Throwback Thursday – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 April 2000)

Series: Dresden Files – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For my latest Throwback Thursday I finally check out the first novel in the epic and highly acclaimed Dresden Files series, Storm Front, by legendary author Jim Butcher, which is an amazing and impressive read.

Jim Butcher is an outstanding author who has been dominating the fantasy market for nearly 20 years.  While he has written a couple of series, including his Codex Alera books, and some standalone novels, such as the tie-in novel Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, Butcher is easily best known for his Dresden Files novels.  These books follow the adventures of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only official wizard, who solves magical crimes and serves as a protector of the innocent against a range of supernatural threats.  This series has been running since 2000 and with 17 current entries (the 18th is on the way) it is generally considered to be the gold-standard of urban fantasy series.  While I have always heard amazing things about these books, I arrived a little late to the party, having only read the 17th book, Battle Ground, last year.  Battle Ground was a pretty epic read, containing an off-the-chain fantasy war in the heart of the city, and it ended up being one of my favourite novels (and audiobooks) of 2020.  Due to how much I enjoyed this latest book, as well as a general desire to explore the rest of the series, I decided to go back and read the first entry in the series, Butcher’s debut novel, Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is a man who leads an interesting life.  As the only openly practicing magic user in Chicago (his name is even in the phonebook under wizard), Harry scrapes a living investigating small and unusual cases, such as finding lost items and performing paranormal investigations while trying to avoid the attentions of the White Council, a governing body of magical practitioners who have placed Harry on a lethal probation.  However, his latest cases are about to make his life very complicated in ways he never expected.

Two people have been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner, with their hearts bursting out of their chests during an act of passion.  Called in by the Chicago P.D., which has him on retainer as a magical consultant, Harry determines that their deaths were caused by the darkest of spells.  Despite being forbidden by the White Council to know anything about the deadly arts, Dresden begins to dive into the case, determined to find out who is responsible and how they did it.  At the same time, Monica Sells, a local housewife, has provided Dresden with a great deal of money to find her missing husband, someone who has apparently had his own recent misadventures with magic.

As Harry investigates both the murder and the disappearance, he finds himself under attack from all sides.  Not only does the most feared gangster in Chicago want him to drop the case, but the White Council views him as the prime suspect in the deaths due to his deadly past.  Worse, a shadowy figure wants him dead and is unleashing dangerous magical creatures upon him.  However, you cannot keep a good wizard down, and Harry plans to use every trick at his disposal to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even if it burns every bridge he has.

Well, that was a pretty awesome read, and one that I wish I had checked out a very long time ago.  Storm Front is an exciting and clever book that combines a compelling story with some great characters, an interesting urban fantasy setting and a fantastic, humour laden tone, all of which come together into an impressive novel.  Storm Front also serves as an excellent first novel in the wider Dresden Files series, and it was extremely interesting to see it after previously reading a more recent entry in the series.  I had an amazing time with this novel and, while it is a tad rough in places, especially compared to Butcher’s later work, I must give Storm Front a full five-star rating.

At the centre of Storm Front lies a particularly good fantasy murder mystery narrative that sees the protagonist take on some challenging cases that result in death and destruction raining down on his life.  The story starts up quickly with Dresden, whose role as a wizard is more like a supernatural PI, being employed to find a missing husband, while also helping the police solve a twisted magical double murder.  This results in a fast-paced narrative that sees Dresden investigate both cases in his own unique way, which results in dangerous complications as people attempt to either discourage him or outright kill him.  I loved how the story read a lot like a hardboiled detective fiction novel, albeit with a lot more quips and amusing jokes, and this style of writing worked extremely well with the magical elements featured throughout the book.  The narrative gets more complex as the book progresses, with additional side characters, greater lore inclusions and more sophisticated dangers, and I felt that the author was able to work all of this into story extremely well, ensuring that the reader becomes enthralled with the intense magical action, entertaining characters, and outlandish threats.  The author also throws in some clever twists, which includes the protagonist becoming the main suspect in the murders, resulting in a lot of tense and dangerous situations as he tries to avoid everyone coming after him.  All of this leads up to an epic and fantastically written conclusion which pulls all the threads of the story together and ensures that the reader is left wanting more.  If I had to make one criticism about the book, it would be that the identity of the main antagonist/murder is extremely obvious right from the outset, and that ruins a lot of the surprises that the author was clearly hoping for.  However, I still really enjoyed Storm Front’s captivating tale, and it is worth hanging around to see the story unfold.  Overall, I felt that this was an exceedingly strong story and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on it.

Easily the top highlight of this book is the outstanding protagonist and narrator, Harry Dresden (full name: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, named after famous stage magicians), the rogue and public wizard.  Dresden is an amazing and entertaining protagonist who the reader quickly becomes attached to thanks to his antics, morality, unpredictable nature and skills as magic user.  I always enjoy smartass characters, and Dresden is one of the better ones I have read.  A lot of the book’s excellent comedic undertones are thanks to Dresden’s dry and timely sense of humour as he provides some excellent quips and commentary, both out loud and in his head.  Despite being a mostly funny character, Butcher ensures that his protagonist has a hard and dark edge to him that helps to make him even more compelling and intriguing to follow.  Not only does the reader get an in-depth and comprehensive look into his troubled psyche, especially when he is experiencing guilt, trauma or despair, but there are some intriguing hints at his dark past, some of which come into play throughout the book.  I also liked how the author set up and explored Dresden’s magical ability, especially as the protagonist is not the most powerful magical user out there, although he makes up for it through trickery, training and intelligence.  I particularly liked the way in which he was able to defeat an antagonist with substantially more raw magical power with some simple tricks or the use of some psychology, and the author did a great job highlighting his protagonist’s analytical thinking as one of his key strengths.  I also have to say that I really enjoyed the fantastic look that Butcher sets up for his character, with the black duster, the staff and the Blue Beetle car, making him a very distinctive figure.  This ended up being an outstanding introduction to the character, and it will be interesting to see how he develops to the powerful badass that later appears in Battle Ground.

In addition to Dresden, the author also features an interesting collection of characters throughout Storm Front who add some additional, exciting layers to the overall story.  Each of the supporting characters in this novel is very well-written and layered, featuring some intriguing histories (although they all have secrets that will be revealed later).  Many of these characters become major figures in the larger Dresden Files series, and this serves as an excellent introduction to them.  Of all the characters a few really stood out to me, including Bob, an air spirit who inhabits a skull in Harry’s lab.  Bob is a fun, if unusual, character who has a somewhat perverted/voyeuristic streak that causes Harry all manner of trouble and leads to some very entertaining moments throughout the book.  I also quite liked the introduction of Karrin Murphy, the hardnosed Chicago detective who utilises Dresden as her magical consultant.  Karrin is a great no-nonsense character who is one of the few people to call Dresden out on his actions and who has a complex relationship with him in this book.  I really must highlight the introduction of “Gentleman” John Marcone, Chicago’s premier crime boss who is antagonistic towards Dresden for much of the book.  Marcone is portrayed is a stone-cold killer with a hidden past, and there are some great hints at what sort of recurring character he becomes in future entries in this series.  I also thought that the overall antagonist of this novel was pretty good and served as a great counterpoint to Dresden throughout the book.  Despite the identity of the antagonist being rather obvious for much of the novel, I felt that Butcher provided them some complex motivations for their actions in Storm Front, and it was intriguing to see how they slid down into using dark magic.  This antagonist has a couple of fantastic scenes in this novel, and I particularly liked the clever way in which their storyline came to an end.  Each of these side characters added so much to the book’s plot, and I had an amazing time getting to know them.

I also really enjoyed the amazing urban fantasy setting that Butcher came up with for Storm Front.  This series is set in a world where magic is semi-hidden from mortals, although there is substantial dangerous magical activity occurring in the underbelly of cities like Chicago.  The author does a great job of setting up the basics of this fantasy reality throughout the first book, and the reader is given an effective rundown of all the unique features and limitations of magic and magical creatures for these books.  Butcher made the smart choice of starting small with this first book, and while there are mentions of the wider magical world, enough to draw the curiosity of the reader, for the most part the magical elements are limited to what is relevant to the story.  I liked that the reader was not overwhelmed with lore right off the bat, especially as this allowed them to enjoy the cool story, but it is clear a lot of what was mentioned will be explored in far greater detail in the future.  The grimy and dangerous magical cityscape also served as an awesome background to the noir style story contained within Storm Front, and it was great to see the character get involved with both the criminal and magical underbelly of the city.  I had a lot of fun with this setting, and I look forward to learning more about the rules and hidden magical lore in the future.

Considering how outstanding my previous experience with a Dresden Files audiobook was, there was no way that I was not going to check out Storm Front’s audiobook format, especially as it was once again narrated by Spike himself, James Marsters (I also loved him in Torchwood and Smallville, but he was at his best in Buffy and Angel).  Unsurprisingly I had an incredible time listening to Storm Front’s audiobook and I ended up knocking it out in a couple of days, especially as it has a relatively short runtime of 8 hours.  This was an incredible audiobook, not only because the great story translated really well into the format, but also because of Marsters’ fantastic narration.  Marsters did an outstanding job narrating this story at a quick pace, drawing listeners into the story while also utilising a voice that perfectly fits Storm Front’s tone.  I also really appreciated the way in which Marsters dove into the role of the central protagonist, Harry Dresden, and he really brings this maverick character to life throughout the production, especially when it comes to encapsulating Dresden’s dry wit, strange sense of humour and enthusiasm.  Marsters did use similar voices for some of the supporting characters, however listeners are able to easily follow the story without getting confused about who is talking.  Overall, this was a pretty good performance from Marsters (this was actually one of the first audiobooks he narrated), and I know that he gets a lot better in later books, with some varied voices and even greater enthusiasm as a narrator.  As a result, I fully intend to check out the rest of the Dresden Files novels in their audiobook format and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this series do the same.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and captivating debut novel that more than lives up to all the hype that has been generated about it in the last 20 years.  Thanks to the cool story, great characters, and fantastic setting, this was an awesome book to read, and I loved seeing this maverick wizard solving supernatural crimes in Chicago.  Storm Front also served as an incredible introduction to the wider Dresden Files novels, and I was glad to see how this entire epic series started.  I fully intend to go back and check out this entire series over the next couple of years and I am very excited to see what over intense and entertaining adventures Butcher has come up with in.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather

The Hunting Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling thriller author Stephen Leather comes up with another wild and intense novel in The Hunting, a fun and very entertaining read about some terrorists who find themselves going up against a very different sort of opponent.

Billionaire Jon van der Sandt is a talented big-game hunter, having tracked and killed some of the world’s most deadly and ferocious animals across all the continents.  However, when his family is murdered in an attack by a team of ISIS killers, van der Sandt will embark on one last hunt against the most dangerous game of all.  Hiring a group of ex special forces mercenaries, van der Sandt organises for his family’s killers to be snatched from an ISIS base and flown back to his American estates, where he intends to hunt them down one-by-one and ensure that their deaths are up close and personal.

However, a case of mistaken identity results in van der Sandt’s mercenaries accidently grabbing the wrong man, and instead of one of the terrorists the soldiers snatch Raj Patel, a British doctor being held at the camp.  Unable to convince his new kidnappers of his identity, Raj finds himself dropped into the vast wilderness surrounding the isolated estate.  With van der Sandt out in the woods hunting them with a high-power rifle, Raj is forced to work with the ISIS fighters, his former captors, to survive.  With no provisions, no idea where they are and no mercy from a very determined van der Sandt, the prisoners have very little hope of getting out this alive.  However, Raj was not always a doctor, and he is ready to become as ruthless and resourceful as the man hunting him.  Let the hunt begin!

The Hunting is a fantastic and easily enjoyable book based on an amazing plot concept that proves to be extremely entertaining to read.  This was my first book from Stephen Leather, an established thriller author who has been writing novels, such as his intriguing Spider Shepherd thrillers and more, for over 30 years.  Leather’s latest novel is a great standalone read with an awesome story and some amazing action sequences guaranteed to excite any reader.  I had a lot of fun with this book and I ended up getting through it in less than day.

For this great novel, Leather came up with an extremely distinctive and memorable plot hook.  I must admit that the moment I heard that this book was going to be about a vengeful hunter going all “The Most Dangerous Game” on a group of ISIS terrorists, I knew that I was going to enjoy this book, although I was initially worried that the concept might be too silly to work.  Luckily, Leather was able to work a rather compelling story around this idea that proved to be both entertaining and well thought out.  The author sets up the entire narrative extremely well in the first part of the book, especially the reasons behind the antagonist’s decision to hunt down the ISIS fighters, and the case of mistaken identity around the protagonist.  This was a little more set-up than I was expecting, but I think that it worked to create a more complete and coherent narrative which pays off when all the characters are placed into the forest wilderness about 100 pages in.  This second part of the book is an intense and fast-paced thrill, with various supporting characters getting picked off quickly and brutally as van der Sandt kills his prey.  This leads to some great action scenes, and I really enjoyed seeing all the survival and hunting aspects come into play.  All of this results in a fantastic and explosive conclusion, which I think was the perfect way to end the novel.  Overall, I really got drawn into this exciting narrative which proved to be extremely addictive and easily to get through in a very quick period.

I have to say that I was impressed with some of the details that Leather included within this book.  The author clearly has either done some major research or has some firsthand experience about hunting and big game hunters which he uses to full effect throughout the book, meticulously detailing the different weapons, the different tactics a hunter would use and various tracking and hunting techniques.  This added level of detail really helped to enhance The Hunting’s story, and I felt that it added a certain layer of authenticity to it.  I also quite enjoyed seeing a big game hunter going up against Raj, a former Royal Marine with different experiences and knowledge then the murderous desert fighters he is trapped with.  Seeing a hunter versus a professional soldier, albeit a rusty one with a preference for medicine, proved to be an intriguing and exciting experience, and it ended up resulting in some very fun sequences.

While The Hunting is ostensibly a thrilling, action-packed novel, Leather did try to add some deeper elements to it, including several ethical discussions and complex characters.  This includes some compelling arguments about the benefits of legal big game hunting, and it proves to be quite fascinating to see into the mind of a hunter character, especially one who makes some clever comparisons about the brutality of hunters compared to terrorists.  It was also fascinating to see part of the story from the perspective of ISIS fighters who had engaged in a brutal massacre of innocent tourists.  While some are strongly dedicated to the cause, others have more doubts about what they have done, although they come across as fairly unrepentant.  Despite the general loathing most readers would have for these sorts of characters, you end up being forced to root for them for part of the book as they end up allying with Raj, who you want to see survive.  Raj himself is placed in a bit of a dilemma when it comes to working with these terrorists, as his new “friends” make it very clear they dislike his Hinduism.  Despite that and the knowledge of what they have done, Raj ends up helping them to survive, and even puts his life in greater danger to stay with the injured members of the party, which really fleshes him out as an ethical and noble protagonist.  I also quite enjoyed the complex character of Jon van der Sandt, who had some of the more compelling scenes in the book.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of the book, you tend to have the most sympathy for van der Sandt, and you can completely understand his motivations for revenge, even if the method is a bit extreme.  All of these more complex elements make for a rich and captivating read, and I really appreciated the author’s decision to feature them in his fun narrative.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather is an outstanding and thrilling stand alone read that takes the reader on a wild and bloody action adventure.  Featuring the amazing and memorable plot hook of a big game hunter stalking terrorists, The Hunting is an extremely fun and exciting read that readers are guaranteed to power through in no time at all.  This was a very cool new novel from Leather and I look forward to seeing what crazy tales he comes up with next time.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.

#NoEscape by Gretchen McNeil

#NoEscape Cover

Publisher: Freeform Books (Hardcover – 8 December 2020)

Series: #MurderTrending – Book 0 (prequel)

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Gretchen McNeil returns with another murderous young adult thriller with #NoEscape, a gripping and fantastic prequel to her amazing #MurderTrending series.

Gretchen McNeil is a fantastic author who specialises in amazing young adult novels with horror or suspense twists to them.  She is probably best known for her Don’t Get Mad series of novels (which were adapted into the Netflix series, Get Even), and her 2012 novel Ten, which was turned into a Lifetime movie.  Other works of McNeil include Possess, 3:59 and I’m not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, all of which sound like fun and entertaining reads.  I am most familiar with McNeil due to her latest series of novels, the #MurderTrending books.  This series started in 2018 with #MurderTrending, which followed a group of young felons, known as the Death Row Breakfast Club, who had to survive their brutal public execution on reality television.  #MurderTrending was an extremely fun and thrilling book that not only presented an exciting narrative for a group of great character, but which also parodied society’s love for social media and reality television shows.  McNeil followed up this first entry in the series with the sequel #MurderFunding, an awesome-sounding book that followed another deadly reality television show.  While I really liked the sound of the second #MurderTrending novel, I did not get a chance to read it, although I might try to read it later this year.  Her latest novel, #NoEscape, serves as a prequel to #MurderTrending and is set 20 years before the events of the first book.

Seventeen-year-old Persey has been beaten down her whole life by her abusive parents and her overachieving brother.  While everyone considers her to be useless, Persey knows that there is one thing she is good at: escape rooms.  After solving a supposedly unbeatable escape room, Persey is given a chance by the parent company, Escape-Capades Ltd, to compete in an elite escape room challenge with a multi-million-dollar reward for whoever wins it.

In desperate need of the money, Persey reluctantly accepts the invitation and is taken to the Escape-Capades headquarters in Las Vegas with several other gifted teen competitors, each with substantial escape room experience.  Persey and the other participants are shocked when the challenge begins almost as soon as they arrive at the headquarters.  Entering a series of elaborate rooms, the group are instructed to work together to succeed within the set time frames.  While at first the challenges seem like normal escape room fare, it soon becomes apparent that something is off.

After one challenge that puts each contestant in mortal risk, they players are shocked when someone is killed in front of them.  Convinced it was faked as part of the game, the escapees continue to advance until someone else is killed.  As each room becomes more and more deadly, it becomes apparent that someone is out for blood and is determined to make the escapees suffer.  Forced to solve a series of gruesome and bizarre puzzles to survive, Persey begins to realise that each of her fellow participants has a secret they would die to protect.  Each contestant is related to each other in some way, and whoever is running the game is seeking vengeance.  Can Persey and her new friends survive, or will they become the first victims of a sick killer with dangerous ambitions for the future?

In this latest novel, Gretchen McNeil has come up with an exceptional tale of manipulation and vengeance as the protagonist finds herself trapped in a series of deadly escape room with a group of unpredictable allies.  This is an extremely fun and exciting novel that blends a tense situation, excellent characters and a series of clever twists to create a deeply compelling and highly addictive read.  I read through this book in one night as I became deeply engrossed with the plot and couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolded.  I love the idea of a group of teenagers caught in an escape room designed to expose secrets and kill its participants, and McNeil utilised her plot design to maximum effect, creating a dark and high-stakes read.  The novel features a great collection of distinctive and fun characters, each of whom stand out in their own way and bring something different to the story while also bringing in some excellent drama with their conflicting personalities.  The main protagonist and point-of-view character, Persey, is particularly intriguing, and the author spends significant time exploring her past, showing a series of flashbacks that highlighted her emotionally abusive parents and damaged brother.  All of these characters have some major secrets, and McNeil cleverly weaves hints of them into the plot before they are eventually revealed.  This book features a lot of excellent and cleverly written twists and turns, and while I was able to predict a good deal of them, it was still a lot of fun seeing them unfold and I was every taken by surprise with several major reveals.  Overall, this is a fantastic and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to and which has an outstanding and powerful conclusion.

One of the major appeals of this book is that it serves as a great prequel to #MurderTrending and #MurderFunding.  This makes it an opportunity to highlight the origins of some of the characters (mainly the antagonists) that appeared in the later books in the series.  Fans of the series will really love the excellent way McNeil ties the narrative into the other #MurderTrending novels and there are a lot of clever and fun references scattered throughout this latest book.  There is really no requirement for someone to read either of the other novels in the series first before trying out #NoEscape, and new readers will be able to easily enjoy this cool and exciting tale.  Indeed, this novel could even serve as a fantastic entry point into the series, and I would definitely recommend that anyone who enjoyed #NoEscape should definitely read #MurderTrending next.  I personally wish that I had read #MurderFunding first, as there were a couple of reveals that did not have as significant an impact on me as I think they were supposed to.  Still, I had an outstanding time reading this latest book from McNeil and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.  After getting hooked on this latest book, I might try and read #MurderFunding this year, especially if McNeil is planning any additional entries to this awesome series.

I really liked how McNeil utilised escape rooms in this novel, and it proves to be a fantastic setting for this amazing young adult thriller.  The author has come up with a huge range of intriguing and clever challenges for her participants to try and overcome, and I loved seeing all the various riddles and puzzles.  As the escape room continues, the rooms become more and more deadly, and it was quite fun to see all the unique and elaborate murder contraptions that the author imagines.  Some of the challenges and the deaths in this book were really over the top, and it proved to be exhilarating and nerve-racking to watch the protagonists attempt to overcome them, especially when a particularly fun character’s life was on the line.  McNeil also uses her novel to examine and somewhat parody the current escape room trend, with each of the characters being a major escape room user with a huge amount of enthusiasm for them.  As a result, this ends up being a particularly fun read for anyone who has done an escape room in the past, although I can guarantee that you will be rather suspicious about the next challenge that you undertake.  I had a lot of fun getting through these deadly escape rooms in the story and I cannot wait to see what McNeil uses as the major plot setting in her next novel.

Like the previous entries in this series, #NoEscape was written for a young adult audience and follows several teenage protagonists.  This is excellent novel for teenage readers; I know I would have loved to read this when I was younger.  I particularly liked how the author did not write down for a younger audience, instead presenting a detailed and complex tale, filled with intriguing characters, compelling story elements and several very dark sequences.  I would say that, due to the sometimes gruesome content, this book is probably best read by older teenagers, especially those who have a love of escape rooms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be easily enjoyed by adult readers, who will enjoy all the excitement and clever twists.  There are also a huge number of cool pop culture references throughout the book that will prove appealing to readers of many different ages, as McNeil covers a massive range of different genres and forms of entertainment, ranging from classic horror movies (there is a great clue hidden in one reference that older readers will particularly enjoy), anime, professional wrestling, books and movies (I loved one of the character’s Harry Potter themed shirt; shame it got blood on it).  Overall, this is a great young adult book, and I really appreciate the fact that McNeil has made it appealing to very wide audience.

#NoEscape is another fun and exciting young adult thriller from the amazing Gretchen McNeil.  Serving as a fantastic prequel to #MurderTrending, this is a clever and captivating read that is really worth checking out.  Readers are going to love this exhilarating and deadly narrative, and you are guaranteed to speed through this outstanding and thrilling novel in a very short amount of time.  Highly recommend.

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay

Fool Me Twice Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 8 December 2020)

Series: Riley Wolfe – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Superstar thriller writer Jeff Lindsay presents his second entry in the awesome Riley Wolfe series, Fool Me Twice, which sees a master thief attempt to pull off a truly impossible heist.

Riley Wolfe is the world’s greatest thief and heist artist, able to steal the most heavily guarded artefacts and treasures no matter their security or value.  However, he is about to face a task that may prove to be too difficult even for him to accomplish after he is kidnapped at the end of his latest heist and taken to a desolate remote island.  His kidnapper, the world’s most dangerous and powerful arms dealer, wants Riley to steal one of the world’s greatest artworks, The Liberation of St. Peter by Raphael.  Unfortunately for Riley, The Liberation of St. Peter is a fresco, a massive painting plastered onto a wall in the interior of the Vatican.

Despite how ridiculous the job appears to be, Riley has no choice but to accept it, especially as his refusal would result in a prolonged and painful death.  With his head still spinning over the impossibility of the task in front of him, Riley’s life becomes even more complicated when he is kidnapped a second time by another deadly arms dealer.  His new kidnapper offers Riley the chance to double-cross his first employer in exchange for the life of Monique, Riley’s close associate and love interest.

Caught between two deadly opponents, each of whom would not hesitate to kill everyone Riley knows and cares about, Riley finds himself in the ultimate no win scenario.  Determined to survive no matter the cost, Riley begins to come up with a new plan that could save his and Monique’s lives, even if it does mean attracting the attention of an old rival in the FBI.  But in order for his plan to succeed, Riley and Monique will need to achieve the impossible and steal the fresco from the Vatican.  Can the legendary Riley Wolfe pull of his greatest heist yet, or has he finally met a caper too insane for even him?

Fool Me Twice is an exciting and addictive thriller novel from Jeff Lindsay, the author best known for the murderous Dexter series.  Following the conclusion of his Dexter books, Lindsay has started writing a brand-new series which focuses on a whole new criminal protagonist, Riley Wolfe.  The Riley Wolfe series follows the titular character as he engages in a series of elaborate and high-stakes heists around the world.  The first entry in this series, Just Watch Me, was a fantastic and fun novel which saw the protagonist steal a major treasure that was under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  I absolutely loved Just Watch Me and I have been extremely eager to check out the second entry in this series for some time.  I am very glad that I received a copy of this book and I ended up really enjoying Fool Me Twice due to its entertaining and thrilling story.

Just like the first entry in the Riley Wolfe series, Fool Me Twice was an exciting and enjoyable romp that sees its complex protagonist attempt to pull off an incredible heist.  Lindsay has come up with a pretty epic scenario revolving around an impossible art heist within the Vatican, which by itself would be fun to read.  However, this time Riley also has to contend with the competing interests of two ruthless arms dealers who are using him as a pawn for their deadly game.  This proved to be a fantastic and compelling thriller story that is extremely easy to read and fall in love with.  The author does an excellent job setting up the entire plot, and the protagonist is forced into a high-stakes, no-win scenario pretty early on in the book.  The rest of the story then deals with Riley trying to extricate himself from this situation through a vast range of manipulations, tricks, third-person interference and the impossible heist with a twist.  This all comes together quite well into an enjoyable and intricate narrative, and I love the various places that the author took the story.  There are some great surprises and reveals throughout the novel, and the readers are constantly left on the edge of their seats as they try to figure out what is going to happen next.  I particularly loved the cool heist that formed the centre of this story, and Lindsay did a good job delivering on this amazing premise with a great plan and a clever conclusion.  While I was able to predict how part of the heist would go, I was a little surprised about the full plan, and it was really cool to see the entire thing unfold.  Overall, this proved to be an amazing and exciting narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing the various twists and turns that the author was able to weave into the story.

One of the most distinctive elements about this series is the protagonist, Riley Wolfe, the master thief whose exploits the novels follow.  Riley is an interesting figure who, on the exterior, appears to be a brilliant Robin-Hood-esque figure, stealing from the rich, who he has a pathological hatred of.  However, it does not take long for the reader to work out that Riley is pretty much a pure arsehole with psychopathic tendencies.  Nearly everything Riley did in this novel annoyed me to a certain degree as he manipulates, insults or flat out murders everyone he comes into contact with.  While the author utilises a number of different perspectives throughout Fool Me Twice, Lindsay makes sure to write all of Riley’s chapters from the first-person perspective, ensuring that the reader gets a look into his mind as he works.  While this does help to redeem the character in some ways, especially as you get a hint about how much he cares about his mother or Monique, the unfiltered thoughts running through his head mostly make you dislike the character even more.  Pure arrogance rains off the page every time Riley’s perspective is shown, and you get a real sense of how high an opinion the guy has of himself.  Worse, you also see how much of a psychopath that Riley truly is as he murders several people throughout the novel, often in quite brutal ways.  While perhaps one or two of his victims deserved their fates, most definitely did not, they were merely in Riley’s way, for which he makes no apologies.  Instead he merely offers up some half-arsed rationalisations, most of which are usually along the lines that the victim was rich, so they deserved to suffer.  All of this makes Riley Wolfe a very hard character to root for, and I think this is what the author intended.  The reader becomes addicted to the narrative, not because they want him to succeed (if only to save his friends), but because that are hoping that he fails in some way and gets his long-deserved comeuppance.  I personally think this is a great writing choice from Lindsay, which makes for an excellent read; it is always fun to see a book told from a villain’s perspective, even if said villain is a dick.  I look forward to seeing what the character gets up to in the next book, which will no doubt irritate me to some degree.

Fool Me Twice is filled with a great collection of supporting characters, pretty much all of whom become worse off after meeting the protagonist.  The most notable of these is returning character Monique, Riley’s costumer, art forger and strongly unrequited love interest.  Monique gets a lot more involved in the plot of Fool Me Twice than she did in the first novel, with circumstances forcing her to take an active role in the heist.  You really can’t help but feel sorry for Monique throughout this novel, as she gets into all manner of trouble thanks to Riley and has to constantly deal with his bad behaviour and condescending attitude.  Thanks to the author portraying her as an out-of-her-depth and terrified art genius, she is the main reason you hope that Riley succeeds, although she still ends up going through a lot of bad stuff in this book.  In addition to Monique, Fool Me Twice also sees the return of Special Agent Frank Delgado, the brilliant FBI agent who is obsessed with capturing Riley.  Despite his somewhat odd and dedicated personality, Delgado is another character you find yourself rooting for, mainly because you hope he finally catches up with his white whale and arrests him.  Delgado has another interesting arc in this novel, which sees his obsession with Riley become a useful tool for several other characters in the novel, and I imagine we will be seeing a lot more of him in future entries in the series (although I imagine Riley will eventually end up killing him).

There are several intriguing new characters featured throughout the novel.  These new characters are generally only featured for a few chapters and are mostly used as outside witnesses to Riley’s heist methods, which help to keep the readers guessing at how he is actually pulling it off.  The main antagonists of the novel are an interesting bunch.  I was not the biggest fans of the two competing arms dealers, although their rivalry and manipulation of Riley helped to create a very interesting plot scenario.  I personally quite liked the character of Bernadette, one of the arms dealer’s bodyguards, who was essentially a female Terminator.  Bernadette is a particularly intimidating woman, who manages to consistently put Riley in his place and ensure that he is nowhere near as cocky as he usually is, and she ends up being an extremely dangerous and relentless antagonist.  If I had to complain about any of the characters it would probably be the mysterious Betty/Evelyn, who becomes an ally of Riley.  I felt that this character was severely underdeveloped; despite seeing several scenes from her perspective as she plays a key role in the plot, you end up knowing very little about her or what she does.  While part of this is due to the character constantly changing identities, I do think that the author could have explored her more or explained her role in the heist better, although perhaps this lack of identity will come into play in a future Riley Wolfe novel.

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay was a fantastic and captivating read that sees the author’s new antihero, Riley Wolfe, engage in a more heist-based shenanigans.  This second Riley Wolfe novel had an excellent and fun story that was really easy to enjoy and which was enhanced by several great characters, including one unlikeable main protagonist.  I had an amazing time getting through this cool book and it is definitely recommended for anyone interested in an exciting and compelling thriller.  I look forward to seeing what unique heist situation Lindsay comes up with in his next book, but I am sure it will be something extremely memorable and really fun.

Hideout by Jack Heath

Hideout Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Timothy Blake – Book Three

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Australian bestselling author Jack Heath brings back his cannibalistic protagonist, Timothy Blake, for another gruesome adventure in Hideout.

Timothy Blake, occasional FBI consultant and full-time murderous cannibal, is on the run, convinced that his former employers are close to capturing him for his unfortunate habit.  With nothing to lose, Blake decides to take out one final target and travels to a house in rural Texas where Fred, the ringleader of a group of dark web torture video producers, lives.  However, his plan to kill and consume Fred quickly goes out the window when he finds out that this target is not alone.

Fred has gathered five of his cohorts, known as the Guards, each of whom makes a living off torturing, extorting and killing people on the dark web.  Pretending to be an online associate of the Guards who is in trouble, Blake manages to con his way into the house, convincing them that he is a just as twisted as they are.  His subsequent plan to pick off his new companions one by one seems like a winner, until one of the Guard turns up dead by someone else’s hands.

It soon becomes apparent to Blake that another killer is stalking his new hideout, one who is determined to keep their secrets no matter what.  With his cover likely to be blown at any second and his ravenous hunger for human flesh threatening to overwhelm him, Blake needs to find a way to survive and overwhelm his companions.  However, the discovery of a group of desperate people chained up in the building behind the house complicates everything, especially when the Guards’ latest victim arrives.  Can Blake take out this group of psychopaths before he is picked off by another killer, or has this cannibal finally met his match?

Hideout is a fun and compelling novel from Canberran author Jack Heath, who has once again come up with an exciting adventure for his distinctive protagonist.  Heath is a well-established author who primarily made a name for himself with young adult and children’s thriller fiction, such as his Six of Hearts, The Liars, The Danger and The Scream series.  However, Heath has also branched off into adult thrillers with his Timothy Blake novels.  The Timothy Blake series started in 2018 with the first entry, Hangman, and it follows its dysfunctional cannibal protagonist as he investigates a series of different and thrilling mysteries.  Hideout is the third entry in this series and is set shortly after the events of the second novel, Hunter (which was also released under the title Just One Bite).  This is actually first Jack Heath novel that I have read, and while I was deeply intrigued by the previous Timothy Blake books, I did not get a chance to grab a copy.  However, I really enjoyed Hideout and I am definitely going to go out of my way to obtain any additional novels Heath writes in the future.

This third Timothy Blake book proved to be quite an impressive and compelling read, as the protagonist finds himself trapped with six other psychopaths, each of whom torture and kill people online for a living.  This proves to be quite an intriguing scenario, as this bold protagonist bluffs his way into the house and plots various ways to kill them.  However, the whole scenario inevitably gets out of hand, and Blake finds himself having to investigate the murder of one of the killers he is trapped with.  This results in an excellent story and I loved the blend of mystery, great interactions, and the character’s attempts to keep his cover, especially as Heath also throws in a little commentary about current society (some of which is exceedingly relevant, particularly this week).  I really liked where the author took his awesome story, and all the various twists, revelations and surprising actions made for quite a compelling and thrilling read.  I especially loved all the excellent foreshadowing that the author utilised, as nearly every stray thought or memory from the protagonist came into play somewhere later in the book.  The story is extremely fast paced, and readers should be able to power through it in short order, especially once they get wrapped up in the captivating narrative.  I also appreciated how easy it was for those people unfamiliar with the previous Timothy Blake novels to read Hideout, as Heath has made it quite accessible, with all the key elements from the previous books explained in sufficient detail.  Naturally, as this is a novel about a cannibal living undercover with dark web torturers, this is a particularly dark book and people who have issues with torture, gruesome killings and cannibalism might want to avoid it.  Overall, this was an amazing narrative, and I had a fantastic and exhilarating time getting through it.

I quite enjoyed the damaged and intriguing protagonist that was Timothy Blake, and it was rather fun following the adventures of a cannibal.  While there are some obvious parallels to Dexter in this character as a killer who target criminals, I felt that Blake was distinctive enough in his own right and he ended up being an interesting character to set a book around.  I really enjoyed seeing the entire narrative unfold from his perspective as the character adds some intriguing elements to the story.  There is something desperate and feral in this character that translates off the page, and he is haunted by some of the events from the previous novels, especially as he believes that his freedom or life is nearly over.  While the origins of his cannibalistic tendencies are not really covered in Hideout (I assume that they are detailed in prior books), you do get an idea of this character’s troubled past and how he helped as an FBI consultant.  Despite being a killer and unrepentant flesh eater, Blake is constantly trying to be a good person, and it was fascinating to see him try to save certain lives while plotting the deaths of the various members of the Guards.  Blake also proves to be a canny investigator and trickster even though his formal education is rather lacking, managing to fool the people he lives with while also solving the curious mysteries that Heath came up with.  I loved the cannibalistic side of the protagonist and it was quite amusing to see him considering the various people and corpses he encounters, wondering about how much meat he could get off them and how likely he could get away with eating.  This hunger proves to be an interesting driving force for Blake throughout the book, especially as, to maintain his cover, he has to consume a vegetarian diet, which messes with his mind a little.  I also enjoyed the way in which Heath is clearly not amazingly attached to his protagonist, as Blake goes through some stuff which changes him in some substantial ways.  I ended up really liking this complex and enjoyable character and I look forward to seeing what his future adventures entail, especially as Heath sets up an interesting potential story arc for the next book.

Heath has also filled up Hideout with some other compelling characters who stay on the property with Blake for most of the book.  The most prominent of these are the members of the Guards, the six psychopaths who video themselves torturing people to make money.  While on the surface all of these characters are despicable, Heath spends time examining each of their personalities and histories, fleshing them out and showing that their various motivations are a lot more complex than initially believed.  This helps to create a richer story, especially as each of the characters have their own unique secrets that come into play throughout the narrative and ensure a much more complex mystery for Blake to solve, as well as adding in some compelling connections to the protagonist.  There is also a further group of characters on the property who are a major part of the book’s plot.  Like the members of the Guards, there is more to these characters than initially appears, and their plight is a rather intriguing ethical inclusion to the story.  One of these characters is featured quite significantly throughout the book due to their prior connections to Blake, and it was fascinating to see the massively negative impacts of Blake’s interactions with them.  All of this results in quite a character-rich narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing how some of the arcs played out and how the protagonist interacted with them.

Hideout by Australian author Jack Heath ended up being a fun and compelling novel, and I had an amazing time reading it.  Heath makes excellent use of his unique protagonist, inventive plot scenario and fast-paced story to create an awesome thriller that readers can easily enjoy and get through quickly.  While a bit gruesome in places, this is an undoubtedly entertaining thriller that readers are going to have fun getting through.  I look forward to seeing how the Timothy Blake series continues in the future, and the next book should be a fantastic and exhilarating ride.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 22 September 2020)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

British comedian and television personality Richard Osman presents one of the best debut novels of 2020 with The Thursday Murder Club, a clever and hilarious murder mystery novel that was an absolute treat to read.

Welcome to Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement estate near the town of Fairhaven where the elderly can relax and enjoy their final years in peace, quiet and good company.  But for four enterprising septuagenarians, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, retirement also offers them a bold opportunity for some excitement and adventure as the Thursday Murder Club.  Meeting up each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room, these four friends attempt to solve cold cases forgotten by the police.  While it may seem like a harmless hobby, these retirees are thrilled by their amateur investigations and welcome the chance to bring a little justice in the world.  However, when a local property developer with a dodgy past is brutally murdered with a mysterious photograph left next to his body, the Thursday Murder Club jump at the chance to investigate a real live case.

Thanks to a lifetime of connections, skills and intuition, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are able to quickly position themselves in the middle of the burgeoning case, much to the frustration of the local police.  Using every unorthodox and somewhat unethical trick at their disposal, the club members gain vital information about the murder.  However, when a second person is poisoned right in front of them, the club soon begin to realise how high the stakes are.  A killer is stalking Coopers Chase and they will do anything to protect their secret.  Can the Thursday Murder Club stop them before it is too late, or will their first real mystery be their last?

Well, that was exceedingly delightful.  Osman is a fantastic British comedian who has been in a number of great British television programs (we’re big fans of Pointless), and, like many celebrities, he decided to have a go at writing his own novel.  I have to admit that when I first heard that Osman was writing a crime fiction book, I was intrigued but I did not initially plan to read it.  However, after hearing some positive buzz from other reviewers and being in the mood for something a little different I decided to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did!  The Thursday Murder Club turned out to be an exceptional read which blew me away with this incredible and unique crime fiction story.  Osman has come up with something special with this book, and I had an outstanding time listening to it and exploring the fun story, unique characters, and clever depictions of the elderly of Britain.  This is easily one of my favourite debuts of 2020 and it gets a full five stars from me.

Osman has come up with an elaborate and entertaining story for The Thursday Murder Club that combines an excellent murder mystery with large amounts of brilliant humour and several amazing and tragic moments of drama.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives to tell his clever story, and the reader is soon wrapped up in a number of different personal tales that all tie into the murders that form the centre of this book.  While The Thursday Murder Club is a little slow at the start, it does not take long for the story to get going, and once the first body drops the reader is firmly entranced and cannot wait to see where the author is going next.  There are so many great elements associated with this book, and you are guaranteed to have an outstanding time getting through The Thursday Murder Club.

At the centre of The Thursday Murder Club’s narrative lies a compelling and intriguing murder mystery that follows an intense case around the Coopers Chase retirement village.  Osman has weaved together a pretty impressive murder mystery here, with two disreputable people killed in quick succession in apparently connected killings, which prompts the members of the Thursday Murder Club to get involved.  Watching these characters investigate proved to be extremely fascinating and entertaining, especially as they employ some much more unique and unusual methods to get the answers they are looking for.  Osman pairs this unorthodox search for the killer with the official investigation being conducted by the police, and the two different methodologies make for a good contrast, especially when they both get some extremely different results.  The two murder cases go in some extremely compelling and clever directions, and Osman has come up with a number of impressive twists and misleading suspects to deflect from the real culprits.  The conclusions of the cases were really good; I loved how the entirety of the mystery came together and how the various crimes were connected.  Osman adds in lot of foreshadowing for the various twists featured within The Thursday Murder Club, but some of the results were still pleasantly unexpected.  I was able to predict one of the major twists of the book in advance, which allowed me to work out who a killer was and why they were doing it, but I did not see certain other twists and reveals coming.  I really love it when a mystery can shock and surprise me and I think that The Thursday Murder Club was one of the best murder mystery novels I read all year.

An exceptional highlight of The Thursday Murder Club is the excellent characters from whose eyes we see the story unfold.  The Thursday Murder Club is made up of four unusual friends who make for very fun central protagonists.  All four members of the Thursday Murder Club are entertaining and complex characters in their own right and who each add a lot to the story.  Osman spends a great deal of time exploring each of these characters, and the reader soon becomes intimately familiar with their lives while also becoming enamoured with their intriguing personalities.  The main character of the book is probably Elizabeth, the founder of the Thursday Murder Club and its apparent leader.  Elizabeth is extremely determined, and it is strongly hinted throughout the book that she was formerly a rather successful spy.  Described by one of the other characters as being essentially Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Elizabeth is the driving force behind the club’s investigation into the murders around Coopers Chase, especially with her innumerable contacts and natural intuition.  Elizabeth has a very strong personality, and it is fantastic to see her go about her business, intimidating and outmanoeuvring everyone she encounters with practiced ease.  Despite this hard, clever exterior, Elizabeth has a number of emotional vulnerabilities, including an ailing husband and a comatose best friend, which Osman explores throughout the novel.  These vulnerabilities help to drive Elizabeth throughout the book, and she becomes quite a complex character as a result.

The other female member of the Thursday Murder Club is Joyce, a former nurse.  Joyce is a great character who becomes an invaluable part of the investigation.  Appearing to be mostly quiet and somewhat placid, Joyce is actually a deeply intelligent person who uses her mild and kind personality to get people to do what she wants.  As the newest member of the club, Joyce provides the reader with an outsider’s view of the other major characters, and you get an interesting glimpse of how the investigation is progressing as her point-of-view chapters are written in a fun journal format that is unique to her.  Aside from Elizabeth, Joyce probably gets the most character assessment and development in The Thursday Murder Club, especially as some of her personal relationships become key parts of the plot, and she proves to be a particularly intriguing character as a result.

The other members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron, two very different people who are actually the best of friends.  Ibrahim is a particularly pleasant man, a former psychologist, who is nice and sociable to everyone he meets and who serves as the heart and soul of the team.  Out of all the main characters in this book I think that Ibrahim got the least amount of development, which was a shame considering how entertaining he proved to be.  I hope he gets more of a storyline in the future entries of this series and I look forward to seeing how Osman expands this character out.  Ron, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ibrahim.  A famous former union activist, Ron enjoys the spotlight and revels in fighting for lost causes against authority figures.  Ron is the hot-headed member of the group and he has a personal stake in the investigation when his son becomes a prime suspect for the police.  Despite his rough and impulsive attitude, Ron fits in well with the rest of the club and is a keen investigator, mainly because of the way he refuses to believe anything anyone else tells him.  All four of these main characters are exceptionally well written, and I really enjoyed the way that they played off each other and used their unique talents to solve the case.

This novel also focuses on two police officers, Donna and Chris, who are leading the official investigation into the murders and who find themselves working with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  Donna is a young rookie cop who has transferred over from the London Police and now finds herself bored to death as a member of a small town force.  Thanks to the manipulations of Elizabeth, she finds herself assigned to the case, which revitalises her and helps address some of her issues and concerns from her past.  Donna proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as she is the only younger person who sees through the members of the Thursday Murder Club and doesn’t fall for their antics.  She also has a fun partnership with Chris, the senior officer investigating the case, and the two swiftly form a connection throughout the story.  Chris, despite being a clever and experienced detective, is a bit of a sad-sack who finds himself stuck in a rut.  This fresh case also reinvigorates Chris, and he starts to fall out of his bad habits with Donna’s help.  However, unlike Donna, Chris is a lot more susceptible to the charms of the Thursday Murder Club, and it is extremely entertaining to see him get manipulated for a good part of the novel.  These two police characters get a fair bit of attention throughout the novel, and their official investigation nicely complements the unofficial one being run by the Thursday Murder Club, with the divergent information they receive coming together perfectly in the final results.  I also quite enjoyed the friendship that forms between Donna and Chris, as it allows both of them to grow and has a very nice development at the end which I thought was rather sweet.

Osman also creates a bevy of distinctive and entertaining side characters, many of whom have a connection to the crime or are a potential suspect.  This includes all the residents of the retirement village, which is filled with unique personalities with lifetimes of secrets.  Osman explores several of these great characters throughout the course of the book, providing some rich backstory and intriguing motivations for their potential involvement.  I personally enjoyed the character of Bogdan, a relatively young Polish immigrant who works as a labourer for the local property developers and who finds himself involved in the case after finding a body.  Bogdan forms a fantastic friendship with Elizabeth and her husband throughout the book, and I really enjoyed his guarded personality and shrewd intelligence, which proves to be an excellent match for the secretive Elizabeth.  I also have to highlight the two major murder victims.  Both of these victims get a few scenes early on in the novel before they are killed, and Osman sets them up as particularly outrageous and unlikeable people.  While this does ensure that the readers are not too cut up when they end up dead, it does mean that there are a whole of suspects when it comes to their murders, and I liked how that added to the case.  All of the characters featured in The Thursday Murder Club were a lot of fun and I had an amazing time seeing how each of their individual arcs unfolded and what each of them was capable of deep down.

I quite enjoyed how Osman turned The Thursday Murder Club into a fun and entertaining ode to the elderly that highlights the fact that retirees can achieve quite a bit and have a lot to offer to the world.  I really enjoyed the author’s story idea of four senior citizens investigating a murder and it produced a truly entertaining and enjoyable read.  Some of The Thursday Murder Club’s funniest moments revolved around the four protagonists manipulating or swindling the younger characters in the book to get what they want, whether it be information on the case or a confession about certain illegal actions.  The way in which they go about influencing the younger people they encounter is very entertaining, as they mostly utilise the classic trick of appearing helpless and innocent, while in reality they are controlling the entire situation.  Some of their methods will be very familiar to any reader with an elderly grandparent or parent, and I personally laughed my head off at one scene where one younger character is slowly worn down through a unique interrogation method involving crowded chairs, friendly company, an overflowing mug of tea and crumbly cake.  Watching the veteran police characters slowly work out how and why they are being manipulated was extremely funny, and by the end of the book they are noticeably more wary about dealing with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  As this is a book about senior citizens, there are naturally a number of jokes about growing old, including entertaining discussions about their thoughts on today’s society and several depictions of them trying and failing to work modern technology.  While most of the discussion about the elderly is light-hearted and inspiring, it does get quite sad in places.  There are a number of scenes that focus on the debilitating impacts of aging, with each of the protagonists witnessing someone close to them starting to fade for one reason or another, resulting in several deep sequences when they consider their own mortality or frailty.  There are also a number of extremely tragic character moments involving age, and you can’t help but feel a little heartbroken in several places thanks to Osman’s excellent writing.  This adds some memorable and necessary drama to the overall narrative and it really helps to turn The Thursday Murder Club into a much more captivating read.  Overall, I think that Osman captured the issues surrounding aging extremely well, and I very much enjoyed his depictions of these badass septuagenarians outsmarting everyone they meet.

I also liked how Osman went out of his way to make his debut novel exceedingly British.  Everything about this book screams “British” to the reader, from the way the characters, act, talk and interact with each other, to the classic, subtle humour that is featured throughout.  Osman also includes a ton of references to various cultural, social and political elements of the country, with the characters discussing or reminiscing about everything from their favourite foods, television shows, bands, locations, historical experiences (Ron, for example, has some thoughts on Thatcher) and various other aspects of day-to-day life.  Due to the way that British culture funnels down into Australia, I had a decent understanding of most of the references that Osman made, although I imagine that some readers could get a little offput by the many references to aspects of the culture they are unfamiliar.  That being said I found the constant discussion about everything British to be exceedingly fun, and I really appreciated the way in which the author made a truly British book.

In order to enjoy this fantastic book I decided to grab a copy of the audiobook version of The Thursday Murder Club which was narrated by actress Lesley Manville.  The Thursday Murder Club audiobook has a run time of 12 hours and 25 minutes, and I got through it rather quickly, especially once I become wrapped up in the fun and captivating mystery.  I found myself really enjoying this excellent audiobook version of this novel and I think that having the events of the book narrated to me helped me follow the plot more closely and connect to the characters more.  I do have to admit that I was a tad disappointed that Osman did not narrate his own audiobook, but this disappointment quickly faded once I experienced Manville’s excellent narration.  Manville’s voice and narration style really fit into the unique tone of The Thursday Murder Club, and she was able to convey all of the novel’s humour, mystery and drama extremely well.  I also absolutely loved the great voices that Manville came up with for the characters featured within the novel, and I felt that she was able really accentuate the various personalities that made up the story, as well as come up with several different accents.  While Osman doesn’t narrate this audiobook, there is an interview between Osman and Marian Keyes featured at the end of it, in which Osman details how he came up with the idea for his book and why he wrote it, which I am sure many people will find fascinating.  I ended up having a wonderful time listening to this version of The Thursday Murder Club, and it ended up being one of my favourite audiobooks of 2020.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is an exceptional and masterful crime fiction novel that is easily one of the best debuts of 2020.  Osman has crafted together an outstanding read that follows some entertaining and compelling protagonists as they investigate a complex murder mystery in a very fun way.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic novel and I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun and intriguing read.  This was an absolute triumph from Osman, and I am extremely keen to see what he writes next.  I note that a sequel to The Thursday Murder Club is planned for next year and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.

Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death by David Mack

Star Trek More Beautiful than Death Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 August 2020)

Series: Star Trek – Kelvin Timeline – Book Two

Length: 8 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Prepare to once again dive into the alternate timeline version of the Star Trek universe, known as the Kelvin timeline, in this latest exciting tie-in novel from acclaimed author David Mack, Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death.

Set shortly after the events of the 2009 Star Trek film, in which the planet of Vulcan was destroyed by the mad Romulan Nero, Captain James T. Kirk is now captain of USS Enterprise.  Given a new mission, the Enterprise and its crew are ordered to rendezvous with Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, and escort him to the planet of Akiron.  Akiron, a resource-rich world containing a substantial amount of dilithium, has recently sent out a distress signal to the Federation, who are hoping to exchange aid for favourable trading rights.

Arriving at Akiron, they find the planet in a state of chaos as the population are under attack by demonic dark-energy creatures, known as wights, who strike from the darkness, eat energy, and appear to suck the life right out of any living being.  Determined to save the people of Akiron no matter what, Kirk begins his preparations to investigate the wights.  However, before he can act, Sarek orders Kirk to abandon the mission and leave Akiron.

Refusing to obey Sarek’s orders, Kirk attempts to find the cause of the terrible events on Akiron and save who he can.  With the help of an old mystic who believes that Kirk has faced the wights in his prior lives the Enterprise crew are soon able to discover the source of the wights on Akiron and the deadly potential their invasion has.  As Kirk and his crew attempt to save the entirety of the planet they must overcome several deadly attacks as well as the sinister agenda of Sarek’s Vulcan aide, L’Nel, who hatches a dangerous personal plan to kill Spock.  Can the Kirk and the Enterprise succeed, or will darkness engulf everything it touches?

Over the last couple of years, I have had a great pleasure of reading/listening to several amazing pieces of Star Trek fiction and I always love seeing the unique and varied tales that the talented team of tie-in authors can come up with.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent example of this as it features a fantastic and captivating tale of exploration and desperation within an interesting part of the Star Trek canon.  This latest novel is written by a true veteran of Star Trek fiction, David Mack, who has not only written a ton of different tie-in novels but who also has writing credits for two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space NineMore Beautiful Than Death is set in the alternate timeline introduced in the 2009 film Star Trek, known as the Kelvin timeline.  This is the second Kelvin timeline novel I have read this year after previously enjoying The Unsettling Stars, and it set between the events of Star Trek and Star Trek: Into DarknessMore Beautiful Than Death ended up being an impressive and exciting Star Trek novel, and I had an amazing time listening to it.

Mack has come up with an excellent narrative for More Beautiful Than Death which sees the crew of this alternate timeline Enterprise attempt to defend an alien planet from a series of demonic creatures.  The author writes this much like an episode of a Star Trek series, with the crew arriving at the planet, analysing the situation, facing all manner of conflicts, getting beat up and then engaging in a course of action to save the day.  I felt that this worked extremely well for the novel and readers are treated to a captivating and dramatic science fiction story that easily keeps the attention from start to finish.  The stakes are high throughout More Beautiful Than Death, and Mack keeps the tension and excitement going through much of the book, focusing both on the mission at hand and on the contentious personalities aboard the ship.  There are a number awesome action-packed sequences throughout the book, and I especially enjoyed the various scenes that showed the Enterprise being attacked by the wights, forcing the crew to flee from an opponent they cannot even touch.  There is also a particularly good subplot around the Vulcan characters aboard the Enterprise, with the mysterious character of L’Nel apparently plotting to kill Spock.  I really enjoyed the way that Mack explored this subplot, showing L’Nel’s attack on Spock as a prelude to the rest of the book, and then slowly exploring the events that led up to it in the main story.  This subplot combined with the main narrative extremely well and the result is a deeply compelling overall novel that I had an amazing time listening to.

Like many Star Trek tie-in novels, More Beautiful Than Death is best enjoyed by those readers who have some familiarity with the franchise.  However, I felt that Mack made his latest book extremely accessible to new readers, and anyone can have a great time enjoying the fast-paced and intriguing novel with minimal knowledge of Star Trek lore.  There are a lot of fun Star Trek elements associated with this novel, and I really enjoyed the author’s intriguing additions to the canon.  Not only does this book serve as an excellent follow-up to the 2009 movie, showing the early missions of this younger Enterprise crew, but Mack also utilises the alternate timeline setting of this novel to come up with clever alterations to the classic Star Trek lore.  One part of the book’s narrative ends up being an extremely ingenious homage to a key episode of The Original Series.  Mack cleverly inserts this compelling altered version of this episode throughout the book, and it was deeply fascinating to see it unfold, especially as the events of the Star Trek film have ensured it is sufficiently different.  This revision of a classic Star Trek episode was extremely impressive and it was one of my favourite parts of the entire book.  All of this makes for an amazing Star Trek read, and fans of the franchise are in for a real treat with this book.

In addition to some cool call-backs to The Original Series, Mack also does an exceptional job bringing the Kelvin timeline versions of the Enterprise crew to life.  The author ensures that all of the main characters in this book are portrayed slightly differently to how they are in The Original Series.  For example, Kirk is a lot more impulsive, younger and combative than the classic version.  Spock is a little stiffer, as he has only been influenced by Kirk a short while.  Uhura is a lot more combative and emotional, mainly due to her relationship with Spock.  Scotty is a lot more humorous, channelling his inner Simon Pegg, while McCoy is a lot gruffer and even more reluctant to get involved in the usual crazy Enterprise adventures (if that was possible).  All this makes for a tie-in novel that is a lot more in line with the newer generation of films and I personally appreciated the effort from the author.  I was tad disappointed that Sulu and Chekhov were not featured as heavily as the other major characters in the novel (something I have noticed in other Star Trek tie-in novels), but this was still a great novel for Star Trek characters.

I also appreciated how Mack takes the time to explore the psyches of several of his major characters, especially as it produces some compelling and dramatic results.  This includes a deep dive into this version of Captain Kirk, such as exploring his mental state after the events of the 2009 film, with a particular focus on the guilt and hopelessness he felt over watching the destruction of Vulcan, which has made him more determined to save entire worlds.  There is also an intriguing inclusion about Kirk’s past lives, with a couple featured as part of the plot.  This leads into some great discussion about how the character is destined to be thrust into great and tumultuous events, which I quite enjoyed.  Spock also gets a major focus in More Beautiful Than Death, thanks to the author’s inclusion of other Vulcan characters like Sarek and L’Nel.  Spock’s complicated relationship with his father and other Vulcans is a major theme throughout the novel, and aspects of his life aboard the Enterprise, particularly Spock’s romantic attachment to Uhura and his loyalty to Kirk, increase the tension.  This adds an excellent amount of drama to the narrative and it plays extremely well into the clever subplot around L’Nel, resulting in an intriguing and compelling narrative arc.  I had a great time diving down into several of these characters, and it helped to produce a much more complete and emotionally driven narrative.

As I do with most Star Trek books, I ended up checking out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format rather than getting a physical copy.  The More Beautiful Than Death audiobook has a run-time of just over eight hours, making it an extremely easy audiobook to get through quickly.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, especially as it features the vocal talents of the outstanding Robert Petkoff.  I have mentioned Petkoff before in several my reviews as he is the go-to narrator for any piece of Star Trek fiction that gains an audiobook format, due to his fantastic ability to perfectly replicate the cast members of both The Original Series and The Next Generation television shows.  Petkoff did another exceptional job in More Beautiful Than Death, expertly bringing every key member of the Enterprise’s crew to life and providing fantastic voices for each of them.  While they do sound more like The Original Series cast than the actors from the 2009 Star Trek film, this was still excellent work from Petkoff, and listeners are well aware which character is speaking at every point in the audiobook.  I also liked the voices that Petkoff utilised for the various supporting characters in More Beautiful Than Death, and there are some great differentiation in tones between the various alien species, such as for the Vulcan characters Sarek and L’Nel.  All of this makes for an epic listen, and Star Trek fans are strongly advised to check out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format.

With his latest novel, David Mack continues to explore and add to the Star Trek expanded universe, this time diving into the intriguing Kelvin timeline.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent and entertaining read that takes the reader on a gripping adventure in space.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of characters, Star Trek elements and his fantastic and unique narrative, More Beautiful Than Death is a fantastic Star Trek tie-in novel which will really appeal to established fans of this franchise.  Highly recommended.

Quick Review – King of Assassins by R. J. Barker

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I recently received a copy of R. J. Barker’s latest epic fantasy novel, Call of the Bone Ships, but before I dive into that I figured I would finally review for the third and final novel in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins.

Barker is a talented fantasy author who has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years, creating several outstanding fantasy novels since his 2017 debut, Age of Assassins.  I was lucky enough to receive Age of Assassins, which is also the first book in The Wounded Kingdom series, when it first came out and had a fantastic time reading it.  I also really enjoyed the sequel, Blood of Assassins, which continued the excellent storylines from the first book in epic fashion.  I was quite keen to read the third book, King of Assassins, when it first came out, but I did not get a chance to read it back in 2018, which I had deep regrets about.  I did  manage to read it late last year, but I then completely failed to review it, even after I enjoyed Barker’s new novel, The Bone Ships.  So it is high time I got off my ass and pulled something together for it, especially as King of Assassins was a particularly amazing novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of 20 years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Barker is the way in which he significantly improves as an author with every single book that he writes.  King of Assassins is a particularly great example of this, as the author does an impressive job expanding and enhancing his already amazing series in this novel, presenting the reader with an incredible story that makes excellent use of its dark setting and exceptional characters.  The result is an awesome and deeply captivating read that was easily my favourite book in the entire trilogy, which is saying a bit considering how good the first two entries were.

At the centre of this novel is an outstanding dark fantasy narrative which sees the assassin, Girton Club-Foot, accompany his lord, Rufra ap Vthyr, into the dangerous capital of the broken and war-ravished kingdom this series is set in.  This results in Girton and his companions stuck in the middle of a dark and crumbling citadel, surrounded by nearly every enemy and manipulator that they have encountered throughout the course of the series, as well as several new ones who pop up in this book.  As Rufra attempts to politic his way into becoming High-King, Girton navigates his way through the many dangers of the citadel, attempting to uncover the hidden motives and plans of his enemies.  Unsurprisingly, nearly every other player gathered in the citadel has plans to either kill Girton and Rufra or manipulate them for their own advantage.  As a result, King of Assassins quickly turns into an intense and exciting narrative, as the characters must unravel every plot and conspiracy in the fortress to find out everyone working against them and what their ultimate goals are.  These leads to several amazing storylines and impressive reveals throughout the course of the book, as Girton desperately attempts to save his friends while also protecting his darkest secret.  All of this comes together in an amazing conclusion which will not only satisfy fans of the series but which also delivers some clever and surprising twists that will leave the reader breathless.

There is a bit of a significant time skip between the events of this book and the preceding Blood of Assassins, which Barker works into the story very well, allowing for some subsequent changes in relationships and the simmering of old grudges.  The author also spends a substantial amount of time wrapping up some of the storylines and character arcs from the previous novels in the series, which really helped to give the novel a sense of completeness while also resulting in some big moments for the various characters.  I also really must highlight the dark, foreboding setting in which the characters find themselves in.  Not only has Barker created a great location for treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed, but he installed an extremely dark and oppressive atmosphere into it that the reader can taste as they read/listen to the book.  The sense of dread and despair that washes over the reader as they have the castle and its people described to them really enhances the story and ensures that they are eagerly waiting for the protagonists to prevail and rid the world of darkness.  All in all, this was an extremely well-written and utterly compelling narrative, and readers will quickly find themselves enthralled within it.

Among the main things I liked about King of Assassins were the impressive characters, most of whom have appeared in some of the previous novels in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  Barker has done an awesome job of developing each of these characters throughout the course of the series, and in this final book they all reach the conclusion of their individual or joint arcs.  While this does result in a bit of heartbreak and betrayal for some characters, one or two are quite nice, and I think those readers who have read the earlier entries in the series will be quite satisfied by where each character ends up.  The focus of the book is naturally on the point-of-view character Girton, who has gone through a lot throughout the course of the series.  Girton continues to battle his demons in this book, including his hidden and dangerous magical ability, and he must come to terms with several betrayals and old wounds from the previous books.  A major focus of the series has been the friendship between Girton and Rufra, as their lives have become inexorably bound together.  While their friendship had some ups in downs in the past, by the start of this book relationship has become a lot more strained due to differences in opinions about certain events.  Despite this the two constantly attempt to reconcile throughout the course of the novel, often unsuccessfully, but the power and complexity of their friendship is a key cornerstone of the book’s plot.  However, their joint character arc has a major twist into it near the end of the book, and the devastated feelings that result make for quite an epic and heartfelt conclusion to their narrative.  I also quite liked how the character of Aydor was featured in this book.  Aydor was one of the main antagonists of the first novel who eventually morphed into a reluctant ally in the second book.  However, in King of Assassins, after the time-skip he has become one of Girton’s closest friends and confidants.  I loved this gradual and excellent change in personality for Aydor, especially as he becomes one the nicest and warmest people in the entire novel and it was fantastic to see his relationship with Girton change throughout the series.  I ended up really loving all the amazing character arcs that concluded in King of Assassins and each of them added a strong, emotionally rich pillar to the overall narrative.

I ended up listening to King of Assassins on audiobook, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out this excellent fantasy novel.  The King of Assassins audiobook is narrated by the talented Joe Jameson and has a run time of 17 hours and 17 minutes.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, not only because the format helped me dive into the narrative but because of Jameson’s impressive narration.  Jameson did a fantastic job bringing the various characters to life in this book and his voice works extremely well for the first-person narration that Barker uses for his novels.  I personally found that Jameson’s narration helped to enhance the dark atmosphere that the author created with his writing and this made for an outstanding listen.  At just over 17 hours in length, this is a somewhat more substantial audiobook listen, but I found myself getting through it in an extremely short amount of time as it proved very hard to turn off.  This is an overall awesome audiobook and an excellent way to enjoy this great novel.

King of Assassins by R. J. Barker is an exceptional and captivating novel which takes the reader on an exciting and addictive ride.  This is an extremely well-written and impressive book that serves as an excellent conclusion to the fantastic The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  This was honestly one of the better fantasy novels of 2018 and this review is a long-time coming.  King of Assassins is an outstanding book, and I am looking forward to checking out Barker’s latest novel, Call of the Bone Ships, in the next week or so.