Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Three Assassins Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 14 April 2022)

English Translation: Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 254 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary Japanese author Kotaro Isaka brings us another fast-paced, intriguing and unique thriller with the English release of Three Assassins.

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the first English translation of Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beatle), which was released in the Western world as Bullet Train ahead of a movie adaptation of the same name.  I had a lot of fun with this impressive novel which set several distinctive and crazy assassins against each other aboard a speeding bullet train.  Now, with the Bullet Train film only a couple of months away, an English version of another of Isaka’s novels, the 2004 novel Gurasuhoppā (Grasshopper) has just been released.  This novel, translated by Sam Malissa and released under the title Three Assassins, presents another intense and clever thriller read that was incredibly fun to read.

Suzuki is a former schoolteacher who has joined the notorious Tokyo criminal gang, Fräulein, to get revenge for his dead wife by killing the murderous son of the gang’s leader.  However, his revenge mission goes downhill when, moments before his flimsy cover is blown, his target falls onto the road and is run over by a van.  With the shocked gang watching on, Suzuki is sent to chase after someone he sees fleeing the scene, who the gang believes killed the leader’s son.

Convinced the man responsible is the elusive assassin known as the Pusher, Suzuki’s Fräulein contact demands that he reveal the location of the person he followed.  However, Suzuki is uncertain about whether the man is actually responsible or just a random passer-by, especially when he meets the man’s young family.  But with the gang determined for revenge, Suzuki must decide whether to pass on the information or attempt to flee for his life.  Worse, his actions have attracted the attention of other notorious assassins, each of whom have their own reasons for hunting down the Pusher.

The Whale is deadly and forlorn soul who can convince anyone to kill themselves just by talking to them, while Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert.  The Whale wants revenge on the Pusher for his part in a prior death, while Cicada is determined to make his own rep by killing this notorious assassin.  Both are determined to find Suzuki and have him lead them to the Pusher by any means necessary.  Can Suzuki survive the barrage of killers, gangsters and monsters being unleased upon him, or will he be forced to compromise his principles and morals to survive?

This was an awesome and exciting novel from Isaka that proved to be extremely fun to read.  Written in Isaka’s distinctive style, and featuring some unique twists, turns and characters, Three Assassins is an entertaining read that I powered through in a day and which is really worth checking out.

Three Assassins has a brilliant fast-paced story to it that readers will swiftly become addicted to.  Written in a distinctive style that emphasises odd character traits and relies heavily on intriguing anecdotes, you are quickly introduced to three captivating point of view characters: Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada.  All three have unique and compelling storylines: Suzuki is thrust into survival mode as he hunts for the elusive Pusher, the Whale is involved in political assassinations before being forced to turn on his employer, while the wildcard Cicada balances his killing desires with frustrations with his overbearing boss.  These storylines soon start to come together when the Whale and Cicada learn about Suzuki’s situation and his apparent connection with the infamous Pusher, and both try to get their hands on Suzuki before the gang does.  However, nothing is as it seems, and all three must battle with their own demons (literally in the case of the Whale), while also trying to outsmart each other and some of the other unique people populating the streets of this version of Tokyo.

All three separate character-driven storylines come together perfectly as the story progresses, and you will love seeing these amazing characters interact as each reaches their own unique destiny.  There are several fantastic and impressive confrontations towards the later part of the book, as well as some great twists, the best of which will leave you reeling and completely change how you viewed the first three quarters of the novel.  While I saw a couple of twists coming, I was pleasantly surprised by several of the reveals, revelations and story turns that occurred, and there are some fantastic moments scattered throughout this book.  I loved how fast-paced Three Assassins turned out to be and there is honestly not a single slow moment to be found as you get through it.  That, combined with its shorter length, will encourage readers to power through it in a very short amount of time, and you will not be disappointed when you see what happens with this entertaining and amusing story.

Like Bullet Train, Three Assassins is a standalone novel that requires no familiarity with any of Isaka’s previous novels to appreciate the clever story or intense action.  It does however have some interesting connections to Bullet Train that fans will really appreciate.  Three Assassins is noticeably written in a similar style to Bullet Train, with a familiar plot focused on multiple unusual Tokyo assassins, as well as certain unique types of characterisations, interactions and writing flow.  These similarities are intentional as the original Japanese version of Three Assassins, Grasshopper came out several years before Maria Beetle.  This means that Three Assassins is actually a precursor to Bullet Train, hence the stylistic similarities.  As such, Three Assassins features a couple of characters who would end up having minor roles in Bullet Train, such as the Pusher, who has a few short point-of-view chapters as the character Morning Glory in Bullet Train, and the assassin duo known as the Hornet.  I have to admit that when I read Bullet Train, I did wonder about why these characters were featured, as some relevant context appeared to be missing.  However, after reading Three Assassins I see that they were there as a reference to this preceding novel and you actually get to understand their role in Bullet Train a little better after reading this book.  I really liked the cool connections this novel had to Bullet Train, and it is really worthwhile checking Three Assassins out alongside it.  While I do think that I preferred Bullet Train a little more than Three Assassins, as its story was stronger and the characters a little more entertaining, Three Assassins really stands on its own and proves to be an excellent read.

Isaka clearly had a lot of fun with the awesome characters contained within Three Assassins, as this book features an eclectic mix of unusual and entertaining figures who make Tokyo’s underworld seem like a weird and deadly place to explore.  This novel is primarily anchored by its three main point-of-view characters, each of whom is a particularly complex and unique being that will quickly drag the reader in with their intriguing stories or antics.  This includes central character Suzuki, the former teacher turned attempted gangster, who is initially involved with this plot for revenge, and who has done some dark things in order to get there.  However, when the target of his revenge is killed and Suzuki seems to find the life of the Pusher and his family in his hands, he starts to have a real crisis of conscience and must determine what he really wants to do.  Watching him attempt to weigh up the lives of the family he encounters versus some hostages Fräulein potentially has is extremely intense and results in some major examinations of his conscience.  Suzuki also serves the role of the unenlightened character for most of the book as he is mostly ignorant of the various assassins and outrageous characters running around out there.  As such, he serves as a good introductory character for many of these unique world elements, and it was very entertaining to see him interact with some of the other characters for the first time without a clue about who or what they are.

The Whale and Cicada are both complex and weird figures for very different reasons.  The Whale is a highly unusual assassin who specialises in arranging deaths to look like suicides.  A large man with an unnatural aura, the Whale is “blessed” with a near supernatural ability to talk people into killing themselves.  This is a pretty unique and cool character trait which Isaka does a wonderful job portraying throughout Three Assassins.  Watching this character slowly and calmly talk various characters into killing themselves results in some naturally dark scenes, but they are a great part of the book and really add something to the distinctive feel of the book.  At the same time, Isaka tries to humanise the Whale to a degree by showing him to be haunted by the ghosts of everyone he has killed.  These ghosts routinely appear before him, airing their grievances with him while also blotting out his ability to see other people or things.  This serves to be an intriguing handicap for this otherwise unstoppable figure, and it proved fascinating to see this merciless killer face some substantial reservations about his work and slowly start to rethink his life and choices.  The Whale easily has some of the most complicated and intriguing scenes in the entire novel and it proves extremely fascinating to see his entire arc unfold.

Cicada, on the other hand, is a somewhat less complex figure who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A skilled knifeman who lacks empathy, Cicada has earned a reputation as a man who can take on the unpleasant jobs and is often hired to kill women and children.  However, Cicada finds himself in a very hostile working relationship with his boss and handler, Iwanishi, who treats him poorly.  This toxic relationship becomes the imperative for Cicada to engage in the hunt for the Pusher, as a form of finding his own independence, although nothing goes to plan.  Cicada is an excellent and enjoyable character, and you will quickly find yourself getting attached to the quick-talking killer, even when he does some terrible things.  The most physically gifted of all the characters, Cicada is often dragged into some of the book’s best fight scenes, and it was exciting to see his knife skills in action.  Thanks to his unique humour and continual banter, Cicada proves to be a great counterpoint to the book’s darker or more emotionally distressed characters like Suzuki and the Whale, and I think that his inclusion really helped to balance out the tone of the book.  All three characters and their chapters play off each other extremely well, and they help to form a captivating and amusing overall story.

Three Assassins was another awesome read from Kotaro Isaka that takes readers on a wild and exciting journey to Japan’s outrageous underworld of assassins.  Filled with quirky characters, surprising turns and intense action, this is a fantastic novel and you will swiftly get addicted to its entertaining and captivating story.  A must read for fans of this legendary Japanese author, especially in advance of the upcoming Bullet Train film, Three Assassins comes highly recommended and is really worth checking out.

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Orphan X – Book Seven

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top spy thriller authors in the world today, Gregg Hurwitz, returns with the latest book in his exciting and captivating Orphan X series, Dark Horse.

Over the last few years, I have been having an absolute blast checking out the epic Orphan X series by Hurwitz, which has featured some amazing and extremely fun reads.  The series started back in 2016 with Orphan X, which introduced the former government assassin turned vigilante known as Orphan X.  Since then, the Orphan X series has expanded to seven great books, each of which pushed the protagonist against some dangerous and ruthless foes.  I have deeply enjoyed the last few books, including Out of the Dark, which set Orphan X against the corrupt President of the United States; Into the Fire, which was one of the top audiobooks of 2020; and Prodigal Son, a fantastic and exciting dive into the world of advanced military technology.  All these novels have been really good and I was quite excited to see what Hurwitz had planned for his latest book, Dark Horse.

After barely surviving a deadly explosion in his sanctuary, Evan Smoak, the former government assassin known as Orphan X, has returned to his mostly usual life.  Once again taking up his persona as the elite vigilante, the Nowhere Man, Evan attempts to balance his dangerous activities with the unusual romantic and familial bonds he has formed.  However, his latest case will push him like none before as he finds himself thrust into a deadly and conflict between two notorious criminal organisations.

Aragon Urrea is a lifelong criminal who has established himself in south Texas as a major underworld figure.  Operating a subtle and profitable undercover drug smuggling operation, Aragon has set himself as the patron of his local area, supplying employment, help and justice to those who need it, while ensuring the love and loyalty of everyone surrounding him.  However, despite all his power and influence, Aragon has one weak spot, his teenage daughter, Anjelina, who is kidnapped by one of the most vicious and notorious drug cartels.  Now held captive in the cartel’s impregnable stronghold, Aragon has no way to rescue her, and in desperation he turns to a man even more dangerous than him, the Nowhere Man.

Despite his misgivings about working for a drug kingpin, Evan soon finds himself drawn to Aragon’s side to save Anjelina, and discovers his new client is an honourable man worthy of his help.  Forced to contend with dangerous murderers, drug dealers and psychopaths, Evan starts his attempt to infiltrate the cartel’s ranks and enter their fortress.  However, what he discovers inside the fortress will change the entire mission and force Evan to attempt an impossible rescue.  But can even the Nowhere Man defeat an entire drug cartel by himself, or has this legendary spy finally met his match?

This was another great novel from Hurwitz that combines an intense and action-soaked story with deep character moments and powerful self-examinations, all of which comes together into one heck of a novel.  I had a brilliant time with Dark Horse, and it was an awesome continuation of the Orphan X series.

Dark Horse has an excellent narrative that I found to be extremely captivating and fun, especially as it pits the protagonist against a brutal drug cartel.  The story has an interesting start, introducing the client and his kidnapped daughter, before resetting the story towards Evan and showing how he survived the cliff-hanger conclusion of the last novel.  From there, Evan is slowly drawn into Aragon Urrea’s life as the drug lord convinces him to save his daughter, which eventually leads to the Nowhere Man attempting to infiltrate the rival cartel.  This leads to some impressive and dark scenes as Evan draws the attention of the cartel and starts to gain the trust of their deranged leader.  This central part of the book is very powerful, especially as the protagonist finds out several complications to his plans and witnesses the true evil of his target.  At the same time, Evan is dealing with multiple personal problems, as issues with his friends, family and love interest all impact upon his mind, resulting in a richer narrative.  This all leads up to the epic and destructive final major sequence where Orphan X is unleashed and takes out his opponents in some very clever and brutal ways.  The book ends on a satisfying conclusion which touches on many of the brilliant character moments built up throughout the novel, while certain hints at the events of future novels will ensure that you come back for me.

I love how Hurwitz told the cool story in Dark Horse.  Like the rest of the novels in the series, Dark Horse can be read as a bit of a standalone read, although Orphan X fans will really enjoy seeing the continuation of certain storylines, especially those raised in the last couple of books.  Readers are in for the suspense, intense and highly detailed action, and intriguing dives into the complex character that have been such a distinctive feature of this series, and I loved how they improved the cool new story Hurwitz came up with.  The scenes set down in Mexico are particularly dark, and I found myself inevitable drawn to the over-the-top depictions of cartel country and the dangerous people living there.  I also need to highlight a particularly gruesome scene inside a drug house in San Bernardino, which will leave you shocked and reeling, especially with Hurwitz’s descriptive writing.  There was a very interesting focus on ethics, morality and personal emotion throughout Dark Horse, with two very different drug organisations shown.  Evan’s attempts to decide whether the person he is trying to help is a good person become a key part of the story, and I enjoyed the captivating comparisons between the protagonist and the various people he interacts with throughout the novel.  I do think that Hurwitz could have perhaps sacrificed a little of this philosophical introspection and replaced it with some more action or suspense in a few of the slower parts of the novel, but overall this was an impressive and highly enjoyable read.

Hurwitz has once again loaded his novel with some complex and intriguing characters who add a substantial amount to the story.  The most prominent of these is main protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X.  Evan is a particularly complicated figure who Hurwitz has been carefully building over the entire series.  Raised since childhood to be an assassin, Evan lacks many of the appropriate social skills people are supposed to have.  This, combined with his intense OCD and lack of emotional awareness, ensures he has difficulties adjusting to everyday life now that he is mostly retired from his assassin work.  His many issues cause multiple strains on his relationships in Dark Horse and it is very compelling to see him continue to adapt and improve as a person.  Evan also experiences many revelations in this novel, especially when it comes to the complex people and families he encounters.  Seeing people who strive to be good like him while also supporting evil or illegal actions really impacts him, and it proves to be very intriguing to see him attempt comprehend what sort of person he is and the people he is dealing with.

In addition to Evan, Dark Horse contains an interesting collection of supporting character who round out the story and ensure that the main character’s life is even more complex and meaningful.  Dark Horse makes use of a good combination of recurring characters from the previous novel and several new figures, including several over-the-top and menacing antagonists.  A large amount of focus is placed on new character, Aragon Urrea, who in many ways is a similar figure to Evan, as he is a genuinely good person, but he does bad things to achieve his goals.  There is also the character of Anjelina, who finds herself as a secondary point-of-view character in parts of Dark Horse.  A young, scared teenager, Anjelina makes some dangerous decisions in this novel and Hurwitz throws in some great surprises about her actual motivations and mindset.  I also really enjoyed seeing more of some of the recurring characters from the previous novels.  Evan’s main love interest, Mia, goes through some dark moments in this book, which adds to the emotional weight on the protagonist’s shoulders.  It was also cool to see more of Joey and Peter, Evan’s substitute children, whose interactions with the protagonist go to show how unprepared and damaged he truly is.  Throw in the residence of Evan’s building, who have some entertaining and frustrating interactions with Evan, and you have a fantastic cast for this novel that proves to be extremely fascinating to follow.

While I did receive a physical copy of this novel, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Horse, which was a fun and enjoyable experience.  Dark Horse’s audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, and proves to be easy enough to power through, especially when you get caught up in the cool story.  I loved having this cool action-packed story read to me, and I found it helped me to really envision the great fight scenes, as well as context with the multitude of compelling characters.  This great audiobook also features the impressive voice work of Scott Brick, a veteran narrator of thriller audiobooks, including the previous Orphan X books, as well as entries in the Cotton Malone series by Steve Berry (The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web).  Brick has an excellent voice that really lends itself to the spy thriller genre.  I felt that he perfectly captured many of the great characters in this novel, and he ensured that their full range of emotions and reactions were on full display.  This amazing voice work helped to turn the Dark Horse audiobook into a real treat, and I am very glad that I decided to enjoy it in this format.

With the awesome and impressive Dark Horse, Gregg Hurwitz presents an excellent continuation to his outstanding Orphan X series.  Containing an epic story filled with cool action, entertaining sequences and impressive characters, Dark Horse is a captivating and addictive read that is really worth checking out.

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman

City of the Dead Cover 2

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 37

Length: 319 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into the excellent world of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series with the latest fantastic entry, City of the Dead.

There are some awesome crime fiction authors out there now who have some brilliant long-running series, but one I have been particularly drawn to is bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  Kellerman, who debuted in 1985, is an impressive murder mystery author who is best known for his Alex Delaware books.  This fantastic series follows titular protagonist psychologist Alex Delaware as he helps his police detective best friend solve some of the strangest or disturbing murders throughout Los Angeles.  I started reading this book a few years ago and have had an excellent time with the last three entries, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all of which had an impressive and clever murder mystery narratives.  As such, I made a real effort to grab City of the Dead when it came out as I knew I was going to have a great time with it.  City of the Dead is the 37th Alex Delaware book and features another twisty and powerful mystery.

On a dark LA early morning, a moving truck runs over a naked body on the street.  As the police investigate this tragic accident, they discover a blood trail, which leads them to a nearby house, where the body of a murdered female is found.  Finding many of the details of this case to be unusual, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis once again brings in his friend, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to consult.  While the identity of the naked male out on the street is unknown, Alex is shocked to discover that he knows the female victim from one of his custody cases.

The victim, Cordelia “Cordi” Gannett, was a fraudulent mental health practitioner who specialised in manipulating the vulnerable for her own advantage.  Concerned that her deceptive practices may have led to her death, Alex and Milo examine her past to try and discover who killed her.  But as they dig into her intriguing life, Alex and Milo quickly discover that their victim had a troubled past, filled with mistakes, betrayals and bad influences.  But the more they uncover, the more they begin to question everything they think they knew about this terrible murder.  Was Cordi the dangerous manipulator everyone believes, or was she something far more vulnerable?  And what role, if any, did the dead man on the street play in her death?  A dangerous and disturbed murderer lies behind this crime, and their reasons for killing will shock even the hardened team of Alex and Milo.

Kellerman has done it again, producing an excellent and compelling murder investigation that will quickly hook you and take you to some dark places.  I loved the brilliant narrative of City of the Dead, which combines a complex mystery with interesting characters and the author’s unique style and perspective.  The author sets the start the story perfectly, with a couple of bodies discovered in unique positions that immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  This interest is intensified once the connection between Delaware and the victim are established, which also reveals the victim’s scandalous past.  From there the story continues at a slower pace, with Alex and Milo carefully building their case and their profile of the victim through intriguing interactions with various people with connections to the victim and her past.  This helps to set the scene for the rest of the novel, and the reader gets to see how all the details of this case are collected and pulled together.  The plot picks up a notch about halfway through when certain interesting developments to key suspects occur, producing extra complexity to the case, although I question the use of a couple of outrageous figures around this point.  From there the story reaches its zenith, as the protagonists get closer to their answers and a big reveal comes to light.  I really liked the twist towards the end, although it did kind of come out of nowhere and relied a little too much on coincidence.  However, I was very impressed by how Kellerman set up the big reveal from the very beginning of the book, especially as it helped to soften the randomness factor of the sudden reveal.  The entire motivation behind the killings was pretty bonkers (in a good way), and I loved how dark the story got, as well as the intriguing connections to the protagonist’s psychology background.  While I did think the story ended a tad too abruptly after this reveal, this was still a great story and I honestly could not put this down once I started.

Kellerman has a great writing style which I think complemented this fantastic narrative perfectly.  There is a really unique feel to each of his novels, especially as the characters have a distinctive way of interacting and talking, which I feel is a little more natural, even if they sometimes go off on some odd tangents.  I definitely liked Kellerman’s sense of pacing, and he strings this story our extremely well, with the slower, investigative side of the narrative perfectly balanced with the more intense and powerful moments.  The author hits all the right notes when it came to timing and fun reveals, with every great scene or unique character receiving a great introduction that brings the reader in.  Like all of Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, I found City of the Dead to be extremely inclusive to new readers, and the reader does an excellent job of re-introducing the recurring characters, plot threads and dynamics.  City of the Dead can easily be read as a standalone novel, and people with no pre-knowledge of the series can jump in here without any problems.  I had a great time getting through this impressive story and I ended up powering through the last 200 pages in less than a day, especially after I got really invested in the outstanding mystery.

One of the main things that I love about the Alex Delaware novels is the grounded and realistic approach that Kellerman takes to investigating a murder.  The characters investigate each case, including the one in City of the Dead, with a very methodical style, assessing the facts and slowly building up the case one fact at a time.  There is a particular focus on interviews and research, with the characters talking to multiple people who might know something to gain insight into the victims or potential suspects, while also diving into their past anyway they can.  This, combined with other real-life details such as delayed lab results or overworked cops and technicians, makes for a much more accurate portrayal of a murder investigation.  I personally love this style of mystery solving, and it helps to give City of the Dead a much more unique feel than some other murder mysteries out there.  I will say that some of the jumps were a bit over-the-top in places, and certain key revelations are only gained due to coincidental interactions outside of the main investigation.  Still, this is a great crime fiction story and I have a lot of fun with how a typical Kellerman investigation unfolds.

The final thing I need to discuss are the great characters of City of Dead, especially the two protagonists, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis.  By this point at the series, Kellerman has established an excellent dynamic between these two characters, and the brilliant psychologist and the seasoned police detective play off each other perfectly.  You can really sense the close friendship they have, and their excellent and distinctive back-and-forth banter is very entertaining.  Pretty much any story involving this partnership really works, and I have a lot of fun with this great team.  I also was quite impressed with the unique character of Cordi, the main victim of the story.  While we never see the character when she’s alive, Kellerman does a deep dive into her past and personality throughout the course of the novel as the two protagonists attempt to find out everything about her.  While you initially form a negative opinion of Cordi (even though she’s a murder victim), Kellerman successfully builds some nuance around her as the investigation continues.  The resultant picture, of a neglected and damaged person who is determined to never be poor or mistreated again, is very moving, especially as it speaks to some of her notable character choices and mistakes.  This makes for a very striking and compelling figure, and it is fascinating how much you become invested in finding her killer.  The killer was also an interesting choice from Kellerman, and while I won’t reveal too much here, I liked how they connected into the narrative, and I had a lot of fun when their motivations were revealed.  An excellent group of characters who enhance a compelling and exciting narrative.

With this latest amazing novel, City of the Dead, Jonathan Kellerman continues to shine as one of the more interesting crime fiction authors currently writing.  This fantastic novel brilliantly continues the long-running Alex Delaware series and presents the reader with an entertaining and thought-provoking murder mystery narrative.  Filled with a great story, some excellent investigation elements and a fantastic cast, City of the Dead was an impressive and addictive read that comes highly recommended, especially to fans of the iconic Jonathan Kellerman.

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 January 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The awesome new focus of Star Wars fiction, the intriguing High Republic range, continues to shine brightly with the latest epic adult novel, The Fallen Star, a dark and impressive entry by the extremely talented Claudia Gray.

Ever since its start at the beginning of 2020, the High Republic multimedia project has presented some unique Star Wars stories that I have deeply enjoyed.  Set in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi, hundreds of years before the films, The High Republic focuses on a different generation of Jedi facing off against the murderous raiders known as the Nihil.  This series has so far produced some excellent gems across various forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and other cool entries written by some of the best authors of Star Wars fiction.

While there is an interesting spread of fiction in The High Republic, the key storylines are generally contained in the main adult novels such as The Fallen Star, and the previous novels, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which introduced the High Republic era and the Nihil, and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which saw the Nihil launch a bold attack at the very heart of the Republic.  Other cool entries, such as the young adult novels Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, and the audio drama Tempest Runner, added to this tapestry, and it has resulted in a fantastic and compelling overarching narrative and setting.  As such, I have been very excited to see where this franchise goes next, especially as The Fallen Star acts as one of the finales to the current phase of High Republic fiction.  Written by Claudia Gray, who previously authored the incredible Master & Apprentice (one of my favourite Star Wars novels), this was an epic book with a fantastic adventure story.

Following the brutal Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the entire galaxy is hunting for the Nihil, determined to destroy them and their mysterious leader, the Eye, once and for all.  However, the Republic and the Jedi are unaware that the true Eye of the Nihil is the fearsome Marchion Ro, who plans to devastate the Jedi and the Republic headquarters, Starlight Beacon.  A massive space station out in the Outer Rim, Starlight Beacon was intended to bring light and cooperation to the most remote areas of the galaxy.  Staffed by some of the most powerful Jedi, Starlight Beacon stands a symbol of hope and determination, but that is about to change.  Determined to make the Jedi and the Republic pay, Ro sends his cohorts on a deadly mission to destroy Starlight Beacon from the inside, causing a massive explosive that rips through the station, causing chaos and destruction, as Starlight Beacon loses all power.

Determined to save the station and its inhabitants no matter what, the Jedi try to restart the station before it is too late.  However, something else is aboard Starlight Beacon, something ancient, unseen and bearing an insatiable hunger that drives it to hunt and feast on Jedi.  With their abilities to connect with the Force disrupted by the foul beasts stalking them, the Jedi will need the help of everyone on the station, including weird pilots, annoying droids and rogue Nihil, to save the people around them.  But even their combined abilities might not be enough to save Starlight Beacon from its imminent destruction, nor from monsters capable of turning even the most skilled Jedi into dust.

The Fallen Star was an incredible book from Claudia Gray that does an excellent job of continuing the impressive High Republic storylines.  Gray has come up with a very unique Star Wars tale that sees some of this era’s best characters trapped in an impossible and dangerous situation.  Loaded with a ton of action, some major plot moments, interesting storyline continuation and a ton of character development, this was an excellent novel that proves very easy to get drawn into.

Honestly the best way to describe The Fallen Star’s story is as a nautical disaster story, like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, in space.  This novel begins with the initial stages of the disaster as a small team of Nihil saboteurs infiltrate Starlight Beacon and systematically take out the station.  These early parts of the novel have a great sense of tension, as the reader is forced to watch the Nihil continue to succeed while the Jedi remain oblivious.  The story starts to pick up as the Nihil plan goes into effect, not only because of the explosion that knocks Starlight Beacon out of orbit, but because several unseen creatures immediately start to attack the Jedi in brutal mind-bending ways while also disrupting their connection to the Force.  The true disaster narrative takes over from here as the characters attempt to survive the destruction while also trying to save the station.  Gray really dives into character psychology here, as the Jedi are forced to overcome their guilt and the building fear of the creatures attacking, while the other characters try to determine whether to focus on self-preservation or helping those around them.  The last two-thirds of the book is purely devoted to the attempts to survive the station’s slow destruction, and Gray really does not let up the plot intensity.  Every time the protagonists seem to make some progress or success they are immediately hit with obstacles or tragedy that seek to overwhelm them.  This leads to some impressive and confronting moments throughout the book, and you honestly will be surprised and shocked by some of the deaths or twists that occur.  While there are one or two fake-outs designed to ramp up the feels, you will come away from this book being extremely moved and a little emotionally drained.

This was a very well put together novel; it has an amazing flow to it, and once the various disasters start up, the pace and stakes of the novel just keep jumping higher and higher.  The use of multiple character perspectives helps to tell a massive and impressive story, and you really get the full sense of how deadly and disastrous the events of the book are.  I loved how well Gray layered tension and grief into the non-stop action of the plot, and you are honestly left reeling or yelling at the book, wishing to help the characters you have become extremely attached to.  Gray also is also very skilled at detailing some fun and compelling action and disaster sequences, which works extremely well to showcase all the chaos and destruction occurring around.  I did find that there were a few plot gaps here and there throughout the novel, most likely because the full extent of this event will be featured in other High Republic media, such as the main comic series, although this didn’t impact the story too dramatically.  Overall, thanks to its powerful moments, character growth and great action, and you have an outstanding narrative that hits all the right notes at the right time.

In addition to its excellent narrative, The Fallen Star is also a great new entry in the High Republic sub-series.  Gray does an impressive job of continuing the events from the previous pieces of High Republic fiction, and aspects from most of the preceding novels are strongly featured here.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the return of several great characters and the continuation of some interesting story arcs, and Gray brings them together to create an outstanding Star Wars story.  Like most of the High Republic series, The Fallen Star is probably best read by fans of the expanded literary universe, especially as much of the build-up for this period was in the prior novels.  While I would recommend at least reading The Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm first, people with a basic knowledge of Star Wars should be able to follow what is happening here, as Gray does a good job of recapping key events.  While there are a few good reveals here, there is still an aura of mystery around other parts of the book, particularly the character of Marchion Ro and the real motivations of the Nihil.  An epic conclusion to this phase of the High Republic novels, I will be interested to see if any other reveals or revelations occur in the connected comics.

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 3

To support her fantastic narrative, Gray makes use of an excellent collection of great characters, and I loved the mixture of protagonists and antagonists that she chose.  Not only are the protagonists of the previous adult High Republic books heavily featured, but Gray also makes strong use of characters from young adult novels like Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows.  This amazing blend of character perspectives really helped to craft a unique and interesting book, and it was great to see the different protagonists react to the situation.  Readers should be aware that Gray has gone on a bit of a killing spree here, and several fan favourite characters may not survive.  These deaths really help to ratchet up the tension and emotional weight of this novel, and you will really be left reeling.  While I might question the wisdom of killing off as many characters as they did, especially as the High Republic has a greater need of recognisable characters than other Star Wars novels, I think they all worked in the context of the plot and served the overall narrative extremely well.

The most prominent characters of The Fallen Star are the Jedi protagonists of Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm.  These Jedi go through some big moments in The Fallen Star, especially as they face disaster and failure on a scale they have rarely seen before.  Gray works in some very interesting changes in the various Jedi’s characterisation because of the unseen monsters let loose on the station who disrupt the Jedi’s connection to the Force, which messes with their heads.  As a result, for most of the book the Jedi are scared, uncertain and irritable, which is a fun and clever change of pace that I felt added to the high-stakes disaster narrative extremely well.  The most prominent of these characters include Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar, Elzar Mann, who have had some excellent character arcs in the previous novels, and it was great to see them again.

The first of these is Elzar Mann, who has been a standout figure due to his battles with his emotions, his romantic feelings towards fellow Jedi Avar Kriss, and his inadvertent connection to the Dark Side of the Force.  Following this dark moment, Mann has gone into a deep meditation retreat with a unique spiritual guide, who is teaching him to have a different perspective on life.  As a result, when Mann returns to Starlight Beacon just before the first attack, he has mostly cut himself off from the Force.  While this impacts his ability and mentality as a Jedi, his lack of a Force connection ensures that he is one of the only Jedi not incapacitated by the monsters roaming the station, which forces him take on more responsibility during the crisis.  I liked seeing this side of Mann, and it was great to watch him attempt to step up and protect his more responsible friends.  Unfortunately, Mann also experiences some big losses and failures in this novel which really strike him hard.  The final few chapters of The Fallen Star have some major moments for this character, and there was some brilliant development occurring here.  Gray did an incredible job expanding on one of the best and most complex High Republic protagonists here, and I loved Mann’s story in this book.

I also deeply enjoyed the story arc that surrounded apprentice Bell Zettifar.  Bell has gone through a lot in the last two books, especially as his master was killed before him in The Rising Storm.  This has led to some excellent and dark moments for Bell, and Gray does a wonderful job continuing them here as Bell struggles for most of this book, dealing with intense doubt and a sense of failure that gets enhanced by the influence of the strange creatures stalking the station.  I enjoyed seeing Bell slowly regain his confidence as he finds himself in the middle of another crisis and it led to some great and heartfelt moments, even as Bell suffered even more personal tragedies.

I must also highlight the continued story of Stellan Gios, the Jedi Master and rising star of the Order who was such a fantastic figure in The Rising Storm.  Stellan starts this book off as the new Marshal of Starlight Beacon, but he is still impacted by the doubts and trauma of the last Nihil attack at the Republic Fair.  Thanks to this and the influence of the Nihil’s monsters, Stellan shows a very different side to his character in The Fallen Star, being more petty, angry, and dispirited.  This is such a substantial change to what we have previously seen out of Stellan that it really hammers home just how dangerous the Nihil monsters are.  Watching Stellan battle with his emotions is pretty intense, and it proved to be exceptional to see him slowly overcome everything that is happening to him.  Gray writes an amazing couple of moments for Stellan in this book, and you end up with an impressive appreciation of this character by the end of this awesome book.

Aside from these main three figures, The Fallen Star also features an interesting array of supporting Jedi characters.  This includes the friendliest and fluffiest Jedi of all-time, the Wookie Burryaga, who everyone loves due to his kind nature and innate connection to the Force.  Burryaga forms a moving friendship with Bell, and he is easily one of the best supporting characters in the entire novel.  I also liked the reappearance of the Jedi Wayseeker, Orla Jareni, a semi-rogue Jedi who offers her own insights into the Force.  I will say I was surprised that there was barely any Ava Kriss in this novel.  Kriss, who is frequently touted as the main protagonist of the High Republic, has barely appeared in any of the novels since The Light of the Jedi, being more of a feature in the comics.  I feel that she leaves a noticeable absence in the novel, especially as the other character seem to reference how awesome she is in every second sentence.  Still, I think it worked without her, although I hope they use her more in the future.

Aside from the Jedi characters, Gray also makes exceptional use of an interesting collection of other characters trapped aboard the station who offer a great alternate viewpoint to the various Jedi.  What is interesting is that most of these characters are creations of Gray’s who first appeared in her last High Republic book, Into the Dark.  This includes the crew of the Vessel, a unique and unusual ship that transports Mann and Orla Jareni to Starlight Beacon and then gets trapped there.  The Vessel is crewed by a very entertaining trio of characters who balance each other out nicely.  This includes owner Affie Hollow, who plays straight woman to her unusual crew, and is a great central adventurer and emotional base for much of the book.  However, Affie is very much overshadowed by the rest of the crew, including captain Leox Gyasi, who is essentially a space hippy.  Leox is a wildly entertaining figure, with his Zen mindset, pacifistic tendencies, unique way of talking, and outrageous sense of humour, and you will quickly fall in love with him as the book progresses, especially in the few scenes where he gets serious.

The most solid member of the Vessel’s crew is Geode, a Vintian who ends up being the heart and soul of not only the Vessel but all of Gray’s High Republic novels.  Geode is essentially a sentient rock who never talks, rarely moves, and for most of his first appearance in Into the Dark, you were half convinced was some sort of elaborate prank and was really just a rock.  However, Geode ends up being a remarkable figure, capable of great feats of ingenuity and courage, while also being a social genius and a massive flirt.  I cannot emphasise how hilarious it is to see all the outrageous things that the other characters attribute to this silent, giant rock, especially as he just sits there for the entire book.  However, the other characters can apparently all see the “facial” expressions he gives off, and he is apparently quite an emotional and thoughtful character, who ends up being the solution to several problems.  Honestly, having a motionless rock as a major supporting character should not work, but it really does in The Fallen Star, and I loved every second that was spent on him.  I enjoyed seeing all these characters return, and I hope that Gray brings them back in the future, although I do worry the Geode joke might eventually becomes too overused.

Former Nihil members Nan and Chancey Yarrow perfectly rounded out the main cast aboard Starlight Beacon.  Both have had some interesting appearances in the young adult books, and it was great to see them here.  Nan is another character created by Gray and is a young and zealous Nihil member, while Chancey is a brilliant scientist working for the Nihil while also promoting her own agenda.  After leaving the Nihil and starting their own partnership, Nan and Chancey get captured by the Jedi and are being questioned about Starlight Beacon when events kick off.  Freed by the Nihil infiltrators, they spend most of the book on the fence about where their loyalties lie as they try to find their own way to escape.  This results in a fantastic and compelling alternate viewpoint to the book, and I loved seeing these two morally grey characters interact with the more selfless protagonists.  Gray comes up with a great dynamic between Nan and Chancey, which is semi mother-daughter in nature, and there are some interesting moments as Nan struggles to overcome her loyalty to the Nihil.  Their storyline comes to a very interesting and powerful end, and I will be deeply intrigued to see what happens to them next.

I want to make a final mention about the antagonists of The Fallen Star, especially as there is a rather unusual dynamic with this book.  This because, in many ways, the main villain of the story isn’t the Nihil, but is instead time, despair, impossible choices, panic, and human nature.  To a degree, these basic, uncontrollable elements end up causing more damage, and the impossible battle against them results in much of the book’s most dramatic and powerful moments.  There are a few proper villains in this book, such as series antagonist Marchion Ro.  Despite only being in it for a short while, Marchion cuts a distinctive and menacing figure in The Fallen Star, especially as he instigates the next stage of his master plan.  There are some interesting developments around Marchion here, and although they are probably saving any major revelations for his upcoming comic limited series, I felt that he continues to shine as the main villain of The High Republic.  The rest of the Nihil aren’t shown as much in this book, although I did enjoy the examination of the fear and hatred associated with them, especially after all the pain and suffering they caused.  I was very intrigued by the mysterious Nihil controlled monsters that infest Starlight Beacon and mess with the Jedi.  Despite the fact you never see them, they are incredibly intimidating, effortlessly defeating the Jedi and sending them on some dangerous head-trips.  I cannot wait to find out more about them in the future, especially as they are bound to explore their history more, and it should lead to interesting discoveries.  Overall, The Fallen Star had an exceptional group of characters and their intense, compelling and entertaining story arcs really elevated this around exciting novel.

I will come as very little surprise to anyone familiar with this blog that I chose to check out The Fallen Star audiobook.  I have so much love for Star Wars audiobooks, and this ended up being a very good example of how fantastic this format could be as it combines impressive narration with clever sound effect and epic music.  With a run time of 13 and a half hours, this is a somewhat shorter Star Wars audiobook.  I had a wonderful time getting through the story in this format, and I found that the compelling narrative became even more intense when read to me.  This is particularly true in such a trauma and action laden book like The Fallen Star, with the awesome medium of the audiobook helping to enhance the danger and despair of the situation.  The use of sound effects and music was once again superb, and I loved how hearing the distinctive sound of blasters, lightsabers and other pieces of Star Wars technology, helped to bring me into the story and enhance the events being described.  I also cannot overemphasise how awesome it is to hear the incredible and iconic Star Wars music during this plot as well.  Whenever the music is played, especially during some of the more dramatic or action-packed sequences, it really enhances the impact of the moment, drawing the listener in and ensuring that they are perfectly entrapped by the events occurring.

You can’t talk about this audiobook without mentioning the epic voice work of the narrator Marc Thompson.  At this point in his career, Thompson is essentially Star Wars royalty, as he has narrated so many amazing Star Wars audiobooks over the years.  He is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators and I loved his work on previous audiobooks like Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more.  He once again does a great job on The Fallen Star, bringing all the characters to life and moving the story along at a swift pace.  I loved the consistency in voices from all the previous High Republic books he narrated, and he also did a great job voicing characters from other books he hasn’t worked on.  All the characters have very distinctive and fitting voices, which included some very distinctive accents, which helped to highlight the characters and what they did.  I also loved the sheer emotional range that Thompson was able to fit into these great characters, ensuring that all the intense emotions were on full display.  It was pretty intense hearing all the character’s despair, anger and grief as everything they knew and loved was burned around them, and it makes for some incredible sequences.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this cool Star Wars novel, and I would strongly recommend The Fallen Star audiobook to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray is an excellent read that I would strongly recommend.  Featuring a clever, action packed, and emotionally rich, character driven story, The Fallen Star brilliantly continues the outstanding High Republic series, and you will love the dark places this story goes. I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to see what happens in this brilliant sub-series next.  Long live the High Republic!

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 2

Quick Review – Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 371 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to see the strongest of friendships burnt alive by fire, lies and deceit, in this startling and powerful young adult thriller by amazing author Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, Lies Like Wildfire.

Lies Like Wildfire was a really compelling and exciting read that ended up being one of the better pieces of young adult fiction I read all year.  This was the debut thriller novel from Alvarez, whose previous work has primarily included middle-grade fantasy novels, such as her equine-based The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm series.  I was actually surprised to learn that his was Alvarez’s first thriller novel, as it was really good, presenting the reader with an untenable and desperate scenario and forcing several life-long friends to make some hard and terrible decisions.

Synopsis:

The monsters have known each other their whole lives. This is their final summer before college – time to hang out, fall in love and dream about the future.

Until they accidentally start a forest fire which destroys their hometown and leaves death in its wake.

Desperate for the truth to remain hidden, the group make a pact of silence.

But the twisted secret begins to spin out of control and when one of the friends disappears they all become suspects.

We know how it starts but where does it end?


Wow, now this was such a great book.  Lies Like Wildfire has a brilliant and powerful plot that was extremely clever, emotionally rich and very shocking, all at the same time.  The book follows a group of childhood friends, known as the Monsters, who accidently start a forest fire during a summer outing.  Terrified of California’s incredibly strict fire laws that harshly punish even accidental offenders, the group attempt to cover up their actions as the fire races towards their town causing all manner of death and destruction.  As the fire rages, the group makes a pact to keep the secret, but lies, guilt and personal vendettas soon lead to terrible choices, as the truth bursts out and even more lives are ruined in the fallout.

I loved this brilliant book, and Alvarez has come up with such an impressive scenario for it.  Told from the perspective of one of the Monsters, Hannah, this entire novel unfolds in a rush, with the readers barely getting time to breathe as devastating events and terrible secrets are thrust before them as part of this addictive and powerful narrative.  Alvarez ensures that the readers are hooked early in the book, especially as the opening scene gives a sneak peek to events halfway throughout the narrative.  The story then jumps back to the events that led up to the fire, showing the mostly innocent group as a careless accident threatens to ruin their entire lives and everything they know and love.  Alveraz does a brilliant job of producing the ultimate no-win scenario, with the protagonists caught between their own guilt and the harsh consequences for their unintentional actions. 

This fantastic introduction leads to the destructive early scenes of the wildfires that ravish the protagonist’s hometown.  These scenes are pretty damn devastating and very well written, as Alvarez perfectly captures all the horror of an incoming fire and the panic and pain it can cause (it’s very realistic, and those people triggered by wildfires or bushfires might want to avoid it).  However, this destruction is nothing compared to the guilt, public shame, police prosecution, and disintegration of friendships that occur in the aftermath of the fire as the friend’s first attempt to cover up their involvement, and then limit the blame they receive as they start to get found out.  Despite their guilt in this matter, you cannot help but feel for the characters, especially as Alvarez does an incredible job making them very relatable, and the circumstances surrounding their crime could honestly happen to anybody.  However, the real meat of the story involves the powerful drama that emerges because of the fire, as this lifelong friendship is pushed to the limit, not just because of the actions of the characters, but because of jealousy, family hardship, and the stress of lost futures, that drives all of them to desperate action.

This leads to the second half of the novel, when one of the Monsters goes missing in mysterious circumstances.  Evidence soon points to members of the Monsters being involved, potentially to stop the missing person from revealing the groups involvement to the police, and the group is riven by further mistrust and interrogation.  This second half of the book is incredibly fascinating, especially as the readers are left unaware of who could potentially be involved as the only point-of-view character, Hannah, suffers from amnesia brought on by a bear attack.  While I usually dislike an amnesia inclusion in a novel, it works extremely well in the context of Lies Like Wildfire’s plot, even the bit about the bear attack (it’s a clever, if devastating, inclusion).  This lack of memory from the protagonist really keeps the reader on their toes and the sudden mystery is a compelling and fun addition to the plot.  I personally became ultra-invested in this book at this point, not only because I wanted to find out what had happened to the missing character, but because I was enjoying the complex character arcs and the quickly decaying personal relationships that bound them together.  The final reveal about who was responsible and why is brilliantly done, and I deeply enjoyed the various character reactions that occurred around it, especially from the protagonist.  This ended up being quite a complex and deep narrative, and it is one is perfect for teenagers and older readers, as everyone can get really invested in the intelligent and emotional plot. 

Overall, Lies Like Wildfire was a brilliant and powerful debut thriller from Alvarez, who came up with an amazing concept and turned it into an outstanding read.  I loved the great blend of thriller and young adult drama, especially as it produced a complex and moving tale of youth, disaster, mystery, and the tenuous ties that bind us together.  Readers will swiftly become entranced by this excellent and compelling tale, and I really found myself getting drawn into the amazing character driven tale of lies and deceit.  I am extremely glad that Alvarez decided to dive across into the thriller world, and if Lies Like Wildfire is anything to go on, she has a really bright future in it.  I look forward to seeing what other books Alvarez produces in the future, and I am definitely grabbing a copy of her next book, Friends Like These, when it comes out next year.

2 Sisters Detective Agency by James Patterson and Candice Fox

2 Sisters Detective Agency Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 382 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse crime fiction team of James Patterson and Candice Fox returns for 2 Sisters Detective Agency, an intense and clever novel that sets two unlikely protagonists on a dark, character-driven case.

In recent years crime fiction icon James Patterson, best known for his Alex Cross novels and other bestselling series, has been collaborating with a range of talented authors to produce a vast library of crime fiction, murder mystery and thriller novels.  These range from major series such as The Women’s Murder Club to multiple standalone novels such as Lost (co-written by James O. Born) which I read last year.  These collaborations have allowed Patterson to release multiple books each year; including several in 2021 (examples include The President’s Daughter, which was co-written with Bill Clinton, or The Noise, which was co-written with J. D. Barker).

This latest book was co-written with Australian author Candice Fox, a writer whose crime fiction novels I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Fox is a well-established author who first made her mark with her Archer and Bennett murder mystery series set in Australia.  Since then, Fox has written several other novels, including her Crimson Lake series, and two standalone books, Gathering Dark and The Chase, both of which I had a wonderful time reading.  Fox has also previously collaborated with James Patterson several times to write the intriguing Detective Harriet Blue series, another interesting Australian crime series.  2 Sisters Detective Agency will be the fifth novel written by the team of Patterson and Fox, and it serves as an excellent standalone read with potential to start a great new series.

Rhonda Bird is a criminal defence attorney in Colorado, specialising in helping young offenders and juvenile delinquents being crushed by the criminal justice system.  A strong and independent figure, Rhonda is unprepared for the call informing her that her estranged father has died, especially as his death brings with it certain caveats that will change her life forever.

Travelling to Los Angeles, Rhonda discovers that despite abandoning her years before, her father has decided to leave behind two major surprises.  The first is his shady private detective agency; the second is a teenage half-sister she never knew existed named Baby.  Reeling from these revelations, Rhonda attempts to bond with the rebellious and strong-willed Baby, while also trying to determine what shady actions led to her father concealing a massive stash of cash in his office.  As Rhonda attempts to deal with both these strange circumstances, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a case when a young man walks in, claiming he was abducted.

The young man is a member of a teenage group of self-serving vigilantes, who specialise to bringing their own violent brand of justice to anyone they feel crosses them.  However, when their latest spree of terror goes horribly wrong, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a violent former assassin, determined to get revenge.  As Rhonda and Baby start to investigate, they find themselves caught between a desperate group of violent teens and a skilled killer, neither of whom are going to have any trouble putting a bullet in two interfering sisters.  Worse, the Bird sisters are soon targeted by the Mexican cartel, who are determined to reclaim the money stolen by their father.  Can Rhonda and Baby survive their first case, or will these two sisters end up dead before they even get to know each other?

This was an outstandingly entertaining novel that takes the reader on a wild and addictive ride.  Patterson and Fox have come up with a pretty awesome story in 2 Sisters Detective Agency, and it was one that I had an extremely hard time putting down.  I ended up getting through this cool book in several intensive sessions, and I ended up finishing off the final half in one fun-filled night.  2 Sisters Detective Agency is an interesting and exciting crime fiction read told from multiple character perspectives and containing an entertaining and accessible character driven story.  Written as a standalone novel, this book also serves as a potential opening to a whole new Patterson/Fox series focused around some unique and compelling characters.  I really liked how this book was composed, with a large collection of short chapters.  These short chapters not only ensure that the author keeps the story nice and concise, but it also serves to keep the audience engaged, especially if they know that the next chapter only has a few pages in it.  It also helps that this is a pretty non-stop action novel, as the various characters are constantly in the midst of something very interesting, such as attempted murder, psychotic planning by rich teens, or near-fatal family bonding.

The authors do an amazing job of setting up everything really quickly in this book, with all the major storylines starting out in short order.  This includes the introduction to the Bird sisters, the preparation surrounding the teenage gang known as the Midnight Crew, and the start of the former assassin turned parent, Jacob, as he starts his mission of vengeance.  Once everyone has been introduced, all these storylines start off at the same pace, with the short chapters and multiple perspectives ensuring that readers are constantly updated with what is happening in the various storylines.  Rhonda and Baby’s storyline forms an entertaining and relatable half of the novel, and it was a lot of fun seeing these very mismatched siblings meet for the first time and eventually start to work together.  Their investigation into the other major storyline is only a small part of their initial narrative, with a bigger focus initially placed on their relationship and their attempts to deal with some murderous cartel members.  While I did enjoy the Bird storyline, I ended up having a lot more fun with the Midnight Crew vs assassin storyline.  This is a more intense and exciting narrative thread, and there are some outstanding moments involving this single-minded assassin taking apart the group of entitled teens one at a time.  However, this storyline really does not go as you would expect, especially as one of the teenagers really cannot be considered helpless.

I had a lot of fun with both cool storylines, and I felt that they really complemented each other.  While these two storylines have some crossover throughout the book, they really don’t join up until two-thirds of the way through, especially in the lead-up to a couple of epic showdowns.  I really liked the way in which both storylines ended, although the big and brutal confrontation at the hospital was pretty exceptional.  The story ends up in a rather cool place, and leaves the novel open to a potential sequel, which is something I would be quite eager to see.  I absolutely loved how this awesome story unfolded, and Patterson and Fox really came up with something special here.

One of the best parts of 2 Sisters Detective Agency were the awesome and distinctive group of characters featured throughout it.  Thanks to the excellent use of multiple character perspectives, the reader is given an up-close view to several of the more interesting members of this cast, and you quickly get drawn into their compelling arcs, even though you shouldn’t get too attached to some of them.

The main character is Rhonda Bird, the maverick criminal defence attorney who travels to Los Angeles to sort out her estranged father’s business, but then gets stuck minding a teenage half-sister.  Even though she only appears for around half the novel, Rhonda is set up as the central protagonist of 2 Sisters Detective Agency, especially as her chapters are the only ones told from the first-person perspective.  There are a lot of interesting things about Rhonda, especially as the authors have gone out of their way to make her as unique and memorable as possible.  Rhonda is described as a larger woman, who is obese but also extremely well-muscled, able to bench 350 pounds.  In addition, she has bright pink hair, outrageous clothes (which she wears in court), tattoos, a daring attitude, daddy issues, and destructive combat abilities.  While I would say that so many odd distinctive features might be a bit over the top (if she had any more tawdry quirks, she could open up a tawdry quirk shop), it actually ends up working really well, much to my surprise.  Despite how strong her unique features were layered on, I quite liked this distinctive character and the way she takes care of business and gets involved in any case that could potentially involve children in trouble.  Add in her massive family drama, especially as she nearly meets her match in Baby, and you have quite an interesting character who ended up being the emotional heart of this deeply exciting narrative.

Baby Bird is the wildly independent teenager who, after suffering through the sudden death of her father, is forced into the care of an older sister she never knew.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Baby when the book started, especially as her attitude and demeanour were that of an over-exaggerated and stereotypical disrespectful teen.  However, she did grow on me as the story progressed, thanks to her keen detective insight and slowly developing relationship with her sister, which is what the authors probably intended.  Baby ends up being a lot more complicated than you would imagine, and you swiftly see that she badly messed up by her father’s lax parenting and the sudden loss of the only family she knew, and this makes for some intense and moving dramatic moments.  If this novel continues into a major series, I have a feeling that Baby is going to develop the most, and I would be quite interested in seeing that.

The rest of the characters in this novel are also exceeding distinctive, with several outrageous and over-the-top figures who help to amp up the entertainment factor of this fun novel.  These include the members of the Midnight Crew, a group of violent, rich teenagers who get their thrills breaking into houses and assaulting the residents to settle their petty grudges.  The members of the Midnight Crew are essentially a more psychotic and deranged version of the Bling Ring, and Patterson and Fox really spend time portraying them as exceedingly spoiled rich kids, more concerned with status and thrills than ethics (with one exception).  Out of all the members of the Midnight Crew, easily the best is their leader, Vera.  Vera is the entire driving force behind them, and the authors do a really good job of building her up throughout the novel, especially as she is far more psychotic and murderous than you would expect.  The entire storyline around her is exceptional, and it opens some interesting narrative threads that could be explored in any future entries in this series.  I also really liked the assassin character, Jacob, who gets violently drawn into the Midnight Crew’s obit.  The authors do a great job with Jacob, and I deeply appreciated their portrayal of him as a former killer who is dragged back into his former life and has very few regrets about it.  Finally, I must highlight the fun Dr Perry Tuddy, a world-renowned chemist who keeps getting kidnapped to make drugs. The entire storyline around Tuddy is pretty hilarious, especially as he has developed a weird fetish for getting held captive, the explanation of which makes for one of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the entire book.  I had a lot of fun with all these characters, and they helped turn 2 Sisters Detective Agency into something special.

Overall, 2 Sisters Detective Agency ended up being an amazing and deeply compelling read that I found to be particularly addictive.  The brilliant team of James Patterson and Candice Fox really did a great job with this clever book, and I still cannot believe how much I enjoyed its fantastic story.  I really loved the unique narrative and characters contained within this novel, and I hope that this amazing team will strongly consider providing us with a sequel to this cool and captivating read.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Lesson Two of the Scholomance

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the deadliest magical school of all time in The Last Graduate, the epic second lesson of the Scholomance series by bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.

Novik is a fantastic author who has produced some excellent fantasy novels throughout her career, including her bestselling Temeraire series (set during a re-imagined Napoleonic War fought with dragons), as well as her standalone reads Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  However, I personally know Novik best from her awesome 2020 book, A Deadly Education, which was one of my favourite books from last yearA Deadly Education had an awesome story that followed Galadriel “El” Higgins, a student in the Scholomance, a lethal magical school filled with all manner of magical monsters known as maleficaria (mals).  This was an outstanding read with a really clever and intense narrative, and I have been really looking forward to seeing how the story continued for a while now.  As a result, I was excited when I found out that the sequel, The Last Graduate, was coming out, and it swiftly became one of my most anticipated reads for 2021.

Following her daring mission to reactivate the school’s defences and kill as many maleficaria as possible, El finally thinks she has a chance to relax and prepare for her gruelling final year at the Scholomance.  Not only must she continue her exhaustive magical studies, but the entire year leads up to a lethal graduation ceremony, where the students must run a gauntlet of mals at the school’s entry hall to escape back into the real world.  Now with allies, friends and even an extremely odd love interest in moody warrior mage Orion Lake, El has a chance of escaping the Scholomance without being forced to rely on her immense affinity for the most destructive spells in existence, which could result in the entire student body being vaporised.

However, the sentient Scholomance appears to have different ideas for El and resolves to make her life as difficult as possible, assigning her impossible classes and isolated study periods.  Worse, it appears that the school is deliberately funnelling as many mals towards El as possible to kill her and steal her magical energy.  Determined to defeat the school and escape, El is forced to make some new alliances to survive the year and make it to graduation.  At the same time, she needs to navigate her unusual relationship with Orion, especially after receiving a mysterious warning from her mother to stay away from him.

The closer El gets to graduation, the harder life becomes, especially after the scope of her magical abilities is revealed to the entire school.  Now targeted by rival factions within the Scholomance and unsure who she can trust, El will need to pull together every terrible power at her command to survive.  However, not everything is what it seems in the Scholomance, and the school has one final lesson to teach El: sometimes there are things far more important than surviving.

Wow, just wow, now that was a damn impressive sequel.  The Last Graduate is an epic and incredible read that proved to be utterly addictive in all the right ways.  I had an absolute blast reading this exceptional fantasy novel and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in a couple of hours, only to be utterly traumatised by its cliffhanger ending.  It was so much fun getting back into this detailed and compelling setting, and it was great to see the main characters continue to evolve throughout, even if they lead to tragedy and heartbreak.   This was an outstanding read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This latest book from Novik contains a pretty epic narrative which covers El’s entire final year within the Scholomance.  The story continues immediately after the end of A Deadly Education, and I would strongly recommend reading the first book before attempting The Last Graduate, as the initial Scholomance book contained a lot of interesting detail and character development that is useful to understand.  This second book starts off at a good, restrained pace, mostly settling things down after the fast-paced conclusion of A Deadly Education and allowing the protagonist and point-of-view character, El, to settle back into the rhythms of the school.  The author utilises a very detail-rich brand of storytelling, which helps to produce quite a rich a vibrant novel, even if it did slow down my initial reading speed.  However, the pace picks up significantly once it becomes apparent that things in the school have changed, as El finds herself the only person in the school being attacked by mals.  This troubling situation forces her to turn to her friends and new allies to survive, especially as she is convinced that the school itself is out to get her.  This eventually leads to the reveal that El is an all-powerful force of destruction, which greatly alters the balance of power in the school, as El is caught between the various enclaves who view her as a major weapon both inside the Scholomance and in the national rivalries outside of it.  This results in an immense amount of drama and conflict, as El fights to remain neutral and survive, while also coming to terms with who she is and the terrible magical system she finds herself a part for.

All this drama, fighting and conflict leads up to the big event of the book, the graduation gauntlet, something that the author has been building up since the start of the series.  However, nothing goes as expected with graduation, as everything about it, including the lead-in and the training is very different than in previous years.  The reasons why are finally revealed as part of a very interesting twist which changes everything about how you thought the novel was going to end.  This alteration leads to an excellent conclusion which perfectly works in all the story elements that have set up throughout the course of the two novels.  The final scenes are extremely dramatic, with some big moments and epic displays of magic that will keep you on your toes.  I honestly could not put the book down during this part of the novel as I was desperate to see how everything ended, and then we got to the very last sentence.  Ooh, that last sentence, how much I hate and love you at the same time.  Novik sets up a really massive cliffhanger that was both perfect and enraging at the very same time.  I was literally yelling my shock and frustration at the book (and Novik by extension) as I read and re-read that sentence, as I could not believe that she left it like that.  I mean, mad respect for setting it up and making me care so much for the characters so that I was deeply impacted by it, but at the same time, how dare you make me feel like that.  Naturally, the third and final book in the Scholomance series is now one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 (which is what Novik intended, evil genius that she is), and I am extremely eager to see what happens next.

I deeply appreciate the awesome setting that is the Scholomance.  This sentient magical school is such a dark and wonderful setting, and Novik has built it up perfectly throughout the course of the series.  I absolutely love this brilliantly perverse version of the classical magical school setting, especially as Novik has spent an amazing amount of time establishing it, providing the reader with a ton of detail and anecdotes about the education, living arrangements and many, many, hazards involved with living there.  This detail continues in The Last Graduate, as Novik expands on the school, showing more fantastic elements to it, and even throwing in a few intriguing changes that impact the status-quo of everybody there.  There is so much fun detail here, and I loved the examination of how living in such a dangerous and enclosed building would impact the people living there.  There is one amazing scene where El channels a lot of magic into the school, accidentally restarting a simulation of the outdoors.  The subsequent wave of grief from all the students at seeing the sun again was pretty terrible, and it showed just how damaging this situation is, even though it is saving their lives.  I also really appreciated the interesting new changes that Novik introduced to school, especially as it significantly alters what you think you knew about it.  I also liked how Novik also provided some additional detail of the wider world outside the Scholomance, expanding on some of the details that were already set up in A Deadly Education.  There are several hints about big events occurring outside of the school which will probably come into play in the third novel, and there is also an interesting examination about the rivalries between the various enclaves, magical societies with selective membership and strong political power.  I cannot wait to see what awesome new details and settings that Novik will add into her next book, and I have no doubt it will be really cool to learn about.

Aside from that outstanding story, the epic finale, and the wildly inventive setting, I also must highlight the great characters featured within the novel.  There is an interesting and memorable array of characters featured throughout the Scholomance series, although most of the book focused on protagonist El.  El is a fantastic and intense character, mainly because she holds a mythical level of destructive power, an incredible affinity for combat and death spells, and is also some form of prophesised destroyer, which caused her father’s side of her family to try and kill her (a bold move for pacifists).  This, as well as the fact that her power makes everyone she encounters subconsciously uneasy, turned El into quite a guarded person, and much of the first book focused on her coming out of her shell and finally making friends.  This development continues in The Last Graduate, as El is forced to make even more friends and alliances.  This has a pretty positive impact on her personality, especially as she learns to trust people, and while she still has a mostly prickly disposition, she does mellow out a little more.  There is also a rather interesting major plot point when the full range of her powers becomes apparent to the entire school.  This makes her a target for everyone in the school, with the various enclave students either trying to recruit her or kill her.  This forces El once again into a defensive mode, although she is eventually able to overcome for the greater good of herself and the school.  I deeply appreciated El’s growth as a character in this novel, and it was great to see this wildly unstable and sassy protagonist once again.

The other major character of the book is El’s love interest, Orion Lake.  Orion is another interesting protagonist, as he is a powerful mage with a hero complex who gains his powers from killing mals.  A member of the exclusive and powerful New York enclave, Orion is considered more of an asset than a person by his family, which has resulted in everyone seeing him as either a god or a weapon.  This, combined with his love for fighting monsters, has left Orion a little messed up, and he ends up imprinting on El as she is the first character to treat him like a normal person and call him out for his stupid heroic mindset.  Orion is a very complex and nuanced character, and it has been interesting to see him develop, especially as you only really get to see him through El’s cynical eyes.  While he is a little less utilised in this novel, he still has several interesting challenges, including having substantially less magical energy and power due to him encountering very few mals in his final year.  There is also the rather awkward but sweet romance he has with El.  Both these characters are messed up in their own unique ways, but together they nearly make one emotionally function human.  Their romance is a major part of the book’s plot, and Novik works in some compelling and moving storylines around it.  I felt that all of Orion’s character arc was really well written, and I deeply appreciated the way that Novik cleverly set up some key moments surrounding him.

Aside from El and Orion, The Last Graduate contains a fantastic array of supporting characters in the form of the other Scholomance students.  While Novik did introduce most of these characters up in A Deadly Education, I felt that they got a lot more attention in The Last Graduate, with the author taking the time to explore them a little further.  I quite liked the increased focus on these supporting characters, as there are an interesting array of personalities, powers and allegiances, which helped make the plot more exciting and filled with intrigue.  I particularly enjoyed the various members of El’s alliance, each of whom get a few key moments throughout the book and prove to be quite fun to follow.  I also must highlight El’s new familiar, a mouse called Precious, who gains a sort of sentience throughout the book, and immediately starts trying to sabotage El and Orion’s relationship.  Each of these characters added something fun to the overall tapestry of The Last Graduate’s story, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all of them in the final book.

With The Last Graduate, the amazing Naomi Novik has substantially jumped up my list of favourite authors, even if I am severely annoyed with her about that brilliant, if cruel, cliffhanger.  This excellent second novel in the Scholomance series is one of the best books I have read all year, and it is a highly recommended read.  I had an outstanding time once again exploring this messed-up magical school, and the complex characters and unique storylines helped to create an intense and powerful read.  I honestly cannot wait to read the third and final book in this series, even though I fully expect Novik to do everything in her power to break my heart.  If you have not started reading the Scholomance series, you are missing out big time!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following on from his epic crime fiction debut last year, writer and television personality Richard Osman presents the second book in his Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice.

Richard Osman is an awesome comedic talent and personality who I have enjoyed for many years on Pointless, Would I Lie to You and other fun British panel shows.  Known for his clever wit and immense height, Osman has a great sense of humour, and I was pretty excited last year when I saw that he had written a crime fiction novel, The Thursday Murder Club, which followed a group of true crime loving retirees who investigated a nearby murder.  While I knew I was likely to have a great time reading The Thursday Murder Club, I was truly blown away and it ended up being one of the best books, audiobooks and debuts I enjoyed in 2020.  Due to this, and the fact that my review for The Thursday Murder Club received a lot of attention this year, I have been really looking forward to reading the sequel for some time and I was very excited when details about The Man Who Died Twice were finally revealed.  This awesome sequel was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021 and it did not disappoint, presenting another clever and impressive character driven mystery.

Welcome back to Coopers Chase, the sprawling aged-care community near the town of Fairhaven, England, where peace and serenity is guaranteed for all its residents, aside from the thrill-seeking members of the Thursday Murder Club, a small group of friends who spend their Thursdays investigating cold cases and gruesome murders.  Made up of the intrepid Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, the Thursday Murder club has already had great success solving the murder of the previous owner of Coopers Chase, and they are now looking for their next batch of excitement.

Their wish appears to be granted when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she thought was dead, her former colleague and ex-husband, Douglas Middlemiss.  Douglas has recently run afoul of a dangerous English mobster and an international criminal cartel after stealing a bag of valuable diamonds and securing them in a secret hiding place.  Reluctantly put into witness protection by MI5, Douglas is keeping a low profile in Coopers Chase while he plans his escape and new life in retirement.  But when an assassin breaks into his flat and tries to kill him, Douglas turns to Elizabeth for help. 

Rallying the Thursday Murder Club to her side, Elizabeth attempts to figure out which of Douglas’s enemies is trying to take him out and who knew he was hiding at Coopers Chase.  But when tragedy strikes and an unknown enemy appears to have made off with the diamonds, everything seems lost.  But this opponent is unprepared for just how relentless the Thursday Murder Club can be, as Elizabeth and her friends put an ambitious plan in place.  However, this time the Thursday Murder Club aren’t just going after a killer; now they are facing down hardened criminals and assassins with a substantially less compunction about killing senior citizens.  Will the Thursday Murder Club once again solve the unsolvable, or will this be their final case?

Wow, this was amazing novel from Osman that I had an outstanding time getting through.  Featuring another epic and captivating mystery set around a fun group of characters, and featuring Osman’s amazing subtle humour, The Man Who Died Twice was an excellent read that I powered through in a few short days, and which gets another five-star rating from me.

The Man Who Died Twice has an impressive and deeply compelling character driven narrative that follows its various protagonists as they attempt to unravel the compelling case of the twice murdered man and the stolen diamonds.  This second entry in the Thursday Murder Club series can easily be enjoyed as a standalone read, although fans of the first book will no doubt have an amazing time seeing how the various characters continue to progress throughout this second book.  Osman beautifully utilises multiple character perspectives to tell several fantastic stories throughout the book, with the protagonists also involved in several personal battles, as well as attempting to bring down a local crime lord and a vicious young thug.  All of these storylines are chock full of mystery, humour, emotion and personal tragedy, as the protagonists work through the issues and challenges in their own unique ways.  The author balances all the storylines perfectly throughout the novel, eventually producing a clever and very entertaining conclusion.  I loved how the entire narrative came together, and there are some very amusing and compelling moments featured throughout.  Thanks to Osman’s ability to provide a great wrap-up to a story, the readers are left feeling incredibly satisfied and happy, especially after every single twist and bit of character development is revealed.  Combine that with Osman’s subtle sense of humour, mostly relating to the more outrageous situations these unlikely heroes casually wander in and out of, as well as some amusing jokes about being out of touch, and the barrage of references to British pop culture, and you have a very entertaining and addictive story that proves near impossible to put down.

I really enjoyed the central mystery of The Man Who Died Twice as the Thursday Murder Club and their associates are drawn into the case of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, a MI5 agent who has stolen a bunch of diamonds from a crime lord and is now avoiding assassins in the Coopers Chase retirement community.  While the initial hunt is for the location of the hidden diamonds, it soon morphs into another murder when a mysterious killer gets too close to the prize.  This is a very interesting and well-crafted mystery, and I loved how Osman moved away from more traditional murder and into the world of espionage and international crime.  To help solve this crime, the Club are forced to work with MI5 agents and soon find themselves investigating an influential criminal middleman with ties to the Mafia, who are hunting for the diamonds.  However, the nature of the crime also suggests an inside job, and the Club are forced to investigate friends and supposed allies to figure out who is responsible.  I had a great time with this mystery, and I loved the clever misdirection and various suspects that Osman featured throughout the plot.  I was able to pick up one of the twists pretty early in, but the full scope of the conspiracy was a lot more complex than I realised, with some additional unexpected reveals that I didn’t see coming.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and entertaining final plan utilised by the protagonists to entrap their opponents, especially when it ends in such a comical and amusing manner.  An overall compelling and fantastic mystery, I cannot wait to see what intriguing case appears in the next book.

You can’t talk about a Thursday Murder Club novel without mentioning the outstanding and loveable characters the story is formed around.  The Man Who Died Twice follows an intriguing and eclectic mix of characters as they find themselves caught up in the events of the latest mystery.  Osman spent a great deal of time in the previous novel introducing these fantastic characters and ensuring that the reader would fall in love with them.  This enjoyment for the characters continues in The Man Who Died Twice, as each character continues to evolve, with some excellent new details revealed about them.  Osman really does a good job of utilising each of these character perspectives in the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which the tone subtly changes for each of the characters.

The main characters of this book are the two female members of the Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth and Joyce, who have some excellent moments in this latest novel.  The first of these is Elizabeth, the former spy and investigator who is now retired and has formed the Club to keep her mind busy.  Elizabeth gets a lot of attention in this novel as the story focuses on her prior relationship with Douglas, which also examines her career in espionage.  Elizabeth is a great protagonist to follow, mainly because she is bold schemer even now as an old woman.  I always have a fun time seeing her manipulating and outsmarting everyone she comes across, especially now that most of the other characters know her game but still can’t help falling into her webs.  While there is a lot of focus on her abilities and unerring talent for danger and deception, you also get a good look at her somewhat tragic personal life.  Not only is she impacted by the return of Douglas, which raises a lot of memories from her past, but she is also still trying to hold onto her current husband, Stephen, who is suffering from dementia.  I really appreciated the complex storylines around Elizabeth, and I appreciated the way in which Osman did an intriguing dive into her past.

Joyce on the other hand is a pleasant and friendly former nurse who was the last member of the gang to join the Club.  Joyce seems like your typical, well-intentioned older lady, and I am sure that many readers will see a lot of parallels between her and their own parents or grandmothers.  However, Joyce is a brilliant thinker who uses her brain and her friendly personality to make everyone like her and then help her out.  Joyce forms a fantastic partnership with Elizabeth, and the two make an effective double team, with Joyce’s more subtle tactics and insights combining well with Elizabeth’s more direct approach.  It is a lot of fun to see Joyce investigating these brutal crimes, especially as she picks up on just as much, if not more, than the experienced spy Elizabeth.  I also really appreciate the way in which Joyce’s chapters are written, with her point-of-view shown in a series of diary entries.  This different storytelling technique helps Joyce stand out as a protagonist, especially as it highlights her entertaining personality, including the revelations and observations she has about modern technology and younger people (I had so many chuckles at her forays on Instagram).

The male members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron,  who are a little underutilised compared to Elizabeth and Joyce in this novel, but they both get their intriguing storylines which were really well-written and compelling.  This is particularly true for Ibrahim, the group’s shy intellectual, who is forced to deal with a brutal physical attack from a young criminal at the start of the book, a scene which really hit me hard due to how much I got to know this harmless character during the first book.  This attack leaves Ibrahim scarred mentally as well as physically, and he spends the rest of the novel feeling quite afraid and unwilling to leave Coopers Chase.  Osman does some deep and emotional character work on Ibrahim here, and readers end up getting quite invested in his recovery as well as his intense mental journey.  This attack on Ibrahim is also the primary catalyst for Ron’s storyline, which probably gets the least amount of attention out of all the main characters.  Ron, the former union leader, who always puts on a classic tough-guy persona, is deeply impacted by the attack on his best friend and spends the early part of the book constantly by his side.  However, once it becomes clear that Ibrahim is alright, he then leads the charge against his friend’s attacker, and uses Elizabeth’s contacts to bring the thug to justice.  I felt that Osman hit the right notes with Ron in this book, and I appreciated seeing both his emotional side and his vengeful side, and I loved how they both came from the same place of love.

The final characters I want to mention are the associated members of the Thursday Murder Club, younger characters who have been drawn into the orbit of the compelling senior citizens.  These include police officers Donna and Chris, both of whom had an entertaining introduction to the Club in the previous novel and are now firm friends with them.  Donna and Chris spend most of the book attempting to bring down a Fairhaven crime lord while also dealing with their personal issues.  Chris, who was a bit of a sad-sack character in the first novel, has been revitalised by his blooming relationship with Donna’s mother.  While happy and now health conscious, this results in a lot of soul-searching by Chris, who is unsure how to pursue the romance, especially once his girlfriend is threatened by the criminal they are hunting.  Donna, on the other hand, continues her unlucky hunt for love and purpose in this novel, going from one bad date to another while also being suitably horrified by her boss sleeping with her mother.  While Donna does not get as much focus in this novel as she did in The Thursday Murder Club, she still had some great character moments, and I deeply appreciated that touching scene she had with Ibrahim.  I also need to mention Bogdan, who, after being a major suspect in the first novel, has moved on to a supporting role in this book due to his firm friendship with Elizabeth and her husband.  Simply put, Bogdan is the coolest person in Fairhaven and a true friend, helping Elizabeth with her projects by doing all manner of unusual requests, from looking after Stephen to buying a large amount of cocaine.  He has some really good scenes in this book, and Osman sets him up as quite the bright, mysterious action man with a heart of gold.  Throw in some other well-established and explored side characters in addition to the above and you have an exciting and compelling cast with a great story around them.

One of the key things about this series that I really appreciate is the way in which Osman attempts to champion the aging process and show how capable and interesting older members of the community can be.  The Man Who Died Twice is another great example of this, as it contains multiple amazing examples of older protagonists doing impossible things and manipulating people half their age in some elaborate and entertaining ways.  It was a lot of fun once again seeing these older characters taking charge, and Osman has a very unique and entertaining take on the aging process and the mindset of older people.  However, not everything is about the positives of aging, as the author once again presents some sad and dark elements that added some powerful drama to the narrative.  Throughout the course of the story, there are plenty of discussions about illness, living with regrets, and the growing realisation that death is just around the corner.  There was a particular focus on the vulnerability of the elderly, especially with Ibrahim’s storyline, as it shakes both the victim and all his friends.  There is also a compelling look at Stephen’s battle with dementia, which includes Elizabeth’s attempt to keep him in their apartment despite what may be medically best for him, resulting in some touching and emotional scenes, especially once the double meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.  I really appreciated the author’s unique and compelling take on the aging process, and it was great to see more of the novel’s fun senior protagonists.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Man Who Died Twice, I decided in the end to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, which was a fantastic choice.  The Man Who Died Twice has a runtime of 12 and a half hours, although the last 40 minutes or so is an interesting interview.  I found myself getting through this audiobook extremely quickly, not just because of the amazing story but because the audiobook has a great pace to it and some excellent narration by actress Lesley Manville.  Manville, who also narrated The Thursday Murder Club, does another wonderful job in this second novel, and it was great to hear her impressive take on this fantastic story.  Manville has come up with some amazing voices for the various characters, with each person getting their own distinctive and fitting voice, with some great continuation from the first book.  Each of the character’s voices work extremely well, and I really appreciated the way in which Manville can ascribe age, emotion, and personality with her vocal work.  I had an outstanding time listening to Manville tell this cool story, and it was made even better by a fun discussion between Osman and Manville at the end of the book.  This nice and unique talk between author and narrator was an outstanding and fitting way to finish of this audiobook, especially as it offers some cool insights into the book you have just been enjoying.  I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation about why Osman doesn’t narrate his own novel, and I actually agree with his reasoning for it.  Overall, this was another exceptional audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone and everyone keen to check out The Man Who Died Twice.

With his second entry in the spectacular Thursday Murder Club series, Richard Osman continues to showcase he is just as talented at writing crime fiction as he is at comedy.  The Man Who Died Twice is an outstanding and wildly entertaining read that combines an impressive story with a clever mystery, some complex and likeable characters, and a brilliant sense of humour.  This was a spectacular read and I had an incredible time getting through this fantastic sequel, especially in its amazing audiobook format.  The Man Who Died Twice was one of the best books of 2021 and I cannot wait to see where Osman takes this series next.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.