The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

The Secret Runners of New York Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Format – 26 March 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The end of the world has nothing on the horrors of high school in this fast-paced and widely entertaining new book from bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly.

When Skye Rogers and her twin brother, Red, are forced to move to New York city, they are enrolled in the prestigious The Monmouth School, learning institute of choice for the city’s ultra-wealthy and social elite.  Even among the children of the rich and powerful there exists a well-established hierarchy, and in The Monmouth School, the top of the social ladder are the friends and cronies of the Collins sisters, Misty and Chastity.  Despite only wanting a quiet existence in her new school, Skye finds herself drawn into their orbit against her better judgement.

Skye soon discovers that hanging out with the Collins sisters is very different from the usual high school cliques.  The social group is probably the most exclusive in New York, and it comes with certain privileges.  Thanks to an ancient family secret, the Collins sisters are able to activate an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park that allows teenagers to run through an alternate version of New York: a post-apocalyptic nightmare littered with ruined buildings and filled with crazed survivors.

When Skye and her fellow runners find evidence that the New York they are visiting is actually a future version of their own timeline, they need to find a way to come to terms with the end of the world, especially as the apocalypse appears to be only days away.  As society starts to crumble and the poor rise up against the rich, Skye tries to find a way to use her knowledge of the future to save everyone she loves.  However, Skye is about to learn that her new friends are far more concerned with revenge and are planning to use the end of the world to take her down.

Matthew Reilly is a veteran author of weird and electrifying fiction, having written a number of intriguing books in the last 20 years, many of which fall within the techno-thriller or science fiction genres.  In addition to a number of fun sounding standalone novels, Reilly has also published two substantial series, the Shane Schofield series and the Jack West Jr series.  Matthew Reilly is one of those authors that I have been meaning to check out for some time, as a number of his novels sound absolutely bonkers and really creative.  I am particularly drawn to his 2014 release, The Great Zoo of China, which essentially sounds like Jurassic Park with dragons; his 2013 historical thriller The Tournament; and the books in the Jack West Jr series, which features secret organisations fighting for control of ancient artefacts with world-and universe-ending potential.

I was therefore very excited to get an advanced copy of The Secret Runners of New York, due to its intriguing time travel and armageddon concepts.  I actually really enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York and had a lot of fun reading it.  The book features a surprisingly entertaining use of over-the-top high school drama that actually combines really well with the interesting science fiction elements mentioned above.  The result is an unpredictable and amusing overall story that I had a very hard time putting down and which I powered through in very short order.

The book revolves around the students at The Monmouth School (you have to say the “The”; it’s that type of place), New York’s premier high school for the rich and snooty.  Please remind me to never send any of my theoretical children to any school thought up by Reilly, as the author creates a learning institution that is essentially a viper’s nest of bitchiness, enforced social hierarchy and petty revenge, all of which is enhanced by the fact that the characters are all ultra-rich or have massive superiority complexes.  The quote below from main character Skye, one of the few well-adjusted characters in the book, shows her experiences within the first few minutes at The Monmouth School:

“In the space of a few minutes I’d seen a taunt about sluttiness, a threatened punch to the uterus, some humble bragging by the Head Girl about the school’s social status and a dose of good old-fashioned mean-girl passive aggressiveness from Misty.  School, I reflected sadly, was school no matter how high the tuition fees were.”

I have to admit I did find Reilly’s portrayal of most of the rich teenage girls in this book to be a tad extreme and unrealistic (yes, in a book featuring time travel, that’s what I am finding unrealistic).  I have never been and never will be a teenage girl, but I hope that teenage girls in high school couldn’t possibly be as petty and vicious as the girls portrayed within this book, even if they are the daughters of the uber-privileged.  That being said, I found this over-the-top viewpoint of high school life to be extremely entertaining and it was a fantastic element throughout the book.  Watching the level-headed and somewhat cynical protagonist have to deal with this insanity was a lot of fun, especially when you would imagine most people would be more concerned with the end of the world than with who made out with which guy.  An unbelievably amusing part of the story, these high school elements are great, just try and avoid thinking about it too much.

In addition to the look at the mean girls of high school, I did quite enjoy Reilly’s critique of the ultra-rich and powerful in New York City.  The protagonist finds herself drawn into the world of debutant balls, society politics and the other classy responsibilities of being rich in New York.  Again, this is an interesting part of the story, and the rich characters with their extravagant lifestyles do offer a nice disconnect from reality.  I liked Reilly’s examination of how the rich would be targeted during apocalyptic events such as the one portrayed within this book, and it played nicely into some of the current protests and perceptions of the 1%.  it’s another glorious over-the-top element for this book that provides the reader with a lot of entertainment and a real dislike of most of the privileged characters.

The science fiction parts of this book are incredibly well done and are an excellent part of this book.  Not only is there a devastating cosmic storm that will wipe out most of humanity in hours, but there is an unrelated magical tunnel that the protagonists can use to visit the future.  Reilly does an amazing job creating a devastating and crazy post-apocalyptic New York City for the readers to explore.  I was really impressed with all the brutal descriptions of how the city was in ruins and had been dramatically reclaimed by nature as the infrastructure falls into disrepair, and the whole thing is an amazing setting that Reilly uses to full effect.  I really liked how the author uses the time travel elements within the book.  Watching the protagonists slowly work out that this world is a future version of their own timeline is amazing, and it was great seeing them see all the testimonials and letters from their families describing the events that are yet to happen in their future.  The various time travelling shenanigans used by both the protagonists and antagonists of this book helped enhance this already exciting story, and I loved the way that the characters are able to see the consequences of their actions in both timelines before they actually happen.

The author has also utilised some eye-catching visual elements throughout the book to enhance the story being told.  There are a number of maps used to show the key locations of the book, and there are even a couple of diagrams used to explain the potential time travel issues in this book.  I personally liked the way that the font changed to signify the characters going into a different timeline and thought it was a nice touch.  A range of other text techniques are used to signify angry or desperate messages on different locations, such as walls or the entirety of buildings, often conveying the emotion behind these messages.  All these visual treats are great, and they really make this book stand out.

The Secret Runners of New York is currently being marketed to the teen and young adult audiences, but this book is really on the edge of what young adult fiction is.  While it is focused on teenage characters in high school, there are a significant number of very adult inclusions throughout the book.  It is interesting to note that in an interview at the back of the book, Reilly himself indicates that he does not see this story as being as a piece of young adult fiction, and I think that is shown in the way that he wrote this over-the-top story.  There is a high level of violence, drug use, coarse language and sexual references featured throughout this book, and as a result, I would say it is not really appropriate for the younger audiences and is probably more suited for older teenage readers.  This is definitely one of those young adult marketed books that adult readers can really enjoy, and there is no upper limit on enjoying this crazy tale.

This was an incredibly entertaining and captivating book that I had a lot of fun with.  Matthew Reilly pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the book’s petty and vicious teenage rich girl antagonists, which turns an already intriguing science fiction book into a wild thrill ride of revenge, betrayal and insanity.  I have to say that I quite enjoyed my first taste of Matthew Reilly’s writing and I am extremely keen to check out some of his other works in the future.  At the moment The Secret Runners of New York is a standalone book, although the author leaves a number of storylines open for sequels or prequels, and I would be interested to see where he takes the story next.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars by Dr Una McCormack

Star Trek Discovery - The Way To The Stars Cover

Publisher: Gallery Books (Trade Paperback Format – 8 January 2019)

Series: Star Trek Discovery – Book 4

Length: 276 pages

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive into the extended Star Trek universe with The Way To The Stars, the latest tie-in novel to the franchise’s current show, Star Trek Discovery.

While most people would be familiar with the iconic Star Trek television shows and movies, some may be unaware that there is an extremely rich and extensive Star Trek universe across a variety of different media formats.  This is particularly true when it comes to the vast number of Star Trek novels which utilise the franchise’s massive universe.  Since 1967, during the run of the original Star Trek television series, a bevy of authors have contributed to this extended universe by creating a huge number of novels made up a range of different series and publishers.  There are now over 840 Star Trek novels, not only complementing the various Star Trek movies and television shows but also creating a series of new adventures.

With the announcement of the latest Star Trek television show, Star Trek Discovery, in late 2017, a new series of related novels was commissioned for release around the same time.  This new series focused on several of the characters featured within Star Trek Discovery, providing intriguing character history and a series of new, exciting adventures.  The first book in this series, Desperate Hours, was released in 2017, days after the premier episode of Star Trek Discovery.  These books have so far covered several of the show’s key characters, including Michael Burnham, Saru, Gabriel Lorca and Philippa Georgiou, while a fifth book out later this year will focus on Christopher Pyke and the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I actually have a copy of the second book in this series, Drastic Measures, on my bookshelf at home, and I have been intending to read it for some time.  I will hopefully get to that, and the other books in the Star Trek Discovery book range, at some point in the future.

I have to admit that I am more of a casual Star Trek fan and I have more of a preference for Star Wars (and with that, I lose several Trekkies reading this review).  That being said, I have watched a number of the movies and I am really enjoying Star Trek Discovery at the moment.  This book is the first actual Star Trek novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, and there are several cool-sounding upcoming Star Trek novels that I am probably going to try and check out.

The Way To The Stars focuses on the character of Sylvia Tilly, the young, brilliant and awkward Starfleet cadet and essential member of the U.S.S. Discovery’s crew.  However, when she was 16, years before she joined Starfleet, her life was going down a different path.  The daughter of a high-ranking United Federation of Planets (the Federation) diplomat, Tilly finds herself under intense pressure to succeed.  Forced by her domineering mother to abandon her love of science and engineering to pursue a career as a diplomat, Tilly is shipped off to an elite off-world boarding school.

Forced out of her comfort zone, and continuously micromanaged by her mother, Tilly begins to crack under the pressure until, for the first time in her life, she rebels.  Escaping the school and embarking on a dangerous off-world trip, Tilly seeks her own path in life, which will eventually lead her join Starfleet and adventure out into the stars.

The Way To The Stars is the fourth entry in the Star Trek Discovery book series, and it is written by veteran science fiction and tie-in novel author, Dr Una McCormack.  Dr McCormack is an expert when it comes to the novelisation of popular science fiction television shows, having written a number of Doctor Who tie-in novels throughout her career.  Dr McCormack also has a large amount of experience when it comes to the Star Trek extended universe, having authored several novels that continue the adventures of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine television series.

This book was a little different to what I anticipated it would be.  Rather than featuring an action-packed adventure with Starfleet like the previous books in the Star Trek Discovery series, The Way To The Stars mainly focused on Tilly’s school and family life.  While this was still a very interesting and enjoyable read, I kept expecting pirates, aliens or some sort of antagonist to drop in and take over the school, forcing Tilly to use the engineering skills that her mother and school friends were so dismissive of to save the day.  So it was a tad disappointing to find this book only contained a mostly school-based story, more concerned with Tilly’s studies, her overbearing mother and her problems making friends.  Do not get me wrong; there are a lot of fun and enjoyable elements to these parts of the story, and the later part of the book in which Tilly runs away from school and tries to make her own way in space are very interesting.  It was, however, somewhat lighter than what I was expecting from a Star Trek novel, and its tone and writing style reminded me more of a young adult school novel.

That said, this was still a very enjoyable novel as Dr McCormack does an amazing job of bringing one of Star Trek Discovery’s most entertaining characters to life while placing her in a fun and interesting coming of age story.  The author makes great use of the Star Trek elements to tell her story, and I found it fascinating to see the advanced interplanetary schooling (rich boarding schools are rich boarding schools no matter what planet they are on), as well as Tilly’s adventures on human planets and ships outside of Federation space.  The latter parts of the book set on the Starfleet ship were fun, and it was great to see the adventures of a scientific ship, as well as Tilly’s contributions to their voyage.  The resultant first contact that they make was interesting, and it was cool to see elements from the part of the story set in the school come into play during this bit.  Overall, I did have a lot of fun reading The Way To The Stars, and found it to be a very well-written story with a lot of intriguing elements to it.  I really got into the story and managed to read it in only a couple of days, so many people should have fun reading it.

One of the things that I did like about The Way To The Stars was the way the author brought the book’s main character, Tilly, to life.  Within Star Trek Discovery, Tilly, as portrayed by Mary Wiseman, is a fun, brilliant and neurotic character who serves as the show’s moral centre and heart.  Despite mostly being a kind and thoughtful person, Tilly is regularly able to take control of a situation and act in a command capacity, often with humorous results.  I felt that Dr McCormack’s portrayal of Tilly within this book did an excellent job of either showing that these were already existing qualities/personality traits or else examined the first time that Tilly ever showcased these traits.  It was really good to see where Tilly came from and the sort of influences she had in her life to turn her into the character that is so beloved in the show.  As a result, The Way To The Stars is an excellent coming of age story, and I really enjoyed the way that the author wrote the character within the book.

This book is strongly related to the Star Trek Discovery television show; however, I do not believe that too much pre-existing knowledge or fandom experience is required to enjoy The Way To The Stars.  Dr McCormack has an inclusive writing style and I believe that anyone with even a basic knowledge of Star Trek will be able to pick this book up and enjoy the fun story within.  It should go without saying, though, that those people who are fans of the Star Trek universe will get a lot more out of this story.  This is especially true for fans of Star Trek Discovery, who will appreciate this deeper dive into the protagonist’s backstory and the examination of her early life.  I believe that The Way To The Stars is considered to be a canon story within the Star Trek universe; however, I doubt that the events within will have any impact on the show.  Still, it is quite an interesting inclusion that will really interest those who have come to enjoy the characters of Star Trek Discovery.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars is a fun and enjoyable tie-in novel that does an amazing job of examining the past of a key character of the show.  Dr McCormack creates an interesting coming-of-age story that will appeal to hardcore Trekkies and casual science fiction readers alike.  I quite enjoyed my first foray into the Star Trek extended universe, and I am planning to try and get some of other Star Trek books coming out later this year.  Stay tuned to see me go further beyond the final frontier.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Cold Iron Cover 1.jpg

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

Cold Iron Cover 2.jpg

I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Stranger Things Suspicious Minds Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

Runaways Volume 2: Best Friends Forever by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Recently reunited and still coming to terms with being a family again, the adventures of Marvel Comics’ favourite group of misfit youths continues in Best Friends Forever, the second volume of young adult author Rainbow Rowell and artist Kris Anika’s run on Runaways.

The Runaways, Chase, Gert, Karolina, Nico, Victor, Molly and Old Lace are finally back together and living in one of their parents’ old hideouts.  While most of the team have grown up since the last time they were all together, this does not mean that they have their lives together.  Each of the Runaways has their issues to deal with, be it Gert’s recent return to life after several years of being dead, Karolina’s relationship problems or Victor’s current existence as a disembodied head.  The only one who appears to have their life even remotely together is the team’s youngest and at times wisest member, Molly, who is enjoying her time in middle school.  But even Molly is having problems, as she is faced with a hard choice and must consider whether she actually wants to grow up.

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As Molly deliberates over the dilemma presented to her, a barrage of other arrivals impact on the Runaways.  Karolina’s girlfriend, Julie Power of Power Pack fame, is in town, which causes significant drama for Karolina and Nico, while Dr Doom has apparently appeared on their doorstep, determined to find Victor.  Can a team rife with squabbles, drama and internal strife come together to face the problems before them, or will their significant changes be too much to bear?

Runaways is still one of my favourite Marvel series.  After the revamp earlier this year, previously reviewed here, these fantastic characters are still going strong.  In this second volume, Rowell, Atkins and their creative team continue to produce some outstanding and emotional stories that are based more on the relationships between the main characters than the traditional crime-fighting storylines contained within other comics.  While they do go up against a couple of superpowered opponents within this story, none of these antagonists is truly evil, and their motivations and history are a lot more morally ambiguous than some of the previous Runaways stories.  The creative team do a fantastic job of blending highly emotional storylines with a bunch of fun and heart-warming sequences, filled with random and funny elements, such as an errant Doombot.  This all comes together into one fantastic overall story that hits all the right buttons.  This second volume contains issues #7 – #12 of this new run on Runaways.

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One of the main aspects of this second volume of Runaways is the continued focus on the relationships between the series’ main characters.  Most of these characters are still coming to terms with being back together after all of them attempted to live lives outside of their team.  Quite a bit of Volume 2 involves the characters trying to determine what roles they have within this surrogate family, and the fact that they are not as close as they used to be.  What I liked is the way that Chase, usually the most immature member of the team, attempts to become the father of the group, matching up with the traditional female leader of the team, Nico, as the team’s mother.  This new parental role is highlighted in a funny couple of scenes where Chase and Nico use magic to become Molly’s legal guardians, a shortcut way that “seems totally legit and great”.  A lot of this volume is also focused on the romantic relationships between several of the group’s characters, including the relationship between Gert and Victor and the new romantic feelings between Nico and Carolina.  I thought the lead-in to both these relationships worked out very well and sets up some interesting potential in future volumes.  I am also very curious to see how the friendship between Victor and Chase is going to be impacted as a result of this new relationship in future volumes of this series.  I liked the way that the relationships and romantic considerations that featured between Carolina and Julie and Carolina and Nico were handled very well and with great sensitivity, and showed great representations of LGBT+ relationships.

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I also appreciated the way that Rowell and Anika continued to focus on the emotional and mental damage that the team’s exploits have had on these characters over their entire comic book history.  In this second volume, there is a significant focus on Victor, who was mentally and physically damaged during his previous appearances in Vision.  Chase and Doombot’s attempts to rebuild Victor during this volume prove to be a particularly vivid trigger for Victor, and leads to some significant emotional moments.  There is also a look at Victor’s fear of vibranium because of its addictive and mind-altering impact on him, which drove him to commit terrible acts in a previous series.  The creative team also take a look at the life of old team member Klara, the young powered girl the team rescued from abuse back in 1907 during a time-travel adventure.  It was previously revealed that Klara had been taken away from the team by the state and is now in a loving household.  A brief section of this volume is dedicated to the team finding her and attempting to bring her back into the fold, but Klara refuses to come back, as she is happy in her new life.  You have to appreciate Klara’s sound reasoning for not wanting to come back to the team, due to the death and multiple problems experienced in the previous adventures.
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One of the most significant issues that the character’s experiences have had on them is based around their negative opinions of adults.  Most of the truly terrible things in their lives have been the result of the plans of the adults they encounter, and their distrust of most adult characters has been a long-running aspect of the series.  It is interesting to see that this carries through to the new series, even though several of the characters are now actually adults.  This viewpoint is most prevalent in Gert, whose death during one of the previous run of this series means she still shares the beliefs these characters had while they were fugitives.  However, the rest of the team also have a hard time trusting other adults, such as when they assume Klara’s new adopted parents have to be evil, as every adult they have previously dealt with in similar circumstances were also evil or abusive.  This viewpoint has significant plot impacts in this second volume, as Molly, given the opportunity to stay young forever, talks to several of the other Runaways in an attempt to subtly work out their thoughts on growing up.  Most of the characters, including non-team member Julie Powers, talk somewhat negatively about their current lives and regret growing up, which tempts Molly to accept the chance to stay young.  The final message of this storyline strongly implies that growing up isn’t so bad, as even the antagonist, a young girl who has stayed 13 for 50 years, does not always want to be young.  It was also interesting to see Klara try to correct the team when they say that no adults can be trusted; having had a loving family relationship, she no longer believes that.

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The second volume of this run of Runaways continues to make use of some fun artwork throughout the various issues.  The character designs continue to be fun, and it is interesting to see some new looks and some constantly changing character designs, especially for the trendy Nico.  The art is often used for comedic affect.  Victor has a fun use throughout the book, and it is pretty humorous to see the head floating around in a number of scenes, even in a middle of a fight scene.  I also loved how throughout the course of the volume, he was given more and more advanced mobility upgrades in each scene that he appeared in, each more comedic than the last.  For example, at the start of the volume he is mostly transported in other character’s hand, his own momentum or in a backpack.  However, as the volume continues he is variously attached to a Roomba, a small tracked rover, several helium balloons (so he can get the feeling on flight back again) and eventually a new drone.  All of these are slightly ridiculous and fun, but they do not take away from the emotional nature of several scenes, and I must point out some of the awesome drawings that hint at the issues Nico is having with her magic.

The second volume of this new series of Runaways, Best Friends Forever, is another strong and emotional addition to this new version of this young adult superhero comic.  I really appreciated the creative teams continued focus on the character relationships and the emotional aspects of the characters’ lives.  Best Friends Forever is another fantastic addition to this powerful new run of Runaways, and I am excited to see what happens to this great group of characters next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Chaos of Now by Erin Lange

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Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

From one of the most intriguing authors of modern young adult fiction comes this powerful story about bullying in the modern cyber world and the potential impacts our choices can have on those around us.

One year ago, a student at Haver High, Jordan Bishop, walked into the school cafeteria and committed suicide by setting himself on fire, a reaction to the relentless online bullying he was experiencing.  Since that event, life at Haver High has not been the same.  Not only do the scars of Jordan’s actions remain but radical legislation brought in to combat cyberbullying ensure that students’ online lives are openly monitored by federal cybersnoops.

Eli Bennett is a young hacker who is desperate to graduate and leave town in order escape his father and his father’s new girlfriend, Misty.  Eli is happy enough at school with his only friend, Zach, although he wouldn’t mind getting to know the beautiful Isabel.  But when he is approached by fellow hackers Seth and Mouse, he finds himself drawn into an entirely new challenge.  Seth and Mouse were Jordan’s friends, but have had to keep their relationship with him a secret to avoid backlash from the other students.  Desperate to get some sort of justice for their fallen comrade, they are seeking a way to get back at those students who drove Jordan to kill himself.  Their idea is to create a website where Jordan’s bullies can be publicly shamed, and they need Eli to make it untraceable to the authorities.  Despite being haunted by a previous hacking mistake, Eli agrees to help, interested in the potential of this sort of website.

Calling the website ‘Friends of Bishop’, the site provides the students of Haver High with an anonymous forum to post videos about bad behaviour in the school.  With the help of a few bombshell videos, the site becomes a hit, and Eli and his friends believe they are making some real changes.  With the cybersnoops desperately try to shut down the site, the hidden Friends of Bishop revel in their notoriety and the praise of many of their classmates.  But when their quest for justice takes a nasty turn, Eli finds himself facing the real-world consequences of his actions and must try and work out what the right thing to do is.

The Chaos of Now is the fourth book from the talented and at times controversial young adult author, Erin Lange.  Lange is probably best known for her 2012 debut novel, Butter, which focused on a bullied obese boy’s plan to eat himself to death on a live internet broadcast.  Her next two books, Dead Ends and Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah also looked at the lives of socially isolated high school students, as well as the consequences of bullying behaviour.  The Chaos of Now takes a deeper focus on extreme cyberbullying and the potential impacts it can have.  I absolutely enjoyed The Chaos of Now and powered through it in less than a day as I became absorbed in its fantastic narrative, its emotional and moral heart and its very intriguing elements and warnings.

This book contains a poignant and well-thought-out story that takes its protagonist on a captivating adventure as he is faced with a series of moral dilemmas and explores the resultant consequences of his decisions on himself and those around him.  There are some incredible emotional scenes as the main characters examine their anger, grief, guilt and internal moral compasses when they look back at what they did or what they failed to do.  There is also a heartrending plot twist towards the end of the book which paints the entire narrative in a completely new light while also upping the stakes for the protagonist and his friends.

At the centre of this incredible book lies a powerful message about the modern epidemic of cyberbullying and the dangers of our modern computer based world.  Within the context of the story, the protagonist is drawn into a quest for justice after a young man who is bullied online commits suicide.  The architects of this revenge are the victim’s friends, who feel guilty for not standing up for their friend and not coming forward after his death.  As part of their quest, they create an anonymous website where embarrassing and incriminating videos can be posted about the people who drove Jordan to commit suicide, as well as videos about any other bullies or people the protagonists believe need to be taken down a peg.  Lange does an incredible job exploring all the aspect of this cyberbullying, from an examination of the events that led up to Jacob’s suicide to the impacts of the posted videos on the people they are shaming.  Lange does not try to shape this as a black and white issue; instead, everything that occurs has the potential for negative consequences.  For example, throughout the course of the book, the protagonists post several videos, each of which appears to have different levels of embarrassing or incriminating footage.  While the potential impacts of some of these videos appear to be minor, some are later revealed to have major consequences for the people involved.  At the same time, the more explicit videos have huge, life-altering consequences for the people involved.  Through the course of her narrative, Lange shows the full effect of these videos, whether they are extreme or seemingly innocuous, and shows how the people’s lives are affected and how other people treat them because of what is revealed.  Often these outcomes are quite devastating, and the protagonists, having become cyberbullies themselves, are left examining whether their victims actually deserved to have their lives ruined in this way, and if their actions can truly be considered justice.  The final message of this book, that cyberbullying or any form of negative online actions can have severe and often unforeseen consequences, is quite powerful, and I thought that Lange did an incredible job highlighting this throughout her novel.

Another intriguing part of this book is the extreme way the government attempts to deal with the problem of cyberbullying.  In this book, following the extreme suicide of Jordan, the government introduces harsh and controlling rules about internet privacy for students and gives government officers known as cybersnoops the ability to monitor everything young people do on the internet.  This is a thought-provoking reaction, and one that could potentially be used in the real world to address the problem of cyberbullying.  Readers will be interested to see Lange’s thoughts on such a program being introduced and how the youth impacted by it may react.  The resultant story comes across as a cautionary tale.  While more needs to be done to combat the issues of cyberbullying, Lange’s stories suggests that certain approaches could be just as problematic, as many of the protagonist’s actions are as a result of the restrictions imposed upon them.

I really enjoyed the coding aspects of this book, and it was fascinating to see the various computer and coding terms included throughout the story.  Lange’s ensures that these technical aspects are explained to the reader in a clear and concise manner so that even technical luddites like this reviewer are able to have a good understanding of what is going on in the story.  Readers of The Chaos of Now should also take note of the various ways in which the internet or someone’s personal electronic devices can be used against them, and is definitely an informative inclusion.

Lange’s focus on her protagonist’s personal relationships is another great part of this book, and provides an invaluable social heart to this novel.  At the start of the book, Eli only has one friend, Zach, a fellow coder who serves as Eli’s social and hacking conscience.  When Eli makes friends with Seth and Mouse, he is happy to have new friends and works with them on their website.  But, as the book progresses, Eli’s relationship with Zach suffers as he constantly hides his dodgy actions with the Friends of Bishop website.  It is interesting to see how Eli is forced to assume the more moral and cautious role with Seth and Mouse, who are much more obsessed with revenge than Eli is.  Having assumed this role, Eli feels a lot more guilt for the group’s actions, as he knows he should do more to curtail their more reckless actions.  This is further compounded when Eli gets angry and momentarily abandons his moral position, and the resultant actions cause significant harm.  The later part of the relationship with Seth and Mouse is very intense and contains one hell of a climactic scene.  The Chaos of Now also contains the heart-warming story of the growing relationship between Eli and his father’s girlfriend, Misty, who becomes one of the most likable characters in the entire book.  I also enjoyed the relationship between Eli and the bully Malcolm who Eli has several negative encounters with at the start of the book.  While Eli at first wants to destroy him like the other bullies at Haver High, his discovery of Malcolm’s deeper problems and the future awaiting him makes Eli rethink his position.  This focus on the protagonist’s relationships is an extraordinary part of the book, which weaves into the story very well and plays a big part in the protagonist’s decisions and actions.

The Chaos of Now is a great piece of young adult fiction that provides an amazing insight into one of the key issues affecting the youth of today.  With some mature themes, this book is definitely intended for the slightly older teen audience and is probably most appropriate for high school students who are a similar age to the characters of this book.  As this book provides an intriguing and powerful insight into the modern day issue of cyberbullying and presents a look at the extreme consequences that could result from these actions, I would strongly recommend it to these students, as they would be most interested in the message and story that it contains.  While not intended for older readers, the content of this book is instantly relatable for anyone who has ever been to high school and is aware of the current issues surrounding cyberbullying and problems with the internet.

Lange has created a terrific book which I felt covered some of the issues around cyberbullying perfectly.  Featuring a heartfelt and at times crushing story that tries to understand the different sides of this complex problem, this is another superb and memorable release from an incredible young adult fiction author.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars