The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton and MacMillan Audio (5 March 2019)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of international thriller sensation Steve Berry comes the 14th book in his acclaimed Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange.

When the pope unexpectedly dies, opportunity and chaos grips the Vatican.  As the world’s cardinals arrive in Rome in preparation for the conclave to elect a new pope, one cardinal, the controversial Kastor Gallo, suddenly leaves for an impromptu visit to Malta.  He has been summoned for a clandestine meeting, the results of which could hand him the papacy.  The only witness to this meeting is United States Justice Department operative Luke Daniels, whose covert observations of the meeting is quickly compromised, forcing him to fight for his life.

While Daniels attempts to uncover what is happening in Malta, his former colleague, Cotton Malone, is in Italy working for British intelligence.  An Italian collector claims to have letters between Churchill and Mussolini that could prove extremely damaging to Churchill’s legacy, and MI6 is eager to recover them.  What is meant to be a quick mission for Malone is complicated when armed men kill the collector and steal the letters.  Malone is able to trace his assailants to the legendary Knights of Malta, and his chase to recover the letters leads him into a hunt from a mysterious document from the reign of Emperor Constantine.

This document, revered by the Knights of Malta and feared by the church, has been lost for hundreds of years.  Hunted by some of history’s greatest tyrants, including Napoleon and Mussolini, this secret document not only has the potential to influence the current concave if revealed, but it could also tear the church down completely.  As a secret society within the modern incarnation of the Knights of Malta and elements of the Entity, the church’s intelligence organisation, both attempt to claim the document, Malone and Daniels once again team up to recover the document and destroy the conspiracy threatening to envelope them and the entire Catholic world.

Steve Berry is a veteran author of thrillers that focus on complex conspiracies, having written a number of exciting books since his 2003 debut.  While Berry has written four standalone novels, including The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy and The Third Secret, he is probably best known for his long-running Cotton Malone series of books.  The Cotton Malone series, which began in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, is made up of 14 books, each of which features the series titular character, retired U.S. Justice Department operative Cotton Malone as he is forced to investigate a series of elaborate conspiracies or secrets with origins in history.

The Malta Exchange features several characters from the previous books in the series.  While this is the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange can easily be read as a standalone book, as no prior knowledge of the Cotton Malone series is required to enjoy this story.  While there are some mentions of previous adventures in the series, none of these brief references are really relevant to this book’s story.  Likewise, the series’ recurring characters are re-introduced in some detail, and no pre-existing knowledge of them is needed.  Those readers who are already familiar with this series will enjoy another amazing thriller from Berry, although there may be some repetition, as the protagonists once again dive into another elaborate conspiracy centred with a secret order associated with the Catholic Church.  As one of my reviewer colleagues who is somewhat more familiar with this series than me stated, “How many conspiracies can one man wander into?”  Still, for those people who have enjoyed Berry’s stories before, The Malta Exchange is another exceptional read with a thrilling mystery that is a lot of fun to unravel.

While I received a physical copy of this book to read, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Malta Exchange narrated by Scott Brick.  This book was an absolutely fantastic piece of thriller fiction as the reader is thrown into an extremely intriguing and wide-reaching conspiracy involving hidden documents, major historical figures and deep dives into the history and background of several fictional and real-life organisations.

This is an excellent book for thriller fans, as The Malta Exchange contains a number of intense and complex conspiracies and plots overlayed across each other to create an addictive and enjoyable read.  The main plot focuses on the search for a long-lost document that originated during the reign of Emperor Constantine, which has the potential to damage or destroy the Catholic Church.  As a big fan of the historical fiction genre, I loved how this central mystery cleverly utilised a number of massive historical events and figures in its overall conspiracy.  For example, this central conspiracy has ties to Emperor Constantine, the founding of the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Mussolini, the Crusades and important events in World War II.  It even features a number of cool flashbacks to Mussolini and Napoleon’s life, showing how they were embroiled in this conspiracy.  This results in a treasure hunt so large, mysterious and potentially world-changing you cannot help but be intrigued and eager to see how it ends.  On top of that, a number of secret organisations with conflicting agendas and plots are duking it out around the hunt for this document and the reader is uncertain of their true motivations until later in the story.  All these story threads come together incredibly well at the end of the story, resulting in an intense, intelligent and entertaining thriller storyline that I could not wait to fully uncover.

Except for a couple of chapters featuring flashbacks to historical figures like Mussolini or Napoleon, The Malta Exchange is told from the point of view of four main characters: Cotton Malone, Luke Daniels, Cardinal Kastor Gallo and a mysterious ‘knight’ who remains unnamed for most of the book.  Malone and Daniels serve as good central protagonists, and I liked the contrast in their styles and personalities.  While Malone is the older, wiser and occasionally more careful protagonist who puts together the various clues around the hidden location of ancient document, Daniels is the younger, more action orientated character who does a number of crazy stunts throughout the book while also hiding his intelligence and cunning behind a convincing “good ol’ boy” routine.  The unnamed knight is The Malta Exchange’s main antagonist, whose identity remains hidden for much of the book.  This knight is an interesting character, and it is always fun to see the antagonist’s point of view as they attempt to outwit the protagonists.  While the reveal of this character’s secret identity is somewhat obvious due to there only being a few significant secondary characters, the antagonist’s overall plan was quite ingenious and devious.  Kastor Gallo is another interesting character; a self-serving Cardinal who wants to become Pope, he skirts the line between protagonist and villain in this story.  While the character considers himself an honest and pious priest, he is not particularly likeable due to his extremely conservative religious views and unbridled arrogance.  Still it was fun watching him try to manipulate the other characters, as well as his plot to try and gain the papacy.  There are several other fantastic side characters whom I will not discuss in any detail lest I hint at the identity of the unnamed knight above, but they really add a lot to this story.

One of the things that really impressed me about this book was the way that Berry dived into several organisations and locations in extreme and intriguing detail, particularly when it comes to two specific organisations.  The first of these organisations is the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Throughout this book, Berry spends a significant amount of time exploring this order, from their origins as the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades, to their current existence as a massive charitable organisation.  Berry examines a large amount of their history, how they are organised, where they are located, what they do, their political status and how they have evolved over the years, and this amazing examination is further extended out into the incredible history of the nation of Malta.  Even the order’s leadership crisis between 2016 and 2018 is somewhat represented in the book, as the author describes a similar crisis affecting the organisation featured within The Malta Exchange.  All of this is deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed the author’s examination of this organisation and how he was able to utilise the Knights of Malta’s actual history to the degree he did, with only a few alterations to fit his story.

The second organisation that Berry dives into is the Catholic Church, as a number of key aspects of the church and the Vatican come into play throughout the plot.  Like with his deep dive into the Knights of Malta, the author included a number of detailed examinations about church history, organisation and key events, like the selection of a new pope, that I quite enjoyed learning more about, and which fit incredibly well into the story.  The part of the examination into the church that I enjoyed the most was the look at the church’s supposed intelligence organisation, the Entity.  While the church has never confirmed they have an official intelligence organisation, several historical books have discussed its potential activities, and a number of thriller writers have utilised such an organisation, often known as the Entity, to great effect.  Perhaps because thrillers are not a genre that I read an awful lot of, this was the first book I have read that featured a church intelligence agency.  I really liked the idea of a secret intelligence organisation working for the Vatican, and Berry really utilises them well throughout his book, making them out as one of the most elite and effective intelligence organisations on the planet, who people really should not mess with.  I absolutely loved all the Catholic Church inclusions that the author featured and that, combined with the captivating examination of the Knights of Malta, helped turn this into an amazing overall story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, which was narrated by Scott Brick.  This was not a massively long audiobook, only clocking in at around 13 and a half hours, and I was able to power through this really quickly, especially as I become more and more enthralled with the book’s compelling story.  I was quite glad that I chose to listen to this book rather than read it.  While you do lose out on some of the book’s visual elements, like some of the diagrams of anagrams or secret codes that feature throughout the physical copy, I found that listening to The Malta Exchange really helped me absorb the massive conspiracy storyline, as well as the history and organisation examinations, a hell of a lot more.  Brick has an amazing voice for thrillers, and I quite enjoyed listening him narrate this fantastic novel.  The voices he creates for the various characters in this book are quite good, and I liked some of the accents that he came up with.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, although readers will still be able to get a huge amount out of the physical copy of the book.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is an incredible and addictive ancient conspiracy thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Once you get sucked into the book’s various conspiracies and mysteries it is hard to pull yourself out until each and every one of them is untangled.  What I enjoyed most about the main conspiracy was the author’s ability to explore fascinating history and famous organisations in outstanding detail, and then use these events to really enhance his story.  The end result is an awesome novel that comes highly recommend from me.  Appealing and accessible to established fans of the Cotton Malone series, as well as other fans of the thriller genre, I was really glad I decided to check this book out and I am curious to see what historical conspiracy Malone uncovers next.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower Cover

Publishers: Orbit and Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 26 February 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 12 hours and 1 Minute

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Stars

The bestselling author of the Imperial Radch series, Ann Leckie, presents her first foray into fantasy fiction with The Raven Tower, an intriguing fantasy read that I have been looking forward to for a while, and which attempts something new and different in its presentation.

The Raven Tower is set in a world filled with gods whose power and abilities can be gifted to humans in exchange for worship and offerings.  For centuries, a powerful god known as the Raven has ruled over the rich kingdom of Iraden, offering protection and prosperity from atop a tower in the city of Vastai.  The human ruler of all of Iraden is known as the Raven’s Lease and has been chosen by the Raven to bear his power and enact the god’s will.  However, this power comes at a price, as each Lease must sacrifice himself to the Raven in order to keep the god strong and Iraden safe.

When Eolo and his lord, Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, return to Vastai, they find the city in chaos.  Mawat’s father, the former Lease, went missing just before he was required to pay the Raven’s price.  In his place, Mawat’s uncle, Hibal, has taken the throne and has been named the new Raven’s Lease.  Determined to find out what happened to the former Lease and reclaim the throne for his master, Eolo attempts to uncover the many secrets of Vastai.  But as Eolo investigates he discovers that something ancient and mysterious is concealed within the Raven’s Tower: a secret from Iraden’s past that the Raven has kept hidden for centuries.  It is clear there will be a reckoning, but is Eolo ready to pay the price?

To be honest, I found that The Raven Tower was a very challenging book to critically examine and assign an overall rating for.  Before I had even started reading it, I saw that a number of other reviewers had noted that had great difficulty with this book, mainly due to the author’s unique way of narrating the story.  As a result, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Raven Tower, narrated by Adjoa Andoh, in the hopes that this would make it easier for me to follow along.  The audiobook version of the book is around 12 hours long, and I managed to get through it in around a week.  While I did also experience some issues with the way the book was set out, I actually began to appreciate this unique format the more that I stuck with the story, and this turned out to be a really enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction.

For this book, Leckie chose to utilise a noticeably different second person limited narration format to tell her story.  The story is told by a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who not only tells the main story in Vastai, specifically focusing on the character Eolo, but who also describes all the events of its own life that led up to this period of time.  This god has a very unique way of speaking that impacts how the Vastai story is told.  In particular, the god constantly describes what Eolo is doing, but, at the same time, it has no idea of what is going on inside Eolo’s head.  As a result, it makes very generic statements and guesses about Eolo’s memories, state of mind or thought process.  Take for example the following line, said as Eolo explores the docks near the tower: “I don’t think you grew up near the sea, and so you likely knew very little about boats or tides.”  Having this being make guesses about the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings is a little unusual, and I was very confused about why the author had written her book this way, and for a large portion of the book I really thought that it would have made more sense to have a more traditional narrator system.  However, as I read deeper into the story, it became a whole lot clearer why Leckie had set her story out in this way, and I was able to really appreciate it use.

As the book progresses, the two halves of the story start to come together.  Taken separately, both parts of the story are fairly interesting.  The storyline focusing on Eolo and the mystery surrounding the Raven’s Lease is fairly intriguing mystery filled with politics, murder, mystery and the fate of an entire nation.  The second storyline, which looks at the backstory of the Strength and Patience of the Hill, helps build up Leckie’s new world while also explaining much about the book’s primary fantasy element, the gods, as well as the Raven’s rise to power.  While both these storylines are quite fascinating in their own right, when they start coming together in the later part of the book, it creates a much more complete and intense story.  The author’s use of the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the book’s primary narrator becomes a lot clearer, and I actually really liked how this unconventional narration was utilised.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic twists that occurred at the end of the book, and the author’s excellent lead-up to these events was really quite clever and subtle.  Overall, this turned into quite an amazing story, and I was very glad that I stuck with it and got all the way through.

One of the main things that I enjoyed about The Raven Tower was the interesting fantasy elements that Leckie utilised throughout her story, mostly shown in the form of the gods that inhabit this world.  The gods in this book are quite an interesting creation from Leckie, who has come up with a number of rules surrounding them, all of which is explored by the narrator.  In this world, the gods have a finite amount of power, which they gain from worship and which they lose by altering the world, either for their own benefit or in order to answer prayers.  The gods’ power is tied to their speech; anything they say as a fact, their power will act to make it so.  For example, if they say that an object will turn, then their powers will act to make it turn.  However, if the action they want to accomplish takes more power than they have access to, then they will die or become extremely weak.  As a result, the gods are forced to speak extremely carefully, lest they inadvertently make a command that will take way too much energy.  The gods, therefore, try to avoid absolutes in their conversations and have to use words such as “I think” or “I heard” to get around this.  Leckie consequently has to have her narrator, the Strength and Patience of the Hill, utilise this language throughout the entire book, as to the god addresses the main character Eolo (even if Eolo does not hear them).  That is why there are so many unusual language choices throughout the book, such as the recurring “Here is a story that I have heard”.  While these language choices did throw me at first, once I understood why it was happening, I got used it and I thought it was extremely creative and commendable that the author stuck with this throughout the entire story.

In addition to this use of language, Leckie spends considerable time exploring the limitations and abilities of the gods throughout her book.  Leckie uses all sorts of different narrative devices to showcase this, from the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s personal memories and experiments, conversations they have with other gods, as well as telling stories about other gods and how they utilise their powers (there is one particularly amusing story about a god-powered spear I liked).  It is clear that the author put a lot of thought into her universe’s gods and the abilities that they have, and the exploration of these ideas were some of my favourite parts of the book.  I was also extremely impressed with how Leckie was able to utilise these fantasy ideas so effectively in her story, and I liked the bearing that they had on both the plot and the way the book was written.

Another interesting aspect of The Raven Tower is the characters that the author has used within the story.  The main protagonist is Eolo, whose attempts to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in Vastai are a large focus in the book.  Eolo is a pretty boss protagonist, able to disguise his intelligence and cunning behind an ignorant peasant facade, while quickly unravelling what has occurred in the city and then playing the politics to get the best result for her master.  Eolo is actually a transgender character, and I was really impressed with how well-written this part of the character’s identity was, and with how it was explored within the book.  In addition to Eolo, there are also several other intriguing characters used throughout the book.  Once you get the hang of its speech pattern, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is a pretty good narrator, and I found the god’s backstory and way of seeing the world to be incredibly intriguing.  I quite liked the character of Tikaz, who serves as one of the main female characters in the book, as well as Eolo’s potential love interest.  Tikaz is fleshed out incredibly well, and I loved the various interactions that she has with Eolo.  The book’s main villain, Hibal, is suitably evil and conniving, and he even has a pair of creepy twins serving as his henchmen.

I need to point out the fantastic job Leckie did coming up with one of the main characters in the book, Mawat.  Mawat is the heir to the Raven’s Lease, who finds his position usurped by his uncle.  However, rather than write him as a noble character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, Mawat immediately has a temper tantrum and spends the rest of the book acting as an unreasonable child, completely ignoring Eolo’s advice and even attacking his loyal servant whenever he hears something he does not like.  While a large amount of this is necessary for the story, I liked the reversal of the noble disenfranchised heir trope that is often utilised in fantasy, and instead we are left with a more complex character.

I quite liked the audiobook format of The Raven Tower and found it to be a really great way to enjoy this book.  I definitely think it helped me follow the plot and navigate the different narrative devices of this book, and I absorbed more information about Leckie’s fantasy elements.  I quite enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration throughout the book and thought their voice was perfect for the mysterious and wise Strength and Patience of the Hill, who narrated most of the text.  I especially liked how Andoh was able convey the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s anger at certain key points of the book and to make the god’s voice quite menacing.  Apart from the Strength and Patience of the Hill, the other character voices throughout The Raven Tower were fairly distinctive and matched the personalities of the characters quite well.  I was especially fond of the fitting accents she assigned to some of the human characters, such as Tikaz or the god known as the Myriad.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook format of The Raven Tower, as it may prove to be an easier way to enjoy this intricate story.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time giving this book an overall rating.  When I first started reading it and I encountered the strange narration style for the first section of the book, I thought I might have to give it a low score.  However, once I started to get more into the story and the lore behind the gods of this world was explained in some detail, I ended up changing my score to something closer to 4 out of 5 stars.  This reflected my appreciation of Leckie’s inventiveness, but also had a few demerits due to the slow start and issues I had getting into the story.  However, I ended up changing this to a 4.25 out of 5 stars in the end, once I appreciated how the two separate storylines came together and that superb ending.  As a result, I would highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy readers, and I encourage people to see past the issues at the start of the book.  Leckie is an outstanding author, and her first foray into fantasy featured some unique elements that turned The Raven Tower into one of the most distinctive and clever reads of 2019.  The Raven Tower works incredibly well as a stand-alone book, but if the author decides to return to this world in the future I would be extremely curious to see where she takes the story next.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

The Gutter Prayer Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.

Absolute Proof by Peter James

Absolute Proof Cover.jpg

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

From one of the most pre-eminent authors of thrillers and murder mysteries comes this deeply spiritual book that spins a dangerous hunt for secrets around a strong and intriguing story of human belief and the search for religious proof.

Investigative reporter Ross Hunter has covered many world events and news items in his storied career, from warzones to crooked politicians.  But perhaps his most dangerous story might be his most bizarre.  Picking up the phone one day, he is brought into contact with Dr Harry Cook, who has a remarkable tale.  Cook believes that he has received a communication directly from God and has been gifted with three sets of coordinates that will provide the world with absolute proof of God’s existence.  This message has also instructed Cook to contact Ross and utilise his skills to spread Cook’s discoveries to the world.

Ross is naturally sceptical of this story, but certain facts that Cook knows convince him to dig a little deeper into the man’s claims and read the elaborate religious writings that he has created and left with him.  Unconvinced of the validity of Cook’s claims and about to drop his inquiries, Ross is stunned when he finds that the old man has been brutally murdered.  Could there be more to this story than Ross originally thought?

Travelling across the world to follow the coordinates, Ross finds hidden artefacts and relics which could reveal the second coming.  Still not convinced of the validity of these claims but unwilling to let go of this story, Ross investigates further and makes some startling discoveries that could shake the very foundations of the world’s collective faiths.  But Ross isn’t the only person interested in what Cook’s coordinates may uncover.  As various religious and spiritual organisations contact Ross about his findings, a powerful pharmaceutical company and a rich television evangelist have despicable plans for whatever Ross uncovers, and they are willing to kill anyone to get it.

James is one of the United Kingdom’s most experienced and prolific authors of crime fiction, with significant works in both the movie and book worlds.  In his career as a novelist, he has published nearly 35 novels since his 1981 debut.  Of particular note is his Roy Grace series of books, which focuses on the investigations of the titular Brighton based detective.  James has written 14 Roy Grace novels since 2005, including the May 2018 release, Dead if you Don’tAbsolute Proof is an intriguing piece of literature from James, as it combines an exciting and captivating thriller with an in-depth story of religion.  This is a standalone book from James, and is apparently based on a real phone conversation the author had back in 1989.

Absolute Proof contains an amazing and exciting thriller storyline that follows its protagonist, Ross Hunter, as he attempts to uncover one of the greatest mysteries of all time: whether God actually exists.  Following a series of vague clues that are mostly made up of geographical coordinates, Ross must uncover three specific items or locations that could combine into definitive proof of the divine.  The various investigative techniques and problem-solving that the protagonist utilises to uncover the clues left to him and solve the overall mystery are well written, very clever and result in a very unique and thought-provoking conclusion.  The protagonist’s quest for answers is complicated by the various groups and individuals that are attempting to hamper, compromise or misappropriate the results of his investigation and are targeting Ross and the other people associated with this case.  As a result, there is quite a lot action and excitement as these various groups attempt to attack or steal from Ross and he finds ways to get out these situations.  There are several intense and action-packed scenes where Ross must escape from thugs wielding guns from a helicopter, physical attackers and several vans attempting to run him off the road.  In addition to all these direct attacks, Ross is also being constantly tracked through a variety of electronic and physical techniques and must find ways to try and avoid them.  There is an interesting look at some DYI anti-espionage techniques as Ross attempts to outwit these various professionals with some limited success.  All of this comes together into quite the captivating narrative with lots to keep the reader glued to the page.

The overall story of Absolute Proof is mostly focussed around this massive religious mystery and the attempt to undermine it.  James has provided the reader with a lot of backstory and motivations for several of the book’s characters.  Much of these personal histories are intriguing and provide the reader with explanations about why the protagonist and antagonists have an interest or obsession with the results of the central investigation.  It also goes into some detail attempting to explain why the protagonist is so determined to find out the truth and why he refuses to drop the story for any reason.  The deeper examination of the antagonist’s motivations is particularly absorbing.  While both groups come to be involved with the cases by different means, it is curious to see how their main focus becomes profiting from the possible existence of God.  Split perspectives also allow the reader to see the antagonist’s various plans and the myriad ways that they are attempting to control or corrupt Ross’s investigation and the results he is uncovering.  This is useful because for much of the book Ross is unaware of the identity of the groups opposing him, so the use of these multiple perspectives works well with the book’s overall narrative.

Due to the focus on the search for proof of God’s existence, the author has included a substantial look into the world’s religions and beliefs.  This is a significant part of the book, and the various in-text theological discussions are deeply fascinating.  The protagonist has a numerous discussions with various religious individuals and attempts to work out what would constitute definitive and absolute proof of God’s existence in the modern era and how people from a variety of religions would react to someone uncovering this proof.  All of this proves to be a fantastic part of the book and it ensures that both the protagonist and the readers deeply consider the possible consequences of the central investigation of this story.  The author also examines the religious conviction or beliefs of many of the book’s main characters, including the main two antagonists.  This ties in nicely with the background motivations mentioned above, and it is fascinating to see how various people’s upbringings can impact their beliefs and future careers.  Overall, this in-depth and compelling discussion around religion and the focus on belief is an essential part of the story that works well with the book’s thriller storyline and creates an incredibly gripping narrative.

An interesting part of this book is the lack of really sympathetic characters in the story.  Most of the Absolute Proof’s main characters, including the antagonists and the protagonist’s wife, are fairly despicable characters that you can’t help but dislike.  However, the protagonist, Ross, isn’t too much better, as he becomes obsessed with the cases.  He dismisses all the concerns of his friends and families to follow his story no matter what, although he does have the time to get distracted by a cute girl he just met.  This does make it a bit hard to care about what happens to Ross at times, but luckily you tend to dislike the other characters a lot more.  The book’s antagonists’ stories do go in some interesting directions throughout the book, including a very surprising conclusion for one set of antagonists.

Peter James has delivered a deeply captivating and powerful mystery that sets his protagonist on an exhilarating journey around the world for the ultimate answer.  The narrative of people receiving and investigating coordinates that lead to definitive proof of God’s existence is really memorable and results in a very unique and interesting story.  The various religious discussions contained within this book turns into a surprisingly intriguing part of the story, and it is particularly fascinating to see James’s examinations of some of the world’s key religious beliefs.  Absolute Proof is a powerful and exciting book that expertly combines its thriller storyline with its deep and absorbing religious background to create a marvellous read that will leave you thinking about what you believe in.

My Rating:

Four stars