Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

out of the dark cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Orphan X (Book 4)

Length: 435 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

The Orphan X series returns with a bang as thriller extraordinaire Gregg Hurwitz sets his long-running protagonist against his most dangerous opponent yet in this fun and exciting new novel.

Evan Smoak is an orphan in every way that matters.  Taken from his foster home as a child and inducted into a top-secret espionage program, Evan was given a new name, Orphan X.  The Orphans are the most lethal secret agents the United States ever produced, taking on missions around the world.  But after years of killing and being lied to, Evan had enough and left the program.  Now using his abilities to stay hidden, Evan has taken on a new identity, The Nowhere Man, a mysterious vigilante who helps people placed in terrible situations.  While Evan is satisfied with his new life, there is one threat from his old life that he needs to kill.  Unfortunately for Evan, that one man is now the President of the United States of America.

As the head of the Orphan program, Jonathan Bennett used the Orphans to promote his illegal and corrupt agendas around the world.  Now that he has achieved his ambition to become President, to cover his tracks he has ordered the death of all the remaining Orphans, as well as the man who was the closest thing Evan had to a father.  Now Orphan X is at the top of his hit list, and the only way to protect himself and the other orphans is to do the impossible and kill Bennett first.

Residing in the most impenetrable building in the world and with the full force of the Secret Service protecting him, Bennett looks to be untouchable, especially as he has unleashed the vengeful Orphan A to hunt Evan down.  However, Orphan X has a plan and is determined to take everything from the President.  Can Evan succeed?  Why is Bennett so concerned with covering up the details of Orphan X’s first mission?  One thing is for sure: all hell is about to break loose in Washington.

Hurwitz is a veteran author whose work mostly fits into the thriller and mystery genres.  He has written a couple of series, including the young adult zombie series, The Rains Brothers, and the thriller-based Tim Rackley series.  In addition, Hurwitz has also written a number of interesting sounding standalone books, including his debut novel, The Tower, as well as a number of comics for DC and Marvel, including Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, 19 issues of Batman: The Dark Knight and even a run on Marvel’s excellent 2004 The Punisher series.  Aside from the two The Rains Brothers novels, Hurwitz’s main work in the last three years has been his Orphan X series.  Out of the Dark is the fourth novel in this series and continues a number of storylines set out in the earlier books.

With the exception of some of his comics, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Hurwitz’s previous books before, although several do sound very interesting; for example, his 2001 release, Minutes to Burn, has been recommended to me before due to its fun premise.  However, upon hearing that the plot of this book was going to set an elite rogue operative against the President of the United States, I knew that I had to check this book out.  Luckily my propensity for falling for and checking out books with amazing and out-there plot synopsis paid off once again, as I had a lot of fun reading this action-packed thriller.

After some bad experiences in the past, I am always a little apprehensive about coming into a series several books in, and Out of the Dark was no exception, especially as it was the fourth book in the series.  However, Hurwitz does a fantastic job setting out the events leading up to this story, and I did not find myself lost in the slightest as I read this book.  Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to readers who, like me, were intrigued by the intriguing story concept and want to start the series here.

The main story focuses on Orphan X’s and the President’s attempts to take each other out, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed thrill ride, as the two sides unleash everything to win.  This main storyline is split between several characters, including Orphan X, the President, the head of the President’s security detail and Orphan A.  Hurwitz spends time exploring each of these characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations, allowing for a richer overall story rather than a typical all-action adventure.  In addition to this main storyline, there is also a secondary storyline where Evan, as The Nowhere Man, helps out a person being targeted by a drug lord.  I was a bit uncertain about the necessity of this second storyline, as I was quite enjoying the focus on assassinating the president.  However, I did appreciate how this second storyline was used to convey Evan’s continued search for humanity and redemption after years as an assassin.  Fans of the previous books in the Orphan X series will enjoy a number of inclusions thrown into Out of the Dark, including several characters from the previous books, a continuation of some storylines, and an opening scene that shows Evan’s first mission as Orphan X back in the 1990s.  All of this comes together into an amazing and captivating story that is not only exciting, but which also has some emotional weight backing it up.

Hurwitz takes his plot focus of an elite agent targeting the President and really runs with it.  The protection surrounding the President of the United States of America is legendary, both inside and outside of fiction.  Therefore, the idea that one man can take him out is a crazy idea, especially as Hurwitz makes it clear the sheer amount of resources and firepower that the President’s security detail has on his side.  Indeed, there are several comparisons made throughout the book, showcasing the Secret Service’s tools and resources, and then counterpointing it to the few resources the protagonist has access to.  Despite this, at no point does the reader feel like Orphan X is the underdog, even with Orphan A and his less than savoury cohorts chasing after him.  Indeed, as the book progresses, the President and his security get more and more nervous, especially as Evan makes his various moves.  The protagonist’s overall plan for getting to the President is pretty clever, and I love how this storyline ended.  This was an extremely fun story focus, and I was not disappointed by how Hurwitz showcased it.

It should go without saying that this book is chocked full of action, as there are a number of high-intensity scenes where the protagonist takes it to his opponents.  Hurwitz can write a really good action sequence, and there were some really fun details throughout the book.  The author really uses these scenes to show off what a badass Orphan X is, including an early scene where the protagonist tells several police officers exactly how he is going to take them out and then proceeds to beat the thus-prepared officers in what has to be the ultimate power play.  These action scenes also show off what the Secret Service can do and how impressive their presidential security is.  With plenty of explosions, gunfights, full-on assaults of strongholds and violent hand-to-hand combat sequences, there is plenty in this book for those readers who love a bit of action in their fiction.

Overall, Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz is an amazing read that I had an absolute blast with.  Orphan X continues to reign supreme as one of modern thriller fiction’s most badass protagonists, as he takes on the whole Secret Service.  This is an extremely exciting and clever read that also takes the time to dive into the emotional motivation of its characters.  Out of the Dark is an absolutely stunning blast from Hurwitz and I loved this latest addition to the entertaining Orphan X series.

The Pearl Thief by Fiona McIntosh

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 29 October 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Fiona McIntosh comes a deep and powerful tale of loss, revenge and the traumatic shadows of World War II.

Severine Kassel is one of the Louvre’s top curators of antique jewellery and specialises in identifying pieces plundered by the Nazis during World War II.  Seconded to the British Museum in 1963, Severine maintains a careful image of mystery, distance, French elegance and control.  However, that image is shattered completely the moment Severine sets eyes on the Byzantine pearls, an incredible artefact of mysterious providence on loan to the museum.  Severine knows exactly what the pearls are and may be the only person in the world who knows their full history.  She also remembers the last time she saw them: in 1941 in the hands of the man who murdered her family, the brutal Nazi Ruda Mayek.

As she recovers from the shock of seeing the pearls again, Severine reveals to the world that she is actually Katerina Kassowicz, and her story is one of sorrow and torture.  Katerina was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Prague during the war.  Her family attempted to flee the Nazi purge but was betrayed by a man they considered a friend, Mayek, and only Katerina survived, although her life was never the same.

With the discovery of the pearls, it becomes apparent that Mayek may still be alive.  Desperate to hunt down the man who took everything from her, Katerina begins a desperate investigation to find him and get her revenge.  Assisted by the mysterious Daniel, a Mossad agent, Katerina’s only clue is the lawyer handling the transaction of the pearls.  As Katerina’s search intensifies, old wounds are opened and life-changing secrets are revealed.  But as she gets closer to the truth, she begins to wonder who is actually hunting who.

Australian Fiona McIntosh is a fantastic author with a diverse and intriguing bibliography to her name.  She has been writing since 2001 and initially focused on the fantasy genre with her debut book Betrayal, which formed the first book in the Trinity series.  She wrote several fantasy books over the next nine years, including The Quickening trilogy, the Percheron series and the Valisar trilogy.  During this time she also wrote several pieces of children’s fiction, including the Shapeshifter series, as well as the adult crime Jack Hawksworth series under the pen-name Lauren Crow.  In 2010, McIntosh switched to historical dramas and has written a number of these books, mostly featuring female protagonists.  Examples include the 2012 release The Lavender Keeper and last year’s epic The Tea Gardens.

 The Pearl Thief is the latest piece of historical drama from McIntosh.  It plunges the reader right into the heart of occupied Czechoslovakia and explores the horrific impacts that World War II had on the book’s main character while also providing the reader with an intense thriller in the 1960s.  Told from the point of view of several characters, the book follows an interesting format.  This first part of the book mostly follows Katerina and Daniel in Paris, and is set around Katerina telling her life story to Daniel and recounting what happened to her and her family during the war.  These flashbacks are different in style, being told from the first person perspective to highlight that Katerina is telling the story, rather than the third person perspective utilised during the rest of the book.  These flashback chapters are also visually distinctive due to the use of italicised font.  The second half of the book follows the protagonist’s hunt for Mayek, and features a different style to the first half of the book.  This different style includes the uses several more point-of-view characters, in particular the lawyer Edward, and the focus on more individualised storylines fitting into one overarching narrative.

The way that McIntosh chooses to tell this story is not only distinctive, but it is a great way to tell this dark and complex narrative.  By presenting the main character’s World War II storyline first, the author sets up just how evil the book’s antagonist is, which ups the stakes for the second half of the book as the reader is desperate to see Mayek receive the justice he deserves.  This dislike for the antagonist helps the reader stay focused on the story and makes them more eager to quickly get to the conclusion of the book to see if the protagonists succeed in catching him.  This early storyline also highlights just how damaged Katerina, and in some regards side character Daniel, really are and what impacts the war had on them.  As a result, the reader is a lot more attached to them and is keen to see how they reconcile their hatred and grief while also attempting to move past these events nearly 20 years after the end of the war.  Both parts of this book are very captivating and do a fantastic job of drawing the reader in to this deep and dramatic story.

This is a fairly grim tale and McIntosh does not pull any punches, especially when it comes to showcasing the horrors the Jewish community experienced during World War II in countries such as Czechoslovakia.  There are some very disturbing sequences throughout these flashbacks, especially when Katerina describes the final fate of her family, and the reader cannot help but feel sorrow and anger at the horror these characters and their real life historical equivalents suffered.  McIntosh focuses on the physical impacts and the persecution that these people suffered and the mental stresses and long-term emotional damage that these actions inflict both during the war and well into the 1963 storyline for the survivors.  These emotional scenes start right from the front of the book, with the first chapter showing the Kindertransport, mercy trains that got Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and forced a permanent separation between parents and their children.  This opening scene is very emotional, and the readers are left wondering what they may have done in a similar situation.  There are also some quite dark scenes in the second half of the book, as the main characters are forced to relive the horrors they experienced and deal with the emotional fallout and the darkness they feel when it comes to Mayek.  McIntosh’s frank and grim depictions of these events turn this book into an incredible drama, and readers will be left with a memorable and emotional vision of these events.

The Pearl Thief is a deep and captivating historical drama from exceptional Australian author Fiona McIntosh.  Featuring some highly detailed and realistically dark flashback story to World War II as well as a thrilling hunt for a despicable war criminal in the 60s, this is a highly emotional and dramatic piece of literature that is well worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four stars

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 September 2018

 

From debuting Australian author Benjamin Stevenson comes this chilling and intelligent murder mystery that builds a thrilling case with some sensational twists around an intriguing true crime documentary plot device.

Four years ago, in the small Australian country town of Birravale, Curtis Wade was arrested and tried for the murder of young woman Eliza Dacey.  Hated by the entire town and viewed as an outsider, Curtis was quickly found guilty of the crime with very little evidence presented at the trial.  Everyone was convinced of Curtis’ guilt until podcaster and documentarian Jack Quick decided to get involved.

Noting some inconsistencies in the case and sensing an opportunity for fame, Jack decided to make a true crime documentary series, presenting the local police as incompetent and biased.  His series becomes an overnight hit across Australia, and his edited footage convinces many in the country of Curtis’s innocence.  But the night before the finale is due to air, Jack notices a piece of crucial evidence near the murder scene that could prove that Curtis is guilty after all.  Determined not to ruin his series, and convinced that no matter what happens Curtis will never see the light of day again, he disposes of the evidence.  However, thanks to his series, Curtis is released on retrial, and then a second murder is committed, with several grisly details of the first case replicated.  Has Jack just let a murderer go free?

Returning to Birravale, Jack must once again dive into the secrets of a town that hates him for the way his show portrayed them.  As Jack attempts to solve this crime, he must overcome his own past while also dealing with the guilt of the situation.  But did Curtis commit this new crime, or is he being framed by the real killer?  Whoever the murderer is, Jack is wrapped up in their game and for once he needs to reveal the whole truth.

Greenlight is the first novel from Australian comedian and author Benjamin Stevenson and represents a brilliant and exhilarating debut.  This book has an amazing central storyline with a massively intriguing mystery that focuses on the innocence or guilt of the man who has already been both convicted and found innocent of the same murder.  The protagonist must look at whether the person he released from jail committed the murder he was originally convicted of, as well as a second, similar murder that occurred after the suspect has been released.  The reader is constantly left guessing about whether the prime suspect, Curtis, has committed either or both of the crimes, or whether he is actually innocent.  At the same time, the reader is presented with a series of plausible alternative suspects who have motive for either of the murders or, in some cases, the same motive for both of the killings, and this creates some exciting doubt about the original suspect’s guilt.  The final reveals and twists of this case are rather shocking and will definitely provide the readers with some excellent surprises.  Stevenson does a good job providing a lot of hints and foreshadowing in his text, and readers will enjoy seeing how these cleverly scattered clues are brought together in the end.  Overall, this is a hell of a mystery and the author does a fantastic job tying the investigation into the book’s other elements.

One of the most noticeable and outstanding parts of Greenlight is its true crime elements and how this affects both the story and the way that the book is written.  Ever since the dramatic popularity of the 2015 Netflix true crime show, Making a Murderer, various books and shows have attempted to emulate the documentary setting in their works.  What I liked about Stevenson’s book was that, rather than dealing with the creation of the documentary, it is mostly set some months after the television series was released and instead takes a look at the consequences that the show has had.  Not only is a potential murderer released, but various lives and careers have been ruined as a result of the protagonist’s actions.  It is absolutely fascinating to see the various ways that the reaction and follow-up of the true crime television series comes into play through the story.  The protagonist has to deal with a series of characters who are annoyed or angry about their portrayal in the series, which informs the help, assistance or compassion that these characters give.  The success of the series also affects the police response, leaving the protagonist much more open to investigate the crime.  It is also intriguing to see a television show being used as a motive for murder throughout the book, as the second murder could potentially be tied into righting the wrongs that the show caused.  Stevenson covers all these elements incredibly well, and the examination of the consequences and damages of a successful true crime documentary series turns out to be the perfect backdrop for this captivating murder story.

On top of the powerful mystery and the terrific plot focus, Stevenson has also created an interesting central protagonist who serves as the point of view character for most of the book.  The main character, Jack, is the documentarian who makes the show that gets the mystery’s main suspect freed from jail.  Watching the guilt and shame that this character experiences as a result of his various actions, such as the creation of the show, tampering with evidence and editing the videos to tell a specific story, is a great part of this story, and it serves as a perfect motivation for this character’s continued and at times frantic investigation.  Watching the character understand the full extent of his questionable actions, especially after the second murder, is an outstanding part of this book that highlights Stevenson’s strong writing ability.  It is also interesting to see how his experiences creating a documentary have affected his judgement and the way he perceives the world.  The protagonist now sees the slanted way many of the characters talk when it comes to case, and he is constantly trying to determine what role the people who are involved in the case would have in a television show, such as a main character or a supporting cast member.  The author also creates some interesting character background for Jack that works well with this story, as guilt and trauma from his childhood combines with the current extreme blame and he is currently feeling.  Stevenson also produces an accurate and powerful description of an eating disorder that Jack is suffering from, and not only is this description respectful done and informative, but it adds another level to this excellent main character.

A large amount of Greenlight’s plot is set in the fictional small, winegrowing country town of Birravale in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales.  This serves as a great background setting for the murder investigation as the small town secrets and attitudes play a huge role in the overall mystery.  Stevenson does an amazing job portraying a winegrowing community, and provides some interesting details that come into play in a number of ways and often result in a number of potential murder motives.  The small-town setting also works well with the post true crime series plot element, as the protagonist encounters an entire town that has been portrayed in a negative light throughout this series and is viewed in a different way by the rest of the country.  Seeing these resultant attitudes and the impacts his series has had on the town works wonders for the main character and is a great part of this book.

In his debuting novel, Australian author Benjamin Stevenson has created an incredibly captivating mystery storyline.  Greenlight contains a number of outstanding elements, from shocking plot twists and reveals, an excellent central character and an utterly fascinating central plot device, all of which come together into one amazing novel.  This is an exceptional first book from Stevenson which highlights both his fantastic ability and his huge potential as a crime writer.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 28 May 2018

 

Australian thriller star Megan Goldin follows up her 2017 debut, The Girl in Kellers Way, with The Escape Room, a sensational new story that stabs right into the heart of Wall Street and the corruption and death festering within.

For years, the high-flying Wall Street investment team of Vincent, Jules, Sylvie and Sam have been the ultimate movers and shakers in the world of rich financiers.  Despite years of success, recent setbacks have put them all at risk of being fired from the large investment firm of Stanhope and Sons.  Ordered to a mandatory team-building exercise, the four colleagues meet at a half-constructed building and enter an express elevator to one of the top floors.  However, the elevator only ascends halfway up the building before stopping and leaving them suspended between floors and high above the ground.  As the four investors attempt to work out what is happening, they receive a chilling message: “Welcome to the escape room.  Your goal is simple.  Get out alive.”

While the team searches for a way out of the elevator, it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary escape room.  Secrets and lies are revealed through cryptic clues, and the information revealed is designed to make the four strong personalities clash and lash out at each other.  But the greatest mystery is the clues that hint to the team’s past, and particularly to a dark secret they have kept hidden for years.  As time passes and their situation becomes even more desperate, the four financiers start to turn on each other in their search for answers.  Who has trapped them, and how is it linked to the deaths of two young women who used to be members of their team?

The Escape Room is the second book from Goldin and is another great work from this fantastic Australian author.  I really enjoyed this book and found it to be so compelling that I read the whole thing in one go, intrigued as I was by the unique concept and eager to see how the story ended.

Goldin has split her book into distinctive halves, with two separate stories told in alternating chapters throughout the book.  Half of the book is dedicated to the characters trapped in the elevator and is set over the period that they spend in their confinement.  The other half of the book focuses on the life of Sarah Hall, a young college graduate and entrant to the team at Stanhope and Sons.  The chapters that focus on Sarah are set over several years leading up to the events shown in the book’s other storyline.  The chapters following Sarah feature younger versions of the characters trapped in the elevator and provide significant backstory on these people and the work that they do.

Apart from plot content, there is also another key change between the two halves of the book that is very noticeable to the reader.  The chapters set within the elevator are all told in the third person from the viewpoints of the four characters trapped within it.  However, the chapters set in the past that focus on Sarah are all told in the first person.  This is an effective way of differentiating between the two halves of the book and represents a distinctive change of tone within the story.  The use of two different styles is an interesting choice from Goldin, but it actually works really well in this book.  The third person point of view is the best choice for the scenes in the elevator, as it allows the author to show the actions of the four characters, each of whom have strong personalities.  It also allows the reader to see the mindsets of each of the characters, as their recent actions and relationships issues are explored at multiple points throughout the chapter.  These extra details add to the story and help explain the pressures they are under and the reasons they start to disintegrate mentally.  Using the first person point of view for the chapters following Sarah is also a good choice from Goldin, as the reader gets to see Sarah’s personal experiences of the Wall Street lifestyle and her impressions of the characters from the other storyline who are her superiors at the firm.  This allows the reader to see the characters who become desperate and crazy in the elevator chapters as they were when they were confident and arrogant Wall Street hotshots.  This results in some great scenes and is an amazing pay-off for this unique choice of format.

The Escape Room contains some exceptional storytelling from Goldin, who has managed to create an intricate and captivating thriller.  The scenes of the book set in the elevator are particularly intriguing, as the reader gets to witness these characters slowly become more erratic the longer they are trapped, and finally turn against each other.  The final reveal of who is set up the escape room is a little predictable towards the end of the book.  That being said, there are some great twists and turns getting there, as well as some exciting revelations, such as how the whole situation was set up, the motives behind it, as well as which characters in the elevator actually knew the dark secret that resulted in their captivity.  These additions to the narrative are intricate and clever, and are one of the main reasons that The Escape Room is such a great read.

While this book had a number of amazing elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the examination of the Wall Street lifestyle.  Goldin has done a superb job of capturing the sleaze, the sexism, the nepotism and the cronyism that infects such an old-school boys’ club like Wall Street.  The descriptions of the lifestyles that the Wall Street brokers have to live are just insane, and Goldin spends significant time describing every aspect of these character’s lives and how their work, with the long hours, focus on appearances, the corporate backstabbing and the hunt for more money completely consumes their lives.  While Goldin does not paint Wall Street in the best light, it is the perfect background for a thriller, and I really hope that she returns to this setting in some of her future books.

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin is an outstanding second outing from this amazing new Australian author.  With a brilliant setting that contains a deep and confronting look at the daunting Wall Street lifestyle and a complex and captivating narrative that masterfully combines two excellent storylines, The Escape Room takes the readers on a wild thrill ride that they will be unable to escape.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

One of historical fiction’s very best authors is back with an enthralling story that follows history’s greatest warriors on one of their most legendary journeys.  Without a doubt, Conn Iggulden is one of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today.  Since 2003 he has consistently produced some of the most in-depth, detailed and engrossing chronicles of several different historical periods and cultures.  His previous work includes lengthy examinations of Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan in his bestselling Emperor and Conqueror series, and he has also produced the definitive fictional account of one of the bloodiest civil wars in English history with his extraordinary War of the Roses series.  Now, following his 2017 fantasy debut Darien, Iggulden has once again returned to his historical fiction roots by exploring another new realm of history, the Spartans.

In 401 BC, the new Persian king, Artaxerxes II, rules the largest empire in the known world.  With an empire sprawling from the Aegean Sea to the north of India, the king of Persia is the undisputed ruler of 50 million people.  However, despite all their wealth and power, the kings of Persia have never conquered Greece.  From Thermopylae to Marathon and Platea, the Persians have suffered the ferocity of the Greeks, and none are more feared than the men of Sparta.  As a result, it has been many years since the Persians have attempted to invade Greece, and many Spartans now serve as mercenaries in the Persian army.

When Prince Cyrus, Artaxerxes’s brother, is nearly executed by the new king following the death of their father, the young prince is determined to claim the throne of Persia for himself.  After hiring an army of skilled Greek mercenaries led by an elite core of Spartan warriors and the revered Spartan General Clearchus, Cyrus marches against his brother.  But battles can be lost with a single blow, and when Cyrus is killed on the battlefield the Greeks suddenly find themselves trapped in the middle of the Persian Empire.

With Clearchus and the other Greek generals having been killed through treachery, it falls to a young solider, Xenophon, to lead the surviving Greeks to safety.  With limited supplies and no knowledge of the land before them, Xenophon must find a way to lead 10,000 soldiers and an additional 10,000 camp followers back to Greece.  Forced to endure constant attacks from the Persian army as they travel through deserts and across mountains, their journey will become legendary.

The Falcon of Sparta is a standalone novel primarily based on the classic Greek text, Anabasis, which was written by the historical Xenophon.  Iggulden’s novel focuses on the events of the first four of the seven books of Anabasis.

While The Falcon of Sparta does not contain the full version of Anabasis, in some ways it is a much more complete and detailed story that focuses on the people who featured in this great adventure.  Xenophon related his tale in a rather simple and direct manner, and Iggulden has compensated for this by providing his own storytelling and dramatic writing.  Many of the key characters now have significant backstories fictional justifications for many of these characters’ actions and motives.  For example, Iggulden attempts to provide a more complex and dramatic explanation for the schism between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, rather than the historical story that Cyrus simply desired the throne.  Iggulden also provides additional context for one of the main villains of the Anabasis, the Persian noble Tissaphernes, who led the Persian armies against the retreating Greek forces.  In The Falcon of Sparta his role as a villain is greatly expanded.  Not only is he portrayed as a former friend of Cyrus who betrayed him for power but also as one of the main reasons Cyrus fails to seize the throne and the protagonists are placed into such peril.  Iggulden’s additional backstories and character traits make for a much more compelling and complete story with thrilling and absorbing motivations and antagonists.

These additional story elements are greatly enhanced by the author’s use of character perspectives.  For the first two thirds of the story, narration is split between a number of characters, including Cyrus, Clearchus, Tissaphernes, Artaxerxes and Xenophon.  Not only does this split narration help to build up the respective characters’ histories and allow the audience a better view of their personalities, but it also adds significantly to the story as these characters provide various perspectives on the events occurring in the formative parts of the main story.  Through the narrators we are given glimpses into a range of interesting things, including Artaxerxes’s and Cyrus’s thoughts on the war for their father’s throne, as well as the events and feelings that led up to the conflict.  We also see the respect that Cyrus and Xenophon have for their Spartan allies, as they see examples of their effectiveness in combat and their legendary self-discipline.

The scenes told from Tissaphernes’s point of view further highlight his role as a villain as his inner monologue reveals his selfish motivations and ambitions.  The story told from Tissaphernes’s viewpoint helps turn him into an embodiment of the distain that the ancient Persians had for the Greeks and their soldiers.  Despite seeing the Greeks’ substantial battle prowess, Tissaphernes and many of the Persians viewed the Greeks as second-rate soldiers, and it is fascinating to see how deeply held this belief was.

After the first two thirds of the book, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of Xenophon and starts to mostly represent Book III and Book IV of the Anabasis.  This part of the book allows the reader a closer view of the Spartan and Greek forces as they participate in their epic march and is very entertaining.  Even as the story becomes confined to only one narrator, Iggulden is still able to provide the necessary detail and drama in the final part of the book to keep the story going strong and maintain the reader’s attention and enjoyment.

Special attention needs to be given to the masterful portrayal of the Greeks and Spartans in battle.  Iggulden has an incredible eye for detail and an amazing writing style that brings the reader right into the heart of the book’s large-scale action sequences.  In particular, he spends a significant amount of time focusing on the Greeks and the Spartans and does an amazing job of capturing their battle techniques, tactics and mentality.  There are a large number of battle scenes within this book, and Iggulden uses every opportunity to show off the prowess of his heroes in as much detail as possible, allowing the reader to easily witness the events in their minds.  The Persian soldiers are also examined in the scenes narrated by Cyrus, and it is interesting to see the differences in the fighting style and mentality of the Greeks and Persians.  Those interested in reading about this part of history will love the amount of attention given to the Spartans and find many of the associated descriptions deeply fascinating.

Conn Iggulden has once again produced a masterful and absorbing fictional account that focuses on an utterly intriguing historical event.  Bringing the reader right into the middle of the march of the Ten Thousand, Iggulden expands on Xenophon’s Anabasis and provides a more dramatic and elegant story of betrayal, endurance and survival.  The Falcon of Sparta is a love letter to one of history’s most legendary race of warriors, and it provides the reader with a detailed exploration of Spartan warfare, lifestyle and mentality.  This is a breathtaking and highly recommended piece of historical fiction that is guaranteed to drag you in for the long haul.

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 30 April 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Christine Wells comes this touching and memorable tale of love, captivity and endurance in the darkest of times.

During World War II, Juliet Barnard was a British agent working for the Special Operations Executive.  A skilled wireless operator, she was one of the few female agents that were dropped into occupied France to meet contacts and pass intelligence back to the Allies.  While initially successful, she was only active in France for a short time before the Nazis captured her.  Trapped in a prison that specialised in interrogating captured spies and infiltrators at Paris’s Avenue Foch, Juliet endured torture, drugging and manipulation and came out of the prison a different person.

Now, two years after the end of the war, Juliet is still recovering from her ordeal and trying to continue a relationship with Felix, the man she fell in love with during her training.  Claiming to be suffering from memory loss, Juliet has managed to avoid providing any details about her time at Avenue Foch or about the man who held her captive, Sturmbannführer Strasser.  Finding Strasser is the last thing Juliet wants to happen, because he knows a dark secret about Juliet – a secret she would kill to protect.  However, when Juliet meets Mac, an SAS officer turned Nazi hunter whose sister served in the war with Juliet, her guilt compels her to return to Paris to help him locate Strasser.

This is the third book from Wells, who has previously written two English-based historical stories that feature a strong, female protagonist.  The Juliet Code is the second book from Wells that focuses on British spy activities during World War II; her previous novel, The Traitor’s Girl, focused on a World War II MI5 operative.  The Juliet Code is another excellent and intense romp into the history of World War II, and Wells has done an amazing job of creating this unique and emotional story.  This book is a combination of a great dramatic story and a two-stage historical spy thriller wrapped up with a poignant romantic subplot.

Wells has injected considerable drama and emotion into her story, especially through her main character, Juliet, who goes through substantial emotional changes throughout the book.  Before she is dropped into France, Juliet is portrayed as a shy girl, unsure of her abilities as a potential spy but eager to do her duty to her country.  After the war she is more hardened individual who is suffering from guilt, both due to being one of the few agents to survive capture and because of her own actions during the war.  These changes in the character are made obvious to the reader, not just because of Wells’s great writing ability but also because she switches between the mid-war and post-war scenes multiple times.  Wells slowly reveals the main character’s wartime secret, which is a central part of the plot.  While there are some hints to what this secret is early in the book, the full reveal is not done until later in the story, and makes use of a moving and artfully constructed confession scene.

The Juliet Code is set in the 1940s, and Wells has broken the story up into two distinct periods.  The first period starts in 1943 and continues for the rest of the war, examining the main character’s training, her infiltration of occupied France and her time as a captive at Avenue Foch.  The parts of the book set during the war are very intriguing and are some of the most appealing scenes from a historical fiction viewpoint.  The sections that feature Juliet training and actively spying in France were some of my favourite parts of the plot, and I loved reading Wells’s descriptions about the French resistance networks, the British covert activities, their espionage techniques and the counteroperations the Nazis were undertaking to catch the operatives active in France.  There are also some significant descriptions of how the British wireless transmitters functioned and British coding techniques.  These very technical parts of the book contain some fascinating information while also providing the reader with a good understanding of this technology and what the operators were doing with it.  There are also a number of scenes that follow Juliet after she is captured and held as an enemy spy in Paris.  These parts of the book are, by necessity, darker in nature, depicting how these spies, especially female operatives, were treated during this period.  There are also thorough descriptions of the historical locations used as prisons in Paris.

The second part of the book is set in 1947 and features Juliet and her companions revisiting the sites of Juliet’s captivity and attempting to hunt down her jailer.  This part of the book comes across as more of a traditional spy thriller, and contains some vivid descriptions of post-war France.  There are some examinations of how the Allies and the Soviets were attempting to capture or recruit former members of the Nazi regime, as well as some interesting looks into the post-war espionage that was occurring at this time.  Wells also revisits characters and locations encountered by the protagonist during the war, and these scenes are used to provide clues to locate Strasser while also providing additional hints about what happened to Juliet during her captivity.

Among the defining features of The Juliet Code are the realistic and detailed characters that the reader gets to enjoy.  They feel so realistic because these characters were inspired by real historical figures who served in similar capacities during the war.  This touch of realism adds a lot to the book and serves as an inspirational reminder of those unsung heroes of British espionage.  These fictional facsimiles do interact with a few real historical figures within the book, and readers will be captivated as they find out which of these unique wartime stories are actually historical fact.

Wells has included an enticing romantic subplot between the characters of Juliet and Felix.  Readers will be able to feel the affection that these two characters have for each other, as well as the loss they experience as a result of Juliet’s capture.  Their relationship is also masterfully woven into the main story, and elements of their romance become key plot points, such as some personal romantic poems that actually contain transmitter codes.  Thankfully, Wells decided not to invest too much time in a love triangle between Juliet, Felix and Mac, although she does include the initial and somewhat entertaining jealousy you would come to expect from this situation.  Overall, the romantic subplot is both absorbing and nicely subtle, as it does not overwhelm the rest of the story.

Australian author Christine Wells once again delivers an elegant piece of literature that makes full use of its well-paced dramatic story and an utterly stimulating historical setting and content.  Fans of historical fiction will love The Juliet Code’s dive into World War II spycraft and counterespionage, as well as the excellent and electrifying thriller that blazes through post-war France.  This is a phenomenal novel that sticks in the mind and will appeal to wide array of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars