The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman

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Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Format – 5 February 2019)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 34

Length: 12 hours 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman returns with the 34th book in his long-running Alex Delaware crime series, The Wedding Guest, a clever and captivating murder mystery.

It is the couple’s big day, an elaborate wedding ending with a ‘Saints and Sinners’ themed reception in a former Los Angles strip club.  The only thing that could upstage the happy couple is the discovery of a well-dressed murder victim hidden in one of the club’s bathrooms.  None of the guests claim to know who the victim is, and she appears to have crashed the wedding without anyone noticing.

Psychologist Alex Delaware is called onto the case by his friend Detective Milo Sturgis.  With no obvious suspects at the wedding, Alex and Milo not only have to find out who the murderer is but also the identity of the victim.  As they slowly build up a picture of the events that led up to the murder, the investigators soon discover that this not the first time that the murderer has struck, and his is still at large in the city.

Kellerman is an extremely prolific and skilled crime fiction author, who has been writing books for over 30 years.  His first book, When the Bough Breaks, was released in 1985 and was the first book in his main body of work, the Alex Delaware series.  In addition to huge number of books in his main series, Kellerman has also written three shorter series: the Petra Connor series, the Jacob Lev series and the Clay Edison series.  The latter two series he wrote with his son, Jesse Kellerman.  In addition, he has also written several standalone novels, including two with his wife, Faye Kellerman, and several nonfiction books reflecting his career as an actual clinical psychologist.

As mentioned above, this is the 34th book in the Alex Delaware series, and I was a bit uncertain how easy it would be to come into this series this far in, having not previously read any of Kellerman’s books before.  Luckily, I found that The Wedding Guest was extremely accessible to new readers to the series as there were only minimal throwaway references to the previous books or cases that the main characters were involved in.  The author instead dives straight into the mystery and builds up his story from scratch.  The focus is on the main case, with only a brief look at the protagonist’s personal life, and as a result there is very little need to dive back into the series’ previous investigations.  I ended up really enjoying The Wedding Guest and thought it was an excellent piece of crime fiction.

The standout part of this book has to be the central investigation into the murder of the unexpected guest at the wedding.  The overall case is compelling, and I found myself getting pretty hooked on the story and trying to work out who the killer is, especially as the case expands further out.  Kellerman has a very interesting murder mystery writing style.  Rather than creating a fast-paced mystery that has the investigators barrelling from one massive clue to the next, Kellerman keeps the investigation within The Wedding Guest at a much slower and more realistic pace.  The investigators are forced to wait for test results and for technicians and coroners to get back to the office, and most of their investigation involves meeting and questioning people of interest.  The whole process is a lot more methodical that other crime fiction books I have read; it has a much more realistic investigative timeline.  The author has a very detailed orientating writing style, recording a large amount of details about the suspects, their possessions and the locations they are found in, so much so that you expect any of these details to become relevant at a later point in the text.  I loved how realistic the investigation came across, from the timelines and issues that real-life detectives would experience, to the impact of chance or coincidence on solving a case and the use of modern-day technology, such as social media or internet searches, to obtain information on suspects.  The case as a whole was deeply captivating, and my curiosity about who had committed the crime kept me deeply enthralled within The Wedding Guest.

This book is very character based, as the story focuses deeply on the lives of a huge range of secondary characters, most of whom are suspects, witnesses or victims of the crimes being convicted.  Through his protagonists, Kellerman dives into the lives of these characters, finding out surprising details and issues that may or may not have some impact on the case.  As a result, the reader is quite exposed to these secondary characters, in some way more so than some of the protagonists investigating the case.  Many of the characters who are suspects are fairly duplicitous or unlikeable in some way or another, making it rather easy for the readers to dislike them and see them as reasonable suspects for the murder.  In contrast to these interesting but deceitful characters are the main protagonists, Alex and Milo.  I loved the fun friendship between these two characters.  Who would have thought that a psychologist and a homosexual police detective would make for such an entertaining and enjoyable tandem?

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, this book contains a number of other great story elements for the reader to enjoy.  This includes the fantastic and detailed descriptions of the city of Los Angles.  Kellerman, a near life-long resident of the city of Los Angles, does an outstanding job of portraying the various components of city, and there is obvious affection for its many nuances and its inhabitants’ ways of life.  I also liked the psychological inclusions with The Wedding Guest.  The main character, Alex Delaware, is a child psychologist who assists with the police investigations and provides analyses of the suspects and the murderer.  While the psychological elements within The Wedding Guest are somewhat less prominent than in some of the other books in the series, such as the first book, When the Bough Breaks, it is still deeply fascinating, and it was intriguing to see things such as the character’s analysis of what kind of person the killer would be.

While did receive a physical copy of this book, I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook format of The Wedding Guest, narrated by John Rubinstein.  This was an excellent way to the listen to this book, and at 12 hours and 20 minutes, it did not take me long to get through it.  Rubinstein does an incredible job of narrating this awesome story, and I felt that his fantastic voice really added a lot to this book.  The Wedding Guest is told from the point of view of the main character, Alex Delaware, and Rubinstein does a good base narration for everything the character sees and says.  I also really liked the other voices that Rubinstein does throughout this book, and he is able to impart some real personality into most of the other characters.  I especially loved the narration that he does for Milo, as he gives this character an exceptional cop voice that was really fun to listen to.  Overall, I felt that the audiobook version of this book was a great way to enjoy The Wedding Guest and I would strongly recommend this format.

The Wedding Guest was an excellent piece of crime fiction, containing a deeply compelling mystery that really drags the reader in and holds their attention for the entire book.  I quite enjoyed Kellerman’s use of characters and felt that it enhanced the mystery elements to create a wonderful overall story.  Easily accessible for those who have not read any of the previous books in the Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest is well worth checking out in both its paperback and audiobook formats.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.