Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Tower of Fools Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2020)

English Translation by David French

Series: Hussite trilogy – Book One

Length: 549 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From legendary Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski comes the first English translation of his 2002 release, The Tower of Fools, an intriguing and exciting fantasy/historical fiction hybrid novel that takes the reader on a weird and entertaining adventure.

1425, Silesia (South Western Poland and parts of Czechia).  War is brewing as the Catholic Church fights against the Hussites in a brutal religious struggle.  As the entire region begins to degenerate into conflict and chaos, a young doctor and amateur magician, Reinmar of Bielau, known as Reynevan, finds himself in all manner of trouble when he is caught in bed with the beautiful wife of a knight.

As Reynevan makes his escape, a member of the knight’s family, the powerful Stercza clan, is unintentionally killed, and the rest of the Stercza’s swear vengeance upon him.  Worse, Reynevan’s forays into magic have made him a target of the inquisition, who wish to have an extended and unpleasant chat about his arcane hobbies.  With a massive price on his head, Reynevan is forced to flee into the wilderness to survive as bounty hunters scour the countryside trying to find him.

Calling upon old friends, Reynevan looks for anyway to escape from his pursuers while also attempting to ‘rescue’ the knight’s beautiful wife.  Teaming up with an odd group of comrades, Reynevan makes his way throughout Silesia while attempting to outfox his pursuers.  However, his adventures have inadvertently placed him in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy, one that could change the entire fabric of the region and which threatens everyone he loves.  As Reynevan attempts to work out just what he has become involved with, his path leads him to the infamous Tower of Fools, an asylum for the insane and the heretical.  Can Reynevan escape the danger he finds himself in, or will his adventures cost him his life and his mind?

The Tower of Fools is a compelling and unique novel from veteran author Andrzej Sapkowski, who is best known for his iconic The Witcher novels.  This novel is the first entry in Sapkowski’s Hussite trilogy, which is the main series he has authored outside of The Witcher books.  The Tower of Fools was originally released back in 2002 under the original title Narrenturm, and while it has previously been translated into several other European languages, this version represents the first English translation of the book.  The translation of The Tower of Fools was done by David French, who has previously translated several Witcher novels, and no doubt we can expect the next two novels in the series (previously published in 2004 and 2006) to be translated and released in the coming years.  While I really enjoyed The Witcher television series, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Sapkowski’s writing, having so far only read the 2018 translation of The Witcher standalone novel Season of Storms.  However, due to the inevitable interest that was going to surround The Tower of Fools, I was quite keen to check out this book, and I ended up really enjoying it due to its captivating narrative, outrageous characters and excellent use of some distinctive historical fiction elements.

This novel from Sapkowski contains a fantastic and enjoyable narrative that proves surprisingly hard to put down at times.  The author has done a fantastic job blending together interesting historical fiction and fantasy elements that come together to create a distinctive adventure story.  The Tower of Fools is mostly told from the perspective of its central character, Reynevan, although several other perspectives are occasionally used throughout the novel.  What I liked about this book was the fact that it was a fast-paced, event-laden narrative that showered the reader with all manner of action and intrigue.  Reynevan and his companions essentially run into a different dangerous obstacle, major historical event or dastardly opponent every chapter, which they are forced to overcome or escape from in short order.  This ensures that the reader is constantly on their feet as they are never certain what new trouble or adventure lies on the horizon.  In addition, there is also a subtle line of intrigue that sees a sinister conspiracy begin to unfold around the protagonist as he finds himself in the midst of a series of murders and political manoeuvrings.  While this seems like a lot of elements for one book, it comes together surprisingly well into a cohesive and exhilarating narrative that I quite enjoyed, and which serves as an impressive start to the entire Hussite trilogy.  There are a lot of fun elements to this book, and I particularly want to point out the rather entertaining introductions that occur at the start of each chapter, giving the reader a humorous heads-up of what is to come throughout the series.  I did find it interesting that the titular Tower of Fools, which is referenced strongly throughout the official synopsis for this book, does not show up until really late in the book and is only a setting for a relatively short period.  While this book does contain several great and dark scenes in this location, this novel might have been more interesting if more of the story was featured in this asylum.  Still, I had an awesome time getting through The Tower of Fool’s cool story, and it was an absolute thrill ride from start to finish.

One of the major things that I liked about The Tower of Fools is the way in which Sapkowski complimented his entertaining narrative with a huge selection of distinctive characters.  This includes the main protagonist of the novel, Reynevan, the foolhardy student doctor and magician who serves as the main point-of-view character.  While he is the driving force for most of The Tower of Fools’ narrative, I actually found Reynevan to be a little annoying, especially as his impulsive nature, which is mostly driven by unrealistic ideas of heroism and romance, continues to get him into trouble.  This becomes especially annoying when his stupid decisions endanger his friends, whose determination to point out Reynevan’s mistakes help to make them more likeable.  Despite being a typical foolish young male protagonist, Reynevan does grow on you a bit as the book progresses and it proves hard not to relate to some of his impulses at time.  While his actions did occasionally exasperate me, I really did enjoy him as a character, and his keen insights and fun antics ensure that the reader has a great time following him throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to Reynevan, the main two side characters of The Tower of Fools are the fun duo of Scharley and Samson, two very different men who become Reynevan’s travelling companions.  Both of these characters are extremely entertaining in their own right, and Sapkowski weaves some great narrative threads around them.  Scharley is a crude, belligerent and surprisingly dangerous priest who leaves his imprisonment in a monastery to assist Reynevan.  Scharley serves as the main voice of reason and caution for much of the book and proves to be an interesting counterpoint to the youthful and impulsive Reynevan, whom he often has to threaten with violence in an attempt to get him to do the logical or sane course of action.  Their other companion is Samson, a giant of a man with an intense intelligence, who may or may not be possessed by a demon.  Samson is a really fun addition to the group, and I really enjoyed him as a character thanks to his unique demeanour and characterisation.  These two companions are quite intriguing in their own way and it was a lot of fun to see them interact with Reynevan and the other characters they come across.  This book also contains a multitude of extra characters, many of whom have their own intriguing storyline or character trait.  While many of these characters are entertaining and interesting additions to the plot, I think that Sapkowski might have slightly overdone it with the side characters.  While I did my best, there were honestly way too many supporting cast members to keep track of at times, especially as a lot of characters appeared or reappeared out of nowhere with very little explanation.  Still, this chaotic use of characters fits in very well with The Tower of Fool’s event-laden narrative, and it did not have too severe an impact on my enjoyment of the book.  The more distinctive characters proved to be quite entertaining and I had a good time seeing where some of their arcs ended up.

Sapkowski also makes impressive use of some cool historical fiction elements to tell his unique story.  The Tower of Fools is set in the early 15th century in an area of the world that is experiencing a lot of turmoil, Silesia.  Much of the book’s plot revolves around the major conflict of the period between the Catholic Church and the Hussites, a religious offshoot that was declared heretical and which the Church launched several Crusades against.  This proves to be a fascinating background to the main story, and Sapkowski features a lot of interesting Eastern European historical inclusions throughout his book.  This includes a range of references to key elements of regional history and politics that were quite intriguing, as well as the use of several major historical figures in varying roles, including some cameos from people like Gutenberg and Copernicus.  The author does a pretty good job of explaining these historical elements to the reader, although I did have to do some independent research to answer a few questions and fill in a few gaps.  A lot of this was due to my somewhat lacking knowledge of Eastern European medieval history, and those readers with a little more appreciation for the location will no doubt follow along a little better.  I did think that The Tower of Fools contains a rather excellent depiction of the landscape and the people that would have existed during this bleak period.  The various bits of intrigue, plots and war that occur throughout the book really fit into Sapkowski’s impressive and dark, setting, and it definitely helped to enhance part of the book’s story.  This was also the perfect setting for the various magical elements that occurred throughout the book, as their darker aesthetic matched the location to a tee, especially as there are a number of scenes set out in the dangerous and monster-filled woods.  All of this makes for a great setting, and I had an excellent time seeing this historical setting be put to amazing use throughout The Tower of Fools.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski is an enjoyable and fun novel that takes the reader on an epic adventure back to a dark version of historical Eastern Europe.  Filled with some great characters, intriguing historical features and a fantastic story, The Tower of Fools turned out to be quite a captivating read.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Hussite trilogy unfolds and I imagine I will be in for an exciting ride.  The Tower of Fools comes highly recommended and it should prove to be an excellent read to any fans of Andrzej Sapkowski and The Witcher novels.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies

Black Leviathan Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 25 February 2020)

English Edition Translated by Lucy Van Cleef

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out 5 stars

Get ready for an exciting fantasy adventure from acclaimed German author, Bernd Perplies, with Black Leviathan, an extremely fun and inventive novel that is essentially Moby Dick with dragons.

Bernd Perplies is a best-selling German fantasy and science fiction writer who debuted in 2008 with his first book, Son of the Curse Bringer. He has since authored several different series, including the Star Trek Prometheus trilogy, which he co-wrote with Christian Humberg and which were the first Star Trek books licensed to be written outside of the United States. Black Leviathan was initially released back in 2017 in Germany under the title The Dragon Hunter, and it is the first book in his Sea of Clouds series. This is the first one of Perplies’s solo books to be released in English (his Star Trek books got an English releases), and it was translated by Lucy Van Cleef.

Welcome to the Cloudmere, a floating expanse of thick cloud, mists, floating islands and mountain tops high above the ground. Thanks to the magical kyrillian crystals, which allow anything holding them to float in the air, airships now also fly through the Cloudmere attempting to harvest the useful resources available in this harsh landscape. The most valuable of resources come from the dragons, the ferocious beasts that soar amongst the clouds and mountains. Various species of dragons exist, each with their own special talents and defences, and each of which are valuable in their own way. However, hunting dragons is a dangerous occupation, and only the bravest, the most skilled or the extremely desperate set out into the Cloudmere as a drachenjäger, a dragon hunter.

Lian is a young man living in the floating city of Skargakar. The city’s entire economy revolves around the hunting and processing of dragons, and Lian himself makes a small earning carving kyrillian crystals. Lian also looks after his father, Lonjar Draksmasher, a famed drachenjäger of yesteryear whose injuries have driven him to drink. But when Lonjar is murdered in front of him, Lian instinctively gets revenge on the criminal who killed him, and now needs to get out of town quickly or face the wrath of his victim’s father, the most dangerous crime lord in the city. Taking up his father’s magical hunting spear and accompanied by his best friend, Canzo, Lian seeks work aboard one of the many drachenjäger ships leaving the city. The only one willing to take them on is the infamous Carryola.

Boarding the Carryola they find themselves working with an eclectic and effective crew of drachenjägers, and Lian believes that he has reached relative safety. However, the captain of the Carryola, Adaron, has an obsession that may prove to be the doom of Lian and the rest of the crew. Adaron is determined to hunt down and kill the Firstborn Gargantuan, a rare Black Leviathan dragon, a creature out of legends and one of the most destructive beings lurking in the Cloudmere. Now caught between a powerful dragon and a crazed captain, Lian must find a way to survive, but he quickly learns that death is always lying just around the corner in the Cloudmere.

This turned out to be a fantastic and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure novel which I had an absolute blast reading. Black Leviathan features a fast-paced and action-packed story of a group of dragon hunters flying around in the sky chasing after a mythical and gigantic dragon, and what’s not to love about that? Perplies introduces a ship full of distinctive and compelling characters (most of whom you shouldn’t get too attached to), including an obsessive and ruthless captain, and sets them up against a powerful foe. This results in quite a fun and exciting novel, and I enjoyed some of the intriguing directions that Perplies took the story. While some elements of the story are a little bit typical of action adventure novels, such as characters whose death is a foregone conclusion the moment you meet them, this was an excellent story that is extremely easy to enjoy, and very hard to put down.

One of the best parts of Black Leviathan is the clever and inventive new world that Perplies has created as a backdrop for his fun story. The author did an outstanding job producing a unique fantasy world up in the clouds, filled with all manner of sentient races, exotic locations and intriguing magical technologies, all of which prove to be really fascinating to explore throughout the course of the story. The Cloudmere is an amazing location for a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed seeing an entire book spent up in the clouds, either in floating cities or aboard magically powered airships. However, the highlight of this new world has to be the various species of dragons that roam the Cloudmere and dragon hunters that chase after them. Black Leviathan features a world where dragon hunting is a vast and profitable industry, and it is really quite interesting to see the various aspects of dragon hunting and its subsequent applications within this novel. There are some obvious similarities between this fictional dragon hunting industry and the real-life historical whale hunting industry and was really cool to see Perplies reinvent this iconic historical trade with fantasy creatures, floating ships and a sea of clouds.

The dragon hunting aspect of the book also results in some pretty incredible action sequences. There are some really exciting and fun dragon hunting scenes featured throughout Black Leviathan and watching the crew of an airship attempt to take down a dragon in mid-air was easily some of my favourite parts of the entire book. Perplies came up with some very clever hunting techniques for his drachenjäger, and it was very cool to see all of them unfold, especially as many require the protagonist to jump onto the back of the targeted dragon and kill them while riding on their back. This fantasy world also has many different types of dragon with a variety of different abilities (some breath fire, some have sword-like tails), each of which results a different sort of hunt with its own range of difficulties. Of course, the biggest hunt of all is when they catch up with Gargantuan, the titular Black Leviathan, the largest and most powerful dragon in the Cloudmere. That hunt goes about as well as expected, and it was extremely exciting to see the crew attempt to use their tried-and-tested techniques against this beast.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Black Leviathan was a bit like Moby Dick. That is because it features a captain who is obsessed with killing a specific rare beast who wronged him years ago, in this case a black dragon rather than a white whale. The entirety of this feud is actually shown in this book, as the first two chapters deal with Adaron’s first ship getting destroyed by Gargantuan, with nearly all his friends dying, including his fiancé, whose hand he was holding when she was eaten (with Adaron left holding her severed arm). As a result, the Adaron we see in the present is a much harder man who bears a great hatred for all dragons and is determined to find and kill Gargantuan no matter the cost. This results in a great story of obsession and hatred as Adaron scours the Cloudmere for his prey, while also attempting to kill any other dragon he comes across. The author has done a great job showing Adaron as an eccentric and damaged character from the first time the protagonist meets him. Not only does he order his own whipping every time a member of his crew gets killed by a dragon but he also keeps the skeletal hand of his fiancé in his cabin as a constant reminder of his mission to kill his prey. However, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that his obsession with finding Gargantuan has driven him insane. Not only does Adaron sacrifice his crew’s safety to locate the dragon but he ignores the concerns of the people serving under them and he even utilises dark practices to find his prey. This all results in a great final showdown with Gargantuan at the end of the book, and I think that the author did an amazing job concluding this captivating story arc.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies is an excellent and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure that combines a great central story with an extremely creative fantasy world to create a compelling and fun read. This book is filled to the brim with action and adventure and is guaranteed to get any fantasy lover’s pulse racing. I really loved this book, and I look forward to any future English releases of Perplies work. I do note that Perplies released a second book in this series in 2018, The World Finder, and hopefully we’ll get to see that in English in the next year or so.

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Quick Review – Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Death Notice Cover.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

English Edition Translated by Zac Haluza

Publication Date – 14 June 2018

 

This is a book I read earlier in the year, but I did not get a chance to write a review for it until now.  Death Notice is an intricate murder mystery thriller from bestselling Chinese author Zhou Haohui, originally written back in 2014.  The first English translation was released in June of 2018.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An elite police squad hunts a manipulative mastermind out to publically execute criminals the law cannot reach. A wild thriller and deadly game of cat-and-mouse from one of China’s most popular authors. For fans of Jo Nesbo, Se7en, and Hong Kong police cinema.

The brutal murder of respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming sends shockwaves through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s stunning Sichuan Province. He had been obsessed by an unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder case, until an entity calling themselves Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) releases a terrifying manifesto. Is the manifesto a sick joke, or something more sinister? Soon, the public starts ‘nominating’ worthy targets for Eumenides to kill, and two days later, Sergeant Zheng is dead.

Eumenides’ cunning game is only getting started. The police receive a “death notice,” a chilling note announcing the the killer’s next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. The note is both a challenge and a taunt to the police. When the first victim dies in public, under their complete protection, the police are left stunned. More death notices are coming. The chase is on.

Death Notice is an explosive, page-turning thriller filtered through a vibrant cultural lens. Zhou Haohui expertly adds an exhilarating new perspective to the twists and tropes of the genre all fans love, making for a uniquely propulsive and entertaining read.

I found Death Notice to be an extremely enjoyable piece of crime fiction that I was able to power through in a short amount of time.  The overall mystery of this book is quite complex, as the investigative team has to investigate this modern set of killings as well as the original murders which occurred some 18 years previously.  There are a lot of fantastic twists and turns throughout the book as various reveals about the characters in the book are brought to light.  I loved seeing how all the pieces of this mystery came together, and thoroughly enjoyed the overall conclusion about who was behind it, their motivation and their legacy.

While the overall mystery is really clever, I loved the intricate ways in which the antagonist was able to manipulate the police in order to kill the targets they were protecting.  Not only does the killer come up with some elaborate plans to take out his intended victims, he is often able to get the police to do his bidding.  There are some great scenes showcasing this throughout the book, as well as some great reveals about the police characters and why they are able to be manipulated.

The setting of this book is also pretty intriguing, especially as it is not a setting Western crime readers would likely be familiar with.  The book is set in the Chinese city of Chengdu, and I am willing to bet many Western readers have never even heard of that city before.  This provides the reader a unique setting where they do not know the rules or how the police investigate crimes.  The author’s interpretation of Chinese criminal investigation is quite fascinating and readers can enjoy the similarities or differences between this and Western crime fiction.  I also liked how the book was set back in 2002, in the early days of public internet technology.  It was interesting to see how different this recent time period was technology–wise, and it offered some intriguing elements to the story.

Overall, Death Notice is an outstanding piece of crime fiction, with an intricate story and a compelling setting.  This is an easy book for Western audiences to enjoy, and readers should find this piece of Chinese crime fiction quite intriguing.  I hope that we will get more translations of Zhou Haohui’s work in the future, especially ones that continue the captivating story started in this incredible book.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Ascension by Victor Dixen

Ascension Cover.jpg

Publisher: Hot Key Books

English Edition Translated by Daniel Hahn

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

The first book in the bestselling French Phobos series is finally here.  Ascension is a fun guilty pleasure read geared towards a young adult audience that explores the dark side of reality television.

In the near future, a private company has bought NASA and is about to send the first humans to Mars as part of the Genesis program.  However, this will not be a typical voyage to another planet; it will be the most ambitious reality television show of all time.  The international group of young astronauts has been chosen through a worldwide contest, and the entire voyage into space will be broadcast back to Earth to be viewed by the masses.  Not only will these six young men and six young women colonise Mars but they will also be expected to pair up into couples by the time they reach Mars through an insane bought of speed-dating.

The boys and girls will be placed into separate bays of the same spaceship and will only be allowed to interact with the person of their choosing for six minutes each week.  In these six minutes they will meet and try to seduce their counterparts and attempt to determine who their perfect match is.  By the end of their trip, each of them must choose a partner to marry and live with once they reach the red planet.

For one of the contestants, Léonor, the Genesis program is her chance to escape from a planet where she has only ever experienced pain.  The one-way trip is the biggest opportunity of her life and she is eager for glory and love.  But as they move further away from Earth, Léonor begins to learn that this journey is far more dangerous than she had expected.  A deadly conspiracy surrounds this journey and it is far too late for regrets.

Ascension is written by Victor Dixen, a French author who has contributed multiple series to the Young Adult genre.  His previous works included a reimagination of classic fairy tales in the Animale series, and the science fiction based The Strange Case of Jack Spark series.  Ascension is part one of his exciting Phobos series, which was first published in France back in 2015.  Phobos will be the first of Dixen’s series to be translated into English, with the next two books in the series, Distortion and Collison both set to be published in English within the next year.

Ascension is a fantastic book with a lot of parts to it that make for a highly compelling and interesting read.  The overarching concept of a space exploration being turned into a reality television contest is a little crazy, but Dixen has some great explanations for this plot set-up that sound actually plausible and realistic.  With the current political craziness around the world and humanity’s constant fascination with reality television, you can’t help but think that this could be a distinct possibility.

Dixen is a talented author who is able to perfectly recreate the feel of a large-scale reality television show within his book, with all of the worst parts included.  The male and female contestants are kept apart from each other for the whole journey and are constantly aware of the world watching them through all the cameras, and they act accordingly.  Dixen shows off the various ways the producers are trying to manipulate the contestants, such as misleading messages from their host and group showings of each contestant’s ratings and accrued prize money, all in the name of creating drama.  There are also a number of scenes that show large groups of people watching the show and becoming obsessed with it in a way reminiscent of the early days of Big Brother and American Idol.  There are fun inclusions to show this off, such as having scenes where people back on Earth change their hairstyles and looks to match their favourite contestant, the contestants’ home countries showing massive support for them, and a fun scene where a cynic has to listen to other people gossip about the show.

While the parts of the book reminiscent of a typical reality television show are fantastic by themselves, they are taken to a whole other level when they are seen in conjunction with the backstage production meetings scenes.  Reality television show production meetings are probably already fairly sinister but Dixen is really able to amp this up by showing the show’s producers and host engaged in some ominous discussions involving deaths, murder, manipulation and their own bonuses.  Ascension contains a great main antagonist in Serena McBee, the host.  Serena is pretty much the ultimate villain for young people, as she acts like their friend while she tries to manipulate them, thinking she knows everything about them and how to control them.  All of these sinister surroundings create a compelling read that will really draw the reader in.

I have to admit that when I started to read Ascension the last thing I thought I would be interested in would be the potential relationships between the contestants.  However, Dixen puts significant effort into introducing the 12 contestants and describing their personalities and histories, ensuring the reader becomes invested in their futures.  While Léonor is the main character that the author focuses on, the reader is also shown many of the dating segments that the other contestants are involved with to dramatic effect.  There are also a number of discussions between the female characters as they discuss their tragic histories, their hopes for the future and who their preferred partners will be.  As a result, the reader does find themselves really caring about the characters becoming extremely interested in who will end up with whom.

Dixen also enhances his terrific narrative inclusions, sinister overtones and compelling character interactions with a range of useful visual elements included in the text.  These include flyers for the show, tables with the results of the contestants’ prize money and survey results, and detailed technical diagrams of the spaceship and the Mars habitations.  The diagrams of the ship help the readers visualise the ship and habitats, while the flyers and tables make them feel like part of the show’s audience.  These elements are well used within Ascension and are a great addition to the book.

Ascension by Victor Dixen is an exciting and invigorating young adult read that can now finally be enjoyed by an English-speaking audience.  Readers will love how the author has included an extremely realistic reality television setting into a dramatic science fiction story filled with all the emotion and manipulation you would expect from the trashiest of dating shows out there.  This crazy and brilliant read should captivate the young adult audience of the English-speaking world, just like it did with its French-speaking audience, and I will be keeping an eye out for the next two parts of this series.

My Rating:

Four stars

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski

Season of Storms Cover.jpg

Publication: Gollancz

English Edition Translated by David A. French

Publication Date – 19 April 2018

 

The legendary Andrzej Sapkowski returns with a fun and exhilarating addition to one of the best fantasy franchises to ever come out of Europe, The Witcher.

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a powerful mutant tasked with protecting ordinary people from the monsters that infest the various kingdoms and lands of the Continent.  Witchers wield a range of weapons in the fight against evil, from magical signs to powerful potions.  However, their main weapons are two swords: one made of steel, the other made of silver.  These swords are a symbol of status for a Witcher and are irreplaceable.

However, after being falsely arrested by corrupt city guards, Geralt’s swords disappear, having been stolen by unknown thieves.  Upon his release, Geralt will move heaven and earth to reclaim his weapons.  But all manner of people desire the weapons of a Witcher, and his search only throws up false leads.

The theft could not have come at a worse time.  In order to obtain his freedom, Geralt is coerced by the sorceress known as Coral into hunting a demon around the sorcerer stronghold of Rissberg.  Geralt must determine who among the fortress’s scheming sorcerers is summoning the demon forth, and stop their rampage.  At the same time, he and his old friend Dandelion must contend with the various plots taking place within the court of the King of Kerack as his heirs battle for power.

Can Geralt contend with the foes set against him, or will the loss of his faithful swords result in his destruction?

Sapkowski is one of the most popular and well-known writers of fantasy fiction in Central and Eastern Europe, where his books have achieved a cult following.  Sapkowski is best known for The Witcher series of books.  This series, which was mostly written in the 1990s, focuses on the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia and his adventures throughout Sapkowski’s dark fantasy landscape.  These books served as the basis for the popular video game series of the same name, which is how many people would be familiar with Sapkowski’s characters and stories.  The Witcher books were also adapted into both a movie and television series in Poland, called The Hexer, and Netflix has recently commissioned a new American television series based on the books, also called The Witcher, which is currently in the early stages of production.

Season of Storms is the latest The Witcher book Sapkowski has released.  It was originally published in 2013 in Polish, but an English translation of the book has only just been published.  This is a standalone book that is set between some of Sapkowski’s original short stories which were captured in his second book, The Last Wish.  While Season of Storms is a standalone book, it does contain a number of hints to some The Witcher stories chronologically set after it.  It also features a number of characters from the other books in the series, including a series of interludes that focus on Nimue, who appeared in two previous books and who many may recognise as the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legends.  The scenes featuring Nimue in Season of Storms are set more than a hundred years after the rest of The Witcher books and contain some potential hints about the eventual fate of the series’ main characters, as well as some cryptic discussions between characters that could be open to some interesting interpretations.  As a result, people who have read the other books in the franchise will really appreciate Season of Storms for these call-backs and references.  However, while the book may be especially appealing to past readers, it is also a perfect place for readers unfamiliar with Sapkowski’s work to get started, as it does not rely on other books in the series for plot details.

Sapkowski continues to explore his fantastic fantasy world in this latest book, as Geralt quests into new areas of the Continent.  Most of the story focuses on locations and settings not previously explored in previous books of the series, giving fans of this franchise a much wider view of this detailed fantasy world.  Knowledge of the world is also expanded through the fun use of excerpts from in-universe fictional books, which offers a range of entertaining facts and jokes.  Readers will also be impressed by the wide number of foes and monsters that Sapkowski has fit in this book.  Throughout the story Geralt has to contend with magical mutations, humanoid hybrids, powerful magic users, werewolves, kitsunes, gangsters and marauding soldiers.  This rich array of opponents adds a lot to the story’s excitement and is wildly appropriate for a story about a monster hunter.

Another notable part of Season of Storms is the range of intriguing mysteries Geralt needs to solve in order to complete his quest and survive.  These mysteries are interspersed throughout the story’s fantasy adventure and include the main mystery of who stole Geralt’s swords, the political mysteries in the Kingdom of Kerack and the investigation into why summoned demons are attacking communities in the forest.  These mysteries have a large level of sophistication and do a great job of keeping the readers interested and intrigued throughout the book.  The various mysteries also combine really well with the book’s fantasy elements and strike a good balance within the book.  This exceptional combination of elements within Season of Storms impressively captivates the readers and creates an enticing overall story.

The latest book in The Witcher franchise is a brilliant new adventure that stands just to the side of the previous short stories and established longer series.  Season of Storms provides pulse pounding adventure in Sapkowski’s beloved fantasy world while also telling a series of intense interlocked stories that make great use of several riveting mysteries to drag in the reader’s attention.  This is definitely a strong recommendation for those readers who have enjoyed Sapkowski’s literary works in the past.  However, general fantasy fans and those who have only experienced The Witcher franchise through the games will enjoy this excellent and electrifying read.

My Rating:

Four stars