Quick Review – The Chase by Candice Fox

The Chase Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 449 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove

Firefly Life Signs

Consulting Editor: Joss Whedon

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 15 March 2021)

Series: Firefly – Book Five

Length: 377 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite tie-in series returns with another awesome Firefly novel by bestselling author James Lovegrove.  This time, Lovegrove digs up an intriguing unaired plotline for the epic science fiction series and crafts an outstanding story out of it for Firefly: Life Signs.

Set between the events of the Firefly television series and the Serenity film, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity are still scraping by, earning a living from barely legal jobs while also dealing with the consequences of their previous capers.  Life seems to be normal (well, normal for this motley crew) until they receive some shocking news: former crewmember Inara is dying from a terminal illness.

Rushing to her side, a devastated Mal learns that Inara is suffering from Kiehl’s Myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.  With only a few short weeks until Inara’s time is up, Serenity’s crew look set to lose one of their own, until a rumour reaches them of a potential cure.  Esau Weng, a maverick scientist, was rumoured to be working on a medical breakthrough that could potentially treat Inara’s condition.  However, the unethical and secretive nature of his work landed him in trouble with the Alliance, who arrested him and bundled him off to their most notorious prison.

Tracking Esau’s location, the crew are disheartened to learn that he has been sent to the prison planet of Atata, a dangerous and harsh place where the worst criminals and dissidents the verse has to offer are housed.  Inmates are abandoned on its surface and are forced to survive with no guards, no protection, and limited resources.  Worse, the planet is a frozen wasteland, nearly uninhabitable thanks to its failed terraforming, with its snow-covered surface filled with mutated animals.  Determined to save Inara no matter what, Mal organises a desperate infiltration of the prison with Zoe, Jayne and Simon.  However, finding Weng will prove to be harder than they imagined, as they are forced to deal with the deranged ruler of the prison.  Can Mal and his team find Weng before it is too late, and even if they can, will his supposed cure be enough to save Inara?

Over the last couple of years, there has been an excellent resurgence in Firefly/Serenity tie-in fiction as new publishing companies have taken charge of producing content for the franchise.  One of the best examples of this has been the new collection of Firefly novels that introduced some compelling original stories surrounding various members of Serenity’s crew.  All of these novels have been pretty awesome so far, and I have really enjoyed the awesome and impressive stories they have created.

While other authors have been lined up for these books, such as Tim Lebbon (who wrote Firefly: Generations), the MVP of this series has been James Lovegrove, who has written four out of the five novels (including this one).  His previous books have included Big Damn Hero (with Nancy Holder), The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine, all three of which have been exceptional tie-in reads.  In my opinion, each of Lovegrove’s Firefly novels has been better than the last, and this continues to be the case with Life SignsLife Signs was an outstanding and clever read that explores some of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the Firefly universe while also getting to the very core of some of its iconic characters.

For his latest Firefly novel, Lovegrove comes up with an awesome narrative that is both exciting and emotionally powerful, as the crew engage in a prison break to save one of their own.  Like the rest of the Firefly books that I have had the pleasure of reading, Life Signs is an extremely fast-paced novel, which makes great use of multiple character perspectives, including all the members of Serenity’s crew as well as several new characters, to tell a complete and intriguing story.  The novel starts at pace, with the crew receiving the devastating news about Inara’s upcoming death, which hits all the characters, especially Mal, extremely hard.  From there the story splits into two linked but separate story arcs: one on the planet and one in space.  The storyline set on the prison planet is pretty good, and it was a lot of fun to see the more criminally minded Mal, Zoe and Jayne attempt to blend in, along with a faltering Simon.  Their attempts to infiltrate the criminal inhabitants of the prison ends up producing several interesting issues that they need to overcome, and they eventually engage in a desperate battle for survival out in Atata’s snowy wasteland.  There are some great twists associated with this part of the story, including a clever one surrounding an inmate who joins their team, and this was a fantastic part of the book.  At the same time, the three other members of the crew are out in space aboard Serenity and must deal with a fanatical Alliance captain who is determined to capture them, resulting in some amazing space exploits which push River to the fore.  Both these separated arcs are pretty awesome, and they come together extremely well, ensuring the reader gets a fantastic blast of action and character development.  I also enjoyed the additional emotional weight that the life-or-death storyline surrounding Inara has, and it was definitely a powerful and compelling narrative that readers are guaranteed to want to finish off as quickly as they can.

Life Signs is an intriguing and clever addition to the wider Firefly canon.  While the story is quite open to new readers or those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, this is definitely a novel best enjoyed by fans of the Firefly television show and additional tie-in media, as there are a number of fun references and major character moments that they will find particularly appealing.  One of the most interesting parts of this book is the storyline surrounding Inara having cancer.  As some Firefly fans may be aware, members of the show’s creative team have revealed that they initially planned a whole major storyline around Inara suffering from a terminal illness, which would have appeared in a future episode of the show.  They even layered a few hints about this in the first season, such as her mysterious syringe and the reasons why she was travelling on Serenity rather than a more luxurious ship.  I was very excited to hear that parts of this storyline were being used in Life Signs and I think that Lovegrove did a great job examining this interesting character thread surrounding Inara.  Not only does this result in some brilliant and dramatic moments, but Lovegrove makes sure to make mention of several of the hints that were shown in the television series, which fans will deeply appreciate.  Lovegrove provides several additional references that eagle-eyed fans will appreciate, such as the very start of the book containing a fun follow-up to one of the crew’s previous adventures.  Lovegrove also subtly ties Life Signs into some of the previous Firefly novels he wrote, including through a key supporting character, and I quite liked the continuity of the novels.  As a result, this is a perfect read for Firefly fans, although general science fiction buffs or those who enjoyed the show will have a great time with this novel as well.

As usual with Lovegrove’s Firefly novels, one of the most impressive highlights of this book is the fantastic depiction of the fantastic characters from the show.  Lovegrove has always done an amazing job of bringing these great characters to life within his novels and I really love his attention to character detail, emotion and their inner selves.  Life Signs continues this trend by thoroughly examining several members of the crew and I deeply enjoyed the emotional and enjoyable inclusions to the plot.

You can probably guess that Inara gets a bit of focus in this novel, due to the reveal that she is dying.  As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed that Lovegrove utilised this story arc in Life Signs, and the author leverages this plot to provide a fantastic and powerful dive into Inara’s character, a re-examination of her actions during the television show, as well as an exploration of her relationship with the other people aboard Serenity.  This serves to be one of the more intriguing portrayals of Inara in this series of novels, although it is rather brief as Inara spends most of the novel in a near-death state.  Due to Inara’s illness keeping her out of much of the plot, a lot of the story’s emotional weight fall to Mal, who ends up getting most of the focus of this novel.  While you do get his typical cocky attitude, fun humour and ability to annoy anyone around him, you also get to see Mal on the emotional edge during this book.  Mal is naturally devastated by the news that his unspoken love interest is dying, and he quickly latches on to any hope for her survival.  As a result, he dives into the hunt for a cure with reckless abandon and ends up taking some big risks.  Lovegrove did an amazing job portraying Mal as a bit deranged in this novel, and it was fascinating to see the usual conscientious captain seemingly prioritise Inara’s survival over the safety of his crew.  There are some amazingly dramatic and moving moments throughout this book as Mal struggles to deal with the emotions surrounding Inara’s potential death, and Firefly fans will be left on the edge of their seats as Lovegrove provides some new angles to their complex relationship.

While a good portion of the novel focuses on Mal and his concerns for Inara, the rest of Serenity’s crew also appear throughout the novel, as each of them has at least one chapter shown from their point of view.  Interestingly enough, both Tam siblings get a decent chunk of focus, with their storylines not as connected to each other’s as usual.  Simon has a great arc down on the prison planet after he is dragged along to determine if Weng can actually help Inara.  Due to his lack of criminal believability, Simon ends up having a very interesting time in the prison, especially after he befriends a seemingly innocent female inmate, who forms a romantic attachment to Simon.  This ends up causing many problems with Simon, due to his poor lying abilities and conflicted feelings over Kaylee, and it was really interesting to see how his arc ended up.  On the other hand, River spends her part of the story aboard Serenity, and is called into action when the ship is threatened by Alliance military vessels.  I loved that Lovegrove spent time exploring River’s piloting Serenity, something that is shown at the end of the Serenity film, and it was really cool to see her do some complex and insane manoeuvres.  The chapters shown from River’s point of view are amongst some of the most entertaining parts of the book, and it is always great to see this crazy genius in action.

Zoe, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne round up the main cast of this book, although each of them has more of a supporting role.  Zoe does have an intriguing storyline that sees her bond with a fellow former soldier in the prison, and there were hints back at her past as a Dust Devil, something that was initially introduced in one of Joss Whedon’s comic books.  All these characters are portrayed in exquisite detail however, and Lovegrove does a good job replicating their personalities and characteristics throughout the story.  Overall, fans of the franchise will love the way that each of the characters are utilised throughout Life Signs, and I cannot wait to see which characters are featured in the next Firefly novel.

Firefly: Life Signs is another exceptional and clever Firefly tie-in novel from the impressive James Lovegrove.  Lovegrove has come up with an exciting and clever tale that successfully utilises a planned storyline from the show and produce an addictive and memorable narrative with it.  Readers will love the awesome call back to this iconic science fiction show including the excellent portrayals of the main cast of characters.  I had an amazing time reading this book and Firefly fans are going to love every second they spend reading it.  While I cannot wait to get my hands on the next entry in this series, which looks set to be Carnival by Una McCormack, Life Signs is an outstanding novel to check out now and comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

Star Wars - Maul - Lockdown Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2014)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 12 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. 

2021 has so far been a fantastic year for Star Wars novels with excellent releases such as the two Star Wars: The High Republic novels, Light of the Jedi and Into the Dark, and the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy, Victory’s Price.  I have been really enjoying these new Star Wars novels but I recently got a hankering for something a little different and decided to go back and check out some of the older Star Wars tie-in novels.  While there were several intriguing options (I was strongly eyeing off A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno and Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells), I eventually settled for the one of the last entries in the Star Wars: Legends range of books, Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber, an intensely exciting and dark novel with an amazing story to it.

Welcome to the space station Cog Hive Seven, the most dangerous prison in the entire galaxy.  Here inmates are forced to fight to the death in matches broadcast to millions of gamblers across the Republic determined to make a profit off the blood of the galaxy’s worst killers and criminals.  No one escapes from Cog Hive Seven, and every one of its deadly and evil inhabitants know that they will eventually die there.  However, not even these deranged inmates are prepared for the new evil that has been thrown into their midst, the lethal dark-side assassin, Darth Maul.  

Sent by Darth Sidious to contact a secretive weapons merchant, Iram Radique, Maul has disguised himself as a notorious mercenary and killer.  Determined to complete the mission his master has given him, Maul begins to upend the prison to find the elusive Radique, quickly establishing himself as a destructive force of chaos.  However, his notoriety also sees him forced into progressively more dangerous matches against some of the deadliest creatures in the galaxy. 

Bereft of his lightsaber, forbidden from using the force and with bombs injected into both his hearts, Maul must rely on his brutal combat abilities and own inner strength to succeed.  But the closer he gets to finding Radique, the more he realises that not everything is as it seems aboard Cog Hive Seven and that his target will do everything is his power to avoid meeting with Maul.  Worse, dangerous factions have taken notice of the prison and its deranged warden and soon Maul must contend with a death cult, the followers of Jabba the Hutt and a horrifying monster living within the walls of the prison.  Can even Darth Maul overcome the odds in front of him, or will the creatures of Cog Hive Seven swallow him whole?

I think readers of this blog will not be too surprised to hear that the moment I found out that there was a book that followed Darth Maul participating in death matches aboard a space prison, I knew I would have to read it, and boy am I glad I did.  Maul: Lockdown is an impressive and fantastic novel that I found to be instantly captivating and which I powered through in a short amount of time.  Author Joe Schreiber, whose previous novel, Death Troopers, featured an outstanding story about key Star Wars characters encountering a zombie horde (it is as awesome as it sounds) came up with a pretty epic narrative for this Star Wars novel, and I really enjoyed this cool, Darth Maul-centric book.

I have to say that I was really surprised about how complex and impressive Maul: Lockdown’s narrative turned out to be.  Based on the plot description, I would have expected a simple, action-orientated story, but instead Schreiber crafted together a dark and powerful Star Wars tale with some compelling mystery elements.  This book reads a lot like a prison thriller, with Maul thrust into the middle of a dangerous jail which he must navigate to find his target.  While there is a natural focus on the fights between Maul and the other dangerous inmates, which results in some exceptional action sequences, the author also works in some great mystery and crime fiction elements that combine perfectly with the Star Wars backdrop.  The author utilises a bunch of multiple perspectives to show the chaotic nature of the prison, and there are several great storylines based around supporting characters which twist their way around Maul’s central story of surviving and attempting to find the secretive arms dealer. 

As the story progresses, more and more dangerous elements and antagonists are thrown into the narrative, including monsters, deranged cultists and even Jabba the Hutt, intensifying the obstacles facing Maul and raising the thrilling stakes of the narrative.  I really enjoyed the main storyline of the hunt for Radique, and there were plenty of false leads and twists around who he was and where he was hiding.  I did think the eventual reveal of the character (spoiler ahead!!!) was a tad weak, mainly as it ended up being a character we hadn’t seen before (spoiler end), but it was still an interesting and exciting centre to the narrative.  Schreiber also weaves some excellent horror elements into the story, especially surrounding one unique creature in the prison.  The author makes this creature particularly horrifying to behold, both because of its appearance and its unsettling abilities, and there are some real terrifying sequences surrounding it.  All these great elements come together perfectly into one fantastic and captivating tale that proves to be extremely addictive and very clever.

This is an exciting Star Wars novel that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy.  Maul: Lockdown was one of the later entries in the previous Star Wars extended universe which is now known as the Star Wars: Legends range.  Despite no longer being considered canon, the Star Wars: Legends books still have some great stories, such as the impressive heist novel Scoundrels, and this was a pretty cool entry.  Set a year before The Phantom Menace, this book is loaded with a ton of references to other pieces of Star Wars media, including several previous Star Wars: Legends novels and comics, Schreiber’s previous book Death Troopers (featuring a clever cameo), and even an old Star Wars video game, Bounty Hunter.  There are lots of interesting pieces of Star Wars lore in here, and the author features a couple of major figures from the prequel films, as well as a few obscure characters from some of the older Star Wars novels, including a corrupted Padawan of Count Dooku I had not heard of before (she is not in the new canon).  I really enjoyed the author’s inclusion of a battle of intrigue between Darth Sidious and his master Darth Plagueis, and the story in Maul: Lockdown has some great connections to certain events in the Darth Plagueis novel.  While Schreiber has included a lot of high-level lore, I felt that this was quite an accessible Star Wars novel and anyone who saw Darth Maul emerge in The Phantom Menace will definitely enjoy this darker and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.

One of the most intriguing things about this novel is the way in which the author attempts to dive into the mindset of fan-favourite character Darth Maul.  Ever since he whipped out his dual-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace, Maul has been a much beloved figure in the Star Wars franchise, but you do not often get to see much of his inner thoughts.  While I would probably be happy reading a simple hack-and-slash adventure featuring Maul, I really appreciated the way in which Schreiber takes the time to examine Maul’s inner psyche, and you get an intriguing glimpse into his thoughts about his mission, his purpose in life and his loyalty to his master.  I found it quite fascinating to see the way in which Schreiber portrays Maul’s complex feelings about Sidious, as he is both simultaneous absolutely loyal to him while also being deeply suspicious about his intentions.  Maul spends most of the book believing that everything he is experiencing is a test or deception levelled at him by his Master and he also hints at his suspicions that he will eventually be betrayed.  While this examination of Maul’s more complex thoughts and feelings is quite interesting, it is also perfectly counterbalanced by a huge number of scenes that examine just how much of a badass Maul is.  Schreiber has loaded this book up with awesome and brutal fight sequences pitting Maul up against a range of deadly opponents, which are made even more awesome by the fact that Maul is unable to use either his lightsaber or force abilities.  Instead, Maul shows off his impressive unarmed fighting skills and his natural cunning, as he overwhelms his opponents in some brutal and clever ways.  The author also fits in some compelling hints and depictions of Maul’s training and early life, which I found to be very interesting, particularly as some of these events slightly differ from the current canon.  All of this makes for an exceptionally cool Darth Maul novel, and I loved seeing this great character in all his deadly glory.

I ended up checking out Maul: Lockdown on audiobook, which is easily the best way to enjoy a Star Wars book.  The Maul: Lockdown audiobook has a reasonable run time of 12 hours and 20 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through in a couple of sittings.  I absolutely powered through this audiobook myself, especially once I got caught up in the cool story, and I had a great time experiencing all the features of this format.  Like most Star Wars audiobooks, Maul: Lockdown makes excellent use of the iconic sound effects and musical scores from the Star Wars films and television series to enhance its story.  The sound effects are particularly impactful in Maul: Lockdown, and I liked the way they made the many fight sequences pop with the sounds of violence and weapons blasting.  They also made one horrifying creature even more terrible to listen to thanks to the slithering and sucking sounds that played when it appeared.  This audiobook also made great use of John Williams’ amazing scores.  I always love hearing the inspirational and moving Star Wars music during these audiobooks, and while it was more restrained in this audiobook than some others I have enjoyed, it still helped to make several emotional or exciting scenes just a little more epic.

In addition to the cool sound effects and awesome music, Maul: Lockdown’s audiobook also made great use of exceptional narrator Jonathan Davies.  Davies is a veteran narrator who has lent his voice to several Star Wars novels in the past, such as Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith.  He does a fantastic job bringing the various characters in Maul: Lockdown to life, and I really enjoyed the unique tones that each character received.  I really liked the voices that he used for established Star Wars characters, which were close, if not spot on, to how they appeared in the films or television series.  This includes the menacing tones he came up with for Maul, which contained all the character’s barely supressed anger and hatred, and he did a rather good Darth Sidious which was reminiscent of Tim Curry’s take on him in The Clone Wars animated series.  Davis also did a perfect Jabba the Hutt (not exactly sure that is a compliment, but please take it as such), and I loved hearing him do Jabba’s iconic laugh.  Overall, his narration was pretty damn awesome and, when combined with the fantastic sound effects and great musical inclusions, helped to really enhance Maul: Lockdown’s narrative and continued the trend of outstanding Star Wars audiobooks.

Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber is an outstanding and awesome novel that sees one of the best characters in the Star Wars canon fighting for his life in a dangerous setting.  Featuring a powerful and addictive narrative, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and a whole lot of violence, this is a rich, clever, and dark Star Wars novel that comes highly recommended.  I had an incredible time reading this cool and captivating book and I really need to check out some of the other amazing sounding novels in the Star Wars: Legends range.

The Last Convict by Anthony Hill

The Last Convict Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

The Law of Innocence Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Mickey Haller – Book six

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

The master of the modern-day crime fiction novel, Michael Connelly, presents his second release of 2020, The Law of Innocence, which sees the return of one of his most iconic protagonist, the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, who is forced to defend his most important client yet: himself.

Defence lawyer Mickey Haller is flying high after a series of high-profile wins in court.  However, his life is about to come crashing down around him when he is pulled over by police and the body of a former client is found in the trunk of his Lincoln.  Haller is swiftly charged with murder and slapped with an unpayable $5 million bail that forces him to stay in the infamous Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Determined to prove that he has been framed, Haller chooses to defend himself and starts to construct his case in prison.  With the help of his expert team, including his half-brother, Harry Bosch, Haller attempts to discover who is really behind the murder and why he is being targeted.  However, the answers and a viable alternate suspect seem elusive, and Haller soon finds himself the target of everyone in the criminal justice system that he has managed to alienate throughout his career.

With the trial quickly approaching and a vengeful prosecutor angling to get Haller the death sentence, the defence will need every trick at their disposal if they are to save Haller’s life.  However, this entire case sits at the centre of an elaborate conspiracy, one where anyone who knows anything is at risk.  Can Haller survive the case and his dangerous prison sentence, or will this be the last trial for the Lincoln Lawyer?

The Law of Innocence was an impressive and enjoyable book from Michael Connelly, who has once again written a top-notch crime fiction novel.  I have really been getting into Connelly’s work over the last couple of years and I have had an exceptional time reading his last three novels, Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire and Fair Warning.  Due to this, and the fact that I really liked its plot synopsis, The Law of Innocence was one of my most anticipated reads for the year, and I have been looking forward to it for a while.  This is the sixth novel to feature Mickey Haller as its protagonist and point-of-view character, and the 35th overall novel to be set in Connelly’s overarching crime fiction universe.  I had an amazing time reading this book, another fantastic outing from Connelly.

Connelly has come up with an exceptional story for this excellent book, and it is one that I really enjoyed.  Indeed, I actually got so caught up in The Law of Innocence’s awesome narrative that I managed to read the entire book in just one day, not even realising that I had stayed up till 3am to finish it off (work the next day was not fun, but staying up was worth it).  The story that Connelly utilises in this novel is extremely compelling and intriguing, as it forces the protagonist to not only solve a murder but also prove to the court that he did not commit it.  This leads to an intense, emotional and clever story that combines a fantastic murder mystery plot with some excellent legal thriller elements, while also placing the protagonist in significant danger while being held in prison.  There were a number of amazing elements to this book, and the story flows at an extremely fast pace whilst following a crafty but likeable protagonist.  Connelly makes sure to continue to explore Haller’s personal issues at the same time, featuring the supporting characters and family members from the previous Mickey Haller novels, including an old flame with whom Haller finally gets some closure.  The Law of Innocence also featured Connelly’s most iconic protagonist, Harry Bosch, who attempts to help Haller clear his name.  While Bosch was a little underutilised, especially considering how much he was featured in some of the pre-publishing advertising, it was great to see him in another book and it was interesting to see more of the relationship between these estranged half-brothers.  The Law of Innocence also contains some interesting connections to previous Mickey Haller novels, and fans of this protagonist will be intrigued to see which characters make a return.  While I really enjoyed most of the story, I did feel that ending was a little weak.  The entire conclusion to the case occurs rather suddenly towards the end of the book and it feels a little forced and simplistic.  It also lacked the excitement of the rest of The Law of Innocence, and I would have much preferred something a little more shocking or some major courtroom shenanigans to really round out the book.  While this ending was a bit disappointing, I still think that The Law of Innocence’s story was still substantially strong, and I had an exceptional time getting through it.

One of the things that impress me about Connelly’s writing is his ability to create substantially different crime fiction novels based on the protagonist he is featuring.  For example, his Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch novels are excellent police procedurals, while his Jack McEvoy books feature clever investigations by a journalist.  The Law of Innocence, on the other hand, was written as a legal thriller, due to it being a Mickey Haller novel.  This proved to be an interesting change of pace from the previous Connelly novels I have read, but I really enjoyed it, mainly due to the sheer amount of legal detail that the author fits into the novel.  Connelly does an amazing job fitting an entire fascinating legal case into this book, going all the way from the arrest to the conclusion of trial.  Along the way, The Law of Innocence covers everything from case preparation, pre-trial hearings, bail, jury selections and the main trial, while also containing a lot of descriptions and discussions about the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.  Due to the fact the book is told solely from Haller’s point of view, there is a natural focus on the art of defending a client, with a number of the tricks of the trade being featured.  I found all of the legal aspects of The Law of Innocence to be extremely fascinating, and Connelly makes sure to explain all of these legal details in a comprehensive and easy to follow way.  I loved seeing Haller work his legal magic throughout the book, especially as the reader gets to see into Haller’s mind and find out what he was actually planning and how successful his various gambles actually are.  It was also particularly cool to see him forced to deal with the handicap of defending himself whilst being stuck in jail, especially as he was not able to investigate the crime himself or have access to his usual resources.  Overall, my first experience of one of Connelly’s legal thrillers turned out to be very enjoyable and I thought that the author wrote an awesome story around it.  I look forward to seeing what cool legal cases Connelly comes up with the next time he utilises Haller as a protagonist, and I am sure it will make for another fun read.

Another interesting part of this book that I quite enjoyed was the clever inclusion of COVID-19 into the plot.  The plot of The Law of Innocence is set over the course of a couple of months, from late 2019 to March 2020, with the coronavirus slowly becoming more prevalent as the book proceeds.  This starts with some throwaway mentions of the virus and Wuhan in the parts of the book set in November, which the reader would initially attribute to a cute mention that was not going to go anywhere.  However, as the book progresses, the references to the virus become more and more numerous, until it actually becomes a major part of the plot, with the protagonist suddenly facing the reality of it when his legal team walk into prison wearing face masks.  I found it deeply fascinating to see the author utilise the coronavirus in his book and it was rather compelling to see the impacts it had on the central plot, with elements of the court case, such as jury selection, fast-tracked to ensure that the case could be held before everything got shut down.  Connelly was actually quite subtle with how he featured the coronavirus in his story, and I felt that the growing levels of concern that the characters show in this book realistically matched what people felt in real life, with excellent depictions of the shift from mild indifference to panic buying.  This was honestly one of the first books I have read that mentioned the coronavirus (although I imagine quite a few books next year will have it as a central plot point), and I felt that Connelly handled it extremely well, being an accurate and impactful part of the book, without overly distracting the reader from the central case or overwhelming them with details or experiences everyone is currently extremely familiar with.  This excellent inclusion of real-life elements into a great fictional story is one of the reasons I always enjoy Connelly’s writing, and I look forward to seeing how he addresses the coronavirus in some of his future books (for example, how it might impact murder investigations in a Renee Ballard or Harry Bosch novel).

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly is another captivating and awesome crime fiction novel that comes highly recommended.  Featuring the antics of defence lawyer Mickey Haller, The Law of Innocence is an amazing legal thriller that readers can really sink their teeth into.  Fun, exciting and compelling, The Law of Innocence is an excellent novel, and both established fans of Connelly and newcomers to his work will be able to dive into this book extremely easily.  I had an amazing time reading The Law of Innocence and I look forward to Connelly’s next exceptional read.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

Publisher: Michael Joseph/Brilliance Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling thriller author Gregg Hurwitz comes an outstanding and captivating adventure novel, Into the Fire, the latest book in his amazing Orphan X series.

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, a former orphan child who was taken in by a secret covert government and trained from a young age to become the most skilled assassin and special operator in the world. Orphan X served his country for years before finally having enough and leaving, pursued by the people who ordered his creation. Resettling to Los Angeles, Evan forged a new identity for himself as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante dedicated to helping those in desperate need who have no one else to turn to.

After killing his greatest enemy, the United States President, Evan has had enough of violence and is determined to retire and live a quiet life. But before he leaves everything behind, Evan has decided to help one more person as The Nowhere Man, as one final act of redemption. Enter Max Merriweather, a poor construction worker in LA. Two months earlier his cousin Grant, a successful forensic accountant, entrusted Max with an envelope and instructions to take it to a reporter if anything happened to him. Now Grant is dead, an armed thug is ransacking Max’s apartment and the reporter he was told to contact has been murdered. With nowhere else left to turn, Max calls The Nowhere Man.

Taking on Max’s case, Evan dives into LA’s criminal underbelly in order to locate the people hunting Max. Easily finding the thugs responsible for Grant’s death, Evan manages to eliminate them quickly; however, it turns out that they are just the tip of an iceberg stretching throughout the entirety of LA. Grant was on the verge of uncovering a massive conspiracy, and his evidence could put away a lot of dangerous people who are now determined to kill Max to keep him quiet. Determined to keep Max safe, Evan soon finds himself embroiled in one of the most challenging and complicated missions of his life, as behind every corner a new adversary lies, each one more powerful and connected than the last. Can even this legendary assassin and vigilante win with the odds so severely stacked against him?

Gregg Hurwitz is a veteran thriller author who has been producing compelling and exciting novels since his 1999 debut, The Tower. Since then he has written over 20 novels, including his Tim Rackley series, The Rains Brothers books and several standalone novels. He has also contributed to several DC and Marvel comic book series, such as Batman: The Dark Knight and The Punisher, and he also does a bit of screenwriting, having written several episodes of the 2009 remake of V. Hurwitz’s main body of work at the moment is his Orphan X series, which started in 2016 with the novel Orphan X. Into the Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series and follows on shortly after the events of the fourth book, Out of the Dark. I actually got into Hurwitz’s works last year when I read Out of the Dark due its cool story premise of a former secret agent attempting to kill the President. After I enjoyed this fun action thriller last year, I was definitely keen to check out more of Hurwitz’s work and I have been looking forward to Into the Fire for a little while now.

Now, I have to admit that while I was interested in checking out Into the Fire, I was a little worried that Hurwitz was going to have a hard time topping his previous novel and its outrageous central plot point. However, Into the Fire turned out to be an outstanding read which I ended up enjoying more than Out of the Dark. Hurwitz has produced an incredible thriller that is filled with intense action, clever plot developments and an excellent character-driven central story. All of these amazing elements combine together perfectly into a novel which can easily be read as either a continuation of the series or as a compelling standalone novel.

One of the best parts of this novel is the well-written and captivating central thriller storyline which sees the protagonist attempt to take down a criminal conspiracy in the heart of LA. What starts out as a relatively simple mission to take down a small-time criminal organisation quickly morphs into a massive task, as each time Evan thinks he has succeeded, a larger and more dangerous adversary appears behind the people he has just taken out. There are so many twists and turns in this novel, you honestly don’t know when or where it is going to end, and the story goes in some very fun and clever directions. I really enjoyed how the author layered his story with seemingly innocuous comments and discussion that later morphed into major plot payoffs later down the line in the book, and I was actually surprised about a few of the reveals that occurred.

I really liked the overarching plot idea of an elite secret agent going after everyday criminals with his full range of tradecraft, advanced weapons and training, especially as it resulted in some amazing sequences throughout the book. The protagonist comes up with some truly unique, clever and at times brutal ways to take down some of his opponents, which were fun to check out. I know I will never look at a plastic drinking straw the same way again. My personal favourite part of the book are several chapters where the protagonist breaks into a prison to deal with one of his targets. The various ways that he infiltrated the prison, pulled off his mission and then escaped was not only clever but also very entertaining, and I loved every single second of it. I also really liked how Hurwitz introduced a handicap for his protagonist throughout this book in the form of a severe concussion obtained early on in the story. The author did an excellent job portraying the symptoms of a concussion, and it was interesting to watch the protagonist struggle to complete his tasks with blurred vision or a massive headache. The concussion angle was a great way to amp the risk surrounding the protagonist’s actions, as it actually put many of his opponents on an equal footing with this former elite special agent and was a fantastic inclusion to the story. Overall, this turned out to be an extremely well-written and deeply exciting thriller storyline, which proves to be quite addictive and captivating.

I was also quite impressed by the way that Hurwitz spent time examining and developing the central characters of this book. In particular, there is a fascinating focus on the complex character of Evan Smoak, who is the main protagonist of this series. Hurwitz has always done an amazing job of portraying Evan as a man very much haunted by his past lives, both as an abandoned child and as an assassin who was trained to kill since the age of 12. Both of these parts of his life still drive him, and his whole persona as The Nowhere Man is a form of redemption for him, as he attempts to not only atone for the lives he took as Orphan X but to also help those who feel as powerless as he did when he was a young child. Hurwitz continues to utilise this characterisation in Into the Fire, although this time it is further complicated by his plans to retire after this one final mission. This whole retirement angle is a major concern for Evan, as he spends a good part of the book weighing up the good he does as The Nowhere Man against all the personal benefits of attempting to live a normal life. This makes for a lot of internal conflict, which forces the author to once again dive into Evan’s motivations for being a vigilante, which adds a great dramatic edge to the entire story.

This consideration about having a more normal life is also explored in the way that the trained loner Evan starting to learn more about human interaction and relationships in this book. Part of this takes place in the way that he interacts with Joey, the teenage hacker and former Orphan trainee he saved and took under his wing. Evan has inadvertently taken on the role of a father figure to Joey, and it was great to see him continue to act protective towards her and see their unique relationship grow. There is also the rather amusing and awkward interactions that he has with the residence of his building. Despite not wanting to have much to do with them, he actually goes out of his way to protect them, and he is actually shown to care quite deeply when one of them is hurt. Finally, there is the complex relationship he has with Mia, the single mother and ADA in his building who he has feelings for but has driven away with his acts of vigilantism. All of these interactions help Evan develop more as a character and recover a little more of his lost humanity, and I really enjoyed the way that Hurwitz explored such a complex and damaged protagonist.

While most of the book’s focus is on Evan, Hurwitz also dives into the life of Evan’s latest client, Max Merriweather. Max, who serves as a significant point-of-view character, is a down-on-his-luck individual who is dragged into the events of this book by his more successful cousin. Throughout the course of Into the Fire, you get to learn about the past of Max, showing how, due to events outside of his control, he has always been seen as the family screw-up, something he has struggled to escape due to his corresponding low self-confidence. You also get to see the history of his tragic marriage, and how doing the right thing cost him everything. I really liked the way that Hurwitz took the time to explore the life of this new client, especially as it develops him into a much more sympathetic character that reader becomes invested in over the course of the book. I also liked the relationship he slowly built up with Evan, as each of them were able to provide some help in solving the deeper emotional or personal issues that were affecting the other. This excellent character was an outstanding and distinctive part of the book, and I am definitely keen to see what excellent characters are introduced in the next Orphan X book, especially after the intriguing reveal at the end of Into the Fire.

I ended up enjoying the audiobook format of Into the Fire, which was narrated by Scott Brick. This audiobook runs for a substantial 12 hours in length, but I got through it rather quickly, as I got really drawn in by the cool and compelling story. I personally found that this was an excellent way to consume this fantastic book, and I had a great time listening to the story. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has a lot of experience bringing thriller novels to life. I previously enjoyed his narration of The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry, and I am currently listening to his narration of the sequel, The Warsaw Protocol. Brick did a wonderful job bringing the characters in Into the Fire to life, and I felt that he utilised perfect voices for each of them. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Into the Fire, as it is an amazing way to enjoy this book.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz is an incredible read that comes highly recommended. This latest book in the fantastic Orphan X series is an outstanding piece of thriller fiction, which sets its complex characters down an action-packed road of intrigue and twists to produce a five-star read. Hurwitz has really outdone himself with Into the Fire, which turned out to be one hell of a book. I cannot wait to see where Hurwitz takes the Orphan X series next, but I will definitely be grabbing a copy of his next book when it comes out.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

Death Troopers Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Edition 13 October 2009)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 6 hours 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I look at an entertaining blend of horror and Star Wars with Death Troopers, a book from the Star Wars Legends collection which I listened to in its audiobook format.

Death Troopers is set a short time before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  The Imperial prison barge Purge is the temporary home of the galaxy’s worst criminals, rebels and murderers.  Carrying over 500 prisoners, as well as guards, stormtroopers and other personnel, the ship is a floating hive of scum and villainy, where the guards are just as bad as the inmates.  En route to a permanent prison facility, the engines fail, stranding the Purge in an uninhabited area of space.  Rescue appears to be weeks away, unless the crew can fix the engines.  The discovery of an apparently deserted Star Destroyer offers hope to the Purge’s crew, but the ghost ship contains a dark secret.

A boarding party sent to scavenge parts for the Purge inadvertently brings back something lethal: a virus that spreads incredibly fast and soon infects everyone aboard the ship.  Within hours, only a few survivors are left alive: the ship’s compassionate doctor, the sadistic captain of the guards, two young teenage brothers and a certain pair of smugglers.  However, these survivors soon discover that the sudden and bloody death of everyone on the ship is the least of their problems.  Shortly after dying the bodies of the Purge’s crew and passengers violently reanimate.  These creatures are driven, unstoppable and have a hunger for the flesh of the living.  As the survivors attempt to flee the Purge, they soon find that the Star Destroyer above is not as abandoned as they had believed.  The dead have risen, and their greatest desire is to infect the entire Star Wars universe.

Zombies!  In a Star Wars book!  How can I possibly resist that?  No seriously, tell me how it is even possible not to check out a book with that sort of premise.

Death Troopers is a 2009 release from horror, thriller and tie-in novel author Joe Schreiber, who wrote several fun-sounding books between 2006 and 2015.  These novels include two additional Star Wars novels, all of which fall in the Star Wars Legends line of novels.  Indeed, his third Star Wars novel, 2014’s Maul: Lockdown, was actually the last novel released in the Star Wars Legends series of books.  His other Star Wars novel, 2011’s Red Harvest, is a prequel to Death Trooper, and is set in the Old Republic, thousands of years before the events of Death Troopers.

The Star Wars Legends series of books is the current incarnation of the old Star Wars expanded universe, which, in addition to the six Star Wars movies that George Lucas produced, included all the books, comics, video games and television series that were endorsed by Lucasfilm.  All of these entries were considered canon, so at one point there were actually proper zombies in the Star Wars canon.  While the original expanded universe did have a dedicated fan base, it did not survive the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm intact.  In order to allow for the new movies, Disney declared that, with the exception of the films and The Clone Wars television show, everything created before 25 April 2014 would no longer be considered canon.  However, rather than disavow all of these previous Star Wars media items, Disney rebranded this original expanded universe as the Star Wars Legends collection and kept it as a deep pool of ideas and characters for any future writers of the franchise.

It’s no secret that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several tie-in books and comics in the last year.  While my current interest mostly lies within Disney’s expanded universe, I did grow up with a number of books and games in what is now the Star Wars Legends range.  Star Wars books and comics are going to form a significant part of my upcoming Throwback Thursday entries, but I had not intended to dive back into the Star Wars Legends range until I had gotten through all the books in the Disney expanded universe, as I wanted to stick with what is currently canon.  However, I happened to come across the cover and plot synopsis for Death Troopers the other day, and the moment I saw it I knew that I had to read it.  I immediately grabbed an audiobook copy, narrated by Sean Kenin, and started listening to it.

While I loved the plot synopsis, I was worried that Death Troopers was going to be a Star Wars novel first that featured some light zombie elements and minimal gore.  However, what I was not expecting was an extremely terrifying and well-written zombie novel that makes full use of its Star Wars setting to create a dark, gruesome and somewhat scary story.  I was very impressed with Schrieber’s ability to craft an amazing zombie novel.  His creations are pretty darn terrifying, especially as the author paints some detailed and horrifying descriptions to go along with his story.  The introduction of the zombies is done perfectly, in my opinion, as Schreiber goes for a slow burn approach.  Following the introduction of the virus, the book’s survivors slowly explore the ship, searching for a way to escape.  The author slowly builds up the tension by having things move around out of the characters’ sight, the bodies slowly disappear, bloody handprints appear in places and the characters hear all sorts of noises.  The characters of course have no idea what is happening, and blame their imagination or paranoia, but the reader knows full well what is happening.  Even when the first zombie is actually seen, panic and realisation still does not immediately set in for the rest of the characters, much to the reader’s frustration.  It is not until well after halfway through Death Troopers that the zombies are revealed in all their horror, and from there the pace of the book picks up, as the characters must find a way to quickly get away from the creatures hunting them.  This slow introduction of the zombies was a fantastic part of the book and represents some outstanding horror writing from Schreiber.

Despite this being a Star Wars novel, Schreiber does not dial back on the blood, gore or horror, and there are quite a few dark scenes throughout the book.  I was on the edge of my seat for quite a lot of it and felt that this was a great piece of horror fiction.  There are quite a few dark scenes, such as cannibalism, jaunts in rooms full of body parts and some fairly gross surgical scenes, all of which Schreiber describes in shocking detail.  I did find the story to be a bit predictable in places, and it was pretty easy to predict which of the characters would live or die.  There were also quite a few unanswered questions (what the hell was the lung room for?), although they may be answered in the prequel book Schreiber wrote a couple of years later.  I also thought that the way Schreiber ended the plot line about the zombies attempting to escape the Star Destroyer and infect the rest of the universe was a bit of an anti-climax, but overall this was a pretty fun story that I quite enjoyed.

I felt that Schreiber was quite clever in his use of the Star Wars elements throughout Death Troopers.  It is quite obvious that Schreiber is a fan of the franchise and he has a wonderful understanding of the history, technology and characters that have appeared in other Star Wars works.  As a result, he is able to craft an excellent Star Wars setting for this story that presents the reader a good idea of how this book appears in relation to the rest of the franchise.  However, what I really liked was how Schreiber did not overuse the Star Wars elements, and the reader’s focus was never taken away from the zombie part of the book.  I also felt that several of the Star Wars elements really helped to enhance the horror aspects of the book.  Having the familiar turn into something different can often be quite scary for people, and to see the often-ridiculed Imperial Stormtrooper turned into a ravenous, mutilated zombie was quite something.  The inclusion of fan favourite characters Han Solo and Chewbacca was also a nice touch.  Not only do you have some familiar characters for the readers to enjoy but you also raise the stakes of the story when both of these beloved characters come close to being eaten by zombies.

Another benefit of combining Star Wars and zombie fiction is that for once characters are completely justified in not knowing what a zombie is.  There are quite a few other major zombie movies or television shows set in fictional worlds that are supposed to mirror ours, and yet the protagonists have no idea what zombies are, despite how much they are used in fiction.  This always frustrates me, and while it was a minor thing, I was very happy to read a book where the character’s lack of understanding about zombies is completely understandable.  Overall, I really liked how the author presented the Star Wars elements within the book, and I was impressed by the way he used it to make the zombie elements even scarier.

If you are tempted to check this book out, I would highly recommend that you listen to the book in its audiobook format.  At just over six and a half hours, this did not take me a long time to get through, but I was absolutely amazed at how much the audiobook format enhanced the story.  This is mainly down to the fantastic sound effects that were scattered throughout the story.  The producers of this book did a superb job inserting a range of zombie sound effects throughout the background of the book’s narration.  This includes sounds such as screams, disturbing eating sounds, moans and other assorted sounds of horror, with the continued screams being particularly off-putting.  None of these sounds overwhelm or totally distract from the narration, but I found hearing them when the narrator describes a horror scene really enhanced the tension and dread I experienced.  I also thought that the disconnected, whispered and screamed echoes of the chapter names was a very nice touch and it really added to the overall atmosphere of the book. In addition to these horror based sound effects, there are quite a few classic Star Wars sound effects for the reader to enjoy and get nostalgic about, including some of the classic music from the movies.

Sean Kenin’s narration was also extremely well done, as the narrator was able to create a series of fun and distinctive voices.  I thought that Kenin’s Han Solo was very convincing, and it sounded a lot like the movie version of the character.  I also found that having this horror story narrated to me helped bring me into the centre of the action and really experience the horror and dread that was present there.  The narration of the descriptions can be a bit disturbing at times, and I would recommend not eating during one or two scenes; trust me on that.  As a result, I would highly recommend that people wanting to check out Death Troopers should definitely use the audiobook version of it, as in my opinion it does an amazing job enhancing this already fun story.

I am happy to say that I was not disappointed by this entertaining combination of zombie literature and the iconic Star Wars universe.  This was a pretty dark story, which also includes some familiar elements from a franchise that I truly love.  Because of this I had an outstanding time reading Death Troopers and felt that it was a great example of both a zombie novel and a piece of Star Wars fiction.  In my mind the book itself is four stars out of five, but I had so much fun with its audiobook format that I am raising it up to four and a quarter stars.  An overall fantastic and unique read, Death Troopers is really worth checking out for fans of either zombies or Star Wars and is perfect for those who love both.  I am very curious to check out Schreiber’s other Star Wars books in the future, as both of them sound like a lot of fun.

#MurderTrending by Gretchen McNeil

#MurderTrending Cover.jpg

Publisher: Freeform Books

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

From one of young adult fiction’s most thrilling authors comes a dark and captivating story of death and madness that is really going to trend online.

When seventeen-year-old Dee Guerrera awakens in a strange room dressed in a princess outfit, she knows she is about to be executed on live TV.  Falsely convicted of the murder of her stepsister, Dee has been sentenced to die on Alcatraz 2.0, America’s most popular reality television show.  Created by a mysterious television producer known only as The Postman, Alcatraz 2.0 is an island prison where America’s most notorious inmates are hunted down by a series of flamboyant and beloved executioners.

So when Dee comes face to face with one of these killers, she’s supposed to run into his murder room and suffer a terrible death for the entertainment of the masses.  However, Dee has other plans, and goes off script in a major way.  Her actions will make her the most notorious girl in the world and move her to the top of every executioner’s kill list.  Teaming up with a posse of other teenage inmates, Dee needs to quickly learn the rules of this island and figure out a way to avoid being picked off by the psychopaths stalking her.  Can Dee and her new friends, the Death Row Breakfast Club, stay alive long enough to prove Dee’s innocence?  A ghost from her past is haunting her, and Dee doesn’t have much time before her execution goes viral.

Gretchen McNeil is an experienced young adult fiction writer, whose previous work includes several books aimed at the older teen audience.  These include the horror suspense book Ten, the supernatural thriller Possess and teen murder mystery series Don’t Get Mad.  #MurderTrending is the seventh book from McNeil, and it follows in a similar vein to her previous books, with teenage protagonists fighting against a dark, murderous force.  #MurderTrending is an extremely fast-paced and crazy read that proves to be very entertaining, and is the first part of McNeil’s MurderTrending series.  A second book in this series has already been announced and #MurderFunding will be released next August, with an interesting-sounding connection to the first book.

The concept of a group of people being hunted or pitted against each other in an isolated area with the whole world watching is an idea that has been utilised many times before.  Movies and shows such as The Condemned, Death Race, Battle Royale, Dead Man Wonderland and The Hunger Games have all used this concept in one way or another.  I personally think that the plot of #MurderTrending is very similar to The Running Man, with eccentrically dressed hunters chasing after criminals, although it is easy to build a connection between this book and The Hunger Games due to the focus on teenagers.  I think that the author is very aware of these previous movies, as not only does the main character mention The Hunger Games within the book, but one of the other protagonists continually quotes old action movies, including several Arnold Schwarzenegger classics.  While this plot device has been used before, McNeil introduces some new elements, while also doubling down on the concept by making his killers and their executions as crazy and over the top as possible.  The killers in particular are extremely eccentric and include among others, an explosive orientated hipster, two murderous twins, a fashionista with some deadly accessories and a Prince Charming stand-in who hunts girls dressed as princesses through a trap-filled maze while brandishing an oversized cake knife.  As a result, this version of the prison reality television show is particularly amusing, and the over-the-top kills sometimes come across as more humorous than sinister.

While the overarching plot premise of an island prison has been used before, McNeil cleverly enhances this story with some great imitation of the current social media and internet communities.  The entire adventure is being livestreamed to the outside world, and is considered to be the most popular form of entertainment in America.  As a result, the world is constantly talking about the murders on social media, and the author has included sections of a number of fictional forums at the end of several chapters, where various online personalities talk about the events in a number of ways.  This includes praise for the inventive kills, requests, opinions on the various inmates, conspiracy theories and competitions to make the most viral #.  These are particularly intriguing and compelling inclusions that also add a bit of realism to the story, as the reader can easily imagine that social media activity like this would totally happen in a dystopian world where executions are streamed as a form of entertainment.  In addition to all the discussion and use of social media in the story, the protagonist also talks about the various internet fandoms, fan clubs, gambling, merchandise, shipping, fan theories, fan fiction and message boards that have formed up around Alcatraz 2.0.  This is again a fascinating inclusion, with a smack of predictive realism to it, and I utterly loved McNeil’s inventive and modern inclusions around the classic murder prison/reality show concept.  It also sounds like this concept will become a major part of the next book in the series, and I am very keen to see how that turns out.

I thought that the overall story for this book was very well done and created an intriguing and entertaining narrative that was really easy to enjoy.  In addition to her ingenious use of the overarching plot device and setting, McNeil has also created a compelling and thrilling story that is filled with a number of great twists and intense scenes where the book’s fun characters are put into real peril.  While the reveal of the final boss is strongly tied into the character’s past, and isn’t too shocking, how that character gets there is fairly clever, and the twist about the mastermind of the island was pretty surprising.  While the ease with which the protagonist was able to defeat some of the infamous murderers who served as secondary antagonists at the end of the book is a bit unbelievable, I did find myself really hooked on this great story, and I powered through the book to find out how it was going to end.

#MurderTrending is marketed towards a young adult audience, and it’s the sort of amusing and crazy book I would have enjoyed when I was younger.  Due to the large amount of violence and pretty graphic killings, I would suggest that this book is probably more appropriate for an older teenage audience, but based on today’s standards it’s really not too bad.  Out of all the potential readers, the older teenage audience will probably enjoy McNeil’s use of social media and internet cultures the most, as they will be able to relate to the characters and fandom subculture of the people posting on social media within the book.  This is one of those young adult books that would really appeal to older readers, and I would really recommend this to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and over-the-top read.

Gretchen McNeil is once again at top form as she presents a bloody and action-packed young adult adventure.  Featuring a fun and unrestrained take on a classic fictional plot device and some very ingenious use of current social media and internet trends, this extremely entertaining story is a fantastic read for both teenagers and older readers alike.  #MurderTrending is one of the craziest reads of 2018, and I cannot wait to see what insanity McNeil brings to her next adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars