Blood Trail by Tony Park

Blood Trail Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 384 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn a Blind Eye by Jeffrey Archer

Turn a Blind Eye Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 30 March 2021)

Series: William Warwick – Book Three

Length: 330 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

One of the world’s bestselling authors, Jeffery Archer, returns with the third exciting and enjoyable entry in his clever William Warwick series, Turn a Blind Eye.

London, 1987.  After successfully organising a high-profile raid of a notorious drug factory, William Warwick has been promoted to Detective Inspector.  However, with his promotion comes a very different assignment: exposing corruption at the heart of London’s Metropolitan Police Force.  Along with his team of detectives and officers, William begins to investigate an old friend of his from the police academy, Jerry Summers, whose affluent, high-flying lifestyle seems impossible to achieve on a police income.  Utilising several undercover operatives, William attempts to find out the truth behind Summers’s activities.

However, the investigation into Summers’s corruption is only one of William’s concerns, as the trial for drug baron Ahmed Rashidi, whose factory William’s team brought down, begins.  Rashidi’s conviction seems certain, especially with the formidable legal team of William’s father and sister arguing the prosecution’s case.  But Rashidi has hired the services of the slippery and corrupt lawyer, Booth Watson QC, whose contacts and ability to bend the rule of law puts the police’s case in serious jeopardy.  At the same time, William’s arch-nemesis, the criminal genius Miles Faulkner, has escaped from jail and is hiding out in Europe, plotting the next stage of his life of crime.  However, Miles’s sudden death proves to be a boon for his ex-wife, Christina, who uses her windfall to apparently reform and renew her friendship with William’s wife.

As William’s focus is torn between all these different cases, disaster strikes when a young female undercover officer under his command falls for Summers.  As William and his team attempt to discover just how compromised their investigation is, the young Detective Inspector finds himself under attack from all sides as enemies, both old and new, attempt to bring him down.  Can William continue his crusade to bring justice to London’s streets, or will he face the horrible realisation that more of his fellow officers are willing to turn a blind eye than he first suspected?

This was another fantastic novel from Jeffrey Archer, who has done an amazing job continuing the exciting and compelling adventures of William Warwick.  Archer is an intriguing figure who has written a number of amazing crime and historical fiction novels over the last few years, such as his iconic Clifton Chronicles.  I have been rather enjoying several of Archer’s recent novels, including the very clever Sliding Doors-esque novel, Heads You Win.  His latest series, the William Warwick books, follow the adventures of the titular protagonist, who was first introduced as a fictional detective created by one of the characters in the Clifton Chronicles.  The first two novels in this clever crime series, Nothing Ventured and Hidden and Plain Sight, were both awesome reads, and I was quite excited when I received Turn a Blind Eye a few weeks ago.  Turn a Blind Eye ended up being quite an impressive read, and I really enjoyed the compelling and fast-paced story.

Archer has come up with a great story for his latest novel which not only continues some of the amazing storylines from the previous novel but which sets the protagonist up against several new challenges and antagonists.  Archer blends a lot of great elements into Turn a Blind Eye from across the genres.  The most prominent of these is a compelling crime fiction storyline which sees the protagonist go up against several different villains, including corrupt police, art thieves and drug lords, and there are some impressive investigative angles and fun scenes featuring clever police work and investigations.  In addition, the author works in some clever legal thriller elements as the story features several courtroom sequences.  These court scenes are some of the best parts of the entire novel, especially as Archer loads them up with fun legal shenanigans as the antagonist lawyer employs some really evil tricks.  The author also makes great use of the 1980s setting as a backdrop to the main story, and I loved the exploration of this cool period during this fun historical novel.  The entire novel chugs along at a rapid pace, and readers will have a very hard time putting this book down, especially as it features some dramatic twists, clever undercover scenes and very entertaining moments.  Readers of the previous two William Warwick novels will appreciate the fantastic ways in which Archer continues the established storylines set up in the first novels, although the author does ensure that this third book is easily accessible to new readers.  I really enjoyed the fun and intriguing places where Archer took his latest novel and I cannot wait to see how he will continue his compelling story in the future William Warwick entries.

I really enjoyed the great range of characters that Archer fits into this novel, most of whom are recurring characters from the previous two entries in the series.  Archer features a rather large cast of excellent characters throughout Turn a Blind Eye, resulting in a mass of different character perspectives that makes for a compelling and vibrant blend of storylines and character arcs.  At the top of this list is William Warwick, who serves as the central figure for most of the book’s plot.  William is an exceedingly straight arrow, intently concerned with doing the right thing and bringing the villains to justice.  William has another interesting adventure in Turn a Blind Eye, where he is forced to investigate police corruption and finds himself in some strange new circumstances.  I really enjoy the linear storyline that Archer has set up for Warwick, especially as it appears that he will be investigating a whole new crime each novel, and he serves as a particularly good centre to this entire series.

In addition to the main protagonist, Turn a Blind Eye also features several other amazing characters who have some compelling arcs in this latest book.  As always, I have to start with series antagonist Miles Faulkner, the highly intelligent criminal mastermind and art fanatic with whom William has found himself in an intense feud.  Faulkner ended the last book on a high note after engaging in a bold prison escape, and this novel starts off with him fleeing to Europe before circumstances seem to take him right off the board.  This results in an interesting development for the character, although readers of the previous novels will not be surprised by the clever way in which that particular arc unfolds throughout the novel.  I also deeply enjoyed the character of Booth Watson QC, the go-to lawyer for the antagonists of this series.  Watson is a dastardly and conniving figure in this series, and readers will love all the sneaky and entertaining ways he finds to bend the laws and manipulate the legal system.  I particularly liked the way in which he serves as a counterpoint to William’s father, Sir Julian, the highly regarded and undeniably honourable legal prosecutor, and the two have an outstanding repartee with each other during the court sequences.  The other character who has a really good storyline is police officer Nicky Bailey.  Bailey, who is assigned undercover to watch the primary suspect of the corruption storyline, ends up falling in love with her target, resulting in the investigation becoming compromised.  Archer writes an impressive and dramatic arc around this character, and I was particularly moved by its intense conclusion.  All of these characters ended up adding a lot to Turn a Blind Eye’s story and I look forward to seeing some of them reappear in the next William Warwick novel.

Turn a Blind Eye was another awesome novel from Jeffrey Archer which proved to be a rather good and entertaining read.  I loved the way in which Archer has continued his fantastic William Warwick series, and the author has loaded this book with some clever and enjoyable sequences and characters.  A fun and intriguing novel that readers will power through in no time, Turn a Blind Eye is really worth checking out and comes highly recommended.

Turn a Blind Eye Cover 2

Quick Review – City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

City of Vengeance Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Cesare Aldo – Book One

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive debuting author D. V. Bishop comes a powerful and exciting historical murder mystery set in the heart of 16th century Florence with the amazing City of Vengeance.

Synopsis:

Florence. Winter, 1536. A prominent Jewish moneylender is murdered in his home, a death with wide implications in a city powered by immense wealth.

Cesare Aldo, a former soldier and now an officer of the Renaissance city’s most feared criminal court, is given four days to solve the murder: catch the killer before the feast of Epiphany – or suffer the consequences.

During his investigations Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the volatile ruler of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. If the Duke falls, it will endanger the whole city. But a rival officer of the court is determined to expose details about Aldo’s private life that could lead to his ruin. Can Aldo stop the conspiracy before anyone else dies, or will his own secrets destroy him first?

City of Vengeance is an awesome and powerful historical murder mystery that I have been looking forward to for a while.  New author Bishop has come up with an excellent story that expertly combines great characters, intense historical detail, and a clever murder mystery into an awesome and exciting tale.  I had an outstanding time getting through this amazing book, and this might be one of the better debuts of 2021 that I have so far read.

Bishop has produced an extraordinary narrative for his debut book which I deeply enjoyed and found myself quickly engrossed in.  This book contains an excellent mystery which is actually a clever adaptation of a real-life historical murder and conspiracy in renaissance Florence which the protagonist, Cesare Aldo, finds himself investigating and attempting to stop after several other related crimes are discovered.  Bishop builds a fantastic and intense story around this investigation as the protagonist goes up against several powerful foes and is forced into deadly situations as his opponents attempt to stop him.  There is also a great secondary storyline about a separate murder which is being investigated by both Aldo and his associates at Florence’s criminal court.  While this other murder is not directly connected to the main murder and conspiracy, they do highlight some of the personal issues surrounding the protagonist and provide some intriguing opportunities for a dastardly secondary antagonist.  I loved the author’s great use of multiple perspectives throughout this narrative, and he really comes up with some intense, action-packed moments as Aldo is forced to fight for his life.  This story ended up having some amazing twists to it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the events of 16th century Florence, and the reader is constantly left on their toes as they witness all the crazy events unfold.  I particularly loved the final sequence in the book, mainly because it was an extremely cathartic moment for both the protagonist and the reader, and it served as the perfect end to this dark and captivating tale.  This was an overall incredible narrative, and I am really glad I got to check it out.

Easily one of the best highlights of this fantastic book was the impressive and realistic setting of renaissance Florence that Bishop brought into being.  The author has clearly done their research when it comes to this iconic Italian city as the reader is shown a detailed and complex view of the city throughout the book.  The various characters explore different parts of this historical location, and you get a real sense of the scale and culture of this city.  I really appreciated the way in which Bishop attempts to highlight interesting parts of day-to-day life in Florence during this period, and I also deeply enjoyed the examination of the city’s justice system, leadership, and political placement in the rest of Italy.  The author also utilises a range of different Italian terms and words into the text in a bid to increase the narrative’s authenticity.  I really liked this clever use of language throughout the book, especially as it enhanced the storytelling without disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Several major figures in Florence’s history also make an appearance, and I was deeply impressed by the way in which Bishop portrays them, as well as the infamous historical events that they are connected to.  I thought that the author did a great job cleverly tying these real-life figures into the exciting plot of City of Vengeance, and it was cool to see their unique tales unfold.  All this really helps to elevate City of Vengeance as a historical fiction novel and this was a captivating and clever dive back into 16th century Florence.

I also quite enjoyed the characters featured in this great novel.  On top of the historical figures who are seamlessly fitted into the narrative, Bishop has also come up with a collection of fantastic fictional characters who the main story revolves around.  While I enjoyed all these characters, I must highlight two in particular: the main protagonist Cesare Aldo and secondary antagonist Cerchi.  Aldo is an excellent hero for this book thanks to his dedication to justice, his maverick personality, his quickness with a blade and his investigative prowess, all of which help him attempt to solve the difficult crime before him.  Aldo gets into some very rough scrapes in this book, and it was a lot of fun to see him get through them and survive.  The risks are especially high since the detective also has to hide his sexuality in order to survive.  This was a fantastic character element for Bishop to include and it certainly amped up the difficulties for the protagonist, especially when he is forced to contend with people like Cerchi.  Cerchi is a fellow investigator in Florence’s criminal court, and in many ways he is the direct opposite of Aldo, in that he is a snivelling, corrupt and selfish individual who cares more about lining his own pocket than justice.  Cerchi spends most of the book attempting to undermine Aldo while also blackmailing prominent homosexuals in the city for large amounts of money.  This leads to even greater conflict with Aldo, especially as Cerchi suspects Aldo’s secret, and this adds a whole new level of drama and suspense to the narrative.  I really liked the inclusion of Cerchi in the story as he was a particularly despicable and unlikeable character who the reader quickly grows to hate and beg for his downfall.  Both characters have some great storylines throughout this book, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which their combined arc ends.

In the end I really enjoyed this exceptional first novel from D. V. Bishop which was a lot of fun to read.  Thanks to its awesome blend of history, mystery and clever characters, City of Vengeance has an exciting and captivating narrative that proved extremely hard to put down.  I was deeply impressed with the way that the author utilised his knowledge of 16th century Florence to create a powerful and compelling tale of murder and conspiracy, and readers are in for a real treat with this fantastic debut.  I look forward to seeing what Bishop comes up with next and I particularly hope that he revisits Cesare Aldo and Florence in his future novels.

Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer

Instant Karma Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of young adult fiction, Marissa Meyer, returns with a fantastic and compelling standalone romance novel that sees two opposing personalities come together in dramatic and entertaining fashion.

As the summer break is about to begin in Fortuna Beach, a bustling coastal town, chronic overachiever Prudence Daniels is looking forward to her holiday, especially following an arduous biology class with her slacker lab partner, Quint Erickson.  However, disaster strikes at the last moment when she receives a bad grade on her project and Quint refuses to participate in any attempts to redo their assignment.

As Prudence stews with her friends at the local karaoke bar, she slips and hits her head hard after bravely singing Instant Karma by John Lennon.  While at first she considers it to be bad luck, Prudence discovers that the blow to her head appears to have given her special powers that allow her to dole out bad karma instantly to anybody she meets.  Soon, Prudence is enjoying being a force for good in her town, ensuring karmic retribution to anyone who she witness doing wrong.

At the same time, Prudence is still determined to fix her bad grade and approaches a local sea life conservation organisation for more information, only to discover that it is run by Quint’s mother.  Managing to talk her way into volunteering, Prudence finds herself working with Quint, who agrees to help redo their grade if she keeps up her volunteering efforts during her break.  As the two inevitably butt heads, Prudence quickly discovers that Quint is the only person whose karma she cannot affect with her new abilities.  Sparks will fly as these two get closer together and Prudence is about to find out that fate has some real surprises in store for her and Quint.

This was an interesting new standalone book from Meyer, and I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it.  I have to admit that teen dramas that focus on high school romance are not something that I am usually interested in, but I felt the need to read something a little different and I had some great experiences with Meyer’s books in the past.  Meyer is an incredible skilled young adult fiction author whose works usually have a fun twist to them, like The Lunar Chronicles, which re-imagined some classic fairy tales, or her bestselling Renegades trilogy, which focused on a disenfranchised supervillain who goes undercover within a superhero organisation.  I am a major fan of the Renegades novels and I absolutely loved the last two entries in the series, Archenemies and Supernova (Supernova was one of my favourite books of 2019).  Due to how much I enjoyed Meyer’s previous novels, I thought I’d give Instant Karma a chance, and it turned out to be quite a fun and compelling book.  I actually ended up reading it in a single night (I had a deadline) and ended up really liking it, even if I probably wasn’t the intended audience for it.

Instant Karma contains a fun young adult storyline that sees two teenagers with a contentious history find themselves forced together in a wacky and genuinely nice story.  While in many ways this is a fairly typical young adult story, with the classic opposites attract tropes, Meyer mixes it up by including some cool new elements, such as the main character’s ability to manipulate people’s karma or the background storyline of the characters trying to save a sea life conservation organisation, resulting in an excellent and fun story.  While many of the story points are a bit obvious (there is never a doubt that the two main characters will eventually fall in love) Meyer still takes the narrative in some fantastic directions, and readers are guaranteed some fun drama and excellent character development.  I actually really enjoyed getting through this story and I found myself getting extremely invested in the romance between the two main characters.  This ended up being a really good young adult novel, which is probably best enjoyed by a teenage audience, although older readers will have an awesome time getting through this narrative as well.

As I mentioned above, Meyer chucks in some intriguing story elements into this book, and one of the best ones revolves around the protagonist’s newly discovered ability to impact the karma of people she comes into contact with.  This was a rather interesting plot inclusion and it initially proved fun to see the protagonist work out her new powers and use them to get petty vengeance against those who do something selfish or annoying in front of her.  However, there is so much more to this part of the book, as Prudence begins to realise that not everything is as black and white as she initially believes, and maybe the people she punishes do not actually deserve their fates.  For example, she uses her abilities in one case to punish a woman who was defacing a local restaurant billboard.  While it initially appears that she has gotten justice for an innocent struggling business, it is revealed throughout the rest of Instant Karma that the vandal was actually protesting some legitimate concerns, and the actions that Prudence punished were less destructive than she initially believed.  The protagonist encounters a number of these ethical dilemmas throughout the novel, and she finds herself doubting some of her actions and decisions, while at the same time karma and fate push her in some interesting directions.  This adds a really intriguing and compelling edge to Instant Karma’s story, and I quite enjoyed seeing these ethical deliberations unfold, especially as they have some major impacts on the story.

While the karma manipulation story element is fun, the plot inclusion I was most impressed with was the focus on marine ecological conservation.  A surprising amount of Instant Karma’s plot revolves around the two main characters working at a small sea life conservation organisation which is operated by Quint’s mother.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Prudence, learns a huge amount about conservation and animal rescue as she volunteers alongside Quint in an attempt to raise her grade.  This then evolves into an intriguing storyline that sees Prudence attempt to increase the organisations funding by running a series of events to raise awareness and elicit additional donations.  This proved to be an extremely compelling part of the book’s plot, and Meyer has obviously done a large amount of research around the subject, presenting the reader with a substantial number of intriguing facts and depictions of conservation activities.  This entire inclusion fits into the narrative extremely well, and leads to a number of dramatic and romantic moments as the protagonists clash over various aspects of the conservation work, especially when it comes to their differing opinions around ideals and realities.  All of this adds so much to Instant Karma’s overall narrative and I really enjoyed learning more about sea life conservation through this excellent portrayal of a small volunteer organisations.

Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer is an excellent and enjoyable young adult novel that presents the reader with a fun high school romance between two combative teens.  Meyer adds in a lot of fun story elements to this book and I ended up having a great time reading this awesome novel.  An amazing read for lovers of teen drama.

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 15 September 2020)

Series: Kingsbridge – Book 0

Length: 819 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following three long years of waiting, one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today (and one of my all-time favourite authors), Ken Follett, returns with another historical epic, The Evening and the Morning.

Follett is a highly acclaimed author who has written a number of impressive bestsellers over his 45+ year writing career.  After starting off with thriller novels, Follett really hit his literary stride when he moved on to massive historical fiction novels.  After experiencing great success with the iconic The Pillars of the Earth, he has gone on to produce several other epic books, including two sequels to The Pillars of the Earth and the outstanding The Century trilogy.  I have been a major fan of Follett for years ever since I had the great pleasure of reading The Century trilogy.  This was followed up with the second sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, A Column of Fire, which was easily one of my favourite books of 2017.  Thanks to how overwhelmingly compelling each of these previous novels were, I have been eagerly waiting to read his latest novel, The Evening and the Morning, for a while now, and it has been one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020.

The Evening and the Morning is a character driven historical fiction novel that is set near the end of the Dark Ages of England.  The novel actually serves as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth and is part of Follett’s Kingsbridge series.  The Kingsbridge novels are all set within the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which each novel exploring a different period of English history (for example The Pillars of the Earth is set between 1123 CE and 1174 CE, while its sequel, World Without End, starts in 1327 CE).  This prequel is once again set in the same area, with the novel running between 997 CE and 1007 CE.

At the end of the 10th century, England is far from settled and faces attack from external threats.  One particularly vicious Viking raid causes untold damage at the town of Combe, near the city of Shiring, and sets off a chain of events that will change the area forever.

Following the raid, one of the survivors, a young boat builder named Edgar is forced to abandon his home and follow his family to the small hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry.  Living amongst the unwelcoming locals and corrupt landlord, the brilliant Edgar chafes and tries to find a new way to provide for his family.  At the same time, a Norman noblewoman, Ragna, falls in love with the ealdorman of Shiring and travels to England to marry him.  However, she soon discovers herself engulfed in a brutal battle for power with her husband’s family, and any misstep could cost her everything.  These characters are joined by Aldred, a young and ambitious monk who wishes to turn the abbey at Stirling into an academic hub.  However, his strong sense of right and wrong gets him into trouble as he searches for justice in all the wrong places.

As all three of these characters try to survive the troubles of the location, they find themselves drawn into each other’s lives.  Together they have the power to solve each of their problems and prosper together.  However, each of them has run afoul of the area’s corrupt Bishop, who is determined to gain power and influence no matter the cost.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this new novel from Follett, who has once again composed an outstanding historical epic.  The Evening and the Morning is another exceptional book that takes the reader on a powerful and captivating ride through an exciting period of English history with an addictive story told through the eyes of several great characters.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and despite its length (at 800+ pages, it is one of the longest novels I have ever read), I powered through this book in relatively short order as I found the compelling narrative that Follett produced to be deeply addictive and hard to put down.  This was a fantastic read, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Evening and the Morning contains an impressive and addictive character driven narrative that sees three distinctive protagonists attempt to change their destiny and the destiny of the people they love over a period of 10 years.  Set during a turbulent period of England’s history, The Evening and the Morning follows these characters as they attempt to survive Vikings, hunger, bandits and the machinations of a dangerous bishop.  The scope of this book’s story is truly epic as Follett ensures that his protagonists are forced to contend with all manner of challenges and tragedies, from political intrigue, direct attacks, imprisonment and so much more.  The resulting story is deeply compelling, extremely intelligent and wildly entertaining, especially as Follett comes up with a ton of unique and intriguing scenarios for his characters to work around.  I had an incredible time reading The Evening and the Morning’s story and it proved extremely hard to put down.

As I mentioned above, The Evening and the Morning is part of the Kingsbridge series and serves as a prequel to the first book in the series, The Pillars of the Earth.  Despite this, I would say that readers really do not need to have any prior knowledge of the rest of the Kingsbridge books to enjoy The Evening and the Morning.  This latest novel from Follett is extremely accessible, and as it is set more than 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth, readers really should consider this a standalone novel that any historical fiction fan can easily enjoy (that is true for every entry in this series).  That being said, long-term fans of Follett and the Kingsbridge series will no doubt really appreciate seeing this early version of this iconic fiction setting, especially as the author includes a number of clever connections to the future novels in the series.  I particularly liked seeing how the titular Kingsbridge of the series was created, and you also get more of a look at how important the clergy were to the early inhabitants of the town, which is fascinating if you consider how the relationship between the church and the townspeople changes over the course of the series.  As a result, I would say that The Evening and the Morning is a book that most readers will be able to enjoy, while also serving as an intriguing entry in the Kingsbridge series.

The Evening and the Morning’s story follows three major point-of-view characters, Edgar, Ragna and Aldred, and shows the reader 10 key years of their lives.  These three characters form the heart of this story, and it does not take long for you to get really drawn into their individual stories.  Each of these characters has their own intriguing and emotionally charged story arcs, such as the creative Edgar’s attempts to rebuild his life in a hostile new village after experiencing a series of terrible losses, Ragna’s marriage and the subsequent battle to gain power and influence, and Aldred’s bid for justice and knowledge.  I really enjoyed each of these character’s individual arcs, but their real strength lies in the way that their stories and lives tie into one and other.  All three major characters becoming incredibly entwined as the book continues, as they form a strong friendship between themselves and attempt to help each other come the various struggles they encounter.  These separate character storylines come together extremely well into one powerful and cohesive narrative which sees the reader become deeply engrossed in all their lives.  You really grow to care for all three of these characters as the story progresses, becoming deeply invested in their wellbeing and happiness.  While this is evidence of some outstanding writing on Follett’s behalf, it is a little unfortunate as a lot of bad things happen to each of these characters (especially Ragna), and it makes for some emotionally hard reading at times.  There is also a rather intriguing love triangle between these three characters with some interesting LGTB+ elements attached, which adds an additional level of drama to the story.  I ended up being quite satisfied with how these character arcs unfolded, and readers are going to have an incredible time seeing how they turn out.

In addition to the main three characters, there is also another major point-of-view character, Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring.  Wynstan is the book’s main antagonist, a cunning and ruthless manipulator who is desperate to gain power and influence at the expense of others.  Wynstan is the half-brother of Ragna’s husband, who uses his familiar connections and his corrupted followers to control much of Shiring and the surrounding area.  Follett has created an extremely despicable and aggravating villain with Wynstan, who comes into conflict with all three major protagonists, as each of them cross him in some way or another.  Wynstan is an extremely vengeful and dangerous opponent, who manages to do some fairly evil deeds throughout the book, while avoiding too many repercussions.  I found myself really growing to hate Wynstan and his followers as the book progressed, becoming fairly aggravated whenever he managed to weasel his way out of trouble.  This emotional response to Wynstan is exactly what you want when you write an antagonistic character, and I think that he helped add a lot to the overall narrative.

Follett has also loaded up his story with a ton of side characters who the point-of-view characters interact with throughout their lives.  There are quite a substantial number of side characters in this book, but thanks to Follett’s excellent writing the reader is able to keep track of each of them; at no point during this book did I become lost working out who someone was.  Many of these supporting characters have their own minor story arcs throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how they evolve and change over the years.  While quite a few of them are fairly despicable (indeed, at times it seems like the three main characters are the only decent or sensible people in the story), you do grow attached to them and become wrapped up in what happens to them.  That being said, readers are advised not to get too attached to them, as they have a much higher mortality rate, although there are a few happy endings in there which are guaranteed to satisfy.  Overall, Follett does an exceptional job with all the characters in this novel, and watching their lives unfold was a real emotional rollercoaster.

I also quite enjoyed the author’s fascinating depiction of England (with a bit of Normandy thrown in for good measure) during the late 10th and early 11th century.  While the setting of this book, Shiring and its surrounding environs, are fictional, they come across as period-appropriate settlements and the reader gets a real sense of what life in the various villages and towns would have been like.  Due to the broad scope of the story and what the characters witness, the reader gets a look at a huge range of different people who would have existed during this period, including the nobility, the various members of the clergy, the common people and even slaves.  Follett does an amazing job of highlighting how these various characters would have lived, what their professions or stations were like and the problems they would have typically experienced.  The author really replicates the hard nature of the times, allowing the reader a fascinating glimpse into the harsh and dangerous lives of our ancestors.  Follett also works in some broader historical elements, such as the increased attacks from the Vikings and the political situation at the time.  A lot of these historical inclusions, such as having King Ethelred the Unready appear as a minor character, proved to be really intriguing, and I loved how the author dived back into history to enhance his tale.

With The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett has once again shown why he is one of the top historical fiction authors in the world today.  This latest novel presents the reader with an exceptional and captivating tale of love, connection and triumph over adversity at the end of England’s dark ages.  Serving as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning contains an amazing story that follows some driven and likeable protagonists during this dark period.  The end result is an epic and incredibly addictive read that comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best books of 2020.  There is a reason why Follett is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I cannot wait to see what elaborate novel he comes up with next time.

The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt

The Queen's Captain Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Colonial series – Book Three

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s top historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, wraps up his ultra-exciting Colonial series with the third and final novel, The Queen’s Captain.

Watt is a fantastic Australian author who has written a huge collection of amazing historical fiction novels, most of which are set in Australia or feature Australian characters.  I have been a fan of Watt’s books for several years now and I have been particularly enjoying his current body of work, the Colonial series.  The Colonial books, which started back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, follow the adventures of Ian Steele, a colonial blacksmith who manages to enlist as an officer in the British army under the name Captain Samuel Forbes, taking the identity of a friend who wished to sit out his military service.  While the real Samuel leaves to go to America, Ian fights in his place for a period of 10 years, which will allow Samuel to claim a substantial inheritance from his ruthless family.  This has so far been a really fun series, and I enjoyed reading The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger.  I have been looking forward to reading this third novel in the series for some time now and I was very excited when I received my copy, especially because the back cover quoted my Canberra Weekly review of The Queen’s Tiger.  I ended up having an awesome time reading this book, and it proved to be another fast-paced and compelling read.

In October 1863, Ian Steele is still fighting for the British crown as Captain Samuel Forbes, known to his men as the Queen’s Colonial.  After helping to put down the Indian Mutiny, Samuel and his comrades, including his long-time friend Sergeant Major Conan Curry, are fighting the Pashtun in the treacherous mountain passes on the north-western frontier of India.  With only a few months left until the 10-year deal with the real Samuel Forbes concludes, Ian is determined to survive so he can claim his reward and finally settle down.  However, with his typical bad luck, he finds himself drawn into several high-profile missions, including a dangerous operation to eliminate a murderous rebel army camped in the jungle.

As Ian fights for Queen and country, his friends are engaged in their own adventures.  In America, the real Samuel Forbes has followed the man he loves into battle, become a lieutenant in the Union army to fight the Confederates.  Back in London, Ella, the women Ian loves, has entered into an unhappy marriage to Russian Count Nikolai Kasatkin.  Determined to have one piece of happiness, Ella attempts to reclaim the son she had with Ian, but the jealous Nikolai will do the unthinkable to spite her.  At the same time, Samuel’s ruthless older brother, Charles Forbes, continues his relentless bid for power and money, while still determined to prove that the Samuel serving in the British army is an imposter.

All of this will come to a head down in the colonies in 1864.  As Ian is transferred to New Zealand to provide advice to the soldiers fighting against the determined Maori, he will come face to face with an old enemy, and the final chapters of his story will be told.  Friends will die, people will be changed in unexpected ways and the Queen’s Colonial will fight his last battle.  How will the story end?

The Queen’s Captain was another excellent novel from Watt, who has produced an exciting and fascinating conclusion to his latest series.  Like the rest of the books in the Colonial series, The Queen’s Captain is an extremely fast-paced story told from a series of different character perspectives around the world.  The book is broken up into two distinctive parts (although the second part only contains the last 100 pages) and features a number of compelling action and intrigue orientated storylines.  This is an extremely easy novel to get into, even for those readers who have not previously enjoyed the Colonial series, and I was able to finish it off in a short period of time as I got caught up in the various battles and double-crosses.  Watt really took this final entry in his series in some interesting directions, and readers will be intrigued by the various ways he finishes up the Colonial books.  There was a real focus on wrapping up every single storyline and character arc throughout The Queen’s Captain, and I really enjoyed the way in which Watt brought the series to end, especially as the overarching narratives comes full circle.  Overall, I felt that The Queen’s Captain was a fantastic way to conclude the Colonial series and readers are in for a real treat with this book.

Like all of Watt’s novels, The Queen’s Captain makes use of a substantial number of point-of-view characters to tell the story.  This is a combination of some of the established characters from the previous Colonial novels as well as several new characters.  This makes for a rather intriguing, character driven novel, especially as Watt was apparently determined to wrap up as many character arcs as possible for this final entry in the series.  There is a particular focus on the characters of Ian, Samuel, Ella, Charles, and Ian and Ella’s child, Josiah, although many of the other point-of-view characters get their time to shine and Watt ensures that they have a decent backstory.  I have really enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop over the course of the series, and it has been rather heart-warming to see how the hard events of their lives has changed several of them.  I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of the real Samuel Forbes in The Queen’s Captain, as he had a fantastic arc in this book.  Samuel, whose hatred of war is a major plot point of the series, actually joins the Union army in this book, following his love James Thorpe into battle, and while he still detests being a soldier, he shows some natural flair as an officer.  I thought that this inclusion in the book was extremely fascinating, and I loved how Samuel’s arc in this book mirrored that of his body-double Ian, with both of them gaining a reputation for courage and bravery from their soldiers, and both gaining an affectionate nickname from their men, with Samuel becoming known as “the Limey Officer”.  Samuel’s storyline in this book is really good, full of all manner of tragedy, heartbreak and dramatic moments, and readers will be deeply surprised how it ends up.  I also have to highlight the character of Charles Forbes in this book.  Charles serves as the series’ main antagonist, as he is determined to bring down both Ian and Samuel while gaining as much power as possible.  Charles is an extremely slimy villain who the reader cannot help but dislike, and I know I had a rather good time seeing him gradually get some comeuppance in this book.  I also quite enjoyed the various ways in which Watt provided conclusions to nearly all the side-characters featured in the series.  Some of these are rather entertaining (I had a good laugh at one in particular), and it was great to get some closure on all of these excellent characters at the end. 

The major highlights of this book are the awesome and thrilling action sequences as The Queen’s Captain’s characters journey through several intense and dangerous battlefields around the world.  The Queen’s Captain features several interesting and impressive battle scenes from around the world and possibly has the greatest variety out of all the books in the Colonial series.  Not only do you have a number of great sequences in India as Ian fights both the Pashtun in the mountains and a group of rebels in the jungle, but you also have battles from the American Civil War as Samuel fights against the Confederates.  There are also some sequences that feature the Maori fighting against the British and the New Zealand settlers which really stand out, despite the fact that this particular conflict only occurs for a short while towards the end of the novel.  Watt has clearly done his research around these battles, as they are loaded with historical detail about the typical combatants and the weapons and tactics they utilised.  The author does an amazing job bringing these sequences to life, and you get a real sense of the desperation and the horror that the participants would have felt on these fields.  I particularly enjoyed the author’s examination of the differences between small-scale guerrilla skirmishes (several of which occur throughout The Queen’s Captain), compared to the larger-scale battles of the past, and Watt includes several hints about how combat was likely to occur in the future.  All these action scenes are extremely awesome to read and they are a great part of The Queen’s Captain, especially as they help the plot to move along at a faster pace.

The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt was another amazing and enjoyable historical fiction novel that takes the reader on a series of fast-paced adventures around the world.  Watt has done an awesome job wrapping up his Colonial series and readers will have a fantastic time seeing how he has concluded the various storylines and character arcs he has set up over the previous two novels.  A fun and exciting read, The Queen’s Captain comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what cool series Peter Watt comes up with next.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer

Hidden in Plain Sight Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 27 October 2020)

Series: William Warwick – Book Two

Length: 304 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Bestselling author Jeffrey Archer returns with the second book in his William Warwick historical crime fiction series, Hidden in Plain Sight.

London, 1986.  Following the failed attempt to put his nemesis, expert art thief Miles Faulkner, behind bars, William Warwick has been promoted to Detective Sergeant and now has a whole new focus: drugs.  William and his team have been assigned to take down a notorious drug kingpin, one who has all of South London in his pocket and who takes great pains to hide his identity and methods.  However, despite their focus on catching this mysterious drug lord, known only as the Viper, Warwick is still determined to take down Faulkner.

When William coincidently arrests an old acquaintance from his school days, Adrian Heath, it unexpectedly provides him with the opportunity that he has been looking for.  Not only does Adrian have information about the identity of the Viper, but he also has a connection to Faulkner that could be exploited to finally throw his adversary behind bars.  As William attempts to close the net around his targets, he must also counter the moves of his enemies, even when they attempt to ruin his life or his upcoming marriage to Beth.  However, it will take more than personal attacks and clever setbacks to discourage William, and he soon has Faulkner and the Viper exactly where he wants them.  But even in defeat, Miles Faulkner is a dangerous opponent, especially now that he has his vengeful eyes fully set on William and everyone he loves.

Hidden in Plain Sight was another exciting and clever novel from Jeffery Archer featuring a compelling historical crime drama set around the life of a fun fictional character.  The protagonist of this series, William Warwick, actually first came into existence in Archer’s iconic Clifton Chronicles series of historical fiction books, where he was introduced as the in-narrative fictional protagonist of a series of detective books written by the Clifton Chronicle’s main character, Harry Clifton.  After Archer concluded the Clifton Chronicles a couple of years ago, he decided to provide his fans with a more detailed exploration of this fictional detective, and this series is the result.  The William Warwick series looks set to be Archer’s next major long-running series and it will explore the entire career of Warwick, from eager young recruit to hardened and brilliant detective.  This is the second William Warwick novel following last year’s Nothing Ventured, and Archer has come up with an enjoyable new tale that proved really hard to put down.

This second entry in the William Warwick series contains another intriguing and exciting character driven narrative that sees the protagonists engage in a game of wits with some despicable criminals.  This proved to be an excellent historical crime fiction novel that not that not only continues the compelling narrative set up in the previous book in the series but which also sees the protagonist go after an entirely new foe.  Archer presents a great recreation of 1980s London and takes the story in an interesting new direction by having William attempt to combat the city’s crippling drug trade.  However, the story still has a fascinating focus on the world of art and antiquities and its associated criminal underbelly, thanks to the amazing returning antagonist from the first novel.  This story proved to be really exciting and fast-paced, and I enjoyed the variety of different crime fiction elements that Archer included in the plot, as the protagonists attempt to take down their quarry in a number of different manners.  Readers are treated to a range of great sequences, from pulse-pounding police raids, detailed investigations, cunning undercover operations and even a very entertaining courtroom sequence.  Archer has loaded Hidden in Plain Sight’s story with all manner of twists and turns, so much so that the reader is often left surprised at who ends up on top and where the story will go next.  This was a really enjoyable narrative that I found to be extremely addictive, resulting in me powering through the entirety of Hidden in Plain Sight in just over a day.  Fans of the previous entry in the series (as well as the Clifton Chronicles) will have a great time continuing the fun story started in Nothing Ventured, while new readers will also be able to quickly dive into this novel and become engrossed in the story.

Like all of Archer’s books, the narrative of Hidden in Plain Sight is strongly driven by the excellent characters that the plot follows.  Archer utilises a range of different character perspectives to tell his story, presenting a rich and multifaceted narrative that explores the lives of several intriguing protagonists, as well as a couple of great villains.  Most of the story focuses on the series’ titular character, William Warwick, the determined, ambitious and righteous police officer who has dedicated his life to fighting crime.  Warwick continues to grow as a detective throughout Hidden in Plain Sight, losing more of his “choir boy” personality and gradually becoming more addicted to the job and the danger.  Despite that he still maintains his strong moral code and proves to be a very likeable central character, especially as Archer spends a lot of time exploring his personal life and his various relationships.  In addition to Warwick, Archer also dedicates a large amount of the book to several key side characters including Warwick’s police colleagues, the major antagonists and members of Warwick’s family.  These various additional characters and perspectives really added a lot to the story’s flow, and it was a much more effective way to tell this narrative than through the eyes of Warwick alone.  Most of these characters are only featured for a small amount of time throughout the book, but I felt that Archer made the most of their appearances, showcasing their personalities and motivations in an excellent manner and making sure that the reader was concerned for their various story arcs.

While these books are mostly focused on the exploits of William and his crime fighting associates, the character I have the most love for is the villain, Miles Faulkner, who is a constant highlight of each book.  Faulkner is a debonair and brilliant criminal mastermind who specialises in elaborate art thefts and forgeries and who gained the attention of the protagonists in Nothing Ventured.  Faulkner serves as a brilliant foil to William and the other police, continually outsmarting them at every turn and thoroughly acting as the cocky master villain.  Faulkner pretty much steals every scene he appears in, and you cannot help but enjoy his antics, even when you are pulling for the protagonists to knock him off his pedestal.  Archer introduces a number of entertaining and clever twists around Faulkner throughout Hidden in Plain Sight, and it was extremely entertaining to see the various ways in which this antagonist manages to manipulate everyone around him and generally come up on top, even when it appears that he has lost.  I personally liked the more vindictive streak that appeared as part of Faulkner’s character in this book, following his various losing encounters with William and the other protagonists.  Not only does this result in a number of clever and elaborate revenge ploys but it also gives a harder edge to Faulkner as the overall antagonist of the series, and hints that he may have some diabolical plans for William in the future entries of this series.  I had a lot of fun with this excellent antagonist and I cannot wait to see what villainy he unleashes next.

Hidden in Plain Sight is another fun and clever novel from Jeffery Archer that comes highly recommended.  Archer has done an excellent job of continuing his William Warwick series, and readers are in for an exciting and enjoyable time with this book.  I really liked where Archer took the story in Hidden in Plain Sight and I am looking forward to seeing how the series will continue next year.

Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2020)

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of the Australian thriller, Tony Park, is back with Last Survivor, another intense and action-packed novel that explores the turbulent and beautiful continent of Africa.

Tony Park is an awesome Australian author who has been writing some great thriller novels since his 2003 debut, Far Horizon.  I have been really getting into Park’s fantastic books over the last couple of years and I really appreciate their excellent adventure storylines, as well as the author’s outstanding use of Africa as a background setting for all his books.  I rather enjoyed his 2018 release, Scent of Fear, and I had an amazing time reading last year’s Ghosts of the Past which had some impressive historical fiction elements to it.  As a result, I was very excited when I received my copy of Last Survivor and not just because it quoted my Canberra Weekly review for Ghosts of the Past on the back (see below).  Last Survivor is the 18th novel written by Park and it also serves as the fourth book to feature his recurring protagonist, Sonja Kurtz.

In Last Survivor, freelance intelligence agent Sonja Kurtz is back and on the trail of a terrorist organisation who are financing themselves through the smuggling of rare cycads.  This story starts with Joanne Flack, treasurer of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, on the run from her home in South Africa, accused of stealing an extremely valuable cycad worth millions of dollars.  However, when Joanne is attacked by a terrorist operative in the heart of London, she flees back to Africa, where she knows how to hide.

Following a dangerous operation in Mali, Sonja Kurtz is given a new mission by her contact in the CIA, who wants her help tracking down Joanne and finding out what she knows about the terrorists who attacked her.  Teaming up with former Fish and Wildlife Services investigator Rod Cavanagh, who has significant history with Joanne Flack, Sonja travels Africa to initiate contact.  However, the moment that Sonja finds her Joanne they are attacked by a team of heavily armed killers, determined to take her out.

With their CIA contact down and everyone now trying to kill them, Sonja, Joanne and Rod flee deeper into Africa seeking refuge where they can.  In order to protect Joanne, they need to work out who is funding their attackers and what their interest in the cycad is.  To that end, Sonja infiltrates the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society in order to use them as a cover for her investigation.  However, it soon becomes clear that someone in the Society is working for the terrorists, and Sonja and her friends will have to tread carefully if they are to survive the forces coming for them.

Now, that was a fun read.  Park has once again produced another deeply exciting, high-octane thriller that drags the reader in and keeps them engaged until the bitter end.  I really loved this amazing read which combines a fantastic story with a captivating modern-day setting and a focus on a new and unique real-world issue.  Last Survivor is a very easy book to get into and it mostly serves as a great standalone novel.  Readers unfamiliar with Park’s work do not need to check out any of the author’s prior novels first, not even the previous books that featured Sonja Kurtz as a protagonist.  However, those long-term fans of Park will love seeing more of his unique style, as well as the return of one of his few reoccurring characters.

Park has come up with an outstanding and enjoyable thriller storyline for Last Survivor which was addictive, clever and very exciting.  The story revolves around the hunt for a rare cycad, and the protagonists’ attempts to stop the terrorist organisation attempting to obtain it to finance their operation.  This proves to be a fantastic narrative that combines a clever spy thriller story with great character development and impressive action sequences.  The author utilises a number of separate character perspectives to tell the story, allowing for an expansive and enjoyable narrative that splits into several separate plot lines.  I also liked all the fun characters that Park introduced throughout this book, from the troubled Joanne Fleck, whose significant past with Rod Cavanagh adds a lot of drama to the story, to the members of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, heavily armed plant enthusiasts who have a traitor amongst their ranks.  It was also great seeing more of his recurring character, Sonja Kurtz, an aging spy with commitment and trust issues, whose burning love for Africa matches the author’s.  This story goes into some enjoyable directions, and there are several great twists and turns throughout it punctuated by a number of amazing action sequences to really drag in the reader’s attention.  I particularly liked the unique and extended battle sequence that served as the book’s conclusion and it was both intense and entertaining to watch Kurtz and her rag-tag team of elderly African gun-nuts go up against a group of terrorists and criminals.  All of this makes for a fantastic read and I found myself swiftly getting through the entire book in very quick fashion.

Another awesome element of this book is the way that Park once again sets the story throughout various parts of Africa.  Park has a clear and sustained love for Africa, as all his novels are based in or around the continent, which always proves to be an excellent literary setting.  This is once again true for Last Survivor, as the story jumps around various parts of multiple countries such as South Africa, Mali and Zimbabwe.  Each of these different countries prove to be great locations for this book and Park expertly examines several social and political realities of living in these countries, working them into the plot of the story in a compelling and enjoyable manner.  While it is great learning more about these African countries, the real magic occurs when Park takes the story out into the African wilds.  Not only does this prove to be an awesome location for the book’s intense action sequences but the author always provides such powerful and endearing descriptions of the wilderness and its animal inhabitants.  Park’s sheer love of the African countryside really shines through every time that a character considers their surroundings and he always manages to bring these locations to life.  I also like the way that Park uses his stories to examine parts of Africa that he is really passionate about, such as highlighting the damage and evils of illegal poaching, lauding various anti-poaching groups and patrols that are trying to oppose them, and also looking at the various national parks and nature preserves that exist across the various countries.  All of this really makes for a fantastic setting, and I cannot wait to see what new aspects of Africa that Park reveals in his next book.

As I mentioned above, Park routinely uses his thriller novels to throw a spotlight on the evils of poaching in Africa and the organisations and community groups who attempt to combat it.  While there is still a lot of that within this novel, the story mainly focuses on a fascinating new illegal operation that has taken root in Africa, the smuggling of rare cycads.  Cycads are ancient seed plants that have existed since the Jurassic, and while many species can be found around the world, several species are currently on the brink of extinction.  This apparently has led to a thriving smuggling market in Africa with many rare specimens illegally taken out of the country and sold off to rich collectors around the world.  Park really dives into this new illegal trade throughout the book with the story filled with a number of intense discussions about what cycads are, their various biological properties, why some of them are so rare and valuable, and how they are currently becoming a major source of financing for smugglers and terrorists.  This proves to be extremely fascinating, and I really appreciated the information I received learning more about cycads, a subject that I really did not too much about prior to this book.  The illegal cycad smuggling also plays really well into the book’s amazing thriller story, and I really enjoyed how an intense action story revolved around people smuggling plants and the lengths people will go to obtain them.

Last Survivor is another deeply impressive thriller novel from Tony Park, who has once again produced a clever, relevant, and intensely action packed read which you find extremely hard to put down.  I had an incredible time seeing another one of Park’s amazing adventures take place amongst the African wilds and I really love the unique elements he adds to the story.  This is a fantastic and compelling book and it comes highly recommended.

Last Survivor Back Cover

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies

Black Leviathan Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 25 February 2020)

English Edition Translated by Lucy Van Cleef

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out 5 stars

Get ready for an exciting fantasy adventure from acclaimed German author, Bernd Perplies, with Black Leviathan, an extremely fun and inventive novel that is essentially Moby Dick with dragons.

Bernd Perplies is a best-selling German fantasy and science fiction writer who debuted in 2008 with his first book, Son of the Curse Bringer. He has since authored several different series, including the Star Trek Prometheus trilogy, which he co-wrote with Christian Humberg and which were the first Star Trek books licensed to be written outside of the United States. Black Leviathan was initially released back in 2017 in Germany under the title The Dragon Hunter, and it is the first book in his Sea of Clouds series. This is the first one of Perplies’s solo books to be released in English (his Star Trek books got an English releases), and it was translated by Lucy Van Cleef.

Welcome to the Cloudmere, a floating expanse of thick cloud, mists, floating islands and mountain tops high above the ground. Thanks to the magical kyrillian crystals, which allow anything holding them to float in the air, airships now also fly through the Cloudmere attempting to harvest the useful resources available in this harsh landscape. The most valuable of resources come from the dragons, the ferocious beasts that soar amongst the clouds and mountains. Various species of dragons exist, each with their own special talents and defences, and each of which are valuable in their own way. However, hunting dragons is a dangerous occupation, and only the bravest, the most skilled or the extremely desperate set out into the Cloudmere as a drachenjäger, a dragon hunter.

Lian is a young man living in the floating city of Skargakar. The city’s entire economy revolves around the hunting and processing of dragons, and Lian himself makes a small earning carving kyrillian crystals. Lian also looks after his father, Lonjar Draksmasher, a famed drachenjäger of yesteryear whose injuries have driven him to drink. But when Lonjar is murdered in front of him, Lian instinctively gets revenge on the criminal who killed him, and now needs to get out of town quickly or face the wrath of his victim’s father, the most dangerous crime lord in the city. Taking up his father’s magical hunting spear and accompanied by his best friend, Canzo, Lian seeks work aboard one of the many drachenjäger ships leaving the city. The only one willing to take them on is the infamous Carryola.

Boarding the Carryola they find themselves working with an eclectic and effective crew of drachenjägers, and Lian believes that he has reached relative safety. However, the captain of the Carryola, Adaron, has an obsession that may prove to be the doom of Lian and the rest of the crew. Adaron is determined to hunt down and kill the Firstborn Gargantuan, a rare Black Leviathan dragon, a creature out of legends and one of the most destructive beings lurking in the Cloudmere. Now caught between a powerful dragon and a crazed captain, Lian must find a way to survive, but he quickly learns that death is always lying just around the corner in the Cloudmere.

This turned out to be a fantastic and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure novel which I had an absolute blast reading. Black Leviathan features a fast-paced and action-packed story of a group of dragon hunters flying around in the sky chasing after a mythical and gigantic dragon, and what’s not to love about that? Perplies introduces a ship full of distinctive and compelling characters (most of whom you shouldn’t get too attached to), including an obsessive and ruthless captain, and sets them up against a powerful foe. This results in quite a fun and exciting novel, and I enjoyed some of the intriguing directions that Perplies took the story. While some elements of the story are a little bit typical of action adventure novels, such as characters whose death is a foregone conclusion the moment you meet them, this was an excellent story that is extremely easy to enjoy, and very hard to put down.

One of the best parts of Black Leviathan is the clever and inventive new world that Perplies has created as a backdrop for his fun story. The author did an outstanding job producing a unique fantasy world up in the clouds, filled with all manner of sentient races, exotic locations and intriguing magical technologies, all of which prove to be really fascinating to explore throughout the course of the story. The Cloudmere is an amazing location for a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed seeing an entire book spent up in the clouds, either in floating cities or aboard magically powered airships. However, the highlight of this new world has to be the various species of dragons that roam the Cloudmere and dragon hunters that chase after them. Black Leviathan features a world where dragon hunting is a vast and profitable industry, and it is really quite interesting to see the various aspects of dragon hunting and its subsequent applications within this novel. There are some obvious similarities between this fictional dragon hunting industry and the real-life historical whale hunting industry and was really cool to see Perplies reinvent this iconic historical trade with fantasy creatures, floating ships and a sea of clouds.

The dragon hunting aspect of the book also results in some pretty incredible action sequences. There are some really exciting and fun dragon hunting scenes featured throughout Black Leviathan and watching the crew of an airship attempt to take down a dragon in mid-air was easily some of my favourite parts of the entire book. Perplies came up with some very clever hunting techniques for his drachenjäger, and it was very cool to see all of them unfold, especially as many require the protagonist to jump onto the back of the targeted dragon and kill them while riding on their back. This fantasy world also has many different types of dragon with a variety of different abilities (some breath fire, some have sword-like tails), each of which results a different sort of hunt with its own range of difficulties. Of course, the biggest hunt of all is when they catch up with Gargantuan, the titular Black Leviathan, the largest and most powerful dragon in the Cloudmere. That hunt goes about as well as expected, and it was extremely exciting to see the crew attempt to use their tried-and-tested techniques against this beast.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Black Leviathan was a bit like Moby Dick. That is because it features a captain who is obsessed with killing a specific rare beast who wronged him years ago, in this case a black dragon rather than a white whale. The entirety of this feud is actually shown in this book, as the first two chapters deal with Adaron’s first ship getting destroyed by Gargantuan, with nearly all his friends dying, including his fiancé, whose hand he was holding when she was eaten (with Adaron left holding her severed arm). As a result, the Adaron we see in the present is a much harder man who bears a great hatred for all dragons and is determined to find and kill Gargantuan no matter the cost. This results in a great story of obsession and hatred as Adaron scours the Cloudmere for his prey, while also attempting to kill any other dragon he comes across. The author has done a great job showing Adaron as an eccentric and damaged character from the first time the protagonist meets him. Not only does he order his own whipping every time a member of his crew gets killed by a dragon but he also keeps the skeletal hand of his fiancé in his cabin as a constant reminder of his mission to kill his prey. However, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that his obsession with finding Gargantuan has driven him insane. Not only does Adaron sacrifice his crew’s safety to locate the dragon but he ignores the concerns of the people serving under them and he even utilises dark practices to find his prey. This all results in a great final showdown with Gargantuan at the end of the book, and I think that the author did an amazing job concluding this captivating story arc.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies is an excellent and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure that combines a great central story with an extremely creative fantasy world to create a compelling and fun read. This book is filled to the brim with action and adventure and is guaranteed to get any fantasy lover’s pulse racing. I really loved this book, and I look forward to any future English releases of Perplies work. I do note that Perplies released a second book in this series in 2018, The World Finder, and hopefully we’ll get to see that in English in the next year or so.

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Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Young adult fantasy fiction author Laura Sebastian brings her debut series to a close in a big way with Ember Queen, the excellent and exciting conclusion to the Ash Princess trilogy.

Years ago, when the vicious Kalovaxians invaded the island of Astrea, they killed their queen, enslaved the Astrean people and stole their sacred magical gems. Princess Theodosia, heir the Astrean throne, was imprisoned and spent over 10 years as a captive of the Kalovaxian Kaiser, belittled by the mocking title of “Ash Princess”. However, this imprisonment didn’t break Theo; instead, with the help of her friends, she was able to escape to forge her own destiny. Now Theo has returned to Astrea, leading an army made up of freed Astreans, pirates, refugees and forces from the other nations the Kalovaxians have ruined. Hoping to free her people, Theo and her friends believe that they finally have the advantage over the Kalovaxians. However, the sins of Theo’s past have come back to haunt her.

Cress is a young Kalovaxian noblewoman who claimed Theo as her best friend during Theo’s imprisonment, despite being the daughter of the man who killed Theo’s mother. Theo chose to poison Cress and her father when she made her escape, and while she succeeded in killing Cress’s father, the magical poison she used had unexpected side effects on Cress. Despite being burned and mutilated, Cress survived, with the fire-imbued poison granting her powerful and deadly magical abilities. Using these to her advantage, Cress has done the unthinkable, killing the Kalovaxian Kaiser, poisoning Theo and claiming power over Astrea as the Kaiserin.

Barely surviving her own poisoning after a sojourn down into the magical Fire Mine, Theo must now find a way to free Astrea from her former best friend. With her own fire magic greatly increased, Theo plots to take the fight straight to the Kalovaxians. However, Cress has her own plans, and whole of Astrea may burn in order for her to get her revenge. Who will rise as the Ember Queen, and will the winner have anything left to rule?

Wow, talk about an impressive end to a great trilogy. Ember Queen is an amazing book from Laura Sebastian, who over the last couple of years has done an excellent job establishing herself as one of the best new young adult fantasy fiction authors. This is the third and final book in Sebastian’s debut Ash Princess trilogy, and this is definitely another superb addition to this fun series. I have been enjoying this trilogy since the beginning, reading Ash Princess in 2018 and Lady Smoke in 2019, both of which are pretty fantastic novels. Ember Queen turned out to be an excellent conclusion to this entire trilogy, and I had a great time reading it.

Sebastian has pulled together an excellent story for the final volume of the Ash Princess series, and I really liked the way in which she wrapped up the entire trilogy. After the first two novels dealt with the oppression of Astrea by the Kalovaxians, we finally get to see Theo’s big attempt to free her country from the invaders. I loved the way that Sebastian changed the theme of each novel, with the first novel relying on espionage, the second on diplomacy, and this third book on war. Sebastian produced a compelling narrative around this battle for the control of Astrea, and I really liked some of the directions that the story went into, especially when some intriguing new fantasy elements were introduced by the antagonist. Overall, I was really impressed with how Ember Queen turned out, especially as Sebastian used it to expertly conclude this awesome trilogy.

One of the main strengths of the Ash Princess trilogy has always been its great characters, who evolve throughout the course of the books. This is particularly true for Ember Queen, as Sebastian wraps up many of the character threads that have been introduced in the previous books, resulting in some excellent character devolvement as well as some satisfying conclusions for many character arcs. The main example of this is the series protagonist and point-of-view character, Princess Theodosia (Theo). Throughout the course of the first two books, Theo has grown substantially as a character, from a meek and seemingly broken prisoner to a cunning spy and manipulator, to a canny diplomat to finally an effective military commander. We finally get to see Theo take up the reins of leadership and responsibility that she has been somewhat apprehensive of in the previous books, as she starts making the hard decisions needed to ensure the freedom of her people. I really liked seeing all this character growth from the protagonist and I also appreciated the fact that Sebastian had Theo look back and own many of her prior mistakes and decisions that she regretted. Overall, I thought that Sebastian did an amazing job portraying Theo’s entire arc, and I think that she concluded her story in an impressive and enjoyable manner.

Sebastian has also produced some great conclusions to the arcs of the various side characters that were featured within this trilogy. For example, Soren has an intriguing story during Ember Queen, as he finds himself once again caught between the woman he loves and supports, Theo, and his people, the Kalovaxians. Like Theo does with the Astreans, Soren must come to a decision about his role as a leader of the Kalovaxians, and I think that his story and romance with Theo came together quite well. Blaise, Theo’s childhood friend and secondary love interest, also has an excellent arc within this book, finally getting some closure over his relationship with Theo, as well as the conclusion to his mine-madness arc. Several of the other supporting characters get some great advancement within this book as well. Artemisia, Erik and Heron all have their individual tales expanded on, and it’s great to see how comfortable and close they, Theo, Soren and Blaise have come together as a group. I particularly liked the way that Theo has gotten closer to Artemisia, her tough-as-nails cousin and bodyguard, and I had a good laugh at the way that Art allowed Theo a one-off session of girl talk as a way of calming her down before the final battle. New character Maile is an interesting addition to the series, and while she initially comes across as rather abrasive, she eventually becomes part of the group, resulting in a significant revelation for one of the characters.

The main thing that really made Ember Queen stand out to me was the complex relationship between the protagonist of the book, Theo, and the antagonist, Cress. This has always been a rather interesting relationship, as within the first book Theo and Cress were, in theory, best friends, referring to the other as their heart’s sister, even if Cress was actually rather controlling and manipulative. Theo eventually allowed Cress and her father to be poisoned at the end of the first book, and Cress now holds a heavy grudge against Theo for her betrayal. She has also evolved as a character since this first book, morphing into a much more confident woman who has taken control of her people in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Theo’s growth as a leader. However, this is where some of the similarities end, as Cress is now a bit of a black mirror to Theo, as she is cruel, ruthless, determined to win whatever the cost and has no compunction about killing innocents. Despite all this, Theo is still drawn to her old friend, and the two of them have a compelling emotional bond (as well as an actual magical bond) throughout this novel. Theo feels guilty for the way that she betrayed and poisoned Cress, and she has a bit of a hard time seeing the evil person that she has become, and is more inclined to consider mercy than her friends would like. Cress, on the other hand, acts as ruthlessly as possible towards Theo and her friends, and is actually an extremely convincing antagonist for this book. Despite her actions, the reader gets to see that Cress is still deeply concerned with what Theo thinks about her and her plans, and there are still hints of a connection. However, her sense of betrayal, anger and determination to keep her newfound power always start to overwhelm any connection she feels to her old friend, and this leads to some devastating and heart-breaking confrontations. This whole dynamic between protagonist and antagonist is a really amazing part of Ember Queen, and adds significantly to the overall quality of the story.

I have always appreciated the magical system that Sebastian has featured in her Ash Princess books. This magic is elemental in nature, based around fire, earth, water or air (similar to the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a few key differences), and is exclusive to the Astreans, due to the presence of the magical mines located on their island. This magic has been a bit of an understated affair in the previous books, as the plots of those novels focused on espionage and diplomacy and required smaller, more subtle displays of magic. However, in Ember Queen, the Astreans are now at war, and so the magical gloves are off. This book is filled with a number of great examples of just how powerful or effective Astrean magic can be and it is a really cool addition to the series. Seeing the formerly enslaved or dispossessed Astreans unleash their power against their oppressors is a little cathartic, and it certainly makes for some great, if devastating, scenes. Sebastian also does some intriguing morphing of her magical system when it comes to Theo, Cress and some other characters, and this results in a rather interesting plot line that I liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Ember Queen is a rather good piece of young adult fiction. Sebastian has created an amazing story that features a group of young people growing as characters and sacrificing everything for freedom, friendship and justice. This a great book for younger readers, and while there is plenty of violence, war and fighting, there is nothing too graphic or over-the-top that makes it inappropriate for younger readers. I personally really appreciated Sebastian’s excellent portrayal of several LGBT+ characters within this book, especially as two of these characters had one of the best romantic relationships in the entire series. Despite being angled towards younger readers, Ember Queen is one of those books that can be enjoyed by a wider audience of people. There is definitely something for everyone in this book and it is really worth checking out.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian is a wonderful novel that not only contains a captivating story, but which also does an awesome job concluding the author’s debut trilogy. In this final book in the Ash Princess trilogy, Sebastian presents a desperate battle for freedom, complete with intriguing magical elements, excellent characters, complex interactions between the protagonist and antagonist and a fantastic story. All of this comes together in a first-rate read, which is a great conclusion to this series. I note that Sebastian has her next body of work already planned out, with the first book in her upcoming young adult fantasy series, Constellation of Chaos, set for release next year. This new book has an interesting plot synopsis out already and I am planning to grab this book when it comes out. Until then, Ember Queen is an excellent book from Sebastian and it is really worth seeing how this fantastic trilogy ends.