Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

In a Great Southern Land by Mary-Anne O’Connor

In a Great Southern Land Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback format – 18 March 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Historical drama author Mary-Anne O’Connor once again presents the readers with a powerful and moving journey through a number of iconic moments in Australian history with her fourth book, In a Great Southern Land, which focuses on Australia’s colonial history and the chaos surrounding the infamous Eureka Stockade.

In 1851, the colonised but still mythical continent of Australia represents many things for many different people.  For the Clancy family living in Ireland it represents freedom, as they seek their own land away from the British aristocracy that controls their country.  For young Eve Richards it represents a harsh prison; she is unfairly transported as a convict after losing everything that she cares about.

Once in New South Wales, Eve briefly encounters the wild but kind Clancy brother, Kieran, who manages to save her from a harsh life in the Tasmanian colonies.  Following a bad experience as he left Ireland, Kieran is wondering around Australia in search of a new purpose, while his family, including his brother, Liam, and his sister, Eileen, settle in Orange.  Despite the love of his family, Kieran’s temper and thirst for adventure leads him down to the goldfields at Ballarat, close to where Eve is employed as a convict servant.

It does not take long for Kieran and Eve to find each other again, and the two are soon drawn together romantically.  However, their plans for their future and a life together are imperilled by events occurring around the goldfields.  The corrupt colonial regime is imposing harsh taxes on the miners attempting to scratch a living at the fields, and resentment and hostility is growing.  When several shocking events become a catalyst for revolt among the miners, Kieran finds himself being forced to choose between supporting his friends or marrying Eve.  Can Kieran and Eve’s relationship survive the chaos of the Eureka Stockade, or will tragedy once again strike them both?

This is the fourth book from Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor, who specialises in historical dramas set in the backdrop of significant events in Australia’s history.  Her 2015 debut, Gallipoli Street, features aspects of World Wars I and II as well as the Great Depression.  Her second book, Worth Fighting For, is set in World War II, while her third book, War Flower, focuses on Australia in the 1960s, including the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  In a Great Southern Land is the author’s first foray into a 19th century setting, and her love and dedication to recounting parts of Australia’s complex and chaotic history once again shines through.

At its heart, In a Great Southern Land is a dramatic story of several individuals who are searching for a new beginning, and find love, loss and upheaval in their new home.  I have to admit that dramatic novels are not usually the sort of book that I am naturally drawn to, but something about this book really appealed to me and I had a great time reading it.  The main characters are extremely sympathetic and realistic, and the reader can not help but get drawn into their story.  A lot of bad stuff affects all of them, especially Kieran and Eve, and you are left hoping that they can hang on and find the happiness that they deserve.  I quite enjoyed the romance angle between Kieran and Eve; it came about quite naturally and had quite a satisfying conclusion.  I really got into this fantastic story and I was impressed by how this fantastic dramatic tale was woven so effectively into the book’s amazing historical elements.

One of the things I quite liked about this book was O’Connor’s ability to examine and bring several aspects of Australia’s colonial history to life.  Several iconic parts of the mid-19th century Australian experience are explored by the author, including the transportation of convicted criminals from England to Australia, the often terrible convict lifestyle, the resettlement of Irish settlers to various parts of Australia and the trials and tribulations of those seeking their fortunes in the goldfields.  On top of that, O’Connor also explores various Australian locations, including historical Sydney, Melbourne, Orange and Ballarat.  All of these examinations of history are deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading about them.  The author has obvious skill at portraying all the historical aspects, and the reader gets a real sense of what it would have been like to experience these historical events, ordeals and locations.

The most significant historical event that occurs within this book is the Eureka Stockade, which plays a huge role in the overall story.  O’Connor does an amazing job examining this interesting and often venerated piece of Australia’s colonial history and explores so many of the key elements surrounding the event.  As such, the reader gets an excellent idea of what events led up to the Eureka Stockade, and why the participants thought it was necessary to organise as they did.  The actual battle at the Eureka Stockade is pretty brutal and tragic for the reader and becomes one of the major parts within the book.  I quite liked the examination of the aftermath of the event, especially the rather entertaining, but apparently accurate, courtroom sequence, which I was not as familiar with.  O’Connor does a fantastic job brining the Eureka Stockade to life, and I was quite impressed with how it was utilised in the telling of the book’s dramatic storylines.

I really enjoyed the author’s underlying examination of freedom and control that seemed to permeate a large amount of In a Great Southern Land’s plot.  Throughout the story, the main characters experience high amounts of oppression or prejudice, often from upper-class English characters, due to a wide range of social factors.  For example, before the Clancy family leave for Australia, they are oppressed by the rich, English family who controls their land and whose greed takes something precious from Kieran.  Eve is taken advantage of by the son of the household she works for and is then cast out when the affair is discovered without the son standing up for her.  Even when they reach the promised land of Australia, the characters are still oppressed.  The Clancy family still face discrimination for being Irish, with the police targeting Kieran, and one particularly dislikeable doctor refusing to leave a party to treat someone from Ireland.  Eve, on the other hand, is treated poorly as a convict, and even after she finds work with a nice, wealthy family, she and Kieran are forced to act a certain way with Eve’s employers in order to gain permission to marry.  This underlying oppression and the resentment and anger that these characters felt plays wonderfully into the events that led up to the Eureka Stockade, and it was intriguing to see how these events affected the characters’ decisions in relation to these events.

In this book, Mary-Anne O’Connor has produced another outstanding historical drama that the reader really gets drawn into.  The main story is deep and emotive and ties in well with O’Connor’s rich and detailed depictions of historical events that represent key points in Australia’s colonial history.  In a Great Southern Land is an amazing and powerful read that I was quite happy to find myself really enjoying.  I ranked this book 4.5 stars, and I will be quite interested to see what period of Australian history O’Connor decides to explore next.

Turning Point by Danielle Steel

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Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

From world-renowned, best-selling author Danielle Steel comes this powerful dramatic novel that examines the highs and lows of being a top surgeon in the modern world.

 

Bill Browning, Stephanie Lawrence, Wendy Jones and Tom Wylie are four of the world’s leading trauma surgeons, all living in San Francisco.  Each of these surgeons’ professional lives is near perfect, however their personal lives are a mess.  Bill is all by himself, since his ex-wife and daughters are living in London, and he immerses himself in his work while desperately missing his children.  Stephanie constantly puts her work above her family, barely seeing her young children and frustrating her stay-at-home husband.  Wendy’s life outside work is defined by her relationship with her married colleague, and is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and his reluctance to end his marriage.  Tom, an over-the-top womaniser, is the only one satisfied with his life, but deep down he knows his life lacks connections as he refuses to let anyone to get close to him.

Tragic circumstances in two separate cities will have unexpected impacts on the lives of all four of these surgeons.  Following a terrorist attack in Paris and a devastating fire in San Francisco, both cities’ respective governments organise a multi-week exchange of trauma surgeons in order to help both cities learn from each other’s experiences.  Bill, Stephanie, Wendy and Tom are each chosen by their respective hospitals to represent the San Francisco delegation and travel to Paris, leaving their lives at home behind.

Once in Paris the American surgeons find a deep friendship and camaraderie with each other and the French team, as they have the chance to socialise with those rare people who understand the personal challenges their medical careers can cause.  As the San Francisco teams learn about the French medical and emergency response system, another terrible act of violence hits the people of Paris.  As both the American and French teams deal with the consequences of these horrific actions, these surgeons find their lives impacted in unexpected ways.  How will these events change them, and how will they impact those around them?

Danielle Steel is one of those authors that really does not need an introduction.  With over 150 books to her name since her 1973 debut, Steel is the undisputed master of the romance and drama novel.  Interesting fact for the day: Steel is actually the fourth best-selling fiction author of all time, coming in only behind William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, making her the top best-selling author alive today.  Turning Point is Steel’s first release of 2019, and she has an additional five books planned for the rest of the year.

I have to admit that this is not the usual sort of book I would check out, and Danielle Steel is not an author I would usually go for.  I much prefer novels with a lot more action, violence or comedy than romance or intense drama.  However, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for medical fiction, and I thought that the summary of Turning Point sounded fairly compelling.  I also thought that looking into Turning Point would be an interesting change of pace for me, so in the name of broadening my horizons and mixing up my reviews, I decided to check it out.  I have to say I did get into this amazing story, and enjoyed the dramatic narrative that unfolded within it.

There was a little less medical stuff in this book than I would have liked, but there was more than enough to get me into Turning Point’s story.  There are no in-depth surgical scenes, but the author does a fantastic job of describing the aftermath of catastrophic events and how hospitals and medical professionals deal with triaging patients.  What I enjoyed most about the medical parts of this book are the author’s examination of the personal difficulties that surgeons experience as a result of their work.  All of the characters have stunted or damaged social and family lives because of the huge strain their chosen profession takes and the long hours they have to work.  This is particularly true for the characters of Bill and Stephanie, who have children and families, and are forced to deal with having to choose between their dream careers that they have spent their entire life working towards and their families.  Steel mainly focuses on Stephanie for this, as Bill’s wife left him years before the events of Turning Point.  Throughout the book, Stephanie’s husband is constantly making her feel guilty for working while he is left at home with the children, and this puts significant strain on their relationship.  The sexism angle of this was also explored, as Stephanie’s husband, parents and mother-in-law are all very unsupportive of her role and seemed to think she should be with her children, despite Stephanie providing a very reasonable argument that her mother never complained about her father’s similar medical career.  While the examination of the familiar strains of these characters’ surgical careers is a particular focus, the other social impacts of their work is also explored, and I found it fascinating how most of them could only open up to people in a similar line of work and who could understand what they were going through.

The plot of this book is split between San Francisco and Paris, and Steel fills the book with fantastic descriptions of both cities.  Her characters explore and tour through both locations, and the book comes across as a love letter to both cities from the author, who has spent significant periods of time there.  While I enjoyed both of these descriptions, I found the comparison of both cities’ emergency response protocols and the roles of their doctors and emergency services to be the most interesting parts of these settings.  The differences between how these two major cities deal with devastating events is extremely fascinating, and I liked the time that Steel spent exploring them.  During the course of the book, Paris is hit with both a terrorist attack and a school shooting, both of which are emblematic of the main catastrophes hitting America and France.  It was quite shocking to see the aftermath of one of these events in some detail, but it I appreciated why Steel included them.

While filled with other great elements, at its heart Turning Point is a dramatic story with a number of romances.  A large amount of the drama is generated by the elements discussed above, such as the stresses associated with a medical career or the destructive events the characters witness.  Relationships break down, people are in conflict with each other and personal revelations lead to life changing decision for all the characters featured in the book.  Each of the main characters also gets their own romantic subplots, and I liked how each of them turned out.  I was a bit surprised about how much I began to care about each character, but as the reader dives deeper into the book they become more and more involved in their lives.  While I did think the all-round happy endings for everyone was a bit predictable, I liked how the drama and romance elements of these books tied into the other parts of the story to create an amazing overall narrative.

While this was not a book I was expecting to get into, I did find myself enjoying Turning Point and the intriguing story contained within it.  With some excellent medical inclusions and a deep examination of the high pressure lives of surgeons, this is a fantastic read and one that exceeded my genre expectations.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

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Publisher: Pan

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

Following on from her immensely popular 2017 release, Renegades, Meyer continues her exciting tale of superpowered duplicity and intrigue with Archenemies, the second book in the Renegades trilogy.

In an alternate version of Earth, superpowers exist and those that have them are known as prodigies.  For most of this world’s history, prodigies were tormented and persecuted and many were forced to live in hiding.  That was until the Age of Anarchy, when the world’s villainous prodigies rose up and established their own world order of chaos and destruction, led by the notorious Ace Anarchy.  It was not until the rise of the superhero syndicate, the Renegades, that order was restored and prodigies were accepted as a part of society.  While most people see the Renegades as symbols of hope and virtue, there are some who have good reason to hate them.

Nova is one of these people, and her hatred has led her to live a dangerous double life.  Most of the world knows her as Insomnia, a recent recruit to the Renegades, who serves as a member of a patrol team in Gatlon City, the location of the Renegade’s headquarters.  However, Nova is also secretly Nightmare, the niece of Ace Anarchy and a member of the Anarchists, a group of villains dedicated to destroying the Renegades.  Hating the Renegades for the role she believes they played in the death of her parents, Nova has infiltrated the superhero team in the hope of discovering all their secrets in order to destroy them from within.

While she has so far maintained her cover, Nova’s mission has become complicated due to her relationship with Adrian, and the son of the people she holds most responsible for her family’s tragedy.  But Adrian has secrets of his own.  While he leads Nova’s patrol team as Sketch, Adrian is also living a double life as the Sentinel, a vigilante superhero acting outside of the codes and restrictions of the Renegades.  Although Adrian was only attempting to help, his actions as the Sentinel have placed a target on his back, and the Renegades are determined to stop rogue prodigies.

While Nova is determined to complete her primary mission and retrieve a powerful artefact from within the Renegades’ headquarters, both hers and Adrian’s lives are about to get even more complicated.  The Renegades have revealed a game-changing new weapon which forces the two young prodigies to question everything they know about what justice is.  Can they keep their respective secrets from each other, or are their worlds about to come crashing down around them?

Archenemies is the latest book from bestselling young adult author Marissa Meyer, and the second book in her Renegades trilogy.  The first book in the trilogy, Renegades was one of last year’s most successful young adult hits.  Readers may also be familiar with some of Meyer’s other young adult works include The Lunar Chronicles, a series that focuses on a dystopian science fiction reimagining of classic fairy tales; Heartless, a prequel novel to Alice in Wonderland; and the young adult graphic novel series Wires and Nerve.

This second book in the trilogy continues Meyer’s incredible story of superhero intrigue and adventure.  The central story is a captivating tale told from the point of view of both Nova and Adrian and follows them as they attempt to live their double lives in this exciting world.  The storyline that follows Nova attempting to hide her affiliations with the Anarchists as she infiltrates the Renegades is a thrilling and exhilarating narrative.  Nova is constantly on edge as she must allay the suspicions and investigations into her background and her motivations for performing certain tasks around the Renegades’ headquarters.  The character must also deal with the emotional turmoil that she experiences as she struggles to stay on her original mission of betraying the Renegades, despite some conflicting feelings she develops.  The sections of the book that focus on Adrian are also very compelling, especially as his is the direct opposite to Nova’s story, as he begins to disobey the rules of the Renegades to engage in some illegal vigilante work.  His struggles about whether to keep up his activities become a major part of his storyline, especially as he experiences some severe consequences for going into the field without backup.  He is also determined to keep his identity as the Sentinel hidden from Nova, as she particularly dislikes the Sentinel, although Adrian gets the reason for the dislike completely wrong.

These two separate storylines combine together really well into one central narrative, and Meyer does an incredible job showing how the secret actions of one of the point-of-view characters impacts on the other character.  For example, part of Adrian’s storyline focuses of his investigation into the death of his mother, a famous superhero, and his search leads him to believe that Nightmare holds the answers he is looking for.  This becomes a big problem for Nova, as she has managed to fool most of the world into believing that Nightmare is dead, and Adrian’s investigation could blow her cover.  There are also several fantastic scenes where one of the protagonists comes across a clue that the reader knows could reveal the other character’s dual lifestyle.  The suspense that Meyer creates during these sequences is subtle but effective, as the reader is left holding their breath, waiting to see if this will be the event that will lead to the inevitable part of the trilogy when the two characters find out about each other.  This second book also contains some interesting hints towards some major reveals that are likely to occur in the final book of this trilogy, as well as some urgent plot points that can only lead to some intense and action-packed scenes in Meyer’s next release.

Meyer also continues the intriguing romance angle between the two main characters that began in the first book of the trilogy.  Rather than being ultra-intense, this romantic subplot comes across as more of a slow burn, as Nova and Adrian both like each other but are reluctant to act on their feelings due to the dual lives they are secretly leading.  Nova does spend most of the book attempting to heat this relationship up, but this is more in an attempt to seduce Adrian in order to help her further her goals for the Anarchists.  However, she truly has feelings for him, which continue to develop throughout the course of Archenemies.  There are several nice scenes throughout the book as the two point-of-view characters attempt to initiate the relationship, and despite the deceitful backdrop of the story, their relationship starts to feel like a genuine, heartfelt romance.  The eventual reveals about both characters’ secret identities will no doubt result in some significant drama within the next book, and readers will be interested to see the final result of this relationship.  For those interested in a less complicated romantic story, there is also a lighter romance angle between Renegades side characters Smokescreen and Red Assassin.  Their sweet and awkward flirting and courtship will be instantly recognisable and relatable to most readers, and you can’t help but hope that the two characters will realise how much they like each other.

I quite enjoyed the fantastic world that Meyer has created for the Renegades trilogy.  A world filled with superpowered beings is an excellent place to set an intrigue-studded young adult series such as this.  The creative and thrilling story of infiltration and morality is amplified by the rich number of superhero elements throughout the book.  There are a huge number of diverse superpowers, as well as mysterious and dangerous artefacts and weapons.  Meyer has created a number of interesting and unique superpowers, including a woman who makes practical weapons out of her own blood and a man whose power is to make people see the wonder in everything.  The sheer amount of different powers and technology available thanks to the author’s imagination allows for a number of cool fight scenes and action sequences throughout the book, which plays wonderfully with the other elements of the story.  A superb and creative background location.

While Archenemies’s dramatic story and fun superhero-based location forms a fantastic base for this novel, one of my favourite parts of the book was the moral and ethical issues raised by various characters throughout the story.  Both point-of-view characters have different opinions about whether the Renegades or the Anarchists are in the right and what constitutes justice.  While Nova’s opinions about the Renegades could potentially be explained away as brainwashing from her uncle and the other Anarchists, several of the actions and attitudes she encounters while undercover seem to justify her beliefs.  Her belief that the Anarchists might be in the right is supported by the fact that most of the remaining members of the team of villains seem to be really nice people who are supportive and helpful to Nova.  Several members also have somewhat tragic backgrounds which highlight why they choose to live their lives apart from the rest of society.  Adrian, on the other hand, has been raised to believe in the Renegades’ methods and code, but he has started to find them too restrictive and begins fighting crime outside them in his guise as the Sentinel.  However, he finds himself targeted by the Renegades for doing heroics outside of their code, and begins to wonder if they are making the right decisions, a feeling that becomes amplified thanks to his interactions with Nova.  Meyer further complicates matters by diving into the history of the prodigy persecution and discussing how it only ended when the villains rose up and took control, and this current golden age of super heroes only exists because they did.

This moral debate about what a group of superheroes should be able to do is further amplified by the introduction of the Renegades’ new weapon, Agent N, a formula that can permanently remove the powers of any prodigy.  Nova, in her guise as Insomnia, argues strongly against the Renegades’ policy of wilfully administrating Agent N against any rogue prodigy they encounter, believing that they don’t have the right to decide who gets to have powers and who doesn’t.  While her debates are mostly ignored by her team members, her concerns are validated thanks to the actions of a rogue team of Renegades who abuse Agent N in the field.  There is a great scene when Adrian as the Sentinel attempts to stop them committing a terrible crime, and these rogue Renegades actually believe they are still morally superior to Sentinel because they are members of a super team, and he’s not.  Despite her misgivings, Nova still utilises Agent N to achieve her own goals, and justifies it as being for the greater good.  Thanks to a series of escalating situations within the story, by the end of the book, the reader is left wondering which side, if either, is completely in the right, which personally has got me very excited for the final book in the trilogy.

Archenemies, the second book in the Renegades trilogy, is a captivating and excellent read from Meyer which presents a superb story about dual identities in a morally grey superhero universe.  While aimed at a young adult audience, this series will prove to be incredibly intriguing to older readers and is easily suitable for a younger teen audience.  Probably best read after enjoying the first book in the trilogy, Archenemies is still quite easy to follow for those who chose to enter the Renegades series at the second book, due to its detailed descriptions of major plot points that occurred earlier in the series.  I had a lot of fun with Archenemies and will definitely be checking out the final book in the trilogy when it comes out next year.  An incredible adventure from Meyer, this book comes highly recommended.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

 

Ascension by Victor Dixen

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Publisher: Hot Key Books

English Edition Translated by Daniel Hahn

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

The first book in the bestselling French Phobos series is finally here.  Ascension is a fun guilty pleasure read geared towards a young adult audience that explores the dark side of reality television.

In the near future, a private company has bought NASA and is about to send the first humans to Mars as part of the Genesis program.  However, this will not be a typical voyage to another planet; it will be the most ambitious reality television show of all time.  The international group of young astronauts has been chosen through a worldwide contest, and the entire voyage into space will be broadcast back to Earth to be viewed by the masses.  Not only will these six young men and six young women colonise Mars but they will also be expected to pair up into couples by the time they reach Mars through an insane bought of speed-dating.

The boys and girls will be placed into separate bays of the same spaceship and will only be allowed to interact with the person of their choosing for six minutes each week.  In these six minutes they will meet and try to seduce their counterparts and attempt to determine who their perfect match is.  By the end of their trip, each of them must choose a partner to marry and live with once they reach the red planet.

For one of the contestants, Léonor, the Genesis program is her chance to escape from a planet where she has only ever experienced pain.  The one-way trip is the biggest opportunity of her life and she is eager for glory and love.  But as they move further away from Earth, Léonor begins to learn that this journey is far more dangerous than she had expected.  A deadly conspiracy surrounds this journey and it is far too late for regrets.

Ascension is written by Victor Dixen, a French author who has contributed multiple series to the Young Adult genre.  His previous works included a reimagination of classic fairy tales in the Animale series, and the science fiction based The Strange Case of Jack Spark series.  Ascension is part one of his exciting Phobos series, which was first published in France back in 2015.  Phobos will be the first of Dixen’s series to be translated into English, with the next two books in the series, Distortion and Collison both set to be published in English within the next year.

Ascension is a fantastic book with a lot of parts to it that make for a highly compelling and interesting read.  The overarching concept of a space exploration being turned into a reality television contest is a little crazy, but Dixen has some great explanations for this plot set-up that sound actually plausible and realistic.  With the current political craziness around the world and humanity’s constant fascination with reality television, you can’t help but think that this could be a distinct possibility.

Dixen is a talented author who is able to perfectly recreate the feel of a large-scale reality television show within his book, with all of the worst parts included.  The male and female contestants are kept apart from each other for the whole journey and are constantly aware of the world watching them through all the cameras, and they act accordingly.  Dixen shows off the various ways the producers are trying to manipulate the contestants, such as misleading messages from their host and group showings of each contestant’s ratings and accrued prize money, all in the name of creating drama.  There are also a number of scenes that show large groups of people watching the show and becoming obsessed with it in a way reminiscent of the early days of Big Brother and American Idol.  There are fun inclusions to show this off, such as having scenes where people back on Earth change their hairstyles and looks to match their favourite contestant, the contestants’ home countries showing massive support for them, and a fun scene where a cynic has to listen to other people gossip about the show.

While the parts of the book reminiscent of a typical reality television show are fantastic by themselves, they are taken to a whole other level when they are seen in conjunction with the backstage production meetings scenes.  Reality television show production meetings are probably already fairly sinister but Dixen is really able to amp this up by showing the show’s producers and host engaged in some ominous discussions involving deaths, murder, manipulation and their own bonuses.  Ascension contains a great main antagonist in Serena McBee, the host.  Serena is pretty much the ultimate villain for young people, as she acts like their friend while she tries to manipulate them, thinking she knows everything about them and how to control them.  All of these sinister surroundings create a compelling read that will really draw the reader in.

I have to admit that when I started to read Ascension the last thing I thought I would be interested in would be the potential relationships between the contestants.  However, Dixen puts significant effort into introducing the 12 contestants and describing their personalities and histories, ensuring the reader becomes invested in their futures.  While Léonor is the main character that the author focuses on, the reader is also shown many of the dating segments that the other contestants are involved with to dramatic effect.  There are also a number of discussions between the female characters as they discuss their tragic histories, their hopes for the future and who their preferred partners will be.  As a result, the reader does find themselves really caring about the characters becoming extremely interested in who will end up with whom.

Dixen also enhances his terrific narrative inclusions, sinister overtones and compelling character interactions with a range of useful visual elements included in the text.  These include flyers for the show, tables with the results of the contestants’ prize money and survey results, and detailed technical diagrams of the spaceship and the Mars habitations.  The diagrams of the ship help the readers visualise the ship and habitats, while the flyers and tables make them feel like part of the show’s audience.  These elements are well used within Ascension and are a great addition to the book.

Ascension by Victor Dixen is an exciting and invigorating young adult read that can now finally be enjoyed by an English-speaking audience.  Readers will love how the author has included an extremely realistic reality television setting into a dramatic science fiction story filled with all the emotion and manipulation you would expect from the trashiest of dating shows out there.  This crazy and brilliant read should captivate the young adult audience of the English-speaking world, just like it did with its French-speaking audience, and I will be keeping an eye out for the next two parts of this series.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

The Juliet Code Cover.jpg

Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 30 April 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Christine Wells comes this touching and memorable tale of love, captivity and endurance in the darkest of times.

During World War II, Juliet Barnard was a British agent working for the Special Operations Executive.  A skilled wireless operator, she was one of the few female agents that were dropped into occupied France to meet contacts and pass intelligence back to the Allies.  While initially successful, she was only active in France for a short time before the Nazis captured her.  Trapped in a prison that specialised in interrogating captured spies and infiltrators at Paris’s Avenue Foch, Juliet endured torture, drugging and manipulation and came out of the prison a different person.

Now, two years after the end of the war, Juliet is still recovering from her ordeal and trying to continue a relationship with Felix, the man she fell in love with during her training.  Claiming to be suffering from memory loss, Juliet has managed to avoid providing any details about her time at Avenue Foch or about the man who held her captive, Sturmbannführer Strasser.  Finding Strasser is the last thing Juliet wants to happen, because he knows a dark secret about Juliet – a secret she would kill to protect.  However, when Juliet meets Mac, an SAS officer turned Nazi hunter whose sister served in the war with Juliet, her guilt compels her to return to Paris to help him locate Strasser.

This is the third book from Wells, who has previously written two English-based historical stories that feature a strong, female protagonist.  The Juliet Code is the second book from Wells that focuses on British spy activities during World War II; her previous novel, The Traitor’s Girl, focused on a World War II MI5 operative.  The Juliet Code is another excellent and intense romp into the history of World War II, and Wells has done an amazing job of creating this unique and emotional story.  This book is a combination of a great dramatic story and a two-stage historical spy thriller wrapped up with a poignant romantic subplot.

Wells has injected considerable drama and emotion into her story, especially through her main character, Juliet, who goes through substantial emotional changes throughout the book.  Before she is dropped into France, Juliet is portrayed as a shy girl, unsure of her abilities as a potential spy but eager to do her duty to her country.  After the war she is more hardened individual who is suffering from guilt, both due to being one of the few agents to survive capture and because of her own actions during the war.  These changes in the character are made obvious to the reader, not just because of Wells’s great writing ability but also because she switches between the mid-war and post-war scenes multiple times.  Wells slowly reveals the main character’s wartime secret, which is a central part of the plot.  While there are some hints to what this secret is early in the book, the full reveal is not done until later in the story, and makes use of a moving and artfully constructed confession scene.

The Juliet Code is set in the 1940s, and Wells has broken the story up into two distinct periods.  The first period starts in 1943 and continues for the rest of the war, examining the main character’s training, her infiltration of occupied France and her time as a captive at Avenue Foch.  The parts of the book set during the war are very intriguing and are some of the most appealing scenes from a historical fiction viewpoint.  The sections that feature Juliet training and actively spying in France were some of my favourite parts of the plot, and I loved reading Wells’s descriptions about the French resistance networks, the British covert activities, their espionage techniques and the counteroperations the Nazis were undertaking to catch the operatives active in France.  There are also some significant descriptions of how the British wireless transmitters functioned and British coding techniques.  These very technical parts of the book contain some fascinating information while also providing the reader with a good understanding of this technology and what the operators were doing with it.  There are also a number of scenes that follow Juliet after she is captured and held as an enemy spy in Paris.  These parts of the book are, by necessity, darker in nature, depicting how these spies, especially female operatives, were treated during this period.  There are also thorough descriptions of the historical locations used as prisons in Paris.

The second part of the book is set in 1947 and features Juliet and her companions revisiting the sites of Juliet’s captivity and attempting to hunt down her jailer.  This part of the book comes across as more of a traditional spy thriller, and contains some vivid descriptions of post-war France.  There are some examinations of how the Allies and the Soviets were attempting to capture or recruit former members of the Nazi regime, as well as some interesting looks into the post-war espionage that was occurring at this time.  Wells also revisits characters and locations encountered by the protagonist during the war, and these scenes are used to provide clues to locate Strasser while also providing additional hints about what happened to Juliet during her captivity.

Among the defining features of The Juliet Code are the realistic and detailed characters that the reader gets to enjoy.  They feel so realistic because these characters were inspired by real historical figures who served in similar capacities during the war.  This touch of realism adds a lot to the book and serves as an inspirational reminder of those unsung heroes of British espionage.  These fictional facsimiles do interact with a few real historical figures within the book, and readers will be captivated as they find out which of these unique wartime stories are actually historical fact.

Wells has included an enticing romantic subplot between the characters of Juliet and Felix.  Readers will be able to feel the affection that these two characters have for each other, as well as the loss they experience as a result of Juliet’s capture.  Their relationship is also masterfully woven into the main story, and elements of their romance become key plot points, such as some personal romantic poems that actually contain transmitter codes.  Thankfully, Wells decided not to invest too much time in a love triangle between Juliet, Felix and Mac, although she does include the initial and somewhat entertaining jealousy you would come to expect from this situation.  Overall, the romantic subplot is both absorbing and nicely subtle, as it does not overwhelm the rest of the story.

Australian author Christine Wells once again delivers an elegant piece of literature that makes full use of its well-paced dramatic story and an utterly stimulating historical setting and content.  Fans of historical fiction will love The Juliet Code’s dive into World War II spycraft and counterespionage, as well as the excellent and electrifying thriller that blazes through post-war France.  This is a phenomenal novel that sticks in the mind and will appeal to wide array of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars