The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

The Warsaw Protocol by Steve Berry

The Warsaw Protocol Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 February 2020)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 15

Length: 11 hours and 48 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an exciting thriller that not only features an intense, high-stakes spy adventure but also an intriguing and detailed examination of a nation’s history and culture? Then you are going to love The Warsaw Protocol, the latest novel from bestselling thriller author Steve Berry and the 15th novel in his long-running Cotton Malone series.

Former United States Justice Department agent Cotton Malone is now retired and enjoying his life as a rare book dealer and occasionally supplementing his income with some freelance intelligence work. In Bruges to attend a book fair, his holiday takes an unexpected turn when he attempts to stop the theft of a rare religious artefact. His interference accidently places him in the centre of a new conspiracy threatening to engulf Poland, one with massive global ramifications.

A notorious information broker has obtained a series of documents that reveal troubling secrets about the President of Poland, Janusz Czajkowski, and his past during the communist occupation of his country. These secrets, if revealed, would ruin the political career of Czajkowski and are the ultimate form of blackmail. With a controversial proposal surrounding an advanced American missile defence system in Poland on the table, both the United States and Russia want these documents, as do several other interested nations. The documents will be auctioned off in a secret location, with the price of admission one of seven sacred Christian relics located around the world.

Recruited by his former boss, Stephanie Nelle, Cotton attempts to steal one of the remaining relics in order to enter the US into the auction. However, despite the best-laid plans of the new President of the United States, the auction turns into a disaster, with Russian duplicity, Polish intelligence agents and a rival information broker all coming into play. As Cotton attempt to recover the documents, he is faced with severe moral implications, should he really be party to an American plan to blackmail a foreign nation?

Berry is an outstanding thriller author who has been producing consistent and enjoyable work since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room. While he has produced several standalone novels, his main body of work is the Cotton Malone novels, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy. So far, I have only read the prior book in the Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange, which came out last year. I really enjoyed The Malta Exchange and became an instant fan of the way that Berry combined exciting thriller storylines with historical conspiracy theories and deep dives into the history and culture of various nations. I have been looking forward to The Warsaw Protocol for a while now, and I even featured it on my recent Most Anticipated Books for the First Half of 2020 list.

Like the rest of the books in the series, The Warsaw Protocol can easily be read as a standalone novel, with absolutely no knowledge of any of the prior books required to enjoy the fun and exciting story contained within. Long-term fans of the series will definitely enjoy this new entry, not only because of its great story but because some of the events depicted are likely to have major repercussions for future books in the series. Berry makes excellent use of multiple viewpoints to tell this story, with several major characters getting a number of chapters to themselves, which not only show their actions in the current day but also dive into their own personal history and the history of the people or places they are interacting with. This leads to a richer overall narrative, and I think it was the best way to tell this complex story. Overall, I am really glad that I decided to dive further into the Cotton Malone series, as I found The Warsaw Protocol to be another fantastic and captivating thriller with some first-rate depictions of the complex nation of Poland.

At the centre of this book lies an outstanding thriller which sees the agents of several different nations fighting over sensitive material that could change the balance of power in the world. Berry takes this thriller storyline in some fantastic directions, and I really enjoyed the fast-paced and exciting final result. I loved seeing the past coming back to haunt people, especially as this allowed the author to dive back into Poland’s history when it was part of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Protocol contains several excellent action sequences, although the book has more of a focus on uncovering the past and solving historical clues. I felt that the author’s use of multiple viewpoints worked really well to increase story’s suspense and intrigue, especially as you get to see the various major players react and enact countermoves against each other. I was a tad surprised that the author did not really do much more with the holy relics the auction participants needed to collect, especially as I spent a good part of the book thinking they were going to lead to some other great Polish treasure. There were also some other McGuffins and secrets that were mentioned or discovered throughout the book that didn’t really go anywhere either, and I would have been interested to see what impact they would have had on the plot if the protagonist had known about them. Still, this was an incredibly captivating piece of thriller fiction, and thanks to the fast-paced and exciting story, I had a really hard time putting The Warsaw Protocol down.

One of the main things that draws me to the Cotton Malone series is the way that Berry makes sure to dive into the history and culture of the countries in which his books are set. I really loved the in-depth look at Malta in his previous book, and I have a great appreciation for all the intriguing details about Poland that he features in his latest novel. Make no mistake, while this book does mainly follow the story of an American intelligence agent, The Warsaw Protocol is first and foremost a novel about Poland, featuring examinations of the nations troubled history and its unique cultural mindset. I am a huge history buff, so I absolutely loved Berry’s examination of these elements of Polish history. His major focus was on Poland when it was controlled by the Soviets following World War II, although he also looks back at the medieval history of the country as well. I found this examination of the Communist occupation of Poland to be quite fascinating, although Berry makes sure to point out the terrible circumstances that the people found themselves in and the lasting impact Communist control has had on the nation. The author sets up the seeds of the book’s central thriller in the country’s Communist past, and the resultant bloom turned out to be an excellent story.

In addition to the country’s history, Berry also attempts to showcase the social and cultural identity of Poland, while examining how the country’s long history of dissention, political upheaval and oppression from other nations has helped to create a unique society of people with a distinctive social mindset and way of life. Berry obviously has a lot of love for the people of Poland, and his examination of their national personality is quite intriguing. It is also another element of this book that works well with the overarching thriller storyline, as several of the point-of-view characters are able to predict how the general population of Poland will react if the information up for auction is released, motivating several of the characters. All in all, this was an incredibly fascinating and compelling examination of one of Europe’s most distinctive and important countries, and I really liked how Berry was once again able to use these captivating elements to produce an excellent spy thriller.

Berry also spends a lot of time bringing several iconic Polish locations to life to serve as backdrops for his story. There are some absolutely fantastic locations featured within this novel, including a number of major cities, some important castles, significant religious sites and even a world-famous salt mine. Berry has apparently spent a lot of time faithfully replicating these sites within his book, with some minor exceptions for plot reasons. The author really paints a vibrant picture when he presents these locations to the reader, and many of them sound like incredible places to visit (I personally would love to see the aforementioned salt mine after reading this book, as it sounds pretty damn awesome). There is also a rather fun sequence at the start of the book set in the Belgium city of Bruges, which the author uses to full advantage, setting a great chase sequence in the city’s iconic canals. There are also descriptions of several real-life restaurants, cafes and other such locations throughout this book, and it is clear that the author has really done his homework. Indeed, the author has even included a substantial notes section at the back of the book discussing the accuracy of his portrayals of history and locations. All of these are amazing backdrops for this fast-paced thriller storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the action taking place in this amazing historical and cultural locations. Those readers who have been to these locations in Poland are bound to get a kick out seeing them so lovingly portrayed in this book, and I think that Berry did a wonderful job of bringing these places to life.

One of Berry’s inclusions that I found particularly interesting was the character of the new US President, Warner Fox. Fox is a brash, undiplomatic and ill-informed former businessman who practices cronyism and is generally painted as being an incompetent and unworthy President by the book’s characters. This sort of US President is becoming more and more common in thriller novels these days for obvious reasons, and I always find it intriguing to see what perceived impacts authors believe such a person would have on the intelligence community. In The Warsaw Protocol, the President is portrayed in an antagonistic manner, as Cotton Malone greatly disagrees with him and his methods. The President and his advisors blunder through the entire book, failing to listen to the advice of seasoned intelligence operators and generally make the entire situation far worse, while the other world leaders easily run rings around them. This actually becomes a major issue for the protagonist, as not only does it make his mission more difficult, but this new President ends up shifting the entire landscape of the series. I thought that this was a really intriguing, if somewhat horrifying, addition to the novel, especially as it is a potentially accurate depiction of how the current administration would interfere with or attempt to control intelligence agencies, and I look forward to seeing how Berry expands on this point in future novels (especially after the next election).

Just as I did with the previous book in the Cotton Malone series, I chose to listen to The Warsaw Protocol’s audiobook format. The Warsaw Protocol audiobook is narrated by Scott Brick and runs for just under 12 hours, allowing for a relatively quick read for a determined listener. I personally find that the audiobook is a great format to enjoy Berry’s books with, as listening to the story helped me appreciate his vivid descriptions and intriguing examinations of history a lot more. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has narrated nearly all of the Cotton Malone books in the past and also provides his vocal talents to a number of other thriller novels, such as the recently released Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz. I find that Brick has a fantastic voice for thriller novels such as The Warsaw Protocol, and he is able to present the complex story in an enjoyable way, as well as provide some great Eastern European accents for some of the individuals featured in the novel. If I had to make a complaint, though, I did find it a little hard at times to distinguish between a couple of characters with similar voices, especially when they are having a conversation with each other. This was not a major issue; it just occasionally left me wondering for a couple of seconds who was talking, although it was usually made clear right after I had that thought. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and I personally loved listening to the story unfold.

Steve Berry has once again produced an incredible and deeply enjoyable thriller novel that utilises his trademark love for all things historical and cultural to create a fantastic read. The Warsaw Protocol does a wonderful job of combining an exciting story with an in-depth look at the vibrant, distinctive and at times chaotic nation of Poland, and I loved the final result. I cannot wait to see what amazing adventure Berry comes up with next time, and I fully intend to keep reading all the Cotton Malone books he brings out. This is a highly recommend thriller that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy.

Guest Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

In her latest guest review, the Unseen Library’s editor, Alex, checks out one of the biggest releases of the year, and also sets herself up to do some more reviews for the blog in the future.

The Testaments Cover

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book 2

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Unlike the Unseen Librarian himself, who seems to have no problem zipping through several books a week, I tend to buy books faster than I read them. I was very pleased, and not at all surprised, to find there’s a phrase for this in Japanese: tsundoku, meaning one who acquires books with every intention of reading them, but who never gets around to it. Well, it’s high time that I try to kick this habit and delve into my shelf of unread books, beginning with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

We received a copy of The Testaments way back in September 2019, before the honeymoon hiatus, but unfortunately the large, heavy hardback wouldn’t have fared well in my suitcase, so although I was keen to read it I was forced to leave it behind. Unfortunately several other distractions (including Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins) meant it wasn’t until the post-Christmas calm that I took the time to finish it off, but I am so glad that I did, because this is a first-rate book that didn’t deserve to wait so long for my attention.

The Handmaid’s Tale reported the experiences of Offred, a Handmaid to a powerful Commander in the post-revolutionary United States, the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story several years later, and features accounts of three women and their own struggles for survival in Gilead. I won’t go into detail about the plot of the book (I’m sure reviewers with better time management skills have beaten me to it), only to say that it was incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Those who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale will love to see how the world has changed over the years.

I was absolutely thrilled by all of the world-building in The Testaments. The new regime of Gilead is fascinating, but in The Handmaid’s Tale details are limited to what Offred chooses to share in her narrative, which itself is limited by what Offred knows, given the sheltered and isolated life she is forced to live as a Handmaid. The Testaments, on the other hand, with its multiple narrators, presents a far broader view of life in Gilead. The first narrator is an Aunt, one of the powerful matrons who train the Handmaids and teach the children. In fact, she is none other than Aunt Lydia, the indomitable battleaxe responsible for the indoctrination of Offred who features so prominently in the original book. The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, the daughter of a powerful Commander. Her story is recorded after her liberation from Gilead and provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a child growing up in the regime. The third narrator is Daisy, a child growing up in Canada. From her we get an outside view of Gilead—how the terrible society is viewed by its near neighbours and how the Mayday resistance seeks to help its people. The three tales are each engaging in their own right, but as they become more and more intertwined the story only gets better.

There are elements of the story that tie into the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, but literary purists who have not watched the show will enjoy The Testaments just the same. Since it is a sequel, however, I would say that it will be best enjoyed by those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale or seen at least the first season of the show. The Testaments is a book that was 35 years in the making, but it was well worth the wait.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 10 October 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of young adult and horror author Kim Liggett comes one of the most thought-provoking reads of the year, The Grace Year.

In Garner County, a seemingly isolated town in the middle of vast wilderness, women are taught that they are magical beings whose eldritch powers are the root of all sin and whose magic can control the actions of men, causing them to do all manner of debauchery. In order to rid themselves of their magic, each girl in the village must participate in the grace year. At the start of their sixteenth year, all of the town’s young women are transported to an isolated compound deep in the woods. There they must spend an entire year together, using all their magic to survive amidst the harsh elements and the dangerous things lurking outside the fences. Only if they survive their grace year will they emerge as pure women.

Tierney James is just about to enter her grace year. As something of a rebellious soul compared to the other girls in the village, Tierney dreams of a better society in which women are not forced to survive amidst the bitter whims of the men nor pitted against other women. Hoping for a quiet life in the fields after she returns, an unexpected betrothal from her friend paints a target on her back from the other girls travelling with her. After arriving at the compound, Tierney attempts find a way for everyone to survive the harsh year. However, between the lack of food, the vicious poachers waiting outside the fence and the growing instability of the girls trapped with her, Tierney’s odds are not looking good. As the grace year continues, Tierney begins to suspect that she does not have any magic within her, and that the grace year is a lie. Can she convince her fellow participants of this before it is too late, or will Tierney be the latest victim of the grace year?

The Grace Year is a really interesting piece of fiction that features some stimulating examinations of modern society that has been getting some understandable comparisons to books like The Handmaid’s Tale. Liggett is a fantastic author who has produced a number of compelling young adult novels since her 2015 debut, Blood and Salt, each of which has some intriguing elements. Her latest book has more of a social commentary slant, as it takes a look at how younger women are viewed within our modern society.

I received a copy of The Grace Year a few weeks ago, and I have to admit that before the publisher contacted me, this book was really not on my radar. While the plot synopsis of this book sounded really interesting, it is a little outside of my usual review wheelhouse. However, after diving into this book, I found that Liggett has created a complex and creative tale in a unique setting filled with vicious action, social commentary, a moving romance and even some horror elements.

The central focus of the book is on how the world views young women and how it is capable to manipulate a society in order for certain people to remain in power. Liggett apparently based the story on a scene she witnessed in a busy subway, where a young teen girl was appraised by various people passing by her. As a result, her book is set in a rather disturbing dystopian society where a large female population is controlled by a smaller group of males and women are barely treated as people. The protagonist’s story unwinds the various methods that the men use to control the women, including through myth, religion, ceremonies, banishment and the events of the titular grace year. However, as the book progresses, there are some examples of female empowerment and thoughts of revolution that start to change the tone and direction of the book. All of these various elements ensure that The Grace Year is filled with quite a lot of social commentary that is incredibly relevant in modern times and which can be analysed in a number of different ways.

Liggett has done a great job telling her story in a well-paced and exciting manner. I found the initial parts of the book intriguing, especially when Liggett explored the various elements of the Garner County community, but my favourite part of the book covers the course of the actual grace year. There is a lot of apprehension built into the short amount of story before this point, as the narrator, Tierney, has very little actual idea of what actually occurs in the isolated compound during the grace year. In order to get to the compound, the young women have to traverse a landscape surrounded by poachers who make a legal living killing and harvesting the bodies of the grace year girls. While these poachers are a major threat, the real danger appears to come from the mental strain and manipulation of the isolation as the girls turn on each other. All this conflict and the resulting tribalism is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and makes for some powerful and dark scenes. There is also a rather curious and tragic central romance that takes up a lot of space in the centre of the book, which not only makes for some great reading, but which also helps highlight another aspect of the author’s crazy and inventive universe. All of this makes for a very compelling story that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who will love all the excitement and the really unique fictional society that the protagonist lives in.

The Grace Year is probably one of the more complex and unique books that I have had the pleasure of reading this year. It has some compelling ideas of society and gender identity that are interesting to unravel, all wrapped up in an excellent and captivating story. This is definitely a book that needs to be read in order to fully understand it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone looking for an intriguing piece of literature.

X-Men Red Volume 1: The Hate Machine by Tom Taylor, Mahmud Asrar and Pascal Alixe

X-Men Red Volume 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 18 September 2018

 

Writer Tom Taylor and his artistic team have created an excellent and thought-provoking new X-Men series that not only follows the reintroduction of one of comics’ most interesting characters to the turbulent Marvel Universe but once again examines the real world problems of hatred and prejudice.

X-Men_Red_Annual_Vol_1_1_Johnson_Variant.jpg

For years, Jean Grey’s fate has always been tied to the universe-ending Phoenix Force, the cosmic entity of rebirth and destruction that is constantly seeking the most powerful host it can find.  However, following her latest resurrection during the events of Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey, Jean has renounced the Phoenix power once and for all and is now determined to live her life on her own terms.  Still one of the most powerful mutants in the entire world, Jean Grey sets out to restore her connections and find her place in a world that has changed dramatically since her last death.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that mutants are still feared and hated by a world that doesn’t understand them.  Despite all the adventures and endeavours of Charles Xavier and his X-Men, animosity towards mutants has never been higher.  Determined to change the world for the better, the resurrected founding member of the X-Men sets out to achieve her vision for the future and change world opinion about mutants once and for all.  To do that, Jean first attempts to create a mutant nation at the UN.  But when she is framed for the murder of politician, Jean is declared a criminal and mutants are subject to greater hatred from mankind.

X-Men_Red_Vol_1_1.jpg

Realising that someone must be behind the recent upswing in anti-mutant sentiment and determined to protect those mutants targeted by hatred, Jean forms a new team of X-Men, made up of Nightcrawler, Storm, Namor, Gambit, Gentle, Wolverine (Laura Kinney – X-23), Honey Badger (Wolverine’s adorable clone) and newcomer Trinary.  But even as Jean and her team fight to save those mutants being targeted, more hatred and attacks are occurring around the world.  The sinister Cassandra Nova is determined to wipe mutants out once and for all and views Jean Grey as the greatest threat to this goal.

Following the end of his All-New Wolverine series, Australian author Tom Taylor returns at the head of a brand new X-Men series, X-Men Red, which takes fans back to the basics of the X-Men franchise.  Volume 1 of X-Men Red is made up of issues #1-5 of this new series, as well as Annual #1.  After enjoying Taylor’s work in All-New Wolverine (check out my review here: https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/09/08/all-new-wolverine-volumes-1-6-complete-series-by-tom-taylor/), I was excited to see him continue to work with Marvel, especially as it allows him to expand on characters and story elements he introduced in his previous Marvel series.  Most of the artistic work in this new series has been produced by veteran artist Mahmud Asrar, who has significant work in DC, Image, Marvel and other publishers.  X-Men fans may be familiar with his work on All-New X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men.  Asrar was the main artist for issues #1-5, while the work on Annual #1, which is placed at the start of the volume, was drawn by Pascal Alixe.

X-Men_Red_Vol_1_2.jpg

It is always fun when starting a new superhero team comic book series made up of established characters to see which heroes the creative team will include in their version of the team.  Taylor has certainly chosen an intriguing and previously unseen mixture of characters for this new X-Men series, and it is interesting to see which characters he focuses on.  The central character of this new team is the newly resurrected Jean Grey, the red in the series title.  This is one of the few times we see Jean step up to lead a team, as she is no longer in the shadow of her mentors or former lovers.  Aside from Jean, the main team members are Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Honey Badger, who are featured in all the issues contained within this first volume.  It was great to see Nightcrawler given such a prominent role in the comic, and it feels like it’s been a while since he’s been such a major character within an X-Men series.  I also liked new character Trinary, who is introduced in this series and is given an interesting set of powers.  Trinary is from India, and has technopathy powers, or the ability to manipulate technology.  Introduced as a new mutant who is attempting to fight the good fight in her own way, Trinary is given a key role in the series understanding the full nature of the technological attacks of the volume’s antagonist, while also taking over a sentinel to use as the team’s new primary source of transportation.  I think this character is given a great introduction, and could have an interesting future in the Marvel universe.  Other characters, Namor, Gentile, Gambit and Storm join the team at various points in the volume, and have a slightly reduced role, appearing for some of the big team ups, with only some short introductory storylines.

I was especially happy to see Taylor transplant the main characters of his previous All-New Wolverine series, Wolverine and Honey Badger, into his next project.  As I mentioned in my previous review, this version of Wolverine, Laura Kinney, also known as X-23, has always been one of my favourite X-Men characters, so I was very happy to see her used again in this series.  She plays a similar role in this team to the original Wolverine, as the silent infiltrator and bodyguard who is loyal to the team’s leader, who in this case is Jean rather than Professor X.  Just like in All-New Wolverine, the heart and soul of this series is definitely Honey Badger, Laura’s clone, who, as well as being a full member of the team, is the series’ comic relief.  Her humorous interactions with all the other characters in the book, especially the stern and serious characters, add a good amount of levity to the book.  Having her refer to Namor as Abs-lantis, or making Gambit hurriedly justify his actions for blowing up Honey Badger by saying it was “for strategic reasons” is particularly amusing and definitely made me smile.  However, the best line in the book has to be given to Wolverine, who casually replies to Jean’s amusement about Laura’s excitement about being in an underwater city with “Being Wolverine doesn’t make me impervious to the wonder of a #$%@%$& mermaid”.

X-Men_Red_Vol_1_3.jpg

One of the most defining things about the start of this new series is how it focused on the evolution of the character of Jean Grey.  Despite being a founding member of the X-Men, Jean’s most significant storylines have usually been about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine, or her connection to the Phoenix Force.  Now, after coming back to life, Jean has stepped out of these currently deceased characters’ shadows and starts her own attempt to change the world, as she is no longer content to return to her old life.  Essentially, Taylor is trying to set Jean up as the new Professor X, with her own vision for mutant kind and her determination to change the world for the better and end the current level of hatred and prejudice.  While she has her own unique style and vision, there are a lot of call backs to the original Professor X, including the standard “To me, my X-Men” saying that Professor X and other X-Men leaders utilised throughout X-Men history.  I also enjoyed seeing a Jean Grey that is no longer defined by her relationship with the Phoenix Force, especially as Jean lets it be known that the Phoenix Force was holding her back.

It was also nice to see Jean repair the relationships she previously lost with several prominent X-Men characters, as well as establishing new relationships with characters she’s never had a chance to meet before.  This is particularly prevalent in Annual #1, which starts the volume, as she reunites with her surrogate X-Men family, which is heart-warming, especially as there is a focus on her friendship with Nightcrawler, who spends the volume as her BFF.  I also really enjoyed seeing her think about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine.  For the first time in X-Men history, Jean is alive when Cyclops and Wolverine are both dead, and must focus on the world without the two men she’s loved.  As such, she spends time adventuring with the daughters of these two men, Rachel Grey and the new Wolverine, and meeting up with them is one of the first priorities she has returning to the world.  I liked how one of the definitive love triangles of Marvel Comics is acknowledged in this new series, even though two points of the triangle are currently dead, and the focus of Jean’s relationship with the next generation of these characters was a clever idea.  I’ll be very interested to see what relationships are explored in the future, with all sorts of different iterations or offspring of Jean and Cyclops out in the world at the moment.  It will also be very intriguing when the original Wolverine is resurrected to see what role he plays in this series, as the creative team will have to have a look at the relationships that this character has with Jean, the current Wolverine and Honey Badger, a new daughter character he’ll have to interact with.
X-Men_Red_Vol_1_4.jpg

Since its earliest days, X-Men has always been about the fight against prejudice, as the hatred the mutant characters experience has often been seen as an analogy for social issues such as racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.  Taylor and the creative team behind X-Men Red continue this tradition of using their X-Men series to reflect social issues, in this case focusing on modern issues such as the latest rise of the extreme right-wing, intense nationalism, islamophobia, fear and concern about refugees and migrants, as well as racism.  All of these social issues are reflected in the portrayed hatred of mutants in this volume, with various elements of recent world events shown directed towards the mutant characters.  For example, you have Poland attempting to use their military to round up and detain mutants, similar to how some countries have been using their military to stop or detain refugees.  In another very unconcealed scene, rioters carrying tiki torches start attacking mutants, not considering them people, and even killing one mutant counter protestor, in events that are reminiscent of those of Charlottesville.  There is also a focus on the damage or the impact that social media and the internet can have on these events, as many of the anti-mutant events or rhetoric are contained online.  This will be very familiar to readers, as it is impossible not to see the online hatred that many anonymous people direct towards various groups around the world, and at least the one in the comic may be the result of supervillain plot.  Overall this focus on prejudice is a familiar subject to X-Men readers, and many will appreciate how the creative team have tried to bring in modern issues in this new series.  The creative team do end Volume 1 with a message of hope, with some of these antagonist people given a proper understanding of an opposing viewpoint, momentarily giving up their hatred and prejudice, and is something aspire for in the real world.

The artwork within Volume 1 of X-Men Red is just gorgeous and a real highlight of the book.  As mentioned above, Alixe does the artwork for Annual 1, while Asrar does the artwork for issues #1-5.  Both artists’ works are visually distinctive and give the reader something different when it comes to character design, displays of power and fight sequences.  Asrar in particular does some gorgeous backdrops and landscapes, as the stories he is illustrating see the characters go to all sorts of locations, including India, underwater cities and Wakanda.  There are a lot of well-drawn action scenes throughout this volume, although I found the final pages of issue #1 to be some of the most powerfully drawn in the entire volume.  Not only is there a somewhat graphic scene for a Marvel comic but the final panel shows the look of despair on the main characters as the volume’s antagonist makes her first move.  The artistic team of X-Men Red have outdone themselves in this first volume, creating some superbly drawn artworks that are catch the eye and the imagination.

X-Men_Red_Vol_1_5.jpg

X-Men Red takes this new version of this iconic superhero team back to the sort of storylines that made the X-Men such a smash hit in the first place.  With a resurrected Jean Grey taking the lead, Australian author Tom Taylor and his creative team have cleverly brought current social issues to the forefront of their new series while also doing some superb character work, including redefining one of the original X-Men.  This is a great start to an amazing new comic series and a fantastic read for fans of the X-Men franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

The House on Half Moon Street Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

Prepare yourself for an extraordinary tale of love, life and murder in Victorian London, all with a unique twist that will make this book one of the most talked-about pieces of historical fiction this year.

In London, in 1880, Leo Stanhope is a bright young man living the city life.  He is employed as an assistant to a London coroner and is in love with Maria, a high-class prostitute.  However, Leo also has a big secret: he was actually born Charlotte.  Born a woman, but knowing deep inside that he was a man, he ran away as a teenager and has been living as Leo ever since.  Only a few trusted people know this, and Leo fears the day he’ll be discovered.

When Maria is found dead, Leo finds himself accused of her murder.  With his life falling down around him, Leo starts his own investigation into the case.  But what does Maria’s death have to do with another corpse found drowned in the river, and how do Maria’s rich employers and an infamous London abortionist fit into the case?  Leo will risk everything to find Maria’s killers, even if that means revealing his biggest secret.

This is an outstanding debut from author Alex Reeve, who has created a fabulous addition to the historical crime genre.  The House on Half Moon Street has massive potential to expand out into a fantastic and iconic new series.

Without a doubt, the most distinctive and memorable part of The House on Half Moon Street is the main character, Leo Stanhope, who is a transgender man.  The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that Reeve has done a great job of writing this character and has produced an appropriate and non-controversial description of a transgender person.  There is a lengthy examination of the protagonist’s views about his identity, which includes descriptions of his childhood, memories of how he has always felt this way and internal monologues on how uncomfortable he felt behaving as a woman.  Reeve also does a fantastic job of portraying Leo’s fears and frustrations at the way he has to live and the way some characters, such as members of his family, treat him.  Overall, this is an emotional and insightful examination of a transgender character in a historical setting, and Reeve has chosen an excellent protagonist for his novel.

The focus on a transgender main character and gender issues works well with Reeve’s great use of the Victorian setting, as he explores how transgender people lived in historical times.  As described in the book, transgender individuals were not treated well within Victorian England.  In one scene Leo describes how someone who was living in a similar situation to himself had recently been discovered by the authorities and institutionalised as a result.  The views and responses of the people who discover his secret also reflect the attitudes of the time, although there are some obvious parallels with some modern opinions, resulting in thought-provoking social commentary.  There are also some interesting descriptions of the techniques, tools and clothing that the protagonist uses to hide his female characteristics and make himself appear more masculine.  Due to differences in technology and social expectations, these techniques are obviously different from modern alternatives and represent some interesting hypotheses from Reeve.

There are also some amazing descriptions of Victorian London, which serves as a great backdrop for this story.  Not only does the dingy Victorian setting help to highlight Leo’s dark emotional state throughout the book; it is also the perfect background for a murder mystery that revolves around the murky criminal underworld.

On top of the compelling protagonist and the wonderful use of setting, those who read The House on Half Moon Street will also be treated to a top-notch murder mystery that also delves into the criminal and policing elements of 1880s London.  The investigation into the deaths is an intense experience that takes the protagonist through a series of different suspects and clues, creating an intriguing and complex case.  The emotional impact of the case on Leo is plainly obvious due to superb story narration, and this proves to be engaging to the reader, who becomes invested in solving the case.  The final solution to the book’s mystery is very clever, and the readers will love how the case comes to its conclusion.

Historical fiction buffs will also enjoy the examination of law and order during the era, as Reeve examines several police institutions, including the work of the coroner during the time.  The protagonist also encounters some of the city’s criminal elements, and there are some surprising crimes that are covered within the book.  Reeve’s use of a transgender protagonist once again comes into play during the character’s investigations, and the reader will be drawn into the scenes where Leo attempts to hide his previous life from the police and criminals.

The House on Half Moon Street is a phenomenal new book that takes a deep and sensitive look at transgender issues in Victorian London whilst also making use of a dark and detailed historical setting and a first-rate overarching murder mystery.

My Rating:

Four stars

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

Vampire Uprising Cover

Publisher: Hachette

Publication Date – 29 May 2018

 

From the inspired mind of Raymond Villareal comes one of the most captivating and thought-provoking literary achievements of 2018.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if vampires came into existence in the modern world?  Villareal’s debut novel, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, explores the possibility of such an event through a comprehensive fictional oral history, much like Max Brooks’ observation of a zombie apocalypse in World War Z.

The body of a young woman in an Arizona morgue awakens and disappears into the night.  This mysterious event will start a chain reaction around the world that no one could predict.  The CDC investigator consulting on the case soon discovers that the woman was suffering from a mysterious disease with several incredible symptoms.  Subjects are stronger, faster, suffer a violent reaction to sunlight, have unnaturally long lives and are utterly enthralling to humans.  More importantly, they must consume blood to survive and can pass the disease on by biting another human.  As attempts to quarantine the disease fail and additional bodies start disappearing, the world quickly realises that vampires are real and here to stay.

As more and more people are infected, many of those who have been turned begin to reintegrate back into society.  These new creatures call themselves ‘gloamings’, finding the term ‘vampires’ to be derogatory.  Soon, many of the rich and famous are flocking to the gloamings, hoping to join their ranks and be re-created.  With their natural talents enhanced, the gloamings start accumulating significant wealth, power and influence as they infiltrate all levels of human society while attracting followers to their side.  Gloamings infiltrate the government, powerful companies and the Catholic Church.  One gloaming even begins a run for high political office.

However, not everyone is enamoured by the gloamings.  A faction of the church is determined to stop the vampire incursion and has formed its own militia to fight gloamings throughout the world.  Following a series of high profile cases, the FBI starts a taskforce focusing on crimes by gloamings.  The original CDC investigator continues her research into the virus despite intense political and social pressure to stop.  In New Mexico, a skilled political motivator soon discovers a terrible secret about his employers.  This is the start of the vampire uprising; the world will never be the same.

Written in the format of a history book, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is an epistolary novel that uses a series of fictional documents and testimonials to tell the story.  Villareal presents a large portion of the story within chapters representing testimonials from certain characters specifically taken for a history book.  Other chapters are written in the format of important documents from the fictional world and are made to represent interrogation notes, congressional transcripts, government reports and articles in scientific and legal journals.  In addition to these longer chapters, Villareal has also included numerous shorter entries that are presented as news stories, public interest articles, transcripts pulled from popular media sites, emails and the comments section of a message board.  As a result of all these different formats and documents types, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising has the uncanny feel of an actual history book, which is further reinforced by the inclusion of footnotes in most of the longer chapters, and three short appendices slipped into the back on the book.  This is a marvellous way to structure the book and it speaks to Villareal’s skill that he was able to tell such a captivating narrative using this style of writing.

By employing fictional testimonies and documents originating from a number of different characters, Villareal is able to tell an extremely wide-reaching story about the introduction of vampires.  Most of the longer chapters are written in the style of testimonies from characters in the United States, while many of the shorter articles show a wide view of the rest of the world.  This allows Villareal to focus his main story in one specific country and focus his analysis on how the United States would react to such an event.  At the same time Villareal is also able to illustrate a much wider story showing how the vampire uprising would affect the entire world.  Exceptions to this are the chapters featuring the gloamings causing a religious and ideological schism within the church.  These chapters focus the plot on characters throughout Europe and represent some of the more fascinating fictional postulations within A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising.

While the book contains numerous narrators, authors and interviewees telling their specific stories, Villareal is still able to produce a clear overall narrative about the introduction of vampires to the world.  While Villareal initially has the individual narrators tell their own stories, eventually the characters meet and interact, allowing the multiple storylines to combine into one overarching plot.  The smaller articles and extra details within some of the longer features also allow the reader to have an amusing examination about how some social groups and individuals may react to the introduction of vampires, including celebrities such as Taylor Swift.  The end result is very well-done, overarching narrative that takes the multiple storylines within and turns it into an exciting and comprehensive overall plot.

While this is a piece of fiction, it also serves as an examination and critique of modern society.  Villareal postulates that if vampires ever did appear society would be split between distrusting such creatures and worshiping them, while the rich, famous and powerful would all try to join them, turning the gloamings into the ultimate elitist clique.  Villareal examines extremely plausible ways in which the gloamings could influence humans and attempt to win them to their side, with one chapter in particular describing how a vampire might win an election.  The result is a perceptive and astute examination of current human nature that will leave readers spinning.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is one of the most impressive books of the year.  Raymond Villareal produces an insanely compelling story while using a unique and clever format that clearly highlights his skill and imagination.  In addition to being incredibly entertaining, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is also an insightful piece of social commentary that will greatly amuse readers.  This is a truly magnificent piece of fiction and an outstanding debut from Villareal.

My Rating:

Five Stars