Quick Review – Texas Hold ‘Em edited by George R. R. Martin

Texas Hold 'Em Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 6 November 2019)

Series: Wild Cards series – Book 27

              American Triad trilogy – Book 3

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Texas Hold ’Em is the 27th book in the long-running Wild Cards series, which started in 1987. I read this book late last year but did not get a chance to review it until just now, so I’m just going to do a quick one.

The Wild Cards books make up one of the more interesting book series at the moment. Started by George R. R. Martin and his tabletop game friends (all of whom where fantasy and science fiction writers), this series has since expanded into a massive book franchise that has featured an impressive line-up of authors. There are a huge number of books, and the series is even currently being adapted into a couple of television series on Hulu.

Each of the Wild Cards books is made up of several short, interconnected stories written by a different author, with the entire novel edited together by Martin. Texas Hold ’Em, for example, features the talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Walton Simons, William F. Wu and the late Victor Milán. Melinda M. Snodgrass, who has contributed to a huge number of the previous Wild Cards books, also assisted in editing this book.

I came into this franchise fairly late and have only read the books which make up the most recent trilogy, The American Triad. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago, and was looking forward to the third and final book, Texas Hold ’Em.

Blurb:

In the aftermath of World War II, the Earth’s population was devastated by a terrifying alien virus. Those who survived changed forever. Some, known as jokers, were cursed with bizarre mental and physical mutations; others, granted superhuman abilities, became the lucky few known as aces.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the USA’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. But they are also jokers; kids with super abilities and looks that make them stand out. On top of that, well, they are teenagers – prone to mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.

Ace Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But little does she know the true meaning of the saying, ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.

I found Texas Hold ‘Em to be a fun addition to this fantastic series. However, unlike the other two Wild Cards books that I have read, this one seemed to be a bit more like a young adult fiction novel. This is mainly because many of the short stories focus on teenage characters as they encounter the many ups and downs of San Antonio and the jazz competition. The rest of the stories are a pretty interesting mix of mystery, thriller and other action adventure type stories, as the various adult characters encounter a range of situations, mostly associated with protecting or wrangling their young charges. There were some good stories within this book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate the return of several recurring characters who have appeared in some of the previous books.

The stories in this book are told in a different way to the previous Wild Cards books. Rather than having several short stories told to their full extent and then connected by one split short story that overlaps with each of them, Texas Hold ’Em is instead broken up by a period of several days. Each of the days contains multiple parts of the various short stories, featuring the events of that story that happens on that day. This is a much more fragmented way to tell each story, but the chronological consistency is an interesting narrative choice. The combined short stories do make for quite a good overall narrative, although it does seem a little lower stakes than some of the previous books in the series.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the examination of prejudice and hatred that infects each of the stories. In this universe, many of the humans who were unaffected by the Wild Card virus discriminate against Jokers and Aces; Jokers because of their disfigurations and Aces because they are afraid of them. This appears to be particularly enhanced down in San Antonio, mainly due to the appearance of the Purity Baptist Church, this universe’s version of everyone’s favourite hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The various protests and prejudices of the fiction group against those affected by the Wild Card virus do reflect the Westboro Baptist Church, so it was definitely an accurate depiction, and it was cool to see how they would react when confronted with someone with superpowers. That being said, the writers really needed to come up with a better term than “God’s Weenies” to refer to this group, or least stop repeating it to the degree that they did. Many of the characters in the book also encounter other forms of discrimination aside from the protests occurring outside the event, most of which mirrored discrimination real-life minority groups experience every day. This was a pretty good look at discrimination, and I liked how the various authors attempted to examine this problem by putting it in the context of the Wild Cards universe, especially as it led to some curious scenarios and interesting story moments.

Overall, this was a great new addition to the Wild Cards series. If I’m going to be honest, this was probably my least favourite book in the American Triad trilogy, but I still had fun reading it. I am interested to see what the next book in the Wild Cards universe will be like, and I will be curious to see if the show I mentioned above actually comes into being.

We are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

We are Blood and Thunder Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury YA (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2019)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 400 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From first-time author Kesia Lupo comes We are Blood and Thunder, a clever, inventive and at times dark young adult fantasy novel that represents a brilliant start to a bold new fantasy world.

In the nation of Valorian, a powerful magical curse has been laid upon the city of Duke’s Forest. The curse has wrapped the entire city in a mystical storm cloud filled with death, sickness and despair. Following a series of virulent pestilences brought on by the storm cloud, the city has been placed in quarantine, although passage in or out of the cloud is already extremely difficult. Now, six years after the curse first struck Duke’s Forest, the fate of the city and all who live within will lie upon the shoulders of two young women.

Lena is a cryptling, one of the deformed or marked offspring of Duke’s Forest’s inhabitants who live in the sprawling crypts underneath the city and watch over the Ancestors, the interred dead of the city, who are worshiped as gods. Lena, whose birthmark saw her abandoned as a baby, led a quiet life below the city until strange things started happening all around her. Accused of being a mage by the magic-hating Lord Justice, Lena just barely escapes execution when she encounters Constance in the mists outside the city. Constance is the daughter of Duke’s Forest’s ruler, the Duke, and has returned to the city to reclaim what is hers. Trained as a mage, Constance recognises the magic within Lena and sends her outside the mist while she continues back to Duke’s Forest. However, this fateful meeting will have huge consequences on the lives of both women.

Once outside the mists, Lena encounters the huntsman Emris, a magic user trained to locate untrained mages like Lena, known as Rogues, who has been pursuing Constance for magical crimes she has been accused of. Emris brings Lena back to the City of Kings, the capital of Valorian, where she attempts to learn how to control her magic. However, her unusual magical abilities and status as a Rogue bring her to the attention of some of the city’s worst inhabitants. Back in Duke’s Forest, Constance finds that her city and her father have fallen under the control of the tyrannical Lord Justice. Keeping her status as a mage hidden, Constance attempts to regain control of Duke’s Forest while also searching for the source of the curse surrounding the city. As both Lena and Constance attempt to survive in their respective cities, fate keeps bringing their destinies together. The future of Duke’s Forest rests in the hands of these young women. Can they save the city, or will they be the storm that destroys it?

We are Blood and Thunder is a clever and extremely captivating young adult fantasy novel that I read a little while ago but only just got a chance to review. I wish I had gotten a review of this book up a little earlier as it is a fantastic first book and I have been quite keen to sing the author’s praises for a while. We are Blood and Thunder is the debut novel of exciting new talent Kesia Lupo and presents a powerful story filled with magic, betrayal, personal growth and the hunt for power. At the moment, We are Blood and Thunder is a standalone novel, but the author has indicated on Goodreads that she may set future books within the same universe.

The story of We are Blood and Thunder is told from the perspectives of Lupo’s two main characters, Lena and Constance. Each character narrates about half the book and tells their separate narratives through alternating chapters. This allows Lupo to tell two separate stories that are not only very different in content but which help show a far wider area of the new fantasy world that Lupo has created. I found both of the storylines contained within this book to be extremely fascinating. The first storyline, which is narrated by Lena, follows the character as she journeys to the City of Kings to learn more about magic. While there, she learns more about her mysterious powers and finds herself embroiled in the conflict between the Temples that control magic and an influential mage outside the control of the Temples who has the ear of the King. The second storyline, which is narrated by Constance, is a darker story of political intrigue, murder and dark magic within the walls of Duke’s Forest, as Constance attempts to find the heart of the storm cloud before it is too late, while also attempting to neutralise the tyrannical Lord Justice.

While the magical learning, emotional growth and world building featured within Lena’s storyline are really good, I did prefer the Constance storyline a little more. All the dark political manoeuvring within the unique setting of the cursed Duke’s Forest and the battle between Constance and the Lord Justice were pretty darn compelling, and I had a very hard time putting down the book while I was reading the Constance chapters. While both of these storylines are really good, I was quite impressed by the way that Lupo was able to combine the two separate stories together into one amazing overarching narrative. I felt that the two storylines really complemented each other and helped make each respective storyline better. For example, the explanations of this fantasy universe’s magic in Lena’s chapters help the reader understand some of the magical elements occurring in Constance’s chapters. At the same time, many of the preparations and relationships Constance forged for her desperate return to Duke’s Forest impact Lena as she uncovers dark secrets within the City of Kings. There are also a number of excellent plot twists cleverly hidden throughout the book that are slowly revealed in both storylines. I thought some of these twists, especially a big reveal towards the end of the book, were just amazing and helped turn this into an epic and electrifying story. I felt that the author’s use of the two separate storylines was an incredible way to tell the story, and the overall narrative was quite outstanding.

In addition to her excellent twin storylines, Lupo also came up with two awesome fantasy cities: the City of Kings and Duke’s Forest. The City of Kings is your classic fantasy capital with massive temples and palaces, where everything appears to be perfect and harmonious on the surface. However, there are some dark secrets at the heart of this city, and the magical politics prove to be a major threat to one of the book’s main characters. While this is a great setting, I have to say that the city of Duke’s Forest is the far more impressive setting. Even before the city was cursed, Duke’s Forest would have been an amazing fantasy setting, with its massive crypts staffed by abandoned children and its rabid intolerance of magic. However, by turning it into a city on the brink of death, surrounded by dangerous magical mists and clouds, Duke’s Forest transformed into a much more intriguing and memorable fantasy setting. Lupo does an amazing job bringing this inventive location to life, and I was impressed by the sense of despair and hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air in each chapter set in this city. These two city settings were great, and I felt that they both enhanced the book’s narratives. Duke’s Forest in particular added a sense of urgency to Constance’s hunt for the heart of the storm cloud. I am very curious to see what other locations Lupo will create for the nation of Valorian in the future, and I look forward to exploring more of this clever fantasy world.

I also quite enjoyed the interesting magical elements that the author utilised in We are Blood and Thunder. Lupo has invented some great magical lore in this book, and I had a lot of fun exploring the various aspects of it. Not only is there a city-wide magical curse but there is also a whole new system of magic for the reader to enjoy. I quite liked the intriguing magical systems that Lupo came up with, and there are a number of great elements to them. These include the vision-filled practice of mages binding their magic to a god in order to control their power, which then influences their magical power and abilities, as well as mages who don’t bind their powers and then subsequently lose control and become a Radical, a destructive being controlled by the underlying darkness in magic. These magical elements are mostly explored by Lena. As a member of an ostracised minority who lived beneath a quarantined city where all knowledge of magic was punished, Lena is a perfect character to explore Lupo’s magical elements. Lena has the same lack of knowledge of this world’s mage as the reader, so the readers get a baseline explanation of magic that also makes sense to the plot. I quite enjoyed the various magical elements that the author came up with in this book, and I am sure that she will further expand upon them in later books in this universe.

We are Blood and Thunder is an outstanding debut from Kesia Lupo which combines some amazing and complex character-based storylines with inventive fantasy settings and cool magical fantasy elements to create an awesome overall book. Lupo has some considerable skill when it comes to a compelling young adult fantasy book, and We are Blood and Thunder is an excellent first outing for this talented author. I look forward to reading more of Lupo’s work in the future, especially if she returns to the excellent world she created in We are Blood and Thunder.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 6 May 2019)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book 1

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The superstar team of Australian young adult fiction authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff comes together once more to create an outstanding, heartfelt and deeply entertaining new novel that may prove to be one of the best young adult books of 2019.

Kaufman and Kristoff are two of the biggest and most creative authors currently writing young adult fiction.  Kaufman is probably best known for her work with Meagan Spooner, where they have co-authored the Starbound trilogy and Unearthed series of books, the second book of which, Undying, was released earlier this year.  She is also in the process of writing her own Elementals series, with the second book, Scorch Dragons, released a month ago.  Kristoff first came into prominence with The Lotus War series, which debuted in 2012.  Since then he has also written The Nevernight Chronicle, the final book of which is set to be released in September, while his latest book, Lifel1k3, was one of the most talked about young adult releases of 2018.  Kristoff’s sequel to Lifel1k3, Dev1at3, is set to be released in a month, and he is currently working on an epic fantasy series, Empire of the Vampire, with the eponymous first book set to be released in September next year.

Kaufman and Kristoff have previously collaborated on the bestselling and award winning The Illuminae Files, a space opera epistolary series made up of three books which ran between 2015 and 2018.  Their latest collaboration, Aurora Rising, is another epic piece of young adult science fiction and is the first book in their planned Aurora Cycle series, which is currently set to feature another two books, released in 2020 and 2021.

Aurora Rising is set in the year 2380 and follows a spacefaring team of young adventurers as they attempt to save the galaxy.  In the future, humans have expanded out deep into the Milky Way, with fast intergalactic travel made possible through the Fold, dangerous space found on the other side of literal folds in the universe.  The Aurora Legion are an independent peacekeeping force made up of humans and several friendly alien races.  In order to complete their various humanitarian, exploration and peacekeeping missions, the Aurora Legion sends teams of young legionnaires, who can better withstand the rigors of the Fold, into the field.  Each team is made up of six highly trained and skilled individuals, who together can solve any problem they encounter.

Tyler Jones is the star graduating cadet of the Aurora Academy, who, thanks to his dedication and ability, will be given first pick of his fellow graduating cadets to form an elite team.  However, when an unscheduled joyride forces him to perform a risky rescue in the Fold, he misses the cadet draft, leaving him with a team of the cadets none of the other graduating squad leaders wanted.  These include (the descriptions were copied from the blurb due to accuracy):

  • His sister, Scarlet – A cocky diplomat with a blackbelt in sarcasm;
  • His best friend, Cat – A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into her squad leader, in case you were wondering;
  • Zila – a sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates;
  • Finian – a smart-ass tech-whiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder;
  • Kal – an alien warrior with anger management issues.

Forced to make the most of his bad luck, Tyler leads his team on a routine mission that quickly turns hairy when a hostile force of aliens seek to destroy them.  However, genocidal aliens are the least of their problems, when they discover that the girl Tyler saved in the Fold, Aurora O’Malley, has stowed away on their ship.  Aurora, the only survivor of a colony ship long thought lost, is 200 years out of time and desperate to figure out what happened to her colony and the family she left behind.  The squad discovers that she is far more significant than they could ever imagine when she displays strange abilities and impossible knowledge of both the past and future.  When shadowy government agents attempt to arrest Aurora, the squad are forced to go rogue to solve the mystery and end up in a race to save the galaxy.

Aurora Rising is a spectacular read, as these skilled authors take the reader through an intense young adult science fiction adventure in an intriguing new universe.  The book’s story as a whole is an outstanding mixture of intense action, enjoyable science fiction elements and excellent character work, all wrapped up with clever storytelling that is both compelling and humorous.  There are a number of great scenes and epic moments throughout this book that really highlight this book’s unique style and the writer’s ability to tell a story.  For example, I personally liked an extended sequence that followed the protagonists as they embarked on an elaborate and seemingly impossible heist on a massive space station ruled by a vicious crime lord.  The overall result is a near perfect read that I had an absolute blast checking out.  This is an amazing piece of young adult fiction, with enough action and relatable characters to appeal to all manner of potential teen readers.  Older science fiction readers will also have a great time with this book, especially as it sets up a captivating and ambitious new trilogy that will appeal to a huge and diverse audience.

This book is told from the first-person perspectives of the book’s seven protagonists, which includes Aurora and all six members of Tyler’s squad, each of whom gets a series of chapters throughout the book to tell the story.  Kaufman and Kristoff make good use of the chapters each of the characters narrate and the reader gets a good idea of each character’s individual personality, as well as important snippets into their individual backstory.  The authors also try to differentiate these chapters out a bit for some of the characters.  For example, Zila’s chapters are rather short, blunt and analytical in nature, matching her personality, while Scarlet’s chapters feature her listing off the humorous pros and cons of her ex-boyfriends, figuring out which ones to stay in contact with.  I really enjoyed how the authors told the story through these seven separate narrators, as not only did it bring me closer to the characters but it allowed the authors to showcase various perspectives of some of the more impressive sequences and events, allowing for a fuller and more intense story.

Aurora Rising features an outstanding complement of main characters, as each member of the squad, including Aurora, are looked at in some detail.  I was very impressed with how the authors where able to create such expansive and intriguing backstories for all seven main characters, as each of them has their own issues or concerns.  For example, Tyler and Scarlett are living in the shadow of their dead father’s heroics and trying to make him proud, Cat is deeply in love with Tyler and is having a hard time keeping her feelings in check, and Zila struggles with her disconnection with other people brought on by her tragic past.  Other examples include the team’s two alien members: Finian, who to hides his feelings of abandonment behind his brilliance and snark; and Kal, who is torn between guilt about what his race’s warrior caste, of which he is a member, has done to his home planet and his surprising feelings for one of the other members of his squad.  Aurora is perhaps one of the most complex characters, waking after 200 years to find that everything and everyone she knew is dead and parts of her past have been hidden for nefarious reasons.  Add into that her discovery of uncontrollable mental abilities and the feeling that something mysterious is guiding her and she has a lot to worry about.  One of the best things about this book is that whilst all seven characters are fairly complex individually, the book’s true strength revolves around the fact that when these characters come together they are an extremely dysfunctional crew.  The crew starts off as a rebellious and overly sarcastic mess unable to work together effectively, even with their individual abilities and strengths.  However, as the book continues, they do learn to cooperate to a degree, and the reader is made to really care for them, both individually and as a whole.  I loved how these character relationships expanded and strengthened throughout the book, and I had a lot of fun with this humorous and entertaining group of people.

I really enjoyed the universe that Kaufman and Kristoff crafted to fit around this enjoyable and intriguing story.  Visions of humanity’s future can always be a bit hit or miss, but I thought that the science fiction setting that the authors utilise in this book, which sees humanity expanding and interacting with other races while dark secrets and wars build up in the background, to be a fun and well-thought-out setting.  The characters visit an interesting and inventive number of locations through the book, all of which really add to Aurora Rising’s adventure and action.

I liked the author’s concept of the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic peacekeeping organisation that sends teenage operatives into action due to science fiction reasons.  One of the things I quite enjoyed about this was how these teams were designed to have six members whose joint abilities and specialities would allow them to anticipate and overcome any problem.  As a result the teams are made up of:

  • Alphas – leaders
  • Faces – diplomats
  • Aces – pilots
  • Gearheads – mechanics/inventors/technicians
  • Tanks – combat specialists
  • Brains – science officers/medics

This team breakdown proved to be quite an interesting concept, even if they do sound like party roles in a MMORPG (tank, healer, DPS etc).  I liked this idea and the various characters slid into the roles quite effectively.

I also had a lot of fun with the universe-expanding insertions that Kaufman and Kristoff placed before a number of the book’s chapters.  These insertions are written as information pages being read by Aurora on her uniglass, an AI tablet called Magellan, who has a playful sense of humour and who also provides some amusing commentary within the story.  These information pages provide the reader extra information about the universe, including about the Aurora Legions, the roles of the squads’ various members, the history of the universe, alien species, locations the protagonists visit and other relevant inclusions.  While each of these pages contains universe factual information, Magellan adds humorous twists to each of these pages which are very entertaining and really fit into the easy going and entertaining mood of most of the book.  However, these information pages do change and get more serious in the darker parts of the book, which also helps prepare the reader for the shift in mood.  I loved these inclusions, not only appreciating the inventive universe building they allowed, but also the fun take on the classic idea of in-universe media inclusions.

Aurora Rising is an absolutely fantastic book that blasts off with action, humour and amazing characters to create a deeply compelling and relentlessly entertaining story.  Australian authors Kaufman and Kristoff are an outstanding writing duo, and their latest collaboration is an amazing piece of young adult fiction that brilliantly establishes their new trilogy and ensures that future instalments of the Aurora Cycle will be some of the most sought after young adult books for 2020 and 2021.  Aurora Rising comes highly recommended from me, and it is one of my favourite new young adult books of 2019 so far.

Quick Review – Adrift by Rob Boffard

Adrift Cover

Publishers: Orbit

                       Audible Studios

Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

For this review I will be looking at Adrift by Rob Boffard, a book I listened to a few months ago, but which I did not get a chance to review at the time.  With the end of 2018 fast approaching, I decided to do a quick review for this book in order to clear my review schedule for the new year.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In the far reaches of space, a group of tourists board a small vessel for what will be the trip of a lifetime – in more ways than one…

They are embarking on a tour around Sigma Station – a remote mining facility and luxury hotel with stunning views of the Horsehead Nebula.

During the course of the trip, a mysterious ship with devastating advanced technology attacks the Station. Their pilot’s quick evasive action means that the tour group escape with their lives – but as the dust settles, they realize they may be the only survivors . . .

Adrift in outer space, out of contact with civilization, and on a vastly under-equipped ship, these passengers are out of their depth. Their chances of getting home are close to none, and with the threat of another attack looming they must act soon – or risk perishing in the endless void of space.

What initially drew me to this book was the pretty cool-sounding synopsis above.  I had not read anything from author Rob Boffard before, but a story featuring a group of mismatched passengers attempting to survive out in space with only a small, poorly equipped ship sounded like an intriguing read.  After enjoying Adrift, I think I might check out Boffard’s Outer Earth series in the future.

Adrift turned out to be a pretty compelling read, featuring a great story in space.  While the action was a little lighter than your standard science fiction read, this is more than made up for by some powerful drama as the characters deal with the stresses of their situation.  There are also some thrilling intrigue elements as the protagonists attempt to unwrap the difficult situations inside and outside of the ship, as well as one particularly shocking and unexpected moment in the middle of the book.  There were a few good action sequences as well, including several epic flight scenes, and a memorable spaceflight featuring a little old lady.

This book is primarily a character-driven story, as the story mainly focuses on the passengers aboard the tourist ship.  Each of the various characters gets decent coverage in this book, with a particular focus on the three main point-of-view characters and the two secondary point-of-view characters.  After the first few chapters, my initial impression of all the characters in the ship was, ‘What a bunch of losers and arseholes!’  The passengers of the ship are made up of several abrasive characters who initially seemed to overshadow most of the other characters, including two timid main point-of-view characters.  However, as the book is explored further, the background of all of the characters is explored in some detail, and the reader gets an idea of why some of the characters are the way they are.  The events of the story help develop these characters further, and by the end the surviving characters are all much more likeable.  I was impressed by the emotional range that Boffard was able to write, and the various reactions to the situations about the tourist ship came across as quite realistic.

I ended up listening to Adrift in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Katie Scarfe.  The audiobook runs for a little bit over 15 hours, so readers need to invest a bit of time in getting through this book.  I thought that Scarfe did a good job with her narration, coming up with a number of good voices for her distinctive characters, and moving the story along quickly.  Scarfe had a bit of work to do with the primary cast of characters, as not only did she have to do Russian, Irish and British accents, as well as several random accents the ship’s computer system blurted out through the course of the book, but she also had to do a range of ages across both genders, from a young male child to an elderly lady.  Fortunately, Scarfe was able to produce pretty good accents for each of these characters, and it was possible to get an idea of gender and age with the various narrations.  I also thought she did a good job capturing the range of emotion that flowed from her characters, from despair to anger at their situation.  Overall, the audiobook format is a great way to enjoy Adrift, and I would recommend it for those who prefer to listen to their books.

Adrift by Rob Boffard is a clever and fairly captivating read that makes great use of its character-driven storyline.  This was a good standalone novel, and readers will find a lot to enjoy with this intense science fiction read.

My Rating:

Four stars

Phantom Wheel by Tracy Deebs

Phantom Wheel Cover

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date – 16 October 2018

 

When six genius teen hackers are invited to audition for the CIA in order to receive an exclusive scholarship and job offer, five of them, Issa, Harper, Ezra, Alika and Seth, jump at the opportunity and create the code that is requested of them.  The sixth teen, Owen, walks out of the room, refusing to participate.  Later, when the other five return home they each receive a message for Owen, “You’ve been played.”  Owen has uncovered that the people interviewing them were not from the CIA; instead they work for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, Jacento.  Worse, the hackers’ combined code works together to create a virus, known as Phantom Wheel, which is a malicious piece of code that will give Jacento access to everyone’s personal data and unparalleled control of the world.  Determined not to let their creation be unleashed, the six teens band together to break into Jacento and steal back their code.  While they are young, these teens are among the most creative hackers in the world.  But will their combined skill be enough to protect them from a dangerous corporation with everything to lose?

Phantom Wheel is a fun young adult thriller that focuses on the adventures of six teen hackers determined to save the world from their unintentional creation.  This book has a cool style to it, some interesting characters and an intriguing story that features a lot of technological and hacker elements to it.  I only got this book a little while ago and managed to read through it pretty quickly, enjoying its various elements and aspects.

The author of this book, Tracy Deebs, is actually the young adult pseudonym of prolific romance novelist Tracy Wolff.  As Tracy Deebs, the author has created a number of varied young adult titles, including the techno-thriller Doomed; the mermaid based Tempest series; the superhero based The Hero Agenda series, which was cowritten with Tera Lynn Childs; and the teen romance series, Dahlia and Keegan, which started with her 2016 release The Secret Life of a Dream Girl.

When I first heard the premise of Phantom Wheel, I was intrigued and interested to see if the story could live up to the awesome-sounding plot summary, and overall I was fairly satisfied with the end result.  The story is told from the point of view of three of the main teen characters, Issa, Harper and Owen, and focuses on their fast-paced and exciting story of technological espionage and high-stakes hacking.  The plot moves quickly from the protagonist discovering what they had been tricked into doing, to them attempting a complex heist to steal it back.  I loved the heist scene, especially at the start when the protagonists split off into three teams, each with a point-of-view character, in order to obtain security items off three different members of the company at a party, especially as it allowed all the characters to play to their strengths during this sequence.  The sequences following the heist were also particularly good, as the protagonists attempt to escape from a horde of evil corporate security goons and the police by using their hacking skills to crash cars and stop trains.  I have no idea how realistic this is, but it was still fun to read about.  Overall the story is pretty fun, and has a lot of memorable moments.

The style of Phantom Wheel is also really interesting and has some great elements to it.  I personally really enjoyed the inclusion of the several different case study summaries of the protagonists that were scattered throughout the book.  These case studies also included amusing video surveillance files that follow each of the protagonists as they use their hacking skills to either get revenge or justice, or look at the characters having key conversations with each other.  I also liked the various uses of text messages and other electronic communications throughout the entire book, which fits in well with the technology based theme of Phantom Wheel.  The protagonists also speak a large amount of techno-talk and hacker slang throughout the novel, which gives the entire story a whole lot of authenticity.

Deebs has included six interesting and varied protagonists in the novel.  Despite the various first impressions of these characters, each of them has a lot more depth revealed throughout the course of the book, especially as they grow to trust the other members of their little band and open up to them.  Each of the characters has varying degrees of emotional backstory, which explains why they are the people they are and why they have taken to hacking, all of which is revealed throughout the course of the book.  I have to say I was impressed by Deebs’s inclusion of an asexual character in Harper, especially as asexual people are an under-represented group in modern fiction.  This asexual character seemed like a natural fit, and her acceptance by the group with only minimal questions or comments came across as a quite realistic and generally positive.

While I enjoyed the characters, they did at times stretch the plausibility of the book just a tad too much for my liking.  While I am willing to accept that hackers are just as likely to be in shape as other members of society, the actions that these teenagers were able to do, such as evading professional killers, fighting off trained security guards and jumping out of buildings, did seem a little ridiculous to me, and made me slightly question what I was reading.  I also found it interesting that four out of the six main protagonists were all members of rich families and had a huge net worth, one of them was even the daughter of a fictional Secretary of State.  While each of them had issues as a result of their wealthy lifestyle and the poorer characters of Issa and Harper balanced them out a little, even calling them out on their wealth, it did seem a little odd to include so many rich kid characters.  While this could potentially be explained away by the fact that hackers need money to pay for training and equipment, I feel that Deebs could have made one or two of them more middle class.  Still, none of these impacted my enjoyment of the book too severely and are easy to get around.

As a young adult book, Phantom Wheel is a good read for younger to older teens, although adult readers could also have a lot of fun with this.  The technological aspects of the book are quite intriguing and are easy to follow and understand, and will probably spark the interest of technically minded youths.  Readers will be able to relate to some of the characters in the book, and once again I have to point out my respect for Deebs’s great portrayal of an asexual character, as well as other minor LGBT+ elements.  With nothing too over-the-top in this book, it is a perfect read for a wide audience.

Overall, this new techno-thriller from veteran author Tracy Deebs is a fun and exciting novel that most readers will find quite entertaining.  Deebs has created a compelling story, used some great characters and installed some intriguing elements, all of which makes Phantom Wheel quite enjoyable and definitely worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four stars

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Dark Sacred Night.jpg

Publishers: Orion

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Legendary crime author Michael Connelly returns for another clever and technically detailed crime thriller that teams up his iconic and most utilised protagonist, Harry Bosch, with his recently created female protagonist, Renée Ballard.

In the chaotic world of the LAPD, Renée Ballard is an outsider who has found herself permanently on the graveyard shift of the Hollywood beat.  Returning to the near-abandoned station after a callout, Ballard is surprised to find a stranger rifling through her unit’s filing cabinets.  The intruder is maverick retired detective Harry Bosch, formally of the LAPD, now currently working as a contractor for the San Fernando police.

Bosch is working a cold case for personal reasons.  The victim, a 15-year-old runaway, Daisy Clayton, was brutally murdered several years before and Bosch has gotten close to the girl’s devastated mother.  Initially kicking him out the station, Ballard’s subsequent investigation of Bosch’s actions reveals the full details of the case to her and she finds herself drawn to Bosch’s hunt for justice.  As the two outsider detectives join forces in order to solve the case, they are once again thrust into the grimy underworld of Hollywood.  But as they attempt to find justice, a cornered killer, departmental politics and the dangerous suspects of the two detectives other investigations may cause the case to come crashing down around them.

Michael Connelly is a prolific and award-winning crime novelist who has been writing since 1992.  During that period he has written over 30 books, all of which are set in the same shared universe.  Connelly’s debut book, The Black Echo, introduced his most iconic character, Harry Bosch, who has been the protagonist of 21 of Connelly’s books, as well as being a supporting character in several other books.  Due to the author’s focus on this character, Connelly’s extended crime universe is often referred to as the Harry Bosch universe.  Connelly has also written a number of other thrillers in this universe, featuring several other protagonists, such as lawyer Mickey Haller, reporter Jack McEvoy and investigator Terry McCaleb.  Many of the characters introduced in previous books often have small roles in later books, while Bosch has had interactions with most of Connelly’s other protagonists.  The second protagonist in Dark Scared Night, Renée Ballard, is a more recent creation who was introduced in the 2017 novel The Late Show, and this is her first interaction with Bosch in Connelly’s wider universe.

Outside of the literary world, Connelly’s works have been adapted to film and screen.  His Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into the current Bosch television series, which will air its fifth season in 2019.  Two of his books have also been adapted into movies.  His novel, Blood Work was adapted into film in 2002 with Clint Eastwood, while his first legal novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted into film in 2011 with Matthew McConaughey.

Dark Sacred Night is an excellent piece of crime fiction that presents the reader with a series of interesting investigations, told from the perspectives of two fantastic police protagonists.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, which is jointly narrated by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver, and runs for 10 hours and 39 minutes.  Dark Sacred Night primarily focuses on the investigation into a cold case of a young runaway girl who was brutally killed nine years previously.  This central case is massively intriguing and takes the reader deep into the sordid and disturbing criminal nightlife of Hollywood.  The main case is a gritty and unique investigation as the protagonists are forced to rely on different methods than they would usually utilise to solve the case.  Rather than having any recent evidence, the detectives are forced to rely on old interviews and pieces of police intelligence to identify any potential suspects or witnesses.  This is an intriguing way to investigate an old crime, and I really enjoyed the way they were forced to utilise this less substantial evidence to find their killer.  This method results in the protagonists identifying and investigating several distinctive suspects, and the reader is presented with a series of false leads and suggested possibilities.  I was able to identify who the killer was quite early in the book, but I still had a lot of fun following the investigation to its conclusion.

I really enjoyed the way that Connelly seeded a large number of smaller cases throughout the novel for the protagonists to solve, as well as a number of examples of police work in action.  There is an interesting split here as Ballard, the full-time detective, is given a series of more official and everyday crimes to solve, such as a suspicious death, a missing persons, a theft, trespassing and a kidnapping that she investigates to various degrees throughout the book.  Bosch, on the other hand, only has one case, an old, unsolved gang execution that he is pursuing in San Fernando and which is the focus for a good portion of his chapters.  The inclusion of these smaller cases is a clever move from Connelly as it breaks up the story from a pure focus on the main case and presents a wider viewpoint of crime and policing in the book’s setting.  It also allows the author to showcase his protagonists’ divergent investigative skills and presents the readers with an additional number of compelling mysteries and adventures that they can sink their teeth into.  Some of these additional cases tie into the main mystery in some surprising ways and clues or suspects may be revealed through this.

All of these mysteries do an amazing job showing of the author’s obvious knowledge of police procedures and law enforcement techniques.  Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has an amazing grasp of the minutiae of police work and he expertly inserts these details into his story.  As a result his police characters mostly investigate crimes, examine evidence and file the paperwork in a way that feel extremely realistic and which adds a huge amount to the books authenticity.  Connelly’s police characters even feel like real cops, as the way that they act or think feels like real life police would act.  All of this combines with the amazing mysteries to create a first-rate piece of crime fiction.

Dark Sacred Night is the first time that Connelly’s main protagonist, Bosch, engages with the author’s newest protagonist, Ballard.  There are some interesting similarities between the two characters, which makes for a great story.  Both detectives have a similar maverick style when it comes to investigating crimes, and both have been screwed over by LAPD politics and had their careers impacted as a result.  As a result, both characters are dogged in their pursuit of criminals, especially those guilty of sex crimes, and both are willing to bend the rules to get their suspects.  However, the main difference between them is how far they will go to get justice.  While Ballard is happy to bend rules, she doesn’t go too far over the line or deliberately hurt or damage her suspects.  Bosch on the other hand has a much more flexible idea of where the line is and engages in some questionable behaviour that could be seeing as going too far. The two characters work well together during this book, and I hope that Connelly continues to use his latest protagonist in the future, especially as there are some interesting stories available when it comes to her complex police past.

The audiobook version of Long Dark Night is a great way to enjoy this crime novel and I found that I quickly powered through the book with this format.  The audiobook format utilises two separate narrators to describe the adventure contained within, broken up by whichever protagonist is narrating that chapter.  For example, Christine Lakin narrates the chapters told from Ballard’s point of view, while Titus Welliver narrates Bosch’s chapters.  Both of these narrators have great voices for their central characters, and both of them fit in perfectly in this gritty crime drama.  Lakin captures Ballard’s character perfectly, and you get a real sense of the no-nonsense and wary personality that is Ballard every time you hear Lakin’s voice.  Welliver’s voice, on the other hand, is deep and gruff and really fits Bosch’s old school and veteran personality.  Overall there is some fantastic voice work in the audiobook format of Dark Sacred Night, and I found that listening to this mystery really drew me into the middle of this investigation and helped me remember certain details and clues.

This latest book from veteran crime author Michael Connelly is a fantastic mystery thriller that draws the reader in with two outstanding protagonists and a series of captivating mysteries.  Dark Sacred Night is written in a way that is very easy to get into and the reader can enjoy the full mystery without any details of the previous books in Connelly’s shared universe.  As a result, despite it being such a late book in this long-running series, Dark Sacred Night is also the perfect place to start your investigation into the crime sensation that is Michael Connelly.  First rate crime fiction at it’s very best, this is an outstanding release from Connelly that is guaranteed to draw the reader into the dark and intriguing world of mysteries.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars