Quick Review – Esther’s Children by Caroline Beecham

Esther's Children Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 3 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to read about one of the more unique experiences of World War II with an excellent and moving historical drama, Esther’s Children by fantastic Australian author Caroline Beecham.

Plot Synopsis:

Inspired by the extraordinary life of Esther Simpson, Esther’s Children is a powerful novel of love and courage.

Austria, 1936: Esther ‘Tess’ Simpson works for a British organisation that rescues academics from the cruel Fascist and anti-Semitic regimes taking hold in Europe. On a dangerous trip to Vienna to help bring aid to Europe’s threatened Jewish scholars, Esther meets Harry Singer, a young Jewish academic and musician.

Tess works tirelessly to rescue at-risk academics and scientists from across Europe, trying to find positions for them in Britain and America. In 1938, she secures employment for Harry at Imperial College, London, their love affair intensifying as the world heads into war, yet they are separated once again as Britain moves to intern European refugees.

With Harry detained on the Isle of Man while still waiting for news of his parents, Esther and the Society plead with the government for the interned scientists’ release. When Harry is eventually liberated, his future with Esther is by no means secure as he faces an impossible choice.

Confronting the horrific dangers of World War Two with remarkable integrity and bravery, Esther Simpson is revealed as an exceptional heroine.

This was a rather great read from Caroline Beecham, who once again plumbs the highs and lows of history’s greatest struggle to produce an excellent read.  Beecham, who has written several other intriguing historical dramas, including 2020’s Finding Eadie, is a talented Australian author whose novels usually feature an intriguing hook around World War II.  Her latest novel, Esther’s Children, is probably my favourite one of her books so far, and tells another powerful and intense story about love, survival, and the evils committed during war time.

In Esther’s Children, Beecham has written a particularly clever and compelling story that follows the life of real historical figure Esther Simpson.  Adding in some fictional and dramatic details, Esther’s Children turns into a multi-year tale that showcases Esther’s work as she attempts to rescue academics from Nazi controlled countries in the lead-up to the war and beyond.  In particular, it follows her interactions with fictional character/love interest Harry Singer, as she attempts to get him out of Vienna and into England.  This forms the basis for an intense and heartbreaking story as these two ill-fated lovers are forced to ] contend with the obstacles placed before them, including the encroaching war, the machinations of the Nazis, the bureaucracy surrounding asylum seekers coming to England, and subsequent prejudice faced even after Harry has reached safety.  Told using a split perspective between Esther and Harry, you get an intense inside look at both characters as they attempt to overcome the odds keeping them apart, while also experiencing some of the horrors brought on by the Nazis and others, with the reader hit by constant frustration at everything that happens to these characters.  This entire story moves at a brisk and intense pace, and you will be swiftly drawn into the clever and touching narrative that is driven by these two characters’ experiences.  The way everything turns out is both poignant and heartbreaking, and I felt that this was a great and captivating read.

Esther’s Children’s dramatic story is greatly enhanced by the captivating and fascinating historical details that Beecham has set it around.  The author has clearly done a ton of research to pull her story together, and I was very impressed with some of the unique elements it contains.  Not only do you have some fantastic, if very disturbing, depictions of the Nazi movement taking over Austria, but the story goes out of its way to highlight the work done to get certain (primarily Jewish) academics out of Europe.  Focusing on the work of Esther Simpson, a unique figure from history who I was pleased to learn a lot about in this novel, you see the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning attempt to help these academics emigrate and find them jobs in England’s educational and government settings.  This novel really focuses on the impact that Esther had for many famous academics (her children, many of whom appear in the plot) and I found it fascinating to learn about her work and the people she helped.

However, I personally thought that the most fascinating historical aspect of this book was the subsequent imprisonment of these scholars and scientists by the English once the war broke out.  I must admit that I was unaware of just how widespread and unfair the interment of German nationals in England was during the war, and I was very surprised to find out that so many refugees and fleeing Jews were also incarcerated in places like the Isle of Man, often alongside Nazi sympathisers.  Shown directly through the eyes of one of her protagonists, Beecham paints a pretty grim picture of the terrible life that these incarcerated people would have experienced, and it was pretty heartbreaking to see all these people who had already lost everything get locked up by the country they were trying to help.  I really appreciated the powerful emotional weight that the author loaded into all the historical scenes, and they really work to expand on the dramatic and romance elements of the entire novel.  I cannot wait to see what unique historical element Beecham will explore in her future novels, but I am sure it will be fascinating.

Overall, Esther’s Children is a particularly powerful and captivating read that really highlights Caroline Beecham’s great skill as a historical drama author.  Expertly combining intriguing and dark elements of history with a dramatic tale of love, loss and regret, Esther’s Children becomes harder and harder to put down as the story progresses and you are drawn into the character driven narrative.  An excellent historical drama that is really worth checking out.

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

Black Drop Cover

Publisher: Viper (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Laurence Jago – Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Intriguing and talented new author Leonora Nattrass presents a compelling historical thriller debut with Black Drop, a fantastic novel that drags readers into the conspiracies and issues of late 18th century London.

In July of 1794, as the terror of the French Revolution reaches its height and the war on the continent goes poorly for the British army, uncertainty and fear of violent change infect the people of London.  For Laurence Jago, clerk to the Foreign Office, his position is even more uncertain that those around him.  A young man with hidden French heritage, Jago fears the day that his connections to his mother’s nation will be discovered, especially after spending years serving as a spy for sinister French agent Aglantine.

Now believing himself to be free from Aglantine’s employment, Jago is thrust into an untenable situation when vital confidential information about the British army is leaked from his office to the press.  Suspected by his peers of leaking the information and under investigation, Jago fears that all his secrets and former dealings are about to come out.  His problems are only further compounded when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk in his rooms, supposedly dead by suicide.

When the blame for the leak is shifted onto the dead man, Jago is freed of the suspicion against him.  However, Jago knows that the dead clerk was incapable of stealing the letter and believes that he was murdered.  Determined to find out the truth behind the death, Jago finds himself investigating the highest level of the British civil service and their political masters.  Out of his depth and thwarted at every turn, Jago will risk everything to root out the culprit before they strike to disrupt England again.  However, can he succeed without revealing his own dark secrets, or will Jago hang as a traitor instead of the murderer?

Black Drop is an excellent and clever novel that I had a great time reading as Nattrass perfectly combines a compelling spy thriller/murder mystery storyline with intriguing and detailed historical fiction elements.  This resulted in one of the more unique and fantastic debuts of 2022 and I really enjoyed Black Drop’s impressive story.

This awesome debut novel has an excellent story that expertly combines intriguing spy thriller and murder mystery elements with a character driven historical narrative to create a compelling and impressive read.  Set throughout key events of 1794 and told as a chronicle from the perspective of central character, Laurence Jago, Black Drop presents the reader with an intriguing tale of murder, political machinations and the threat of revolution at the heart of the period’s government.  Nattrass sets the scene perfectly at the start, introducing the key characters while also highlighting the feelings of unrest and dissent as the fear and inspiration from the French revolution hits London.  From there, the story starts to unfold in some interesting directions as the protagonist finds himself involved in political and espionage adventures while also investigating the murder of a fellow clerk, which appears to be connected.  At the same time, the slow-paced story utilises some intriguing aspects from the protagonist’s life as he struggles with dark secrets from his past that have potential implications on the current events.

Following this introduction and the initial parts of the narrative, the middle of Black Drop starts to bring in certain key historical events and figures, which results in some fantastic moments and character interactions, especially once an antagonistic figure becomes more prominent.  While the middle of this novel did drag in places, I felt that Nattrass was providing the reader with the right blend of intrigue, mystery, historical detail and character growth to produce a great overall story.  You really get to grips with the protagonist and the key aspects of the setting during this part of the book, especially when Jago hits a major personal downturn earlier than expected, and interesting reveals enhance the reader’s attachment to the mystery.  The story really starts to pick up once it gets to Nattrass’s recreation of the infamous trial surrounding supposed radical and revolutionary Thomas Hardy.  The ridiculous, and mostly accurate depiction of the trial (with certain elements from other trials thrown in for greater effect), proves to be a great high point for the novel, especially as other key parts of the plot are slotted in perfectly around it.  I did feel that the novel started to come undone around the conclusion a little, especially when it came to the big reveal.  While there were a couple of good twists around certain characters, the solution to the main mystery and the intrigue seemed a little weak to me, and I was a little disappointed with how it turned out, especially as you barely get to see anything about the final confrontation.  Still, this did not affect the overall quality of the story too much, especially as the author throws in an excellent wrap-up for the protagonist’s storyline in this novel which has a lot of potential for a sequel.  While much of the story can be a little sluggish and lacking a lot of action, I had a great time getting through Black Drop, and I loved how the excellent interplay of elements came together so well.

One of the most distinctive parts of Black Drop is the sheer amount of fascinating historical detail that was fit into the story.  Nattrass has clearly done her research on the period and the reader is presented with a fantastic and powerful view of London in the late 18th century.  Not only are there some brilliant and vibrant depictions of historical London but the reader gets some fascinating views into the inner workings of the government at the time.  Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to examining the civil service and the political hierarchy of the day, with multiple influential figures featured as supporting characters.  This proves to be a deeply fascinating part of the book, and I loved how Nattrass was able to weave these intriguing details into the thriller plot, becoming a key part of Black Drop’s story.  I also deeply appreciated the way in which Nattrass explores the social and political issues of the day, especially where it relates to the concerns in London about an uprising similar to what happened in France.  As such, you get a full spectrum of personalities from across London, as royalists and loyalists clash with potential radicals who are targeted by the worried government.  This all cumulates in the fantastic court case of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker accused of radical actions and attempted rebellion.  This historical trial is expertly recreated by Nattrass to include all of its most interesting parts, including several extremely ridiculous elements from history (a blowgun murder conspiracy).  Nattrass also cleverly combines in some elements from related trials that occurred around the same time as the Hardy case for some amusing dramatic effect, and this extended sequence ended up being one of my favourite parts of the novel.  The overall hint of discontent by many members of London’s society, as well as the innate fear of the established institutions, is portrayed beautifully, and you get a great sense of the public issues during this period.  All these impressive historical elements are handled extremely well by Nattrass, and while it did get a tad tedious in places, it was an excellent part of the book that I deeply enjoyed.

To back up her unique historical tale, Nattrass has furnished Black Drop with a compelling array of characters with some complex and compelling character arcs.  This book actually contains a great combination of original characters and historical figures, with many major figures in 18th century British politics and the civil service featured in substantial roles throughout the book.  Not only does this brilliantly enhance the already substantial historical details of Black Drop, but it also results in some fascinating interactions and depictions as the fictional characters, including the point-of-view character, observe them.  Due to the complexity of the story, Black Drop makes use of a pretty large cast of characters, and while a few of them blend together, most come across as pretty distinctive with some interesting and fun character traits.

The best character of Black Drop is the protagonist Laurence Jago, who also serves as the book’s sole point-of-view character.  Jago turns out to be a particularly complex and damaged individual whose emotional attachment to the case and the state of London society provides some intriguing drama and insight into the events of the book.  Already made quite distinctive by his unique green-glass spectacles, Jago proves to be an impressive and captivating figure, especially as he has some major issues.  Secretly half-French, Jago lives a conflicted and fear-filled life, especially with the intense anti-French attitudes sprinkling the city.  This, combined with his foolish youthful dalliance of being a spy for France, ensures that he has a powerful sense of guilt, and is constantly worried about being discovered, especially once other accusations are made against him.  The discovery of a dead friend, combined with his guilt, the pressures of work, and the constant fear of discovery really strain his mind, and while he doggedly tries to find out the truth behind the murder, he starts to crack and nearly blows his cover.  Watching him trying to hide his own secrets while uncovering the lies and machinations of those around him becomes pretty intense, especially as you grow quite attached to this damaged soul.  His mental state further deteriorates once he becomes addicted to Black Drop (an opium concoction), which dulls his worried and troubled mind, while also leaving him lethargic and susceptible to danger.  This proves to be a serious handicap to his abilities, and it is fascinating to see him try to balance all his issues with the hunt for the truth.  All these issues and concerns result in a very conflicted and emotionally drained character, who Nattrass portrays perfectly, and it was very powerful to see Jago’s entire story unfold.

Aside from Jago there is a rich cast of supporting characters, each of whom add to the story in their own distinct way.  I particularly want to focus on two who ended up being the best supporting figures in different ways.  The first of these is William Philpott, a fiction British reporter character, who arrives in England from and extended stay in America and sets up his paper and family residence next to Jago’s lodgings.  An eccentric, rambunctious and slightly uncouth fellow, Philpott stands in stark contrast to the various stuffy characters that make up the majority of the cast, which ensures that the reader is quickly drawn to him.  Not only does he serve as a lighter character in the novel and a firm confidant for the protagonist, but you also get an interesting viewpoint into his changing feelings about the events occurring throughout London.  Philpott starts the novel as a strong, patriotic figure who fully intends to support the government in his paper when it comes to the court cases against the supposed radicals.  However, upon viewing some of the injustices they are committing, such as their harassment of and unfair case against Thomas Hardy, Philpott becomes more sympathetic, supporting the dissenting voices and writing fair accounts of the proceedings.  This interesting middle ground perspective on the historical events of the book proves to be extremely interesting, and I loved how Philpott’s unique storyline unfolded, especially as it results in him throwing some valuable lifelines to the troubled Jago.

The other character of note is real-life historical figure and future British Prime Minister George Canning, who serves a much more antagonistic role in this novel.  Canning, who at this point in the time period was a young MP with connections to the sitting PM, William Pitt, gets embroiled in the case quite early in the novel, thanks to his connection to the dead man and the suspicions surrounding Jago.  Portrayed in Black Drop as an uncaring and malicious man, Canning is a menacing antagonist for much of the novel, constantly butting heads with Jago and complicating his investigation.  I loved the use of this intriguing historical character, especially as Nattrass turns him into a very unlikable figure, who you cannot help but hate.  Not only does Nattrass do a great job of examining some of the historical elements surrounding him at this period of time but she also layers in some fantastic references to future events in his life, such as the infamous duel that he would eventually take part in.  However, his real benefit is the impact he has on the story and the deep rivalry he forms with the protagonist.  Watching these two battle it out in different arenas is very amusing, especially as Jago is constantly outmatched by this influential politician, and I do hope that we see more of Canning in future books in this series.  These great characters, and more, all add a great deal to this intriguing novel, and I really appreciated how fantastic and compelling they turned out to be.

Overall, Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is an impressive and captivating piece of historical crime fiction that I am really glad I decided to check out.  Making excellent use of some fascinating historical elements, Nattrass did an amazing job of producing a clever and enjoyable spy thriller/murder mystery storyline in 18th century London, which came together very well.  Filled with great historical events and compelling characters, Black Drop was an absolute treat to read, and I look forward to seeing how Nattrass’s next book will turn out, especially as the sequel, Blue Water, is apparently set for release in October this year.

Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author, Adam Simcox, presents his compelling debut novel, the fun and fascinating supernatural crime fiction read, The Dying Squad, which proves that just because you are dead, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get justice.

The Dying Squad was a fantastic and intriguing first novel from Simcox that contained a fascinating premise about a man forced to solve his own murder as a ghost.  I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it, and I was very glad when I received a copy a while ago.

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

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

She’s there to enlist him to The Dying Squad, a spectral police force who solve crimes their flesh and blood counterparts cannot.

Lazarus reluctantly accepts and returns to the Lincolnshire Badlands, where he faces dangers from both the living and the dead in his quest to discover the identity of his killer – before they kill again.

This was an awesome and intriguing read and I ended up really getting into this fantastic supernatural novel.  Set initially in the apparently crime-ridden wilds of Lincolnshire, the novel quickly establishes itself by killing off the protagonist, Joe Lazarus, and introducing him to his co-lead the bombastic and entertaining Daisy-May, a member of the ghost-run investigative unit, known as the Dying Squad, there to recruit Lazarus.  The book then jumps to the Pen (purgatory), where Lazarus is given the chance to save his soul by solving his own murder.  Returning with Daisy to the real world, Lazarus must investigate his death while facing several limitations, including the fact that the real world is affecting his memories, and he must work to uncover his own past to discover who killed him.  At the same time, dangerous events are occurring in the Pen as a mysterious being leads an uprising of the seemingly mindless souls imprisoned there, while back in the real world, a dangerous creature stalks Lazarus and Daisy-May, seeking to drag them down below.

I really enjoyed the cool story featured within The Dying Squad, and Simcox has come up with something particularly unique and compelling here.  The author does a great job of quickly introducing all the relevant story elements, and the reader is soon expertly enthralled in the book’s compelling mystery.  I loved the unique investigation that takes place throughout the novel, especially as the protagonists must deal with a range of different problems, including the sinister Xylophone Man (he’s a lot more threatening than the name implies), the deceit of living humans, fading memories, and the protagonist’s desire to interfere in events, even when they’re not supposed to.  At the same time, the protagonist’s boss back in the Pen is forced to deal with a universe-ending revolt, as desperate lost souls attempt to tear down the walls of reality.  While Daisy May and some of the other characters are dragged between these two plot threads, Lazarus continues to follow the trial towards his death by investigating several potential suspects and slowly regaining his own memories.  This eventually leads to several startling revelations, including a very clever reveal about who was behind his death and their reasons why.  This investigation eventually leads back to the wider universe story about the rebelling souls, and there are some great moments, especially when the protagonists are forced to make some hard and afterlife-altering choices.  I really enjoyed this unique blend of storylines, as well as some of the cool characters featured throughout the book, and The Dying Squad ended up being quite a fun and interesting read.

I definitely need to highlight the unique world building featured throughout The Dying Squad.  Simcox has come up with a detailed and fascinating scenario, involving supernatural ghosts going back to Earth to investigate unsolved murders.  This results in several memorable and compelling settings, including the dark and dreary Pen, a version of Purgatory, where lost and forgotten souls congregate in confusion and apathy (unless roused by a dangerous soul with ulterior motives).  At the same time, you also have the setting of Earth, which ends up being an unnatural location for departed souls, even the protagonists.  As such, the characters who venture there to investigate encounter all manner of obstacles, from rogue spirits to the very air itself, which drains dead souls of their memories unless precautions are taken.  These various elements, especially the memory loss and the typical incorporeal nature of ghosts, are worked into the investigation aspect of the story extremely well, and it added a layer of complexity and uncertainty that really enhanced the mystery.  At the same time, Simcox really went for broke exploring the wider universe and the focus on the events in the Pen soon become a major part of the plot.  While I deeply enjoyed the potential universe ending event, I cannot help thinking that maybe more of the story could have been spent on beefing up the investigation angle of the book, especially as some of the culprits and twists ended up being a little easy to spot.  That being said, it was a fascinating part of the story that ended up being explored extremely well, and it really enhanced the stakes of the plot.  It will be interesting to see what the focus of the next novel will be, but I am sure that I will enjoy it.

Overall, this ended up being quite a clever read, and I think that Simcox did a great job of combining a complex murder investigation with complex and fascinating supernatural elements.  I had a lot of fun with The Dying Squad, and it is an excellent compelling new debut to check out in 2021.

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

The Honour of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 20

Length: 431 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with another exceptional adventure back in time with The Honour of Rome.

2021 has been a particularly good year for Simon Scarrow readers, as this acclaimed historical fiction author has released two fantastic novels.  The first of these, Blackout, was a clever historical murder mystery novel set in pre-war Nazi Germany, which contained a fantastic and impressive story.  While I deeply enjoyed Blackout, I was a little more excited for the next awesome entry in Scarrow’s long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books follow two officers in the Roman army, Centurion Marco and Prefect Cato, as they fight in multiple battle fields across the Roman Empire.  I have been a major fan of this series for years and have had the pleasure of reading every prior entry in it, while also reviewing some of the latest entries, including The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome and The Emperor’s Exile.  As such, I was very excited when I received the latest entry in this series, The Honour of Rome, a couple of days ago, and instantly started reading it.  The Honour of Rome is the 20th novel in this series and takes its great protagonists on another intense adventure.

Britannia, 59 AD.  After retiring from the Roman Legions, former Centurion Marco has travelled back to Britannia 15 years after he helped conquer it.  Now a married man, Marco is hoping for a quiet life, enjoying the fruits of the successful inn in Londinium that he half-owns with his mother.  However, not everything is as calm as he hoped.  There are rumours about the tribes being restless once again, and the streets of Londinium are alive with criminal gangs.

Upon arriving at his mother’s inn, Marco discovers that she is being extorted for protection money by a ruthless gang.  Determined to stop this, Marco attempts to resist the gangsters, only to find himself outmatched and a potential pawn into the middle of a vicious gang war.  At the same time, Marco finds himself drawn into the defence of the colony, especially when one of the local tribes refuses to pay any more taxes.

After a bloody punitive raid with a group of veteran reserve soldiers, Marco returns to Londinium, only to face the consequences for his defiance.  Beaten and bloodied, Marco is unsure how to fight back until his old friend Cato appears.  Cato, who has left Rome without leave to hide Nero’s exiled mistress, is always willing to back Marco up in any sort of fight, and he has an ambitious plan to end the gang problem once and for all.  Will the team of Marco, Cato, and their veteran allies be enough to overcome the city’s vicious gangs, or have these proud war heroes finally met their match?

This was another awesome novel from Scarrow, who has once again produced an exciting and fast-paced historical fiction read that perfectly envisions the landscape of Roman-occupied England.  The Honour of Rome is a great read, and I loved the cool combination of historical and crime fiction elements throughout it.  I ended up reading this book in only a few short days and loved every second of it.

Scarrow has come up with another amazing and entertaining story for this compelling book, which takes his long-running protagonists on another intense and bloody adventure.  One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the Eagles of the Empire series is the range of different subgenres that can be blended with its historical fiction elements.  The Honour of Rome is a great example of this as Scarrow utilises a crime fiction based storyline that blends with the overarching historical elements extremely well.  The protagonist is swiftly drawn into a vicious confrontation with two warring gangs of criminals upon his arrival in Londinium, which proves to be an outstanding basis for the main storyline.  At the same time, he once again becomes involved in the Roman garrison’s ongoing conflicts with the local Britons.  This combination of crime and military elements is very effective throughout the novel, and I liked seeing the conflicts with both gangsters and rebellious natives.  This also allows Scarrow to bring in several solider characters into the main crime-fiction storyline as backup as the story progresses, and it was pretty fun to see a bunch of retired soldiers taking on the antagonists.  The author really sets up everything extremely well in this book, and there isn’t a moment of calm or quiet throughout the entire novel, as the protagonist gets involved in several intense and well-written fights and battle sequences.  I found the last third of the novel to be particularly exciting, especially as the protagonists attempt an ambitious and risky strategy.  This results in the predictable satisfying, if bloody, conclusion, and Scarrow has made sure to set up some cool new storylines that will no doubt be the basis for the next few books.  An enjoyable and action-packed thrill-ride from start to finish, I had a fantastic time reading this latest historical adventure.

One of the more interesting things about The Honour of Rome was the noticeable change in character focus that helped set it apart from the other Eagles of the Empire books, namely that it spent most of the narrative focusing on only one of the series’ protagonists.  This is not too surprising, especially as the previous book in the series, The Emperor’s Exile, focused on Cato to such a degree that I kind of assumed that Scarrow was planning to permanently retire Marco.  However, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about this, as two-thirds of this latest book is exclusively told from Marco’s perspective.  I had a great time following Marco in this novel, and it is always a lot of fun to see the gruff and hard-headed Centurion in action.  There are some great moments surrounding Marco in this novel, from being out of his depth when it comes to combating criminals rather than enemy soldiers, to his great camaraderie with the fellow veterans in the colony.  You also have to love the fun interactions that occur around him as he finds himself stuck between his strong-willed wife and his equally strong-willed mother.  This ended up being a really good Marco novel, and I deeply enjoyed it.  Of course, Cato does show up towards the end of the book, and the novel is soon back to its typical dynamic, with Cato taking tactical lead.  There are also some interesting long-term storylines surrounding Cato, especially as he has fled from Rome with the Emperor’s exiled mistress.  It was great to see this team in action once again, especially as they enact another madcap scheme, and I had another fun time following them.

I also rather enjoyed the cool historical setting featured within this great novel, as the protagonists once again return to Britannia.  Historical Britannia is a well-utilised setting in the Eagles of the Empire books, having been the location of several of the earlier novels, including the first five entries in the series.  It made me a little nostalgic to see this damp and gloomy setting once again, especially as it proves to be just as chaotic and violent as ever.  This book makes full use of its clever move from the more traditional battlefields of Britannia to the city of Londinium, and I loved the inclusion of a crime-ridden, early London, especially as Scarrow tries his best to show it in all its dark and rapidly expanding glory.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of the veterans’ colony that was a major secondary setting for much of the book.  It proved to be fascinating to follow these characters who have chosen to settle in this harsh country and spending time conquering it, and I liked their inclusion in the novel.  It was pretty cool to see these retired soldiers in reserve taking on enemies, both on a proper battlefield and against the criminal element, and I thought it was a fun and compelling inclusion to the story.  I also appreciated that, after several books, we finally get a continuation of the Boudica storylines that were set up in some of the earlier novels.  Scarrow is also clearly setting up Boudica’s rebellion for later in the series, and I cannot wait to see how our protagonists, with their established history with Boudica and her people, will fit into it.

With this awesome 20th entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series, Simon Scarrow continues to highlight why he is one of the absolute best authors of historical fiction in the world today.  The Honour of Rome has a brilliant and compelling story that perfectly blends historical and crime fiction elements together into one thrilling tale.  I had a wonderful time reading this great book, and I deeply appreciated the way in which Scarrow continues the adventures of his compelling characters by once again returning them to the familiar setting of occupied Britannia.  The Honour of Rome is another highly recommended historical read, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series.

The Colonial’s Son by Peter Watt

The Colonial's Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 October 2021)

Series: Colonial’s Son – Book One

Length: 367 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, returns with The Colonial’s Son, the first book in a new series that follows on from his exceptional Colonial trilogy.

Peter Watt is a fun and talented author whose work I have been deeply enjoying over the last few years.  Watt specialises in historical fiction novels with a focus on Australian characters and has so far written three great series.  This includes his long-running Frontier series, which followed two rival Australian families throughout the generations as they got involved in some of the defining moments of Australian history (check out my reviews for While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).  He also wrote the fantastic Colonial trilogy that followed an Australian blacksmith who joined the British army as an officer during the mid-19th century.  This was an amazing and action-packed historical series, and featured three great books, The Queen’s Colonial, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain.  Watt’s most recent novel, The Colonial’s Son, is a direct sequel to the Colonial series, set several years after the conclusion of The Queen’s Captain.

Sydney, 1875.  After leaving the army and returning to Australia, former British army captain, Ian Steele, better known by the moniker his troops gave him, the Colonial, has settled down and started a successful business empire.  Now the father of three children, Ian is hoping for a quiet life, but is still facing several problems, including the fact that his oldest son, Josiah Steele, is determined to follow in his footsteps and join the British army as an officer.

When an old friend from his army days requests his help, Ian takes Josiah to Queensland to visit the notorious goldfields near the Palmer River.  There, Josiah gets his first taste for action as he and his father find themselves beset by bushrangers, hostile Indigenous tribes and warring Chinese criminal organisations.  Despite experiencing the terrors and tragedies of combat, Josiah is more determined than ever to join the army and travels to England to enrol in a prestigious military academy.  However, rather than gaining a formal training, he is immediately drafted into England’s latest war as a junior officer.

Travelling to Afghanistan, Josiah and his men engage in a series of bloody battles to hold onto the dangerous land for the empire.  Gaining the attention of his commanders, Josiah is chosen for a different sort of mission and sent to the newly united Germany where an old friend may hold the answer to the future of British/German relations.  Back in Australia, Ian Steele finds himself fighting a new enemy, one whose insidious ways could bring down everything he has struggled to build.  Can Ian survive this latest threat, especially when it drives him to do the unthinkable, and will Josiah be able to live up to the impossible military legacy of the Colonial?

This was another exciting and very enjoyable novel from Watt, who has proven himself one of the best authors of Australian historical adventure novels.  The Colonial’s Son is an amazing sequel to Watt’s prior series, and I really enjoyed seeing all the characters, both new and those from the prior series, engage in this latest series of adventures.  I ended up getting through this entire novel in one day, and I had a wonderful time reading it.

This latest novel has a very Watt narrative to it, utilising his typical style of multiple character perspectives to tell a compelling overarching tale of adventure and intrigue.  The Colonial’s Son primarily follows new protagonist Josiah and previous protagonist Ian as they find themselves in all manner of dangerous situations, together and separately.  This includes facing dangers and criminal conspiracies out in the goldfields, deep personal attacks in Sydney, or the various battles and political intrigues Josiah encounters once he joins the army.  At the same time, multiple other perspectives from side characters are utilised to enrich the narrative, with everyone from villains, love interests and friends adding to the story.  Watt tells a very interesting tale in this novel, combining a coming-of-age tale with the dynastic style of his previous Frontier books, and I really appreciated the way in which the author continues several storylines from the previous trilogy.  The combination of military action, criminal activity and intrigue makes for quite a fun narrative and The Colonial’s Son proves to be extremely addictive and easy to read.  I loved the many intense fight sequences featured throughout this novel, and Watt has a real flair for bringing brutal battles to life.  While fans of the Colonial trilogy will probably get a bit more out of this book due to the connected storylines, The Colonial’s Son is very accessible to new readers.

Just like he has done with all his prior novels, Watt makes sure that The Colonial’s Son features a range of intriguing and dangerous historical locations serving as fun backdrops to this awesome story.  There is a bit of a time skip between this novel and the previous Colonial trilogy, which opened up some different wars and settings for Watt to explore.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes set in the goldfields of North Queensland, a particularly grim and unforgiving bush setting full of fun antagonists.  The second half of the novel contains several other historical locales, all of which are shown in quick succession.  This includes Victorian London, Afghanistan, Germany and even Africa, all of which are the setting for some form of conflict.  The scenes set in Afghanistan during the British occupation of this land are very interesting, especially when you consider contemporary events, and there are some noticeable similarities between the historical conflict and more recent battles.  There is also a very fascinating look at Germany, which in 1875 had only just recently been unified into a single country with a more militaristic outlook.  Watt also ensures that The Colonial’s Son contains several hints about future conflicts that the protagonist may find himself involved in.  For example, the inclusion of several prominent Chinese characters in the first half of the novel will probably result the characters getting involved in the Boxer Rebellion, which would be pretty fascinating.  Overall, there are some great historical settings in this novel, and I cannot wait to see what conflicts the characters venture into next.

Watt makes sure to feature a ton of intriguing and memorable characters throughout The Colonial’s Son, each of whom adds some interesting details to the story.  This latest novel contains a great combination of new characters and protagonists from the Colonial series.  I rather enjoyed this cool mixture of characters, especially as you get to see new protagonists develop, while also learning the fate of the surviving characters from the original trilogy.  I particularly appreciated seeing more of original protagonist Ian Steele, and it was fun to see what happened to him after all his adventures in the Colonial books.  I was honestly surprised how much of a focus Ian got in this new trilogy, but I wasn’t complaining too much as I had gotten invested in his development in the original trilogy.  New protagonist Josiah also proved to be a great addition to the plot, even if there are a lot of similarities between him and the younger version of his father from the previous trilogy.  It was kind of fun to see history repeat itself, and I like the interesting developments that occur around Josiah attempting to live up to the legacy of his father, while also making all the same mistakes he did.  There were some other fun new characters featured in this book, including a charismatic young man of Chinese descent on the road to becoming a revolutionary and a young German countess who Josiah befriends.  I also appreciated some of the compelling and unlikable antagonists featured in the novel, as Watt has a real talent for writing scummy villains for the reader to root against.  I deeply enjoyed getting to know this new batch of characters, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all these excellent figures, both new and existing, in the future books.

With his latest novel, The Colonial’s Son, Peter Watt continues to highlight just why he is the leading author of Australian historical adventures.  Featuring an incredibly fun and action-packed plot, The Colonial’s Son does not slow down throughout its entire length, and readers are treated non-stop battles and intrigue.  I loved how this latest novel continued the cool storylines from Watt’s Colonial series, and I cannot wait to see what battles and character developments occur throughout the rest of this series.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following on from his epic crime fiction debut last year, writer and television personality Richard Osman presents the second book in his Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice.

Richard Osman is an awesome comedic talent and personality who I have enjoyed for many years on Pointless, Would I Lie to You and other fun British panel shows.  Known for his clever wit and immense height, Osman has a great sense of humour, and I was pretty excited last year when I saw that he had written a crime fiction novel, The Thursday Murder Club, which followed a group of true crime loving retirees who investigated a nearby murder.  While I knew I was likely to have a great time reading The Thursday Murder Club, I was truly blown away and it ended up being one of the best books, audiobooks and debuts I enjoyed in 2020.  Due to this, and the fact that my review for The Thursday Murder Club received a lot of attention this year, I have been really looking forward to reading the sequel for some time and I was very excited when details about The Man Who Died Twice were finally revealed.  This awesome sequel was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021 and it did not disappoint, presenting another clever and impressive character driven mystery.

Welcome back to Coopers Chase, the sprawling aged-care community near the town of Fairhaven, England, where peace and serenity is guaranteed for all its residents, aside from the thrill-seeking members of the Thursday Murder Club, a small group of friends who spend their Thursdays investigating cold cases and gruesome murders.  Made up of the intrepid Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, the Thursday Murder club has already had great success solving the murder of the previous owner of Coopers Chase, and they are now looking for their next batch of excitement.

Their wish appears to be granted when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she thought was dead, her former colleague and ex-husband, Douglas Middlemiss.  Douglas has recently run afoul of a dangerous English mobster and an international criminal cartel after stealing a bag of valuable diamonds and securing them in a secret hiding place.  Reluctantly put into witness protection by MI5, Douglas is keeping a low profile in Coopers Chase while he plans his escape and new life in retirement.  But when an assassin breaks into his flat and tries to kill him, Douglas turns to Elizabeth for help. 

Rallying the Thursday Murder Club to her side, Elizabeth attempts to figure out which of Douglas’s enemies is trying to take him out and who knew he was hiding at Coopers Chase.  But when tragedy strikes and an unknown enemy appears to have made off with the diamonds, everything seems lost.  But this opponent is unprepared for just how relentless the Thursday Murder Club can be, as Elizabeth and her friends put an ambitious plan in place.  However, this time the Thursday Murder Club aren’t just going after a killer; now they are facing down hardened criminals and assassins with a substantially less compunction about killing senior citizens.  Will the Thursday Murder Club once again solve the unsolvable, or will this be their final case?

Wow, this was amazing novel from Osman that I had an outstanding time getting through.  Featuring another epic and captivating mystery set around a fun group of characters, and featuring Osman’s amazing subtle humour, The Man Who Died Twice was an excellent read that I powered through in a few short days, and which gets another five-star rating from me.

The Man Who Died Twice has an impressive and deeply compelling character driven narrative that follows its various protagonists as they attempt to unravel the compelling case of the twice murdered man and the stolen diamonds.  This second entry in the Thursday Murder Club series can easily be enjoyed as a standalone read, although fans of the first book will no doubt have an amazing time seeing how the various characters continue to progress throughout this second book.  Osman beautifully utilises multiple character perspectives to tell several fantastic stories throughout the book, with the protagonists also involved in several personal battles, as well as attempting to bring down a local crime lord and a vicious young thug.  All of these storylines are chock full of mystery, humour, emotion and personal tragedy, as the protagonists work through the issues and challenges in their own unique ways.  The author balances all the storylines perfectly throughout the novel, eventually producing a clever and very entertaining conclusion.  I loved how the entire narrative came together, and there are some very amusing and compelling moments featured throughout.  Thanks to Osman’s ability to provide a great wrap-up to a story, the readers are left feeling incredibly satisfied and happy, especially after every single twist and bit of character development is revealed.  Combine that with Osman’s subtle sense of humour, mostly relating to the more outrageous situations these unlikely heroes casually wander in and out of, as well as some amusing jokes about being out of touch, and the barrage of references to British pop culture, and you have a very entertaining and addictive story that proves near impossible to put down.

I really enjoyed the central mystery of The Man Who Died Twice as the Thursday Murder Club and their associates are drawn into the case of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, a MI5 agent who has stolen a bunch of diamonds from a crime lord and is now avoiding assassins in the Coopers Chase retirement community.  While the initial hunt is for the location of the hidden diamonds, it soon morphs into another murder when a mysterious killer gets too close to the prize.  This is a very interesting and well-crafted mystery, and I loved how Osman moved away from more traditional murder and into the world of espionage and international crime.  To help solve this crime, the Club are forced to work with MI5 agents and soon find themselves investigating an influential criminal middleman with ties to the Mafia, who are hunting for the diamonds.  However, the nature of the crime also suggests an inside job, and the Club are forced to investigate friends and supposed allies to figure out who is responsible.  I had a great time with this mystery, and I loved the clever misdirection and various suspects that Osman featured throughout the plot.  I was able to pick up one of the twists pretty early in, but the full scope of the conspiracy was a lot more complex than I realised, with some additional unexpected reveals that I didn’t see coming.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and entertaining final plan utilised by the protagonists to entrap their opponents, especially when it ends in such a comical and amusing manner.  An overall compelling and fantastic mystery, I cannot wait to see what intriguing case appears in the next book.

You can’t talk about a Thursday Murder Club novel without mentioning the outstanding and loveable characters the story is formed around.  The Man Who Died Twice follows an intriguing and eclectic mix of characters as they find themselves caught up in the events of the latest mystery.  Osman spent a great deal of time in the previous novel introducing these fantastic characters and ensuring that the reader would fall in love with them.  This enjoyment for the characters continues in The Man Who Died Twice, as each character continues to evolve, with some excellent new details revealed about them.  Osman really does a good job of utilising each of these character perspectives in the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which the tone subtly changes for each of the characters.

The main characters of this book are the two female members of the Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth and Joyce, who have some excellent moments in this latest novel.  The first of these is Elizabeth, the former spy and investigator who is now retired and has formed the Club to keep her mind busy.  Elizabeth gets a lot of attention in this novel as the story focuses on her prior relationship with Douglas, which also examines her career in espionage.  Elizabeth is a great protagonist to follow, mainly because she is bold schemer even now as an old woman.  I always have a fun time seeing her manipulating and outsmarting everyone she comes across, especially now that most of the other characters know her game but still can’t help falling into her webs.  While there is a lot of focus on her abilities and unerring talent for danger and deception, you also get a good look at her somewhat tragic personal life.  Not only is she impacted by the return of Douglas, which raises a lot of memories from her past, but she is also still trying to hold onto her current husband, Stephen, who is suffering from dementia.  I really appreciated the complex storylines around Elizabeth, and I appreciated the way in which Osman did an intriguing dive into her past.

Joyce on the other hand is a pleasant and friendly former nurse who was the last member of the gang to join the Club.  Joyce seems like your typical, well-intentioned older lady, and I am sure that many readers will see a lot of parallels between her and their own parents or grandmothers.  However, Joyce is a brilliant thinker who uses her brain and her friendly personality to make everyone like her and then help her out.  Joyce forms a fantastic partnership with Elizabeth, and the two make an effective double team, with Joyce’s more subtle tactics and insights combining well with Elizabeth’s more direct approach.  It is a lot of fun to see Joyce investigating these brutal crimes, especially as she picks up on just as much, if not more, than the experienced spy Elizabeth.  I also really appreciate the way in which Joyce’s chapters are written, with her point-of-view shown in a series of diary entries.  This different storytelling technique helps Joyce stand out as a protagonist, especially as it highlights her entertaining personality, including the revelations and observations she has about modern technology and younger people (I had so many chuckles at her forays on Instagram).

The male members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron,  who are a little underutilised compared to Elizabeth and Joyce in this novel, but they both get their intriguing storylines which were really well-written and compelling.  This is particularly true for Ibrahim, the group’s shy intellectual, who is forced to deal with a brutal physical attack from a young criminal at the start of the book, a scene which really hit me hard due to how much I got to know this harmless character during the first book.  This attack leaves Ibrahim scarred mentally as well as physically, and he spends the rest of the novel feeling quite afraid and unwilling to leave Coopers Chase.  Osman does some deep and emotional character work on Ibrahim here, and readers end up getting quite invested in his recovery as well as his intense mental journey.  This attack on Ibrahim is also the primary catalyst for Ron’s storyline, which probably gets the least amount of attention out of all the main characters.  Ron, the former union leader, who always puts on a classic tough-guy persona, is deeply impacted by the attack on his best friend and spends the early part of the book constantly by his side.  However, once it becomes clear that Ibrahim is alright, he then leads the charge against his friend’s attacker, and uses Elizabeth’s contacts to bring the thug to justice.  I felt that Osman hit the right notes with Ron in this book, and I appreciated seeing both his emotional side and his vengeful side, and I loved how they both came from the same place of love.

The final characters I want to mention are the associated members of the Thursday Murder Club, younger characters who have been drawn into the orbit of the compelling senior citizens.  These include police officers Donna and Chris, both of whom had an entertaining introduction to the Club in the previous novel and are now firm friends with them.  Donna and Chris spend most of the book attempting to bring down a Fairhaven crime lord while also dealing with their personal issues.  Chris, who was a bit of a sad-sack character in the first novel, has been revitalised by his blooming relationship with Donna’s mother.  While happy and now health conscious, this results in a lot of soul-searching by Chris, who is unsure how to pursue the romance, especially once his girlfriend is threatened by the criminal they are hunting.  Donna, on the other hand, continues her unlucky hunt for love and purpose in this novel, going from one bad date to another while also being suitably horrified by her boss sleeping with her mother.  While Donna does not get as much focus in this novel as she did in The Thursday Murder Club, she still had some great character moments, and I deeply appreciated that touching scene she had with Ibrahim.  I also need to mention Bogdan, who, after being a major suspect in the first novel, has moved on to a supporting role in this book due to his firm friendship with Elizabeth and her husband.  Simply put, Bogdan is the coolest person in Fairhaven and a true friend, helping Elizabeth with her projects by doing all manner of unusual requests, from looking after Stephen to buying a large amount of cocaine.  He has some really good scenes in this book, and Osman sets him up as quite the bright, mysterious action man with a heart of gold.  Throw in some other well-established and explored side characters in addition to the above and you have an exciting and compelling cast with a great story around them.

One of the key things about this series that I really appreciate is the way in which Osman attempts to champion the aging process and show how capable and interesting older members of the community can be.  The Man Who Died Twice is another great example of this, as it contains multiple amazing examples of older protagonists doing impossible things and manipulating people half their age in some elaborate and entertaining ways.  It was a lot of fun once again seeing these older characters taking charge, and Osman has a very unique and entertaining take on the aging process and the mindset of older people.  However, not everything is about the positives of aging, as the author once again presents some sad and dark elements that added some powerful drama to the narrative.  Throughout the course of the story, there are plenty of discussions about illness, living with regrets, and the growing realisation that death is just around the corner.  There was a particular focus on the vulnerability of the elderly, especially with Ibrahim’s storyline, as it shakes both the victim and all his friends.  There is also a compelling look at Stephen’s battle with dementia, which includes Elizabeth’s attempt to keep him in their apartment despite what may be medically best for him, resulting in some touching and emotional scenes, especially once the double meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.  I really appreciated the author’s unique and compelling take on the aging process, and it was great to see more of the novel’s fun senior protagonists.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Man Who Died Twice, I decided in the end to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, which was a fantastic choice.  The Man Who Died Twice has a runtime of 12 and a half hours, although the last 40 minutes or so is an interesting interview.  I found myself getting through this audiobook extremely quickly, not just because of the amazing story but because the audiobook has a great pace to it and some excellent narration by actress Lesley Manville.  Manville, who also narrated The Thursday Murder Club, does another wonderful job in this second novel, and it was great to hear her impressive take on this fantastic story.  Manville has come up with some amazing voices for the various characters, with each person getting their own distinctive and fitting voice, with some great continuation from the first book.  Each of the character’s voices work extremely well, and I really appreciated the way in which Manville can ascribe age, emotion, and personality with her vocal work.  I had an outstanding time listening to Manville tell this cool story, and it was made even better by a fun discussion between Osman and Manville at the end of the book.  This nice and unique talk between author and narrator was an outstanding and fitting way to finish of this audiobook, especially as it offers some cool insights into the book you have just been enjoying.  I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation about why Osman doesn’t narrate his own novel, and I actually agree with his reasoning for it.  Overall, this was another exceptional audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone and everyone keen to check out The Man Who Died Twice.

With his second entry in the spectacular Thursday Murder Club series, Richard Osman continues to showcase he is just as talented at writing crime fiction as he is at comedy.  The Man Who Died Twice is an outstanding and wildly entertaining read that combines an impressive story with a clever mystery, some complex and likeable characters, and a brilliant sense of humour.  This was a spectacular read and I had an incredible time getting through this fantastic sequel, especially in its amazing audiobook format.  The Man Who Died Twice was one of the best books of 2021 and I cannot wait to see where Osman takes this series next.

Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

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.

The Last Convict by Anthony Hill

The Last Convict Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Anthony Hill once again dives into the unique history of Australia’s colonial past with a fascinating examination of a truly remarkable individual in The Last Convict.

Perth, 1938.  Samuel Speed in an old man living his last days in a dreary public-run home for destitute old men, with no family or friends to take him in.  At 98 years old, Samuel knows that he does not have long to live and is content with his lot in life, but an unexpected opportunity to tell his tale has been given to him.  A local newspaper has requested an interview with him after they discover that he is the last person left alive who was transported as a convict to Australia.

As Samuel begins his interview, he is transported back to his past to a fateful day in Oxford in 1863 when, as a young, starving teenager, he helped set a barley stack alight in the hopes of being arrested to receive food and a warm bed in prison.  However, he is unprepared for the full consequences of his actions when a judge harshly sentences him to seven years hard labour on the other side of the world.  Boarding the transportation ship, Belgravia, everything from his past is taken from him, including his name, and he begins the long, arduous journey to Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

Forced to endure years of backbreaking labour, isolation and enforced routine on his life, Samuel’s only relief is a newfound love of reading, as he enjoys escapism in several classic novels.  Eventually obtaining his ticket of leave in 1867 and full freedom in 1871, Samuel seeks to forge a new life for himself.  However, as he continues to work hard, he soon begins to understand that even though he is no longer in prison, he is still very much trapped by circumstances outside of his control.  What kind of man will Samuel become, and how deep does a person’s life sentence truly run?

The Last Convict is a fantastic and powerful historical novel from Anthony Hill that provides an impressive examination of an intriguing figure from Australia’s history.  Hill is an intriguing author from my home city of Canberra who has written several historical novels throughout his career, all of which examine unique individuals from Australia’s past, such as his novel Captain Cook’s Apprentice which followed a cabin boy aboard the Endeavour as it made its journey to Australia, or Soldier Boy, which followed Australia’s youngest-known soldier during WWI.  This latest novel from Hill continues this trend as the author takes a look at Samuel Speed, the last known surviving convict transported to Australia from England.

I really enjoyed the excellent narrative that Hill pulled together for his latest novel, and The Last Convict proved to be an exciting and fascinating tale of survival and determination.  Thanks to a trove of intriguing historical information and articles (all of which is either provided or referenced at the end of the novel), Hill provides the reader with a detailed and compelling bibliographic tale of Samuel’s life.  The story is set around a real-life interview that Samuel Speed had with the Mirror in 1938, and The Last Convict showcases both the elderly Speed sitting down for the interview and his visions of the past as he gets wrapped up in his captivating memories.  The resulting tale is a powerful and stirring narrative that combines historical fact, obtained from both the interview and other sources, as well as some dramatisation from the author.  I really enjoyed the clever narrative that resulted and I think that Hill did his historical protagonist justice, painting him as a conflicted and entertaining figure with both regrets and contentment about how his life turned out.  While many of the events that occurred in this novel have a strong historical basis, Hill did make several leaps (which he acknowledges in his notes) throughout the book.  I think that a lot of these literary creations of the character’s life worked well, and I like to think that Samuel was the amiable bibliophile that Hill made him out to be.  I found myself really getting drawn into this epic and captivating tale, especially as the author did a fantastic job portraying a number of fascinating scenes, locations and events from history, and it painted a vivid picture.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hill told the story through an excellent combination of flashback sequences and scenes featuring the older Samuel telling his tale to the newspaper.  All of this results in a fantastic and enjoyable narrative and I am really glad that I got the chance to experience this interesting take on the intriguing figure that was Samuel Steel.

One of the things that I loved the most about The Last Convict was the exceptional amount of historical detail that the author chucked into this book.  Hill is a massive history buff who has done an impressive amount of research for this novel, and he goes out of his way to populate this novel with all manner of facts and fascinating depictions of day-to-day life that a person like Samuel Steel would have experienced.  As a result, the reader gets a captivating, comprehensive and authentic-feeling examination of the convict experience in the latter half of the 19th century.  This includes fantastic depictions of how a person would be tried; their incarceration in England, including some of the horrendous bits of hard and painfully repetitive labour they would be required to undertake; all the way up to their transportation across to Western Australia.  The author also dives into the experiences of a convict living in Western Australia in the second half of The Last Convict, and there are some fantastic and intriguing discussions about what a person would have experienced once they arrived in a vast new land.  I found all the discussion about the various tasks, the intricate tickets of leave and day-to-day life of a convict locked up in Freemantle Prison (which is a cool building to visit) to be exquisitely done, and the reader gets an amazingly wide-ranging amount of knowledge on the subject.

Another fun historical aspect of the novel was the range of entertaining historical anecdotes that the character of Samuel Steel told to the reporter during the story regarding major historical figures that Samuel would have had knowledge of.  Not only do these anecdotes help to flesh out the story and help to fit into a couple of minor references featured in the Mirror interview, but they also proved to be a rather intriguing inclusion.  Hill goes into substantial detail recounting tales of several outrageous and famous Western Australian historical figures and their major moments, which included infamous prison escapes and other shenanigans.  I found these parts of the book to be incredibly fascinating, especially as I was unfamiliar with several of the stories that were mentioned, including one mass escape of Irish convicts that nearly started an international incident between the colony of Western Australia and the United States.  These stories added some great context to Samuel’s tale and helped the reader to envision the lives of other convicts or people in power that may have had some influence over the protagonist’s way of life or who he may have gossiped about.  I also quite liked the author’s decision to make Samuel a fan of classic novels, which was added in due to a passing reference to a Mark Twain story that Samuel made during his interview, and because Samuel had an association with the Braille Society, who ended up burying him.  Hill expands on this to paint Samuel as a lover of other novels, especially Dickens, and suggests that he would have started reading whilst a convict looking to pass the time.  Not only is this a rather likeable and relatable character trait, but it allowed the author to explore what sort of literary works a person like Samuel might have been interested in and may have had access to.  I enjoyed the author’s depictions of this classic novels and the protagonist’s potential reaction to them, and it proved to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot.  Overall, I felt that all these cool historical elements really helped to elevate Hill’s story within The Last Convict and readers are in for a fantastic blast of information about colonial Western Australia that is extremely fascinating and interesting.

The Last Convict is another clever and meticulously researched Australian historical fiction novel from Anthony Hill that provides the reader with a powerful and compelling window into the life of an interesting figure from history.  Loaded with Hill’s usual intense levels of fascinating historical detail, I had a lot of fun reading The Last Convict.  I look forward to seeing which Australian historical figure Hill looks at in his next book and I will be grabbing a copy to read.