Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers

Fire Made Flesh Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 5 June 2021)

Series: Necromunda

Length: 13 hours and 29 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the violent and deadly world beneath the hive cities of Necromunda, as Denny Flowers presents an outstanding and compelling entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with Fire Made Flesh.

Over the last year or so I have been having fun exploring the immense extended universe that has sprung up around the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy tabletop games.  I have so far read several cool entries in the Gortrex and Felix fantasy series (Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer), as well as the awesome science fiction reads First and Only and Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker.  However, my favourite Warhammer novel so far was the deeply entertaining Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty, which was part of the Necromunda sub-series, another tabletop game set in the gothic Warhammer 40,000 universe.

The Necromunda games and extended universe are all set in and around the towering and immense hive city, Hive Primus, capital of the industrial planet of Necromunda.  Hive Primus is a city of billions, with the inhabitants crammed together in a massive hive structure located both above and below ground.  Necromunda fiction is primarily based in the Underhive, the foundational layers of the hive and below, made up of tunnels, habitation zones and caverns, most of which have been abandoned as the hive was built up.  The Underhive is filled with various gangs and feuding families who fight in these tunnels for riches, dominance and glory.  This unique landscape makes for some impressive stories, such as the awesome narrative of the latest Necromunda novel, Fire Made Flesh.

Deep underneath Hive Primus many secrets and treasures lay hidden in the darkness, waiting to be found by bold adventurers, but none are spoken of with more reverence than the lost habitation dome, Periculus.  Periculus was once a flourishing base of commerce where both sanctioned trade and illicit dealings were held, and vast wealth was accumulated.  However, Periculus was mysteriously abandoned years ago when its inhabitants were killed, and all knowledge of its location has been lost.  Now, after years of searching, someone has rediscovered the dome, and all hell is about to break loose.

Believing that the ruins of Periculus hold innumerable treasures and opportunities, various gangsters, Guilders, hive scum and opportunists have descended into the Underhive, hoping to stake their claim.  However, none of the people moving towards Periculus are more dangerous than the revered Lord Silas Pureburn of the Guild of Fire.  Holding a monopoly on energy production in the Underhive and gifted with a holy flame from the God Emperor himself, Pureburn inspires loyalty and religious fervour wherever he goes.  However, behind his holy facade of purity and flame lies a dark soul determined to dominate everything and everyone he encounters.  One of the few people to see the truth about Pureburn is young Guilder Tempes Sol.  Sol, a scion of the Mercator Lux, the Guild of Light, has found himself bested by Pureburn many times, and he is determined to discover the truth behind his improbable works.  After an unholy accident scars Sol and leaves him with an unusual power, he is forced to flee his guild and travel to Periculus, where his only hope of redemption lies in exposing Pureburn as a fraud.

However, upon arriving at Periculus, Sol discovers a settlement on the edge.  Pureburn has gathered around him an army of religious fanatics who control Periculus through fear, fire and bloodshed.  Determined to stop his insidious influence before it is too late, Sol attempts to forge alliances with other newly arrived inhabitants of Periculus who have been disadvantaged by Pureburn.  However, the deeper Sol dives into Pureburn’s actions, the more danger he finds himself in, as this seemingly holy man hides a dark and disturbing secret.  Worse, even more terrible dangers are affecting people within the dome, as twisted creatures roam the shadows, and the humans are struck with a dark rage that drives them to great acts of violence.  As the forces within gather for a final deadly confrontation, the fate of both Periculus and the entirety of Hive Primus hangs in the balance.

Fire Made Flesh was an interesting and impressive read that did an amazing job of bringing the twisted maze of the Necromunda Underhive to life.  This was actually the debut novel of author Denny Flowers, who has previously written some fun Necromunda short fiction and novellas but had yet to produce a full-length book.  This turned out to be a pretty awesome first novel from Flowers, and I had an outstanding time getting through the intense story, especially with its unique locales and outrageous characters, and it was a fantastic piece of Necromunda fiction.

At the heart of Fire Made Flesh lies a compelling and intense story that showcases the unique and deadly battle for control of Periculus.  After some set-up to show the rediscovery of the lost dome, Flowers starts establishing the various characters and their motivations, exploring how and why they are heading to Periculus.  Told from multiple character perspectives, the reader gets an interesting look at each point-of-view character, as well as the people they travel with.  While this was a good introduction to the many complex aspects and figures of the novel, it did make the pacing of the first third of Fire Made Flesh a tad slow, with a couple of difficult sections.  However, these pacing issues are resolved around halfway through Fire Made Flesh, once all the primary characters make it to Periculus.  From that point onward, the book really picks up, especially as the reader has grown attached to protagonists by this point.  From there the rest of the story is extremely fast, with a big moment two-thirds in, resulting in utter bedlam across Periculus and thrusting each of the characters into extreme danger.  After several intense and action-packed sequences, the entire narrative gets wrapped up extremely well in a satisfying conclusion, with each of the fun character arcs set up throughout the book coming together wonderfully.  I had an absolute blast with this narrative, and I felt that it had the right blend of action, intrigue, character development and Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda detail, to keep every reader happy.  I was really impressed by how Flowers was able to bring the disparate storylines together into one entertaining read, and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in less than a day.  I also deeply enjoyed some of the cool twists and reveals right near the end, as they contained some excellent character moments.  Interestingly, the story is left open for a sequel, and I know I will be curious to see what happens in the Underhive next time.

Fire Made Flesh is an excellent addition to the Necromunda range of fiction, and I appreciated how Flowers attempted to examine and recreate the various elements of the unique landscape and culture featured within this fictional location.  Flowers really dived into the lore surrounding Necromunda, and the reader is soon engulfed in discussions about the social order, technology, and religious zeal of the Hive City.  While the author did a good job of trying to give context to this setting and its various features, readers may get a little overwhelmed with all the unique lore elements that are shovelled into it, especially at the front of the book when Flowers was trying to set everything up.  While I managed to keep my head around what was happening and what the characters were talking about, I could easily see a reader who has less experience with Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda lore, being a bit more confused and potentially getting lost.  Still, this ended up being a great Necromunda novel, and I loved the way in which the author featured the various gangs and controlling interests.  I especially enjoyed the in-depth examination of the Guilders, Hive Primus’s merchant class, who provide the various services to keep the settlements running.  Fire Made Flesh features members from the various guilds, each of whom have different professions, including slavers, energy providers, fuel dispensers and corpse grinders (people who process bodies to produce corpse-starch, the hive’s primary food source).  Readers get a pretty intense crash course in Necromunda lore in this book and will end up having a good understanding of how Underhive works.  There are a lot of details that will appeal to long-term fans of the Necromunda game and its associated extended fiction, and they will no-doubt love to see another entertaining and dark adventure.  While there are some connections to previous novels, including some of Flower’s short-fiction, I would say its easy enough for most people familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe to jump into this book without getting too lost, and even general science fiction fans should be able to have fun with this novel.

Flowers also makes great use of the dark and dangerous setting that is the Underhive throughout Fire Made Flesh.  The Underhive is already an awesome and well-established setting, but Flowers really tried to show just how hostile and unpredictable it could be.  There are some great descriptions of the tight walkways, giant caverns and isolated settlements which prove to be an outstanding backdrop to the dark narrative, and I had a lot of fun exploring some new locations in this novel.  Periculus itself is also an impressive setting, as the reader is treated to an intriguing look at a newly formed town that is slowly getting to its feet in the ruins of an abandoned settlement, and all the strife that comes as a result.  The depictions of the town surrounded by monsters, coated with powdered bone, and filled with fractious groups with enflamed personalities, really helps to set the mood for much of the novel, especially as it all comes crumbling down again.  I deeply enjoyed this cool setting and I think that it was an exceptional addition to a fun novel.

I also had a lot of fun with the compelling collection of characters featured in Fire Made Flesh.  Flowers made use of several entertaining point-of-view characters throughout this novel, including several protagonists of his previous short fiction reads, and this results in a vibrant and well set-up blend of personalities and compelling personas.  The central protagonist is Tempes Sol, the young Guilder genius who spends his days attempting to understand power, electricity, and technology.  Tempes has a rather rough journey in this novel, mostly brought on by his obsession with stopping the book’s antagonist, Pureburn, who has bested him in several prior encounters.  However, this time Tempes is suffering from the after-effects of a psychic attack, which has gifted him strange lightning abilities associated with his cybernetic upgrades.  Cast out of his guild and on the run, Tempes is a desperate figure in this novel, attempting to show the hypocrisy of Pureburn while also trying to redeem himself and understand his new powers.  I felt that Tempes had a very interesting storyline in this novel, and I found his personal growth and the exploration of his personal technology to be quite fascinating.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of his impulsive behaviour and self-righteous personality, but he did start to shed those as the novel progressed, while also developing a certain amount of savviness, especially when it came to some of his supposed allies.  It looks like Flowers is setting Tempes up for some interesting storylines in the future, and I would be quite keen to see this protagonist in another book at some point.

I was also a big fan of the antagonist of Fire Made Flesh, Lord Silas Pureburn.  Pureburn is another Guilder character who specialises in bringing fire and fuel to isolated communities, even when it shouldn’t be possible.  This, and his family’s legacy as keepers of a holy flame, sees him given religious reverence by the general population, as well a collection of devoted, if deranged, followers, who view him as a celebrated champion of the Emperor.  However, Pureburn is really a deceitful and manipulative being, who cares only for profit and his own selfish goals.  Flowers does an amazing job setting this antagonist up and the reader is soon pretty sick of his hypocrisy and arrogance, something that become really apparent after you read a few of his point of view chapters.  Pureburn ends up annoying or alienating every single protagonist in this book, which results in a loose alliance as everyone attempts to take him down.  I love a villain so evil that he brings different people together, and this was a great antagonist to hate, especially once you find out the true source of his power.

Aside from this compelling protagonist and entertaining antagonist, this novel also featured a great range of additional characters with whom the reader gets to spend time with.  My personal favourite had to be Lord Credence Sorrow, a corpse grinder contracted to bring food to Periculus against his will.  Sorrow is a lover of fine things, and his enjoyment of delicate items and gourmet food is at odds with his profession of turning corpses into edible powder.  This character has a brilliant amount of flair, and all his scenes are particularly entertaining, especially as he keeps finding himself stuck between some dangerous employers, resulting in quite a fun and fitting overarching storyline.  I also had a great time with the oddball partnership of Caleb Cursebound, the self-proclaimed ninth most dangerous man in the Underhive, and his silent Ratskin partner Iktomi.  These two make a great pair, especially as Caleb has all the bluster and personality, while Iktomi has a wicked amount of lethal skill, making them a surprisingly effective team, and I loved the entertaining odd-couple vibes that they gave out throughout the book.  I also must highlight Anquis, a member of the notorious Delaque family of spies and infiltrators.  Anguis spends most of the novel helping Tempes achieve his goals with her intelligence-gathering and manipulations.  However, it soon becomes quite clear that Anguis is playing her own games, and no one, especially Sol, knows what she is really after.  The final character I want to talk about is Virae the Unbroken, a Chain Lord (slaver) and pit fighter, who is hired to capture unlucky civilians and bring them to Periculus for labour purposes.  Despite initially appearing as a blunt and unforgiving figure, Virae soon proves to be one of the most complex and best-written characters in the entire novel.  Virae is a former slave herself, who proved herself to be tough and unbreakable, resulting in her title and her eventual promotion to slaver.  However, she really struggles with her profession in this novel, especially after many of her charges die on the journey to Periculus.  Her battles for survival, especially in the face of Pureburn’s evilness are pretty excellent, and I loved her eventually transformation into a bloody figure of vengeance.  This turned out to be an outstanding collection of characters, and I deeply appreciated how Flowers used them to enhance Fire Made Flesh’s great narrative and make it even more exciting and compelling.

I decided to grab the audiobook version of Fire Made Flesh.  This format has a decent run time of around 13 and a half hours, and I ended up powering through it in only a few days, especially once the story started to get very exciting and fun.  I had an outstanding time getting through this audiobook, and one of the main reasons for this was the impressive narration of Joe Jameson, whose work I have previously highlighted in awesome fantasy audiobooks like King of Assassins by R. J. Barker, and The Kingdom of Liars and The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell.  These previous works by Jameson have been some of best audiobooks of their respective release year, and Jameson is easily one of my favourite narrators.  He has an outstanding voice for fantasy and science fiction, and I love the way he can make a story move at a fast pace while also ensuring that the listener is absorbing all the detail and obscure lore with interest.  Jameson did a really good job of voicing each of the characters within Fire Made Flesh, and while some of the voices were very similar to those he used in the other books, I think that they fitted this new group of characters extremely well.  You get a real sense of the various emotions and personalities of each of these characters, and his affinity for voicing outrageous figures such as religious zealots and conniving businessmen proved very useful here.  I had a great time with this audiobook, and it was an amazing way to enjoy this dark and compelling story.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers is an exciting and captivating novel in the Necromunda series.  This is an entertaining and intense science fiction read that makes full use of the unique Warhammer 40,000 universe, the cool setting of the Underhive, and some great and memorable new characters, to produce an electrifying tale.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see what other adventures wait for this outrageous group of characters in any future Necromunda novels Flowers writes.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan

The Pariah Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 24 August 2021)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book One

Length: 19 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author Anthony Ryan returns with the first book in an epic, brand new series, The Pariah, a massive and captivating tale of one young man destined to alter an entire kingdom.

Anthony Ryan is an impressive and highly regarded fantasy author who has been a leading figure in the fantasy fiction landscape for the last 10 years.  Ryan has already written several compelling series, including the Raven’s Shadow trilogy (succeeded by the Raven’s Blade duology), the Slab City Blues series, the Draconis Memoria trilogy and his Seven Swords series.  All these series sound pretty awesome, and I have been meaning to check out some of Ryan’s works for years, especially his Raven’s Shadow books.  Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go back and read any of them, which I really regret.  So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Pariah a couple of weeks ago, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it serves as the first book in the brand new The Covenant of Steel series, which I thought would be a good way to experience Ryan’s writing style.  I am very glad that I did as The Pariah was an outstanding and powerful fantasy read that I had a wonderful time getting through.

Alwyn is a young outlaw, trained by his band to steal, kill, spy and deceive.  Raised in the massive and forbidding forest known as the Shavine Marches, in the heart of the kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn serves the notorious Deckin Scarl, a feared and revered bandit king who rules the forests with an iron fist.  Following a deadly civil war, Deckin finds himself with an opportunity to eliminate a recently installed duke and his family and seize his power and lands.  However, before he can enact his ambitious and murderous plan, the bandit horde is betrayed, Deckin is executed and Alwyn is imprisoned, sent to work a lifetime in the labour prison known as the Pit Mines.

Determined to escape the mines and get revenge on the person responsible for the death of everyone he knew and loved, Alwyn finds himself under the sway of an inspirational cleric imprisoned alongside him.  Under her tutelage, Alwyn learns a subtler art and becomes a scribe of great skill.  However, his desire for freedom and revenge is never far from his mind, and he soon leads the inmates of the pit in an ambitious escape attempt, and so sets forth a series of events that will change Albermaine forever

Managing to escape from the prison and find sanctuary, Alwyn learns much and finds himself taking on many guises including that of scribe, scholar, advisor, and thief, as he attempts to find safety, wealth, and revenge.  However, fate never appears to be on Alwyn’s side, and his bad luck eventually forces him to join a military company serving a noble lady who believes herself touched by the gods.  Pledging himself to this company to save his life, Alwyn traverses battlefields and warzones across Albermaine, encountering some of the unusual people who inhabit this chaotic realm.  His adventures will place him at the centre of the formative events of the kingdom and the church, but how will this scribe of bastard birth rise to become one of the most infamous figures of the age?

This was an outstanding novel from Ryan and one that makes me really regret not checking out some of his previous novels earlier.  The Pariah contains an epic and comprehensive fantasy tale that sees a flawed protagonist traverse a compelling and well-established new fantasy realm.  I had an amazing time getting through this impressive novel and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Pariah has a really great story that I got pretty damn addicted to.  This latest book from Ryan is told in the chronicle form, as penned by its protagonist, Alwyn Scribe, who recounts his life story, including the early events which are the focus of this book.  Ryan dives right into The Pariah’s narrative extremely quickly, with details of the setting and history weaved in as the tale progresses.  The story has an intriguing start to it, showing Alwyn as the young member of a bandit crew with an ambitious leader.  However, the story goes in some very interesting and devastating directions fast, with a brutal massacre changing the entire status quo for the protagonist and forcing him onto a new path.  The rest of the story follows Alwyn as he becomes mixed up with a series of inspirational leaders, mysterious magic users, and fun side characters, whose plans and beliefs forces the protagonist into great adventure and intrigue.  This leads to some awesome and memorable scenes, including a dangerous prison break, some epic battle sequences, and innumerable mysteries and revelations, several of which are left open for the author to explore in the rest of the series.  This all leads to an intriguing and action-packed conclusion that showcases the protagonist’s growth, while also setting up the future entries in the series pretty well.

I deeply enjoyed the author’s impressive writing style in this novel, especially with the entire novel set out in the form of first-person chronicle.  Due to the cool stories that it can tell, I have a lot of love for the chronicle format, and I felt Ryan did a really good job of utilising it in The Pariah.  The post-examination of Alwyn’s story from his older self provides a unique and compelling view of the events unfolding around him, and I enjoyed the various notes from his older self that hint at future events and hidden secrets.  These discussions of future events help to add a certain amount of anticipation and suspense at various points at the novel, such as the early hints about the ambush at the bandit camp or mentions about future dark meetings with certain characters.  I also found the focus of this book to be quite interesting, especially as a large portion of the novel was more concerned with setting up future storylines, rather than moving the story along at a quicker pace.  This is a very classic epic fantasy move from Ryan, and it quite enjoyed the way in which he took the time to establish the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the settings, with a particular focus on some of the formative events of Alwyn’s life.  While I enjoyed this set-up, it does steal a little excitement and momentum from the narrative, although I think the sheer amount of interesting setting detail and the intriguing potential of several established, long-term storylines more than makes up for it.  All these interesting writing elements helped to turn The Pariah into a very exciting and compelling read, and I really loved the way in which they enhanced the already awesome narrative.

I also quite enjoyed the new setting that Ryan set up for The Covenant of Steel series, which has an interesting medieval European feel to it, equipped with knights, forest-dwelling bandits, and religious crusades.  The entire novel is set within the Western Duchies of Albermaine, a nation riven by civil war, invasion and religious instability.  This proves to be an outstanding and compelling background to the awesome story contained with The Pariah, especially as the protagonist finds himself visiting some of the more unique locations of this setting during major historical events.  I personally enjoyed the cool forest lair portrayed in the start of the novel, mainly because Ryan was trying to emulate a darker version of the Robin Hood tale, but there is also a deadly prison mine and an elaborate cathedral that serve as major settings which I thought were really good. 

There is also a great focus on the political and religious makeup of Albermaine, and this results in some fascinating storylines.  I really liked the focus on the martyr-based and corrupt overarching religious organisation that has substantial control of the kingdom, as that forms a driving point of the plot, with the protagonist becoming involved with several unorthodox clergy members, who bring down the wrath of the rest of the church for their actions.  Also, I am kind of curious to see if a prophesied end-of-the world event that multiple characters preach about actually occurs in future novels, especially as it would be a pretty fun story moment if it did.  The protagonist also seems drawn to several people with magical abilities considered heretical by the church, which offers an interesting counterpoint to his other threats, especially as each of these magical characters produce impressive mysteries and potential dark storylines.  I was impressed with how much time the author takes to imbue his setting with a massive amount of detail and after the quick start to the narrative, the reader is given a crash course in the history and politics of the realm.  Despite the level of detail, I think that Ryan spread the world building out to an acceptable degree, and I never felt too overwhelmed with the various explanations and world expansions.  I had a wonderful time traversing Albermaine with the protagonist and I look forward to seeing what additional developments and storylines occur within it in the future novels.

As I mentioned above, the novel is solely told from the perspective of protagonist Alwyn, later known as Alwyn Scribe once he takes up his profession, who is penning the events of his younger life.  Alwyn is an interesting protagonist to follow and thanks to the author’s use of the chronicle style, you really get a sense of the character’s personality, motivations, and intentions as the novel progresses.  Initially starting off as a young thief with immense loyalty to his chief, Alwyn goes through a lot as the novel progresses, forced to make hard decisions and encountering horrors, mistakes and a load of enemies as his tale progresses.  I found Alwyn to be a complex and compelling figure, and I didn’t always like him or his decisions, especially when he was reckless and rash.  However, he does grow as the novel progresses and, while he still has a lot more development to go, I felt that he was a better character at the end of the novel.  I liked the various talents that Alwyn develops throughout the novel, and it was fun to have a more complex and less noble figure, thanks to his past as a thief and conman.  I especially enjoyed his transition into a scribe, which the character soon sees as his primary profession, and it certainly is an interesting and compelling role for a fantasy protagonist.  I liked the way in which the older version of the character tells the story, especially as there are some great reflections about his actions and his personality during that time, and you can often hear the protagonist’s regret over what he did and what is to come.  I cannot wait to see what happens to this character in the future, and I kind of suspect that his tale is not going to come to a very happy end.

Aside from Alwyn, The Pariah is filled with a massive contingent of side and supporting characters who Alwyn meets throughout his adventures.  These characters are featured perfectly throughout the narrative and I loved the unique and compelling ways in which they influenced the overall story.  Ryan invests a lot of time into developing many of these characters, even some who had more minor roles, providing interesting personal histories and personality traits to make them stand out, and I appreciated how complex and compelling their storylines could turn out to be.  I found it interesting that there was a focus on inspiration leaders, with Alwyn falling in with three separate figures in this novel, each of whom commanded his loyalty through different means and whom he became close with in different ways (one is a surrogate father, another a teacher, while the third has a very complicated and constantly evolving relationship with the protagonist).  There were also some interesting antagonists featured throughout the novel, and while a couple died before their time, Ryan made sure to leave some of the better ones alive for the next entry in the series, and I am sure they will have an impact there.  Each of the characters featured in The Pariah added a lot to the plot, and I cannot wait to see what unique figures are featured in Ryan’s next entry.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Pariah, I decided to try out the audiobook format instead.  I am glad that I did as this was an excellent and enjoyable audiobook that was really fun to listen to.  Due to its massive story, The Pariah has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, although I managed to get through it in less than a week as I really got into the amazing story.  The audiobook moved at a great pace, ensuring that there were never any dull or slow moments for the listener to get bogged down in.  I also found that the audiobook format was a great way to absorb the intense amount of world-building, and it also lent itself to some of the exciting fight scenes extremely well.  I was also impressed by the narration of Steven Brand, who brought a wonderful energy to this format.  Brand has an amazing voice and he quickly leapt into the role of the narrator, telling the unique tale of the protagonist’s life and inhabiting the character seamlessly.  I loved the distinctive and well-fitted voices that Brand used throughout The Pariah, and he really helped to turn this format into something special.  As a result, the audiobook version of this book comes highly recommended and I will probably end up listening to the rest of this series in this format.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan is an epic and deeply compelling piece of fantasy fiction that is really worth reading.  Perfectly setting up Ryan’s intriguing new series, The Pariah was an awesome outing from this talented author, and I loved the brilliant story, complex characters and chaotic setting that was featured throughout it.  I cannot wait to see how this awesome series is going to turn out, and The Covenant of Steel novels look set to be one of the most iconic fantasy series of the next few years.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

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

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man Cover

Publisher: Audio Studios (Audiobook – 29 September 2009)

Series: Gray Man – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Out of the Shadows Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 27 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The marvels and terrors of the High Republic era of Star Wars history continues with the latest fantastic and exciting young adult tie-in novel, Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland.

The High Republic is an interconnected collection of novels, comics, audio dramas and other pieces of media produced by top Star Wars authors, set hundreds of years before the films.  Starting in January 2021, this compelling multimedia project features several great pieces of fiction, including the awesome introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, the impressive The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, and the entertaining young adult novel Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The latest High Republic novel, Out of the Shadows, is another compelling young adult novel that continues several key storylines from previous High Republic novels.  This was the second Star Wars book from author Justina Ireland, who previously wrote the High Republic junior novel, A Test of Courage.

Death, destruction, pirates, and plant monsters!  The Republic may be at the height of its culture and influence, but it is in some major trouble.  Following the devastation that occurred during the Republic Fair at Valo, the Republic are at war with the marauders known as the Nihil, with the Jedi leading the efforts to hunt them down.  But in the far corners of space, the Nihil are planning something new, something that could change the very fabric of the galaxy.

Sylvestri Yarrow is a young pilot and captain of a dilapidated ship, who is doing the best she can to keep her crew above water after the death of her mother.  However, when her ship is suddenly pulled out of hyperspace in a remote area of space with a boarding party of Nihil raiders waiting for her, she has no choice but to abandon her home.  Determined to get some form of justice, Sylvestri heads to Coruscant to convince someone of the dangers, but no one is willing to listen to a teenage pilot from the frontier until the unscrupulous and ultra-wealthy Xylan Graf appears and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

In exchange for a new ship and a substantial number of credits, Sylvestri will accompany Xylan to the area of space where she lost her ship to help him disprove rumours of a dangerous Nihil weapon and to convince a senator into giving his family access to valuable hyperspace lanes.  Despite her misgivings about the plan, and the trustworthiness of Xylan, Sylvestri agrees to accompany him.  However, the Senator has a caveat: Xylan must take along some unimpeachable observers of her choosing, Jedi.  Now accompanied by young Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Master Cohmac Vitus, his apprentice Reath Silas, and, awkwardly, Sylvestri’s ex-girlfriend Jordanna Sparkburn, the team heads out to the wilds of space.  But the Nihil are always watching and waiting from the shadows, and their plans could spell doom for everyone.  Can Sylvestri and her new Jedi friends survive the dangers ahead of them, or will terrible secrets from her past threaten to overwhelm everyone once they are dragged out of the shadows.

Out of the Shadows proved to be a fun and compelling entry in this great new Star Wars series that I had a fantastic time listening to.  Featuring a great story and some excellent characters, this novel continues several key storylines from the previous High Republic novels and presents a strong and action-packed adventure.

Ireland has come up with a pretty good story for Out of the Shadows, resulting in a very exciting read.  Set around a year after Ireland’s last novel, A Test of Courage, and a short period after the events of the last major High Republic novel The Rising Storm, Out of the Shadows ties together several intriguing story threads set around some compelling characters.  The book starts out quick, with each major characters introduced in short order through a series of separate point-of-view chapters.  These early introductions do a good job of establishing the characters’ histories, personalities and motivations, and sending them on their various story paths.  The first third of the novel moves quickly, with each character getting some compelling moments, such as Sylvestri getting involved with unscrupulous businessman Xylan Graf, while Jedi Vernestra and her friends get a taste of the dangerous frontier life on their way to Coruscant.  This results in a fun mixture of plot inclusions, from some captivating political intrigue in Sylvestri’s storyline to some more action in Vernestra’s story combined with some interesting examinations of the Jedi and the Force.

These storylines combine around halfway through the book, with the key characters (except for one point-of-view antagonist) coming together and working as a team.  While it did have some good moments, I felt the middle part of the novel dragged a little, and there was not a great deal of excitement there.  However, it did set up the conclusion nicely, with Sylvestri and the Jedi coming face to face with the Nihil in less-than-ideal circumstances.  After a short confrontation, the story goes into overdrive, with the characters racing through several events all the way up to the end, including one event that might have some major ramifications for the High Republic storylines.  Strangely enough, while the second act was a little slow, the final part of the novel was way too quick, with a lot happening in a very short amount of time.  Still there were some great moments in these end scenes, including a couple of good twists, and it also sets up some further adventures extremely well.  All the key characters get gratifying conclusions to their various storylines, and readers are left feeling pretty satisfied with how events turned out.  Ireland makes sure to layer her story with some great action sequences, and there are some entertaining moments spread throughout the book.  I had a wonderful time reading this cool story, and it ended up being a rather good Star Wars book.

This latest Star Wars novel is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I felt that it was a particularly good read for teenagers.  Not only does it feature several teenage characters kicking ass, including a girl who became a Jedi Knight at age 15, but it also contains a clever and enjoyable story that does not pander to the younger age group or shy away from violence or controversial topics.  Ireland did a great job diving into the teenage mindset, and I felt that the various teenage characters featured in this novel were well portrayed as competent and complex figures.  I also liked the strong LGBT+ elements that Ireland featured throughout the novel, especially between Sylvestri and Jordanna Sparkburn, and it is cool that it is being shown so prominently in these novels.  Like many young adult Star Wars novels, this book is can be easily enjoyed by older Star Wars fans, who will appreciate the intriguing story and fascinating developments to the wider High Republic universe.  Younger readers will also probably have a good time with this novel, especially as Ireland does not go too over the top with the violence and romance, and as such I felt that this was an accessible novel to fans of all ages.

Out of the Shadows’ narrative is a continuation of several previous High Republic novels, which readers may need a bit of pre-knowledge about to fully enjoy.  Not only does this novel continue to expand the High Republic series and make frequent references to characters and events primarily featured in Light of the Jedi or The Rising Storm; it also serves as a direct continuation of two previous books.  This includes Ireland’s first Star Wars novel, A Test of Courage, as well as earlier 2021 release, Into the Dark, with key characters and storylines continued in Out of the Shadows.  Readers unfamiliar with these previous novels might also have a hard time following what is happening in Out of the Shadows, although I did think Ireland had a good go at making this novel accessible to readers, no matter their knowledge base.  Some key events of previous novels are explored in some detail, and I had no trouble following what was happening or who the characters were, even though I haven’t read A Test of Courage.  Ireland also blended the various existing storylines together extremely well, and this helped to turn Out of the Shadow into a key entry in the overall High Republic series, especially as it continues to show the galactic machinations of the Nihil.  It also looks like several storylines, mainly surrounding Ireland’s primary protagonist Vernestra Rwoh, will be continued in some future novels and I will have to try to read Ireland’s next novel, Mission of Disaster, even though I have avoided the junior High Republic novels in the past.

One of the things that particularly impressed me about Out of the Shadows was the excellent collection of characters that Ireland fit into her narrative.  There is a substantial central cast in this book, including some new additions and some characters who have appeared in previous High Republic novels.  The author does a good job of introducing and exploring these key characters throughout the novel, and you get some interesting and intense character development occurring, which really adds to the narrative.

These characters include Sylvestri Yarrow, a young pilot who finds herself dragged into the middle of this adventure.  Sylvestri is a tough frontier girl with a big independent streak and a massive chip on her shoulder when it comes to both the Nihil and the Jedi, and she goes through a lot in this novel.  Serving as one of the main point-of-view characters, Sylvestri offers a very interesting view on the events occurring and has some deep connections to the Nihil plot without even realising it.  She also forms an intense and fantastic relationship with Jordanna Sparkburn, her ex-girlfriend, who suddenly re-enters her life.  Jordanna is a frontier deputy responsible for defending her planet from Nihil raiders, which has seen her fight in quite a few battles.  Brought into the story after the Jedi help her to defend her home, Jordanna accompanies them to Coruscant and then gets wrapped up the main story.  Mainly introduced as the tough girl still interested in Sylvestri, Jordanna gains a lot of depth as a character as the story progresses, especially as she has experienced a lot of trauma after being forced into multiple battles.  A lot of this comes out when Sylvestri is in trouble, and Jordanna goes on a bit of a killing spree with a unique Nihil weapon she has obtained.  This scene really adds a lot to how the reader sees her, and it proves to be quite fascinating.  I was also a big fan of Jordanna’s giant alien cat, Remy, a dangerous creature who is just a big kitten at heart, especially when she bonds with some of the other characters.

I also enjoyed the great Jedi characters featured in Out of the Shadows.  These include Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and her Padawan Imri Cantaros, who were the main characters of A Test of Courage and are now Ireland’s go-to Star Wars protagonists.  These two Jedi make for a unique pairing, as Vernestra is a brilliant Jedi prodigy, becoming a Knight at a very young age, while Imri is only slightly younger and has a unique ability to perceive emotions.  Vern is a particularly striking character, particularly with her lightwhip (a lightsaber modified to also be used as a whip) and I enjoyed seeing the challenges that a very young Knight would face.  Her unique connection to the force also connects her to another interesting character in the High Republic canon, and it sets her up for some big storylines in the future.  The other major Jedi characters are Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his apprentice Reath Silas.  Cohmac and Reath were previously heavily featured in a previous young adult novel, Into the Dark, and it was great to see them again.  Despite being the apprentice, Reath is the more prominent character, with several point-of-view chapters to himself.  While it was great to see more of Reath and Cohmac, they are a little underutilised, and I would have liked to see more about them, especially with Reath’s unique connection to one of the antagonists.

The other two characters who were a lot of fun in this book are Nan and Xylan Graf, two complex figures who are playing their own games.  Nan is a young Nihil spy and infiltrator who previously encountered Reath while the two were trapped on a space station together.  Serving as one of Marchion Ro’s most loyal soldiers, Nan is entrusted with an important treasure and is subsequently forced to navigate the Nihil’s internal feuding and plotting to survive.  Nan provides a fantastic alternate perspective for much of the events of the novel as she is used to show what is happening in the Nihil camp.  I liked her use in this book, and while I would have enjoyed a much more intense confrontation with Reath when they are inevitably reunited, I did enjoy how Nan’s story arc dramatically changed towards the end of the novel, which should be interesting for future High Republic novels.  The other character is Xylan Graf, the ultimate rich-kid master manipulator.  Xylan is the scion to the exceedingly powerful and rich Graf family, who organises the entire expedition, seemingly to gain rights to a valuable sector of space.  Xylan is an extremely flashy and stylish figure, and it is quite entertaining to see the other characters react to his eccentricities.  He is also quite a sly operator, cooking up plans and spinning tales to keep everyone happy.  He is so slippery that you honestly don’t know what he is planning for most of the novel, and I felt that he was a very compelling and fun addition to the cast.  All of the above characters were really fun and I hope they reappear in some of the future High Republic entries.

I made sure to grab a copy of Out of the Shadows’ audiobook format, which proved to be an interesting experience.  While I tend to really enjoy Star Wars audiobooks due to the cool production inclusions they usually feature, I ended up being a little disappointed with Out of the Shadow’s audiobook.  This was mainly because it lacked the iconic Star Wars musical score or background sound effects that all the other Star Wars audiobooks have, which made for a more subdued listening experience.  While this didn’t make Out of the Shadows impossible to enjoy, it was a very noticeable departure from the typical fun I have with Star Wars audiobooks, and several scenes could have benefited from being enhanced by some emotional music.  Still, I enjoyed the production, mainly because narrator Keylor Leigh does a really good job telling the story.  Leigh, who previously narrated Ireland’s A Test of Courage, has a great voice for teenage characters.  I felt that Leigh gave each of the key protagonists a unique and fitting voice, and she also ensured that the narrative moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  In addition, with a runtime of just under 11 hours, this is a relatively quick listen, which dedicated listeners can power through in no time at all.  As a result, this is a good format to enjoy Out of the Shadows on, although I really do wish that it had featured the usual strong Star Wars production values.

Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland is an awesome and captivating High Republic tie-in novel, which continues to explore this unique period in Star Wars history.  Containing a fun story and some great characters, this novel serves as a key entry in the High Republic series, following several fascinating plot threads from some previous novels.  Readers are in for an excellent time with this novel, and Out of the Shadows proves to be an exciting and compelling experience.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 3 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Stephen King returns with another exceptional read, Billy Summers, an awesome and memorable character driven thriller that has proved to be one of the best books of the year so far.

2021 has been quite an amazing year for Stephen King, who has released two outstanding and impressive novels in a short period of time.  His first book of 2021 was the interesting horror novel, Later, which followed a child who can see and talk to the recently deceased.  While I have not had a lot of experience reading Stephen King novels in the past, I really got into Later due to its likeable characters and thrilling narrative, and it ended up being one of the best audiobooks I listened to in the first part of 2021.  Due to how much I liked Later, I made sure to keep an eye out for any additional Stephen King releases, and I was extremely intrigued to see that he had a second book coming out with a great-sounding plot.  As a result, this second novel, Billy Summers, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of the year, and I was excited when I received my copy, especially as it contained a really cool story.

Billy Summers is an assassin and gun for hire.  A maestro with a sniper rifle and a master of elaborate escapes, there are few killers better than him.  However, for all his skills, Billy has one unusual quirk: he has a conscience and a moral code which limits him to only taking out contracts on targets he considers to be bad guys.  After a lifetime of killing, as both an assassin and a soldier, Billy wants out, and he is willing to take one final job to retire.  Luckily, his employer has a job that fits all his criteria.

Taken to the small city of Red Bluff on the East Coast of America, Billy is hired to kill a notorious gangster and killer who is currently locked up in Los Angeles but due to be extradited back to Red Bluff.  Billy’s boss wants the target dead the moment he arrives to stop him making a deal with the authorities ahead of his murder trial.  With a massive pay cheque on the line, Billy accepts the job, despite some odd stipulations.  As part of their plan to take out their target, Billy will need to take on the identity of an author working in the office complex overlooking the courthouse and maintain his cover for as long as it takes the extradition process to go through.

Despite misgivings about the job, Billy dives into the role as required and soon establishes himself as a regular figure in the office block.  As he waits for his target to arrive, Billy begins to get to know the people around him and takes the opportunity to write a memoir about his life and the decisions that led to him becoming a killer.  However, the closer he gets to the conclusion of the job, the more he suspects that nothing involved with this assassination is on the level, and that his bosses intend from him to die as well.  Making his own plans in case things go sideways, Billy prepares to end his career as an assassin on his own terms.  But then he meets Alice, and everything changes.

Well damn, how the hell does King do it?  After nearly 45 years of writing, you’d think the man would run out of unique and compelling ideas, but that apparently is not the case, as his latest book, Billy Summers, turned out to be quite an exceptional read.  King has produced an impressive and powerful story that follows a complex and well-established protagonist as he experiences life for the first time.  With some outstanding characters, a deeply thrilling storyline and some intriguing insights into the human condition, this was an outstanding read that was easily one of the best books I read in 2021 and which got a full five-star review from me.

Billy Summers contains a pretty addictive and powerful story that I found to be really cool.  The book is primarily told through the eyes of the titular Billy and shows him as he prepares to take on his final job.  King does a great job of introducing the character and the scenario, and you are soon placed into the midst of a very cool storyline as Billy moves into suburbia under an assumed identity to build his cover.  This results in some compelling character interactions, as Billy simultaneously prepares for his assassination mission with his employers while also getting close to some of the people he encounters and starts to see what a normal life feels like.  At the same time, he also builds up a third identity to use after the job is completed, which requires him to assume a different disguise and create some additional personal connections.  He also starts writing a personal memoir which tells a slightly altered version of his life story, including his rough childhood, his military career, and his early contract work.  This mixture of intriguing and fascinating story threads come together extremely well in the first half of the novel, and you get quite a unique and compelling narrative which perfectly blends thriller excitement with personal character growth.

After a big moment halfway through the novel, the entire storyline dramatically changes, especially as Billy is introduced to a key character, Alice.  While there is still a large amount of focus on the job from the first half of the novel and its consequences, the story noticeably morphs at this point, really diving into the relationship that develops between these two characters.  The storyline also moves away from some of the prior relationships that were introduced, and moves into a road trip, with Billy now accompanied by Alice.  There are some really good sequences in this second half of the novel, as well as a continued exploration of Billy’s past.  King does a fantastic job morphing the various story threads and plot ideas into a cohesive and captivating narrative, and I really enjoyed the powerful combinations.  The set pieces are a series of awesome action sequences, which help tie up several of the main story threads and lead up to the book’s epic conclusion.  While King is often criticised for his endings, I felt that Billy Summers had an exceptional and incredible conclusion that I deeply enjoyed.  This great conclusion is both tragic and memorable, and it ties together the entire novel extremely well, helping to turn Billy Summers into one of the best stories I have read all year.

I really enjoyed King’s writing style in this novel, especially as it focused a lot on character development and interactions between unique people.  The entire novel has a very philosophical bent to it, as King and his characters take time to explore the human experience, especially those aspects of life that people on the outside, such as BIlly, miss out on.  While you wouldn’t think that this would pair well with a thriller story about an assassin, it actually works extremely well, especially when combined with Billy’s journaling scenes, and readers are guaranteed to fall in love with this distinctive form of storytelling.  I also liked the author’s great use of various settings which help to show off the uniqueness of America’s landscapes.  King features several different locations, including suburbia, the inner city, the wide open road, the isolated Colorado mountains, and even some more famous locations, like fabulous Las Vegas.  Each location offers the reader and the characters something new to enjoy or appreciate, and King makes sure to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of these various settings.  While King does move away from some of his more extreme murder sprees in this novel, there are some dark moments in this book.  Not only are there some very graphic action sequences, but readers should also be warned about the sexual violence content, especially one scene where Billy enacts some justice.  I’m also slightly concerned that King might end up getting sued by Rupert Murdoch for a certain facsimile character who does some bad things.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed the way King told his latest unique story, and there is something for everyone in it.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have the most experience reading Stephen King novels, with only a few of his more recent reads under my belt.  Despite this, I was easily able to enjoy Billy Summers, especially as it is a standalone thriller with one-shot characters.  As a result, this is a book that any reader can easily pick up and get into, and I really liked how open the author made Billy Summers.  However, fans of King, as well as those people generally aware of his work, will probably have fun seeing the references to some of King’s previous books.  One of his more iconic works is referenced several times, especially as the protagonists end up spending time near a pivotal location.  While this is not particularly essential to the plot, it was a nice callback, and I think that most people will appreciate the fun self-homage.  I also found it interesting that both of King’s novels of 2021 had a compelling focus on writing, which becomes a key part of the plot.  While Later focused more on the publishing side of things, Billy Summers contains a fantastic examination of the difficulties of putting your ideas to paper as a writer, with the protagonist attempting to write his life story in his downtime.  While there are several fantastic advantages to the writing subplot, such as it being a great way to introduce the protagonist’s backstory in a compelling and episodic manner, I also quite enjoyed seeing the depiction of the writing process, and the various difficulties of telling a story.  It very much felt that King was pouring some of his own experiences with writing into these sections of the novel, and it was incredibly fun and insightful to see one of the world’s greatest authors depict the difficulties of writing in one of his novels.

Another area that Billy Summers excelled in is the fantastic central and supporting characters.  King does a remarkable job of introducing a diverse cast of characters, each of whom affect the character in various ways, either by showing him what his missing, or showing him what he is better than.  The most focused character is naturally the titular protagonist, Billy Summers, a brilliant contract killer who only kills bad people.  Billy is a remarkably complex figure, who builds several different personalities and personas around himself for professional reasons and protection.  I really enjoyed the intriguing portrayal of this character, mainly because you got to see at least four different versions of him in the first half of the book.  While the narrator is the calm and collected lover of classic novels who is basically a good guy, despite being an elite professional killer able to see every angle and work out the best way to kill someone and escape, that is a viewpoint that only the readers sees, at least at the start of the novel.  Billy hides this real side of himself from the rest of the world, effecting a less intellectual personality to his criminal associates, which he calls his “dumb self”, to fool them and think he’s less of a threat.

While his dumb self is usually enough to get by, his new assignment requires him to take up the identity of a struggling author who moves into a suburban neighbourhood and a local office block to focus on his upcoming bestseller.  Billy is forced to integrate into these social systems to keep his cover, and he soon makes friends amongst the people he meets, many of whom have an impact on him due to their honesty, innocence, and normality, all of which Billy has long given up.  He also builds up yet another identity to rent an additional house, which he plans to use as a safe house if the job goes wrong, which forces him to deal with additional normal people.  On top of that, he also takes the opportunity to write a memoir of his life, not only to maintain his cover but to satisfy his own curiosity about the writing process.  This proves to be a delicate balancing act, as he attempts to give an honest account of his past while also trying to keep up the charade of being dumb in case his employers read the story he writes.  This results in a unique, multifaceted character, and you get hints at the true nature of Billy, not just from the narration, but from seeing the similarities and differences between the various versions he presents to the world.

Billy’s life changes even further when he meets Alice, a woman who he meets at the very worst time of her life.  Saving her initially to maintain his cover, Billy soon finds himself drawn to protecting Alice, who has no-one and is having trouble getting over her trauma.  Billy soon works in a fantastic and touching relationship with Alice, as the two become close and help each other see the world in other ways.  Not only is Alice a great character in her own right, especially as King presents a very real and moving portrayal of a damaged and lost woman, but she also brings out the best in Billy.  While Alice does imprint on Billy due to her trauma, she also encourages him and gets him to continue writing his book.  This powerful bond they form soon becomes a central part of the book’s plot, and it is extremely fascinating and compelling to see what happens to them.  These exceptional characters and deep personalities really turn Billy Summers into an exceptional read, and I become severely invested in their story, even though I knew it was likely to end badly.

Stephen King has once again shows why he is the premier fiction author in the world today with another intense and exquisite read in Billy Summers.  Featuring a deep and captivating narrative about a complex character, Billy Summers was an absolute treat to read, and comes highly recommended.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with the unique narrative and compelling leading figures, and I guarantee that you will have trouble putting this excellent novel down.  Easily one of the best books of 2021, I cannot praise Billy Summers enough.

Billy Summers Cover 2

Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Prepare for a twisty and dark Australian murder mystery novel as author S. R. White presents the compelling and powerful Prisoner.

Deep in rural Northern Australia, a dead body has been found in the middle of a dank and dangerous swamp.  The corpse is staged to appear like a crucifixion, with the man’s arms and legs tied to poles, and his chest caved in with several blows.  Called to the scene of the crime, Detective Dana Russo soon discovers that the victim was a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison a few hours earlier and whose crime occurred only a short walk away from his murder site.

Determined to get to the bottom of this unusual murder, Russo and her team swiftly begin tearing apart the victim’s life in prison and find that he had been in communication with two local sisters who offered him a place to stay once he was released.  Investigating the sisters, they discover a unique pair of siblings who have been irreparably damaged by trauma and abuse and who live separate from the rest of society.  Believing that the solution to the mystery may lay with them, Russo brings them both in for questioning, but finds them uncooperative and elusive.

Under pressure to solve the crime, the detectives slowly unwind an intriguing case, concerning corruption, drugs and prison gangs.  However, the further they dig, the more apparent it becomes that the sisters are hiding some dark secrets about themselves and the victim.  Forced to dig deep within herself, Russo uses the memories of her own traumatic childhood to analyse the suspects and find some common understanding with them.  Can Russo break through these two unlikely suspects, or will the solution to this murder never be revealed?

This was a pretty cool and captivating novel from former British Police officer turned author S. R. White.  Prisoner is White’s second novel and serves as a sequel to his 2020 debut, Hermit.  This proved to be a fantastic read and I deeply enjoyed the intriguing and powerful narrative, especially as White loads his book with a complex mystery and some deeply damaged characters.  I got pretty hooked on this book as it progressed and ended up finishing it in only a couple of days.

Prisoner contains a very impressive and compelling narrative that I really found myself getting drawn into.  The novel mostly starts off focusing on the murder, with the discovery of the body in the first few pages, and then the protagonists immediately jump into the investigation, including the interrogation of one of the main suspects.  As the story progresses, you get some other interesting elements thrown in, mostly around Dana Russo and one of her other colleagues as they deal with some dark personal history.  There is also a captivating subplot regarding internal police politics that produces a real shakeup in the department and has some potential series-wide ramifications.  However, most of the story remains on the mystery, and I really appreciated the creativity and darkness that the author fits into the case.  Despite being a sequel to White’s first book, Prisoner can easily be read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the characters or the setting is needed.  I felt that the entire narrative progressed along at a great pace, and there were no slow bits throughout the book, as the reader was either reading about the case or dealing with the intense personal demons of the various characters.

I must highlight the fantastic writing style that White featured throughout this novel.  While most of the focus of Prisoner is on central character Russo, the author makes good use of multiple perspectives, mainly of the other detectives on the investigation team, to move the story along and provide some alternate points of view and different investigative threads.  White utilises a very detailed writing style, which encourages a slower reading pace to make sure you don’t miss anything, and I felt that enriched the mystery and increased the realism of the plot.  I also must highlight the incredibly detailed descriptions of the swampy landscape that surrounded the crime scene and the Northern Australian town where the plot is set.  White paints a grim picture of small, isolated community on its last legs, where even the landscape has turned against it.  You can really feel the stickiness and deadliness of the swamps, and it proves to be quite a haunting background to several scenes.  I also must mention the really fun and unique take that several of the characters had on the film Signs.  This film, which I personally rather enjoyed, is brought up several times and becomes a key plot point.  While that does sound a little strange, its inclusion worked surprisingly well, and the subsequent discussions and insightful analysis of the film and its themes, ended up fitting into the overall narrative quite seamlessly, helping to create quite a unique tale.

I also deeply enjoyed the crime fiction/mystery elements of Prisoner, which really helped to turn this into quite a compelling and exciting story.  White crafts together a really clever and psychologically intense mystery for this book, and I had a wonderful time seeing the protagonists unwind it.  The author sets up a great methodical criminal investigation, with the characters slowly uncovering clues, backstory and various suspects throughout the story.  While the police do achieve an impressive amount in just a couple of days, there is a gritty sense of realism to much of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing the police in action.  The best part of the investigation is easily the focus on interrogations as the protagonist engages two uncooperative suspects in several separate interviews throughout the course of the book.  These interrogation sequences are among some of the best parts of the entire book, as Russo really dives into the pasts and minds of her suspects, which also requires her to reach back and harness some of her own trauma to break through to them.  This, combined with the rest of her team’s investigation, proved to be quite fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing the cooperative work and professional skills involved.  I also quite enjoyed the solution to the murder, especially as White comes up with quite a unique and dark motivation for the crime.  There are several good suspects and motivations for the murder, which at times made me question who the killer might be.  However, I thought the overall resolution of the mystery was extremely clever, and it really made great use of the dark psychology of some of the characters.

One of the biggest highlights of this book were the damaged and traumatised central characters, who White spent a substantial amount of time exploring throughout the course of the story.  This includes a mixture of characters who previously appeared in Hermit and some new characters brought in for Prisoner.  This includes central protagonist Dana Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation.  Dana had a very traumatic childhood, brought on by an abusive mother who beat and emotionally tormented her following her father’s death.  While this was revealed in the previous novel, it was recounted once again in Prisoner, especially as details of the case end up mimicking parts of Dana’s life.  The protagonist is forced to dive deep into her prior experiences to help solve this case, and it was fascinating to see how she could instantly spot signs of abuse, as well as rationalise the various reasons behind it and the impacts it can have on a young person.  The protagonist also uses her experiences to get into the minds of her two main suspects, resulting in some intense and extremely powerful interrogation scenes, where both suspect and interrogator are broken down at the same time.  White also produces some more revelations about Dana’s terrible childhood, including a certain reveal on the last page that was pretty memorable, and I really liked the compelling picture he painted around this impressive leading character.

The other characters who proved to be extremely compelling were the main suspects of the murder case, Suzanne and Marika Doyle.  The Doyle siblings are instantly identified as persons of interest in the case due to their house’s proximity to the crime scene and the fact that they wrote to the victim in prison and helped to organise his parole, despite having never met him.  Upon examination of their history, as well as an insightful look at their house, it soon becomes apparent that both siblings had a hard childhood because of their controlling mother.  Their life story becomes a key part of the overarching plot as Russo attempts to uncover their full history and personalities, as she believes it is important to solve the case.  The eventual reveals about the siblings and their relationship, their past and their emotional states is extremely captivating, and White paints quite a dark and troubled narrative around them that was really fascinating.  The way that this ties into the murder and their relationship with the victim is very clever, and White really outdid himself making these two sibling suspects.

I also must give a quick shout out to the character of Lucy Delaney, one of Dana’s co-workers and an invaluable resource in the case.  Dana and Lucy got quite close to each other in the previous novel, with Dana revealing some of her childhood trauma to her, something she rarely does.  In this novel, you get a much closer look at Lucy, who reveals some of her own personal issues, and the shared grief becomes a major part of her connection to Dana.  Unfortunately for Lucy, she gets dragged into some internal police politics, which impact her and her secrets quite severely and will likely become a recurring issue in the series, especially if the relationship between Dana and Lucy progresses.  Aside from Lucy, I felt that the police characters represented an interesting blend of personalities and skills, such as the wily veteran Mike or the similarly damaged officer Ali, who helped to give the film more personality.  It will be interesting to see how these characters are featured in the future, and I look forward to learning more about them.

Prisoner by S. R. White is a clever and moving piece of Australian crime fiction that proved to be a real treat to read.  White has produced a deep and compelling murder mystery narrative that focuses on a fantastic group of damaged protagonists and suspects, and who have some dark stories to tell.  I really loved the more methodical and grounded police investigation angle of this book, especially the inclusion of some powerful interrogation sequences, and I was impressed with how the narrative unfolded.  An excellent and captivating murder mystery, Prisoner comes highly recommended, and you will have a great time getting through the latest book from this fantastic Australian author.