The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott

Star Wars - The Rising Storm Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 6 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 15 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back down into one of the most unique parts of the current Star Wars canon, as bestselling author Cavan Scott presents the next exciting adventure in The High Republic era, The Rising Storm.

The High Republic is a massive collaborative multimedia Star Wars project that started earlier this year and which represents a new area of focus for the Star Wars franchise.  Set in the Golden Age of the Republic, hundreds of years before the events of the Skywalker Saga, The High Republic currently contains several amazing pieces of tie-in fiction, with unique tales making up an overarching storyline.  I have so far read two entries in this series, the introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule and the great young adult book Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The next major entry in this series is the fantastic and exciting The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which continues several storylines from Light of the Jedi.  Scott, who previously wrote the fantastic Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama, has come up with a fascinating and compelling novel that I really enjoyed.

Two hundred years before the events of The Phantom Menace, the Republic was at its zenith, with the Jedi leading the expansion outwards to the Outer Rim.  However, following the Great Hyperspace Disaster, the Republic’s safety and security looks uncertain.  Even after the creation of Starlight Beacon, the Outer Rim is still a dangerous place, especially with the machinations of the notorious pirate group, the Nihil, as well as the spreading attacks from the plant monsters known as Drengir.

Determined to show that the Republic and the principles that govern it are still strong, Chancellor Lina Soh has organised the Republic Fair on the planet of Valo.  The fair will bring together cultural displays, new technology, Jedi artifacts and other wonders of the galaxy in a massive celebration to demonstrate the possibilities that an expanding Republic will have on the entire galaxy.  Attended by high-ranking Republic dignitaries, visiting diplomats, celebrities, leading scientists and prominent Jedi, all eyes in the galaxy will be on the fair and its participants.  However, some of these watching eyes have far more hostile intent and are determined to see the Republic Fair fail at all costs.

The most dangerous of these is Marchion Ro, the mysterious and unpredictable Eye of the Nihil.  Under his leadership, the Nihil have achieved much infamy and caused inordinate destruction throughout the Outer Rim, and Ro is determined to keep the Republic and the hated Jedi out of his territory.  As the fair begins, Ro orders a devastating attack that will shake the very galaxy to its core.  As Jedi such as Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar and Elzar Mann attempt to hold back to the tide of evil descending on Valo, they are about to discover that there is something far more dangerous afoot in the galaxy.  Marchion Ro has uncovered an ancient evil and the entire galaxy, and every Jedi in it, is about to fear his wrath.

Now this was an awesome book, and one that is really starting to make me fall in love with The High Republic.  Scott has produced an intense and powerful story that continues to develop some of the best The High Republic characters, while also advancing some great storylines established in the previous novels and comics.  I had a wonderful time getting through this book, and this may be one of my favourite The High Republic novels so far.

This book has an awesome and captivating narrative to it.  Set about a year after the events of the first High Republic novel, The Rising Storm quickly introduces several intriguing storylines that each follow a different key character.  This includes a great storyline surrounding Elzar Mann as he attempts to decipher a warning given to him by the Force, as well as the tale of the conflicted and distracted Jedi apprentice Bell Zettifar.  There is also great storyline that follows a new character, mercenary Force user Ty Yorrick, as she takes on a new contract, and several storylines that follow key characters in the Nihil.  All these initially separated storylines are quite fun and do a good job setting up the various main characters, as well as establishing the current relevant events occurring in the galaxy.  While these individual storylines are quite fun and feature a mixture of intriguing characters, they swiftly come together into one combined narrative, when all the participants arrive at Valo for the Republic Fair.  Based on the book’s synopsis and the initial planning by the Nihil, you know that the fair is going to be attacked in some way, and Scott makes sure to ramp up anticipation for the upcoming carnage, showing multiple scenes that could lead into it.  However, even after all that, I was still not quite prepared for how amazing the main part of the novel turned out to be.

The eventual raid on the fair ended up lasting for quite a substantial part of the novel, as a coordinated attack separates the key characters.  With communications down and chaos reigning all around them, the protagonists are on their own, with each of their separate storylines focusing on their own encounters with the Nihil.  The entire raid is utter bedlam and proves to be a hotbed of action, intense moments, and dangerous character development.  I was honestly surprised at how dark parts of this book got, and readers are guaranteed a thrilling experience as there are several outstanding and intense action sequences.  Each of the main characters is effectively highlighted during this period, and readers will quickly become engrossed in their storylines and their attempts to navigate the dangers they encountered.  The entire raid sequence comes to an end with a decent part of the novel still left, which I initially thought was a bit of a mistake, as Scott could have ended the novel perfectly in the attack’s aftermath.  Instead, he constructed an incredible final sequence that really tied the entire narrative together, resulting in a memorable conclusion that sets up the next wave of novels perfectly.  While I did feel the story could have used a little bit of trimming, this was an overall excellent narrative, which I think was stronger than the preceding Light of the Jedi, mainly because it did not require the universe setup that Soule was required to chuck in.

While I deeply enjoyed The Rising Storm’s addictive story, this novel is a bit of a niche read and is mostly going to appeal to established fans of the franchise.  The Star Wars extended universe is an interesting and enjoyable place to explore, but it can be easy to get a little lost while checking out these books.  This is especially true with the new High Republic range, which takes the reader to a fictional period that has not been introduced to a wider universe either in a film or television series.  Due to its position as a second wave High Republic novel, you really need to check out some of the earlier works in the series before you try this one out, especially Light of the Jedi, which sets up most of the storylines and characters featured in this novel.  It is also important to add that this novel ties into several of the other High Republic comics and novels.  Events from these books and comics are referenced throughout The Rising Storm as Scott’s key characters interact with the protagonists of these other works, such as the junior novel, Race to Crashpoint Tower.  Knowledge of some of these contemporaneous pieces of fiction is not 100 per cent necessary, although several plot points and references become a lot clearance once you recognise the connection.  While Scott did do his best to make story accessible to new readers, I think that most High Republic newcomers would be better served reading Light of the Jedi first, which will make it so much easier to enjoy this awesome novel.

One of the more difficult things about reading a High Republic novel is the lack of any recognisable characters from the Star Wars films or television shows, as the only character from them alive at this point is Yoda (who keeps disappearing).  However, I found myself getting really invested in the complex and intriguing characters featured in The Rising Storm, as Scott makes use of both original characters and characters introduced in previous pieces of High Republic fiction.  This novel focuses on a huge selection of supporting characters, each of whom have their own adventures and stories.  One of my favourites was damaged Jedi Elzar Mann.  Mann is a troubled being who spends most of this novel haunted by both a dark vision from the Force and his unrequited and forbidden love to his friend and fellow Jedi Avar Kriss.  Because of this, Mann spends most of the novel walking the very edge of the Jedi code, breaking nearly every rule he can, including that major one about not falling in love or having a physical relationship with someone.  This sets him on a knife’s edge, and when the Nihil come, he is pushed dangerously close to the Dark Side (which mirrors Anakin’s fall in several ways) with some spectacular results.  This portrayal of Mann is one of the most compelling and exciting in the entire novel, and I appreciated the inclusion of a rogue Jedi.  Another complex Jedi character that I enjoyed was apprentice Bell Zettifar, who was a major point-of-view character in Light of the Jedi.  Bell is still reeling from the events of the first book where his master was apparently killed by the Nihil.  Because of this and other traumatic events, Bell spends much of the novel doubting the Force and his place in it.  I found myself really drawn to this character, and I appreciated the tough journey he was going on.  Unfortunately, it looks like Bell is going to go into some very dark places in the future, which should make for some excellent and moving storylines.

Aside from Mann and Bell, another great character I liked was Stellan Gios, a Jedi recently elevated to the Jedi Council.  Stellan, who had a minor role in previous pieces of High Republic fiction gets a lot more focus in this novel and proves to be a fantastic point of view character.  He is another complex figure, especially as he also has doubts and regrets, despite his position as a Council member.  I saw Stellan as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the High Republic (partially because of the voice used by the audiobook narrator) and I liked his mostly calm demeanour, unrelenting friendship with the wilder Elzar Mann and the way he acts as straight man to several unusual Jedi characters.  Stellan goes through a lot in The Rising Storm, and it was fantastic to see him continuously overcoming adversity as he becomes more use to his place on the Council.  I also deeply enjoyed the character of Ty Yorrick, who was probably the best original character in this novel.  Ty is a former Jedi apprentice turned rogue mercenary who uses her Force abilities and spiked purple lightsaber to hunt monsters.  Despite her aversion for getting mixed up with the Jedi, Ty finds herself at the Republic Fair and must contend with both Jedi and Nihil.  While Ty was not the most developed character in this novel, I really liked her unique style and the fantastic mentor-student bond she eventually forms with Elzar Mann.  She has a lot of potential as a character, and I can see her becoming a major figure in the High Republic novels.

Some of the final characters I need to mention include Rhil Dairo, a spunky reporter who finds herself in the middle of all the key events of the book, recording with her cam droid.  Rhil is a fantastic and fun reporter character, much in the vein of Lois Lane, who can kick ass and get the scoop at the same time.  I also loved the scenes that featured Orbalin, a Jedi archivist and history buff.  Despite his more academic inclinations, Orbalin is quite a fun character who proves to be a real badass, especially as he manages to hold off several Nihil characters, including the lethal Lourna Dee, while giving a history lesson.  Finally, it was also great to see more of Wookie Jedi Burryaga, the cuddliest and nicest Jedi of all time, who everyone loves and who the reader feels inordinately protective of.  All these protagonists and more add so much to The Rising Storm’s narrative, and it was absolutely great to see all of their storylines unfold.

I am also deeply enjoying the villains of The High Republic, the Nihil.  The Nihil are a collection of murderous and self-centred pirates, who use their unique technology and tactics to bedevil the Republic and the Jedi.  With their own unique look and style, which is a mixture of spacefaring Vikings and Mad Max villains, the Nihil are a pretty fun group of characters to follow.  After a very strong introduction in Light of the Jedi, they have another amazing showing in The Rising Storm, achieving some major acts of destruction.  Thanks to their weird weapons, violent attitude and being constantly high on a cocktail of drugs and stimulants, the Nihil prove to be pretty dangerous opponents, even to the Jedi.  This makes for some very unique fight sequences, and it was fascinating to see the Jedi overwhelmed by these criminals.  At the same time, there is also an intriguing focus on the leadership of the Nihil, as the top commanders, the Tempest Runners, fight for dominance against each other and Marchion Ro.  Ro is proving to be a particularly intense and fascinating villain and Scott really builds on the character in this novel, showing more of his flaws, his motivations and his abilities to deceive and destroy.  There are several amazing storylines following Ro throughout this novel, including one where he obtains a mysterious evil item from the past.  The eventual partial reveal of this plot device results in The Rising Storm’s memorable conclusion and the High Republic creative team clearly has some fantastic plans for Ro in the future and they are turning him into one of the more complex and dastardly villains in the entire Star Wars canon.

As is becoming my recurring habit, I ended up listening to an audiobook version of this Star Wars novel.  This of course was a wonderful experience, as the team behind these books ensured that this latest Star Wars audiobook was the usual audio treat that I have come to love.  Featuring a decent run time of just over 15 and a half hours, The Rising Storm audiobook was an exceptional listen that I managed to power through in just over a week and which proved to be an exceptional way to enjoy this Star Wars adventure.  The entire narrative of The Rising Storm is enhanced and supported by a range of awesome and iconic Star Wars sound effects and music, which are intended to draw the listener into the story.  Both the sound effects and music are used to incredible effect throughout, and I think that they both added so much to my overall enjoyment of The Rising Storm.  The sound effects do a remarkable job presenting the ambient noise of every single scene, with crowd noises, the hum of a lightsaber, the engine noises of a ship or the sounds of blaster fire, constantly played in the background.  I was particularly impressed by the chaotic sound effects used during the Nihil attack on the fair, as you are treated to background noises of terror and destruction for several hours, which helps to highlight just how devastating the entire affair is.  In addition, the always impressive John Williams musical score is so much fun to hear, and it was put to particular good use in several significant scenes to enhance dramatic impacts.  I was extremely moved when I heard some of this music, as it either pumped me up during key action scenes (Duel of the Fates always gets me hyped), or to be deeply saddened when the more tragic musical cords struck up.

In addition to the exceptional use of sound effects and music, I also was deeply impressed with the incredible voice work featured in this audiobook.  Leading Star Wars narrator Marc Thompson once again lends his voice to this audiobook, continuing the work that he did in the Light of the Jedi.  Thompson has previously narrated some of my favourite Star Wars audiobooks, including Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple, and the Doctor Aphra audio drama.  I also really enjoyed the awesome work he did in The Rising Storm, as Thompson not only revises the many voices that he introduced in Light of the Jedi but also adds in several new ones for the new characters.  I felt that various voices that Thompson did fit each of the characters extremely well, and he was able to perfectly personify their personality and written nature using a variety of fun accents.  I also found that Thompson was able to highlight the various emotions that the characters were feeling, giving the listeners a great sense of what they were feeling through his tone.  It was also cool to hear the combination of sound effect and Thompson’s voice when it comes to several alien characters featured within the audiobook, especially those whose voices were altered by technology.  All this outstanding voice work, combined with the awesome sound effects and music, helps to turn The Rising Storm into an absolutely incredible and addictive audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this fantastic Star Wars book.

The High Republic continues to expand as the amazing Cavan Scott adds his own unique spin on events with the exciting and memorable Star Wars: The Rising Storm.  This latest addition in the intriguing High Republic range does a fantastic job introducing the next stage of this unique Star Wars time period, complete with a devastating event, some major changes and some outstanding new characters.  I had an incredible time reading this great novel, and The Rising Storm is a must read for all fans of the Star Wars franchise, especially in its audiobook format.  If you have not gotten into the High Republic yet, you are missing out, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.  I will also have to make sure to grab a copy of Cavan Scott’s next Star Wars audio drama, Tempest Runner, a High Republic entry which is set for release in a couple of months and which will tell the tale of one of the more intriguing Nihil characters, Lourna Dee.

Star Wars - The Rising Storm Cover 2

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 18 May 2021)

Series: Athenian – Book Two

Length: 397 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of historical fiction, the incredible Conn Iggulden, returns with the second epic book in his Athenian series, Protector.

Following the devastating battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Persian army reigns supreme in Greece as King Xerxes stands triumphant in the burnt ruins of Athens.  However, despite his victories, Xerxes has not eliminated the threat of the Athenians, whose citizens have escaped by boat to the nearby island of Salamis.  Determined to wipe them out, Xerxes commits his mighty navy in an attack of the Greek fleet off Salamis, initiating one of the deadliest naval battle of all time.  Over three days of fighting, the Greeks and the Persians engage in a brutal battle, with boats destroyed and men killed in horrific numbers.  In the end, only a act of subterfuge from the sly Athenian, Themistocles, will be enough to stop the attack, although this action may damn him for all times.

Following this battle, the Athenians attempt to rebuild their once beautiful city; however, the threat of the Persians remains as a massive army lurks within Greece.  To finally cripple the Persian ambitions for Greece, famed Athenians, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus, will work to bring together an army of free Greeks.  Led by the powerful armies of Sparta, the Greeks will face the Persian army as the plains of Plataea, while their navy faces them at Mycale.  Can the Greeks overcome the superior numbers of the Persian army to survive, or will the Persian dominion of Greece continue, wiping out their fledgling democracy?  The future of Athens is written here, and the world will never again be the same.

Wow, that was another exceptional historical novel from the always impressive Iggulden.  Iggulden has been one of the leading historical authors for years, and I have deeply enjoyed several of his works, including his epic War of the Roses series and the fantastic standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  Last year, he introduced The Gates of Athens, the first novel in his new Athenian series, which will cover some of the most iconic formative years of ancient Athens.  The Gates of Athens was an excellent novel that was one of my favourite historical books of 2020.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting the next entry in the Athenian series, and Iggulden really did not disappoint with Protector.

Protector contains an epic and intense narrative that highlights the chaotic events following the battle of Thermopylae.  This novel has a fantastic start to it, as the story immediately shows the iconic battle of Salamis, a deadly battle of ships and men as the fate of the entire population of Athens hangs in the balance.  This first battle is pretty damn intense, and you get a real sense of the fatigue, despair and destruction that the participants and observers of the battle are feeling.  This battle lasts for a good while, and I loved that Iggulden did not waste any time getting into it, ensuring that the reader is pretty hooked for the rest of Protector.  Following Salamis, the narrative focuses on the rebuilding of Athens and the attempts to bring the Spartans into the war to face the lurking Persian army.  While not as exciting as the start of the book, this central part of Protector is deeply fascinating, and I personally enjoyed the interplay of politics and historical fact, as Iggulden expertly depicts the lead-up to the next battles against Persia.  It also perfectly sets up the epic two battles that are the defining part of Protector, Plataea and Mycale, which occurred around the same time as each other.  Both these battles are pretty intense and action packed, although the elaborate and bloody battle of Plataea is the real highlight, especially as the stakes surrounding it are extremely high.  I deeply enjoyed seeing these two amazing historical battles unfold, and Iggulden ensures that they are bloody, action-packed and compelling.  It was also really cool to see the fascinating, if occasionally tragic aftermath of these battles, and it sets up some intriguing historical storylines for future entries in this series.

I really appreciated the incredible historical detail that Iggulden brought to Protector.  The author has clearly done his research when it comes to this iconic historical battles and he does an incredible job bringing them to life.  So many key moments from the battles are fantastically captured throughout Protector, and the reader gets an amazing idea of the tactics, armaments and movements of the participants, as well as their chaotic flow and carnage.  While the battles themselves are pretty amazing, Iggulden also ensures that the underlying politics, motivations and historical figures associated with them are also detailed, ensuring that the reader gets a full view of why these events are happening and their overall impact on the people of Greece and Persia.  All of this is extremely fascinating, and I personally loved learning more about this period, especially as Iggulden presents it in a compelling and exciting manner.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about The Gates of Athens was the amazing portrayal of several major historical figures.  Iggulden continues this fantastic trend in Protector, as he once again looks at several major Greek and Persian characters.  The most prominent of these are probably the three Greek strategos, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus.  Despite their political conflicts in the first novel (Themistocles orchestrated banishments for both), the three are forced to work together for the greater good of Athens and prove to be an effective team.  Iggulden does an amazing job getting into the heads of all three of these figures, and it was interesting to see how the author envisions what these great men would have been thinking or doing during these historical events.  All three have a significant part of Protector told from their perspective.  In particular, each of the three major battles featured within this novel is primarily told from one character’s perspective, with Aristides leading the Athenian force at Plataea, Xanthippus fighting at Mycale, while Themistocles unleashes his cunning during the battle for Salamis.  I really enjoyed the portrayals of all three characters, and it was interesting to see them during some of their most iconic moments.  In particular, Iggulden provides some intriguing insight to Xanthippus’s mental state after Mycale and some explanation for why he participated in several massacres.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which Iggulden portrays the tragedy of Themistocles, whose own cleverness and guile eventually catches up with him.

In addition to these three main Athenian characters, Iggulden also spends time with some younger Athenian figures, particularly Cimon and Pericles, Xanthippus’s youngest son.  This proves to be an intriguing examination of the younger Greek characters and Iggulden is setting up some new protagonists for the later entries in the series, particularly with Pericles.  There is also some significant focus on several great Spartan characters, such as the war leader, Pausanias, who also provides an excellent alternate viewpoint to the battle at Plataea, as well as an alternate way of thinking from the democratic Greeks.  I also liked the way in which several Persian characters were featured, include Xerxes and General Mardonius, especially as it allowed for another fascinating viewpoint that paints the Greek characters in a whole new light.  All these great historical figures are expertly brought to life by Iggulden, and I had a wonderful time learning about their stories and tragic fates.

In his second entry in the Athenian series, Conn Iggulden once again demonstrates his mastery of the historical fiction genre by crafting a captivating and addictive tale of war, intrigue and personal ambition from iconic moments in Greek history.  Protector is an exceptional and fast-paced novel that presents a powerful vision of the unique and world-changing battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.  This is a clever and intense historical novel which comes highly recommended, and historical fiction fans will deeply enjoy the cool and fascinating tale within.  I look forward to the next chapter in the Athenian series and I cannot wait to see the war and politics that is yet to be unleashed on this city.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary Cover

Publisher: Del Ray (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 476 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to ride off into the unknown with Project Hail Mary, an utterly compelling and powerful science fiction novel from bestselling author Andy Weir.

Andy Weir is a fascinating and highly regarded author who has been a major figure in the science fiction genre after writing a few fantastic novels.  While he has also written books such as Theft of Pride, Artemis and James Moriarty, Consulting Criminal, Weir is best known for his science fiction masterpiece, The Martian, which has been adapted into an epic movie of the same name.  I absolutely loved the film version of The Martian, which made me very curious about some of Weir’s other works.  As a result, I was excited when I received a copy of his latest novel, especially as it sounded like an intriguing read.

Ryland Grace is having a very interesting time in space.  Waking up aboard a ship he does not recognise, Grace has idea who he is or what he is doing there; all he knows is that he has been asleep for a very long time, he is currently millions of miles from home and he is alone except for two corpses.  But as he explores his ship, the Hail Mary, glimpses of his past life slowly come back to him, as well as details of the desperate mission he is a part of.

Grace is the only surviving member of a crack crew of scientists and astronauts who were sent one a one-way trip to a distant star in order to find out how humanity can stop alien microbes, known as Astrophage, draining our sun and cooling the Earth to an apocalyptic level.  Alone, disorientated, and finding himself with a massive and impossible burden upon his shoulders, Grace must find the courage and skill to analyse the problem before him and find a way to save our planet.  When a second ship arrives in the system, Grace finds himself with an unexpected ally.  As he forms a usual friendship and gets lost in his work, Grace will need every bit of knowledge and science at his disposal to find the answer before it is too late.  However, success is no certainty, and Grace will have to overcome his own hidden past if he is to save everyone and everything he cares about.

Wow, just wow.  I suspected that I would be in for an amazing time with Project Hail Mary when I started, especially as there were positive reviews on the cover from the notable trio of George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson and Blake Crouch, three authors who know a lot about epic, outstanding reads.  However, I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this incredible book and I swiftly became engrossed with the awesome narrative contained within Project Hail Mary.  This was a deeply impressive and captivating read which is easily one of the best science fiction novels of 2021 and which gets a full five-star rating from me.

Project Hail Mary contains an epic and deeply addictive narrative of science, adventure and personal growth.  This entire novel begins with a rather interesting hook, with the protagonist coming out of a coma aboard a spaceship with no memory of how he got there and two corpses lying next to him.  Watching this then unnamed character explore and attempt to work out what is happening to him is pretty fascinating and it drags the reader in with its mystery.  As the protagonist regains his memory, Project Hail Mary morphs into more of a science based adventure story with massive stakes, as the character finds himself engaging in a suicide mission to save Earth.  This progresses at a great pace for the first third of the novel, and there is a nice rhythm of the character becoming familiar with the Hail Mary while also regaining his memories of the lead-up to of the mission.  Weir then introduces an intriguing and compelling major story development that completely morphs the structure of the plot and turns Project Hail Mary from the doomed adventure of a lone man to something else entirely.  I loved what the narrative turned into from this point, especially as it featured some captivating camaraderie, a unique relationship and fascinating science fiction elements.  All of this leads up to the novel’s big conclusion, which features several memorable moments and an excellent conclusion that will leave readers extremely satisfied.  This was an outstanding story, and I could not believe how quickly I become obsessed with finding out how the clever and exciting story would end.

A major highlight of Project Hail Mary is the fantastic use of flashbacks throughout the book’s narrative.  These flashbacks represent the protagonist slowly regaining memories of the events that led up to the mission, and which highlights the entirety of the Astrophage arrival near the sun, all the way up to the launch of the Hail Mary.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author utilised these flashbacks, which provided the reader with substantial detail about the character, the purpose of his mission, and the ship that serves as the novel’s setting, all of which comes into play as the story progresses.  The various flashbacks really helped to enhance the plot, especially as the protagonist was forced to battle his own ignorance and lack of memory, as well as only gradually learn about what was happening back on Earth.  It also ensured a smoother flow throughout the book, saving substantial exposition at the start of the novel, and leaving the background plot open for surprises and clever moments.  All these flashbacks lead to an epic and incredibly clever twist near the end of the novel that completely changes everything and shines a completely new light on the protagonist’s actions and everything the reader thought they knew.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed this twist, and it was one of the most memorable literary moments I have experienced in a while.  This cleverly set up and brilliantly utilised format helps to create an exceptional story that readers will deeply enjoy and which will be stuck in their heads for a very long time.

People familiar with Weir’s writings will know that the author loves featuring vast amounts of science talk and terminology in his stories, and Project Hail Mary is no exception.  Weir’s latest novel is absolutely packed full of science, technology and intriguing scenarios, all of which revolve around space travel, alien life, resource management, solar bodies and much, much more.  Nearly every page of this novel contains the protagonist engaging in some scientific adventure, using science to solve a specific problem, or answering some unusual mystery.  While this may seem a little repetitive, I found all the science talk and subsequent solutions to be extremely compelling and I enjoyed seeing what unexpected pieces of science the protagonist would use next.  I felt that the author did an amazing job of explaining all of the underlying scientific principles contained within Project Hail Mary, and despite my own lack of a scientific background I was able to follow everything pretty closely and I always had a good idea of what his protagonist was talking about.  I will admit that I would have no idea about how practical or realistic some of the ideas contained within this novel are, so if Weir has chucked in some incorrect science about space flight, biology or physics, I would not have a clue.  However, everything seemed realistic and well explained to me, so I am choosing to believe that most of what happened is potentially possible.

I quite enjoyed the unique scenarios featured within Project Hail Mary, especially regarding the degradation of our sun.  As shown in the excellent flashback sequences, energy from the sun is being absorbed by the Astrophage microbes, eventually causing a new ice age.  The whole idea of the Astrophage is very intriguing, and I enjoyed seeing the planet’s reaction to this new life form and various nations banding together to save the planet.  The Astrophage turn out to be a clever plot device; while they are dooming the planet, some of their other unique abilities may lead to its survival.  I liked seeing the various ways in which these microbes could be used, and it proved to be a fascinating addition to the plot.  I also quite enjoyed seeing the changes that occurred on Earth as the Hail Mary project came into being, especially as the measures put in place to prolong human life and come up with the necessary power for the mission, resulting in some big planetary changes.  Weir also comes up with some outstanding first-contact scenes throughout the novel, and I really appreciated seeing the protagonist communicate with a previously unknown species.  The author comes up with some great scenes around this, and it was cool to see how and why humans would try talking to and working with another race.  All the science and technology were worked into the novel extremely well, and I felt that it helped to make this amazing story more compelling and realistic.

Another great highlight of Project Hail Mary is the great characters.  The most prominent character is of course Ryland Grace, who serves as primary narrator and point-of-view character for the novel.  Grace is a fantastic leading character as he proves to be both entertaining and relatable.  A former biologist turned school science teacher, Grace is drafted into the mission to save Earth from the Astrophage due to his expertise and unique scientific outlook.  Weir does an amazing job portraying this fantastic character, especially as you see him both aboard his one-way flight aboard Hail Mary and during his time on Earth in the lead up to the mission, which presents a really interesting view of his personality and motivations.  Grace is a very science-orientated person, able to find a solution to any problem that presents to himself.  This “do the science, work the problem” attitude is very reminiscent of The Martian, and readers will no doubt see some similarities between the two.  I really enjoyed Grace as a character, especially as he approaches nearly every event with a clever and irreverent wit, which results in most of the book’s humour.  Grace goes through several major moments throughout Project Hail Mary, and I loved seeing the development that occurred for him between the earlier flashbacks and the end of the novel.  The protagonist really changes for the better throughout Project Hail Mary, and I deeply enjoyed some of the catalysts for this change, which included utterly surprising twists and the heart-warming moments.  This was an awesome protagonist and readers will find themselves growing very attached to him.

Aside from Grace, there is a small selection of supporting characters, the vast majority of whom only appear in the protagonist’s memory flashbacks.  The one exception to this is Rocky, with whom Grace forms a unique and touching friendship with in the main storyline.  While I do not want to spoil too much about this amazing character, I will say that Rocky proves to be an outstanding addition to the narrative and readers will find themselves really invested in his story and his friendship with Grace.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Eva Stratt, the head of the UN task force designed to combat the problems caused by the Astrophage, who recruits Grace for the Hail Mary mission.  Stratt is a bureaucrat given absolute power and authority by every world government to move the mission along as fast as possible without any delays or interference.  Appearing exclusively in Grace’s flashbacks, Stratt is a very no-nonsense character, and it was really entertaining to see her bully her way through every problem, such as when she manages to undermine the authority of a court by showing up to the trial with the US Army.  Stratt serves as a great foil to Grace throughout the flashbacks, and it proved to be quite fun to see Stratt keep Grace on track while also indulging some of his seemingly impossible requests and suggestions.  Stratt is also responsible for one of the best moments in the entire novel, and I love how so much of her story and development built up to this one major moment.  These characters, and some others, added so much to novel, and I had an outstanding time getting to know them as the story progressed.

Project Hail Mary is an outstanding and incredible read that sees the amazing Andy Weir at his very best.  Mixing cool science, clever writing techniques and intriguing characters together into a fun and powerful story, Project Hail Mary was deeply compelling and near impossible to put down.  I had an exceptional time getting through this novel, and this was one of the best novels I have read so far in 2021.  A highly recommended book for all science fiction fans or anyone interested in an intelligent and exciting read, I am very excited to see how the planned film adaption turns out.

Quick Review – The Chase by Candice Fox

The Chase Cover

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 449 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Australian thriller author Candice Fox returns with another fast-paced and intriguing thriller novel, this time utilising an extremely fun prison break premise to create The Chase, a compelling and addictive read.

Candice Fox is a bestselling Australian author who debuted in 2014 with Hades, the first novel in her Archer & Bennett trilogy, a fantastic Australian crime series that followed two very damaged detectives.  She then followed that up with her Crimson Lake trilogy, as well as collaborating on the Detective Harriet Blue series with James Patterson.  Since then Fox, has written a couple of standalone crime fiction novels set in America, including the 2020 release Gathering Dark, which is the only previous novel of Fox’s that I have read and which proved to be a fun and fantastic book.  As a result, I was interested in reading more of Fox’s work, especially after I saw what kind of story her new novel would feature. 

Synopsis:

When more than 600 of the world’s most violent human beings pour out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility into the Nevada Desert, the biggest manhunt in US history begins.

But for John Kradle, this is his one chance to prove his innocence, five years after the murder of his wife and child.

He just needs to stay one step ahead of the teams of law enforcement officers he knows will be chasing the escapees down.

Death Row Supervisor turned fugitive-hunter Celine Osbourne is single-minded in her mission to catch Kradle. She has very personal reasons for hating him – and she knows exactly where he’s heading . . .

I am sure that I was not the only person drawn in by The Chase’s cool plot synopsis, I mean, 600 convicts escaping from prison at the same time, who can resist that?  I really enjoyed this book’s awesome story and I ended up finishing the entirety of The Chase in just over a day.  This was mainly because The Chase had such a strong and captivating start to it, with someone using deadly blackmail to instigate a mass breakout as cover to free one unknown prisoner.  This was one of the more awesome starts to a novel that I have seen, and I really loved the initial moments of this story, with the prisoners all heading off in various directions, including protagonist John Kradle, while other protagonist Celine Osbourne is left in shambles with all her Death Row charges escaping.

Fox soon breaks this narrative up into several smaller stories; you follow Kradle as he makes his escape, you also see Osbourne dealing with the fallout of the escape, and there are short descriptions of some of the other escapees and the people that encounter them.  The main two storylines surrounding Kradle and Osbourne continue in an awesome way towards the middle of the book.  I had a great time seeing Kradle attempt to evade the police and overcome an insane killer who is tagging along with him, while also heading home to solve the murder of his wife and child.  Osbourne’s story was also very compelling, as it details some of the initial hunts for the escaped fugitives, the investigation into who was responsible for the breakout, and the start of Osbourne’s obsessive hunt for Kradle.  The various smaller stories of the other escapees prove to be fun interludes to the main narratives, and Fox also includes key flashbacks to enrich the backstory of her central protagonists and showcase the reasons for emotional and combative history with each other.

Unfortunately, I found the last half of The Chase to be somewhat of a letdown after its outstanding beginning.  Kradle’s hunt for his family’s killer soon becomes one of the least interesting parts of the entire book, especially as it has no connection with the wider breakout.  His investigation is also loaded with way too many coincidences, unusually helpful witnesses, and strange motivations.  The eventual reveal of the killer was honestly pretty weak, and Kradle’s entire storyline only concludes satisfactorily due to a serendipitous appearance from a supporting character.  I was also not amazingly impressed with the identity of the person behind the prison escape, and I think that Fox missed a few opportunities, such as maybe tying Kradle’s personal investigation into a larger conspiracy.  Still, there were some fantastic highlights in this second half of the book, including Osbourne’s gradually changing relationship with Kradle, the action-packed conclusion to Osbourne’s hunt for the organisers of the prison break, as well as the extended and entertaining storyline of one escapee who managed to make the most of their situation.  While I would have loved a couple more extended storylines about some other outrageous inmates, I think that this was an overall good narrative, and I did have a lot of fun getting to the end.

I did really enjoy several of the characters featured in this fantastic novel.  The most prominent of these is John Kradle, the Death Row inmate accused of killing his wife and son.  Kradle is a likeable character, and you are quickly drawn into his desperate hunt for the person who framed him.  Fox makes great use of several flashback sequences to explore Kradle’s past, which paints an intriguing picture of a former recluse who eventually finds love and ends up raising a son by himself.  The reader does a feel a lot of sympathy for this unusual character, and he proves to be a fun protagonist to follow.  The other major character in The Chase is the supervising prison guard of Pronghom Correctional Facility’s Death Row, Celine Osbourne.  Osbourne is a strong and independent character who becomes obsessed with hunting Kradle and dragging him back to Death Row.  I really enjoyed Osbourne as a character, especially as Fox comes up with a very traumatic and clever backstory for her that perfectly explains her obsession.  Both lead characters serve as perfect focuses for The Chase’s narrative, and I had a great time seeing how their arcs unfolded, even if one was a little weaker than the other.

Fox also made use of several great side characters throughout The Chase.  My favourite is probably street hustler Walter Keeper, better known as Keeps, the one inmate at Pronghom who did not escape, as he was due to be released.  Keeps is dragged into Osbourne’s hunt for Kradle somewhat against his will due to his knowledge and intelligence.  Keeps serves as a good supporting act to Osbourne for much of the book, although his character arc goes in some very entertaining and ironic directions as the narrative progresses.  I also quite enjoyed tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, US Marshal Trinity Parker, who leads the manhunt.  Parker is a very entertaining character who serves as a perfect foil to Osbourne’s obsessions, mainly due to her absolute refusal to take any BS from her.  While I do think that Parker was a little over-the-top at times, she was still a fun addition to the cast.  The final character I want to talk about is one of the escapees, Old Axe.  Axe is a geriatric inmate who escapes from Pronghom on a whim and slowly makes his way to freedom.  I quite enjoyed the various sequences that highlighted Axe’s escape efforts, even if they were tinged with a sinister edge, but his arc was one of the more distinctive parts of the book.  All these characters were great, and I was really impressed that Fox was able to introduce them, build up their backstory and also provide satisfying conclusions for all of them in just one novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Chase and I felt that Candice Fox wrote a very entertaining and compelling narrative.  While this book did have its flaws, I had a fantastic time getting through it and readers will find it very hard to put this exciting novel down.  This was an awesome and addictive thriller, and I cannot wait to see what this amazing Australian author comes up with next.

Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman

Serpentine Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 36

Length: 12 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading stars of the murder mystery genre, Jonathan Kellerman, returns with the latest entry in his long-running Alex Delaware series, Serpentine.

For years LAPD detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis has tended to do things his own way in the department.  Thanks to his impressive solve rate and his unique and successful partnership with his best friend, psychologist Alex Delaware, Milo has been able to crack some of the toughest murder cases that the department has come up across while managing to avoid the lows of office politics.  However, not even Milo is able to withstand pressure from the very top of the LAPD, so when an extremely wealthy businesswoman wants help from the department’s best, Milo is forced to work an impossible case.

The businesswoman, young entrepreneur Eleanor Barker, wants closure over the death of her mother, a mysterious woman who was found dead decades ago in a torched Cadillac with a bullet in her head.  Despite their reservations over the way the case was assigned to them, Milo is determined to do the best job possible, and with Alex’s help he begins his investigation.  However, with no evidence, no case file, no witnesses and no real idea about their victim’s past or origins, their chances of success seem slim.

Forced to look for answers in some unusual places, Milo and Alex are slowly able to pull together a picture of the events surrounding the death of Eleanor’s mother.  However, the more they dig, the more unusual coincidences begin to arise as what they discover deviates massively from the established facts.  It soon becomes apparent that there is far more to this case than was initially believed and that someone out there is determined to stop any investigation into this brutal murder.  Can Milo and Alex solve their most difficult case yet, or will a cunning killer continue to remain free?

Well, that was a pretty cool murder mystery!  Serpentine is the 36th entry in Jonathan Kellerman’s amazing Alex Delaware series, which has been running since 1985.  I am a relative newcomer to Kellerman’s work, having only stumbled onto series when I read his 34th book, The Wedding Guest, back in 2019.  I had an excellent time reading The Wedding Guest and the loved the authors distinctive writing style and ability to weave together a great mystery.  I enjoyed it so much I ended up checking out Kellerman’s next book, the 2020 release The Museum of Desire, which contained an impressive murder case and ended up being another amazing read.  As a result, I have been very keen to check out Kellerman’s latest book for a while now and I have to say that I was very pleased with how awesome Serpentine turned out to be.

I ended up absolutely powering through this latest Alex Delaware novel, especially once I got hooked on its exceptional and impressive murder mystery narrative.  Kellerman came up with an amazing narrative for this novel that proved to be particularly captivating right off the bat as his two established protagonists become embroiled in a seemingly impossible-to-solve case.  Forced to dig around in the past, the protagonists slowly determine the events surrounding the old murder via odd bits of evidence and a range of interesting witnesses.  While the investigative process is quite fun to see, Kellerman has also thrown a ton of fantastic twists into the story, ensuring that the reader has no idea how the mystery is going to unfold.  I love some of the unique directions that the author took this compelling case and I was impressed with some of the clever reveals that he chucked in, especially as they were set up beautifully and added some fantastic surprises to the plot.  While I did think that the book concluded rather rapidly and some storylines could have been wrapped up a little better, this was still an exceptional narrative which I deeply enjoyed.

Easily my favourite thing about the Alex Delaware novels is the great way that the author portrays the ongoing investigation.  Kellerman always ensures that his investigations extremely realistic and as a result his protagonists always engage in a methodical examination of the sources, slowly gaining the information they need and building up connections and discovering any inconsistencies.  A lot of their evidence is obtained through discussions with potential witnesses, colleagues and experts, and there may be multiple conversations with various persons of interest to find out different nuggets of information.  This then results in the main characters throwing out theories about what potentially happened and basing their future investigative directions on the most promising clues.  This manner of investigation proves to be very different to other crime fiction novels I have read, and I really enjoy this more realistic portrayal of how police could solve a difficult case, especially as the author works in time delays for evidence analysis, unreliable witnesses and colleagues, and lack of resources.  I particularly enjoyed the investigation featured within Serpentine as it forces the protagonists to solve a murder that occurred over 30 years previously.  As a result, the characters lack any sort of evidence, useful witnesses, or previous investigations to help them find the killer, and they are forced to utilise more creative methods to find information or track down anyone who has the slightest idea of who the victim was or what happened to them.  This extremely cold case was a fantastic part of Serpentine’s plot and it proved to be deeply fascinating to see how he envisioned detectives solving this sort of investigation.  I loved this realistic and methodical portrayal of a murder investigation and it really made Serpentine stand out as a fantastic crime fiction novel.

I also must highlight the outstanding two lead characters who form the heart of Serpentine, and indeed the entire series, titular protagonist Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis.  Alex and Milo are a fantastic pair of crime-fighting protagonists who have taken on some extremely tricky murders during their partnership.  Both characters bring a lot to the novel.  Alex is the more serious of the two.  As a clinical child psychologist with a head for mysteries, Alex can provide some intriguing insights into the minds of the victims, witnesses, and potential suspects, which provide new insight into their cases.  Milo on the other hand is the food-loving, cynical veteran cop who works the hard grind of a LAPD detective.  While I enjoy both characters, Milo is easily my favourite due to his constant wise cracks, the author’s tasteful portrayal of the character as a homosexual LAPD lieutenant, and his somewhat maverick cop persona.  Alex is also quite fun, especially as his psychological insights have a basis in the author’s own training as a psychologist, and I liked his constant clever quips about the situations they encounter.  The real joy of these two characters, however, is the way they work together.  These two make an amazing team, especially as they have become close best friends who are able to work together perfectly in sync.  I loved the way these two were able to work together to solve crimes, and their innate teamwork and friendship is a fantastic centre of the book’s story.  I also enjoyed the way the two characters play off each other throughout the story, as their personalities and unique sense of humour really gel together well and produce a lot of fun jokes and moments.  Overall, I had an amazing time following Alex and Milo through another excellent book, and I cannot wait to see what crazy case they encounter next time.

To check out Serpentine I grabbed a copy of its audiobook format, which was narrated by John Rubinstein.  This audiobook, which has a run time of just over 12 hours, ended up being an amazing way to enjoy this fantastic book and I powered through it in no time at all, especially once I got caught up in the outstanding mystery.  Rubinstein, whose has previously lent his voice to a great collection of crime fiction novels, including previous Alex Delaware audiobooks, did an outstanding job narrating this novel, and I felt that he moved the story along at a fast and enjoyable pace which really captured the audience’s attention.  I also rather enjoyed the various voices that he utilised throughout Serpentine, as each character was given their own unique voice, which I felt fit their respective personality perfectly.  I really loved the voice that Rubinstein uses for Milo in particular, as it just screams veteran cop, and it really helped enhance how much I enjoyed this already awesome character.  As a result, I would strongly recommended Serpentine’s audiobook to anyone interested in checking out this book and listeners are in for a good time with this format.

Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman is another impressive and clever addition to the great Alex Delaware series.  This latest book features a complex and captivating murder mystery investigation which forces Kellerman’s fantastic and lovable protagonists to dive back into the past and solve an intriguing cold case.  Full of several outstanding twists around Kellerman’s latest compelling case, Serpentine has an incredible story and readers are going to have an amazing time unwinding this great mystery.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic novel, and this might be the best Alex Delaware novel I have read so far.  Highly recommended.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Three

Length: 16 hours and 19 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best Star Wars tie-in series comes to an epic and impressive end, as Alexander Freed presents Star Wars: Victory’s Price, the amazing third and final entry in the awesome Alphabet Squadron trilogy.

Since its inception in 2014, the current Star Wars extended universe has featured an amazing range of novels that tie into the various movies and television series.  One of the best has been the Alphabet Squadron trilogy from acclaimed author Alexander Freed.  Alphabet Squadron is a particularly compelling trilogy that follows a fantastic group of mismatched Rebel and Imperial pilots who continue to fight in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  This series has so far featured two excellent entries: the great introductory novel Alphabet Squadron, and the outstanding second entry, Shadow Fall, both of which I have deeply enjoyed.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series ends and I think that Freed has left the best to last with this epic and powerful read.

The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, and the second Death Star destroyed, but the war is far from over.  Nearly a year after the battle of Endor, conflict still reigns in the galaxy between the forces of the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire.  In nearly every battlefield, the Empire’s forces are in retreat and disarray, apart from the notorious pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, better known as Shadow Wing.  Led by the dangerous Imperial TIE Fighter ace, Colonel Soran Keize, Shadow Wing continue to bring death and destruction to the Empire’s enemies, slipping away when their vile deeds are done.

However, despite their skills and strategies, Shadow Wing is in constant danger as New Republic forces, under the command of General Hera Syndulla, are pursuing them.  Syndulla is determined to end the threat of Shadow Wing utilising the ragtag pilots of the unique unit known as Alphabet Squadron, each of whom has a score to settle with Shadow Wing, to lead the fight against them.  However, the members of Alphabet Squadron, Wyl Lark, Chass na Chadic, Nath Tensent and Kairos, are still recovering from their last traumatic encounter with Shadow Wing on Cerberon, as well as the revelation that their former leader, Yrica Quell, was an active participant of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s genocidal last order to destroy multiple disloyal planets.

As Hera and Alphabet Squadron attempt to find their prey, they begin to discover just how dangerous the cornered Shadow Wing has become, as their opponents begin to enact a new version of Operation Cinder.  Worse, Alphabet Squadron are shocked to discover that Yrica Quell is still alive and has re-joined her old comrades in Shadow Wing.  As the two forces engage in battle again, the loyalties of Alphabet Squadron will be tested like never before while Quell attempts to determine just whose side she is truly on.  The conflict will finally end above the skies of Jakku, as the Imperial and New Republic fleets engage in their final battle.  Can Alphabet Squadron finally put an end to the evils of Shadow Wing, or will Soran Keize’s master plan change the entire galaxy forever?

Now this is what all pieces of Star Wars fiction should be like.  Victory’s Price is an exceptional and impressive novel that had me hooked from the very beginning.  Not only does Freed do an amazing job of wrapping up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy but he also provides the reader with fantastic action sequences and some outstanding characters.  This is easily one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in ages and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

For this final book, Freed has come up with a powerful story set within the iconic Star Wars universe.  Starting right after the events of Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price sees the members of Alphabet Squadron separated and traumatised as their protracted and personal conflict with Shadow Wing begins.  This leads into a series of exciting encounters and battles in space as Alphabet Squadron pursues Shadow Wing during their latest mission, while the leader of Shadow Wing hatches a plan to end the war on his terms.  At the same time, each of the characters attempts to deal with issues or distress raised in the previous novels, whether it be Quell’s conflicted loyalties or Chass’s post-fight trauma.  All of this leads to some epic and impressive final confrontations as the two sides meet for the very last time.  This was an extremely good character-driven read, and I loved the very cool way that Freed finished off this amazing series. 

While it is an amazing Star Wars novel, Freed focuses more on the war part of the book, turning this into a gritty story of survival, loyalty and conflict, which makes for a powerful piece of fiction.  While obviously best enjoyed by those readers familiar with the rest of the series, Victory’s Price is a very accessible novel which new readers can follow without any trouble.  Thanks to the awesome use of multiple character perspectives, Victory’s Price has an excellent flow to it, and the readers are supplied with clever twists, cool action sequences and impressive character moments as the protagonists come to terms with their place in the universe and the constant fighting.  This ended up being quite an intense tale of war and life, which not only perfectly wrapped up the Alphabet Squadron series but which also had me engrossed from the very minute I started reading it.

One of the major things that I liked about this book was the way in which it added to the Star Wars expanded universe.  This series has always done a cool job of exploring what happened after Return of the Jedi, and it is always interesting and somewhat more realistic to see that the war did not end as soon as the Emperor died.  However Freed has painted this period as a particularly dark and deadly part of the war, and I love seeing how he envisioned what happened to members of the New Republic and Empire after Endor.  Victory’s Price focuses on the very end of the civil war, showing another side of the events that lead up to the battle of Jakku and fitting its original characters into this conflict.  This is a cool part of the book, and I loved seeing another version of the epic battle of Jakku, a major conflict that has been featured in several other novels and pieces of fiction.  Freed also takes the time to explore and answer several other intriguing questions, such as the mystery behind the Emperor’s messengers, the creepy red-clad droids who project holograms of the Emperor’s face, which sought out various Imperial commanders after Endor and ordered the various genocides of Operation Cinder.  The solution surrounding the messengers ends up being rather intriguing, and there are even some clever parallels to World War II in there.  Due to the intriguing elements of Star Wars lore featured within, Victory’s Price, like the rest of the Alphabet Squadron series, will probably be enjoyed most by major fans of the franchise, but there are a lot of compelling elements that readers of all knowledge bases will appreciate.  This was truly an exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction and I cannot wait to see what Freed adds to the canon next time.

I really must highlight the outstanding action scenes that Freed came up with for this book.  I am a man who likes his Star War’s action, and I have to say that Victory’s Price has some of the best sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  Due to the novel’s focus on fighter pilots, there are naturally a huge number of amazing combat scenes as the rival pilots engage in complex battles in space.  Freed has saved the best for last in this final Alphabet Squadron novel, as the opposing pilots find themselves fighting in a range of unique situations.  The battle scenes are extremely well crafted, filled with elaborate details and fantastic depictions of complex manoeuvres and clever tactics that are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat with their intense action.  They are also quite emotionally rich, as you witness your favourite characters constantly face near-death experiences in this final entry in the series.  Highlights of these great battle sequences included two fantastic duels between the protagonists and the leader of Shadow Wing, which sees some fancy flying between some of the most skilled pilots in the series in some very distinctive landscapes.  I also really loved the final, elaborate battle set above Jakku, which proved to be a major part of the second half of the book.  Not only do you get the desperate and packed main conflict between the entire New Republic and Imperial fleets, which features destruction and death in every direction, but you also get a more private and quiet final battle between a group of Alphabet Squadron led New Republic fighters and Shadow Wing.  This smaller pitched battle between the two sides fits perfectly into the midst of the wider conflict and is filled with personal turmoil and antagonism as these two rival squadrons meet for a final time.  All these battles come out as being extremely epic and powerful, and I loved every second of the gritty and deadly fights they contained.

While I have a lot of love for Victory’s Price’s epic story, intense action, and clever Star Wars connections, easily the best thing about this book are the complex and well-written characters.  Each of the major characters featured in Victory’s Price have been introduced in the previous Alphabet Squadron novels with some complex and powerful storylines.  In Victory’s Price, all these great arcs reach a climax as the characters meet their final destiny and their stories comes to an end.  I really enjoyed the satisfying conclusions that Freed came up with for his outstanding characters, although in many ways it was sad to see their stories finish.  Still, I really appreciated all the great character arcs contained in this final novel, and Freed ensures they go through the emotional wringer before they go.

At the forefront of these outstanding characters are the five members of Alphabet Squadron who have served as the focal point for the entire series.  The pilots in Alphabet Squadron, so named for their use of a different Rebel Alliance fighter (A-Wing, X-Wing, B-Wing, U-Wing and Y-Wing), are layered and complex individuals, each of whom has experienced their own trauma or betrayal throughout the course of the lengthy war.  All five of these original characters have gone through significant development throughout the course of the previous two novels, and Freed does an exceptional job continuing their journeys in this final book.

The main protagonist of this series is Yrica Quell, a former member of Shadow Wing, who joined Alphabet Squadron in the first novel to help neutralise her former Imperial comrades.  However, it was eventually revealed that Quell, despite claiming she defected from the Empire after refusing to participate in Operation Cinder, aided in the destruction of a planet.  This revelation caused a massive rift in her relationship with the rest of Alphabet Squadron, and she ended up reuniting with Shadow Wing at the end of the second novel.  In this final book, it is revealed that Quell has infiltrated Shadow Wing to bring them down from the inside.  However, upon spending time with her Imperial comrades, she begins to experience doubts about her plan, especially as she sees that the Imperials are just as damaged by the war as she and the New Republic pilots are.  Her plans are further complicated due to her relationship with the leader of Shadow Wing, Soran Keize, her former mentor and the person who initially convinced her to defect to the New Republic.  Quell still has an immense amount of respect for Keize, and strongly believes in several of his plans.  This re-remembered loyalty to Shadow Wing strongly conflicts with her friendships with Alphabet Squadron and the guilt she feels for her role in Operation Cinder, placing Quell in a major quandary for most of the book.  This uncertainty and inner conflict is a really clever part of Quell’s story, and the reader is deeply impacted by her struggle and conflicted loyalties.  This was easily one of the best and most powerful character arcs in Victory’s Price and I really appreciated the outstanding character story that Freed set around Quell.

Victory’s Price also spends a significant amount of time following Quell’s fellow Alphabet Squadron members, Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, both of whom have compelling arcs that highlight different aspects of warring soldiers.  Wyl Lark is the young, optimistic member of the squadron who took over leadership at the end of the second novel.  Lark has developed a significant amount throughout the course of this series, and it is great to see him come into his own as a leader and pilot.  However, despite his apparent ease at the role, Lark is plagued by doubts and concerns about the morality of this fight, especially as it conflicts with some of the teachings of his race.  He spends a great deal of this final book coming to terms with his morals, and even attempts to once again contact the members of Shadow Wing to try and find some common ground or a way to end the conflict.  His actions go a long way to humanising the antagonists of the novel and his hope is a refreshing beacon of light in this darker Star Wars book.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the way in which Lark attempts to change the outcome of the war his way, and it was a fascinating addition to the story. 

Chass, on the other hand, is easily the most damaged character in the entire series.  A music-loving veteran pilot who is more afraid of the end of the war and her inevitable slide into irrelevance and despair than her own death, Chass has always been on edge throughout the series.  However, in Victory’s Price, Chass is even more traumatised, especially after learning of the betrayal of her love interest, Quell (which is an intriguing LGBT+ relationship for a Star Wars novel) and has since turned to the teachings of a cult to gain some clarity.  Despite this, Chass is still driven by her anger and her rage and is constantly lashing out at everyone around her, with her death wish a constant anchor around her neck.  Freed has written a complex and moving story around Chass and her suffering, and I deeply appreciate the portrayal of her as a troubled veteran.  I think that Chass’s story comes to a fantastic end in this final novel, especially as she gets closure with several important people in her life.  Both characters are incredibly well written and are fantastic examples of Freed’s exceptional writing ability.

Next up are the final two Alphabet Squadron pilots, Nath Tensent and Kairos.  While both characters have been somewhat overshadowed throughout the series, Freed has developed some intriguing storylines around them which come full circle perfectly in this final novel.  Nath Tensent, a pilot who served both the Empire and the Rebels during the war, has an enjoyable and likeable personality and is the sort of guy who quickly becomes everyone’s best friend.  However, despite the easygoing façade he projects to the world, even Nath is feeling the effects of the war and the constant worry and responsibility is getting to him.  This is particularly exacerbated in Victory’s Price when he becomes a decorated military hero with greater responsibilities and is forced to balance his own selfish goals with the lives of people who look up to him, as well as his very strong concerns for Wyl Lark.  This results in a particularly clever and enjoyable arc, and it was great to see him finally take some responsibility in this war.  I liked the way in which Freed ended Nath’s storyline, especially as it potentially opens another series in the future. 

The final member of the squadron is the mysterious Kairos, an alien of unknown origin with a strong hatred for the Empire and terrifying combat skills.  Despite her intriguing introduction in Alphabet Squadron, Kairos was somewhat left out of the second book after receiving an injury.  However, this is more than rectified in Victory’s Price, as Kairos is featured more prominently and we finally get to see some of her backstory.  Freed comes up with quite the intriguing, if tragic, story for Kairos, and it was fascinating to see her unique alien beliefs and culture, as well as a powerful story of renewal and redemption that accompanies her.  Kairos becomes quite close to two characters in this book, especially after the closest people in her life died in the previous novel, and it was great to see her finally connect, even if only for a short while.  Freed did a fantastic job setting up Kairos’ story in the previous two novels, and I personally loved finally getting some answers regarding this curious character’s identity.

Aside from the members of Alphabet Squadron, several other characters are also shown in great prominence throughout this book.  The one I liked the most was Hera Syndulla, the New Republic general commanding Alphabet Squadron.  Hera is one of the few characters in this novel who Freed did not come up with, as Hera originated in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and serves as a bridging character to the larger franchise.  Due to how much I love Star Wars: Rebels, I have really enjoyed seeing more of Hera in this series, not only because I am very curious about her post-Rebels life but because she also serves as a great mentor character to the members of Alphabet Squadron.  Hera features a lot more prominently in this final novel and her perspectives are shown nearly as much as the members of Alphabet Squadron.  This extra perspective really added a lot to the story as a whole and I personally really enjoyed seeing Hera take charge and attempt to hunt down Shadow Wing, while also attempting to determine the course of the entire war.  I also really enjoyed the fact that this book shows Hera’s role in the battle of Jakku, which as the largest space battle in the entire civil war, you had to assume she would be a part of.  Hera is naturally a bit of a badass in this battle, as you would expect, and I appreciated that Freed featured more of her in this novel.

The other major character featured within Victory’s Price is Colonel Soran Keize.  Keize is a fantastically complex character who serves as the leader of Shadow Wing and Quell’s Imperial mentor.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of this book, Keize is portrayed as a more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, one who is sick of war and who only has the best concerns of his men at heart.  As a result, Keize is running his own game throughout Victory’s Price and works to get the best result for the members of Shadow Wing.  His convictions, sense of honour and understandable motivations make him a hard character to dislike, and his role in mentoring Quell ensures that she is extremely conflicted when it comes to betraying him.  Keize is also probably the best pilot in this entire series, as he is regarded as the Empire’s ace of aces, and Victory’s Price is where you get to see him soar as he engages in several great battles and duels.  Thanks to this, and his curious character development, Keize is a great character to follow, and I really enjoyed the unique tale Freed told through him. 

Freed also focuses on some of the other pilots on both the New Republic and Imperial sides.  This results in a great combination of complex side or minor characters, each of whom have their own reasons for fighting in the war.  Freed attempts to show that, despite fighting on different sides of the war, these characters really are not that different.  Instead, all of them are soldiers, with several similarities, including their own trauma, PTSD and issues with the war that they are fighting in.  I think it is a testament to Freed’s writing ability that he was able to get me to care about members of the Imperial navy, and it was pretty spectacular the way in which he attempted to show the humanity buried deep within them.  It does mean that the action sequences more emotionally loaded and potentially devastating as you end up not wanting to see some of the pilots dying, but I really appreciated the way in which Freed took the time to explore these compelling side characters.

While I have previously enjoyed the first two Alphabet Squadron novels in their paperback format, circumstances required me to check out Victory’s Price as an audiobook instead, which was pretty damn awesome.  Not only did Victory’s Price feature the usual blend of iconic sound effects and music that makes all Star Wars audiobooks such a treat to enjoy, but I found that the story flowed incredibly well in this format.  With a lengthy runtime of 16 hours and 19 minutes, I absolutely blasted through this book as I became so engrossed in the awesome story and the way in which it was performed as an audiobook.  I also thought that the use of the iconic Star Wars music in the Victory’s Price was particularly impressive, and not only did the music make several of the extended space battle sequences even more epic, but they also really highlighted some of the most emotional scenes in the book and made them strike my soul even more emphatically.  I also really enjoyed the amazing narration from January LaVoy, who has previously provided her voice to the other Alphabet Squadron books.  LaVoy is a particularly skilled narrator whose work on the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Die Standing, I really enjoyed.  Not only does LaVoy present the awesome details of Victory’s Price in a quick and exciting manner, making each of the action scenes sound particularly cool, but she also provides some great voices for the various characters.  Each of the main characters gets a unique voice which fits them perfectly and which really helps the listener get to grips with their personalities and inner thoughts.  While all of the character’s voices were done extremely well, the best voice that LaVoy did was probably Hera Syndulla’s, which sounded extremely close to the character’s voice in the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  All of this helps to make Victory’s Price’s audiobook an immensely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend this format to anyone and everyone.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price is an exceptional and powerful novel from Alexander Freed that is one of the best books I have so far read in 2021.  Featuring a dark and gritty war story set during a fascinating period of Star Wars history, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the impressive Alphabet Squadron trilogy while also providing some cathartic conclusions to outstanding character arcs that Freed has built up during the previous book.  I absolutely loved this final novel (hence the massive review), and I think that this was probably the best entry in the entire series.  A highly recommended read, especially if you have already enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, this was a truly epic Star Wars novel.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Convict by Anthony Hill

The Last Convict Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Anthony Hill once again dives into the unique history of Australia’s colonial past with a fascinating examination of a truly remarkable individual in The Last Convict.

Perth, 1938.  Samuel Speed in an old man living his last days in a dreary public-run home for destitute old men, with no family or friends to take him in.  At 98 years old, Samuel knows that he does not have long to live and is content with his lot in life, but an unexpected opportunity to tell his tale has been given to him.  A local newspaper has requested an interview with him after they discover that he is the last person left alive who was transported as a convict to Australia.

As Samuel begins his interview, he is transported back to his past to a fateful day in Oxford in 1863 when, as a young, starving teenager, he helped set a barley stack alight in the hopes of being arrested to receive food and a warm bed in prison.  However, he is unprepared for the full consequences of his actions when a judge harshly sentences him to seven years hard labour on the other side of the world.  Boarding the transportation ship, Belgravia, everything from his past is taken from him, including his name, and he begins the long, arduous journey to Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

Forced to endure years of backbreaking labour, isolation and enforced routine on his life, Samuel’s only relief is a newfound love of reading, as he enjoys escapism in several classic novels.  Eventually obtaining his ticket of leave in 1867 and full freedom in 1871, Samuel seeks to forge a new life for himself.  However, as he continues to work hard, he soon begins to understand that even though he is no longer in prison, he is still very much trapped by circumstances outside of his control.  What kind of man will Samuel become, and how deep does a person’s life sentence truly run?

The Last Convict is a fantastic and powerful historical novel from Anthony Hill that provides an impressive examination of an intriguing figure from Australia’s history.  Hill is an intriguing author from my home city of Canberra who has written several historical novels throughout his career, all of which examine unique individuals from Australia’s past, such as his novel Captain Cook’s Apprentice which followed a cabin boy aboard the Endeavour as it made its journey to Australia, or Soldier Boy, which followed Australia’s youngest-known soldier during WWI.  This latest novel from Hill continues this trend as the author takes a look at Samuel Speed, the last known surviving convict transported to Australia from England.

I really enjoyed the excellent narrative that Hill pulled together for his latest novel, and The Last Convict proved to be an exciting and fascinating tale of survival and determination.  Thanks to a trove of intriguing historical information and articles (all of which is either provided or referenced at the end of the novel), Hill provides the reader with a detailed and compelling bibliographic tale of Samuel’s life.  The story is set around a real-life interview that Samuel Speed had with the Mirror in 1938, and The Last Convict showcases both the elderly Speed sitting down for the interview and his visions of the past as he gets wrapped up in his captivating memories.  The resulting tale is a powerful and stirring narrative that combines historical fact, obtained from both the interview and other sources, as well as some dramatisation from the author.  I really enjoyed the clever narrative that resulted and I think that Hill did his historical protagonist justice, painting him as a conflicted and entertaining figure with both regrets and contentment about how his life turned out.  While many of the events that occurred in this novel have a strong historical basis, Hill did make several leaps (which he acknowledges in his notes) throughout the book.  I think that a lot of these literary creations of the character’s life worked well, and I like to think that Samuel was the amiable bibliophile that Hill made him out to be.  I found myself really getting drawn into this epic and captivating tale, especially as the author did a fantastic job portraying a number of fascinating scenes, locations and events from history, and it painted a vivid picture.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hill told the story through an excellent combination of flashback sequences and scenes featuring the older Samuel telling his tale to the newspaper.  All of this results in a fantastic and enjoyable narrative and I am really glad that I got the chance to experience this interesting take on the intriguing figure that was Samuel Steel.

One of the things that I loved the most about The Last Convict was the exceptional amount of historical detail that the author chucked into this book.  Hill is a massive history buff who has done an impressive amount of research for this novel, and he goes out of his way to populate this novel with all manner of facts and fascinating depictions of day-to-day life that a person like Samuel Steel would have experienced.  As a result, the reader gets a captivating, comprehensive and authentic-feeling examination of the convict experience in the latter half of the 19th century.  This includes fantastic depictions of how a person would be tried; their incarceration in England, including some of the horrendous bits of hard and painfully repetitive labour they would be required to undertake; all the way up to their transportation across to Western Australia.  The author also dives into the experiences of a convict living in Western Australia in the second half of The Last Convict, and there are some fantastic and intriguing discussions about what a person would have experienced once they arrived in a vast new land.  I found all the discussion about the various tasks, the intricate tickets of leave and day-to-day life of a convict locked up in Freemantle Prison (which is a cool building to visit) to be exquisitely done, and the reader gets an amazingly wide-ranging amount of knowledge on the subject.

Another fun historical aspect of the novel was the range of entertaining historical anecdotes that the character of Samuel Steel told to the reporter during the story regarding major historical figures that Samuel would have had knowledge of.  Not only do these anecdotes help to flesh out the story and help to fit into a couple of minor references featured in the Mirror interview, but they also proved to be a rather intriguing inclusion.  Hill goes into substantial detail recounting tales of several outrageous and famous Western Australian historical figures and their major moments, which included infamous prison escapes and other shenanigans.  I found these parts of the book to be incredibly fascinating, especially as I was unfamiliar with several of the stories that were mentioned, including one mass escape of Irish convicts that nearly started an international incident between the colony of Western Australia and the United States.  These stories added some great context to Samuel’s tale and helped the reader to envision the lives of other convicts or people in power that may have had some influence over the protagonist’s way of life or who he may have gossiped about.  I also quite liked the author’s decision to make Samuel a fan of classic novels, which was added in due to a passing reference to a Mark Twain story that Samuel made during his interview, and because Samuel had an association with the Braille Society, who ended up burying him.  Hill expands on this to paint Samuel as a lover of other novels, especially Dickens, and suggests that he would have started reading whilst a convict looking to pass the time.  Not only is this a rather likeable and relatable character trait, but it allowed the author to explore what sort of literary works a person like Samuel might have been interested in and may have had access to.  I enjoyed the author’s depictions of this classic novels and the protagonist’s potential reaction to them, and it proved to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot.  Overall, I felt that all these cool historical elements really helped to elevate Hill’s story within The Last Convict and readers are in for a fantastic blast of information about colonial Western Australia that is extremely fascinating and interesting.

The Last Convict is another clever and meticulously researched Australian historical fiction novel from Anthony Hill that provides the reader with a powerful and compelling window into the life of an interesting figure from history.  Loaded with Hill’s usual intense levels of fascinating historical detail, I had a lot of fun reading The Last Convict.  I look forward to seeing which Australian historical figure Hill looks at in his next book and I will be grabbing a copy to read.