counter procedures and issues involved.  These fascinating bits of insider information are worked into the story extremely well, enhancing the various thrilling scenes and ensuring that the reader is immersed even more into the narrative.

Overall, Falling is an outstanding and exciting thriller debut that is definitely worth checking out.  Author T. J. Newman did a great job on her first novel, and I had an excellent time getting through the fantastic story.  I really enjoyed the author’s amazing use of her own knowledge and experiences throughout the story, especially as they helped to create a memorable and clever story.  I look forward to seeing what Newman writes in the future, especially after enjoying the captivating and electrifying Falling.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic and masquerade combine into one of the most creative fantasy releases from the first half of 2021 with The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick, the first book in the Rook & Rose trilogy.

The Mask of Mirrors was a fantastic novel that caught a lot of buzz earlier in the year.  This book was written by M. A. Carrick, the joint pen name of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, two established fantasy authors who are teaming together for their first novel.  This debut novel was pretty impressive and the two talented authors ended up producing an exciting and complex fantasy tale that sees a young con artist attempt to change her fate.

Welcome to Nadežra, a city of iniquity and greed that forms the gateway between two warring cultures.  Many people call Nadežra home, although few truly prosper, with only the great noble houses and their supporters gaining any true wealth.  However, one young woman is about to change everything.  Ren is a former street rat of Nadežra who escaped the city years ago to seek her fortune.  Returning after several years, Ren has taken on an entirely new persona: Renata Viraudax, a mysterious and seemingly wealthy noblewoman from the capital, come calling on her long-lost relatives.  Ren hopes to con her way into the once great noble family of House Traementis and use their name and legacy to make her fortune and ensure a comfortable life for herself and her sister.  But as she begins to worm her way into the family, she soon finds that the life of a noble in Nadežra is far more complex than she ever imagined.

Despite their noble standing, House Traementis is in poor shape, and if Ren is going to make money off them, she first needs to ensure their success.  However, a powerful rival family is seeking to destroy House Traementis, and they will do anything in their power to get their way.  Forced to work with criminals and shadows to achieve her goal, Ren will find just how ugly the glittering nobles of Nadežra can be.  Unbeknownst to Ren, a far more insidious presence is lurking within the city, killing children and unleashing corrupt magic for their own goals.  Worse, this evil has a deadly connection to Ren’s past and wants to use her to destroy everything she holds dear.  Can Ren overcome this evil while maintaining her cover, or will the nobility of Nadežra eat her whole?

This was an extremely captivating first outing from this new writing team, and I deeply enjoyed the cool and compelling story that they came up with.  The Mask of Mirrors is a complex tale that expertly combines intriguing and clever fantasy elements with a thrilling confidence trick, as the protagonist attempts to work her way into high society.  Of course, nothing works out that simply, as the protagonist soon finds herself embroiled in all manner of scandals, plots and deadly feuds, producing an excellent story. 

While I did enjoy the overall narrative, the book did start off a little slow and it took me a while to get really excited about it.  I personally only got hooked when the character of the Rook was added in.  The Rook is a mysterious, Zorro-esque (perhaps more Tuxedo Mask than Zorro) character who haunts the streets of Nadežra, fighting oppression and tyranny while thumbing his nose at authority.  Following a great duel sequence, the mystery of the Rook’s identity becomes a major part of the plot, and I found myself really getting into this and the other interesting storylines.  The rest of the novel flows at a fantastic pace, especially after the authors set up so many fascinating and compelling plot points at the start of the book that slowly come to fruition.  There are some amazing moments throughout the novel, and I was really impressed by a particularly tragic moment that occurred around two-thirds of the way through, which was shocking and surprising.  The entire narrative comes together in an excellent conclusion, providing a satisfying and moving ending, while also setting up some excellent moments for the next two entries in the series.  I did think that the novel could maybe have benefited from either finishing at the big moment I mentioned above, or by trimming around 100 pages out of the middle of the book.  Some of the twists at the end of The Mask of Mirrors were also a little predictable, especially around the identity of the antagonists (it literally could not have been anyone else).  However, I think that the eventual reveal about who was under the Rook mask was handled beautifully, and I honestly did not know which direction they were going to go in for much of the plot.  I had a really amazing time getting through this story, and I look forward to seeing how these two talented authors continue it in the next two entries in the series.

The Mask of Mirrors contains a fantastic collection of characters who offer up a range of different perspectives and vantage points to tell a massive and complete narrative.  The authors behind this book spent a lot of time building up the various characters, ensuring that they had intriguing and tragic backstories, which leads to some fantastic development throughout the course of the novel and the entire series.  The most prominent character is Ren, a former local who attempts to pull off and ambitious con.  Ren is a confident, talented, haunted figure, who experienced great tragedy at an early age and is still trying to pull herself together.  She is forced to return to the city that she fled from years before to achieve greatness and make money and ends up connecting to her heritage as well as being forced to relive her greatest mistakes and traumas.  I loved the fantastic storylines surrounding Ren, and she proves to be quite a complex character.  Rather than being obsessed with money and dislike of the noble class in Nadežra, Ren grows to care for her marks and works to save them and the entire city when the antagonist makes their move.  Ren proves to be an exceptional central character to follow, especially as she provides the most insight into one of the main magical disciplines featured in the book, and it will be very interesting to see how her storyline continues later in the series, especially after she gains a mask of her own.

Other great characters contained within this novel include ruthless rising crime boss Derossi Vargo, a man with great ambition who is willing to risk anything and anyone to achieve his goal.  Vargo, a seemingly self-made man, proves to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling figures in the entire novel, and I deeply enjoyed seeing him work with Ren while enhancing his own plans.  It looks like Carrick has some major plans for Vargo, and he could be an amazing overarching antagonistic figure.  Another excellent character is Grey Serrado, a police officer and friend of the Traementis who finds himself investigating some of the major activities occurring the city.  Grey is a conflicted and damaged character, constantly torn between his duty as an officer and his heritage.  He goes through some major events throughout this novel and looks set to be a major figure throughout the rest of the series.  I also enjoyed Ren’s adopted siblings Tess and Sedge, who act as fantastic supporting figures to Ren and her plans.  Carrick develops them quite nicely and they prove to be entertaining figures who have a long and caring relationship with Ren.  I also appreciated the focus on the members of House Traementis, the people that Ren is trying to con.  The Traementis are a once great house who have fallen on hard times and are slowly falling into oblivion due to a rumoured curse.  While you initially aren’t too concerned with these characters, due to their status as patsies, the three surviving members swiftly grow on you, enough that you eventually start to judge Ren’s continued attempts to con them.  Finally, I have to say that the masked Rook was a particularly awesome character, and I deeply loved his inclusion in the plot.  It was so much fun trying to figure out who he was, and the authors utilised him to perfection to create an outstanding narrative.

You cannot talk about The Mask of Mirrors without discussing the complex and distinctive setting that is the city of Nadežra.  Nadežra is a sprawling, independent city state resting on a delta, filled with palaces, slums, massive buildings and all manner of different people.  Due to its unique history, Nadežra is home to several distinct ethnic groups, the local Vraszenians underclass and the Liganti upper class.  The two ethnic groups are opposites, and there is substantial friction between them, especially as the Vraszenians feel like second-class citizens in their own historical city.  While most of the novel shows the two groups living mostly in harmony, the lingering tension between the two groups becomes a major plot point as the novel, and I think that the authors did an outstanding job highlighting this and using it as part of the story.  Carrick provides detailed explorations of the different cultures between the two groups, and it was interesting to see how it partially paralleled some real-life political situations.  It was also quite interesting to see that, despite the cultural differences and clashes, Nadežra proves to extremely woke and tolerant when it comes to issues of gender and LGTB+ issues.  Not only are there several prominent female figures within the city but there also several homosexual, nonbinary and transgender characters.  I love the way in which most modern fantasy novels are featuring more and more of these aspects in their settings, and this was a great example of that.  The city of Nadežra proves to be a very magical place, and there is so much detail, backstory and culture contained within that the reader will feel like they are actually walking the streets.

Carrick also comes up with several distinctive forms of magic, which are as diverse and different as the various cultures contained within the city.  There are three major forms of magic shown in the book, although I had to say that I found all three of them to be a little less dramatic than you would expect in a fantasy book.  The first one of these is numinata, which is sort of a combination of geometry and astronomy, often using complex glyphs or geometric patterns.  Numinata is generally used by the Liganti and is considered a more cultured and precise form of magic.  The Vraszenian magic, on the other hand, is based on patterns and dreams, and is mostly shown through the protagonist’s pattern reading, a form of tarot card reading which gives glimpses into the past, the present and the future.  The final form of magic is imbuing, which allows the user to put a little bit of their essence into an item or product to enhance its effect.  All three magics are featured fairly prominently within The Mask of Mirrors and prove to give the novel a unique feel, while also highlighting the cultural and social differences between the ethnic groups.  While I did think that much of the magic was a little undefined in the novel, it becomes a key part of the plot, and it was interesting to see how the combination of magics could create some nightmarish results.  Overall, I deeply enjoyed the extraordinary and detailed setting that Carrick came up for The Mask of Mirrors and I found myself getting really lost in its spectacle and details.  While I would have preferred just a little more info about the universe’s magical rules, I felt that Carrick did a wonderful job pulling this together, and it was a definite highlight of this great book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Mask of Mirrors, narrated by Nikki Massoud, who has done several interesting audiobooks in the last year.  While this is a pretty long audiobook (at 23 hours and 13 minutes, it is the 17th longest audiobook I have ever listened to) I am actually incredibly glad that I ended up checking out the audiobook format of this book.  The complex narrative and immensely detailed setting really came to life, and I found myself absorbing a whole lot more of the story and the beauty of the background.  However, the real advantage of this format was the outstanding narration by Massoud.  Massoud did an exquisite job portraying the various characters featured within The Mask of Mirrors, capturing each figure perfectly and providing them with an outstanding and wildly fitting voice.  To achieve this, Massoud utilises a wide array of different voices and accents, which really help you differentiate the various characters, and which help to show their nationality or social status.  I was particularly impressed at how Massoud was able to showcase the various personas of the main character, Ren.  This was achieved by seamlessly changing accents depending on which character Ren was playing at the time.  For example, when Ren was with her sister or pretending to be a local, Massoud would use the rougher, more exotic accent that all the Vraszenian characters have.  However, when the character changed back into the persona of Alta Renata, her voice would become a lot more cultured, mimicking the nobility.  This seamless change between the various voices was perfectly done, and I really appreciated the narrator’s determination to capture the separate halves of the character.  This was some truly impressive voice work, and I think that listening to the audiobook format ended up adding to my overall rating for the novel.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick is an outstanding and moving fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Featuring an excellent narrative, some complex characters and a detailed and memorable fantasy setting, this debut novel from the writing team of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms was an immense amount of fun and I really got into this fantastic story.  The Rook & Rose trilogy looks set to a spectacular series and I am quite excited to see how all the books turn out.  The next entry, The Liar’s Knot, is set for release in December, and I look forward to continuing this great series into the New Year.

Quick Review – Breakout by Paul Herron

Breakout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 291 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for one of the most exhilarating and action-packed novels of 2021 with the ultra-exciting thriller novel, Breakout by Paul Herron.

Breakout is an intriguing and fantastic novel that caught my eyes earlier this year.  This fun book was written by Paul Herron, the pseudonym for established author and screenwriter Paul Crilley.  Crilley, whose body of work includes his Delphic Division, The Invisible Order and The Chronicles of Abraxis Wren novels, appears to have taken this opportunity to dive into the thriller genre in a big way with Breakout.  While I have not read any of Herron/Crilley’s books before, I found myself really drawn to this latest novel due to its outrageous and fun-sounding plot.

Synopsis:

As explosive as a Hollywood blockbuster, this high-concept thriller is perfect for fans of James Patterson, David Baldacci and Gregg Hurwitz.

A LETHAL STORM. THE MOST DEADLY PRISON. WHO WILL SURVIVE THE NIGHT?

Jack Constantine – a former cop who killed one of his wife’s murderers in an act of vengeance – is serving his time in Ravenhill penitentiary, a notorious ‘supermax’ home to the most dangerous convicts in the country.

When an apocalyptic superstorm wreaks havoc across the USA, the correctional officers flee the prison…but not before opening every cell door. The inmates must fend for themselves as lethal floodwaters rise and violent anarchy is unleashed.

Teaming up with Kiera Sawyer, a Correctional Officer left behind on her first day of work, Constantine has one chance of survival – he must break out of a maximum security prison. But with the building on the verge of collapse, and deadly chaos around him, time is running out…

Breathless, exhilarating and brilliantly original, this high-octane thriller is perfect for fans of Gregg Hurwitz, Lee Child and David Baldacci – and blockbuster action movies like John Wick.

As you can imagine, the idea of a supermax prison with all the inmates loose and a destructive superstorm on the way was something that sounded pretty damn awesome and it was one of the main reasons that I wanted to read Breakout.  There were so many cool things that could happen with such a narrative and Herron made sure to produce an epic and fast-paced narrative that is guaranteed to keep your attention through every electrifying scene.

The best way to describe Breakout is that it is very similar to the most insane action movie script you have ever seen.  Herron has essentially written nearly 300 pages of wall-to-wall excitement and movement, as the protagonists are thrust into an unthinkable situation with very little chance of survival.  The author does an incredible job setting up the initial threads of this great story, with compelling and detailed introductions of the troubled central character, Jack Constantine, the prison, the storm, and the other personalities contained within the prison.  The author also makes good use of some flashback sequences at the start that not only tell Jack’s story but also set up some major plot points, such as two characters the protagonist really wants to kill and a major antagonist.  All of this set up ensures that when the mayhem begins, it can go on at a continuous pace, with Jack, the trapped rookie prison guard, Keira Sawyer, and other associates running into problem after problem without any additional background information.  These obstacles include rival prison gangs, flooding, insane winds, collapsing buildings, impromptu fight clubs, a deranged cult leader, and a vengeful gangster.  These inclusions ensure that the reader can barely take a breath without something cool happening, and it is extremely easy to read this novel in one sitting.  All this leads up to big conclusion as the protagonist has to make some big decisions, as well as deal with the consequences of a few good twists that Herron added.  I deeply enjoyed this entire narrative, and action lovers everywhere are going to have an absolute blast getting through this fun book.

Breakout contains an intriguing array of characters, although I must admit that I was not taken by central protagonist, Jack Constantine.  Constantine is a bit of an ass at the best of times, as he is very arrogant and selfish.  I honestly had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the character at times, mainly because he brings all his problems on himself.  However, the deficits of this lead character are more than made up for in some of the supporting characters and antagonists featured throughout the book.  The most prominent of those is Keira Sawyer, a first-day prison guard who finds herself trapped in the prison and needs to work with Constantine to survive and escape.  I felt that the author did a great job with Keria, a strong and passionate character with a hidden backstory.  While Herron could have written Keria as a damsel in distress, he instead showed her to be a tough and resourceful figure, capable of holding her own and gaining the respect of the inmates.  I also really have to highlight Constantine’s friend and cellmate, Felix, the fantastic teller of tales.  Felix is an intensely funny character with a very unique outlook on life and the prison system.  This character is insanely likeable, and together with Constantine and Keria, Felix helps to form an excellent central trio of protagonists who you cannot help but cheer for as the action commences.

I was also quite impressed by the antagonists of this story.  Herron ensures that the protagonists have to face off with a huge raft of different criminals and gangsters as they attempt to make their escape, and it was really cool to see the range of personalities that emerged.  The main antagonist is Malcolm Kincaid, a dangerous and sadistic Miami crime figure who was able to get away with terrible acts of violence for years until Constantine framed him for murder.  Kincaid is rightfully pissed and spends much of the novel trying to brutally kill Constantine and his friends, while also causing general mayhem around the prison, including initiating an involuntary Russian roulette tournament.  Kincaid was an excellent main antagonist, and I loved some of the twists that were revealed around him.  The other villain I really liked was Preacher, a demented serial killer with a major religious bent who convinces some of the prison’s more insane members to join him in a fun little murder cult.  Preacher was a pretty intense baddie, and I loved the inclusion of a murderous cultist and his friends to an already fun story.  The final antagonist I want to talk about is the superstorm itself.  The storm, Hurricane Anna, is an absolute beast that wrecks the entirety of Florida, as well as several other states.  Herron does an amazing job bringing this crazy storm to life throughout the book, and you get to experience a number of powerful scenes where characters encounter Anna in all its windy glory.  The entire storm was an insane and fantastic addition to the plot, and it was so cool to see the character attempt to escape its pure destructive power.

Overall, I felt that Breakout was an extremely fun and exciting novel that was an absolute treat to read.  Due to all the incredible action, crazy villains and major set pieces, this is an outstanding thriller that readers will have a fantastic time getting through, especially as the action never ends.  It honestly would not surprise me if this was turned into a major blockbuster film in the next few years (perhaps with Dwayne Johnson), and it is one that I know I would deeply enjoy.  Highly recommended to anyone who wants to increase their heart rate, Breakout is an incredibly awesome read!

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

Quick Review – Rabbits by Terry Miles

Rabbits Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 8 June 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 422 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Are you ready to check out one of the most unique and creatively complex debuts of 2021?  Then buckle yourself in and get ready to play the Game, as new author Terry Miles presents his weirdly compelling science fiction thriller, Rabbits.

Synopsis:

What happens in the game, stays in the game…

Rabbits is a secret, dangerous and sometimes fatal underground game. The rewards for winning are unclear, but there are rumours of money, CIA recruitment or even immortality. Or it might unlock the universe’s greatest secrets. But everyone knows that the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes – and the body count is rising. Since the game first started, ten iterations have taken place… and the eleventh round is about to begin.

K can’t get enough of the game and has been trying to find a way in for years. Then Alan Scarpio, reclusive billionaire and alleged Rabbits winner, shows up out of nowhere. And he charges K with a desperate mission. Something has gone badly wrong with the game and K needs to fix it – before Eleven starts – or the world will pay the price.

Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing.

Two weeks after that Eleven begins, so K blows the deadline.

And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.


Rabbits
is a fascinating and complex novel that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  I have to admit that when I first received this novel I had no idea what I was in for as I was expecting something a little simpler, like a computer game giving out unique challenges.  However, Rabbits was a much more insane and complicated science fiction story than I ever imagined, as the protagonist and his friends find themselves falling down a deep rabbit hole.  The Game, also known as Rabbits, leads the protagonist into a world of shifting patterns, strange coincidences and slightly different alternate realities, as they attempt to get to the heart of the Game and the people trying to manipulate it.

In reviewing this book, I found that Rabbits is a rather hard novel to describe, especially as Miles has gone out of his way to make his narrative as unique and complex as possible.  The entire story appears at times to be a mass of convoluted ideas that revolve around the somewhat ill-defined game which forms the centre of the entire book.  As Rabbits progresses, the reader is subjected to a weird array of storylines, which mix strange patterns and coincidences, with journeys into alternate realities, overarching conspiracies and complex tale surrounding point-of-view character K.  While the plot of Rabbits is a little confusing at times, there is a really intriguing and compelling story behind this book that becomes rather addictive the more you dive into, very much like the game it describes.

Miles sets up his novel beautifully, and the reader is quickly introduced to some of the key concepts of the Game and the personal history of K.  This introduction proves to be a good grounding to the rest of the novel, and readers will quickly find themselves flying through the rest of the book, especially as they become invested in the protagonist’s quest to learn about the Game, as well as the great conspiracy that is being formed around it.  Rabbits proves to be a very fast-paced book, and I found myself getting really attached to K and his friends, who are a fun group of conspiracy obsessed nerds.  This entire story comes together with a fascinating and high-stakes conclusion, which does a good job wrapping up the entire narrative and providing the reader with some closure.  An overall fun, if unpredictable story, readers who check this one out will be in for a very interesting time.

One of the most entertaining elements of this book is the constant stream of pop-culture references that Miles loads into his story.  The plot of Rabbits is filled with mentions of all sorts of movies, games, novels and famous figures, many of which are associated in some way with the Game, either directly (such as having a code hidden within it) or indirectly (details about them are changed in a new reality).  Video games, particularly old arcade games, are strongly featured within Rabbits, and Miles provides so many different references or depictions of classic games or technology that will no-doubt appeal to game aficionados.  Other cultural items, such as the film Donnie Darko (which has its own breed of rabbit in it) and the actor Jeff Goldblum (who appears in a very disturbing video that may or may not have happened), are also worked into the story, and it was fascinating to see the various connections they potentially have to this wide-reaching game.  I really enjoyed the way Miles worked in all these references, cultural items and figures into his story, and readers will have fun recognising everything the author includes.

Rabbits ended up being a very interesting and memorable debut from Terry Miles, and I am glad that I checked it out.  I really enjoyed the complex and thrilling narrative that Rabbits which will appeal to a wide range of readers.  That being said, Rabbits will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I can see some readers struggling with it.  But I felt that Rabbits was worth making the effort to get through and I look forward to seeing what unique novels Miles comes up with in the future.

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The future is a cyperpunk nightmare in Inscape, the fantastic and clever science fiction thriller debut from amazing author Louise Carey.

Years after an apocalyptic event, the world is now run by corporations who battle for control and influence.  One of the most powerful corporations is InTech, which sits on the cutting edge of a variety of technologies and advances and which does not take any prisoners in their war for dominance.  When a valuable piece of information is stolen, InTech sends a team of agents into the unaffiliated zone to retrieve them.  However, only one agent will return alive and unharmed.

Tanta has spent her entire life training to work and fight for InTech.  An orphan who was raised solely because of the company’s good will, Tanta is crushed when her first mission ends in near failure.  Attacked by a mysterious enemy agent with advanced weapons technology, Tanta is barely able to survive and is subsequently tasked with retrieving the information that the thief stole.  Teaming up with an unconventional technical genius, Cole, Tanta begins her investigation, only to discover that someone is attacking InTech’s interests around their city.

Believing the culprits to be working for a rival corporation, Tanta and Cole attempt a dangerous infiltration into their city.  However, their mission quickly runs into problems when their contact is captured and Tanta’s tech appears to be compromised.  Attempting to survive in enemy territory, the two InTech agents engage in a risky heist to find answers.  But with all evidence pointing to a traitor high up in InTech’s ranks, can Tanta and Cole survive their dangerous mission, or will secrets from both their pasts destroy them and everything they love?

I am really glad that I decided to check this cool debut out as it ended up being a pretty impressive science fiction read.  Inscape was the first solo novel from author Louise Carey, who has previously written several novels and comics with her father, comic author Mike Carey, and her mother, Linda Carey.  Carey has come up with an exciting and compelling read in her first novel, especially as it combines an excellent science fiction thriller storyline with some great characters and an inventive and unique cyberpunk setting.

At the centre of this fantastic debut is an outstanding narrative that combines an electrifying spy thriller novel with some compelling science fiction.  Carey starts Inscape off quickly, with Tanta and her comrades brutally attacked by a dangerous enemy agent out while trying to recover some stolen files.  After this great opening scene, which sets up most of the narrative perfectly, Tanta is chucked into the midst of a massive conspiracy which sees her beloved corporation under attack, and which requires her to find who stole the files and for what purpose.  The rest of the novel is captivating and clever, as readers become engrossed by Inscape’s fantastic thriller elements as the protagonists attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes an extended undercover sequence where they infiltrate a rival corporation’s city to discover what they know.  This entire awesome sequence, which takes nearly a third of the novel, is extremely exciting, as Tanta and Cole are forced to rely on the minimal of resources to not only survive but to also pull off a daring prison break.  I really fell in love with this novel during this part of the story, and Carey makes sure to end it with an amazing conclusion which sees some major secrets come out and significant developments moments occur for the main characters.  I felt that the author wrapped Inscape up perfectly and readers will deeply enjoy where the story leaves off, especially as there are some great hints as to where the series will go from here.

One of the key things that I really loved about Inscape was the amazingly inventive and distinctive cyberpunk themed world that Carey created as a background to her awesome story.  The world of Inscape is set several years after an apocalyptic technological event which left much of the world in ruins.  Most civilisation now revolves around massive corporations who manage cities and safe zones while monitoring their citizens and assigning resources to the most useful.  There were also some intriguing pieces of technology introduced in this novel, such as the communications and information devices built into everyone’s heads, known as scapes, which serve as a key part of Inscape’s story.  This was an impressive and well-designed science fiction setting, and I enjoyed the cool blend of advanced technology, changing social norms and predictions of future corporate control.  I felt that Carey did an amazing job of introducing information and key points about the setting and advanced technology as the novel progresses, and it proves to be an excellent backdrop to Inscape.  I also appreciated the way in which technology like the scapes are utilised throughout the story as the instantaneous communication and information they contain help to enhance some of the action orientated scenes as well as amp up the intrigue and connections between characters.  You also occasionally get the opposite effects where this technology is deactivated and the protagonists are forced to rely on their own senses, which can be rather jarring for them.  Carey works in some compelling discussions about over-reliance on technology, free will and corporate greed throughout Inscape, all of which adds a darker and fascinating edge to the entire story.  All of this makes Inscape a very intriguing read that fans of science fiction and cyberpunk will deeply enjoy.

Another wonderful aspect of Inscape was the fantastic characters featured within, particularly the three main point-of-view characters.  Carey makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives throughout the novel to provide compelling alternate viewpoints of key events and character actions, which I felt really added a lot to the overall narrative.  In addition, the author introduces several amazing characters, most of whom either have a compelling base to their unique personalities or who go through some substantial development throughout the course of the novel.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist Tantra, a young woman who was raised by InTech since she was orphaned and who has been training all her life to be an agent for them.  Tantra starts the novel as a particularly zealous and passionate character who is unquestionably loyal to her corporation and her handler, Jen.  A skilled survivor, fighter and intuitive investigator, Tantra serves as a great protagonist for the early part of the novel, as she swiftly and efficiently begins the hunt for the person who is attacking her beloved InTech.  However, as the novel progresses, Tantra goes through some substantial changes, especially after she discovers some harsh truths about InTech and herself.  While this turns her into a much more likeable and free-spirited person, it does raise certain questions about Tantra’s true self and her motivations, which is rather intriguing and captivating to see.  Tantra is a fairly badass character throughout the entirety of Inscape, and I deeply enjoyed her intensity, intelligence, capacity for violence and acting abilities, the last of which results in a couple of fun scenes.  I also enjoyed how Carey made her a lesbian character, and she has a nice and touching relationship with a fellow orphan, Reet, although certain aspects of the narrative make Tantra contemplate how and why their relationship occurred.  This was a fantastic central protagonist, and I am curious to see what happens to her in the future.

The next major character in the novel is Cole, an InTech scientist who finds himself partnered with Tantra on the case to find the missing information.  Cole is a great character, a brilliant man who has recently lost his memories due to a technological mishap.  As a result, he spends much of the novel attempting to work out who he is, which impacts much of his personality and motives.  Cole ended up being a rather fun and interesting addition to Inscape, and I loved the unusual team that he forms with Tantra.  In many ways, Tantra and Cole are complete opposites, as Cole has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and sees the other characters and corporations in a different light to his partner.  Cole is also far less trained as a corporate operative and finds himself extremely overwhelmed when out in the field.  In several great sequences he is shown to be very out of his depth and is forced to rely on Tantra’s skill and knowledge, which is particularly jarring for him as he is substantially older than her.  I very much enjoyed seeing Cole finding his feet throughout this book and getting a crash course in espionage and survival from his teenage partner, and I liked the fun and substantive friendship he formed with Tantra.  Several great secrets and reveals come out about Cole as the novel progresses, and it results in some great discussions about whether he is the same person that he was before he lost his memories.  These reveals are likely to have a major impact in some future novels and should result in some intriguing story arcs.

The final major point-of-view character in this novel is Jen, Tantra’s handler at InTech, who Tantra views as a mentor and mother figure.  Jen is an ambitious and driven woman who is determined to climb the InTech ranks, and who sees her control over Tantra as the way to do it.  I really liked the way that Carey portrays Jen through the various perspectives as you get a very different viewpoint of who and what Jen is.  For example, in Tantra’s eyes Jen can do no wrong, and is one of the few people that she loves and respects.  However, when Cole sees her actions, he realises just how manipulative Jen is and how little she actually cares for Tantra.  Jen’s true ruthlessness and uncaring nature is further explored in some of the scenes shown from her perspective, and it is fantastic to see the differing viewpoints about her motives and actions.  Jen serves a great role throughout the novel as Tantra’s motivation and as a dangerous controlling figure and I really enjoyed seeing the entirety of her storyline unfold.  Each of these three main characters were written pretty perfectly and I loved the fantastic development and exploration that Carey did with them in Inscape.

Inscape by Louise Carey was an incredible and addictive debut novel that ended up being a really fun and compelling read.  Carey did a wonderful job of blending an excellent thriller narrative with some great science fiction elements, amazing characters, and a clever examination about humanity’s over-reliance on technology.  I look forward to seeing how this series continues in the future, especially after this amazing first novel, and Inscape is really worth checking out.

Waiting on Wednesday – Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn

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 check out an awesome upcoming fantasy debut that sounds really amazing, Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn.

Among Thieves Cover

I am always excited when I see a cool debut fantasy novel coming up on the horizon, especially as I have been lucky enough to check out some awesome and impressive first novels in the last couple of years.  One debut that I am particularly looking forward to is Among Thieves by intriguing new author M. J. Kuhn.

Among Thieves, which is currently set for release in September 2021, has an incredible and interesting fantasy crime narrative that sees a hunted criminal protagonist lead a group of disreputable rogues as they attempt a dangerous heist.  However, with every member of the crew, including the protagonists herself being cast as selfish and treacherous, there are apparently going to be betrayals aplenty as they all attempt to come out ahead of their colleagues.

I love fantasy heist novels, and this one sounds like it is going to be pretty damn awesome.  There are so many cool potential elements to this upcoming novel and I cannot wait to see what sort of shenanigans the protagonist and her treacherous crew get up to.  I have heard some good things about this book already and it looks set to be a pretty cool read.  I have high hopes for Among Thieves and I very confident that it is going to end up being one of the top debuts of 2021.

Synopsis:

A group of uniquely skilled criminals team up for an impossible job . . . while plotting to betray one another.

Ryia Cautella is a callous and brazen mercenary working for a criminal syndicate in the slums of the dockside city of Carrowwick. In just over a year’s time she’s already earned herself a reputation as the quickest, deadliest blade in the city – not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

For the past six years a deadly secret has kept Ryia in hiding, running from city to city, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster – sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms of Thamorr. No matter how far or fast she runs, his servants never fail to track her down… But even the most powerful men can be defeated.

Her path now leads directly into the heart of the Guildmaster’s stronghold, and against every instinct she has, she knows it’s not a path she can walk alone. Forced to team up with a crew of assorted miscreants, smugglers and thieves, Ryia must plan her next moves carefully. If she succeeds she wins her freedom once and for all, but unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are nearly as selfish as she is…

And they all have plans of their own.