Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

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

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan

Warrior of the Altaii Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 9 October 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a very unique fantasy read? Think about checking out the hitherto unpublished first novel from Robert Jordan, an author many consider to be amongst the best fantasy writers of all time.

The late, great, Robert Jordan was a highly regarded author who started writing in the late 1970s and found his calling several years later in the fantasy genre. His first published work was The Fallon Saga of historical fiction novels, which were made up of three books released between 1980 and 1982. Following this early work, Jordan was contracted to write several Conan the Barbarian novels, starting with Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender, both of which were released in 1982. Jordan ended up writing seven Conan the Barbarian books between 1982 and 1984, and they are some of his earliest works of fantasy fiction. However, Jordan would find his greatest success later when he wrote his epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, which were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read.

The Wheel of Time series is an epic fantasy series that started in 1990 with The Eye of the World. Made up of 14 massive novels, the series ran until 2013, and is considered one of the most creative, complex and enjoyable fantasy book series ever written. Not only did many of the books gain high critical praise but it is one of the bestselling fantasy series of all times, selling over 80 million copies. Unfortunately, Jordan passed away in 2007 and it fell to fellow author Brandon Sanderson to complete the final three books in the series utilising Jordan’s notes. Sanderson did a fantastic job finishing off the series, which concluded in 2013 with A Memory of Light, (make sure to check out my reviews for some of Sanderson’s other books, including The Way of Kings, Skyward and Starsight). The Wheel of Time series is probably going to get a lot of attention in the next year or so, as it is currently being adapted into a major television series by Sony and Amazon. Featuring Rosamund Pike in the leading role, and with a mostly unknown cast of young actors, this series has some real potential to dominate in the post Game of Thrones television landscape. The Wheel of Time books were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read, and they served as an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the genre for me. Despite recently featuring several of The Wheel of Time books in my Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list, I do have to admit that it has been a substantial time since I have had the opportunity to read The Wheel of Time novels, and I am a little hazy on some of the series’ details. As a result, I am strongly considering trying to reread some of the books (probably the audiobook formats) before the first season of the television adaptation is released, although I will have to see how I go with time as each of the books are likely to be some of the longest audiobooks I will ever listen to, plus I also have a bunch of other series I want to get into.

Warrior of the Altaii is actually the first novel that Jordan wrote and attempted to get published. He apparently wrote it in 13 days back in 1978 but unfortunately no publishers picked it up at the time. By that point he was working on some of his other series, so the author shelved it and it remained unpublished until now. There is actually a rather fascinating and entertaining summary of this book’s publication history in the foreword that was written by Jordan’s wife and editor/publisher Harriet McDougal, which I am sure many fans of the author will find quite interesting.

Warrior of the Altaii is set on the vast and harsh lands known as the Plain. The Plain is home to all manner of terrors, obstacles and fierce warriors, as several barbarian tribes roam the cruel landscape. Amongst all the tribes of the Plain, none are more feared or deadly than the Altaii, fighters without peer, whose nomadic way of life and dedication to raiding has sustained them for generations. Life is always difficult on the Plain, but recent strange events are making it harder for the Altaii to survive. More and more ferocious beasts roam the land, dark omens abound, and some unknown group has been destroying the various water holes that keep all of the inhabitants of the Plain alive.

Amongst these chaotic events, Wulfgar, a leader of a troupe of Altaii, travels to the massive city of Lanta on the outskirts of the Plain on a trading mission. Arriving at the city, Wulfgar and his followers and comrades encounter great hostility and scorn from all they encounter, including the city’s twin queens. It soon becomes apparent that the queens of Lanta are conspiring against the Altaii with a rival barbarian tribe and the mysterious individuals known as the Most High. But what are their objectives, and why are they targeting the Altaii?

As Wulfgar attempts to understand the scope of the threat facing him, he receives a prophecy of doom and the destruction of the entire Altaii race. Their only salvation apparently lies in the hands of a traveller from another world, who will gift Wulfgar the knowledge needed to save his people. Can Wulfgar defeat the vast forces arrayed against him, or will he be overwhelmed by treachery, assassins and the vengeance of two scorned queens?

This was a rather exciting and enjoyable read that was a lot of fun to check out. Warrior of the Altaii is a cool classic fantasy read that features an interesting and, at times, over-the-top story with a number of great action sequences and some rather cool fantasy ideas. The plot of this book is extremely fast-paced, and there is never a moment that is not exciting or filled with action or adventure. There are a number of really fun sequences throughout the book, including the siege of a major city, several large-scale battle sequences that feature some fantastic strategies and high body counts, as well as a few desperate and brutal smaller fight scenes that are bound to keep readers on their toes. Despite being ostensibly a fantasy novel, there are a few interesting science fiction elements in this book, as several beings with advanced weapons have apparently travelled across from an alternate world. This results in a cool blend of science and magic in places, which added a whole new layer to the story. Warrior of the Altaii is a good standalone novel with a mostly self-contained narrative that did not leave any major storyline elements open. This is probably for the best, as, for very obvious reasons, there is not going to be any sort of sequel. Overall, I felt that Jordan created an excellent and thrilling story within this book, which I believe will be appealing to most fantasy readers.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it is the unpublished first attempt at a novel from an author who is better known for their later works, and as a result, fans of Robert Jordan’s later works can get a glimpse of his early writing style. One of the major things that I took away from reading Warrior of the Altaii was the fact that Jordan clearly had an aptitude for creating intriguing fantasy worlds even early in his career. Throughout this book, he described a dark and detailed world, of which we only saw a small part, filled with memorable characters, organisations, threats and locations. Several of the elements utilised in this book were clearly early versions of things that were later featured in The Wheel of Time novels, such as the inclusion of an all-female group of magic users, which are similar to The Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai. In addition, the whole barbarian tribe-centric storyline he produced for this book is very reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian and it is very clear why his wife thought that he would be a good fit to write several of these novels. I think that major fans of Jordan and his existing series are going to find a quite a lot to enjoy in this book, and I would strongly recommend Warrior of the Altaii to anyone interested in seeing how this great author started out.

While I quite enjoyed this book, there are elements to Warrior of the Altaii that some readers might not enjoy. In particular, there are lot of examples of female enslavement by the barbarian characters of this book. While, to be fair, the main male character does get enslaved for a period of time, I can image that quite a few readers may not appreciate all the times that female slavery becomes a casual, recurring plot point. The way that it is used in this book does seem to be a bit more of an old-school fantasy inclusion such as would be seen in a piece of Conan the Barbarian fiction and is perhaps not as appropriate for a modern book. However, as this book was written in the 1970s, this is a somewhat understandable inclusion, and I don’t think you need to read too much into it. It honestly didn’t take too much away from the enjoyment of the story; it is just something people might need to consider before reading this book.

Warrior of the Altaii is an electrifying piece of fantasy fiction with a bit of an old-school feel to it that I quite enjoyed. I had a great time checking out this early work from a fantasy author I hold in very high regard, Robert Jordan, and it was a real treat to see his previously unpublished first novel. This is definitely an interesting read for fans of the fantasy genre and is well worth checking out, especially if you are in the mood for a fast-paced and action-packed fantasy adventure.

Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer

Nothing Ventured Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 September 2019)

Series: William Warwick series – Book 1

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest names in modern fiction, Jeffrey Archer, returns with Nothing Ventured, an intriguing piece of historical crime fiction that starts up his brand-new William Warwick series.

William Warwick, son of a respected London defence attorney, has always dreamed of becoming a detective in the London Metropolitan Police Force. Despite the opposition of his father, William enrols as a trainee police officer at the start of the 1980s after finishing university. Armed with determination, sharp observation skills, an education in fine art and a can-do spirit, William is unaware of the adventures in store for him.

After quickly making the rank of detective constable, William is assigned to Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities squad. While also investigating of a series of different art crimes and frauds across London, the squad is mainly concerned with capturing Miles Faulkner, a criminal mastermind responsible for the thefts and forgeries of some of the most expensive art in England. All previous attempts to capture Faulkner have failed miserably, as the criminal is always two steps ahead of the police.

As William becomes more and more involved in investigating the various crimes Faulkner is organising, he makes a crucial breakthrough when he befriends Faulkner’s wife, Christina. Christina is willing to return a valuable stolen Rembrandt from Faulkner’s personal collection in return for help from the police. Can Christina be trusted, or will Faulkner once again evade justice and continue his dastardly schemes? In addition, what happens when William falls head over heels in love with Beth, a research assistant at the museum the Rembrandt was stolen from, whose family secrets may drive a terrible wedge between her and William?

I have mentioned before how Jeffrey Archer, or the Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare as a Member of the British House of Lords, is one of the more colourful professional novelists in the world today. Archer has produced over 30 diverse books since 1976, including several standalone novels, a bestselling long-running series, several collections of short stories, three plays, three non-fiction books about his time spent in prison, and four children’s books. I have read several of his books in the past, although I only have his 2018 book, Heads you Win, currently reviewed on my blog at the moment.

Nothing Ventured is a fantastic new novel from Archer and is the first book in a planned eight-part William Warwick crime fiction series. The William Warwick series actually has a very interesting origin, as William Warwick served as the protagonist of a fictional series of books written by the main character in Archer’s most iconic series, the Clifton Chronicles, Harry Clifton. Following the end of the Clifton Chronicles in 2016 and several requests from his fans to expand on the adventures of Warwick, Archer started on this series. The William Warwick series will examine the career of its titular character and show the various cases he investigates that helped him to become a great detective.

This series is off to a good start with Nothing Ventured, as Archer creates a compelling and enjoyable read that does a fantastic job introducing the readers to his new protagonist and showing the early days of his police career. Archer has always excelled at creating historical fiction narratives that focus on the lives of specific characters, and Nothing Ventured is no exception. Within this book, the reader gets a great idea of the character of Warwick and sees the struggles and early influences that drive him to become a successful police detective. The reader is also introduced to a bevy of interesting side characters, many of whom are set up to be major friends, colleagues, love interests or antagonists of Warwick through the future books of the series. Overall, Archer does a superb job setting up his overarching series in Nothing Ventured, and the intriguing mysteries explored within, as well as the introduction of a likeable new protagonist, should ensure readers will check out future instalments of this series.

One of the most intriguing aspects about Nothing Ventured was the focus on the artistic world and the subsequent fraud or theft that accompanies it. At the start of the book, the protagonist studies art history at university and subsequently develops a life-long love for the artistic greats. This appreciation of art becomes an important part of his future career, as it helps him join the Arts and Antiquities squad. Throughout the course of Nothing Ventured, Warwick and his colleagues investigate a number of different instances of art fraud, including forgeries of famous works, fraudulent signatures of historical figures and the forging of fake antique coins, among several other interesting examples. I thought that this was an absolutely fascinating focus for this book, and I really enjoyed reading about all the different ways art fraud could be committed. It also allowed for a number of unique and compelling mysteries, and readers will enjoy seeing the diverse outcomes that result from these cases. I also enjoyed the various discussions about art that permeated the book’s narrative. Archer is obviously very passionate and knowledgeable about classic artworks and antiquities, and this shines through in his writing. I am hoping that this focus on art will continue in future books of the William Warwick series, as it really helped set this book apart from some other historical mystery series.

The focus on the art world in Nothing Ventured also allowed Archer to introduce a great antagonist in the form of Miles Faulkner. Faulkner is a criminal mastermind who specialises in crimes involving art and is the bane of the Arts and Antiquities squad. Faulkner is a great gentleman-thief character, who is in many ways quite similar to Warwick, especially when it comes to his love and appreciation of artistic works. However, unlike Warwick, he uses his knowledge for his own benefit and is a fantastic master criminal. I really enjoyed the various ways that Faulkner was able to outsmart the police in this book, and he proved to be a worthy opponent to Warwick and his colleagues. The reveal of the true depths of Faulkner’s intelligence and deviousness in the last sentence of the book is masterfully done and Archer is clearly setting the character up as one of the major antagonists of this series. I look forward to seeing him return in future entries in this series, and I am sure he will continue to be a great villain.

Readers should also keep an eye out for the chapters in which Archer splits the focus between two separate events occurring at the exact same time. This is done a couple of times throughout the course of the book, and these split chapters are a lot of fun to read. They are mostly done to highlight the differences between two similar events happening in different areas; for example, showing two different police operations occurring at the same time, or two unrelated court cases with implications for the protagonist that are running in separate court rooms. The inclusion of these simultaneous events was done really cleverly in places, and it resulted in a couple of amazing and compelling chapters which I felt were some of the book’s best scenes. I hope that Archer continues to utilise this writing technique in the future books of this series, as it was a true highlight of Nothing Ventured.

Jeffrey Archer has once again created a thrilling and intriguing novel that focuses on the life of an English protagonist in a historical fiction setting. Nothing Ventured is the compelling first instalment of a crime fiction series with some real potential. Within this first book of the William Warwick series, Archer has come up with an intriguing life story to follow, introducing some great characters and producing some captivating mysteries and criminals that readers will love to unravel in future books. The massive planned William Warwick series should ensure Archer remains one of the bestselling historical fiction authors for the next eight years, and I look forward to seeing how the career and life of the titular main character progresses in the next instalment of the series.

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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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.

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

Lady Smoke Cover.png

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.