The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover 2

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to save all the monsters as bestselling and madly inventive science fiction author John Scalzi presents his latest captivating and funny novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.

I have a lot of love for imaginative author John Scalzi, who is probably best known for his Old Man’s War and The Interdependency series, both of which make great use of high-concept science fiction elements.  I personally first experienced the author when I read his standalone novel, Redshirts a couple of years ago.  This cool and clever book served as the ultimate parody of Star Trek, focusing on an Enterprise-esque spaceship whose regular crew are extremely aware that something is very wrong as they keep dying in ridiculous situations.  I had an absolute blast with Redshirts and I have been keeping a very close eye out for anything else Scalzi was writing.  As such, I was extremely excited when I saw that his new book, The Kaiju Preservation Society was coming out this year, especially as it had such a unique and interesting plot to it.

As COVID-19 starts to run rampart through New York City, Jamie Gray’s entire life is thrown upside-down when his terrible boss steals his ideas and fires him.  Forced to work as a driver for the same food delivery app he developed, Jamie despairs at his now dead-end life, until one delivery leads to a chance encounter with an old acquaintance of his, Tom, who works for a mysterious animal rights organisation.  In desperate need of a new team member to help with their next expedition, Tom offers the job to Jamie, who jumps at the chance at a high-paying job.

However, Jamie is unprepared for just how unusual his life is about to become as the expedition first journeys to the heart of Greenland, and then through a portal into a parallel Earth filled with lush jungle, an untouched atmosphere, and giant mountain-sized creatures named kaiju.  It turns out that his new employers, known as the Kaiju Preservation Society, specialise in researching and preserving these vast creatures, while also working to keep them from leaving their own, human-less world, and traversing the barrier to ours.

Enraptured by the strange new world and exciting opportunities they present; Jamie soon takes to his role as a member of the Kaiju Preservation Society.  However, his complex and dangerous new employment is about to get even harder when strange events start occurring around camp.  It soon turns out that others have found a way to cross the boundaries between worlds and they have designs on the kaiju.  Jamie and his friends must find a way to stop these intruders before their carelessness destroys a kaiju and millions of people on our world.

Scalzi has done it again, producing a clever and wildly entertaining book that makes brilliant use of a distinctive and unique idea.  I had an incredible time reading The Kaiju Preservation Society, and I really loved the cool ideas, intelligent science fiction elements, and exciting story it contained.

The author has come up with an excellent story for The Kaiju Preservation Society that proves incredibly easy to get into and enjoy.  This is a very intriguing and captivating read that quickly drags in the audience and gets them exceedingly addicted to the plot.  Being a relatively short novel, it is an extremely fast paced, self-contained read that requires no prior experience of Scalzi’s books.  It doesn’t take long for the events of the novel to unfold, with the reader soon introduced to the key characters, new friends, and the necessary set-up for the eventual dive into kaiju land.  Once through the portal, the reader is given a crash course on the rules and attributes of the new world, the various issues the staff there are forced to contend with, and the crazy people who would choose to live amongst the monsters.  After several fantastic and action-packed sequences, often broken up by several elaborate and comedic discussions between the protagonist and his friends, the book heads towards its intriguing final third, which identifies the main threat of the book and forces the characters to act.  This final bit is extremely exciting and fun, and there are several intense moments as the characters face death, tragedy and one of the smarmiest villains I have had the pleasure of reading about.  This leads up to an amazing conclusion that wraps everything up nicely and ensures everyone leaves the book incredibly satisfied.

I mostly liked how Scalzi wrote this book, especially as he clearly had a lot of fun introducing this bold new world and its many awesome features.  The author does a lot in a short amount of time, and you are soon immersed in the excellent world of Kaijus.  Told perfectly from the perspective of the main protagonist, who, like the reader, is seeing everything in this world for the first time, you quickly get a sense of all the craziness that occurs in this land, and the various issues they experience.  I loved all the unique elements Scalzi came up with, from the impossible, nuclear-powered, mountain sized monsters with their complex biology and giant parasites, to the mass of strange creatures haunting the land, the unique landscape, and the various other awesome elements.  You get a great sense of everything in this world, and Scalzi ensures that the science is both realistic and easy to understand at the same time.  This proves to be such an impressive setting for this fantastic read, and you will wish that the author had made the book even longer just to see more of this strange new world.  While there is a good focus on monsters, exploration and science, Scalzi also makes sure to lace The Kaiju Preservation Society with a great amount of comedy that proves to be extremely entertaining and amusing.  This book is filled with so many fantastic and clever jokes, which range from comedic reactions to the outrageous events occurring around them, to fun, if random, pop culture references (for example, one of the villains is inspired by Trading Places), and multiple entertaining interactions between the eccentric central cast.  You end up really getting into this excellent story as a result and it is so very fun to read.

I did have some minor issues with some of the dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society, as certain exchanges came across as a little clunky.  I must note the somewhat overuse of dialogue tags (he said, she said, I said) after direct speech, which is something I noticed when I read Redshirts.  While it was not as obvious or problematic in The Kaiju Preservation Society, possibly because I read a physical version rather than the listening to the audiobook, the overuse of them still stood out a little and spoiled the flow of the book at times.  I also really wish that Scalzi could be a bit more descriptive with his writing in places, especially when it comes to the kaiju and some of the characters.  For being such a key part of the plot you often don’t fully grasp what these creatures look like, with only very general descriptions of their size and shape being featured, unless an attribute is essential to the plot.  There was also a complete lack of character description throughout the book, which I found to be a little distracting, especially as I often had no idea what a person looked like.  For example, I didn’t realise character was nonbinary until halfway through the novel when they started getting a little more focus and the them/they pronouns started being used with more regularity.  While some of this stuff is a little annoying, I felt that the strong and entertaining story more than overcomes it and you end up overlooking these minor stylistic problems.

The insanely brilliant John Scalzi continues to shine with his latest kooky and compelling science fiction read, The Kaiju Preservation Society.  Filled with a wild and captivating exploration of a distinctive alternate Earth, you will quickly fall in love with this exciting and humorous story.  I had an absolute blast getting through the awesomeness that is The Kaiju Preservation Society and I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something light and fun to get through.

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover

Quick Review – A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley

A Great Hope Cover

Publisher: Picador (Trade Paperback – 22 February 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author Jessica Stanley produces a compelling Australian political drama, A Great Hope, an intense read that looks at the impact of the mysterious death of a politician on his family, set to the backdrop of a turbulent time in Australian politics.

Plot Synopsis:

John Clare was a titan in Australian politics. The head of a powerful union and a key player in the election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2007, he had long been tipped as a future leader himself. Supporting him in his push for power were his elegant wife Grace, his troubled children Sophie and Toby, and Tessa, the mistress he thought would stay secret.

But now John has fallen, brutally, to his death. A terrible accident – or was it?

In the wake of losing John, his inner circle mourn and rage, remembering and trying to forget the many ways he’d loved and disappointed them. An adoring and unreliable father; a grateful and selfish husband; a besotted and absent lover; an authoritative and compassionate leader; a failed politician in an era when party politics failed a nation. As those around him reassess everything they knew of and felt for John, a new idea of what love and power really mean begins to emerge – as does the true cause of his death.

Gripping, propulsive and ambitious, A Great Hope untangles the mystery of John’s fall through the eyes of those who knew him best – or thought they did. Deftly displaying the clash of the political and the personal, this is a novel for our times, from a brilliant and forceful new Australian writer.

This was an excellent novel which I think did a great job telling a unique story by exploring some of the more controversial elements of recent Australian politics.  A Great Hope’s story is a great blend of personal drama, political intrigue and contemporary historical fiction, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as various characters attempt to understand the death of John Clare and the impact he had on the world.

Telling the story from a variety of different perspectives, including those of his family, his mistress, and other related figures, Stanley presents a complex and winding narrative that proves to be very compelling at times.  Initially set one year after the death of John Clare, the story jumps around the various point-of-view characters, and the readers are shown not only their present situations and opinions but also the origins of the characters as well as the full events that led up to the night John Clare died.  While this does produce a cluttered story with a few odd moments (such as the unnecessary and graphic sex scenes), the reader is soon treated to a unique story that cleverly builds up to the finale while also exploring the various key characters.  You get a real sense of everyone featured in the novel, especially those closest to John Clare, and their complex lives and relationships with the political heavyweights.  Unfortunately, most of these characters are pretty terrible people who are fairly insufferable and hard to enjoy.  While this was no doubt the intent, to show the strain and ugliness a political life brings out, there are barely any relatable or redeemable figures here (honestly the only character I particularly liked was the mistress, Tessa, which is a bit odd when you think about it).

While this lack of likeable characters did slow the flow and my enjoyment of the story a little, I managed to power through the last 200 pages in a single sitting.  There are some interesting resolutions and revelations towards the end, and I enjoyed seeing some of the storylines come full circle, especially those that are set up in the present and then expanded on in the flashbacks.  The resolution of who or what caused the death of John Clare was pretty interesting and a little surprising, but it fit nicely into the unique feel and storytelling of A Great Hope.

One of the most distinctive elements of A Great Hope was the author’s intense and in-depth examination of Australian politics in the early 21st century, particularly around the 2007 and 2010 elections.  This is mainly because the author, Jessica Stanley, was herself involved in some of these campaigns, particularly in 2007, when she served as one of the party’s social media consultants (similar to main character Tessa).  As such, this book contains some compelling and fascinating insights into the election campaign, candidates, and voters, particularly those associated with Australia’s major left-wing party (the Labor party), which really added to my enjoyment of the book.  Some of the more intriguing and compelling political moments of this period are scattered throughout A Great Hope, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the author’s take on what happened and why.  The author also examines the growing impact of social media during this time, as well as other intriguing elements about campaigns and party politics.  However, readers should be warned that these political elements do start to get very upsetting as the book continues, especially as Stanley dives into the failures of government, the increased political hostility, the rejection of climate change by the opposition, and the inherent sexism that defined the era between 2007 and 2010.  This stirred up some unpleasant memories of the political landscape of the time, but I did find this to be an interesting and captivating part of the novel, and I really appreciated how much these unique and realistic inclusions added to the story.

Fantastic new author Jessica Stanley got off to a great start here with A Great Hope, producing an intriguing and distinctive novel that makes excellent use of the author’s political insights.  While I had some issues with the story and characters, A Great Hope ended up being quite an entertaining book, and I was very interested in seeing how everything came together, as well as all the clever political inclusions.  I look forward to seeing what Stanley writes in the future, especially as there are so many memorable moments in Australian politics to set a story around.

The Colonial’s Son by Peter Watt

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Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 October 2021)

Series: Colonial’s Son – Book One

Length: 367 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, returns with The Colonial’s Son, the first book in a new series that follows on from his exceptional Colonial trilogy.

Peter Watt is a fun and talented author whose work I have been deeply enjoying over the last few years.  Watt specialises in historical fiction novels with a focus on Australian characters and has so far written three great series.  This includes his long-running Frontier series, which followed two rival Australian families throughout the generations as they got involved in some of the defining moments of Australian history (check out my reviews for While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).  He also wrote the fantastic Colonial trilogy that followed an Australian blacksmith who joined the British army as an officer during the mid-19th century.  This was an amazing and action-packed historical series, and featured three great books, The Queen’s Colonial, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain.  Watt’s most recent novel, The Colonial’s Son, is a direct sequel to the Colonial series, set several years after the conclusion of The Queen’s Captain.

Sydney, 1875.  After leaving the army and returning to Australia, former British army captain, Ian Steele, better known by the moniker his troops gave him, the Colonial, has settled down and started a successful business empire.  Now the father of three children, Ian is hoping for a quiet life, but is still facing several problems, including the fact that his oldest son, Josiah Steele, is determined to follow in his footsteps and join the British army as an officer.

When an old friend from his army days requests his help, Ian takes Josiah to Queensland to visit the notorious goldfields near the Palmer River.  There, Josiah gets his first taste for action as he and his father find themselves beset by bushrangers, hostile Indigenous tribes and warring Chinese criminal organisations.  Despite experiencing the terrors and tragedies of combat, Josiah is more determined than ever to join the army and travels to England to enrol in a prestigious military academy.  However, rather than gaining a formal training, he is immediately drafted into England’s latest war as a junior officer.

Travelling to Afghanistan, Josiah and his men engage in a series of bloody battles to hold onto the dangerous land for the empire.  Gaining the attention of his commanders, Josiah is chosen for a different sort of mission and sent to the newly united Germany where an old friend may hold the answer to the future of British/German relations.  Back in Australia, Ian Steele finds himself fighting a new enemy, one whose insidious ways could bring down everything he has struggled to build.  Can Ian survive this latest threat, especially when it drives him to do the unthinkable, and will Josiah be able to live up to the impossible military legacy of the Colonial?

This was another exciting and very enjoyable novel from Watt, who has proven himself one of the best authors of Australian historical adventure novels.  The Colonial’s Son is an amazing sequel to Watt’s prior series, and I really enjoyed seeing all the characters, both new and those from the prior series, engage in this latest series of adventures.  I ended up getting through this entire novel in one day, and I had a wonderful time reading it.

This latest novel has a very Watt narrative to it, utilising his typical style of multiple character perspectives to tell a compelling overarching tale of adventure and intrigue.  The Colonial’s Son primarily follows new protagonist Josiah and previous protagonist Ian as they find themselves in all manner of dangerous situations, together and separately.  This includes facing dangers and criminal conspiracies out in the goldfields, deep personal attacks in Sydney, or the various battles and political intrigues Josiah encounters once he joins the army.  At the same time, multiple other perspectives from side characters are utilised to enrich the narrative, with everyone from villains, love interests and friends adding to the story.  Watt tells a very interesting tale in this novel, combining a coming-of-age tale with the dynastic style of his previous Frontier books, and I really appreciated the way in which the author continues several storylines from the previous trilogy.  The combination of military action, criminal activity and intrigue makes for quite a fun narrative and The Colonial’s Son proves to be extremely addictive and easy to read.  I loved the many intense fight sequences featured throughout this novel, and Watt has a real flair for bringing brutal battles to life.  While fans of the Colonial trilogy will probably get a bit more out of this book due to the connected storylines, The Colonial’s Son is very accessible to new readers.

Just like he has done with all his prior novels, Watt makes sure that The Colonial’s Son features a range of intriguing and dangerous historical locations serving as fun backdrops to this awesome story.  There is a bit of a time skip between this novel and the previous Colonial trilogy, which opened up some different wars and settings for Watt to explore.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes set in the goldfields of North Queensland, a particularly grim and unforgiving bush setting full of fun antagonists.  The second half of the novel contains several other historical locales, all of which are shown in quick succession.  This includes Victorian London, Afghanistan, Germany and even Africa, all of which are the setting for some form of conflict.  The scenes set in Afghanistan during the British occupation of this land are very interesting, especially when you consider contemporary events, and there are some noticeable similarities between the historical conflict and more recent battles.  There is also a very fascinating look at Germany, which in 1875 had only just recently been unified into a single country with a more militaristic outlook.  Watt also ensures that The Colonial’s Son contains several hints about future conflicts that the protagonist may find himself involved in.  For example, the inclusion of several prominent Chinese characters in the first half of the novel will probably result the characters getting involved in the Boxer Rebellion, which would be pretty fascinating.  Overall, there are some great historical settings in this novel, and I cannot wait to see what conflicts the characters venture into next.

Watt makes sure to feature a ton of intriguing and memorable characters throughout The Colonial’s Son, each of whom adds some interesting details to the story.  This latest novel contains a great combination of new characters and protagonists from the Colonial series.  I rather enjoyed this cool mixture of characters, especially as you get to see new protagonists develop, while also learning the fate of the surviving characters from the original trilogy.  I particularly appreciated seeing more of original protagonist Ian Steele, and it was fun to see what happened to him after all his adventures in the Colonial books.  I was honestly surprised how much of a focus Ian got in this new trilogy, but I wasn’t complaining too much as I had gotten invested in his development in the original trilogy.  New protagonist Josiah also proved to be a great addition to the plot, even if there are a lot of similarities between him and the younger version of his father from the previous trilogy.  It was kind of fun to see history repeat itself, and I like the interesting developments that occur around Josiah attempting to live up to the legacy of his father, while also making all the same mistakes he did.  There were some other fun new characters featured in this book, including a charismatic young man of Chinese descent on the road to becoming a revolutionary and a young German countess who Josiah befriends.  I also appreciated some of the compelling and unlikable antagonists featured in the novel, as Watt has a real talent for writing scummy villains for the reader to root against.  I deeply enjoyed getting to know this new batch of characters, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all these excellent figures, both new and existing, in the future books.

With his latest novel, The Colonial’s Son, Peter Watt continues to highlight just why he is the leading author of Australian historical adventures.  Featuring an incredibly fun and action-packed plot, The Colonial’s Son does not slow down throughout its entire length, and readers are treated non-stop battles and intrigue.  I loved how this latest novel continued the cool storylines from Watt’s Colonial series, and I cannot wait to see what battles and character developments occur throughout the rest of this series.

Viral by Robin Cook

Viral Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 418 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The leading author of the medical thriller genre, Dr Robin Cook, returns with another eye-opening and deeply relevant novel, Viral, that takes a deep an unsettling look at America’s healthcare system and the grim horrors that could strike anyone.

Robin Cook is an interesting author who has been one of the most unique writers of thriller fiction for years.  A doctor and former member of the United States Navy, Cook made his debut back in 1972 with The Year of the Intern, a medical drama about the pressures of a young doctor.  He then followed it up with his first thriller in 1977, Coma, which featured criminal activities within a hospital.  Since then, Cook has written over 30 additional thrillers, nearly all of which feature either medical elements or doctors as the protagonists.  Cook’s catalogue of works features a huge collection of standalone reads, as well as his long-running Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series, and all of them contain an interesting array of plots.  I have been meaning to try out some of Cook’s novels for a while and I finally got a chance a few weeks ago when I received a copy of his latest novel, Viral, which contained a deep and powerful story.

As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, former police officer Brian Murphy and his family take the opportunity to have a well-deserved vacation.  After several days of relaxing times at the beach and night-time cookouts, the fun comes to an end as Brian’s wife, Emma, comes down with severe flu-like symptoms.  Fearing COVID, the family returns to New York, only for Emma to suffer a traumatic seizure in the car, forcing them to the emergency room.

It soon becomes apparent that Emma is suffering from a rare and lethal disease known as eastern equine encephalitis, likely brought on by mosquito bites while at the beach.  As the doctors work to save Emma’s life, Brian is forced to contend with another major shock when he receives a cripplingly expensive hospital bill, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With his business already failing due to COVID, Brian is unable to cope with the inflated bill before him, and turns to his insurance company for help, only to be blindsided when they reject his claim on arbitrary grounds.

Forced to try and come up with the money to pay for his wife’s bills, Brian dives into the shocking world of corrupt healthcare and insurance, discovering the insidious legal practice of overcharging patients and not providing insurance coverage.  Already on a knife edge due to his wife’s condition, Brian is determined to fight this injustice.  However, there is little he can legally do, especially with every procedure adding more to his immense debt.  But when his daughter also begins showing symptoms, and his wife’s care is being negatively impacted by his financial position, Brian will be driven to seek justice another way.

Viral is an intense and extremely fascinating novel that I had an interesting time reading.  Cook has come up with an extremely fast-paced narrative here that dives into compelling contemporary issues.  This results in quite an exciting and addictive read that I found to be particularly distinctive and memorable.

Cook has written a pretty cool story for Viral that takes the reader on a harrowing and dramatic ride.  While it has a bit of a slow start, mostly to set up the characters and the situation, it does not take long for the book to get crazy, with the protagonist’s wife getting sick and rushed to hospital very quickly.  What follows is an agonising thrill-ride of emotion as she gets sicker, while the protagonist is forced to deal with a series of disruptive situations as the hospital and the insurance company take turns to bleed him for money and impact his wife’s health.  Due to Cook’s realistic portrayal of certain modern phenomena involving healthcare and finance, Viral ended up being a pretty terrifying read that was in some ways scarier than a horror novel.  There are some very traumatic moments scattered throughout the novel, and two big tragedies occurring in the central part of the story result in some significant changes in the story direction.  The last third of the book is pretty fast-paced and shows a protagonist tipped to the edge, attempting to find justice the only way he knows how.  I rather liked how Cook ended the novel, and it was certainly fascinating the way that he utilised thriller elements to conclude what had previously been more of a medical drama.  This is a really good narrative, and found myself getting quite drawn into it, especially as Cook paints such a vivid picture of the medical issues and the various problems surrounding them.  I did have some issues with some character interactions and dialogue, as a lot of the communication and discussions seemed a bit unnatural to me.  I also had a very hard time connecting with any of the characters featured in the novel, as they were a little one-dimensional.  Still, the intense and compelling narrative more than made up for it and I had a wonderful time getting through this book.

I really appreciated the deep examinations of certain medical aspects throughout Viral, and this includes Cook’s fascinating look at viruses, pandemics, and infections.  Cook is a master of examining medical concerns, including pandemics (Pandemic was the name of one of his previous books, released in December 2018), and while I will admit to a certain internal exhaustion at stories concerning pandemics (a sentiment I am sure many others share), I think he did a pretty good job of featuring these aspects here.  Viral contains a range of interesting medical elements, such as examining the social and financial impacts COVID-19 had on New York, with multiple characters suffering because of it.  Cook also takes the time to try and terrify his readers by highlighting what diseases he believes are going to impact us next.  In particular, he focuses on eastern equine encephalitis, a disease transmitted to humans from mosquitoes.  Not only does Cook take the time to highlight just how deadly and disruptive eastern equine encephalitis is, but he also explains early on in the novel that diseases like encephalitis are likely to be much more common in the future due to climate change and increased mosquito migration patterns.  This focus on medical issues, especially surrounding eastern equine encephalitis, proves to be pretty scary, and I know that I am going to be a little more wary of any mosquitoes I see in the future.

While you would think that the part of the book looking at deadly diseases and crazy new infections would be the scariest part of this novel, it is Cook’s examination of the American healthcare system that is the most horrifying.  Throughout the course of Viral, the protagonist experiences firsthand how ruinous it can be to fall sick, when he is hit with a massively inflated bill after rushing his wife to the hospital.  The situation only degrades even further when his new health insurance company continues to reject his claims and the company controlling the hospital immediately starts a lawsuit to get their money back.  This takes the protagonist and the reader on a deep and intense dive into the current realities of the American healthcare system, including hospitals, medical billing, private health companies and health insurance agencies, and how they combine to cause major problems for sick people and their families.  There is a focus on how most hospitals are run for profit these days, artificially inflating their bills to get the most money.  At the same time, there is an examination of how insurance companies are offering bogus coverage, with multiple hidden clauses that make it possible for them to reject claims for the most ridiculous of reasons.  This examination of the healthcare system soon becomes the major focus of Viral’s plot, as the problems associated with it soon prove to be more lethal than the eastern equine encephalitis.  Cook is very critical of how the healthcare system is being allowed to operate in America, and it was fascinating and disturbing to see his impressions of it, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.  This proved to be a very intriguing and powerful inclusion to this novel, and readers are guaranteed to come out of it with a pressing need to review their insurance policies to make sure the same thing won’t happen to them.

Overall, Viral by Robin Cook proved to be an excellent and memorable medical thriller with a lot of fantastic features to it.  I deeply appreciated the way in which Cook takes the time to focus on contemporary issues, including his look at viral diseases and current issues with the American healthcare system.  While I did have some issues with Cook’s writing style, Viral ended up being a really intriguing and realistic novel that will leave most readers with an intense sense of unease.  A very eye-opening book that has made me very curious about some of Cook’s other medical thrillers.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

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.