Throwback Thursday – Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 3 September 2002)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book Four

Length: 11 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this week’s Throwback Thursday I continue to explore the incredibly fun Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher with the fourth book, Summer Knight.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my recent exploration of the epic Dresden Files series by the outstanding Jim Butcher, widely considered one of the best urban fantasy series out there.  After having an absolute blast last year with the latest book in the series, Battle Ground (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020), I have spent a bit of time this year checking out the earlier entries in the series.  I have so far had the pleasure of listening to the first three Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon and Grave Peril, each of which got a five-star rating from me, and when I wanted a good audiobook to check out, the next entry in the series made the most sense.  The fourth Dresden Files novel is the impressive and compelling Summer Knight, which sets the protagonist against the fairest and most vicious opponents yet.

Following the events of Grave Peril, the White Council of wizards is at war with the Red Court of the vampires, and it is all Harry Dresden’s fault.  With vampire attacks increasing and his life consumed with finding a cure for the vampirism affecting his ex-girlfriend, Dresden is once again dragged into the conflict when the White Council arrives in Chicago.  Considered by many wizards to be a dangerous maverick, Dresden will need to find a powerful bargaining chip if he is to continue receiving the protection of the council.  Unfortunately for Dresden, the perfect opportunity has been given to him; he just wishes it were anything else.

Harry has been contacted by Winter Queen Mab, the powerful leader of the Winter Court of the Faeries, who offers him a dangerous bargain: in exchange for forgiving a previous debt, and for allowing certain concessions to the warring White Council, Harry must work a case for her.  The Winter Queen desperately needs Harry to find out who murdered a seemingly normal human, and with his life entirely in the White Council’s hands, he has no choice but to comply.  However, when it is revealed that the victim was the Summer Knight, the rival Faerie Summer Court’s mortal champion, Harry begins to realise that this will be no easy case, especially as a great deal of the Summer Court’s power was stolen after the murder.

With the Summer Court and the Winter Court gearing up for war in response to the Summer Knight’s death, Harry must quickly race to find the killer before Earth’s climate is destroyed by these powerful magical forces.  However, this is no simple case, and to solve the murder Dresden is forced to confront some of the most dangerous and malicious magical beings in existence.  Worse, the Summer Court have hired their own investigator, Dresden’s first love, Elaine, the woman who broke his heart and tried to kill him.  Can Dresden solve this murder before it is too late or will the entire world tremble at the destruction of an all-out war?

Summer Knight was another impressive and wildly entertaining release from Butcher, which did a wonderful job expanding his universe in some amazing ways.  Perfectly flowing on from the events of the previous novel, Summer Knight has an incredible story, some great characters, as well as some clever new fantasy inclusions that set up multiple future novels extremely well.  I had an absolute blast listening to Summer Knight’s audiobook format, and unsurprisingly it gets another five stars from me.

Summer Knight Cover 3

This latest entry from Butcher has a pretty amazing story that is extremely easy to enjoy.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files novels, Summer Knight can be easily read as a standalone read, although there are some compelling story threads that are continued from the prior books.  The novel starts with a damaged Harry Dresden dealing with hit squads, angry vampires and his own irritated wizard brethren.  After a fun and action-packed opening scene, Dresden soon gets drawn into another dangerous case as Mab, the Winter Queen, buys Dresden’s debt to his fairy godmother and uses it and the wizards war against the Red Court to trap him into investigating a case.  The subsequent magical murder investigation proves to be pretty fantastic, as Dresden is forced to dive into the murky magical underworld of the warring Fae courts.  After some deadly attacks, fascinating internal wizard politics, and an interesting side story about neutral half-Fae teenagers, Dresden soon uncovers the reason for the victim’s death.  I liked the twist surrounding who was responsible for murder as well as the revelation of their master plan.  Butcher did a really good job of disguising the people behind it and their methods, especially as most of the clues were often cleverly in plain sight.  This all leads up to a massive and epic conclusion, where Dresden and his allies find themselves fighting through two armies of rival Fae to try and stop the end of the world.  There are some awesome moments during this part of the novel, and Butcher throws together some epic clashes, interesting revelations, and a tragic death.  I had a particularly good chuckle at the surprising way in which the big bad was taken down, and it proved to be a great way to end this novel.  I felt that Butcher once again hit the right balance of action, drama, comedy, and character development throughout Summer Knight’s narrative, and this was another exciting and addictive read.

I really enjoyed the way in which Butcher expanded out the Dresden Files’ universe in Summer Knight, with several impressive inclusions turning this fourth book into a significant entry in the series.  Not only are events and inclusions from the previous three novels fit into this book seamlessly, but it also successfully introduces some elements that were a prominent feature of the 17th book in the series.  The most significant inclusions are those surrounding the rival Winter and Summer Courts of the Fae.  Butcher utilises a mixture of Faerie lore and his own pre-existing explanations of magical creatures to create a compelling group of characters, locked in a constant and balanced war between the Summer and Winter Courts.  The author does a good job introducing the various creatures, rules, and roles of these two competing groups of Faeries, which serves as a great basis for much of the narrative.  I also loved the fascinating examination of the differences between the two rival courts, with the Summer Court shown as caring and artistic sorts, while the Winter Court are colder and darker.  Of course, with Faeries, not everything is as it seems, and it was really intriguing the way the various plot reveals around them unfolded.  There was also a great focus on the White Council, the governing body of wizards that Dresden is a member of.  While the White Council has been mentioned in the previous novels, this was the first time that we get a deep look at their inner politics, especially as the more maverick Dresden has dragged them into a war with the Red Court of the vampires (so many Courts, so little time).  There was a particularly great council meeting towards the start of the book where Dresden and his mentor are forced to navigate the politics of the White Council to keep Dresden alive, and it was an interesting part of the book.  I really appreciated the detail that Butcher put into these expansions, and I look forward to seeing how else he expands on them between the fourth and 17th book.

As always, one of the best parts of this Dresden Files novel was the outstanding and well-developed characters, all of whom continue to develop and evolve as the novel continues.  This is particularly true with central protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  When Summer Knight starts, Dresden is still reeling from the events of the previous three novels, particularly Grave Peril, where his lover partially turned into a vampire and then left him.  This has left Dresden an emotional mess, especially as he has spent the intervening time ignoring some of the other dangers coming at him while he fruitlessly searches for a cure to vampirism.  Dragged into this case against his will, Dresden soon starts to regain his old personality as he slowly overcomes his grief thanks to his friends and the intervention of some magical beings.  It was great to see Dresden start to heal as the book progresses, and I really appreciated the way in which Butcher explored the trauma surrounding his protagonist.  Even though he is a bit emotionally compromised, Dresden continues to be the main source of the novel’s comedy due to his sense of humour.  It is always fun to see Dresden’s witty take on the insane events occurring around him and I found myself cracking up several times throughout Summer Knight.

In addition to Dresden, Summer Knight contains an excellent group of side and supporting characters, including a combination of existing characters and newer inclusions that were introduced in this novel.  I liked the return of the werewolf gang, the Alphas, who were previously featured in the second novel, Fool Moon.  The Alphas, particularly their leader, Billy, serve as backup to Dresden for most of the novel, and it was really fun to see how much they have grown since their introduction, turning into mystical vigilantes, while also remaining a pack of nerds.  It was also great to see more of police lieutenant Karrin Murphy, who serves as a compelling female opposite to Dresden for most of the novel.  Murphy, who has also gone through a lot in the last few books, is showing a fair bit of trauma in this novel, and she ends up having some deep discussions with Dresden about it.  Despite her lack of magical abilities, Murphy serves as some impressive backup for Dresden, managing to take down several foes, including an ogre with a chainsaw.  There were also more signs of the growing romance between her and Dresden which becomes a big part of the series later, and I like the way in which Butcher is slowly building it up.  I also must highlight the inclusion of Dresden’s first love, Elaine Mallory, who suddenly reappears in his life, working for the Summer Court.  Elaine has been mentioned several times in the previous books and is a cause for a lot of Dresden’s mistrust and romantic failures.  It was great to finally meet her and see the full extent of her complex relationship with Dresden.  Elaine naturally brings out a lot of emotional issues with Dresden throughout the book, and she serves as an interesting supporting character, especially as you have no idea about her true loyalties.  These supporting characters, and more, really add a lot to the overall story and I had a great spending time with them.

Like I have with the rest of the Dresden Files novels, I made sure to grab the audiobook version of Summer Knight, a choice I am extremely thankful for.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are pretty damn awesome, mainly because of their excellent choice of narrator, actor James Marsters.  Marsters has an amazing voice, and he perfectly dives into the various characters featured within the novels, making these audiobooks an absolute treat to listen to.  I especially love the way he gets into the emotional head of the main protagonist, as well as the sheer enthusiasm he exhibits while yelling out spell conjurations.  I also enjoyed the fun voices that he assigns to some of the smaller pixies that appeared in this novel, as well as the very fitting voices that the rest of the cast received.  This voice work is pretty amazing and it ensures that readers can fly through the audiobook in no time at all.  Summer Knight’s run time was just over 11 hours, but it only took me a few days to get through due to how engrossed I got in the story, as well as the audiobook adaption.  As with all Dresden Files entries, Summer Knight comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I fully intend to check out the rest of the series in this same way.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher was another exceptional entry in the awesome Dresden Files series and I had an incredible time listening to it.  With a captivating story, some complex characters and some awesome new fantasy inclusions, I deeply enjoyed this novel, and it is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.  Butcher continues to shine as one of the best authors of urban fantasy and look forward to working my way through the Dresden Files in the next few years.

Summer Knight Cover 2

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

The Devil's Advocate Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: Eddie Flynn – Book 6

Length: 403 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling thriller author Steve Cavanagh returns with another exciting and over-the-top fun legal thriller, The Devil’s Advocate, an awesome read with a very entertaining plot.

Randal Korn is an evil man, a dangerous killer, and an unrepentant corrupting influence on everyone around him.  Unfortunately for the residents of Sunville County, Alabama, Randal Korn is also their District Attorney, who uses his skills and influence to get the legal system to commit his killings for him.  Known as the King of Death Row, Korn has sent more men to the electric chair than any other district attorney in US history, deriving great pleasure from every life his prosecutions have taken.  However, not all of Korn’s victims have been guilty, a fact that Korn knows and deeply relishes.

When a young woman, Skylar Edwards, is found brutally murdered in Buckstown, Alabama, the corrupt sheriff’s department quickly arrests the last person to see her alive, her innocent African American co-worker Andy Dubios.  After the racist cops quickly beat a confession out of him, Andy is set to stand trial with Korn prosecuting a seemingly airtight case.  With the entire town already convinced of his guilt and with no chance of a fair trial, Andy’s death looks certain, until Eddie Flynn arrives in town.

Hired after Andy’s previous lawyer goes missing, former conman turned brilliant New York lawyer Eddie Flynn heads down to Alabama with his team to try and save Andy’s life.  However, the moment he arrives, Eddie begins to understand just how stacked the deck is.  Thanks to Korn’s immense influence, the entire town is hostile to him, the police are refusing to cooperate, witnesses are threatened or arrested by the sheriff, the judge is already on the prosecutor’s side, and any potential juror will already believe that Andy is guilty.  To save his client’s life, Eddie will have to use every single trick he has to con the jury into finding Andy not guilty, but even that might not be enough.  Worse, it soon becomes apparent that the killing of Skylar Edwards was only the start.  A dangerous murderer still stalks Buckstown, killing whoever gets in their way to achieve their own sinister agenda, and their sights are now firmly set on Eddie.

This was a pretty awesome and wildly entertaining novel from the talented Steve Cavanagh.  A lawyer himself, Cavanagh burst onto the crime-fiction scene a few years ago with his debut novel, The Defence, the first book in his Eddie Flynn series.  There have since been several other Eddie Flynn books, each of which places the protagonist in a unique legal situation.  I have been meaning to read some of Cavanagh’s books for a while now due to the awesome sounding plot synopsis and I currently have a couple of his novels sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read.  Unfortunately, I have not had the chance yet, although I think I will have to make a bit of an effort after reading The Devil’s Advocate, which I was lucky enough to receive a little while ago.  The Devil’s Advocate was an outstanding and captivating novel and I swiftly got drawn into the exciting and amusing narrative.

The Devil’s Advocate has an awesome story to which is extremely addictive and enjoyable.  When I picked up this book, I initially intended only read around 50 pages in my first sitting, however, once I started I honestly could not put it down, and before I knew it I was halfway through and it was well past my bed time.  Cavanagh produces an extremely cool narrative that starts with an awesome scene that introduces the main antagonist and ensures that you will really hate him.  From then, Cavanagh quickly sets up the initial mystery, the introduction of the legal case, and the plot that brings the protagonist to Alabama.  The rest of the narrative neatly falls into place shortly after, with the full details of the case, the corruption of the main setting, and the massive injustice that is taking place, coming to light.  From there, the protagonists attempt to set up their case while facing sustained and deadly opposition from pretty much everyone.  While the initial focus is on the legal defence aspect of the thriller, the story quickly branches out into several captivating storylines, including an examination of the antagonist’s corrupting influence on the town, planned action from a white supremacist groups, attempts to run off or kill the protagonists, as well as mystery around who really killed Skylar.  All these separate storylines are really fascinating and come together with the plot’s central legal case to form an exceptionally fun and electrifying story.  The reader is constantly left guessing about what is going to happen next, especially with multiple red herrings and false reveals, and I ended up not predicting all the great twists that occurred.  While I did think that Cavanagh went a little too political with the overall message of the book, The Devil’s Advocate had an outstanding ending and I had an exceptional time getting through this thrilling story.

One of the best parts of this entire story is the outrageous and unfair legal case that the protagonists must attempt to win.  This case forms the centre of The Devil’s Advocate’s plot, with most of Eddie and his colleagues’ appearances focused on their upcoming legal battle.  Cavanagh really went out his way to create a truly unique and compelling set of legal circumstances for the protagonists to wade through, with the case so tightly sewn up against their innocent client before they even get there.  Despite this, the protagonist goes to work with a very effective, if unconventional, legal strategy that plays to the antagonist’s underhanded tactics.  The entire legal case soon devolves into crazy anarchy, with both sides doing outrageous actions to win, which Cavanagh writes up perfectly.  I found myself getting quite invested in the case, especially after witnessing several blatant examples of the prosecution’s corruption, and these terrible actions really got me rooting for the protagonist, who had some entertaining tricks of his own.  This all leads up to an excellent extended trial sequence, where the various strategies and manipulations in the first two-thirds of the novel come into play.  There are some brilliant and entertaining legal manoeuvrings featured here, with the protagonist initially focusing more on pissing off the prosecution and the judge rather than producing alternative evidence.  However, there are some great reveals and cross-examinations towards the end of the book, as Eddie has a very good go at dismantling the case.  The way it finally ends is pretty clever, and I really liked the way some of it was set up, even if it relied a little too much on a minor character’s conscience finally flaring.

Cavanagh also featured some great and entertaining characters in The Devil’s Advocate, with a combination of new characters and returning protagonists from the previous novels.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives throughout this novel, especially as it allows the reader to see the various sides of the battle for Buckstown’s soul.  Seeing the moves and counter-moves of the protagonists and antagonists enhances the excitement of the novel, especially as it shows the creation of several traps that could potentially destroy Eddie and his client.  Most of the characters featured in the novel are very entertaining, although I think in a few cases Cavanagh went a little over-the-top, with some of the villains being a bit cartoonish in their evilness.

The main character of this novel is series hero Eddie Flynn, the former conman who now works on impossible cases as a defence attorney.  Eddie was an awesome central protagonist, especially as his unique sense of justice and criminal background turns him into one of the most entertaining and likeable lawyers you are likely to ever meet.  I loved the very underhanded way in which he worked to win his case, and the variety of tricks and manipulations that he used were extremely fun to see in action, especially as it rattles the police antagonists and completely outrages the other lawyers and judges.  I loved his style in the courtroom scenes, especially as most of his appearances eventually end up with him thrown in jail for contempt (it is a pretty wise legal strategy).  Eddie has a very fun code in this novel, and I think that I will enjoy seeing the earlier novels in which he transitions from conman to lawyer.

Eddie is also supported by a fantastic team from his small law practice, each of whom get several chapters to themselves and who serve as great alternate characters who in some way overshadow the main protagonist.  These include his wise old mentor character, Harry; the younger lawyer, Kate; and the badass investigator, Bloch.  Each of them brings something fun and compelling to the overall story, and I liked the way that Cavanagh ensured that they all get their moment throughout The Devil’s Advocate.  I really enjoyed some of the great sub-storylines surrounding these three supporting protagonists.  Examples of this include Harry, a genuine silver fox with the ability to attract a certain type of older lady, who serves as the team’s heart and soul, although he’s not opposed to some improper legal tactics.  I also enjoyed Kate’s appearances as a secondary trial attorney, especially as she serves as a good alternate to the flashier Eddie, while also finding her feet in a murder case that has rattled her.  I personally enjoyed the gun-toting investigator Bloch the most, mainly because of her hard-assed attitude and inability to be intimidated by the various monsters lurking around town.  Bloch has some very intense and exciting scenes, and it was really entertaining to see her stare down rabid militiamen and crooked cops.  These protagonists end up forming an impressive and cohesive team, and it was a real joy to see them in action.

I also must highlight the outstanding villain of the story that was Randal Korn.  Korn is a truly evil and terrifying creation who is pretty much the direct opposite of the more heroic Eddie.  Cavanagh has clearly gone out of his way to create the most outrageously despicable antagonist he could, and it really works.  Korn, who apparently is a bit of a pastiche parody of five real-life American prosecutors who always seek the death penalty, is a man who became a lawyer solely so he would have a legal way to kill people.  The pleasure he receives from controlling people and ensuring that they die, even if they are innocent or undeserving, is terrifying, and it ensures that the character will go to extreme lengths to win his case.  The author does a fantastic job painting him as a despicable figure, including through several point of view chapter, and there are some interesting examinations about his psyche and his desires.  Having such an easily hated villain really draws the reader into the narrative, mainly because the reader cannot help but hope that he gets what is coming to him.  Despite that, I think Cavanagh went a little overboard in some places (the self-mutilation and the rotting smell are a bit much), and the whole soulless creature angle is layered on a bit too thickly.  Still, the author achieved what he wanted to with this antagonist, and I had a wonderful time hating this character from start to finish.

The final point-of-view character that I want to mention is the mysterious figure known as the Pastor.  The Pastor is another antagonist of this novel whose identity is kept hidden from the reader for much of the book.  This is mainly because he is the real killer of Skylar Edwards, whose death was part of an elaborate plan.  The Pastor is another great villain for this novel, due to his crazed personality, murderous tendencies and horrendous motivations for his crimes.  I think that Cavanagh did a great job utilising this second villain in his novel, and I liked the tandem usage he had with Korn.  I was especially impressed with the clever mystery that the author had surrounding his identity, which was kept hidden right till the very end.  It took me longer than I expected to work out who the Pastor was, thanks to some clever misdirects from the author, but the eventual reveal was extremely good and helped tie the entire story together.  Readers will have a lot of fun trying to work out who this character is, and I really enjoyed the extra villainy that they brought to the table.

The fantastic Steve Cavanagh has once again produced a captivating and intense legal thriller with The Devil’s Advocate.  This latest Eddie Flynn thriller was an amazing ball of crazy fun that I powered through in two sustained reading sessions.  With some over-the-top characters, a clever legal case, and an exciting overarching conspiracy, The Devil’s Advocate proved to be next to impossible to turn down and is really worth checking out.  I will definitely be going back and reading some of Cavanagh’s earlier books, and I look forward to seeing what insane scenarios he comes up with in the future.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Summers Cover 2

Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Trail by Tony Park

Blood Trail Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 384 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of Australia’s leading thriller authors, Tony Park, presents another clever and intense thriller set in the nature parks of Africa with his latest action-packed novel, Blood Trail.

Tony Park is a talented author who has written several amazing thriller novels over the years, all of which make use of a distinctive African setting with a focus on wildlife parks and poachers.  I have previously enjoyed three of his great books, Scent of Fear, Ghosts of the Past and Last Survivor, and his latest novel, Blood Trail, features another exceptional and exciting tale, which was an extremely fun and captivating read.

Life is always dangerous on the game preserves of South Africa, as poachers and opportunists are constantly looking for a way to make some serious money by harvesting endangered species.  In recent years, the counter-poaching patrols and police have made great strides in defending the critical wildlife, with the poachers aware that entering the reserves means death or imprisonment.  However, with South Africa severely impacted by COVID-19, more desperate locals are turning to poaching to survive, relying on the magic of their traditional medicine to protect them.

At the Lion Plains game reserve, something strange is happening.  While conducting a virtual safari, park guide and ace tracker Mia Greenway witnesses a poacher kill a rhino.  Chasing after him, Mia and her backup find no trace of him as his trail mysteriously disappears, with the killer appearing to have vanished into thin air.  At the same time, police captain Sannie van Rensburg, is called to investigate two missing local girls, who also disappeared in suspicious circumstances.  Sannie soon learns that the local populace fear that the girls have been killed and their bodies used as ingredients by a dark practitioner of traditional medicine.

When a young female tourist is kidnapped within the reserve, once again vanishing with no trail to follow, Mia and Sannie begin to realise that their cases are connected.  With the locals convinced that the poachers are using dark witchcraft to evade the police and the anti-poaching teams, all evidence suggests that the kidnapped girls are going to be killed and harvested.  However, something far more sinister is afoot, with a dark conspiracy working its way through the very heart of the game preserve.  Can Mia and Sannie uncover the truth before it is too late or will the poachers and their dangerous benefactors continue to bring terror and death to the wilds of Africa?

In Blood Trail, Park has included another intense and action-packed story that makes full use of the author’s love of all things Africa.  Set in a game reserve under siege, this multi-perspective story starts off fast, with a poacher on the loose and the trackers, led by the tenacious Mia attempting and failing to find him.  There is also an intriguing criminal case happening concurrently, as police detective Sannie attempts to find two missing girls.  Both central narrative threads are soon drawn together as Mia, Sannie and their colleagues work to solve the connected cases.  Park has come up with a very exciting, character-driven narrative here, and it honestly did not take me long to get really invested.  This book is loaded with some amazing action sequences, and the reader is treated to one electrifying scene after another as the protagonists face extreme opposition.  The overarching mystery surrounding the poachers and the missing girls is very good, and I loved the complex and clever story the author wraps around them, especially as it ties into various aspects of life in Africa and the game reserves.  The author makes sure to include a huge number of twists and reveals, especially towards the end of the novel, and while I was able to predict how a couple would go, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by some of the others, and I really enjoyed seeing how everything came together.  I also liked the huge range of intriguing characters featured throughout this book, and I really got invested in some of their stories, especially the two strong lead female protagonists, Mia and Sannie, who overcome a lot in this novel and go through some excellent development.  Blood Trail is set in the shared universe of Park’s other works, with characters from some of his prior novels and series either featured or mentioned.  Despite this, you really need no prior knowledge of these books, and Blood Trail is a very easy novel to get into.  This is an overall exceptional and thrilling narrative, and I found myself powering through the last half of this book in a day.

Easily the best things about Tony Park’s novels are his exceptional portrayals of the African wilderness and the amazing and insightful discussions about the troubles faced by game preserves.  Park, who has spent a significant amount of time in Africa and the game reserves, is clearly very passionate on the subject, and he injects all his novels with some gritty realism about the parks and the poachers who prey on them.  Blood Trail is a particularly good example of this, as a large amount of the narrative revolves around poaching on the park, the park’s anti-poaching detail and the local police who support them.  It is always incredibly interesting to learn about poaching and anti-poaching techniques and Park includes a lot of detail about both.  I found this to be extremely fascinating, and Blood Trail includes compelling detail about some of the modern techniques some of the parks potentially utilise, such as drones and even WhatsApp.  Park also weaves a particularly good story around poaching, and I loved all the thrilling sequences of poachers versus authorities that this fantastic novel contained.  You also have to love the outstanding and beautiful depictions of the African bush and the communities that serve as a backdrop for the story.  Park clearly puts all his personal experiences into these depictions, and his writing brings in a strong visual element.  I really enjoyed this use of setting, and it really sets Park’s novels apart from other contemporary thrillers.

In addition to the outstanding setting, Park also includes a deeply intriguing and fascinating examination of traditional African medicine and magic in Blood Trail, which becomes a very amazing and key part of the plot.  This traditional medicine, known as umuthi, is utilised by the South African people as protection from a variety of dangers, with the poachers, and even some protagonists, using it in the hope that it will stop bullets or impair their opponents.  This becomes a very interesting part of Blood Trail’s plot, as the characters encounter various unusual phenomenon, such as their targets vanishing without a trace or unexpected illnesses, which some blame on dark magic.  This proves to really fascinating, especially as Park keeps including several mysterious events or occurrences, and the reader is left wondering whether it is just a coincidence, a psychological ploy, or something more spiritual in nature.  I found this inclusion to be extremely intriguing, and I really appreciated the detailed and balanced examination that Park included in this book, as he goes out of his way to respectfully examine all the aspects of this traditional medicine, as well as the perceptions surrounding it.  Various characters of differing backgrounds are shown reacting to the idea of umuthi, including local Africans, foreigners, academics, and white South Africans, each of whom have differing opinions on the validity of the magic behind it.  I loved this fascinating range of views, which seems to accurately reflect the differing opinions you would find throughout South Africa, and there are some truly unique views and beliefs which Park has clearly researched.  The character of Mia proves to be a very intriguing inclusion here, as she is a white South African who was raised by black South African women, and was brought up to believe in umuthi and other traditional beliefs.  This results in some intriguing identity issues, as she and some of the other people who partake of umuthi attempt to work it around their modern perceptions or Christian teachings.  This unique and captivating examination of umuthi and other traditional beliefs was extremely interesting and I am very glad that Park took the time to include this in his latest novel.

Another extension of Blood Trail’s game reserve setting that I enjoyed was the tracking.  Several characters in the novel, particularly Mia, are trackers, who spend their days trailing animals and poachers through the bush.  As such, there are some fascinating scenes where these characters use their tracking skills to chase after the antagonists.  This proves to be extremely interesting, and Park ensures that his book features a lot of details about they various tracking techniques, and the counter techniques that poachers would use to try and avoid the trackers.  Not only is this a very captivating inclusion by Park but it also flows extremely well into the narrative, with the protagonists forced to question their abilities when the villains keep getting away.  The way in which the antagonists manage to avoid the trackers ends up being quite clever, especially as Park also includes some false leads to confuse the eventual reveal.  I deeply enjoyed this awesome look at the work the trackers do in the park, and it produces some really fantastic scenes.

The final inclusion that I found really compelling was Blood Trail’s examination of the impacts of COVID-19 on South Africa, and how it is driving people to poaching.  While I am sure that many people are getting sick of reading about COVID, even in thriller novels, I felt that Park did a really good job featuring it in Blood Trail.  Park paints a pretty grim scene surrounding the impacts that the pandemic is having in South Africa, with many side characters either out of work or negatively impacted by the government’s harsh lockdown rules, such as an alcohol ban.  This becomes quite a key theme of the novel, with the stress and loss of income impacting everyone and driving them to commit crime on the understaffed game reserves.  The author really dives into the unexpected impacts the global pandemic is having on the nature reserves, and it adds some complexity to the dark story.  Other featured aspects of COVID in South Africa are also pretty interesting, such as the increased roaming of certain animals, as well as the advent of virtual safaris, with streaming projects sharing the beauty of the wilds to a world in lockdown.  Overall, this examination of the impacts of COVID was very fascinating and topical, and Park did a fantastic job including it in his story.

The fantastically talented Tony Park once again shows why he is one of the best and most distinctive Australian thriller authors out there.  His latest novel, Blood Trail, contained an intense and compelling story that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling journey through the game reserves of Africa.  Filled with some amazing action and fantastic characters, Park makes full use of his powerful setting to craft a memorable and addictive narrative.  I loved all the unique elements that Blood Trail contained, and you are guaranteed an exceptional time if you check this awesome book out.

Throwback Thursday – Batman: Under the Red Hood

Under the Red Hood Cover

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film Eight

Director: Brandon Vietti

Writer: Judd Winick

Producers: Bruce Timm and Bobbie Page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday, I am going to keep following a recent trend of looking at animated movies and review Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Ever since I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War last year, I have been focusing a little more on one of my favourite forms of entertainment, animated films based on comic books.  Not only did I have a great time listing my favourite comic book based animated films and television shows, but I have also done some cool reviews for Batman: Soul of the Dragon and Batman: Assault on Arkham.  After I got some positive responses to my review for Assault on Arkham last week, I thought I would use this Throwback Thursday to highlight the incredibly awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood, which is probably my absolute favourite DC Comics inspired animated film.

Released in 2010, Under the Red Hood was an early entry in the DC Animated Originals Movies range, and it remains one of the best that they have ever done.  Directed by Brandon Vietti and written by Judd Winick, this film is an adaptation of the iconic Batman comics storyline Under the Hood, which was also written by Winick.  Not only does this film contain an excellent story that does an amazing job capturing the original comic but it also features an all-star voice cast and some excellent animation, resulting in a dark and exciting film that is also rich in emotion and tragedy.

Years ago, Batman suffered the greatest defeat in his entire crime-fighting career when the Joker did the unthinkable by brutally killing his sidekick, Jason Todd, the second Robin.  Despite this terrible loss, Batman left the Joker alive and continued his non-lethal mission for justice, fighting from the shadows to save Gotham City from its criminal element.

In the present, Gotham is controlled by the ruthless crime boss, Black Mask, who has managed to take over the entire criminal underworld.  But a new player in town, the mysterious Red Hood, is making moves to disrupt Black Mask’s interests and take control of the city.  With some incredible skills, brilliant manoeuvring and intense violence, Red Hood soon becomes a major thorn in Black Mask’s side, taking parts of the city from him.  At the same time, Red Hood has placed himself right in the path of Batman and his former sidekick, Nightwing, determined to test his abilities against those of the Dark Knight.

As Batman attempts to stop the latest wave of violence sweeping the city, he notices something disturbingly familiar about the Red Hood.  His skills and training are too familiar, and even more shocking, he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne.  With Black Mask on the warpath, the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul watching from the shadows, and the Joker always a menacing presence in Arkham, Batman gets closer to finding out the terrible truth about who Red Hood truly is.  But is he prepared for the darkness and tragedy he will find under the hood, or will the ghosts of his past finally push Batman over the edge?

Under the Red Hood is a dramatic, exciting, and overall tragic animated feature, which is brought together beautifully to produce an epic and powerful film, anchored by an exceptional narrative.  The film starts in a very dark place, with a malicious and hilarious Joker brutally killing Robin just before Batman can save him.  This perfectly sets the tone for the entire film, as the story advances to modern times and shows a new brutal crime war between the Black Mask and newcomer the Red Hood.  At the same time, Batman becomes embroiled in their war, when he interrupts a ploy by the Red Hood to steal an Amazo superweapon.  This leads to an action-packed middle section of the film, as Batman and Nightwing attempt to capture Red Hood, who is also dealing with assassins sent by Black Mask.  After several impressive fight sequences, Batman learns the shocking truth about Red Hood’s identity (which is as a tad obvious, even for those unfamiliar with the comics), resulting in some extreme drama, as Batman is forced to confront the dangerous ghosts of his past.  As Batman attempts to come to terms with his discovery, Red Hood forces his opponents to make some dramatic moves, which work into his plans.  What follows is a fantastically powerful and intense final act, as Batman confronts Red Hood and finds out the tragic and touching reasons behind his motivations.  What follows is emotional blow after emotional blow, as Batman, Red Hood and the Joker have their final confrontation.  The aftermath of this is absolutely heartbreaking and will leave you breathless and utterly moved: “This doesn’t change anything; this doesn’t change anything at all!”  This is an epic and exceptional narrative that I have so much love for.

Under the Red Hood serves as an exceptional adaptation of the Under the Hood Batman comic storyline, although as the film and the comic share the same writer, that’s pretty understandable.  This film does a great job fitting all the key points of the comic into its 75-minute runtime, and you get the full enjoyable story, as well as some useful backstory, especially around Jason Todd’s death.  This is mostly a pretty straight adaption, although there are a few noticeable changes designed to make the movie flow a little better.  I think these changes work extremely well, and Winick adds several great new scenes into this film that make for a different and, in some ways, better experience than the comic source material.  This is mainly because the Under the Hood comic was set amid several other ongoing Batman storylines, as well as the major crossover event, Infinite Crisis, which impacted Under the Hood’s overall narrative.  As it would have been too confusing to include some of these elements in the film, their removal resulted in a few notable changes.  While this did result in a few fun parts from the comics being removed, such as having the opponents in the Batman/Red Hood team-up fight change from members of the Secret Society of Supervillains, such as Captain Nazi and Count Vertigo, to a group of mechanised martial artists (it’s still a great fight though), some of the other changes worked really well.  I loved the alterations to the Joker’s story, as it was clever to have the Red Hood orchestrate Joker’s release to kidnap him.  It also results in some amazing scenes, including that great cell scene with Black Mask, and the fantastic scene with the truck on the bridge.

One disadvantage that I felt the film version had was that the big reveal over Red Hood’s identity is a lot less impactful.  When the Under the Hood comic first came out, it was a major revelation and there were some great surprise elements to it.  However, by the time the film came out, every comic fan knew who Red Hood really was, so that really cut down on the surprise factor of the reveal.  In addition, even if you were unfamiliar with the Under the Hood comic, the Jason Todd death scene at the start of the film ensured that most viewers would be easily able to figure out this twist as soon as the mysterious Red Hood appeared.  This was kind of unavoidable though, as the rest of the film wouldn’t have made sense without the establishing scene.  I did think that the reason behind Robin’s resurrection was handled a lot better in the film.  The original story, in which he is brought back to life due to Superboy-Prime punching a dimensional barrier, never really worked for me, so having it purely be the result of a Lazarus Pit resurrection was a lot neater and simpler (well, as simple as a magical resurrection pit can be).  Overall, I think that Under the Red Hood proved to be a really good adaption of the original comic, and in many ways I felt that in enhanced the source material while also compensating for the changed canons.

I am always deeply impressed by the fantastic and well-crafted animation of Under the Red Hood.  This entire film features a constant stream of beautiful and amazing sequences that are an absolute joy to behold.  The action is seamless throughout, and the creative team make sure to feature several sequences that show off the various skills of the main characters, while also bringing some iconic scenes from the comics to life.  I really must call out the two excellent extended chase sequences, as Red Hood flees from Batman and Nightwing.  These scenes are full of excitement and major moments, and the fantastic running sequences, equipped with all the players using their various gadgets and tricks, are so cool, and they are just animated perfectly.  However, these chase scenes pale in comparison to some of the epic fight sequences featured throughout the film.  While I do deeply enjoy the Amazo fight sequences at the start of the film, which expertly highlights the way Batman and Nightwing work together as a team, the best ones are the two fights involving Batman and Red Hood.  The first of these, which sees the two former partners team up against the anime-inspired team of assassins, the Fearsome Hand of Four, is so deeply cool, especially as the amazingly drawn martial arts techniques are beautifully paired with the over-the-top gadgets (one guy gets thrown through the air with explosives several times).  The animators save the best for last, with a brutal brawl between Batman and Red Hood near the end of the film.  This impressive and dramatic fight sequence is teased throughout the entire film, and when it goes down it does not disappoint.  The two heroes go to war with each other, each of them bringing lethal fighting abilities and an entire arsenal of toys and gadgets against each other for some incredible action.  The fight goes from the alley where the two first met, to the rooftops, all the way to a dilapidated apartment bathroom, where bodies are brutally thrown through fixtures and walls.  There is so much intensity in this sequence, and the animators outdid themselves bringing this major and spectacular fight to the screen.  You will be so impressed by this terrific animation.

You cannot talk about Under the Red Hood without out mentioning the incredible collection of characters and the outstanding voice cast that perfectly portrayed each of them.  Unsurprisingly for a Batman film, the cast is anchored by the Dark Knight himself, who is voiced by the talented Bruce Greenwood.  This is a great portrayal of Batman and the writer really captured the complexities of the veteran version of this superhero.  This Batman has been fighting crime for a very long time, and has been struck by tragedy after tragedy, especially the death of Jason Todd.  This comes into play throughout the film, and there are some major emotional moments, especially in the final climatic scene with the Red Hood.  Watching this film, it is impossible not to see Batman as a tragic figure, always destined to experience heartbreak and trauma as the result of his relentless crusade.  I did love the amazing animation featured around Batman’s various fight scenes, and it contrasts nicely with some of the other characters, such as Red Hood, with more of a focus on his experience and placing the right move at the right time.  I also really enjoyed Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Batman, who brings a gruff and determined depiction of the character which really works.  Greenwood delivers several great dialogue sequences which show the depth and complexity of this iconic character, and I had a fantastic time following him in this film.

Another major character is the character of Jason Todd/Red Hood (I would add a spoiler alert, but after all these years it’s kind of redundant), voiced by Jensen Ackles.  The Red Hood featured in this film is an amazing and outstanding version of the character, and you run the entire emotional gambit with him.  I loved the fantastic and clever introduction of the character, where he manages to take over a large criminal organisation with just a bag and a machine gun.  This evolves into a very fun game of cat and mouse between Red Hood and Batman, while he also works to take over from Black Mask.  The eventual reveal about Red Hood works extremely well: “You haven’t lost your touch, Bruce,” and I loved the various chase scenes between the two, as well as their joint fight sequence against the Fearsome Hand of Four.  All this perfectly leads up to the great final confrontation with Batman, with a big elaborate fight scene and that extremely dramatic sequence opposite Batman.  Ackles adds some real cockiness to the character, and his various interactions with the supporting characters are pretty funny and really fun.  However, it is his sequences with Batman that are the best, as Ackles adds all the appropriate drama of a murdered child when encountering his former mentor.  The revelation of Red Hood’s motive is deeply captivating, and the entire scene where he, Batman and the Joker are reunited is so very tense and powerful.  You also have to love how the final scene in the film features the younger version of Robin on his first night of crime-fighting, as his innocence and childlike joy at being a hero stands in such contrast to his eventual fate: “This is the best day of my life.”  This is an outstanding portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the DC canon.

I also really must highlight the incredible version of the Joker that is featured in this film, who is voiced by the always entertaining John DiMaggio.  This is a great interpretation of the Joker, and you get to see just how vicious and ruthless he can be.  I love how the writers and actor did a great job capturing his insane mentality when it comes to the Batman, especially as his greatest ambition is to drive Batman insane enough to kill him.  I was honestly surprised at how awesome John DiMaggio was in this role, especially as the purely evil Joker is very different from the comedic characters he is best known for portraying.  However, he brings some very excellent menace to this character, and while there are a lot of humorous undertones to his actions, the sheer insanity and joy he has at other people’s suffering is more than evident.  Joker has some incredible scenes throughout this movie, which DiMaggio really enhances with his unique take on the character.  The opening sequence in which he beats Jason Todd half to death with a crowbar is pretty dark, despite the constant jokes, and his later confrontation with Batman in Arkham really captures his overall insanity.  However, his best sequences occur later in the film.  The first of these is the cell scene with Black Mask, where he accepts a job offer in the most boss way possible (never hand the Joker a cup of any variety).  The follow sequence on the bridge, where he attempts to draw the Red Hood out with a truck, some guys and some gasoline is really great, especially when it is revealed that the Black Mask is also amongst his hostages.  However, DiMaggio shines best in the final sequence where Batman and Red Hood finally have their dramatic showdown with the Joker in the middle.  The Joker revels in all the drama and emotion in the room, especially when Red Hood attempts to force Batman to kill Joker: “This is turning out even better than I hoped!”  The final bit of the confrontation where Joker, realising that Red Hood’s bomb will kill them all, joyfully attempts stop Batman, “This is perfect…. I’m the only one who’s going to get what they want tonight,” really captures the character’s chaotic mentality and is a great conclusion to his story arc.

The other major character in the film is Nightwing, former Robin Dick Grayson, who is portrayed by the legendary Neil Patrick Harris.  Mostly featured in the first half of the film, Nightwing serves as the traditional sidekick role, bringing a lighter comedic role to the dynamic duo and playing off the ultra-serious Batman perfectly.  I loved the fantastic coordination in the action sequences between these two, and the animators do an outstanding job showing how their fighting styles complement each other and they instantly know what the other one is doing.  Harris’s voice work is great, hyping up the characters comedic, banter-laden fight style, and while it didn’t fit as well as some other versions of Nightwing I have seen, this was still a pretty epic bit of casting.

Aside from these above four main characters, I deeply appreciated Jason Issacs and Wade Williams as Ra’s al Ghul and Black Mask respectfully.  Issacs does an outstanding job bringing the enigmatic and ruthless al Ghul to life, and it was great to see the respect and personal code this version of the character has, especially once his actions result in Jason Todd’s death.  Williams’s unhinged version of Black Mask is also incredibly good, and I loved the ultra-anger he brings to the role, especially as he slowly becomes more and more targeted by Red Hood and Batman.  His reactions to the crazy antics of the other characters is pretty fun, and you’ve got to love the look on his face when he sees Red Hood targeting him with a giant rocket launcher.  I also want to call out Kelly Hu as Black Mask’s assistant, Ms Li, a gender-swapped version of the assistant character in the comic.  Ms Li serves a pretty cool counterpart to Black Mask and is a constant calm presence in his chaotic administration, barely batting an eye at any of his angry or violent outbursts.  These great supporting characters compliment the main cast perfectly, and I felt the film’s entire collection of characters and actors helped to turn Under the Red Hood into something incredibly special.

While there have been some incredible DC animated movies out there, none have eclipsed the exceptional and awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood.  Featuring an impressive adaption of an iconic and cool comic story arc, this amazing film contains a fantastic narrative loaded with action, excitement, and intensity, as the characters engage in a dramatic and tragic battle.  With a perfect voice cast and some outstanding animation, Under the Red Hood is a must-watch animated film that I have seen and deeply enjoyed so many times.  An easy five-star watch that is highly recommended; if you love Batman, you need to see this film.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Burning and City of the Dead

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, we have a Kellerman double feature, as I look at two intriguing upcoming murder mystery novels that are sure to be excellent and enjoyable reads.

Over the last couple of years, I have been rather enjoying some intense murder mysteries from bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  In particular, I have been lucky enough to receive the last three novels in his long running Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all three of which have been pretty amazing pieces of crime fiction.  Due to how great his latest compelling crime novels have been, I am currently planning to grab any new mystery books that he releases, and, as luck will have it, there are currently two Kellerman novels coming out in the near future.

The Burning Cover

The first of these is the fantastic sounding The Burning, which is the fourth entry in the Clay Edison series.  The Clay Edison series, which has been running since 2017, is actually written by both Jonathan Kellerman and his son Jesse Kellerman, himself a best-selling crime fiction author.  This is the second series jointly written by the father/son duo (the other being the Jacob Lev series), and follows the investigations of Deputy Coroner Clay Edison as he solves various complex murders in Alameda.  The Burning is set for release in late September 2021, and it sounds like it is going to have an intense and captivating narrative.

Synopsis:

Things get personal for Deputy Coroner Clay Edison when a murder hits close to home in this riveting, emotional thriller from the bestselling father-son team.

A raging wildfire. A massive blackout. A wealthy man shot to death in his palatial hilltop home.

For Clay Edison, it’s all in a day’s work. As a deputy coroner, caring for the dead, he speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. He prides himself on an unflinching commitment to the truth. Even when it gets him into trouble.

Then, while working the murder scene, Clay is horrified to discover a link to his brother, Luke. Horrified. But not surprised. Luke is fresh out of prison and struggling to stay on the straight and narrow.

And now he’s gone AWOL.

The race is on for Clay to find him before anyone else can. Confronted with Luke’s legacy of violence, Clay is forced to reckon with his own suspicions, resentments, and loyalties. Is his brother a killer? Or could he be the victim in all of this, too?

This is Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman at their most affecting and page-turning–a harrowing collision of family, revenge, and murder.

I really like the sound of the cool synopsis above, and it looks like the Kellerman’s are going to produce an intriguing and complex mystery.  There several things that I am really excited for when it comes to The Burning, especially as this is the first Clay Edison novel that I will be reading.  Not only am I rather interested to see how Jesse Kellerman influences the writing style of his father, but I am also keen to see a medical pathologist investigation, rather than the pure detective work/psychological based mysteries that are featured within the Alex Delaware books.  On top of that, the two Kellermans have included several great hooks to their story; and I look forward to seeing a murder investigation in the middle of a raging Californian wildfire.  The protagonist is also going to have to deal with some significant family drama, as his ex-con brother becomes a murder suspect.  It will be extremely awesome to see how this mystery unfolds, and I am interested to see how involved the brother is (you would assume he is being set up, but I am hoping for some clever twists).  Based on the cool synopsis, I think that The Burning has some great potential, and I am looking forward to reading this in a few months.

In addition to The Burning, Jonathan Kellerman will also be continuing his fantastic Alex Delaware series in early 2022, with City of the Dead.  The Alex Delaware books are part of an outstanding long-running series that  revolves around titular protagonist, Alex Delaware, as he uses his training as a psychologist (which incidentally was Kellerman’s profession before he took up writing), to help the LAPD solve some of their most complex murder investigation alongside his best friend, Detective Milo Sturgis.

City of the Dead Cover

The latest three entries in the Alex Delaware series have proven to be excellent and compelling crime fiction novels, and I have loved their intriguing mysteries, as well as the great focus on methodical casework and the fun partnership between the main protagonists Alex and Milo.  My favourite so far is probably Serpentine, although The Wedding Guest and The Museum of Desire were also really good.  City of the Dead, will be the 37th Alex Delaware novel, and it is currently set for release in early February 2022.  Kellerman has come up with another impressive story for this upcoming book, and I am very keen to check it out.

Synopsis:

The past comes back to haunt psychologist Alex Delaware and Detective Milo Sturgis when they investigate a grisly double homicide and uncover an even more unspeakable motive in this riveting thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense.

Los Angeles is a city of sunlight, celebrity, and possibility. The L.A. often experienced by Homicide Lt. Detective Milo Sturgis and psychologist Alex Delaware, is a city of the dead.

Early one morning, the two of them find themselves in a neighbourhood of pretty houses, pretty cars, and pretty people. The scene they encounter is anything but. A naked young man lies dead in the street, the apparent victim of a collision with a moving van hurtling through suburbia in the darkness. But any thoughts of accidental death vanish when a blood trail leads to a nearby home.

Inside, a young woman lies butchered. The identity of the male victim and his role in the horror remain elusive, but that of the woman creates additional questions. And adding to the shock, Alex has met her while working a convoluted child custody case. Cordelia Gannett was a self-styled internet influencer who’d gotten into legal troubles by palming herself off as a psychologist. Even after promising to desist, she’s found a loophole and has continued her online career, aiming to amass clicks and ads by cyber-coaching and cyber-counseling people plagued with relationship issues.

But upon closer examination, Alex and Milo discover that her own relationships are troublesome, including a tortured family history and a dubious personal past. Has that come back to haunt her in the worst way? Is the mystery man out in the street collateral damage or will he turn out to be the key to solving a grisly double homicide? As the psychologist and the detective explore L.A.’s meanest streets, they peel back layer after layer of secrets and encounter a savage, psychologically twisted, almost unthinkable motive for violence and bloodshed.

This is classic Delaware: Alex, a man Milo has come to see as irreplaceable, at his most insightful and brilliant.

Wow, it looks like we are going to have another awesome crime fiction story on our hands in February.  This upcoming mystery has a pretty much everything, including a brutal murder, a mysterious second body that may or may not be connected to the main crime, a phoney psychology using influencer and an intriguing connection to the protagonist.  I love all the various intriguing details that are contained in the synopsis, and it sounds like Kellerman has a very complex and clever mystery planned.  I cannot wait to see how all these fascinating details come together and I am expecting that City of the Dead will have a particularly interesting and memorable conclusion to it.

As you can see, it looks like I am going to be getting my Kellerman murder fix twice in the next several months and I could not be happier about that.  Both The Burning and City of the Dead sound pretty damn incredible, and based on my prior experiences with Kellerman’s writing, I know that I am guaranteed a compelling and exciting couple of mysteries.