She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 16 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading voices in fantasy fiction, the impressive Sarah Beth Durst, returns with another epic standalone fantasy read, The Bone Maker.

Sarah Beth Durst is an amazingly talented author who has been dominating the fantasy market for the last several years.  Initially debuting with several fun young adult and middle grade novels, such as the 2009 release Ice, Durst made the jump to adult novels in 2014 with The Lost, before writing her bestselling Queens of Renthia fantasy series.  I only recently started reading Durst’s work when I checked out her 2020 novel, Race the SandsRace the Sands was a gripping standalone fantasy read that featured a thrilling tale of adventure and redemption set around monster racing in a desert kingdom.  I absolutely loved Race the Sands, and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of last year, and Durst was easily one of the best new-to-me authors I checked out in 2020.  As a result, I have been really keen to see what Durst would write next, and I was excited when I heard about her new book, The Bone MakerThe Bone Maker was one of my most anticipated novels of 2021, and I ended up having a wonderful time reading it.

25 years ago, the nation of Vos was threatened by a terrible foe, the rogue bone maker Eklor, whose nightmarish creations of animal bone and mechanical components sought to overwhelm everything.  In the end, Vos was saved by five heroes who led an army to Eklor’s door to destroy him.  However, their victory came at a steep cost, as one of the heroes died a tragic death, and only four walked away from Eklor’s tower.

In the years that followed, the leader of the heroes, Kreya, has lived a life of exile, determined to resurrect her husband, Jentt, who died to stop the evil assailing their realm.  Using Eklor’s notes, Kreya has succeeded in cracking the spells needed to complete the resurrection, but bringing the dead back to life has a heavy cost.  Not only does Kreya lose a day of her life for every day that Jentt lives, but Kreya also requires human bones to complete the spell,. The bones of the dead are ritualistically burnt throughout Vos specifically to prevent bone workers using them for dark magic, so Kreya is forced to look elsewhere for her materials.  In her desperation, she decides to return to the one place she swore never to go back to: the plains outside Eklor’s tower, where the bones of those fought against Eklor’s monsters still lie.

Making the arduous and forbidden journey to Eklor’s tower, Kreya makes a terrifying discovery that threatens everything she fought for all those years ago.  With the dangers of the past threatening to overwhelm her, Kreya has no choice but to reunite her comrades 25 years after their famous victory.  But will these damaged heroes be enough to face the evil threatening to overwhelm them, or will an evil long thought destroyed arise again to finish off what it started?

Wow, Durst definitely does not disappoint as she has created another impressive and powerful fantasy novel.  I had an absolute blast reading this fantastic new book and I managed to finish it off relatively quickly, especially once I got wrapped up in the outstanding story, clever setting and the lives of her amazing protagonists.  I really enjoyed this awesome standalone fantasy read and I have to give The Bone Maker a full five-star rating.

For her latest amazing fantasy novel, Durst has come up with a very complex and powerful story that dives deep into the hearts of her fantastic characters while also taking them on an epic journey of redemption.  I have to admit when I read some of the early descriptions of The Bone Maker I assumed it was going to be the central protagonist, Kreya, going up against her old companions as they tried to stop her from resurrecting her husband.  Instead, Durst works in a very different narrative that sees Kreya encounter the enemy from her past, which forces her to bring her friends back together herself.  Durst sets up this narrative really well, and the reader gets a sense of the tragedy of Kreya and the lengths she is planning to go to reunite with Jentt.  You also get a fantastic idea of the trauma from the protagonist’s past battles with Eklor and how this has shaped their lives.  There are some great moments in the opening half of this book, including several amazing and magically charged action sequences as the protagonists go up against a range of different foes, as well as some intense drama as the five are gradually reunited and come to terms with their past failures.  I loved how the narrative gradually morphed into a bit of a political thriller in the second half of the book as the protagonist encounters an old foe in a different setting.  The flow from the various sections of the story works extremely well, and Durst weaves together a really comprehensive and powerful standalone story.  I liked the excellent blend of action, fantasy elements and intense emotion exploration, which helped to produce a very comprehensive narrative, and The Bone Maker turns into quite an epic and exceptional read.

Easily the highlights of this book are the complex and damaged central characters that the story follows.  The five main characters are heroes who previously saved Vos from a great evil, and I loved this exploration of renowned fantasy heroes years after they saved the world, the usual climax of a story.  The central character of the story is Kreya, the group’s leader, who disappeared after ensuring their previous victory, mourning her dead husband.  Kreya performs multiple attempts at resurrection at the cost of her own life, and I really appreciated the author’s interpretation of this character’s grief leading her to risk it all.  Kreya has a rough and powerful journey throughout this book as she comes back to lead her team and is forced to deal with the expectations of all those around her.  Despite the immense amount of guilt, grief and regret that Kreya experiences throughout this story, Kreya proves to be a talented leader, directing them through several unique fights, and is the only person that can hold this ragged group of characters together.  The counterpoint to Kreya’s toughness and leadership is her deceased husband, Jentt, who, after his resurrection, proves to be the heart and light of the group.  Despite his more buoyant personality, Jentt has to deal with the consequences of his resurrection, especially when he finds out the cost of his continued life, and this leads him to several harrowing mental places.

The next member of the heroes of Vos is the bone wizard Zera, who specialises in creating the best magical talismans in the world.  Zera is the only member of the group who cashed in on her fame after their victory and has grown rich off her skills and reputation.  Zera is a fantastically sarcastic and entertaining addition to the cast, as she revels in her wealth and privilege, while also providing some of the best lines in the entire novel.  Despite a sense of intense betrayal at Kreya’s abandoning of her all those years ago, Zera agrees to help her with her mission, but finds herself constantly conflicted by her feelings of resentment, her own well-hidden damage, and her changed vision of what Kreya’s relationship with her was.  As a result, she has quite a journey throughout The Bone Maker and I loved her inclusion in this novel.

The other two major protagonists are the bone reader Marso and the warrior Stran, both of whom survived the battles with Eklor in very different ways.  While Stran is reasonably mentally healthy, having chosen to live a simple life with his wife and children, Marso has been broken by both his powers and the events of the past.  These two are a great contrast to one another, and both add some intriguing elements to the overall narrative.  I quite enjoyed seeing Marso slowly rebuild his sanity throughout the book while also coming to terms with a magical power he no longer trusts.  Stran’s apparent normality and stable family life is so amazingly different from the other characters in the book that it really stands out, and I liked seeing how each character was just a little bit different.  Overall, all five of these awesome protagonist really help to make The Bone Maker a powerful and impressive read and I am extremely glad that Durst took the time to build each of these great characters up.

One of the things I really must discuss is the outstanding setting that Durst created for this great book, especially as the author did such an impressive job coming up with yet another unique world.  The land of Vos is an amazing fantasy realm, loaded up with its own blend of troubles, culture and magic, which is living in the shadows of the tragic bone wars 25 years prior.  Durst sets this new landscape up perfectly in the early stages of the novel, and the reader gets a great sense of the people and mentality of this realm, especially when it comes to the trademark bone magic.  As the novel progresses, Durst visits several fantastic and compelling parts of this land.  This includes the gigantic and wealthy capital city where many terrible events take place, the hilly landscape that makes up the majority of Vos, a mist-shrouded valley loaded up with a collection of dangerous, gigantic monsters, and the plains surrounding Eklor’s tower, where deadly secrets lurk.  These landscapes are a lot of fun to explore, and Durst works them into her narrative perfectly.  I really enjoyed all of the major locations that the protagonists visit, although my favourite has to be the valley of monsters, as some intense and action-packed sequences take place there.

In addition to the amazing setting, I also really appreciate the rich and distinctive bone magic that Durst came up with for The Bone Maker.  This type of magic features three distinctive types of bone workers, including bone readers who can use animal bones to read the future, bone wizards who create powerful bone talismans, and bone makers who inscribe bones to animate a range of constructs.  Each of these magical disciplines is explored in great detail by the author and are all strongly utilised in the plot.  I loved seeing these magical elements at work throughout the action sequences in the book, and Durst uses them to great effect, with the characters gaining flight, stealth, strength and speed in every epic fight sequence.  The various examples of bone making are also pretty cool, and you get some great magical constructs.  I liked how there was a fun contrast between the protagonists’ cuter, yet still effective constructs, and the antagonists monstrous figures, and it makes for some great combat scenes, especially when the protagonist goes big towards the end of the book.  All of these magical elements are really exceptional, and I think it is an absolute testament to Durst’s sheer imagination and creativity that she is so effectively able to come up with a brand new style of magic and a new magical realm for every single one of her standalone fantasy reads.

I ended up enjoying The Bone Maker in its audiobook format, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience Durst’s epic story.  The Bone Maker audiobook has a decent run time of 16 hours and 35 minutes, which I ended up getting through rather quickly and is not too much of challenge for dedicated listeners to finish off.  One of the best things about this great audiobook is the amazing narrator, Soneela Nankani.  Nankani is a veteran audiobook narrator, but despite her prevalence as a narrator of fantasy fiction, I have not previously had the pleasure of experiencing Nankani’s vocal talents before, although she has worked on several other fantasy novels that I am keen to check out.  Nankani was an outstanding narrator whose voice really enhanced this already amazing novel.  Not only did Nankani provide a quick and exciting tone for the entire novel, moving the story along at a brisk and enjoyable pace that continuously kept the reader’s attention; she also provided several fantastic voices for the various protagonists.  All the voices that she used were pretty impressive, and I felt that they fit the damaged and dark personalities of each of the main characters very well.  As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in checking out The Bone Maker as it is an amazing way to check out this compelling novel.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst is an exceptional and captivating standalone fantasy novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Durst has produced an epic and elaborate tale of life, death and magic, which follows five damaged and broken heroes years after their supposed great victory.  There are so many awesome elements to this fantastic book, and readers are going to fall in love with The Bone Maker’s addictive narrative, powerful characters and cool magical elements.  While I did enjoy Durst’s previous novel, Race the Sands, a little more, this was still an outstanding read, which comes highly recommended.

Quick Review – The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair

The Codebreakers Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 460 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Interested in a fantastic historical fiction novel that looks at a unique and overlooked part of Australia’s history?  Then make sure to check out The Codebreakers by bestselling author Alli Sinclair, an amazing and dramatic novel that I found to be extremely captivating and powerful.

Synopsis:

1943, Brisbane: The war continues to devastate and the battle for the Pacific threatens Australian shores. For Ellie O’Sullivan, helping the war effort means utilising her engineering skills for Qantas as they evacuate civilians and deliver supplies to armed forces overseas. Her exceptional logic and integrity attract the attention of the Central Bureau-an intelligence organisation working with England’s Bletchley Park codebreakers. But joining the Central Bureau means signing a lifetime secrecy contract. Breaking it is treason.

With her country’s freedom at risk, Ellie works with a group of elite women who enter a world of volatile secrets; deciphering enemy communications to change the course of the war. Working under immense pressure, they form a close bond-yet there could be a traitor in their midst. Can the women uncover the culprit before it’s too late?

As Ellie struggles with the magnitude of the promise she’s made to her country, a wedge grows between her and those she holds dear. When the man she loves asks questions she’s forbidden to answer, how will she prevent the double life she’s leading from unravelling?

The Codebreakers was an amazing and well-written historical drama from Australian author Alli Sinclair, who has previously penned several other great historical novels.  This latest book from Sinclair tells the impressive and captivating tale of some of the most unique women in Australia’s storied war history, the secret codebreakers of Central Bureau.  This proved to be an impressive and captivating read that I powered through in a quick amount of time, especially as Sinclair came up with a clever and compelling narrative.

Throughout this outstanding tale, Sinclair not only covers the intricacies of a fascinating group of female codebreakers, also known as the Garage Girls (they worked out of a garage), but also includes some excellent character-driven drama as the protagonist is forced to come to terms with the secrecy of her work as well as the various tragedies that befall her and her friends as the war takes it harsh toll.  Throw in an intriguing spy thriller angle, as the Garage Girls find out that one of their own may be a traitor, and this becomes quite an intriguing and exciting read.  I loved the great blend of excitement, adventure and tragedy that the author produced, and I really liked how she not only showed the protagonist’s entire tenure with the Garage Girls but also featured the tragic aftermath of the war, where the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions and the loneliness of missing friends and colleagues forces her to choose a different path.  Readers will swiftly find themselves very attached to the main protagonist and her amazing story, and I had a great time seeing this entire tale unfold.

I must highlight the excellent historical aspects of The Codebreakers as Sinclair has clearly done some intense research on this period.  I really enjoyed the intriguing examination of the Central Bureau codebreakers who were active in Brisbane during WWII and who helped to decrypt transmissions and provide vital information to the Allies.  Throughout this great book, Sinclair really goes into great detail about the work the codebreakers would have done and some of the impacts of their work.  She also tries to examine the mentality that surrounded these codebreakers, both in their work and outside it, as each codebreaker was forbidden to talk about their work to anyone, both during the war and after it.  This proves to be an intriguing and intense central part of the novel’s drama, and it is apparently based on interviews that Sinclair did with surviving members of the real-life Garage Girls.  This was an impressive and amazing basis for this great story and I deeply enjoyed learning more about this fascinating and formerly-secret women.

I also enjoyed the way in which the author perfectly captured the feel of mid-war Brisbane throughout The Codebreakers’ story.  Sinclair laces her narrative with a lot of fascinating discussions about various military attacks that hit Australia, wartime polices and general thoughts and feelings about the war and the people involved with it.  However, I was most impressed with Sinclair’s attempts to capture the mentality of the people on the home front in Brisbane at the time.  Not only did you get the frustrations of the common Australian citizen/soldier as they dealt with the deployed American soldiery, but there is also the sadness and regret of those that survived.  You could almost feel the despair of several characters in this book, especially after the deaths of some of their loved ones, and it was a truly moving inclusion in this fantastic and powerful read.  All of these historical inclusions were really remarkable, and I had an outstanding time exploring Sinclair’s vision of this intriguing and momentous period of Australian history.

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair was an awesome and moving historical drama that proved to be an exceptional examination of a truly unique group of Australian women.  Sinclair makes perfect use of the amazing historical basis for her novel and turns it into quite an exciting and captivating tale of resilience, friendship and romance, which comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic novel and I loved learning so much about the codebreakers of Australia’s Central Bureau.

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.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From bestselling young adult author Tess Sharpe comes an outstanding and deeply impressive new novel, The Girls I’ve Been, an extremely clever and emotionally rich young adult thriller that is easily one of my favourite books of 2021 so far.

When young teen Nora O’Malley started her day, she thought that the worst thing she would have to deal with would be an awkward chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend at the local bank with her new girlfriend in tow.  However, things get decidedly worse when two armed men storm the bank, shooting wildly and demanding the manager.  When their plan goes awry, the two robbers take the staff and customers hostage, locking them in and barricading the doors.  With only a small police force in town, the nearest SWAT team hours away and the gunmen getting more and more antsy, things look grim for the hostages until Nora takes the lead.

Despite only being 17, Nora has a complicated and terrible past.  Born the daughter of a self-centred and manipulative con artist mother, Nora spent the first 12 years of her life helping her mother run her dangerous cons, first as a prop, then as an active participant, learning everything there is about lies, deceit and becoming a whole different person.  However, after their final job went terribly wrong, Nora eventually left her mother behind to escape and become Nora.  Despite living a relatively quiet life for the last five years with her long-lost sister, Nora is prepared to dive back into her past lives as a conwoman to ensure that everyone gets out this dangerous situation alive.

Using every trick and subtle deception at her disposal, Nora must try to manipulate the two robbers into letting them go, while also attempting to distract them from her friend’s escape attempts.  But as conditions in the bank get even worse, Nora begins to realise that these robbers have their own deadly plan, and that the only chance to survive is to reveal her true identity to her captors.  Nora has a deadly secret in her past, one that she has been running from for years, and which may prove to be far more dangerous than anything the robbers can throw at her.

The Girls I’ve Been is an impressive and captivating young adult thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  This is the latest novel from Tess Sharpe, an author who specialises in novels with strong female protagonists, including Barbed Wire Heart, Far From You and the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tie-in novel, The Evolution of Claire.  I must admit that before receiving her latest novel, I was a little unfamiliar with Sharpe’s work, although I did hear good things about her Marvel Comics tie-in book, Captain Marvel: Liberation Run.  However, the moment I received The Girls I’ve Been, I knew that I had to read it as I really liked the cool synopsis and the fantastic-sounding plot.  I ended up powering through it in a few short days as I quickly became engrossed in the excellent and complex narrative that Sharpe weaved around her damaged protagonist.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and, considering how engrossing and powerful I found it, I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

For this amazing book, Sharpe has come up with an exceptional story primarily told from the point of view of the book’s protagonist and narrator, Nora.  The author starts the story off quick, pushing the protagonist and her friends, the dramatic pairing of her hurt ex-boyfriend and her long-time crush turned recent girlfriend, into the midst of a violent and dangerous situation when the bank they are in is stormed by two gunmen.  After this explosive start, Nora quickly slips into action, plotting her escape while trying to find some way to manipulate their captors into letting them go, which in turn reveals her past as a conwoman’s daughter.  The author then starts layering in a series of fantastic flashback sequences or chapters loaded with details about the protagonist’s past or her relevant skills and experiences.  Not only do these become relevant to the current crisis that the characters find themselves in, but they also provide more context for Nora’s actions, as well as containing hints about her troubled past.  These flashbacks fit seamlessly into the main narrative, and as the book progresses and the situation in the bank gets worse, the reader becomes more and more aware of just how dangerous and messed up Nora’s childhood.  The depictions of the character’s past are exceedingly fascinating, and this entire flashback narrative proves to be an awesome addition to the plot, especially as some of her previous actions have severe consequences on current events.  Both the past and present come together extremely well to form an impressive conclusion, which also leaves open the potential for sequels in the future.  I really enjoyed this awesome overarching narrative, due to its fast-paced intensity, clever humour (I particularly liked the inclusion of text at the start of some chapters describing the progress of Nora’s various plans), and impressive character development, and it really did not take me long to get invested in the story.

Easily the best thing about The Girls I’ve Been is the extraordinary amount of character development that Sharpe puts into her point-of-view protagonist, Nora.  Nora (not her real name) is a character who has a unique outlook on life due to her past, which she is constantly haunted by.  When we are first introduced to Nora, the reader is shown a seemingly normal girl, albeit with a complex love life, but it does not take long for the reader to understand just how different she is.  Not only do we witness her immediately take control of the situation inside the bank, but soon the reader sees a powerful series of flashbacks showing the character’s chaotic early life.  Each of these great flashbacks help to produce a layered and captivating figure and it was truly fascinating to see how Nora was born and raised as a criminal conwoman.  Sharpe really dives down deep in Nora’s psyche, allowing you to see how messed up she is and how her past shaped her.  I particularly enjoyed the various flashback chapters that show her committing cons when she was younger, each time with a different name.  With each of these cons, the protagonist learns a whole new set of skills and personality traits, either because her mother demanded it to make the con work or because the trials she underwent during this job required her to learn them.  The protagonist attributes each of these traits to the distinct person she was during the job, and she calls on each of these personalities to shape her into the mostly stable and capable person that she is today.  The author pulls no punches in showing the reader all the terrible things that Nora experienced as a child, and I think she did an outstanding job capturing the lasting impact painful events would have on a young person.  Despite this trauma there is a noticeable strength to Nora that drives her to survive and help others, even if it means sacrificing herself or taking a more lethal approach to solving a problem.  Naturally, all this impressive backstory helps to produce a truly compelling protagonist who the reader cannot help to pull for, especially as Sharpe also imbues her with a sarcastic and clever sense of humour that really appealed to me.  It will be interesting to see if Sharpe continues utilising this unique character in the future and I for one would love to see what happens to her next.

In addition to Nora, Sharpe has also included several other great supporting characters who help to turn The Girls I’ve Been into a first-rate novel.  While none of these characters get as developed as Nora, Sharpe has ensured that each of them is just as complex and nearly as damaged.  The main two supporting characters are Iris, Nora’s quirky current girlfriend, and Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are trapped in the bank with her.  While you would assume that this combination of characters would result in petty drama, Sharpe has come up with an intriguing relationship dynamic between the three of them which becomes a fantastic part of the narrative.  They prove to be quite supportive of each other, as all three have experienced various forms of neglect or abuse in the past, and together they are able to face their demons and become more stable people.  I really liked the way that Sharpe utilised Iris and Wes in the story, especially as both characters have some interesting characteristics, and it was amazing to see them all develop them throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to her friends, there is also a significant focus on Nora’s family, her sister Lee, and her mother, both of whom have had a major impact on her life.  I enjoyed both characters for very different reasons.  Lee is the strong older sister who, after experiencing a similar traumatic childhood like Nora, dedicates her life to saving Nora, even if she must ruin everything she loves.  Their mother, on the other hand, is a selfish, manipulative creature, who lives for the scam and is willing to drag her children through hell to get what she wants.  Both characters are great additions to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see what motivated them and what terrible things they are willing to do for different reasons.  All these characters add so much to The Girls I’ve Been, and I was really impressed with Sharpe’s excellent work on them.

Like several of Sharpe’s previous novels, The Girls I’ve Been is marketed as a young adult fiction novel for a younger audience.  I would say that this is an exceptional novel for teenage readers, as The Girls I’ve Been contains a complex and powerful story that features a young girl forced to endure amazing hardships and overcoming them in an intelligent way.  There are some deep and emotional issues that are hit on throughout this book, including children forced to deal with abusive parents, as nearly every parental figure in this novel is either abusive or complicit through negligence.  I think the author addressed these issues in an excellent way, especially as she did not try to talk down her intended audience, and I have no doubt that these elements will strongly resonate with some readers.  In addition, Sharpe also discusses some other important issues in this novel, such as endometriosis, as well as depicting some very positive LGTB+ relationships, all of which I think a lot of teenagers will also really appreciate seeing.  The novel does contain some more mature themes and elements, which might not be appropriate for younger readers, but which make it a great teen read.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be quite easily enjoyed by an older audience, and I think that a wide range of readers will deeply enjoy this amazing novel.

The Girls I’ve Been is an outstanding and exceptional novel that I cannot give enough praise to.  Tess Sharpe has come up with a truly impressive young adult thriller, containing an amazing story and some exceedingly compelling characters.  I had an awesome time with this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I look forward to seeing what Sharpe will come up with next and I can certainly say that this is an author that I will be keeping a very close eye on.  I hope that she considers a sequel to The Girls I’ve Been in the future, although this great novel already has a pretty fantastic self-contained story to it, still it might be interesting to revisits the cool characters again.  There is apparently a movie adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been in the works, starring Millie Bobby Brown.  I think that this book would make for a really good movie, and Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic choice to play Nora (I only just watched her in Enola Holmes).  In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out The Girls I’ve Been, because you really will not be disappointed.

#NoEscape by Gretchen McNeil

#NoEscape Cover

Publisher: Freeform Books (Hardcover – 8 December 2020)

Series: #MurderTrending – Book 0 (prequel)

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Gretchen McNeil returns with another murderous young adult thriller with #NoEscape, a gripping and fantastic prequel to her amazing #MurderTrending series.

Gretchen McNeil is a fantastic author who specialises in amazing young adult novels with horror or suspense twists to them.  She is probably best known for her Don’t Get Mad series of novels (which were adapted into the Netflix series, Get Even), and her 2012 novel Ten, which was turned into a Lifetime movie.  Other works of McNeil include Possess, 3:59 and I’m not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, all of which sound like fun and entertaining reads.  I am most familiar with McNeil due to her latest series of novels, the #MurderTrending books.  This series started in 2018 with #MurderTrending, which followed a group of young felons, known as the Death Row Breakfast Club, who had to survive their brutal public execution on reality television.  #MurderTrending was an extremely fun and thrilling book that not only presented an exciting narrative for a group of great character, but which also parodied society’s love for social media and reality television shows.  McNeil followed up this first entry in the series with the sequel #MurderFunding, an awesome-sounding book that followed another deadly reality television show.  While I really liked the sound of the second #MurderTrending novel, I did not get a chance to read it, although I might try to read it later this year.  Her latest novel, #NoEscape, serves as a prequel to #MurderTrending and is set 20 years before the events of the first book.

Seventeen-year-old Persey has been beaten down her whole life by her abusive parents and her overachieving brother.  While everyone considers her to be useless, Persey knows that there is one thing she is good at: escape rooms.  After solving a supposedly unbeatable escape room, Persey is given a chance by the parent company, Escape-Capades Ltd, to compete in an elite escape room challenge with a multi-million-dollar reward for whoever wins it.

In desperate need of the money, Persey reluctantly accepts the invitation and is taken to the Escape-Capades headquarters in Las Vegas with several other gifted teen competitors, each with substantial escape room experience.  Persey and the other participants are shocked when the challenge begins almost as soon as they arrive at the headquarters.  Entering a series of elaborate rooms, the group are instructed to work together to succeed within the set time frames.  While at first the challenges seem like normal escape room fare, it soon becomes apparent that something is off.

After one challenge that puts each contestant in mortal risk, they players are shocked when someone is killed in front of them.  Convinced it was faked as part of the game, the escapees continue to advance until someone else is killed.  As each room becomes more and more deadly, it becomes apparent that someone is out for blood and is determined to make the escapees suffer.  Forced to solve a series of gruesome and bizarre puzzles to survive, Persey begins to realise that each of her fellow participants has a secret they would die to protect.  Each contestant is related to each other in some way, and whoever is running the game is seeking vengeance.  Can Persey and her new friends survive, or will they become the first victims of a sick killer with dangerous ambitions for the future?

In this latest novel, Gretchen McNeil has come up with an exceptional tale of manipulation and vengeance as the protagonist finds herself trapped in a series of deadly escape room with a group of unpredictable allies.  This is an extremely fun and exciting novel that blends a tense situation, excellent characters and a series of clever twists to create a deeply compelling and highly addictive read.  I read through this book in one night as I became deeply engrossed with the plot and couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolded.  I love the idea of a group of teenagers caught in an escape room designed to expose secrets and kill its participants, and McNeil utilised her plot design to maximum effect, creating a dark and high-stakes read.  The novel features a great collection of distinctive and fun characters, each of whom stand out in their own way and bring something different to the story while also bringing in some excellent drama with their conflicting personalities.  The main protagonist and point-of-view character, Persey, is particularly intriguing, and the author spends significant time exploring her past, showing a series of flashbacks that highlighted her emotionally abusive parents and damaged brother.  All of these characters have some major secrets, and McNeil cleverly weaves hints of them into the plot before they are eventually revealed.  This book features a lot of excellent and cleverly written twists and turns, and while I was able to predict a good deal of them, it was still a lot of fun seeing them unfold and I was every taken by surprise with several major reveals.  Overall, this is a fantastic and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to and which has an outstanding and powerful conclusion.

One of the major appeals of this book is that it serves as a great prequel to #MurderTrending and #MurderFunding.  This makes it an opportunity to highlight the origins of some of the characters (mainly the antagonists) that appeared in the later books in the series.  Fans of the series will really love the excellent way McNeil ties the narrative into the other #MurderTrending novels and there are a lot of clever and fun references scattered throughout this latest book.  There is really no requirement for someone to read either of the other novels in the series first before trying out #NoEscape, and new readers will be able to easily enjoy this cool and exciting tale.  Indeed, this novel could even serve as a fantastic entry point into the series, and I would definitely recommend that anyone who enjoyed #NoEscape should definitely read #MurderTrending next.  I personally wish that I had read #MurderFunding first, as there were a couple of reveals that did not have as significant an impact on me as I think they were supposed to.  Still, I had an outstanding time reading this latest book from McNeil and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.  After getting hooked on this latest book, I might try and read #MurderFunding this year, especially if McNeil is planning any additional entries to this awesome series.

I really liked how McNeil utilised escape rooms in this novel, and it proves to be a fantastic setting for this amazing young adult thriller.  The author has come up with a huge range of intriguing and clever challenges for her participants to try and overcome, and I loved seeing all the various riddles and puzzles.  As the escape room continues, the rooms become more and more deadly, and it was quite fun to see all the unique and elaborate murder contraptions that the author imagines.  Some of the challenges and the deaths in this book were really over the top, and it proved to be exhilarating and nerve-racking to watch the protagonists attempt to overcome them, especially when a particularly fun character’s life was on the line.  McNeil also uses her novel to examine and somewhat parody the current escape room trend, with each of the characters being a major escape room user with a huge amount of enthusiasm for them.  As a result, this ends up being a particularly fun read for anyone who has done an escape room in the past, although I can guarantee that you will be rather suspicious about the next challenge that you undertake.  I had a lot of fun getting through these deadly escape rooms in the story and I cannot wait to see what McNeil uses as the major plot setting in her next novel.

Like the previous entries in this series, #NoEscape was written for a young adult audience and follows several teenage protagonists.  This is excellent novel for teenage readers; I know I would have loved to read this when I was younger.  I particularly liked how the author did not write down for a younger audience, instead presenting a detailed and complex tale, filled with intriguing characters, compelling story elements and several very dark sequences.  I would say that, due to the sometimes gruesome content, this book is probably best read by older teenagers, especially those who have a love of escape rooms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be easily enjoyed by adult readers, who will enjoy all the excitement and clever twists.  There are also a huge number of cool pop culture references throughout the book that will prove appealing to readers of many different ages, as McNeil covers a massive range of different genres and forms of entertainment, ranging from classic horror movies (there is a great clue hidden in one reference that older readers will particularly enjoy), anime, professional wrestling, books and movies (I loved one of the character’s Harry Potter themed shirt; shame it got blood on it).  Overall, this is a great young adult book, and I really appreciate the fact that McNeil has made it appealing to very wide audience.

#NoEscape is another fun and exciting young adult thriller from the amazing Gretchen McNeil.  Serving as a fantastic prequel to #MurderTrending, this is a clever and captivating read that is really worth checking out.  Readers are going to love this exhilarating and deadly narrative, and you are guaranteed to speed through this outstanding and thrilling novel in a very short amount of time.  Highly recommend.

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

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Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 20 April 2020)

Series: Book of the Ice – Book One

Length: 473 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of fantasy and science fiction superstar Mark Lawrence comes The Girl and the Stars, a superb and endlessly fascinating novel which takes the reader on an epic adventure in a unique new setting.

Mark Lawrence is a science fiction and fantasy fiction author who burst onto the scene in 2011 with his debut novel, Prince of Thorns. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, having written several additional books across four intriguing series, all of which have received a lot of attention and praise. Indeed, when some of his latest novels were released (Grey Sister and Holy Sister in particular), you couldn’t escape reviews of his books even if you tried, as every single review site I followed seem to have some commentary about how much they enjoyed them. Despite seeing all this online praise about his work, I have not actually read any of Lawrence’s previous novels. This is not because his books do not interest me; quite the opposite! I actually consider this inadvertent exclusion of his work to be a major hole in my fantasy/science fiction knowledge. However, I just never seem to be able to fit his books into my reading schedule, even after I featured The Broken Empire series on my Top Ten Series I Want to Get Into list. So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lawrence’s new book, The Girl and the Stars, I thought that I would take the opportunity to finally read something from this author, and I ended up getting really sucked into this cool and clever novel.

This book is set on the planet Abeth, a dying world that is slowly being frozen over by vast sheets of ice. Despite the cruel and harsh conditions, several human tribes exist out on the ice, scraping a living and managing to survive. However, there is no tolerance of variation or differences out on the ice, and only those people who are whole and normal are considered capable of living their lives out in the cold. For the rest, there is the Pit of the Missing, a vast and gaping black chasm that burrows deep into the ice and the earth from which no one has ever returned.

Every several years, the various tribes living on the ice gather around the Pit, and their children are inspected by the regulators. If a child is normal, they are returned to their parents and allowed to live their lives, but if a child is shown to be different, either because they are weak or they are in the process of developing unique abilities that may cause them to burn out faster on the ice, they are thrown into the Pit in what is considered a mercy killing.

Yaz has always known that she is weaker and not as resilient as the fellow members of her tribe, but she is able to survive thanks to a source of power only she can access. Prepared to be pushed into the Pit, Yaz is instead chosen by the regulators to be taken to their fortress and trained. However, when the regulator pushes her little brother down into the pit, Yaz does not hesitate before diving in after him.

Against all the odds, Yaz survives and finds herself in a strange and wonderful new world under the ice, illuminated the powerful gems, or stars, that provide heat and light deep beneath the surface. As Yaz explores the vast underground labyrinth, she discovers that the other children thrown into the pit over the years have survived and formed their own society. But as Yas searches for her brother, she soon discovers that life underground is not as the utopia it seems. Many dark and terrible things lurk under the ice, determined to claim the bodies and souls of those people it encounters. But Yaz is different; her power seems to affect the star-like gems surrounding her and may prove to be the tool needed to free those people trapped in the darkness. But Yaz’s potential has been noticed, and soon everyone is fighting to get their hands on her power, which can flip the war being fought beneath the surface. Can Yaz save her brother and escape the darkness of the Pit, or is she doomed to be consumed by the conflict?

The Girl and the Stars is a clever and addictive novel from Lawrence that serves as the first entry in his brand new Book of the Ice series. This latest book is set in the same world as the author’s bestselling Book of the Ancestor series and focuses on a new group of protagonists in a unique and compelling setting. Featuring a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction elements, The Girl and the Stars contains an elaborate and epic narrative. Lawrence once again excels at drawing the reader into his novel with the compelling story of a young woman discovering her powers in a strange world. Told with a deeply detailed writing style which forces the reader to absorb and enjoy every word of this epic book, The Girl and the Stars was an incredible novel, and I had an outstanding time reading it.

At the heart of this intriguing book is a compelling and sophisticated adventure story that sees the protagonist encounter all the dangers that live underneath the ice, whilst finding her own inner strength and resolve. This story, which at times reads a bit like a young adult narrative, turns intense rather quickly, as within the first 25 pages the protagonist has already jumped into the unknown to save her brother. What follows is a non-stop thrill ride which sees Yaz encounter a huge raft of crazy characters and strange horrors underneath the ice. The story continues a brisk and exciting pace, as the protagonist jumps from one situation to the next with intriguing plot developments every couple of pages. There are some big set pieces, plenty of daunting opponents, cunning intrigues and manipulations, fun side characters and a fast-paced storyline, all of which come together to produce a really captivating and exciting read, topped off with a shocking cliffhanger of a conclusion. Lawrence sets up a number of intriguing plot points for the future entries in this series, and I am rather curious to see what happens in the next book, and what adventures the protagonist will find herself on next.

The major highlight of this book has to be the incredibly inventive and intricate settings that Lawrence produced. The Girl and the Stars actually has two really cool settings in which the characters find themselves. The first is the wild ice fields of Abeth, a harsh and unforgiving landscape populated by hardy and practical tribes of humans, who are controlled by a wise and manipulative priesthood. Lawrence does an incredible job of introducing the reader to this setting in the first chapter, making it sound like a fun and intriguing location for the book. However, the second chapter sees the protagonist go into the Pit of the Missing, which takes her to a different world under the ice. This new landscape underneath the pit is far more complex and imaginative than the great ice setting at the start of the novel, filled with a huge collection of different landscapes, from icy caverns, fields of fungi, labyrinthine structures, ancient alien cities and areas of darkness. Into these clever locations, Lawrence installs a number of different groups, factions and monsters, which the protagonist needs to understand or avoid if she is going to survive. The sheer number of features and settings proves to be extremely beneficial to the story, as the reader is left wondering what new obstacle or ally the protagonist is going to meet next. I also rather enjoyed how Lawrence blended together fantasy and science fiction elements throughout the course of the book, with the characters tapping into seemingly magical abilities to survive, and with their major opponents appearing to be demons. However, there is a more scientific explanation to these abilities and antagonists that ties into the origins of the planet and its previous inhabitants. There are also a variety of pure science fiction elements, including mechanical monstrosities, sentient cities and ancient technology. All of these elements, whether they appear more fantasy or science fiction based, prove to be really fascinating, and I quite enjoyed seeing how they played into the book. Overall, this was a really unique and memorable setting, and I loved how the author cleverly wove his compelling story throughout it, allowing it to enhance the narrative with its inventive and distinctive elements.

I have to admit that I was initially a little hesitant when it came to reading The Girl and the Stars, mainly because it was connected to Lawrence’s previous series, which I have not read. From what I have heard, the Book of the Ancestor series contains quite an elaborate narrative and setting, and I was worried that my lack of knowledge about the previous books would impact my understanding of the plot of The Girl and the Stars. However, once I dived into this book’s compelling story my fears proved to be rather unfounded, as I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the unique elements. No prior knowledge of any of Lawrence’s previous books is needed, especially as the story follows a brand new protagonist who has no idea of the events of the Book of the Ancestor’s novels, and who herself needs a crash course in the planet’s history, the varied physiology of the humans who inhibit it and other integral plot elements. As a result, this is an extremely accessible book for readers unfamiliar with Lawrence’s work, and, based on my experiences, I would say that it is a good introduction the author’s writing style and wild imagination

That said, I could tell that The Girl and the Stars is also going to be extremely appealing to fans of the Book of the Ancestor’s series, who will no doubt appreciate the similarities this novel has to Lawrence’s previous work, following a young female protagonist who is new to her power through this unique world. While I did not personally understand the significance of them, this book was obviously chock full of references and world-building knowledge that people who are familiar with the previous books are going to really appreciate and find intriguing. I do have to admit that I was bit uncertain about when The Girl and the Stars occurred in relation to the Book of the Ancestors series, and I really have no idea about whether this book is a prequel, sequel or is running concurrently to the previous books. While this did not impact my enjoyment of The Girl and the Stars in any way whatsoever, I did feel that this is something that Lawrence could have made a little clearer for new readers, especially if there are some connections between this series and the previous books is revealed later in the trilogy. Overall, I would definitely recommend this new entry from Lawrence to any science fiction and fantasy fans, whether they are established readers of the author or new readers looking for something interesting to check out.

I also have to spend a little bit of time highlighting the amazing and eye-catching cover my copy of The Girl and the Stars had (see above). While the alternative cover (see below) was also cool, I really loved the cover that my edition had, which was done by artist Jason Chan. Chan, who has done work for several Lawrence’s previous novels, did a fantastic job with this artwork, producing a cover that is striking and which perfectly reflects the unique setting that the book’s protagonist finds herself in. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and this appreciation only grew once I started reading The Girl and the Stars and fully understood what Chan is portraying. This is an excellent bit of artwork, and it is one of my favourite pieces of cover art I have seen so far this year.

The Girl and the Stars is an exceedingly inventive and exceptionally exciting novel that expertly blends together fantasy and science fiction elements to create a widely entertaining and compelling read. I absolutely loved the unique and imaginative setting that Lawrence came up with for this book, and it proved to be a fantastic background to the novel’s enjoyable story. This was easily one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020, and it has become clear to me that I must read more of Lawrence’s books in the future. Highly recommended.

The Girl and the Stars Cover 2