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.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole

Doctor Who - The Knight, The Fool and The Dead Cover

Publisher: BBC Books (Hardcover – 1 December 2020)

Series: Time Lord Victorious – Book One

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to follow the Tenth Doctor into one of his darkest adventures as he faces death itself in the early days of the universe with the first novel in the Time Lord Victorious multimedia series, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, by bestselling author Steve Cole.

Shortly after the events of the 2009 television special The Waters of Mars, the Tenth Doctor attempts to outrun his guilt and his prophesised death by fleeing deep into the past to the Dark Times.  Near the birth of the universe, life flourishes and death is barely known.  Only a few rare people die, and most beings live for vast quantities of time.  That is until the Kotturuh arrive and turn the peaceful and bountiful planet that the Doctor is visiting into a dead world within seconds.

The Kotturuh are a vile and terrible race who are spreading throughout the cosmos dispensing death and destruction on an unbelievable scale.  Worshiping a mysterious equation, the Kotturuh view themselves as the arbiters of life and death, travelling to planets and dispensing mortality.  With each new species they encounter, they decree what that species’ lifespan will be, whether centuries or moments, and any who have lived beyond their set time are instantly killed.

Determined to stop the Kotturuh’s reign of terror, the Doctor and a small team of companions begin to work on a defensive strategy that will ensure life forms are immune to the Kotturuh’s power.  After travelling to the Kotturuh’s world and witnessing the equation that they follow, the Doctor begins to formulate a plan that will not only stop the Kotturuh for good but may even put an end to the Doctor’s greatest enemy, death.  Determined to change all of time and space so that life will win for all time, the Doctor will become more than just a Time Lord, he will be The Time Lord Victorious.

Now it will probably surprise no-one who is familiar with my blog that I am quite a fan of Doctor Who (just add it to the massive list of fandoms that I follow).  Despite my love of the televisions shows, I have not gotten into the Doctor Who novels, audio dramas or comics, although that may change in the future.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is an intriguing and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting ride with the Tenth Doctor.  Written by Steve Cole, who has written a huge number of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas among other intriguing works, this book is a vital entry in the Time Lord Victorious project.  Time Lord Victorious is a connected series of Doctor Who tie-ins told across multiple forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and various other formats, which sees various incarnations of the Doctor encounter similar foes and each-other in a massive adventure.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is a major part of this expanded tie-in series, introducing one of the main antagonistic species and producing some of the major connected moments.

The Knight, The Fool and The Dead had an intriguing and enjoyable narrative which places the Tenth Doctor in an interesting and deadly conflict.  I had an awesome time reading this amazing story and, in many ways, it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, with the Doctor being confronted by danger, recruiting a unique team of individuals, including an immortal, a mad scientist and a time travelling Ood hitman (a hitood??), before finding an inventive solution to the conflict.  This proved to be a fun and enjoyable adventure, although it does get somewhat dark towards the end, mainly due to the Doctor’s vulnerable mental state and the reckless course of action that he undertakes.  While the book mostly follows the Tenth Doctor and his companions, there are also some flashback scenes to some of previous Doctors, each of which show the Doctor telling one of his companions the same story in different ways.  These flashback scenes are very interesting, especially to fans of the franchise, and they have some clever connections to the main story and to the overarching events of the Time Lord Victorious.  Due to how short the novel is (only 178 pages), The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is extremely fast paced, although Cole does an amazing job setting everything up in a short period and then ensuring that the story that follows is cohesive with a good flow.  I found myself powering through this novel in extremely short order, especially once I got stuck into the excellent story, and I really enjoyed how the entire narrative turned out.  I particularly liked the intriguing and shocking cliff-hanger, which definitely makes me want to check out the next novel in the series.

This latest novel from Cole proved to be quite an enjoyable Doctor Who tie-in novel that really captures the tone and feel of the television show.  Like many pieces of tie-in fiction, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is best read by fans of the Doctor Who franchise, especially those who loved the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor.  Due to it being part of the Time Lord Victorious project, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead has some intriguing connections to the wider universe, with several other significant figures and characters making appearances, resulting in a lot of references for eagle-eyed fans.  While some knowledge of the wider Doctor Who canon would be ideal for readers of this novel, I felt that the story contained within The Knight, The Fool and The Dead was accessible to newcomers who should have fun getting through this interesting science fiction adventure.  While this novel is connected to a huge range of other Doctor Who media releases, I felt that readers did not need to have enjoyed any of the other entries in the Time Lord Victorious series before this book to follow the story.  While The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is a major entry in this connected franchise and is necessary reading for people trying to enjoy the Time Lord Victorious as a whole, this book can easily be enjoyed on its own.  I am rather curious about some of the comics and other novels being created as part of this, and I might have to check them out at some point in the future.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the author’s portrayal of the Doctor.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead features the Tenth Doctor, who was played by David Tennant on television, as the central protagonist of this book, and I felt that Cole did an outstanding job of bringing this iconic character to life.  Cole captures so much of this Doctor’s personality, including the way he speaks and thinks, so much so that while I was reading through this novel my brain automatically read all of the Doctor’s lines to me in Tennant’s voice.  This helped turn The Knight, The Fool and The Dead into such a fun story, especially as Tennant’s Doctor is probably my favourite version of the character.  However, the real highlight of Cole’s portrayal of the Tenth Doctor is how the author brings a much darker and conflicted tone to the character.  This version of the Tenth Doctor is only shortly removed from the climatic events of The Waters of Mars, where the Doctor’s hubris led to the suicide of a woman he was trying to save.  Because of this, and because his own upcoming death has been foretold, the Doctor has fled back in time to try to outrun his problems.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author portrays a much more unpredictable and emotionally ragged Doctor throughout this book, especially one who is still getting flashes about what happened during his last adventure.  This somewhat damaged Doctor ends up making some rather rash and dangerous decisions, especially when an opportunity to end all death comes before him.  The way in which the author works this more damaged version of this fantastic character into the narrative is extremely cool and I really appreciate the way in which he brings the story back to the events of the television series.

Overall, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole is an excellent and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel.  Thanks to its quick narrative and fantastic depiction of the Tenth Doctor, I had an absolute blast getting through this new book, which serves as a key entry in a captivating multi-media series.  This is a great book to check out, especially if you are a major Doctor Who fan, and I will need to get the next novel in this series, All Flesh is Glass, to see how this storyline ends.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 22 September 2020)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

British comedian and television personality Richard Osman presents one of the best debut novels of 2020 with The Thursday Murder Club, a clever and hilarious murder mystery novel that was an absolute treat to read.

Welcome to Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement estate near the town of Fairhaven where the elderly can relax and enjoy their final years in peace, quiet and good company.  But for four enterprising septuagenarians, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, retirement also offers them a bold opportunity for some excitement and adventure as the Thursday Murder Club.  Meeting up each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room, these four friends attempt to solve cold cases forgotten by the police.  While it may seem like a harmless hobby, these retirees are thrilled by their amateur investigations and welcome the chance to bring a little justice in the world.  However, when a local property developer with a dodgy past is brutally murdered with a mysterious photograph left next to his body, the Thursday Murder Club jump at the chance to investigate a real live case.

Thanks to a lifetime of connections, skills and intuition, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are able to quickly position themselves in the middle of the burgeoning case, much to the frustration of the local police.  Using every unorthodox and somewhat unethical trick at their disposal, the club members gain vital information about the murder.  However, when a second person is poisoned right in front of them, the club soon begin to realise how high the stakes are.  A killer is stalking Coopers Chase and they will do anything to protect their secret.  Can the Thursday Murder Club stop them before it is too late, or will their first real mystery be their last?

Well, that was exceedingly delightful.  Osman is a fantastic British comedian who has been in a number of great British television programs (we’re big fans of Pointless), and, like many celebrities, he decided to have a go at writing his own novel.  I have to admit that when I first heard that Osman was writing a crime fiction book, I was intrigued but I did not initially plan to read it.  However, after hearing some positive buzz from other reviewers and being in the mood for something a little different I decided to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did!  The Thursday Murder Club turned out to be an exceptional read which blew me away with this incredible and unique crime fiction story.  Osman has come up with something special with this book, and I had an outstanding time listening to it and exploring the fun story, unique characters, and clever depictions of the elderly of Britain.  This is easily one of my favourite debuts of 2020 and it gets a full five stars from me.

Osman has come up with an elaborate and entertaining story for The Thursday Murder Club that combines an excellent murder mystery with large amounts of brilliant humour and several amazing and tragic moments of drama.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives to tell his clever story, and the reader is soon wrapped up in a number of different personal tales that all tie into the murders that form the centre of this book.  While The Thursday Murder Club is a little slow at the start, it does not take long for the story to get going, and once the first body drops the reader is firmly entranced and cannot wait to see where the author is going next.  There are so many great elements associated with this book, and you are guaranteed to have an outstanding time getting through The Thursday Murder Club.

At the centre of The Thursday Murder Club’s narrative lies a compelling and intriguing murder mystery that follows an intense case around the Coopers Chase retirement village.  Osman has weaved together a pretty impressive murder mystery here, with two disreputable people killed in quick succession in apparently connected killings, which prompts the members of the Thursday Murder Club to get involved.  Watching these characters investigate proved to be extremely fascinating and entertaining, especially as they employ some much more unique and unusual methods to get the answers they are looking for.  Osman pairs this unorthodox search for the killer with the official investigation being conducted by the police, and the two different methodologies make for a good contrast, especially when they both get some extremely different results.  The two murder cases go in some extremely compelling and clever directions, and Osman has come up with a number of impressive twists and misleading suspects to deflect from the real culprits.  The conclusions of the cases were really good; I loved how the entirety of the mystery came together and how the various crimes were connected.  Osman adds in lot of foreshadowing for the various twists featured within The Thursday Murder Club, but some of the results were still pleasantly unexpected.  I was able to predict one of the major twists of the book in advance, which allowed me to work out who a killer was and why they were doing it, but I did not see certain other twists and reveals coming.  I really love it when a mystery can shock and surprise me and I think that The Thursday Murder Club was one of the best murder mystery novels I read all year.

An exceptional highlight of The Thursday Murder Club is the excellent characters from whose eyes we see the story unfold.  The Thursday Murder Club is made up of four unusual friends who make for very fun central protagonists.  All four members of the Thursday Murder Club are entertaining and complex characters in their own right and who each add a lot to the story.  Osman spends a great deal of time exploring each of these characters, and the reader soon becomes intimately familiar with their lives while also becoming enamoured with their intriguing personalities.  The main character of the book is probably Elizabeth, the founder of the Thursday Murder Club and its apparent leader.  Elizabeth is extremely determined, and it is strongly hinted throughout the book that she was formerly a rather successful spy.  Described by one of the other characters as being essentially Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Elizabeth is the driving force behind the club’s investigation into the murders around Coopers Chase, especially with her innumerable contacts and natural intuition.  Elizabeth has a very strong personality, and it is fantastic to see her go about her business, intimidating and outmanoeuvring everyone she encounters with practiced ease.  Despite this hard, clever exterior, Elizabeth has a number of emotional vulnerabilities, including an ailing husband and a comatose best friend, which Osman explores throughout the novel.  These vulnerabilities help to drive Elizabeth throughout the book, and she becomes quite a complex character as a result.

The other female member of the Thursday Murder Club is Joyce, a former nurse.  Joyce is a great character who becomes an invaluable part of the investigation.  Appearing to be mostly quiet and somewhat placid, Joyce is actually a deeply intelligent person who uses her mild and kind personality to get people to do what she wants.  As the newest member of the club, Joyce provides the reader with an outsider’s view of the other major characters, and you get an interesting glimpse of how the investigation is progressing as her point-of-view chapters are written in a fun journal format that is unique to her.  Aside from Elizabeth, Joyce probably gets the most character assessment and development in The Thursday Murder Club, especially as some of her personal relationships become key parts of the plot, and she proves to be a particularly intriguing character as a result.

The other members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron, two very different people who are actually the best of friends.  Ibrahim is a particularly pleasant man, a former psychologist, who is nice and sociable to everyone he meets and who serves as the heart and soul of the team.  Out of all the main characters in this book I think that Ibrahim got the least amount of development, which was a shame considering how entertaining he proved to be.  I hope he gets more of a storyline in the future entries of this series and I look forward to seeing how Osman expands this character out.  Ron, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ibrahim.  A famous former union activist, Ron enjoys the spotlight and revels in fighting for lost causes against authority figures.  Ron is the hot-headed member of the group and he has a personal stake in the investigation when his son becomes a prime suspect for the police.  Despite his rough and impulsive attitude, Ron fits in well with the rest of the club and is a keen investigator, mainly because of the way he refuses to believe anything anyone else tells him.  All four of these main characters are exceptionally well written, and I really enjoyed the way that they played off each other and used their unique talents to solve the case.

This novel also focuses on two police officers, Donna and Chris, who are leading the official investigation into the murders and who find themselves working with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  Donna is a young rookie cop who has transferred over from the London Police and now finds herself bored to death as a member of a small town force.  Thanks to the manipulations of Elizabeth, she finds herself assigned to the case, which revitalises her and helps address some of her issues and concerns from her past.  Donna proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as she is the only younger person who sees through the members of the Thursday Murder Club and doesn’t fall for their antics.  She also has a fun partnership with Chris, the senior officer investigating the case, and the two swiftly form a connection throughout the story.  Chris, despite being a clever and experienced detective, is a bit of a sad-sack who finds himself stuck in a rut.  This fresh case also reinvigorates Chris, and he starts to fall out of his bad habits with Donna’s help.  However, unlike Donna, Chris is a lot more susceptible to the charms of the Thursday Murder Club, and it is extremely entertaining to see him get manipulated for a good part of the novel.  These two police characters get a fair bit of attention throughout the novel, and their official investigation nicely complements the unofficial one being run by the Thursday Murder Club, with the divergent information they receive coming together perfectly in the final results.  I also quite enjoyed the friendship that forms between Donna and Chris, as it allows both of them to grow and has a very nice development at the end which I thought was rather sweet.

Osman also creates a bevy of distinctive and entertaining side characters, many of whom have a connection to the crime or are a potential suspect.  This includes all the residents of the retirement village, which is filled with unique personalities with lifetimes of secrets.  Osman explores several of these great characters throughout the course of the book, providing some rich backstory and intriguing motivations for their potential involvement.  I personally enjoyed the character of Bogdan, a relatively young Polish immigrant who works as a labourer for the local property developers and who finds himself involved in the case after finding a body.  Bogdan forms a fantastic friendship with Elizabeth and her husband throughout the book, and I really enjoyed his guarded personality and shrewd intelligence, which proves to be an excellent match for the secretive Elizabeth.  I also have to highlight the two major murder victims.  Both of these victims get a few scenes early on in the novel before they are killed, and Osman sets them up as particularly outrageous and unlikeable people.  While this does ensure that the readers are not too cut up when they end up dead, it does mean that there are a whole of suspects when it comes to their murders, and I liked how that added to the case.  All of the characters featured in The Thursday Murder Club were a lot of fun and I had an amazing time seeing how each of their individual arcs unfolded and what each of them was capable of deep down.

I quite enjoyed how Osman turned The Thursday Murder Club into a fun and entertaining ode to the elderly that highlights the fact that retirees can achieve quite a bit and have a lot to offer to the world.  I really enjoyed the author’s story idea of four senior citizens investigating a murder and it produced a truly entertaining and enjoyable read.  Some of The Thursday Murder Club’s funniest moments revolved around the four protagonists manipulating or swindling the younger characters in the book to get what they want, whether it be information on the case or a confession about certain illegal actions.  The way in which they go about influencing the younger people they encounter is very entertaining, as they mostly utilise the classic trick of appearing helpless and innocent, while in reality they are controlling the entire situation.  Some of their methods will be very familiar to any reader with an elderly grandparent or parent, and I personally laughed my head off at one scene where one younger character is slowly worn down through a unique interrogation method involving crowded chairs, friendly company, an overflowing mug of tea and crumbly cake.  Watching the veteran police characters slowly work out how and why they are being manipulated was extremely funny, and by the end of the book they are noticeably more wary about dealing with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  As this is a book about senior citizens, there are naturally a number of jokes about growing old, including entertaining discussions about their thoughts on today’s society and several depictions of them trying and failing to work modern technology.  While most of the discussion about the elderly is light-hearted and inspiring, it does get quite sad in places.  There are a number of scenes that focus on the debilitating impacts of aging, with each of the protagonists witnessing someone close to them starting to fade for one reason or another, resulting in several deep sequences when they consider their own mortality or frailty.  There are also a number of extremely tragic character moments involving age, and you can’t help but feel a little heartbroken in several places thanks to Osman’s excellent writing.  This adds some memorable and necessary drama to the overall narrative and it really helps to turn The Thursday Murder Club into a much more captivating read.  Overall, I think that Osman captured the issues surrounding aging extremely well, and I very much enjoyed his depictions of these badass septuagenarians outsmarting everyone they meet.

I also liked how Osman went out of his way to make his debut novel exceedingly British.  Everything about this book screams “British” to the reader, from the way the characters, act, talk and interact with each other, to the classic, subtle humour that is featured throughout.  Osman also includes a ton of references to various cultural, social and political elements of the country, with the characters discussing or reminiscing about everything from their favourite foods, television shows, bands, locations, historical experiences (Ron, for example, has some thoughts on Thatcher) and various other aspects of day-to-day life.  Due to the way that British culture funnels down into Australia, I had a decent understanding of most of the references that Osman made, although I imagine that some readers could get a little offput by the many references to aspects of the culture they are unfamiliar.  That being said I found the constant discussion about everything British to be exceedingly fun, and I really appreciated the way in which the author made a truly British book.

In order to enjoy this fantastic book I decided to grab a copy of the audiobook version of The Thursday Murder Club which was narrated by actress Lesley Manville.  The Thursday Murder Club audiobook has a run time of 12 hours and 25 minutes, and I got through it rather quickly, especially once I become wrapped up in the fun and captivating mystery.  I found myself really enjoying this excellent audiobook version of this novel and I think that having the events of the book narrated to me helped me follow the plot more closely and connect to the characters more.  I do have to admit that I was a tad disappointed that Osman did not narrate his own audiobook, but this disappointment quickly faded once I experienced Manville’s excellent narration.  Manville’s voice and narration style really fit into the unique tone of The Thursday Murder Club, and she was able to convey all of the novel’s humour, mystery and drama extremely well.  I also absolutely loved the great voices that Manville came up with for the characters featured within the novel, and I felt that she was able really accentuate the various personalities that made up the story, as well as come up with several different accents.  While Osman doesn’t narrate this audiobook, there is an interview between Osman and Marian Keyes featured at the end of it, in which Osman details how he came up with the idea for his book and why he wrote it, which I am sure many people will find fascinating.  I ended up having a wonderful time listening to this version of The Thursday Murder Club, and it ended up being one of my favourite audiobooks of 2020.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is an exceptional and masterful crime fiction novel that is easily one of the best debuts of 2020.  Osman has crafted together an outstanding read that follows some entertaining and compelling protagonists as they investigate a complex murder mystery in a very fun way.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic novel and I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun and intriguing read.  This was an absolute triumph from Osman, and I am extremely keen to see what he writes next.  I note that a sequel to The Thursday Murder Club is planned for next year and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

9781529100860

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Scholomance – Lesson One

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the most popular authors of fantasy fiction, Naomi Novik, returns with another awesome and fun read, A Deadly Education, an entertaining alternative to the classic magical school novels.

Naomi Novik is a talented author was has been writing some intriguing and fun fantasy novels since 2006, when she released the first novel in her Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon (also released as Temeraire), an intriguing fantasy based alternate history series that presents a re-imagined account of the Napoleonic War fought with dragons.  I have been meaning to check out the Temeraire books for a while now, but so far the only one of Novik’s novels that I have had the chance to read was the 2018 release, Spinning SilverSpinning Silver was a clever book that contained an interesting and compelling new take on the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.  I quite enjoyed Spinning Silver and I have been keeping an eye out for anything new from Novik for a while.  When I heard that Novik had new book coming out this year, I was quite excited, especially when I saw the cool concept that Novik was using as a basis for her story.

A Deadly Education, which forms the first book in Novik’s planned Scholomance series, is set in the Scholomance, the world’s premiere magic school.  But this is not your typical magical school!  Instead, the Scholomance is one of the most dangerous and deadly places on the planet.  There are no teachers, all the classes have a dark twist to them, and the halls are packed full of monsters, known as maleficaria, or mals, who are determined to eat each and every one of the students before they can escape.  Students must survive in there for years, learning what magic they can from the school’s unique learning devices and forming what alliances they can before they graduate, a gruelling process which sees the graduating class run through a gauntlet of the most dangerous mals in existence.  Few students survive their time in the Scholomance, especially if they do not have any friends, which is going to be a real problem for Galadriel “El” Higgens.

El is the school outcast.  Considered weird and naturally unfriendly, she seems a likely candidate to die when her year finally graduates.  However, El is hiding a massive secret: she has an unnatural affinity for extremely destructive spells and has the magical potential to level the school and everything in it, students and monsters included.  Desperate to keep control of her abilities and not succumb to her dark temptations to drain the student body of their magic and lay waste to everything she encounters, El seeks to find people who she can rely on.  And then Orion Lake bursts into her life, literally.

Orion is the school darling.  The scion of a powerful family whose magic allows him to destroy and absorb the powers of any maleficaria he encounters, Orion is worshiped in the school, especially as he has made it his mission to save as many students as possible.  But his attempted heroics have thrown a spanner in El’s carefully laid plans to survive graduation.  Now forced to accept Orion’s constant protection and company, El forms a new plan to gain allies, and even starts to make a few precious friends.  However, something even more sinister is afoot in the Scholomance.  More mals than usual are invading the school, and some surprisingly powerful creatures are finding a way in for the first time.  As Orion jumps blindly into danger, El attempts to help, determined to protect her best chance of survival.  But can she save herself and Orion with killing the rest of the students, or will a dark prophecy about her future finally come true?

A Deadly Education is an exceptional and outstanding novel from Novik that provides the reader with an exciting and deeply enjoyable fantasy story set within a unique and captivating magical school.  This proved to be an extremely fast-paced narrative that quickly sets the scene for the entire story and then sets the protagonist on a dangerous course as she tries to navigate a series of new trials and hazards within an already dangerous location.  Novik spins quite an impressive tale within this book, and I found myself hooked from the very beginning.  I loved the combination of magical learning (I’m a sucker for a good magical school story), dangerous action, the intrigue of the students’ intense jockeying for position and alliances, as well as the character growth that occurred throughout the course of the book.  All of these excellent story elements came together into one exceptional narrative that readers will quickly find themselves addicted to.  If I had one complaint about the story it would be that the ending was a little weak, with the big finale that was being built up for most of the story being resolved rather quickly, although I did like the build-up and its underlying causes.  Still, I did really enjoy where the story went, and all the details and story aspects in this book set the rest of the series up well.  Overall, I had an amazing time reading this book, and I actually managed to power through it in around a day, due to how much I liked it.  This was a truly impressive novel from Novik and I am extremely glad that I got the chance to read it.

This novel features an interesting range of different characters.  The book primarily revolves around the point-of-view character, El, and male lead, Orion Lake.  I personally really enjoyed the main protagonist, El (short for Galadriel, a fun and apt reference to The Lord of the Rings), the snarky, short-tempered and bitter character from through eyes we see the entire story unfold.  El proves to be an excellent narrator for A Deadly Education, and I liked her sarcastic and pessimistic view on the events occurring and the people she encounters, which results in most of the book’s fun humour.  El also has a lot of emotional and personal baggage weighing her down, which is very intriguing to unravel, especially as it stops her from getting close to people and gives her a vast independent streak in a location where individuals are killed off rather easily.  The most significant of these are her vast destructive powers and her ability to suck the magic and life from all those around her.  El is essentially a nuclear bomb who has the potential to destroy the entire school and spends the vast majority of the book trying to hide this fact from people.  This requires a careful balancing act from El as she attempts more mundane ways at building up her mana (exercise, knitting and so forth), while also battling the school’s attempts to cater to her affinity by providing her with destructive spells and school projects with evil potential, rather than the simpler tasks she desires.  I really appreciated this part of El’s character, and I found it fascinating to see her efforts to manage her power, especially in deadly situations.  In addition, El also has some major trust and social issues due to her childhood, as not only was El’s father killed in the school by one of the monsters but his family and the other major magical enclaves turned their back on her and her mother, due to El’s destructive potential.  This makes her hostile towards the various members of the elitist enclaves in the Scholomance, which finds her quite isolated throughout the book.  El also has a rather dark vibe to her that makes the people she encounters quite uncomfortable, and as a result she has trouble making friends.  Novik does an amazing job exploring this character throughout the novel, and El experiences some substantial development as a result.  It was great to see her grow as a person, especially as you come to really like the character, and I enjoyed seeing her finally make some much need connections and friendships.

The other major character in the novel was Orion Lake.  Orion is a powerful magical user who excels at killing mals and absorbing their energy.  At the start of the book, Orion is shown to be a typical noble hero fantasy character who is beloved by the school and appears to have a substantial following of friends and supporters.  However, Orion finds himself drawn to El, mainly due to the fact that El berates him and actually calls him out on his actions.  This results in an intriguing character dissection on Orion, as El discovers that Orion feels trapped in his role as a hero and he dislikes all the attention being levelled at him, as everyone treats him as a heroic being rather than a normal person.  I found Orion a bit flat at times, but he proved to be an entertaining addition to the narrative, and I enjoyed seeing his interactions with El, mostly because El levels all manner of hostilities towards him and he just shrugs it off, much to her frustration.

Easily the best part of A Deadly Education is the unique and impressive setting that Novik has spun together for her narrative.  Ever since my earliest days of fantasy fandom I have really enjoyed the magical school setting, and I still like seeing them in my fantasy novels, especially when they have the fun twists that the Scholomance does.  Novik did an incredible job coming up with this dark fantasy school, and I love the exceptionally creative and dangerous location that eventuated.  Every single detail of this magical school was really cool, from the teacherless classes, the somewhat sinister learning techniques which challenge the students in unique ways, the dangers that haunt the student body, the distinctive monsters that stalk the halls, and the overall layout and history of the facility.  All of this helps to create an excellent and memorable setting for the story, and I loved seeing this darker take on a typical fantasy school such as Hogwarts.  I especially liked all the imaginative ways in which the students are forced to navigate and survive the various trials and dangers they encounter as they attempt to survive and prepare for the deadly graduation that is about to occur.  I felt that Novik did an exceptional job introducing the myriad unique details of her new fantasy world to the reader, and at no point did I feel lost or confused about the elements that were key to the narrative.  I had an incredible time getting lost in this new fantasy universe and I cannot wait to see what secrets and new elements get developed in the future entries in the series.

It is very important to note that A Deadly Education is one of those books that will appeal to an extremely wide range of readers.  Due to its content and its focus on teenage characters, A Deadly Education has a lot of elements that mark it as a young adult novel, and many younger readers will have a great time reading it.  I personally think that this will be an awesome novel for teenage fantasy fans, and it is a book I think I would have really enjoyed as a younger reader.  However, A Deadly Education is not explicitly being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and there is a lot in this book for older readers to enjoy.  Fantasy fans of all ages will no doubt really appreciate the fun take on the magical school storyline and many readers, especially those who grew up on the Harry Potter novels, will have a blast seeing this more deadly and brutal British magical academy.

A Deadly Education is an exciting and impressive novel from Naomi Novik that proved to be quite an outstanding read.  This excellent fantasy book is incredibly easy to enjoy and contains a clever and amazing take on the classic magical school storyline.  A highly recommended read; you are going to fall in love with this awesome book.

V2 by Robert Harris

V2 Cover

Publisher: Hutchinson (Ebook – 15 September 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

One of the most talented historical fiction authors in the game, Robert Harris, dives deep into the history of the infamous Nazi V2 rocket program in his latest novel, V2.

Harris is an impressive and well-regarded novelist who has been writing fiction for nearly 30 years.  A former journalist, Harris’s initial books were a series of non-fiction novels in the 1980’s on various subjects, including a book that is considered to be the definitive account of the investigation into The Hitler Diaries scandal which later inspired a drama-documentary miniseries.  His first fiction novel was the 1992 release, Fatherland, an alternate history novel that depicted Germany wining World War II.  He has since gone on to write a number of other fascinating novels, most of which have a historical edge to them, including Pompeii, The Ghost (later adapted into the film The Ghost Writer), The Fear Index and Munich.  Harris is one of those authors I have been meaning to read more of, but so far I have only checked out his 2013 release, An Officer and a Spy, which featured a fascinating account of the Alfred Dreyfus affair in 19th century France, and which was an outstanding piece of historical fiction.  I also currently have his 2019 release, The Second Sleep, on my bookshelf and it was one of the novels I most regret not reading last year.  As a result, I was rather interested when I got a copy of V2, which sounded like quite a fun and intriguing historical read.

In November 1944, while the Allies advance on Berlin, the Nazis are desperate to avoid defeat at all cost.  Placing his hopes in new technology, Hitler funnels vast resources into his V2 rocket program, the most sophisticated weapon on the planet.  The V2s are powerful ballistic missiles capable of delivering an explosive warhead deep into enemy territory at immense speeds.  Hitler has ordered the production of 10,000 rockets and from an isolated forest in occupied Holland, the Germans launch them towards London, causing immense damage.

Rudi Graf is a German scientist who has long dreamt of sending rockets to the moon, and who now regrets his role in the creation of the V2.  Stationed at the V2 launch site, Graf desperately tries to hang onto his humanity as he watches his dream cause only destruction and death.  At the same time, in London, Kay Caton-Wash, an officer in the WAAF, is experiencing the full horror of the V2 rockets as she barely survives one of their strikes.  Over the course of five days, these two strangers are about to be connected by their circumstances.  As Graf is forced to launch even more of his rockets at London, Kay becomes involved with a secret mission to locate and destroy the V2 launch sites in Holland.  Travelling to Belgium, armed with only a slide rule and some equations, Kay works to end the V2 menace once and for all.  However, danger and duplicity are around every corner, and both Graf and Kay soon begin to realise that they cannot trust anyone.  As both rush towards their destinies, their actions will have unintended consequences on the over, changing the course of history forever.

V2 was a clever and compelling novel from Harris, who did a wonderful job wrapping an intriguing, character-driven story around one of the most remarkable military programs of World War II.  Like the majority of Harris’s novels, V2 is a standalone book that can be easily enjoyed by anyone in the mood for informative historical tale or war story that shows the horrors of war and the terrible ways that a person’s dreams can be twisted for evil purposes.

Harris has come up with a captivating narrative for this book.  The focus of V2 is split between two fictional point-of-view characters, Kay and Graf, and follows their respective experiences over a period of five days, with several flashback scenes thrown in for context.  This proved to be a rather intriguing read, and I liked how the author tied a mostly fictional story around some fascinating historical events, such as the creation and implementation of the V2 rockets.  Both of the two separate storylines are quite intriguing and both go in some exciting directions, including Kay getting involved in a secret military operation while Graf tries to keep his sanity as he navigates the politics, treachery and sadism of his Nazi controllers.  However, the real appeal of this narrative is the way in which the two separate story arcs intersect throughout the novel.  For example, the novel starts with Graff witnessing and assisting the launch of a V2 rocket, which then lands and changes Kay’s life.  As the story proceeds, the various actions and reactions of these two point-of-view characters impacts the events occurring around the other character, resulting in danger and tragedy in equal measures.  While I really liked the fascinating individual narratives and the cool way in which the storylines overlapped, I did think that the main story ended rather suddenly and lacked a substantial or satisfying conclusion.  This narrative desperately needed some big, exciting hook at the end to really tie everything together, even if it was historically inaccurate.  Still, V2’s story was really good and easy to get into, and I had a fantastic time reading it.

In order to tell this fascinating tale, Harris utilises two great fictional characters, Kay and Graf, through whose eyes we see the events unfold.  Both of these characters are rather interesting and I quite enjoyed both their individual character arcs.  However, of the two, I definitely found Graf to be the more compelling character.  This is because Graf is a particularly tortured individual, a brilliant scientist who is forced to work for the Nazis to bomb England.  There are some excellent scenes throughout this book that show Graf agonising over his actions working for the Nazis, who have perverted his childhood dream of creating spacefaring rockets into weapons of mass destruction.  Harris also spends much more time exploring Graf’s past, investing in a series of flashbacks that show how Graf became obsessed with rocketry, how he became involved with the V2 project and some of the tragedies that working with the Nazis have brought.  Add in a very captivating storyline that shows Graf starting to rebel against the actions of his Nazi handlers and attempting to find a small measure of redemption out in the wilds of Holland and you have a very impressive and enjoyable character arc that does rather outshine the storyline Harris sets up for Kay.  That being said, Kay is still an interesting focus character in V2, and I did enjoy her arc of trying to find and destroy the V2 launch sites by travelling to Belgium with several other members of the WAAF to work out the trajectories of the rocket flights.  It was also really cool to see this portrayal of a WAAF, a female air force officer, throughout the book, especially one deployed outside of England, and I found it interesting to examine the varied roles that they played throughout the war.  Overall, these two characters do an outstanding job telling this story, and I had a great time seeing how their individual arcs unfolded.

The real highlight of this novel has to be the author’s incredible and captivating portrayal of the infamous V2 rocket program.  Harris has clearly done his research on the subject as he does an amazing job examining all the key aspects of the program and bringing them to life.  This includes a detailed examination of the history of the project, the technical aspects of the rockets and various examinations of how they fly and what they can do.  Harris makes good use of the various flashback sequences in Graf’s chapters to examine the full fascinating history of the project, including the origins of the rockets, identifying who the key architects of the project were and how the project came to the attention of the Nazis.  This includes some compelling depictions of several major historical figures associated with the V2s, such as the project’s leader and main creative driver, Wernher von Braun, as well as several key Nazi characters who had a hand in the project in some way or another.  The author also provides the reader with an unfiltered depiction of the devastating effect that these rockets had on the inhabitants of London when they hit and he actually features several real, historical rocket strikes that occurred during the timeline of the novel, including the most devastating attack that hit London.  The depictions of the horror and the carnage that the rockets caused were really striking, especially as Harris tries to capture the psychological impact that these unstoppable and ultra-fast rockets had on the populace.  I really loved learning more about the V2 rockets and it was easily the most fascinating and captivating part of the entire book.  I especially appreciated the way in which Harris used his dual character perspectives to examine the project from the point of view of the Germans and the Allies, and it was great to see the clash of understandings and opinions about the rockets.  It was also really fascinating to learn more about the Allies’ covert attempts to identify and demolish the V2 launch sites, and this was a great addition to the novel.  All of these historical aspects are immensely enjoyable and fascinating and they add a heck of a lot to the story.

V2 by Robert Harris is a particularly clever and intriguing World War II novel that presents the reader with a fascinating and memorable examination of the infamous V2 rocket program.  Featuring a compelling story, fantastic characters and an outstanding historical focus, V2 was an awesome and captivating read that is really worth checking out.

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.