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

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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.

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Absolute Proof by Peter James

Absolute Proof Cover.jpg

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

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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

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