All of Our Demise by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 30 August 2022)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book Two

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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After wowing the world with their first collaboration, 2021’s All of Us Villains, the superstar young adult fiction team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman return with the second book in their impressive duology, All of Our Demise, one of the most anticipated young adult fantasy releases of the year.

For generations, seven prominent families of the city of Ilvernath have each sacrificed one of their children to a legendary death tournament, the winner of which would secure the extremely powerful high magick for their family.  However, this latest tournament has not turned out like anyone expected.  Already exposed to the world thanks to a tell-all book, some of the champions, led by the seemingly heroic Briony Thorburn, are determined to break free from the bloody tournament that has long haunted their families.  But as they attempt to break the curse that binds the tournament to them by destroying the enchanted artefacts and locations associated with their families, their actions will have unexpected consequences on all around them.

For the first time in its history, the magical Blood Veil that physically separates the participants from the outside world has been broken and now everyone can witness the tournament unfold.  As reporters and members of the public swarm into the historic battleground as witnesses, the participants can return to Ilvernath and seek help from those in town.  The destruction of the Blood Veil seems proof that Briony’s plan is working, but not everyone wants the curse to end.

After the miraculous resurrection of his murdered brother, Hendry, Alistair Lowe believes that the only way he can keep Hendry alive is by winning the tournament.  After murdering his entire evil family and after being cursed by the girl he fell for, Alistair finds himself isolated with Hendry, unsure how to proceed.  However, he soon finds himself working with a surprising new ally in Gavin Grieve, the boy no-one expected to survive, and who has his own desperate reasons for working with the Lowes.  At the same time, the formerly glamorous Isobel Macaslan finds herself drawn to the mysterious Reid MacTavish, whose manipulation of the champions has brought nothing but trouble.  Determined to help Briony destroy the tournament, Isobel will break all the rules to survive, even if that means drafting Reid in against his will.

As the battle lines are drawn and the two groups of champions attempt to path their respective courses to victory, they find unexpected obstacles blocking their way.  Not only are the champions’ manipulative families attempting to sway events to their favour, but the media is determined to make all of them infamous in their own way.  Forced to battle each other both in the tournament and in the field of public opinion, the champions will face unbelievable tragedy and despair as they all try to survive.  However, the biggest threat to all of them may come from outside the tournament, and no-one is prepared for the evils waiting for them in the wider world.

Foody and Lynn Herman have delivered quite an impressive sequel here with All of Our Demise, which presents the reader with another epic and powerful story.  Building on the elaborate narrative and character arcs of All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise takes the reader on an exceptional emotional rollercoaster as they watch four extremely complex and distinctive point-of-view characters battle in impossible circumstances.  All of Our Demise ends up being just as good, if not a little better, than Foody and Lynn Herman’s first impressive outing, and it provides readers with an outstanding and memorable conclusion to this captivating young adult fantasy duology.

I’m still reeling a little bit about how All of Our Demise’s story turned out.  Foody and Lynn Hermann did a remarkable job with this sequel and the story continues seamlessly on from the events of the first book.  Told from the perspective of the four main characters, the death tournament focus of the story has evolved due to the events of All of Us Villains and the characters are now forced to contend with outside forces as they fight in an extended battleground.  The protagonists are now split down the middle as some fight to destroy the tournament for good, while they others try to keep it alive so they can win, either for their own survival or to save those closest to them.  All four protagonists have some brilliant character driven storylines around them, and each of them is fighting for something important to them, whether it be redemption, family, reputation, or respect.  In addition, the protagonists are still reeling from the events of All of Us Villains, and no-one has been left emotionally or physically untouched from the events of the first book.  This results in an emotionally heavy storyline, especially once everyone gets a taste of betrayal, either from the other champions or from other malign figures outside of the main group.  The story evolves at a great pace, and the authors chuck in some imaginative and clever twists as each group starts to get closer to their goal.  New relationships are built while others are torn down, and there are some very intense moments as scorned friends finally confront each other over past betrayals.  Everything leads up perfectly to the big conclusion, where there are some big sacrifices and some major changes in the lives of every protagonist as they reach their endgame.  I really appreciated how this impressive story came together, and you will be left shocked, moved and very satisfied with how this outstanding duology came to an end.

I think the excellent team of Foody and Lynn Herman did a remarkable job pulling All of Our Demise together, and this was an extremely well-written book.  As I mentioned above, this is a pretty epic sequel, and the authors strike off right after the cool cliff-hanger that All of Us Villains ended on.  All the great story elements from the first book are seamlessly continued here, and I really appreciated being able to jump straight into the narrative again.  While the authors do ensure that there is some exposition so that readers can remember what happened in the first book, I would say that All of Our Demise is a bit of a harder book to enjoy if you haven’t read All of Us Villains first.  There are some story and character gaps featured here that might be a bit hard to follow without having read the first book, so I would definitely recommend checking that out first.  Once you are into this story, there really isn’t a slow moment, as the characters are constantly engaged in some form of action, the enhanced intrigue surrounding the event, or a deep examination of their psyche and relationships, especially as they continue to examine the terrible events they have found themselves in.  While All of Our Demise is a bit of a brick, you honestly are never left feeling bored or stuck, and you frankly can’t help but move forward as you are drawn into this elaborate tale.  I really think that the split between the four protagonists is handled perfectly as well, and it ensures you get a well-balanced narrative and substantial time to dive into their respective and impressive character arcs.  This was one of those young adult novels that has a lot of appeal both for its target teen audience, and much older readers, as everyone will deeply appreciate its clever storylines and deeply relatable characters.  I felt that All of Our Demise came together exceptionally well, and this ended up being quite an outstanding and addictive read.

I must make special note of the cool death tournament that is such a fantastic feature of this amazing duology.  I love a great young adult death tournament scenario (who doesn’t?), and the one featured in All of Us Villains and All of Our Demise is particularly inventive, loaded with a unique history, fun magical features, and all manner of devastating tragedy.  I was really impressed with how the authors set up and featured this elaborate tournament in the previous book, and they continue to utilise it throughout All of Our Demise.  The constant fight to survive the lethal tournament becomes even more complicated throughout this second book, and it was fascinating to see how the characters deal with the pressure and the constant war they find themselves in.  There are some excellent features of the tournament that come into play in this second book, including the new magical artefacts and locations featured within that give them varying advantages.  These are generally short lived as the champions are determined to destroy them all, which not only requires them to learn more of their various family’s dark histories but forces them to engage in deadly challenges built into the tournament to destroy it.  These challenges are pretty epic, and it was great to see the protagonists involved in progressively more lethal encounters.

However, the most distinctive and entertaining change to the tournament that occurred in All of Our Demise was the sudden lack invasion of the public that occurred due to the breaking of the Blood Veil barrier.  The tournament has always historically been a private affair between the champions, but now the entire battle is a worldwide sensation being constantly reported on by the media.  It was quite fascinating and a little maddening to see the supposed sombre death tournament devolve further into a gaudy spectacle, equipped with baying fans, manipulative outsiders and a ton of paparazzi, all of whom have a very different view of the events occurring.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the ridiculous media coverage that occurred throughout this second part of the tournament, especially as various over-the-top and often blatantly false headlines and discussions of current tournament events appeared at the start of every chapter, replacing the quotes from the tell-all book that were featured in All of Us Villains.  This media coverage nearly always painted the complex characters in such a terrible light for the rest of world, which was a little hard to see, especially after you have become quite attached to the various protagonists.  However, I personally felt that it drew me into the narrative a little more, and it was a very entertaining and fun element that I had an amazing amount of fun with.  This media coverage had an interesting impact on the events of the narrative, as the characters are forced to conduct interviews and discussions with reporters to further their goals.  This entire change in the publicity of the tournament was a brilliant addition to this second book, and it altered the tone of the book in an impressive and amazing way, that really added to my enjoyment of the book.

However, the best thing about All of Our Demise was the exceptional character work featured within.  Foody and Lynn Herman did such a brilliant job setting up the four complex protagonists in All of Us Villains, and these impressive character arcs are continued seamlessly in the sequel, with each of the protagonists forced to deal with some of the further traumas that were inflicted on them in the first book.  All of Our Demise maintains the same four point-of-view characters as before, and I found myself instantly connected to them again as I remembered their compelling history and the devastating events that occurred to them in the first book.  The authors continued to perfectly build these characters throughout All of Our Demise, subjecting them to further trauma, emotional concerns and hardships, and watching them try to deal with these as they fight for their survival is a key and impressive part of this epic young adult book.

Probably the most compelling character in the entire duology is Alistair Lowe, who simultaneously plays the role of the best antagonist and an intriguing and likeable protagonist.  Alistair is the oldest son of the Lowe family, who are generally considered to be the major villains of the tournament.  Despite being raised from birth to be a monster, Alistair was hesitant about his role in the tournament and was initially a reluctant participant, even though he knew it was his destiny.  Thanks to his romantic interactions with fellow champion Isobel and the murder of his brother Hendry by his family to boost his chances, Alistair had a brief brush as being a hero and destroying the tournament with the others.  However, the apparent resurrection of Hendry by the tournament at the end of All of Us Villains caused Alistair to abandon his allies and attempt to kill Isobel as he believes their plan would result in his brother dying again.  Now fatally cursed and having taken brutal revenge on his family, Alistair is forced to re-envision himself as the villain once again to convince himself to kill the other champions, all to save the most important person in his life.

It is very hard not to appreciate Alistair as character as the authors have done an incredible job creating him and turning him into the most complex figure in the novel.  The authors really did a number on Alistair in the last book, and watching him try and work through all these issues here is extremely powerful, especially as he keeps experiencing more setbacks and traumas as he proceeds.  There is so much tragedy and emotional turmoil surrounding Alistair in this book, and the authors write an excellent arc around him for this sequel.  Watching him try to balance his desires and true nature with everyone’s perspective of him as a monster is just so damn fascinating and moving, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this fictional character.  I am glad that Foody and Lynn Herman did work in a redemption arc for Alistair in All of Our Demise, and there are some surprising, but very heartfelt relationships surrounding him in this novel that help to keep him going.  I really think that the authors handled Alistair perfectly, and he is definitely the character that everyone will remember once they finish this book.

Another character who you fall in love with Isobel Macaslan, another person who has gone through absolute hell through the course of the books.  Forced into the tournament against her will, Isobel tried to use her sudden infamy to her benefit and projected an air of confidence before the tournament, despite being terrified and used by her family.  Since then, she had an unfortunate romantic entanglement with Alistair Lowe which resulted in him murdering her.  Resurrected by a dark curse that makes her more corpse than woman, Isobel is in a very bad place during this book.  Still controlled by doubt and despair, Isobel is uncertain about whether she believes in the plan her friends are proposing and spends most of the book coming to terms with her fears and her growing attachment to another dangerous character.  Throw in some major family issues, as she continues to struggle with her selfish family, and a hostile press who produce some typical paparazzi junk about her, and you some excellent and compelling moments around Isobel that are fascinating to see.  Isobel continues to experience quite a lot of tragedy in this novel and watching her power through them and try to fix all her damaged relationships is a great part of the plot.

The third point-of-view character is Briony Thorburn, who serves quite a key role in the plot.  Briony has seen herself as the hero her entire life and was the only person excited for the tournament.  However, after her younger sister was chosen in her place thanks to the machinations of the government, Briony illegally entered the tournament by incapacitating her sister and cutting her finger off.  Now determined to destroy the tournament, Briony leads the charge to destroy the artefacts and landmarks.  However, there are some major concerns about her actual motivations, as many assume this part of her manipulative hero complex.  Briony spends most of the book trying to redeem herself after the mistakes of the first novel, a task that is complicated by her own family, who have their own sinister plans for her and the other champions.  Mentally isolated and hated by the media, Briony has a terrible time in All of Our Demise, and the authors weave some powerful moments around her.  I honestly think that Briony had one of the best and most complete narratives in the entire series, and All of Our Demise brought her character arc together extremely well.  Like the rest of the cast, it is very hard not to grow attached to Briony as you witness her complicated physical and mental battles unfold, and I really appreciated the outstanding way it ended.

The final main character is Gavin Grieve, who proved to be one of the most surprising and captivating characters from the first book.  The chosen sacrifice of the one family who has never won the tournament, Gavin always knew he was destined to die.  Full of rage and resentment, Gavin chose to make a deal with the devil and accessed a dangerous form of magick that drained his own life to gain substantial power.  Made into a lethal contender but slowly dying, Gavin is convinced by outside forces that they can save him, but they require him to work with Alistair Lowe.  Forced to overcome his own prejudices, most of which revolve from the perceived disrespect of the other champions, Gavin grows close to Alistair, and they form an interesting team.  I was really surprised by the direction of Gavin’s storylines in this book, especially as there are some fantastic reveals and changes in personality.  The authors did a great job of explaining his changes in personality, and I felt that it was quite a natural transition, especially when you consider everything he’s gone through.  Gavin rounded out the central cast of damaged, complex protagonists, extremely well, and I thought that this was a brilliant combination of characters.  Their combined complex storylines and arcs are just superb, and while you might get a little more drawn in to one or two of the characters more than the rest, there is no perspective that you are actively wanting to avoid.  I cannot highlight just how impressive these four characters were, and Foody and Lynn Herman should be commended for the exceptional character work they did here.

The wonderful and insanely talented team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have come up with something truly special with All of Our Demise.  Perfectly finishing the brilliant story started in All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise lived up to all the hype surrounding it and ended up being one of the best young adult fantasy books of the year.  Featuring all the great characters from the first book, Foody and Lynn Herman weave an addictive and deeply personal narrative around them that takes the reader back into the midst of a constantly evolving and deeply traumatising magical death tournament.  Intense, captivating and very complex, All of Our Demise is a highly recommended read, and I cannot have envisioned a better end for the exceptional young adult duology.

All of Our Demise Cover

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Sparring Partners by John Grisham

Sparring Partners Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Short Story

Length: 306 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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In the mood for more legal thriller awesomeness from the mind of legendary author John Grisham?  Then make sure to grab a copy of his new short story collection, Sparring Partners.

John Grisham is an author who needs very little introduction, especially after dominating the thriller field for over 30 years.  However, I must admit that I only recently checked out his work with the 2021 book, The Judge’s ListThe Judge’s List was an extremely captivating novel that saw a determined investigator dive into allegations that a sitting judge was also a devious serial killer.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book and it definitely convinced me that I needed to read more of Grisham’s books.  Well, I recently got the opportunity to do so when I picked up a copy of Grisham’s latest release, the short story collection Sparring Partners.

Sparring Partners is an intriguing book that contains three of Grisham’s compelling short stories.  Made up of Homecoming, Strawberry Moon and the story Sparring Partners, this collection was an awesome and fun read that will really appeal to established Grisham fans.  I personally had a great time with it, and I ended up getting through it in three short intervals, knocking off one story at a time.  All three stories are quite entertaining in their own right, and together they prove to be an excellent and awesome exploration of Grisham’s style and love of the legal thriller.

The first of these stories is Homecoming, which takes the reader back to Ford County, which has served as the fictional setting of many of Grisham’s novels.  This story follows a small group of lawyers who find themselves in a unique situation when a disgraced former colleague returns to the fold.  Homecoming starts when small-time lawyer Jake Brigance suddenly receives a letter from long-lost friend and fellow lawyer Mack Stafford.  Years ago, Mack suddenly and unexpectantly fell off the grid, taking a stack of money from his clients and vanishing to parts unknown.  Considered a legend by the local legal community, Mack left behind a wife and two kids, and no one has ever understood the reasons for his disappearance.  Now, Mack is determined to return to Ford County and wants Jake and his friend Harry Rex Vonner to help navigate the waiting legal difficulties.  But as Jake and Harry work to secure Mack’s return, some members of Ford County are less than eager to see him come back and will ensure that retribution is waiting for him if he does.

Now I must admit that the first entry in this book is probably the weakest, as Homecoming does not have the most gripping narrative of the three short stories in Sparring Partners, mainly due to its low stakes.  However, it still proves to be a very compelling and interesting narrative that sees a disgraced fugitive lawyer who went through a major mid-life crisis attempt to return to the scene of the crime.  Loaded with characters with big personalities, this proves to be a very entertaining entry, and I enjoyed the unique and character-driven narrative that it contained.  Grisham provides some intriguing insights into small-town lawyering, while also taking the time to dive into some of the more significant characters.  There is a great focus on the character of Mack, especially around why he did what he did, and I really enjoyed the moving moments that looked at the impact his actions had on his family.  However, I did think that the story, while fast paced and interesting, was a bit bland and it never really went anywhere.  Still, this was a great introduction to the sort of stories you can expect in Sparring Partners and I had a wonderful time reading it.

The next entry in Sparring Partners is the powerful and intimate story, Strawberry Moon.  Set inside a death row of a prison, Strawberry Moon follows Cody Wallace, a young inmate with only three hours left until his execution.  Waiting for his final moments while his lawyer tries and fails to save him, Cody reminisces on his life and the poor choices, tragedies, and an unfair system that led him there.  But as the last minutes of his life tick away before him, Cody has just one request to the guards around him, one that will make all the difference in the world to him.

Strawberry Moon was the most powerful and heartbreaking of all the three stories contained within Sparring Partners and it serves as the emotional heart of the entire volume.  Grisham paints a grim and realistic picture of a young man who is about to be executed, by examining this remarkable figure’s remaining three hours.  Grisham has produced a deeply compelling and concise narrative that reader will swiftly get drawn into.  The story of Cody Wallace is beyond tragic, and the slow reveal of what he did and why he is about to die really gets to you, especially as it is interposed with scenes from his current existence and mentality, which has resulted in spending half his life in death row.  Watching Cody take pleasure in some of the little things he has as he waits to die is extremely moving, as are his final interactions with some of the more important people in his life, even if they are only passing acquaintances.  This story also serves as a rather blistering indictment of the death penalty system, and Grisham really got his point across extremely well, showing a mostly innocent person get killed for reasons outside of his control.  Easily the best of the three stories contained within Sparring Partners, I had an incredible time with Strawberry Moon, and you will get hit hard in the feels when you read this one.

The final story is the amusing and fast-paced story Sparring Partners, which shares the name of the volume.  Sparring Partners follows the unusual firm of Malloy & Malloy, a storied, family-operated law firm that is going through its greatest challenge.  With the Malloy family patriarch currently in prison for murder, the two remaining Malloy lawyers, brothers Kirk and Rusty, attempt to manage the firm in his stead.  However, the two brothers are polar opposites of each other and have very different ideas about how the firm should be run.  With their feud reaching an all-time high, the firm is in dire straits, and only their neutral colleague, Diantha Bradshaw, seems capable of saving it from ruin.  But Diantha has very different plans, and the firm of Malloy & Malloy may be in some real trouble.

This final story is a great entry as well, and it is definitely the most entertaining piece in the entire book.  Following a law firm in crisis, this was a fantastic and fun blend of legal thriller and family drama, as the entire lawyer family goes at each other trying to win.  Grisham sets the entire scenario up extremely well and shows the multiple conflicts, manipulations and twists in an awesome way.  None of the characters in this story are likeable, and it proves quite enjoyable to watch them fight and bicker throughout Sparring Partners, especially as many of them get what they deserve at the end.  While this entry did feature an extremely convoluted murder and investigation, which was a bit silly, there were a lot of good elements in Sparring Partners, and I had an awesome time getting through it.  A fantastic concluding story for this excellent book!

Overall, Sparring Partners was an interesting read to get through, and I quite enjoyed the various snapshots into Grisham’s imagination and writing style.  All three stories have some excellent merits, and while they aren’t the author’s best work they were very entertaining and compelling.  I loved the mixture of legal scenarios and interesting characters featured within this book, and Grisham’s ability to craft together a concise story even in shortform was on full display.  While Sparring Partners is very accessible to readers unfamiliar to Grisham’s previous works, this is probably best enjoyed by those fans of the author who are hankering for more of his unique stories in between books.  I had a great time reading it and it gave me some more insights into an author I am still not amazingly familiar with.

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The Accomplice by Steve Cavanagh

The Accomplice Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 26 July 2022)

Series: Eddie Flynn – Book Seven

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The murder trial of the year is in session as brilliant legal thriller author Steve Cavanagh returns with his latest Eddie Flynn novel, The Accomplice.

Last year I had the great pleasure of reading a very fun and compelling thriller novel with The Devil’s Advocate, which was the sixth book in the Eddie Flynn series by talented author Steve Cavanagh.  I had heard of Cavanagh before last year, and indeed I already had a couple of his other books currently sitting on my to-read shelf, but this was the first real chance I had to read one of his novels.  I ended up being really impressed with The Devil’s Advocate, which pitted the series’ conman turned lawyer protagonist against a murderous southern prosecutor in a story that was wildly entertaining, extremely clever, and highly addictive.  As such, I have been rather eager to see what Cavanagh would write next, and his next book, The Accomplice, had been high on my upcoming books list for a while.  Well, I just received an advance copy of The Accomplice a couple of days ago and I immediately picked it up and started reading because it had such an awesome story idea behind it.

Carrie Miller is the most hated woman in America!  A seemingly normal and unassuming housewife, the world was shocked to discover that Carrie’s husband, Daniel Miller, was the notorious and brutal serial killer known as the Sandman.  After terrorising New York for months and killing 14 people, the Sandman suddenly vanished just as the police arrived to arrest him.  While the Sandman may have been gone, Carrie was still there, and everyone, including the police, FBI, media, and the entirety of America, believes that she knew about her husband’s crimes and helped to cover them up.

As the start of her trial begins, a desperate Carrie turns to the one defence attorney that could save her, former conman and legal genius Eddie Flynn.  Convinced of her innocence and determined to help, Flynn reluctantly takes on her case.  However, this will be the most difficult case of his life, as he must convince a jaded jury and the rest of the world that Carrie had no knowledge of her husband’s crimes and took no part in the murders.  But with Carrie already convicted by the media, and no evidence or witnesses that can back up her story, Eddie will have a real fight on his hands.

As Eddie prepares for the case, a dangerous new problem enters the picture.  After a lengthy absence, the Sandman has returned to New York, and he’s determined to save his wife from a life sentence.  Even with the police, FBI and rogue serial killer specialist Gabriel Lake on his tail, the Sandman begins a new reign of terror, targeting the prosecution’s witnesses and members of the FBI.  With the stakes higher than ever, can Eddie prove Carrie’s innocence before the killer strikes again or will he and everyone he cares about face the wrath of the Sandman?

Cavanagh hits it out of the park again, providing readers with a brilliant and intense thriller that is dark and fun at the same time.  Combining fantastic legal elements with a gripping psychological narrative about a dangerous killer, The Accomplice was another impressive read from Cavanagh that was well worth the wait.

This seventh Eddie Flynn novel has a really awesome and intense story to it that takes the reader on an impressive ride that is near impossible to stop.  Starting off with a great introduction to the case, the story quickly loops in Eddie Flynn and his team, while also bringing back the great villain in the Sandman.  Following some subsequent exposition and background to the case, Eddie gets into planning the defence, only to have a substantial shock hit him as the Sandman strikes in several different directions.  As the various characters attempt to deal with the issues surrounding the Sandman’s new attacks, Eddie is forced to defend his client in impossible circumstances as the trial starts.

Thanks to his great use of multiple character perspectives, which follows everyone including Eddie, his team, and even the Sandman himself, you get a great view of the events occurring throughout the book.  The middle of this impressive novel is filled with some excellent sequences depicting the killers’ current brutal actions, the desperate search for him that envelopes several main characters, and Flynn’s always impressive legal scenes.  I loved the awesome changes in tone and focus that occurred between these various chapters, and there is an intriguing and powerful contrast between the intensive cat-and-mouse games surrounding the killer and the more legal focused scenes.  All the perspectives come together in a big way towards the end of the book, and The Accomplice has a fantastic and wildly entertaining finale.  There are some pretty cool twists loaded up here and Cavanagh does a great job setting them up throughout the narrative.  I was kind of able to predict how one of the main ones would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the other, and looking back it was cleverly set up and then hidden by the other secrets.  The author ends The Accomplice on a great note, and readers will come away wildly entertained and very impressed with how everything was so neatly wrapped up.

Cavanagh was in the zone when he was writing The Accomplice, and I deeply enjoyed how the entire story came together.  Like most of Cavanagh’s novels, the pacing in The Accomplice was spot on and the reader is never really given a chance to relax or put the novel down, which ensures that they try really hard to get through everything in one go (it worked on me).  There was an excellent blend of styles throughout The Accomplice, and Cavanagh once again did a great job of combining the darker subject matter of a disturbed killer, with the lighter scenes that focused on Eddie Flynn’s outrageous behaviour.  The scenes focused on the Sandman were particularly dark and gripping, especially as you get to see directly into his diseased mind, and the use of them throughout the novel really helped to amp up the drama and threat, while also moving the narrative along in some impressive directions.  Likewise, you get some intriguing and powerful character driven scenes from some of the other major characters, such as Flynn’s investigator Bloch and newcomer Gabriel Lake, as they get obsessed with finding the Sandman and bringing him to justice.

However, my personal favourite scenes in the book are those that deal more with the legal thriller aspects of the book.  I am always a sucker for a good legal battle in fiction, and Cavanagh, a man who knows a thing or two about the law, does a brilliant job of showcasing trials, legal prep work, and the formation of a defence case throughout his novels.  The court sequences scattered throughout the novel are very well written, and it was fascinating to see the author’s take on certain prosecution and defence strategies (some of the names for the strategies were quite amusing) as the protagonists do their darndest to blow a hole in the seemingly airtight case against their client.  I really loved how Cavanagh once again let Eddie go wild during the court case, and he uses all his knowledge and flair for the dramatic to manipulate the court in some inventive and often hilarious ways.  Most of Eddie’s appearances in the court are wildly entertaining, and his over-the-top shenanigans so much fun to behold, especially when he takes down every smug opponent and obstacle in a big way.  The author has a lot of fun setting up some of these events throughout the book, and it is really entertaining to see the protagonists coming up with their eccentric plans, as the hints about what they are going to do are left purposely vague to capture the reader’s attention.  I have so much love for Cavanagh’s ability to bring some wacky ideas into the court setting, and I can’t wait to see what convoluted and hilarious strategies the protagonist employs in any future books.

On top of the great story and distinctive sequences, Cavanagh also excels at character creation and development, which adds an extra impressive layer to the narrative.  The Accomplice features an interesting complement of characters, from the established cast of the previous books to some exceptional new figures whom the current case revolves around.  Naturally, most of the focus falls on the protagonist of Eddie Flynn, who is once again brought into an impossible case.  Flynn has another strong turn in The Accomplice and gets up to all his old tricks to win.  This results in quite a few entertaining and hilarious moments, and most of the book’s strong humour is because of Flynn’s more outrageous behaviours.  However, parts of this case do really get to Flynn and show that deep down he’s a good and flawed figure who lets his work dig into him.  Watching certain stresses and griefs take their hold on him really adds to the drama and intensity of the book, and I really appreciated how Cavanagh portrayed him throughout this latest novel.

On top of Eddie, the author brings back the central legal team, who are very strongly featured throughout this seventh book.  This includes Eddie’s mentor and advisor, Harry Ford, who continues to be a solid and calming presence for much of the book.  Harry serves as an excellent foil to the more outgoing Flynn, and they work well together as a team, especially during some scenes that see Harry have a bigger impact on the story than usual.  The other two key members of the staff are the firm’s other associate, young lawyer Kate Brooks and investigator Blotch, who are well utilised throughout The Accomplice.  Both bring something very different to the story, whether it be Kate’s relative innocence and determination to help wronged women, such as their client in this book, or Blotch’s investigative knowhow, capacity for violence, and general determination.  Both prove a good match for Flynn throughout this book, and I really liked the major impacts they have on the story, as it resulted in a much more varied and fun narrative.  There is also a great look at their strong friendship, which has lasted since childhood, and it was fun to see more examples of Blotch’s overprotective nature, especially when it comes to a thieving neighbour.

Finally, there are also some excellent new characters utilised in The Accomplice, who each bring something very different to the table.  Due to their stronger involvement with this particular case, be it suspect, perpetrator or hunter, Cavanagh does spend a bit more time introducing and developing these new characters than the existing cast, and you end up getting to know them extremely well.  This includes Flynn’s new client, Carrie Miller, the wife of the infamous Sandman, who finds herself under attack from pretty much the entire country in this book.  Carrie cuts a fascinating figure as a result, and while you are constantly wondering just how innocent she is, you get to see her at her most vulnerable as everyone she knows has turned against her.  I particularly enjoyed some of her insights (her choice of favourite film is excellent), and the journal entries that the author scatters throughout the novel really enhances her tale and gives greater context to her present actions.

In addition, Cavanagh also introduces the character of Gabriel Lake, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who specialises in catching serial killers.  A brilliant man with interesting ideas about the way to hunt killers which goes against the established theories of the FBI, Lake is an integral part of the plot, as he helps Flynn with his case in the hope of catching the Sandman.  However, there is also a deep well of anger within Lake, due to both his past and his personal connection to the Sandman case, and this becomes a major problem for the protagonists as the book goes on.  You never quite know what Lake’s motivations or intentions are, and he ends up adding an entire extra layer of complexity to an already twisty plot.

The final character I need to mention is the killer known as the Sandman.  While I won’t go into too much detail here about them to preserve some plot details, they serve as a sinister and threatening figure throughout the story, and their presence really impacts the events of the narrative.  Cavanagh goes out of his way to make the Sandman appear as deadly and deranged as possible, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into his mind, especially as he truly believes that the Sandman is his true persona.  Watching him work his deadly skills in several disconcerting point of view chapters really adds to the intensity of the narrative, and he ended up being a particularly impressive literary villain.  I really had a great time with all these amazing and complex characters, be they old and new, and Cavanagh has once again really showcased his excellent skill when it comes to writing damaged people.

Unsurprisingly, I had a wonderful time with The Accomplice and Steve Cavanagh continues to impress me as one of the more entertaining thriller authors out there today.  This latest Eddie Flynn novel has all the series trademark flair as Cavanagh presents the reader with another unique and captivating case.  I loved how The Accomplice featured a great combination of a dark killer, hilarious legal scenes, a twisty thriller plot, and some well-established characters, which result in an incredible and addictive narrative.  A deeply enjoyable read, I really must go back and check out some of the earlier Eddie Flynn novels when I get a chance.  Highly recommended!

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Armored by Mark Greaney

Armored Cover (2)

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback – 12 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling thriller author Mark Greaney presents one of the most exciting and action-packed novels of 2022, the high-octane thriller Armored.

Over the last few years I have been really getting into the awesome thriller novels of impressive author Mark Greaney, who is having a very big 2022.  Not only has he released two separate novels but he also has a film adaptation of his iconic series coming out later this week, The Gray Man.  I am really looking forward to this film, especially as I am now a pretty big fan of The Gray Man novels, having enjoyed both the first book, The Gray Man, and some of the latest entries, such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out, Relentless and Sierra Six.  However, Greaney’s year is far from done as the novel version of his 2021 Audible Original release, Armored, has just come out.  Converted into book format, Armored tells an impressive and over-the-top tale of survival and destruction that has already grabbed the attention of legendary director Michael Bay, who plans to adapt it into his next major blockbuster.

Joshua Duffy used to be one of the best close protection agents in the world, working with teams of private military contractors as security for elites in some of the most dangerous countries.  But after his fateful last mission in Lebanon cost him his team, his client and his lower left leg, Joshua finds himself suddenly and violently out of the game.  Forced to work as a mall cop to support his struggling family, Joshua’s future seems shot.  However, opportunity is about to come knocking with a deadly offer he cannot turn down.

Following a chance encounter with an old colleague, Joshua is given the opportunity to work one last job that promises to solve all his financial issues.  A violent and highly organised drug cartel has risen to power in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, and its recent actions have greatly infuriated the Mexican government and army.  To save the large civilian population living in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the United Nations is sending a peace mission in to ease tensions and attempt to negotiate a truce before it is too late.  However, the only way to reach the cartel’s base of operations is by road, and that means travelling through one of the most dangerous and lawless areas on the planet, the Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Spine.

Joining up with the notorious Armored Saint company and hiding his injury, Joshua is recruited as a team leader in the convoy assigned to keep the UN dignitaries safe.  Even loaded up in advanced armoured vehicles and working with a team of elite operators, Joshua has no allusions that his chances of success are slim, but even he is unaware just how dangerous this mission is going to be.  The other Mexican cartels are determined that the peace talks fail and are willing to pay any price to see the UN team killed and their rivals destroyed in the aftermath.  Worse, someone else is working behind the scenes to manipulate events to their advantage, and they are willing to kill everyone in the convoy to get what they want.  Can Joshua and his new team survive the deadly onslaught about to be unleashed upon them, or will they end up another victim of the Espinazo del Diablo?

Greaney continues to shine as one of our leading thriller readers with this highly entertaining action saga.  Armored is pure pulse-pounding excitement from start to finish, and I ended up powering through this substantial novel in very short order, especially once I got lured into its amazing narrative and impressively written fight scenes.

Armored Cover

I had a lot of fun with the awesome story that Greaney came up for this impressive release that is based around an intriguing and epic premise of a small team of mercenaries caught up in the violence and backstabbing of the Mexican cartels in a remote and dangerous area.  Armored has a great start to it that sets up complex protagonist Joshua Duffy extremely well, showcasing his last mission as a conventional private security contractor in a massive and deadly confrontation.  After this action-orientated introduction, you see a very desperate Duffy as he attempts to get on with his life, only to be dragged into the main mission of the book.  Greaney sets up many key parts of Armored’s plot in the early pages, introducing the main characters, showing the desperation surrounding the central protagonist, and introducing all the substantial opposition that they are likely to face.  Thanks to the use of mysterious antagonist Oscar Cardoza, you see just how rigged the situation is against the protagonists as the villain manipulates and deals with multiple cartels to ensure that they are all set against the peace mission.  As such, you know pretty early on that you are in for a wild thrill ride later in the book and Greaney does not disappoint.

Once Armored’s main story gets underway, the book moves at an extremely fast pace to match the convoy of armoured cars it is following.  The protagonists immediately face opposition, obstacles and attacks as they continue on their way, ignoring the multiple warnings about the even greater threats to come (seriously, they get so many warnings).  After surviving an increasingly deadly barrage of ambushes, betrayals and personal dramas, the story takes a whole new turn as a big twist switches the entire narrative on its head.  This twist was a fantastic game changer that was well set up during the earlier parts of the book, and it was really cool to see it fully unfold, introducing some intense new problems and opportunities.  Thanks to this twist, the second half of Armored essentially becomes one continuous battle for survival.  There are some really awesome and over-the-top moments during this second half, as several key characters die, the odds become more and more stacked against the protagonists, some final twists come into play, and new players are drawn into the fray.  This all leads up to the big conclusion, which unsurprisingly contains more action and excitement, before bringing everything to an awesome end.  I came away feeling pretty satisfied with how the story came together, and I think that Greaney wrapped up everything really well.

I quite enjoyed how Greaney wrote Armored as he brought his typical style to this later thriller.  The story was expertly told using multiple character perspectives to show the various viewpoints of the key protagonists and antagonists.  Not only does this result in a much richer story with various intriguing characters, but Greaney ensures that it ramps up the novel’s tension, especially when the reader can see betrayals and traps being formed in advance of them being unleashed upon the characters you are rooting for.  The author uses these alternate perspectives to also hint at hidden motivations in some of the supporting characters and it does a good job mostly disguising who the culprits are, while ensuring that the reader knows something big is about to go down.  There are even some intriguing flashback sequences thrown in for greater context, which help to highlight the bond two key characters have.  The entire story is very well paced, with Greaney doing a good job evenly spreading out the big action moments and the intriguing character development to ensure a continuous story that never has any slow points.  I also liked the way in which Greaney adds in some intriguing commentary about certain real-world issues, including around private military contractors, the issues surrounding wounded veterans, and the current political and criminal situation in Mexico, especially regarding the volatile cartels.  All this comes together extremely well, and the reader has a very hard time turning away from the story as everything unfolds before them.

Unsurprisingly, the real star of Armored is the action sequences, as Greaney really goes all out to provide the reader with all the high-octane gun fights they could ever want.  This thriller novel is packed to the gills with battle scenes as every major character is dragged into a series of brutal and bloody fights as they attempt to achieve their goals and survive.  I have always been really impressed with how realistic Greaney can make his fight sequences in The Gray Man novels, and this awesome attention to detail and realism continues over into Armored.  Greaney clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to gun battles, and you really get drawn into the intense battles, as well as the detailed descriptions of proper military tactics and strategies, especially in the first half of the novel.  However, I did think that Greaney went a little too far with some of the action scenes in the second half of the book, as the already over-the-top action started to get a little insane.  Greaney was clearly trying to set up some big Hollywood moments for the announced adaptation here (to be fair, Michael Bay is going to love bringing some of these sequences to the big screen), even though it was a little too much at times.  I was especially bemused by one scene that saw several characters shooting guns out the back of a small plane, which resulted in one of the most ridiculous things I have read about in a serious thriller read.  While these crazy moments honestly did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel, it did give Armored a bit of an unfortunate sillier edge that it really did not need.

Finally, I need to highlight the characters featured within Armored.  Greaney has a good knack for creating large groups of likeable and distinctive characters, and most of the protagonists and antagonists in Armored were extremely good, adding some great elements to the overall story.  I particularly liked main protagonist Joshua Duffy, the wounded veteran contractor who is dragged back in for one last dangerous job.  Greaney does a lot with Duffy in this novel, showcasing him at his emotional height, slamming him down hard, and then slowly building him back up through the course of the main story.  As such, Duffy serves as an excellent central figure for most of the story, and watching him try to escape the ghosts of his past and bring his new team together to complete the mission proves to be deeply captivating in many ways.  I really enjoyed watching him being a major badass, even with one leg, and Greaney wrote a fantastic storyline over his attempts to take on a leadership role in this mission, despite dealing with a group of disrespectful and arrogant soldiers.  A definite standout character for me, it will be very interesting to see who is cast to play Duffy in the movie adaptation, and whoever it is will have a great role to fill.

Aside from Duffy, Armored featured a pretty large and fun cast of characters, with a decent focus being on the team members in Duffy’s armoured vehicle.  Made up of six members, Charlie team proves to be a solid group of protagonists, and Greaney writes a good story about them slowly coming together as a team, despite being gradually picked off.  While I enjoyed them, I did find them to be a little stereotypical in ways, with most of them being classic disrespectful and uncontrollable soldiers.  This is especially true for the characters of Wolfson, the arrogant former seal; Frenchie, the weathered veteran acting as the voice of reason; Squeeze, the extremely angry African American former Marine; and Tony Cruz, the talented but token Spanish-speaking soldier.  All of the above filled overused action tropes to a degree, and it felt a little lazy, especially when compared to some of the other characters in the book.  Luckily, this group of soldiers were well balanced out by their final member, NASCAR, the team’s driver and the book’s comic relief.  NASCAR, a former race driver turned military contractor with a history of crashing his vehicles, was an excellent addition to the cast, and his entertaining antics helped to distract from some of the blander figures in the team.

I also need to mention Duffy’s wife, Nikki, a former Army officer who has taken to cleaning houses to support her family and wounded husband.  While initially just a supporting role to help motivate the protagonist, Greaney ends up bringing Nikki into the main story in a big way as she attempts her own rescue mission.  I deeply enjoyed the determined narrative around Nikki, and it was a fantastic addition to the plot, even if it resulted in more problems for the protagonist.  I also enjoyed the other major female character in the novel, Dr Flores, a Mexican anthropologist who is assigned to the peace talks as a cultural advisor and interpreter.  Despite being a bit of a preachy figure, Dr Flores is pretty much the only character that has any common sense or idea of what they are walking into, and her knowledge and passionate personality slowly bring the main cast around.  I really enjoyed Dr Flores’s scenes throughout the novel, and you really feel for her as she keeps trying and trying to talk some sense into the soldiers or diplomats, only to be knocked back by their arrogant and dismissive attitudes.  The final character I need to highlight is Oscar Cardoza, who serves as the book’s main antagonist.  Billed as a cartel consultant who works for the highest bidder, Cardoza is a mysterious and dangerous figure for most of the book, visiting the various cartel leaders and working them to his advantage, before getting closer to the action halfway through.  I instantly enjoyed Cardoza from his first scene, especially after some fun, if ineffective, small talk with some cartel guards, and it was fantastic to watch him flit around the various cartels and play them to his advantage.  He also serves as a great foil to the main band of protagonists, and once he gets involved in the hunt for them, he really shines as a villain, especially once some secrets about him are revealed.  The cast of Armored ended up being a fantastic and captivating band of character, and I ended up becoming really invested in their unique and powerful storylines.

I cannot emphasise how exciting and enjoyable Armored turned out to be and I am really glad that I got the chance to read it.  Mark Greaney obviously had a ton of fun turning his latest novel into the most action-packed adventure he could, and Armored really lived up to its plot potential, providing the reader with wall-to-wall fire fights and intense combat.  While the novel did get a little over-the-top in places, this was a solid and impressive read that is really worth checking out.  An excellent and fast-paced thriller designed to entertain anyone who reads it; the Armored adaptation is going to end up being a pretty awesome movie that Michael Bay will have a wonderful time making.

Armored Cover 3

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Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2022 is proving to be quite the year for Australian crime debuts, with several compelling and thrilling read already out.  However, one of the more impressive recent debuts is probably the amazing release by new Canberran author Shelley Burr, Wake, a gripping and powerful crime thriller that takes the reader on a wild and emotionally charged ride.

Nannine is a small rural town in the harsh heart of New South Wales, punished by drought and slowly declining as the local agriculture industry starts to deteriorate.  However, Nannine will always have one harrowing claim to fame: the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn McCreery.  In 1999, young Evelyn disappeared from her rural house in the dead of night, right from the bedroom that she shared with her twin sister, Mina.

Now, 19 years after Evelyn’s disappearance, Mina lives a reclusive life on the destocked family farm, desperately seeking some shreds of normality.  However, the shadow of the unsolved case and the subsequent massive media storm that bombarded her family still haunts her, especially as many question whether she had a role in the tragic events, while others constantly attempt to claim the massive reward the family posted.  However, despite the time and her attempts to not get involved in the craziness again, Mina finds old wounds reopened when Lane Holland arrives in town.

Lane is a private investigator and failed Federal Police cadet who has made a living out of cracking cold cases involving missing girls.  Interested in claiming the substantial reward, Lane begins his own in-depth investigation of Evelyn’s disappearance, and his determination and insights soon grab Mina’s attention and she finds herself drawn close to Lane.  However, Lane has his own personal reasons for solving the case, and his dark ghosts could end up dragging Mina down with him.

This was an excellent and captivating debut novel from Shelley Burr, which is already gaining some major recognition, including some major Australian awards.  While I knew I was likely to enjoy this amazing novel, I ended powering through Wake in a day as I got really hooked on its compelling and intense outback story.

I deeply enjoyed Wake’s awesome story, especially as Burr makes sure that it contains all the necessary elements to grab your attention.  This novel starts in the modern day, 19 years after the disappearance that rocked Nannine, and sees newcomer Lane Holland arrive to attempt to solve the case.  The introduction of this sleuth character helps to jumpstart the narrative, especially as his new investigation allows the reader to find out all the relevant details about the old case, while also revealing the lasting issues it had on the various protagonists, including the long-running infamy of being involved with such a major case.  Most of the first half of the book revolves around Lane trying to find his feet in the investigation and get close to Mina, while also finding himself involved in a separate case involving another missing girl.  At the same time you get to know Mina from her perspective, and find out just how messed up she is because of the disappearance and media scrutiny.  All the key characters, major story elements, hints and settings are perfectly set up in the first half of Wake, and the captivating mystery and damaged characters really drag you in and ensure that you become deeply invested in seeing how the case unfolds.

After some big reveals about halfway through the novel, the story intensifies even further, especially once you fully understand Lane’s drive and get to know the characters even better.  There are some compelling twists and turns in this second half of the book, with multiple theories and red herrings to cleverly distract the reader, while major personal moments hit all the key characters.  This all perfectly sets up the big finale, as all the plot points, tragic backstories and hidden hints come together extremely well for the major reveal.  I really liked how Wake’s story concluded, and I think both the solution to the mysteries and the resolution of all the character arcs was pretty ingenious, especially with how well it tied together the various character’s secrets, histories and regrets.  Overall, the reader will come away very satisfied with how everything is tied up, and this ended up being a very impressive and compelling narrative that was well-paced and loaded with some great surprises, major moments, and a very intriguing central mystery.

There were many cool elements to Wake that I deeply enjoyed and which I felt helped to enhance the mystery-laden story.  I liked the rural setting of Nannine, a fictional town that captures the heart of feel of many rural Australian communities, especially those that are suffering from many issues such as drought and the slow decline of the agricultural economy.  This decaying agricultural town serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing story, and you really get to see how the small-town vibes and attitudes affect the investigation of the case.  I also appreciated the fantastic dive into the over-the-top press coverage that surrounds famous crime cases.  The disappearance attracted a massive media focus, and Burr spends a lot of time exploring how it initially covered the case, how it morphed over the years, and the lasting impact that growing up as a media sensation had on both Mina and the other supporting characters from Nannine.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of how the case became a favourite of true-crime fanatics, which is primarily shown through a series of posts on the murder forum that appears in front of multiple chapters.  These posts highlight the attitudes, theories, mindsets and more of the true-crime internet community and serves as an intriguing weather vane for the wider Australian community.  I loved these posts, not only because they were entertaining and realistic but because it proved to be a great way to provide the reader with some interesting context while also having some impacts on the main story.  Throw in the great way that Burr utilised several flashback sequences, some hidden clues in character names, some clever insights into missing person cases, and other outstanding elements, and you have a really impressive book that will easily keep your attention.

I also need to highlight Wake’s awesome damaged characters that the plot focuses on.  Burr has come up with some sensational and powerful story arcs for these great characters, and their various histories, connections and life events add some excellent emotional heft to the story that I really enjoyed.  This includes Mina McCreery, who serves as a major point-of-view character for most of the plot.  Mina is the twin of the disappeared Evelyn, and has spent the last 19 years living in her disappeared sister’s shadow.  Not only did she have to deal with the emotional backlash of her sister being either killed or abducted but she also had to experience the intense media scrutiny and other issues associated with the major case, especially as her mother ended up becoming a media sensation to keep the focus on Evelyn’s case.  Due to this, the strained relationship she had with her sorrowful mother, and certain suspicions from some that she had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, Mina now lives a solitary life, avoiding most people and not having many friends.  This makes her rather standoffish, angry and a little paranoid (for good reason) for most of the novel, and she has a hard time connecting to anyone, especially Lane.  The events of this book really shock her in some major ways, as the years of repressed trauma and emotional uncertainty come to the surface again, especially once secrets and long-hidden truths come to the surface.  I felt that the author did an amazing job highlighting all the major issues contained within Mina’s psyche, and the subsequent emotional moments were a fantastic and powerful part of the book.

Aside from Mina, the other major character in Wake that I need to discuss is private investigator Lane Holland, who arrives in Nannine to investigate the case.  Burr created something really impressive in Lane, a former police cadet turned private investigator, as he ends up having one of the more intense and memorable character arcs in the entire novel.  Initially seen as an unwelcome outsider by most of the other characters, apparently interested in only the reward money, Lane is able to prove himself to Mina and other characters and manages to gain their trust.  However, everything you think you know about Lane is blown out the water when you find out his surprising connection to the case, as well as his motivations for investigating it.  Burr sets up the connections extremely well in the early parts of the novel, putting in several clever hints and suggestions, while also doling out useful flashbacks to Lane’s past that explain everything.  These revelations, as well as some insights into Lane’s personal history and motivations, help to both intensifies the story, while also dragging you closer to Lane as a character, hoping that he will succeed for everyone’s goods.  Burr takes Lane’s character arc into some very dark, by captivating, directions, and his entire story comes together in a brilliant and powerful way, especially with some major decisions made towards the end of the book.  These two excellent, intense, and very damaged central characters, really acted as the heart-and-soul of Wake, and I was really drawn into the outstanding narrative Burr wove around them.

With her excellent debut novel, Wake, Shelley Burr has successfully entered the world of Australian crime fiction in a big way.  Featuring a captivating and distinctively dark murder mystery narrative that sees damaged characters bring a notorious cold case into the light, Wake was a gripping and deeply thrilling read that I had a fantastic time reading.  A moving and enthralling novel, Wake was an exceptional Australian crime debut and I am extremely excited to read more stories from Burr in the future.

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Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

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One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

One Foot in the Fade Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Fetch Phillips – Book Three

Length: 439 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising fantasy authors, Luke Arnold, returns with the third novel in his Fetch Phillips series, the fantastic and impressive One Foot in the Fade.

Back in 2020, Australian actor turned author Luke Arnold made his fantasy debut with his first Fetch Phillips novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City.  This very clever and intense read, which ended up being one of my favourite debuts of 2020, was set in the unique landscape of Sunder City, a formerly majestic fantasy city facing hard times in a world that has just lost all its magic, causing all the fantasy creatures and beings who lived there to become deformed and dying beings.  The story focused on the character of Fetch Phillips, a human private investigator responsible for the disaster, who tries to redeem himself by helping the disenfranchised former magical beings.  Arnold followed it up later that year with a sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, which was just as impressive and exciting as the first book.  Both these novels were extremely good, and they perfectly set up Arnold’s intriguing and magic-less universe.  I have been rather keen to see how the story continues so I was quite excited when I received a copy of the third book, One Foot in the Fade, a few weeks ago.

A new dawn has risen in the formerly magical Sunder City.  Under the leadership of human business mogul Thurston Niles, the city is entering a technological age, leaving behind its mystical roots and providing everyone, both human and former magical being, with cars, guns and electricity to service their needs.  Most are content with the new way of life, all except man-for-hire Fetch Phillips.  Still ridden with guilt for the role he played in destroying the world, Fetch spends his days taking on odd jobs for former magical beings while also desperately searching for any way to bring back the magic.

After his latest assignment, recovering stolen artefacts still containing traces of their power, ends badly, Fetch’s hopes for bringing back magic are at an all-time low, until a new clue literally and fatally lands at his feet.  An Angel has fallen from the sky at a great height, his formerly decayed wings once again feathered and whole, clearly the result of magic.  But who or what is responsible for reinvigorating the unfortunate Angel’s magic?

Desperate to uncover the roots of this new mystery, Fetch discovers a former Genie, Khay, whose body is slowly losing its hold on reality.  Still apparently capable of granting wishes, including returning a person’s magic to them, Khay may be the best chance for Fetch to redeem himself.  However, in order to make her powerful enough to bring magic back, Khay requires a legendary crown located at the deadly and isolated Wizard city of Incava.  Pulling together a small team, Fetch embarks for Incava to reclaim the crown.  But the further Fetch goes on his quest, the more he begins to realise that not everything is as it seems.  Blinded by his obsession with magic and redemption, Fetch walks a dangerous path that may end up damning him once again.

This was another extremely awesome read from Arnold who continues to showcase his impressive talent as a fantasy author.  One Foot in the Fade did a brilliant job continuing from the previous Fetch Philips novels, and I loved revisiting the deformed and depressed world of Sunder City.  Loaded with complex characters and powerful settings, this latest story was particularly captivating, and I think that One Foot in the Fade is probably Arnold’s best novel yet.

I really appreciated the powerful and intriguing narrative contained with One Foot in the Fade as Arnold has come up with some deeply fascinating and intense storylines that make this novel very hard to put down.  Taking place shortly after Dead Man in a Ditch, One Foot in the Fade’s story places Fetch Phillips right into the action as he attempts to recover some magical artefacts.  Thrown off by his villainous corporate antagonist, Fetch falls into despair, only to immediately find a dead angel whose magic has been returned to them.  This leads him into a hunt for the being responsible for the miracle, quickly finding Khay, who reunites his faith and hope in magic.  Bringing together a new team of comrades, Fetch travels outside of Sunder City on an epic quest to retrieve a legendary magical crown in order to empower Khay’s abilities.  This works as a particularly fun and exciting centre to the entire narrative, and Arnold really pumps up the action and danger in this part of the book, seeing the protagonists deal with all manner of dangers, deadly creatures, former allies with their own agendas, a mysterious secret society, a giant Minotaur, and even some surprising and very dark magic.

I had an absolute blast with the first two-thirds of the novel, especially with all its action, intriguing new characters and world building; however, it is the final third that really turns One Foot in the Fade into something truly special as Arnold adds in some intense and intriguing twists.  Despite Fetch’s best efforts, everything turns pear-shaped on him as some of the supporting characters are revealed to be far darker and more damaged than he ever believed.  Thanks to some big and dramatic tragedies, Fetch is forced to make some hard decisions that will deeply impact him and change the entire course of the story.  These later twists and revelations are pretty well set up throughout the first two-thirds and the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which Arnold brought the entire story together in such a clever and enjoyable way.  While there are a few excessive plot points that slightly distract the main story, One Foot in the Fade’s narrative was pretty tight and never really slows down.  I love the cool blend of dark fantasy, detective noir and urban fantasy elements contained within this impressive read, and Arnold has come up with a pretty bleak, character-driven narrative that really gets to the heart of the protagonist while also exploring the possibilities of redemption.  The reader will find themselves getting quite drawn into this epic story, and I myself powered through most of it in a single night.  Despite the author’s best efforts to recap the necessary background, One Foot in the Fade is a little hard to read by itself and I feel that most readers should read the first two books in this series first, although this is hardly a chore.  I really enjoyed the hopeful end note of this third novel, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of the series goes from here.

While the Fetch Phillips novels all have great narratives to them, their best qualities are the unique and striking settings.  Primarily set in the once majestic and glorious Sunder City on the fantasy continent of Archetellos, the stories generally explore how the city has changed since magic left the world.  The first two books in this series saw Sunder City as a decaying metropolis, filled with depressed and dying magical beings who were trying to adapt to the new world.  However, in the second book, an industrious human company is starting to provide technological alternatives to everything formerly powered by magic.  Since then, the entire feel and tone of the city has changed, with Sunder City transforming into an industrious and factory orientated city, with 1920’s-esque technology like cars, firearms (that everyone carries) and neon signs.  I really appreciated the brilliant and logical way that Arnold keeps changing the feel and look of his great setting every novel, especially as every change seems to match the series’s overarching noir feel.  I had a lot of fun seeing the comparisons between the setting’s current technology and the former magical glory, and watching the protagonist compete against the march of progress.  Arnold doubles down with the world building in One Foot in the Fade, with some interesting new additions that I found really fascinating.  Not only are we introduced to multiple new magical races, all of whom have been impacted by the death of magic in their own unique ways, but a large portion of the novel takes place outside of Sunder City, as the characters head to another former major settlement, the Wizard city of Incava.  The journey to and into Incava showcases multiple new interesting features about the larger continent of Archetellos, and I appreciated how much time Arnold put into expanding it.  Incava itself proves to be a particularly haunting and deadly setting for a good part of the book, and the various dangers within really amp up the action-packed story.  Overall, Arnold remains well on top of the cool settings in this novel, and readers will once again be entranced by the fantastic and distinctive setting of this series.

One Foot in the Fade also boasts a great array of complex and damaged characters whose personal journeys and intense pain really enhance the impressive narrative.  This is particularly apparent in series protagonist and first-person narrator Fetch Phillips, a man with a particularly intense backstory.  Due to bad choices in his past, Fetch is moderately responsible for the death of magic in the world and all the bad things that went with it.  This led him into an extremely dark spiral and he has spent the rest of the books trying to redeem himself.  However, this has not been easy, especially as he was forced to go up against his magical mentor and best friend in the second novel and his guilt is at an all-time high at the start of One Foot in the Fade.  As such he is particularly obsessed with bringing back magic in this novel and embarks on the quest to repower his new Genie friend and redeem himself no matter the cost.  This obsession blinds him (and by extension the reader) to the risks of what he is doing, and he ends up endangering his friends, while also ignoring some troubling signs from other characters that hinted at the books tragic ending.  This is easily the most obsessed we have seen Fetch throughout the entire series, and it really fits into his brilliantly written character arc which sits at the core of the moving narrative.  Watching him continue to try and fail is always very heartbreaking, and you really feel for Fetch throughout this novel, even with all the mistakes he’s made.  As such, he serves as an excellent centre for the story, and I have a great time following his personal tale, especially as Arnold has also imbued him with a good sense of humour.  The author also sets up a few intriguing character developments and changes throughout One Foot in the Fade that I think will lead to some very compelling storylines in the future, so I look forward to seeing where Fetch goes in the future.

Aside from Fetch, Arnold has filled this novel with a substantial collection of excellent supporting characters, each of whom adds their own distinctive flair to the narrative as well as a complex and often damaging relationship with the protagonist.  One Foot in the Fade features a combination of new and existing supporting characters, and it was interesting to see who returned after the events of the last book.  It was great to see more of former Witch and academic Eileen, one of Fetch’s main compatriots, who helps him throughout most of the book.  Eileen serves as Fetch’s sense of reason, and her more measured approach to the tasks at hand balance well with the protagonist’s more impulsive nature.  I also enjoyed seeing more of futurist company leader Thurston Niles, who is serving as something of an overarching series antagonist.  Thurston, who was introduced in the second book, is the human businessman whose company is responsible for the industrialisation of Sunder City and all its new technology.  While his appearances are a little brief in this novel, he serves as an excellent alternative human character to Fetch and I am really enjoying their rivalry.  Despite appearing as the villain due to his desire to replace magic completely with technology, Thurston has more layers and he actually appears to enjoy Fetch’s efforts to bring back magic.  Their various interactions in this novel are pretty entertaining, and I look forward to seeing their conflict continue in the rest of the series.

The author also introduces several great new characters in One Foot in the Fade, and their interesting and often self-contained storylines are pretty impressive.  My favourite was Theodor, a Werewolf adventurer who Fetch and his friends hire to help get to Incava.  Despite being disfigured and partially disabled (Werewolves and other shape-changers were also partially transformed into dark human-animal hybrids without their magic), Theodor is a badass hunter and tracker who quickly becomes one of the more likeable figures in the novel.  Theodor serves as a mentor to many of the characters, especially Fetch, and it was fun to watch him teach the city slickers how to survive out in the wilds.  Due to the way that Theodor’s storyline in One Foot in the Fade ends I am very curious to see if or how he returns in the future, and I am sure that Arnold will come up with some plot points elements for him.  The other impressive new character was Khay, the Genie who serves as the book’s sentient McGuffin.  Arnold paints a tragic picture around Khay as a Genie literally fading away due to the death of magic.  Only able to survive through certain magical objects and granting wishes to people, namely returning their magic, Kay is just as obsessed as Fetch to achieve their objective.  However, there is a powerful and captivating alternate side to Khay, and the consequences of her actions will have some lasting impacts in the entire series.  These outstanding characters, and more, are an impressive and very important part of One Foot in the Fade, and I really appreciate how much effort Arnold put into making them so relatable and memorable.

With One Foot in the Fade, Australian author Luke Arnold continues to showcase his amazing literary talent, bringing together an epic new story with his already distinctive characters and settings.  Thanks to the powerful and intense new narrative, this third Fetch Phillips novel is probably Arnold’s best novel so far and it is really worth checking out.  I cannot wait to see how Arnold impresses me with the next book.

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Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Rivers of London – Book Nine

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the leading lights in the urban fantasy genre, the exceedingly talented Ben Aaronovitch, returns with the latest epic book in his brilliant Rivers of London series, Amongst our Weapons.

For the last 10 years, the fantasy world has been exceedingly impressed by the fantastic writings of Ben Aaronovitch, who came up with a real winner with his Rivers of London series (also known as the Peter Grant series).  Aaronovitch, who already had some major nerd cred as a writer of two Doctor Who serials, debuted the first book in this series, Rivers of London, back in 2011.  This book told the story of Peter Grant, a young Metropolitan Police officer who is assigned to a specialised branch of the Met that deals with magic and supernatural incidents.  This intriguing debut combined magical elements with a classic police procedural format to create an epic and captivating read.  The author has since expanded this series out to several novels, as well as a range of novellas, short stories, and even a graphic novel series, all of which continue the story of Peter Grant and Aaronovitch’s unique magical world.  I have had a lot of fun over the last few years with this series, and I have greatly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s last two entries, Lies Sleeping and False Value.  Aaronovitch is back with another exceptional read in his ninth Rivers of London novel, Amongst our Weapons, which continues the excellent format and presents the reader with an awesome new mystery.

The London Silver Vaults are a renowned underground market for silverware in the heart of London.  They are highly secured and constantly monitored, so getting away with any sort of crime in the vaults is impossible.  So when a crazed would-be robber is brutally killed in the middle of the vaults with no witnesses or cameras catching the act, the Met are forced to call in their secret weapon, Peter Grant and his fellow detectives from the Special Assessment Unit, better known as the Folly.

Specialising in investigating magical incidents, Peter and his team are quickly able to determine that the death and the murder’s subsequent escape were a result of powerful magic.  Taking the lead on the case, Peter hopes to catch the killer quickly, but are quick to discover that their investigation is about to get far too complicated.  Ancient magics and unknown powers are loose around London, and after discovering a second body, the Folly team begin to investigate the members of a mysterious college cult from Manchester that has been inactive for years.  As more attacks occur, it becomes apparent that members of the cult are being hunted down and that their killer appears to be a vengeful, spear-wielding angel.

Determined to get to the bottom of the killings, Peter dives into the history of the cult and the mysterious artefacts they uncovered.  His investigation will lead him all over England, from the colleges of Manchester all the way to the dismal North.  But even as he begins to uncover the truth behind the killings and the being responsible, does even the full might of the Folly have the power to stop an angel and the deadly magic gifted to her?  Worse, another party has involved themselves in the case, someone that Peter knows far too well.  Can Peter solve this case before it is too late, and how will he deal with the greatest challenge of his life, becoming a father to his two magical twins?

Wow, Aaronovitch continues to massively impress me, bringing together another brilliant and unique urban fantasy read.  Once again bringing together an outstanding story that features distinctive fantasy elements with a clever mystery, Amongst our Weapons was a fantastic read that I had an incredible time reading.  This book was pretty damn awesome and gets a full five-star rating from me.

I had an absolute blast with the story contained within Amongst our Weapons as Aaronovitch has once again cleverly combined complex fantasy elements with a compelling murder mystery investigation, resulting in a deeply entertaining and addictive story.  Aaronovitch starts this latest novel off strong, with the protagonist and his team immediately thrust into an investigation of a man with a mysterious magical hole blown into his chest and no witnesses who saw what happened.  This intriguing start quickly becomes even more enticing, as a second murder is soon discovered, as well as other unusual signs and discoveries at the various crime scenes.  However, the excitement does not end there, as Aaronovitch also fits in an early encounter with the powerful murder, who appears to be an exceedingly deadly angel of vengeance, as well as the sudden reappearance of recurring antagonist Lesley May, Peter’s former partner who now acts as a magical mercenary.  Throw in some great character driven storylines about the protagonist’s family, as his river goddess wife is about to give birth, and you have quite an exceptional start to the novel.  Indeed, once all these elements were set up, I was hopelessly hooked on the story, and it proved extremely hard to put this book down at all.

The rest of the narrative flows on from here extremely strongly, as the characters launch an exhaustive and intense investigation not only into the murders but into the origins of certain magical items and the history of the college cult who appear to be targeted.  This takes the protagonist on a bit of a fieldtrip outside London, exploring Manchester and the North, and introducing the characters to some intriguing new magical elements.  While parts of the story here did get a bit bogged down when it came to exploring some of the more complex new fantasy inclusions, I flew through the second part of the book, especially as it is laced with several brilliant and imaginative confrontations between the protagonist and the book’s various antagonists.  Everything comes together extremely well in the lead-up to the conclusion, which results in a fantastic battle that helps resolve everything perfectly.  I did think that it got a little too metaphysical in places, but I still deeply enjoyed this great conclusion, which should really satisfy every reader, while also setting up some interesting storylines for the future.

Aaronovitch has such a distinctive writing style for the Rivers of London series, which is put to great use throughout Amongst our Weapons.  Like most of the Rivers of London novels, Amongst our Weapons can be read as a standalone read, with Aaronovitch doing a great job of rehashing some of the relevant continued storylines when they become relevant to the ongoing story.  This book features the usual awesome blend of magic, crime fiction and character-led storylines, wrapped up with a great sense of fun and humour, which helps to produce quite an entertaining and captivating read.  I particularly loved how the author makes his novels feel like a police procedural with magic, and this is perfectly on display in Amongst our Weapons, as the protagonists engage in elaborate investigation into several unique deaths.  It is so much fun to watch these magic-wielding protagonists do research, official police investigations, paperwork, evidence collecting and various theorising as they examine both the magical and human sides of the case, and I always love how well these elements can be fit into a seemingly typical murder mystery storyline.  Everything flows extremely well through this novel, and while I think there are some minor pacing issues towards the middle, readers will power through this entire book once they get caught up in the mystery and the magic.

I have always been really impressed with the distinctive and captivating fantasy elements contained within the Rivers of London novels, which prove to be intrinsic and outstanding parts of the book.  Rather than use classic fantasy elements, the magic and unique creatures featured within this series are a lot more abstract with a focus on energy manipulation, creatures from alternate universes and godlike beings who get their powers by being embodiments of important locations.  This really gives the novels a great, unique feel that is brilliantly enhanced by the way that the various characters treat magic in an almost scientific way, especially from a policing perspective, as the protagonists are effectively investigating and monitoring it in London.  This fantastic way of examining magic proves to be quite effective in Amongst our Weapons, as you get to see all manner of theorising, analyses and scientific conclusions drawn up as the protagonists attempt to identify and quantify the new forms of magic they are dealing with, especially when they come face to face with an unknown being of immense power.  This cool magic is also quite stunningly described throughout the novel, and I loved seeing its unique and clever use throughout the various magical confrontation sequences, and there is nothing more awesome than reading about a couple of wizards face off against an apparent angel.  I find all the cool magical elements quite fascinating to explore, and I loved seeing some of the world building that occurred throughout Amongst our Weapons, with some new groups of magical users introduced or referenced throughout.  Aaronovitch actually sets up some intriguing new world-building elements throughout Amongst our Weapons, and I look forward to seeing how this expands in some of the future novels.

Finally, I really must highlight the outstanding characters featured within Amongst our Weapons, who really help to turn this awesome story into something truly special.  This cast is headlined by the book’s main protagonist and point-of-view character, Peter Grant, who I really have a lot of fun with.  Grant is a funny and bold protagonist, who has been really growing since the first novel, not only in personality and responsibility but also in magical talent.  He serves as a brilliant protagonist for Amongst our Weapons, and his dogged and clever investigation of the unusual events moved the story along at a swift and enjoyable pace.  While his police work is a major part of the character, this latest novel also focuses again on his personal life, showing his unique marriage to a river (well, the living embodiment of a river), and the upcoming birth of his likely magical children.  This puts some major responsibility on Peter’s head, which he struggles to deal with, still taking risks with his work.  Watching him obsessively chase after the culprit while also trying to balance the upcoming birth of his children was a great part of the novel, and it really helped to make the reader feel attached to him.  However, I personally loved his outstanding sense of humour throughout this novel, as much of the book’s comedic elements are thanks to this protagonist’s funny statements and clever observations about the outrageous events he is witnessing.

Aside from this excellent and relatable protagonist, Amongst our Weapons features a large and diverse cast of figures, including a combination of new people associated with the case and a huge batch of recurring characters who have been perfectly set up before.  Most of the recurring characters are re-introduced extremely well, and even new readers should be able to follow who is who amongst this unique cast of magic users and professional police officers who work together to solve crimes.  My favourite supporting character is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Folly and the last official wizard.  A gentlemanly figure who fought in World War II, Nightingale serves as a great mentor as well as a badass magician able to throw down with the worst creatures or dark magic users.  While not featured as heavily here as in previous novels, Nightingale has some great moments throughout Amongst our Weapons, and it was awesome to see him squaring off against the winged antagonist.  Aaronovitch also sets up some interesting storylines for him in this book, and it sounds like he will have a much more altered role in the future.  The other major character I should highlight is Lesley May, who serves as a secondary antagonist throughout this book.  Lesley, who spends most of the book as a mercenary character attempting to undermine the police’s investigation, is a great addition to the plot and I am extremely glad that Aaronovitch brought her back for this novel.  Not only do you get more of the regret-filled interactions with Peter but she serves as a great foil for the protagonists, and it was really fun to see her get involved and attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage.  All these characters, and many more, are great additions to the fantastic and complex plot of the book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the fantastic and powerful interactions between them.

The Rivers of London series continues to shine as one of the best and impressive urban fantasy series with Amongst our Weapons.  Ben Aaronovitch is such a talented author, and I deeply enjoyed distinctive and captivating stories he crafts, especially with its outstanding blend of unique fantasy and memorable murder mystery elements.  Amongst our Weapons is one of my favourite books from Aaronovitch I have read so far and it is a highly recommended for all fantasy fans.  If you aren’t exploring the Rivers of London, then you are really missing out!

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The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

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Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.

It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years.  The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome.  Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me.  Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors.  Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.

Rome, 89 AD.  The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period.  Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life.  With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse.  An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place.  Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances.  Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.

Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene.  But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders.  A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them.  Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.

With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases.  Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.

Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading.  Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment.  However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader.  For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel.  The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation.  These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists.  As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline.  Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way.  While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book.  I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book.  Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.

Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together.  Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale.  I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings.  The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit.  This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation.  Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader.  However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra.  Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims.  Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back.  I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline.  This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.

I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this.  The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot.  There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing.  However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot.  Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.

Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders.  This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved.  I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot.  I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out.  I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover.  This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book.  I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel.  Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.

Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout.  As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book.  Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome.  The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her.  As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases.  It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings.  Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents.  I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.

Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book.  Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series.  All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot.  As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places.  Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods.  The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more.  I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book.  Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments.  Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.

With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain.  This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer.  With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read.  This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

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