Throwback Thursday – The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden

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Publishers: Pan Macmillan Australia and Bolinda Audio

Books:

1. Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993)

2. The Dead of the Night (1994)

3. The Third Day, the Frost (1995)

4. Darkness, Be My Friend (1996)

5. Burning for Revenge (1997)

6. The Night is for Hunting (1998)

7. The Other Side of Dawn (1999)

Series Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday review, I dive back into one of the most popular and iconic Australian fiction series of all times, John Marsden’s epic Tomorrow series.

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The Tomorrow series, by bestselling and award-winning Australian author John Marsden, is a powerful and thought-provoking young adult series that was released in the 1990s.  Made up of seven books, the series began in 1993 with Tomorrow, When the War Began and ended in 1999 with The Other Side of Dawn.  The Tomorrow series follows a small group of young teenage protagonists as they deal with a foreign invasion of Australia which forces them to hide in the bush and engage in a guerrilla war to win.  Thanks to its strong characters, frank depictions of war and trauma and its excellent utilisation of Australia’s bush and rural landscape, the Tomorrow series has become one of the most highly regarded and popular Australian series of all times, with millions of copies sold in Australia alone (which, considering our relatively small population, is pretty impressive).  It is also considered a must-read series for young Australian readers, and it is still required reading in many schools to this day.

I have been a major fan of this series for a very long time.  I remember reading these books while I was at school, both for classes and for my own enjoyment, and I was enthralled by its depictions of war and its captivating story, which stoked my imagination for years.  Re-reading it at an older age, I began to appreciate the more complex nature of its story and the characters portrayed within.  I have re-read or re-listened to these books many times over the years, and it still remains one of my most favourite series of all times.  I have actually been planning to review this as part of my Throwback Thursday series for some time, and after recently mentioning it in my First Ten Books I Reviewed list, where it placed No. 1 thanks to a review project at school, I have decided it was time to share why I love this series and why those who readers unfamiliar with it should check it out.

The Tomorrow series is set in the 1990s, around the same time as the books were written, in a fictional area of Australia.  The plot revolves around seven teenagers, Ellie, Corrie, Homer, Fiona, Lee, Robyn and Kevin, who live in and around the rural town of Wirrawee.  During the holiday period they decide to head out to a remote and mostly unexplored area of the bush, known as Hell, for a week of camping.  Isolated from the rest of the world, they are mostly unaware of events transpiring beyond their bush hideaway.  Once they finish their trip, they emerge from Hell to find their farms and houses abandoned and their town occupied by soldiers.  It soon becomes apparent that all of Australia has been invaded by a foreign nation, with Wirrawee being one of the initial points of occupation due to its proximity to a harbour that is vital to the invader’s supply network.  Using Hell as a base, the protagonists have to come to terms with the new reality they find themselves in, and they must band together to not only survive, but to try and find some way to oppose the invading army.

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The first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, sets up the story and introduces the readers to the main characters.  The book starts with the seven main characters heading off into the bush, and then returning to find that their world has changed.  Not knowing what had happened and only initially finding that their families are missing, they venture into Wirrawee and encounter their first batch of enemy troops.  After some initial conflicts, which include Lee getting shot, Ellie blowing up an enemy patrol and Corrie’s house getting destroyed by a missile, the group retreats back to Hell with newcomer Chris, who had also managed to hide from the invaders.  Once back in the bush, they initially work on gathering information about the enemy forces and on turning Hell into a long-term home for themselves.  However, as it becomes obvious that the war is going poorly for Australia and the invading army is here to stay, they decide to attempt a major act of sabotage.  Their plan works, but tragedy forces two members of the group to surrender themselves to enemy custody while the rest of the group remain hidden in Hell.  Tomorrow, When the War Began is an excellent novel that does a great job introducing the reader to the characters and setting up an amazing story.  While Tomorrow, When the War Began would have been a great standalone novel, it also does an outstanding job setting up the rest of the series.  There are so many good parts to this novel, but I have to say that the early scenes in which the protagonists start putting the clues together and slowly begin to work out that their town and country have been invaded are among some of the best in the entire series, especially with the tension and uncertainty that the characters are experiencing.

The second book in the series, The Dead of the Night, starts only a few weeks after the events of the first book.  Still reeling from the loss of two of their friends, the remaining members of the group engage in more attacks or acts of sabotage, before finding a group of adult rebels who have managed to avoid capture.  However, the teenage protagonists quickly realise that the adult rebels have no idea what they are doing, and disaster strikes when they encounter the enemy.  The protagonists manage to escape back to Hell, where they successfully undertake another massive attack, although another unforeseen tragedy is revealed in the aftermath.  This is a great follow-up to Tomorrow, When the War Began and it continues several interesting story threads from the first book, while also setting up some new characters and situations.  The scenes with the teenage protagonists encountering the adult rebels are not my favourite, but the counterpoints between the two groups are extremely fascinating.  In addition, the various covert actions that the group undertakes in this book, as well as the characters starting to show evidence of war trauma, offers some well-written and powerful moments to the series.

The next book, The Third Day, the Frost (released as A Killing Frost in the US and Canada), takes the protagonists out of their comfort zone as they leave Hell and the Wirrawee area in order to launch a seemingly impossible attack on the enemy’s nearby harbour complex.  Their hopes are buoyed when they manage to reconnect with a lost friend whose newfound knowledge may prove to be the key to pulling off their attack.  However, their success is short lived as they fall into the clutches of the enemy army and are soon sentenced to death.  They eventually manage to escape, but their freedom comes at a great cost.  This is easily one of the darker books in the Tomorrow series, especially the parts where the remaining main characters are caught and held in prison.  Some of the sequences in the book are pretty cool, especially the assault on Cobbler’s Bay, and this book is one of the ones I enjoy the most in the entire series.

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Following the events of The Third Day, the Frost, the series experiences a seven-month time-skip as the remaining main characters recover in New Zealand.  As a result, the fourth book, Darkness, Be My Friend, feels a lot like it is the beginning of a slightly different second half of this series, resulting in some significant changes and character developments.  This book starts with the protagonists being asked to return to Australia in order to escort a band of army commandoes to a high-value target in the Wirrawee area.  While initially reluctant to return, the protagonists eventually agree to head back for a short mission.  However, when the commandoes go missing, the protagonists find themselves once again trapped in occupied territory and are forced to use their wits and experience to survive and fight back.  Darkness, Be My Friend is a really interesting and significant instalment in the series.  Not only are there a number of major changes in Wirrawee, including several shocking deaths, but this is the book where the trauma and PTSD angles of Marsden’s storytelling really come into effect, as all of the main characters are completely shell-shocked after the events of the first three books, and it takes them a lot to get back to their former operational readiness.  This book does feature some great scenes, including a night-time escape on horseback and a failed attack on the enemy which necessitates another desperate escape.

The fifth book in the series, Burning for Revenge, sees the protagonists once again holed up in Hell, hiding from the enemy army.  With no chance of extraction back to New Zealand, the young guerrillas decided to leave their sanctuary and find a new target to attack.  Fate intervenes, and they find themselves in a position to do a lot of damage to the enemy.  I really enjoyed Burning for Revenge, even though it suffers from some pacing issues.  The major offence takes place in the middle of the book, and while the corresponding sequences are epic in their scale, destruction and savagery, the second half of the book, in which the characters hide out in a nearby city, really peters out in comparison.  The parts of the book set in the city do offer an interesting change of location, and also feature some compelling story points, but it does seem to be a bit lacking after the big attack.  But the major action sequence, the lengthy escape and the significant story developments that occur more than make up for it.

The next book, The Night is for Hunting, is set right after the events of Burning for Revenge and sees the protagonists still hiding out in the suburbs of Stratton.  Their new way of life is shattered when they witness troops capturing some of the wild street children who also haunt the ruins of Stratton.  Rescuing the small group from the enemy, the protagonists escape back to Hell, and must find a way to adapt to their new charges.  However, Hell may not be the safe haven they remember; violence visits them in the bush for the first time.  The Night is for Hunting is probably my least favourite book in the Tomorrow series, although it still is an extremely enjoyable book and an essential part of the series.  It is a little hard to deal with this book’s change of focus from war to childcare, but the focus on the new war orphans who require care allows for some interesting scenes and some intriguing character development.  Most of the child characters are pretty annoying, but their leader, Gavin, more than makes up for it, as the deaf badass has some amazing scenes through this book.  The final action sequences above Hell are also quite jarring, as the bush location that has been built up as a safe haven for your favourite characters is invaded.

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The seventh and final book in the Tomorrow series, The Other Side of Dawn, begins immediately after the conclusion of the sixth book.  After taking out the enemy patrol that infiltrated Hell, the protagonists need to escape before the soldiers are reported missing.  However, instead of an extraction back to New Zealand, they are given a new mission: to venture out and perform as many attacks as possible.  The war is in its final days and any damage they can do will help determine the future of Australia.  Setting off again, the protagonists prepare for their final battle.  Who will survive and what will the country look like after they are done?  This is a really good conclusion to the series that features a number of great scenes.  Not only are many of the story threads that ran through the entire series wrapped up but the protagonists find themselves drawn further into the wider war than they ever have been before.  Marsden tries some different stuff in this book, including a significant amount of the book focusing on an isolated Ellie, and it works to create not only an enjoyable novel but also an excellent end to this great series.

While all seven books in the series are deeply entertaining and extremely well written, their real strength lies in their continuation as a series.  Marsden does an outstanding job linking all of the books in the series together, creating one lengthy and captivating story that you cannot wait to get to the end of.  The sheer amount of character development that occurs throughout the series, as well as the various attacks and input in the war effort, is amazing, and the Tomorrow series really needs to be read in its entirety and in order.

The Tomorrow series is told from the first-person perspective of the main character, Ellie, who is chronicling the adventures of the protagonists so there is a record of what they did during the war in case they are captured or killed.  I always quite enjoyed having the story told in this manner, as it gave the series a lot of realism and is supposed to evoke other famous wartime chronicles.  Ellie is a unique narrator, as she really does not tell a straight story of the entire adventure.  While she endeavours to cover all the events that are occurring, she goes off on a huge number of tangents, recalling stories from her past, analysing the thoughts and feelings in her head, or engaging in some deep emotional debate about the situations the characters find themselves in.  While this may seem random, it goes a long way to explaining the narrator’s thought process, as it helps her break down events she cannot quite handle and interpret them as something more recognisable to her.  It is also through her eyes that we see the other characters, and as such we get a really good idea of their past and their potential motivations, as Ellie knows huge amounts about their past and tells a number of funny stories or analogies that help highlight their character traits and personalities.  Because all of the main characters are her friends, Ellie’s feelings of closeness and love for these characters really shines through and ensures that the readers really care for all the other characters.  One of the things I quite liked about the chronicle format of this series was that Marsden went out of his way to explain the text’s creation and how the protagonist was able to preserve them through the war.  The chronicles also have an impact on the story, especially in the second book, as the characters read and react to Ellie’s inner thoughts and observations about the series’ opening events.

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I absolutely love the overarching story concept of this series, which sees Australia being invaded by a hostile enemy force who quickly takes over the country, forcing a small group of young people to fight back.  While some comparisons with Red Dawn can be made, there are some significant differences to the story, such as its focus on Australia, character development and the more realistic story of young people surviving in a war zone.  I always felt that the idea that Australia, with its relatively small population and relative isolation from Europe and America, could be invaded and completely conquered in such a short period is a lot more realistic than similar events occurring in America.  In addition, the way that the teenage protagonists operate is a lot more realistic in the Tomorrow series.  The characters spend most of their time mainly trying to survive and avoid capture or death at the hands of their enemy.  Even when they attempt an attack, they plans usually attempt to avoid a direct fire fight, as they realise that any attempts to do so would likely see them killed.  Instead, they mostly travel without guns, hoping that if captured, the enemy would believe they were kids who were hiding and not actual guerrillas.  I also liked how the protagonists’ planned assaults on the enemy are more opportunistic in nature and rely more on improvisation and everyday items rather than training or proper military explosives or weapons.  Most of their attacks involve petrol, gas and weapons farmers would use (although one attack was achieved by toasters), and even when they receive some better equipment from the New Zealand army, they utilise it in a way adult soldiers would not think about.  The author’s depiction of Australia’s invasion is really interesting, and the attack and the international reaction to it feel quite realistic, even in more modern times.  I really love the ideas that Marsden comes up with when it comes to the actions his protagonists undertake to survive the war, and it is clear that he dedicated a lot of time and attention to coming up with these actions.  As a result of this, and the realistic depiction of Australia being invaded, the Tomorrow series has always fired my imagination about what I would do if Australia were invaded, and I have to admit I would be tempted to do what these protagonists would do and try and hide out in the bush.

The way that the war is depicted in this series is quite intriguing.  Due to the story being told from Ellie’s perspective as a chronicler, the reader only gets a fairly narrow view of the war, as the protagonists lack any knowledge of what is happening due to their isolation.  Having the protagonists only finding out about the invasion days after it occurs, and then retreating to their hidden base for long periods of a time is quite a cool concept, and I always found that it added so much to the story, especially realism; you cannot expect teen civilians in the bush to have knowledge of troop movements.  Another clever plot device that the Tomorrow series makes use of is the fact that the series has no singular antagonist; instead, the protagonists see every member of the invading army as an equal threat.  While the character of Major Harvey in the second and third book is an antagonist, he is really just a cog in the military machine that is conquering Australia.  Much more negative focus is put on the enemy army as a whole, even though they are fairly faceless, with only one member of their forces ever really named, and that was in the last book.  I always felt that Marsden considered war and the reasons for it as the book’s primary villain, as the harsh depictions of it and its aftermath are very convincing.

As you would expect from a series that focuses on invasion, war and guerrilla attacks, there is a heck of a lot of action going on within these books.  Marsden has some real skill when it comes to writing these scenes, and the reader is dragged right into the middle of the carnage as the narrator describes everything that they see.  I was also impressed with how realistic these scenes were, and the author does not pull any punches when it comes to describing the carnage, with some truly gruesome or violent events occurring all over the place.  There are a huge number of scenes that come to mind in the series, but the one that I would say is the most descriptive is the airfield sequence in Burning for Revenge.  The devastation, destruction and fire that occur in the scene is just insane, and you can’t help but feel the heat of the flames and explosions that are occurring all around the narrator.  This intense action adds so much to the story and really highlights the author’s skill as a writer.

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One of the most distinctive aspects of the Tomorrow series is Marsden’s extremely realistic and insightful depictions of emotional and psychological trauma as a result of war and death.  The inclusion of this sort of trauma is prevalent throughout the entire series and affects all of the characters in some way or another.  Marsden started featuring these depictions of trauma quite early in the series, as within the first book alone two of the characters suffer from panic attacks after seeing or being forced to commit severe acts of violence.  This trauma continues to define many of the characters throughout the rest of the books, and large parts of the series deal with them trying to come to terms with the various traumatic experiences, the deaths of loved ones and all the horrendous acts of violence they have committed.  The most obvious example of these occurs in the fourth book, Darkness, Be my Friend, where at the start all the surviving characters are deeply shell-shocked and emotionally distraught after everything they have done, as well as only narrowly escaping from the death sentence at the enemy prison and witnessing another one of their friends dying.  Even after months recovering in New Zealand, none of them have come close to coming to terms with what happened to them, and the stream of emotion that followed the discussions about heading back to Australia really cuts to the reader’s core.  This is especially true when at least two characters have mental breakdowns when back in Australia, especially Kevin, whose mind essentially shuts down for most of the fifth book in response to everything that happens.  Some of Ellie’s descriptions of the depression or despair she experiences throughout the course of the series are just heartbreaking, but they really drive home how the war has affected her and how devastating the events of the book are.

The Tomorrow series features a fantastic core group of characters who are thrust unprepared into a war setting.  The characters are a diverse and interesting bunch.  Due to his background as a teacher in a rural area of Australia, Marsden has a good idea of the lifestyle of rural kids, and he incorporates this into his characters.  After the various adventures with these characters, the reader does really start to care for them, and they really feel the dark points strongly, such as when they are imprisoned.  I liked the way that Marsden portrayed their relationship, as the characters become dependent on each other in their isolation and situation.  Each of the main characters goes through some significant character development throughout the books, as the situations they face force them to become more responsible or more vicious, depending on their circumstances.  None of the characters are unaffected by this, whether it is the initially rebellious Homer turning into a compassionate leader, or the initially pampered Fiona becoming a more independent and resilient person.  Perhaps the best example of character changes is Lee.  In the first book he is a more easy-going character whose main story arc involves his romance with Ellie.  However, when he witnesses the brutality of the enemy in the second book, he starts to show more signs of violence and anger, killing several soldiers in brutal fashion.  When he finds out that his parents have died, he becomes eager for vengeance, acting out more against the group and putting them in danger with his decisions.

As the narrator, we spend the most time with Ellie, and as a result we really get a deep dive into her character, personality and motivations.  Throughout the series, so many things happen to Ellie that fundamentally change her as a person.  One of the things I really liked about this series as a whole is the way that Ellie maintains her quirky outlook on life even when terrible things happen to her or when she is forced to do terrible things to survive.  Ellie is the first one of the characters to kill someone, and the many deaths she witnesses or is forced to participate in haunt her for all of the books.  With her strong and overwhelming personality, I always thought that Ellie was an outstanding main character for this series, and she is a fantastic creation of Marsden.

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Much of the Tomorrow series is set in the Australian bushland.  Marsden is a very descriptive author, and throughout the course of his books, he really brings the bush to life with his fantastic writings.  The reader really gets a sense of the beauty and strangeness of the bush, and the narrator, who has spent her entire life near the bush, gives several poetic and inspiring accounts of why she loves the bush so much.  There are a number of great bush locations featured throughout the series, and this landscape takes on a life of its own at times.  I loved the location and thought that it contrasted well with some other locations, such as the city the characters spend time in during the last three books.  The immortal bush remains undamaged through the entire series, while the city becomes more and more devastated every time the characters visit.  I loved the use of the bush, and it is an outstanding location that adds so much to the series.

These books are an excellent young adult series that are a must read for its intended audience.  Some of the violence and other content may be considered a bit much for some younger audiences, although I did read this when I was quite young and I personally think that the underlying lessons and themes well outweigh the risks.  Marsden, as a teacher who worked with teenagers, really wanted to portray a group of teenage protagonists in a positive light by showing them as capable beings rather than as the lazy troublemakers of popular media.  Without a doubt, Marsden was able to achieve this, showing a group of teenagers who able to adapt and survive in the most hostile of locations, becoming heroes and survivors where their contemporaries were mostly captured in the early days of the invasion.  Even those adults they encounter after the invasion are mostly incompetent, especially the group known as Harvey’s Heroes in The Dead of the Night.  These characters, including some of their antagonists, actually try to treat them like children, which is galling when the protagonists are far more capable.  However, the protagonists are able to survive where the adults do not, and even some of the professional soldiers they work with in the later books are unable to do the things they do.  As a result, this book does a great job of showing what teenagers are capable of when they face adversity.  However, while it does show them stepping up, the books do not glorify war for young people, as all their actions are done out of necessity, and they are left with some terrible mental and physical scars.  I would strongly recommend this series for all young readers, and I believe that older readers will become enthralled in the story contained within.

As the Tomorrow series is one of the most popular and well-known book series in Australia for the last 20 years, there have been a couple of attempts at adapting the books to the screen.  While this is not necessarily important to enjoying the story, it is intriguing to see how these adaptations have gone, especially as I do not think either of them gets the story 100% correct.  The first adaption the Tomorrow series had was the 2010 film, Tomorrow, When the War Began, which stared a young, mostly Australian cast, a couple of whom have gone on to some international success.  I quite liked the film, which I felt mostly captured the heart and intent of the first book.  However, there were some scenes that were way over the top or slightly stupid, such as having the religious Robyn killing a whole bunch of soldiers while the camera pans sadly to a playground to represent innocence lost, or the final scene showing the protagonists outfitted like a major paramilitary group.  The film also did a really good job of moving the story out of the 90s and setting it in 2010 by cleverly inserting recent technology into the story.  For example, there is one memorable scene where all the characters simultaneously check their cell phone reception when they first discover Ellie’s farm abandoned, rather than having one person checking the landline.  The second adaptation was a television show that ran for one season in 2016.  While it roughly covered the events of the first book, they really took a lot of artistic licence, which honestly did not pay off.  For example, they spent a huge amount of time focussing on what was happening with the captured parents, even though the parents where pretty much non-entities in the first book.  Stuff like this really added nothing to the story, and I personally thought it was quite stupid and kind of ruined the show for me.

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Marsden actually continued the story of the Tomorrow series in a sequel trilogy known as The Ellie ChroniclesThe Ellie Chronicles ran between 2003 and 2006 and focused on Ellie as she struggles to adapt to life in post-war Australia.  I have actually not had the chance to read or listen to The Ellie Chronicles before, which is weird considering how much I love the Tomorrow series.  I have a copy of these books and I will try to get through them at some point in the future as I am deeply curious to see what happens to these beloved characters in peace time (Is the leader of the Australian terrorist group mentioned in the synopsis Lee?  He was still pretty murderous at the end of the series).

While I originally read the physical copies of these books, I mostly choose to listen to the stories on audiobook.  The audiobooks are all narrated by Suzi Dougherty, and mostly run for around seven hours, with the final book, The Other Side of Dawn, running for over nine hours.  When I do my re-listen of these books, I try to get through the entire series in one go and I am generally able to do so quite quickly, as the compelling story keeps me enraptured for all seven books.  Doherty does an amazing job when it comes to these books and she comes up with some outstanding voices for all the characters she portrays.  I especially feel she gets the character of Ellie down perfectly, which has a real trickle-down effect to the rest of the book, as Ellie is the character narrating the entire series.  I really enjoy listening to the series and I think I become a lot more attached to the series when I do.  I would strongly recommend listening to the Tomorrow series on audiobook; it is an amazing way to enjoy these fantastic books.

As you can see from my rather long review, there is so much about the Tomorrow series that I enjoy.  To my mind it is one of the best book series I have ever read, and even after the many years since I first read it, I am still enthralled by the epic story it contains.  Each of the books within the Tomorrow series is excellent, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes some sensational.  I highly recommend this entire series and I am so glad that many Australian schools still require their students to read it.

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Treason by Rick Campbell

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Publisher: St Martin’s Press (Hardcover Format – 19 March 2019)

Series: Trident Deception

Length: 320 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The world is once again heading towards war in the latest military thriller from Rick Campbell that sets the United States against Russia in a battle for domination.

After Russia’s last attempt to take control of the countries on their western border ended in disaster, the Russian military is eager for another invasion that will restore Russia’s place as a superpower.  However, even with America’s forces weakened after recent conflicts, Russian President Yuri Kalinin is reluctant to challenge NATO again.  His generals have no such reservations and initiate a sudden military coup, arresting Kalinin and taking Russia to a war footing.

America is once again ready to oppose Russia’s advance into Europe, until a routine weapons test sends several ballistic missiles hurtling towards Washington DC and crashes several of America’s B2 Bombers.  The Russians have apparently found a way to disarm America’s nuclear arsenal and are using this to keep the US out of the latest conflict.

As several European countries are overrun, America must find a way to regain control of their weapons and push back the Russians.  Their only hope may lie in the hands of Christine O’Connor, the President’s national security adviser, who was being entertained by Kalinin at his official residence when the coup occurred.  After freeing Kalinin, O’Connor hatches a plan to return him to power in exchange for an end to the invasion.  Can America achieve this with only one submarine and a small team of SEALs, or will NATO and Russia be forced into a destructive war for Europe?

This is the fifth book from Campbell, and it follows on his military thriller storyline that was started in his 2014 debut, The Trident DeceptionTreason follows on the storyline from these previous books, and once again sees America fighting against its iconic adversaries the Russians in an intriguing story of war, espionage and treachery.  I have been on a real military thriller kick recently, so I was quite excited to pick up Treason.  This book is an extremely fun piece of fiction that I really enjoyed and was able to get through quite quickly.  Campbell tells an entertaining story that, while connected to the storylines of the previous books in the series, is fairly inclusive and able to be enjoyed by those readers who have not had the chance to read any of Campbell’s previous works.

This is a pretty good example of military fiction, as two superpowers face off against each other for control of Europe.  The story is a great combination of imaginative storytelling and real-world politics, as Campbell is able to bring in elements of current international relations into his already established fictional version of our world.  This allows for some more realism behind the story, especially when combined with the sheer amount of military detail Campbell injects into the story, showcasing how both sides would prepare for and enact the early stages of a war to control all of Europe.  Treason is told from a huge range of different character perspectives as the author attempts to show as many sides of the story as possible.  While this does result in the book having a somewhat distractingly high number of quite short chapters, it does allow for a much fuller story, especially as it shows the plans of the book’s Russian antagonists.  This also allows for a story that is slightly less “America good; all opponents evil” direction that many military thrillers turn into, as the Russian characters’ motivations and perspectives are taken into account, although America does come out of this book looking pretty good.  Still, this is a very intriguing military thriller book, and I quite enjoyed reading Campbell’s view of how war between the US and Russia could potentially start up, while also leaving room for additional conflicts in future books.

While Treason does not turn into the full-on total war story action junkies might be hoping for, there is a substantial amount of battles and fighting in this book.  A large amount of the action is between covert squads of Americans and Russians, and it always fun to see SEAL teams kick ass against more numerous opponents.  Without a doubt, the most impressive sequence in this book is the superb submarine fight between opposing US and Russia vessels.  These scenes are pretty epic, and they really highlight the author’s writing ability as he drags the reader into the battle.  His quick change of perspectives between the opposing submarines means that the reader is aware of every action being undertaken and they get a spectacular view of the intense battle occurring beneath the waves.  Campbell’s past as a commander aboard a US Navy submarine clearly comes into play here, as he describes all the aspects of submarine combat in extreme detail.  This results in the reader getting an outstanding idea of the various tactics and weapons both sides utilise in these incredible battles, and it was amazing how the fight between submarines felt like a game of chess.  These extended submarine battles are easily the best sequences in the whole book, and I really loved reading them.  This book is perfect for those readers who love to read a good action sequence, and I am looking forward to reading any additional submarine battle scenes that Campbell comes up with.

Overall, Treason is a fantastic military thriller and well worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre or of Campbell’s previous books.  I am intrigued to see how the author will continue this series in the future, and I especially hope to see more of the superb submarine-on-submarine combat sequences.  Treason is a very entertaining and enjoyable book and is perfect for those who are looking for something fun and exciting to read.

The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Format – 26 March 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The end of the world has nothing on the horrors of high school in this fast-paced and widely entertaining new book from bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly.

When Skye Rogers and her twin brother, Red, are forced to move to New York city, they are enrolled in the prestigious The Monmouth School, learning institute of choice for the city’s ultra-wealthy and social elite.  Even among the children of the rich and powerful there exists a well-established hierarchy, and in The Monmouth School, the top of the social ladder are the friends and cronies of the Collins sisters, Misty and Chastity.  Despite only wanting a quiet existence in her new school, Skye finds herself drawn into their orbit against her better judgement.

Skye soon discovers that hanging out with the Collins sisters is very different from the usual high school cliques.  The social group is probably the most exclusive in New York, and it comes with certain privileges.  Thanks to an ancient family secret, the Collins sisters are able to activate an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park that allows teenagers to run through an alternate version of New York: a post-apocalyptic nightmare littered with ruined buildings and filled with crazed survivors.

When Skye and her fellow runners find evidence that the New York they are visiting is actually a future version of their own timeline, they need to find a way to come to terms with the end of the world, especially as the apocalypse appears to be only days away.  As society starts to crumble and the poor rise up against the rich, Skye tries to find a way to use her knowledge of the future to save everyone she loves.  However, Skye is about to learn that her new friends are far more concerned with revenge and are planning to use the end of the world to take her down.

Matthew Reilly is a veteran author of weird and electrifying fiction, having written a number of intriguing books in the last 20 years, many of which fall within the techno-thriller or science fiction genres.  In addition to a number of fun sounding standalone novels, Reilly has also published two substantial series, the Shane Schofield series and the Jack West Jr series.  Matthew Reilly is one of those authors that I have been meaning to check out for some time, as a number of his novels sound absolutely bonkers and really creative.  I am particularly drawn to his 2014 release, The Great Zoo of China, which essentially sounds like Jurassic Park with dragons; his 2013 historical thriller The Tournament; and the books in the Jack West Jr series, which features secret organisations fighting for control of ancient artefacts with world-and universe-ending potential.

I was therefore very excited to get an advanced copy of The Secret Runners of New York, due to its intriguing time travel and armageddon concepts.  I actually really enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York and had a lot of fun reading it.  The book features a surprisingly entertaining use of over-the-top high school drama that actually combines really well with the interesting science fiction elements mentioned above.  The result is an unpredictable and amusing overall story that I had a very hard time putting down and which I powered through in very short order.

The book revolves around the students at The Monmouth School (you have to say the “The”; it’s that type of place), New York’s premier high school for the rich and snooty.  Please remind me to never send any of my theoretical children to any school thought up by Reilly, as the author creates a learning institution that is essentially a viper’s nest of bitchiness, enforced social hierarchy and petty revenge, all of which is enhanced by the fact that the characters are all ultra-rich or have massive superiority complexes.  The quote below from main character Skye, one of the few well-adjusted characters in the book, shows her experiences within the first few minutes at The Monmouth School:

“In the space of a few minutes I’d seen a taunt about sluttiness, a threatened punch to the uterus, some humble bragging by the Head Girl about the school’s social status and a dose of good old-fashioned mean-girl passive aggressiveness from Misty.  School, I reflected sadly, was school no matter how high the tuition fees were.”

I have to admit I did find Reilly’s portrayal of most of the rich teenage girls in this book to be a tad extreme and unrealistic (yes, in a book featuring time travel, that’s what I am finding unrealistic).  I have never been and never will be a teenage girl, but I hope that teenage girls in high school couldn’t possibly be as petty and vicious as the girls portrayed within this book, even if they are the daughters of the uber-privileged.  That being said, I found this over-the-top viewpoint of high school life to be extremely entertaining and it was a fantastic element throughout the book.  Watching the level-headed and somewhat cynical protagonist have to deal with this insanity was a lot of fun, especially when you would imagine most people would be more concerned with the end of the world than with who made out with which guy.  An unbelievably amusing part of the story, these high school elements are great, just try and avoid thinking about it too much.

In addition to the look at the mean girls of high school, I did quite enjoy Reilly’s critique of the ultra-rich and powerful in New York City.  The protagonist finds herself drawn into the world of debutant balls, society politics and the other classy responsibilities of being rich in New York.  Again, this is an interesting part of the story, and the rich characters with their extravagant lifestyles do offer a nice disconnect from reality.  I liked Reilly’s examination of how the rich would be targeted during apocalyptic events such as the one portrayed within this book, and it played nicely into some of the current protests and perceptions of the 1%.  it’s another glorious over-the-top element for this book that provides the reader with a lot of entertainment and a real dislike of most of the privileged characters.

The science fiction parts of this book are incredibly well done and are an excellent part of this book.  Not only is there a devastating cosmic storm that will wipe out most of humanity in hours, but there is an unrelated magical tunnel that the protagonists can use to visit the future.  Reilly does an amazing job creating a devastating and crazy post-apocalyptic New York City for the readers to explore.  I was really impressed with all the brutal descriptions of how the city was in ruins and had been dramatically reclaimed by nature as the infrastructure falls into disrepair, and the whole thing is an amazing setting that Reilly uses to full effect.  I really liked how the author uses the time travel elements within the book.  Watching the protagonists slowly work out that this world is a future version of their own timeline is amazing, and it was great seeing them see all the testimonials and letters from their families describing the events that are yet to happen in their future.  The various time travelling shenanigans used by both the protagonists and antagonists of this book helped enhance this already exciting story, and I loved the way that the characters are able to see the consequences of their actions in both timelines before they actually happen.

The author has also utilised some eye-catching visual elements throughout the book to enhance the story being told.  There are a number of maps used to show the key locations of the book, and there are even a couple of diagrams used to explain the potential time travel issues in this book.  I personally liked the way that the font changed to signify the characters going into a different timeline and thought it was a nice touch.  A range of other text techniques are used to signify angry or desperate messages on different locations, such as walls or the entirety of buildings, often conveying the emotion behind these messages.  All these visual treats are great, and they really make this book stand out.

The Secret Runners of New York is currently being marketed to the teen and young adult audiences, but this book is really on the edge of what young adult fiction is.  While it is focused on teenage characters in high school, there are a significant number of very adult inclusions throughout the book.  It is interesting to note that in an interview at the back of the book, Reilly himself indicates that he does not see this story as being as a piece of young adult fiction, and I think that is shown in the way that he wrote this over-the-top story.  There is a high level of violence, drug use, coarse language and sexual references featured throughout this book, and as a result, I would say it is not really appropriate for the younger audiences and is probably more suited for older teenage readers.  This is definitely one of those young adult marketed books that adult readers can really enjoy, and there is no upper limit on enjoying this crazy tale.

This was an incredibly entertaining and captivating book that I had a lot of fun with.  Matthew Reilly pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the book’s petty and vicious teenage rich girl antagonists, which turns an already intriguing science fiction book into a wild thrill ride of revenge, betrayal and insanity.  I have to say that I quite enjoyed my first taste of Matthew Reilly’s writing and I am extremely keen to check out some of his other works in the future.  At the moment The Secret Runners of New York is a standalone book, although the author leaves a number of storylines open for sequels or prequels, and I would be interested to see where he takes the story next.

Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R. A. Salvatore

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Publishers: Tor Books and Audible Studios (Audiobook Format – 29 January 2019)

Series: The Coven – Book 2

Length: 14 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to Corona, the world of The DemonWars Saga, for Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the latest book from master fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and the second book in his outstanding new The Coven series.

In the world of Corona, no lands are as harsh or unforgiving as those surrounding the massive Loch Beag.  All manner of dangerous creatures live in and around the loch, including one massive and unseen lake monster that lurks right below the surface.  But for those who live in the fishing villages that eke out a living around the shore of Loch Beag, the biggest danger is more human in origin.  Living at the top of the massive mountain, Fireach Speur, is a barbaric tribe, the Uscar, who constantly raid the fishing villages below.  Enhanced in battle by the crystal magic of their witches, the Uscar are ferocious warriors who consider themselves vastly superior to the inhabitants of the villages they raid.

This cycle of violence and death existed for hundreds of years until a powerful young Uscar witch, Aoelyn, attempted to change her tribe’s ways by destroying the fossa, a demonic creature that haunted the mountain at night.  However, her decision will have terrible consequences, as ambitious members of her tribe turn against her.  As Aoelyn endures the wrath of her tribe, her friend, the slave Bahdlahn, attempts to escape from the Uscar with help from an unexpected ally.  Down at the shore of Loch Beag, the trader Talmadge, who Aoelyn saved from her tribe’s brutality the night she ended the fossa, attempts to find some sort of peace among the fishing villages who have accepted him as a friend.  However, the appearance of a mysterious stranger will bring significant changes to his life.

But while those living around Loch Beag fight among themselves, they are unaware of a much bigger threat growing in the East.  A lost empire of goblinoids, the Xoconai, are on the march, driven by the return of their fallen god.  The Xoconai are determined to conquer all the lands of man, and the first obstacle they must overcome is the people of Fireach Speur and Loch Beag.

R. A. Salvatore is one of the best and most prolific authors of fantasy fiction in the world today, having a written over 60 fantasy books in his career. He is perhaps best known for his work in the established Forgotten Realms universe and the incredibly popular character of Drizzt Do’Urden. However, Salvatore has also written a series of novel set within his own unique fantasy world of Corona.

Salvatore introduced audiences to this new fantasy world in his 1997 release, The Demon Awakens, the first book in his epic The DemonWars Saga, which spanned seven books between 1997 and 2003.  This universe was expanded out in 2004 with The Highwayman, the first book in his Saga of the First King series.  After the Saga of the First King series ended in 2010, Salvatore left the world of Corona untouched for eight years while primarily focusing on his Forgotten Realms series.  However, he returned to Corona in 2018 with Child of a Mad God, the first book in his new The Coven series.  The Coven series is primarily set in a previously unexplored area of Corona, in the lands around the massive Loch Beag, with the first book focusing on a whole new group of characters.

I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s work, having read nearly all the books featuring Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions (click here for my review of the latest Drizzt Do’Urden book Timeless).  However, before last year’s Child of a Mad God, I had not really gotten into his work set in Corona, having only really read The Highwayman back when it was first released in 2004.  While Child of a Mad God was not my favourite of Salvatore’s books, it did a great job introducing this new area of Corona, while also creating an excellent starting point for the series’ overall plotline.

I found that I enjoyed Reckoning of Fallen Gods a lot more than the first book in the series, possibly because the author was able to dive right in and continue several of the more intriguing plot threads from the first book.  I quite enjoyed how the story progressed; all of the storylines contained within were very well paced and entertaining, coming together extremely well towards the book’s conclusion.  I really liked the over-the-top way that the story ended, as it sets up the next book in the series with some massive stakes and makes full use of the intriguing new fantasy elements that were included within this book.  A bit of a warning about this series: is it substantially darker than some of Salvatore’s other works.  This was particularly true of the first book of The Coven series, Child of a Mad God, which contained a fair amount of torture and sexual violence.  While there is a little less sexual violence in this book, several character development elements are based around these original events and are discussed in some detail.  There is also some fairly dark and gruesome action and torture, which might not be enjoyable for some readers.  Overall, though, this is a great follow-up to Child of a Mad God that once again highlights Salvatore’s skill as a master fantasy storyteller.

Some readers may be wary about checking this book out because it is the second book in The Coven series and the 13th overall book set in the world of Corona.  However, I found that this book to be easily accessible to new readers, with the author ensuring that relevant details from the previous book and series were easy to understand and follow nearly right away.  In addition, there are also a lot of elements for established fans of this universe to enjoy, especially as Salvatore includes a substantial character from one of his previous Corona based series in this book.  The inclusion of this character is an excellent way to tie this new series with the author’s existing works in this fantasy universe, which also highlights the importance of this story to the rest of the world of Corona.  The ending of Reckoning of Fallen Gods also hints that characters and locations from the previous series may come into play in the next book in The Coven series.

I loved all the fantasy elements in this book.  The world of Corona is a fantastic setting for the great story that is taking shape within The Coven series.  The main location for most of this book’s plot, the lands around Loch Beag and Fireach Speur, is a substantially dark and rugged area with a large number of natural and unnatural threats.  In Reckoning of Fallen Gods, there are a number of significant developments around several of these locations and creatures, some of which are pretty insane.  Just like in the first book in this series, Child of a Mad God, Salvatore continues to expand on the intriguing gem-based magic that is a feature of the books set in Corona.  The gem magic that was featured in Child of Mad God was somewhat different from the already established gem magic used in some of previous Corona books, such as The DemonWar Saga, and is based around the magic found atop Fireach Speur.  This expansion of the gem magic continues in Reckoning of Fallen Gods with the main character, Aoelyn, developing additional magical abilities.  Many of these abilities are quite spectacular, and Salvatore’s enthralling writing highlights how impressive these abilities are when Aoelyn utilises them in fights or other magical engagements.  At the same time, another character utilises some of the more traditional gemstone powers they had in one of the previous series, and it is interesting to see the differences and similarities this has with the Uscar magic.

One of the more unique and enjoyable fantasy inclusions within Reckoning of a Fallen God is the new antagonist race, the Xocanai.  The Xocanai are a new race of goblinoid creatures that exist in a realm on the other side of the mountains surrounding Fireach Speur.  The Xocanai are somewhat Aztecan in culture and their empire has been rather cut off from the rest of the world for some time.  However, recent actions have allowed them to come together to invade the human lands, and some of the events of Child of a Mad God may be to blame.  I felt that Salvatore did an excellent job of introducing them in the current book, and he was able to build them up as a substantial antagonist in quite short order.  I liked how the reader is able to get a good view of this new race’s culture and religion in only a few short chapters, while in-universe texts present at the start of each section of the book help to establish a historical past for these creatures.  In the end, they are a fantastic new inclusion to the series and the universe and serve as excellent new antagonists.

Salvatore has created some great new characters for this series, and many of the key characters who were introduced in the first book go through some significant and compelling character development throughout Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  The main character development occurs with Aoelyn, who, after the fallout of the events in the first book, develops a stronger sense of independence and rejects the established male hierarchy imposed upon her and all the female members of her tribe.  Her friend Bahdlahn gains the courage to finally flee the Uscar and is finally able to come to terms with his feelings for Aoelyn.  At the same time, the trader Talmadge comes to terms with the tragedies in his life and is finally able to find some semblance of peace with the people living around Loch Beag.  Even the established character from the previous series (who I am still not mentioning for spoiler reasons) has developed somewhat in this book, as he ruminates on the mistakes from his past that were covered in the previous series.

I have to give credit to Salvatore for creating some truly villainous antagonists for this series, especially among the Uscar characters.  The main antagonists are quite despicable, especially in the way that they deal with Aoelyn and Bahdlahn, and the reader is hoping for all sorts of comeuppance for these characters.  Even the Uscar characters that come across as more compassionate members of the tribe can still be quite dislikeable.  For example, there is one character who appears to change his ways in Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  However, he has a sudden and quite unjustified change of heart back to the Uscar ways towards the end of the book, and his complaining about the event that drove him to betray his friends really does not endear him to the reader.  These great antagonists serve as spectacular foils to the protagonists and really add a lot to the overall story.

I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Reckoning of Fallen Gods, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  This was an interesting change of pace for me, as I had read the physical copy of the first book in The Coven series, so it was cool to hear these characters come to life in the audiobook format.  At 14 hours and 37 minutes, this was not the longest audiobook I have listened to recently, but it still required a little bit of time to get through.  Reynolds is a spectacular narrator, and I really enjoyed listening to him tell this story.  His base narration voice for this book was really good, and I found I was able to absorb a lot of the story through his great narration.  The character voices he came up with were also excellent, and I loved how the distinctive cultural/species groups within Reckoning of Fallen Gods got their own accents.  For example, he ensured that the Uscar characters had a form of Scottish accent, while the other groups that feature in the book, such as the Xocani have a noticeably different way of speaking.  Because of this excellent voice work, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and I will make sure to get the audiobook versions of this series in the future.

Fantasy icon R. A. Salvatore is in high form once again with Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the second book in his new The Coven series.  Salvatore does an outstanding job continuing the intriguing story he started in the first book of the series, Child of a Mad God, and effortlessly inserts a number of original and familiar elements to create an exciting and epic read.  With some great characters and some inventive new ideas, this is a spectacular new addition to this darker fantasy adventure series.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Turning Point by Danielle Steel

Turning Point Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

From world-renowned, best-selling author Danielle Steel comes this powerful dramatic novel that examines the highs and lows of being a top surgeon in the modern world.

 

Bill Browning, Stephanie Lawrence, Wendy Jones and Tom Wylie are four of the world’s leading trauma surgeons, all living in San Francisco.  Each of these surgeons’ professional lives is near perfect, however their personal lives are a mess.  Bill is all by himself, since his ex-wife and daughters are living in London, and he immerses himself in his work while desperately missing his children.  Stephanie constantly puts her work above her family, barely seeing her young children and frustrating her stay-at-home husband.  Wendy’s life outside work is defined by her relationship with her married colleague, and is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and his reluctance to end his marriage.  Tom, an over-the-top womaniser, is the only one satisfied with his life, but deep down he knows his life lacks connections as he refuses to let anyone to get close to him.

Tragic circumstances in two separate cities will have unexpected impacts on the lives of all four of these surgeons.  Following a terrorist attack in Paris and a devastating fire in San Francisco, both cities’ respective governments organise a multi-week exchange of trauma surgeons in order to help both cities learn from each other’s experiences.  Bill, Stephanie, Wendy and Tom are each chosen by their respective hospitals to represent the San Francisco delegation and travel to Paris, leaving their lives at home behind.

Once in Paris the American surgeons find a deep friendship and camaraderie with each other and the French team, as they have the chance to socialise with those rare people who understand the personal challenges their medical careers can cause.  As the San Francisco teams learn about the French medical and emergency response system, another terrible act of violence hits the people of Paris.  As both the American and French teams deal with the consequences of these horrific actions, these surgeons find their lives impacted in unexpected ways.  How will these events change them, and how will they impact those around them?

Danielle Steel is one of those authors that really does not need an introduction.  With over 150 books to her name since her 1973 debut, Steel is the undisputed master of the romance and drama novel.  Interesting fact for the day: Steel is actually the fourth best-selling fiction author of all time, coming in only behind William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, making her the top best-selling author alive today.  Turning Point is Steel’s first release of 2019, and she has an additional five books planned for the rest of the year.

I have to admit that this is not the usual sort of book I would check out, and Danielle Steel is not an author I would usually go for.  I much prefer novels with a lot more action, violence or comedy than romance or intense drama.  However, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for medical fiction, and I thought that the summary of Turning Point sounded fairly compelling.  I also thought that looking into Turning Point would be an interesting change of pace for me, so in the name of broadening my horizons and mixing up my reviews, I decided to check it out.  I have to say I did get into this amazing story, and enjoyed the dramatic narrative that unfolded within it.

There was a little less medical stuff in this book than I would have liked, but there was more than enough to get me into Turning Point’s story.  There are no in-depth surgical scenes, but the author does a fantastic job of describing the aftermath of catastrophic events and how hospitals and medical professionals deal with triaging patients.  What I enjoyed most about the medical parts of this book are the author’s examination of the personal difficulties that surgeons experience as a result of their work.  All of the characters have stunted or damaged social and family lives because of the huge strain their chosen profession takes and the long hours they have to work.  This is particularly true for the characters of Bill and Stephanie, who have children and families, and are forced to deal with having to choose between their dream careers that they have spent their entire life working towards and their families.  Steel mainly focuses on Stephanie for this, as Bill’s wife left him years before the events of Turning Point.  Throughout the book, Stephanie’s husband is constantly making her feel guilty for working while he is left at home with the children, and this puts significant strain on their relationship.  The sexism angle of this was also explored, as Stephanie’s husband, parents and mother-in-law are all very unsupportive of her role and seemed to think she should be with her children, despite Stephanie providing a very reasonable argument that her mother never complained about her father’s similar medical career.  While the examination of the familiar strains of these characters’ surgical careers is a particular focus, the other social impacts of their work is also explored, and I found it fascinating how most of them could only open up to people in a similar line of work and who could understand what they were going through.

The plot of this book is split between San Francisco and Paris, and Steel fills the book with fantastic descriptions of both cities.  Her characters explore and tour through both locations, and the book comes across as a love letter to both cities from the author, who has spent significant periods of time there.  While I enjoyed both of these descriptions, I found the comparison of both cities’ emergency response protocols and the roles of their doctors and emergency services to be the most interesting parts of these settings.  The differences between how these two major cities deal with devastating events is extremely fascinating, and I liked the time that Steel spent exploring them.  During the course of the book, Paris is hit with both a terrorist attack and a school shooting, both of which are emblematic of the main catastrophes hitting America and France.  It was quite shocking to see the aftermath of one of these events in some detail, but it I appreciated why Steel included them.

While filled with other great elements, at its heart Turning Point is a dramatic story with a number of romances.  A large amount of the drama is generated by the elements discussed above, such as the stresses associated with a medical career or the destructive events the characters witness.  Relationships break down, people are in conflict with each other and personal revelations lead to life changing decision for all the characters featured in the book.  Each of the main characters also gets their own romantic subplots, and I liked how each of them turned out.  I was a bit surprised about how much I began to care about each character, but as the reader dives deeper into the book they become more and more involved in their lives.  While I did think the all-round happy endings for everyone was a bit predictable, I liked how the drama and romance elements of these books tied into the other parts of the story to create an amazing overall narrative.

While this was not a book I was expecting to get into, I did find myself enjoying Turning Point and the intriguing story contained within it.  With some excellent medical inclusions and a deep examination of the high pressure lives of surgeons, this is a fantastic read and one that exceeded my genre expectations.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars