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.

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.

Throwback Thursday – Teen Titans Volume 1: A Kid’s Game

Teen Titans 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback Edition – 1 April 2004)

Series: Teen Titans (2003)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Writer: Geoff Johns

 Artists:  Mike McKone

                Tom Grummett

                Marlo Alquiza

                Nelson

                Jeromy Cox

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

Ever since I mentioned Geoff Johns’ 2003 Teen Titans series in one of my Top Ten lists last week, I have wanted to revisit the series.  I have always loved this run of Teen Titans the most.  Something about the combination of storylines, characters and this version of the artwork always spoke to me.  It was also one of the first comic series that I read and subsequently went out of my way to get every collected edition.  Even years later I still love dusting this series off, so I figured this would be a good time to go back and have a try at reviewing parts of this series.  That is why for this Throwback Thursday I will be looking at the first collected volume of the series, Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game.

Teen_Titans_v.3_1.jpg

The Teen Titans are a team of teenaged heroes in the DC universe, usually the sidekicks of the universe’s adult heroes, but also featuring several characters without mentors.  The first formation of the Teen Titans occurred in 1964 and featured the original Kid Flash (Wally West), Robin (Dick Grayson) and Aqualad (Garth).  After a short while the original Wonder Girl (Donna Troy) joined their ranks and the team started calling itself the Teen Titans before it was given its own series.  Teen Titans was DC’s attempt to appeal to the younger generation of comic book fans, and it proved to be an extremely successful series, featuring a number of DC’s younger characters, including Green Arrow’s sidekick, the original Speedy (Roy Harper), who is considered a founding member of the team.  Teen Titans went through a number of different relaunches, with probably their most famous one occurring in 1980 with the launch of the New Teen Titans series, which brought back most of the original Titans, revamped Changeling to Beast Boy and introduced a number of iconic characters, including Cyborg, Starfire and Raven.  It also introduced several of the team’s most famous villains, including Deathstroke and Trigon.  The Teen Titans are one of DC’s most iconic superhero teams and have been featured in a number of media platforms, including the amazing Teen Titans animated show, Teen Titans Go (the less said the better), the dark and surprisingly good live action Titans and a number of key story and character elements have been included in the awesome Young Justice animated show.

Teen Titans went through a number of relaunches throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the one most relevant to the 2003 Teen Titans comic series is the 1999 Titans comic series, which followed the adventures of adult versions of the original Teen Titans, most of whom had new superhero personas.  At the same time, DC launched the Young Justice comic book series (which I have talked about before) incorporating the younger generation of sidekicks (for example a new and younger Robin and Wonder Girl).  Both these series ended after the 2003 crossover limited series, Titans/Young Justice: Graduation DayGraduation Day featured a number of important events, including the sudden death of longstanding Titans member Omen; however, the most significant event was the death of the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy.  The resultant despair and guilt following the death of this significant character led to both the Titans and Young Justice dissolving in what was to be conclusion of both these series.

Teen_Titans_v.3_2

However, shortly after this, Geoff Johns started this specific run on Teen Titans, which combined elements of the cancelled Young Justice and Titans series, with the main four characters from Young Justice teaming up with some of the classic Teen Titans.  Another new series of Outsiders started around the same time and was heavily linked to this run of Teen Titans and featured Dick Grayson and Roy Harper.  This specific run of Teen Titans lasted until 2011, when DC initiated their New 52 relaunch (which I may or may not have some issues with).  Geoff Johns was the principle writer of this series until the 2005-06 Infinite Crisis limited series, which was a significant story point for all of DC’s titles at that point.  Due to the fact that Johns was the principle writer of the Infinite Crisis series, several of the younger Teen Titans (Superboy and Wonder Girl in particular) played a key part in this big crossover event, and several storylines from the 2003 Teen Titans turned out to be heavily linked to the crossover event.

Following the tragic events of Graduation Day, the young heroes that made up the superhero team Young Justice are lost.  Tim Drake (Robin), Conner Kent (Superboy) Bart Allen (Impulse) and Cassandra Sandermark (Wonder Girl) dissolved the team in their grief over losing the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, and have been avoiding each other since her funeral.  They may be the sidekicks of the greatest heroes in the world, but they are all missing their friends.  Despite their reluctance to team up again, each of them accepts an invitation from Victor Stone (Cyborg) to form a new version of the Teen Titans.  With a new base in San Francisco and other veteran Titans members Starfire and Beast Boy to help as mentors, Cyborg wants to bring these young heroes together again and forge an effective team.

Teen_Titans_v.3_3.jpg

However, before Cyborg can attempt to work with the four new Titans and convince them to stay on the team, a massive explosion rips through Alcatraz, endangering tourist lives.  As the Teen Titans mount a rescue, one of them is ambushed by the team’s oldest and most dangerous adversary, the world’s best assassin, Deathstroke the Terminator.  Deathstroke has long had a complicated relationship with the Teen Titans, but this time it looks like he wants to put the team down for good.  Claiming that kids should not wear costumes, he attempts to take out each member of the team, but what is the real reason behind his attack?  Can this new version of the Teen Titans survive the ruthless assassin?  What role will recently reborn Titan Raven play? Moreover, what will happen when the Justice League arrives to shut them down?

As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan in general of this entire run of Teen Titans, but this has to be one of the best instalments in the entire series.  Geoff Johns and his creative team came out of the gate swinging with this one and started the series off with a bang.  Not only does A Kid’s Game feature a fantastic storyline and contain some excellent character work, but it also serves as an outstanding first instalment of what turned out to be one of DC’s most consistent and captivating comic book series between 2003 and 2011.  The A Kids Games collected edition is made up of Teen Titans (2003) #1 – 7 and also features parts from Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files 2003, which can be useful for those readers unfamiliar with the characters, or at least that incarnation of them.

Teen_Titans_v.3_4.jpg

The storyline contained within A Kid’s Game has a lot of fantastic elements to enjoy within it.  The initial formation of the team is handled very well, as each of them is shown to be lonely or unsatisfied with their lives without their friends, and despite their misgivings decide to join up.  The follow-up battle between the team and Deathstroke is really good, and the team learning how to fight together while uncovering their antagonist’s motivations is very exciting.  Deathstroke has a hell of an entrance in this volume when he kneecaps Impulse at the end of the second issue in what is a pretty shocking and memorable moment.  I personally loved the storyline that occurred right after this in Teen Titans 2003 #6, when the Justice League, including the mentors of each of the younger Teen Titans’ members, show up and try to meddle with how the team is run.  This results in some chaotic action and a huge amount of amazing comic book drama, as the sidekicks fight and vent their well-justified frustrations to their mentors while also coming to terms with the guilt they feel over Donna Troy’s death.  I really cannot speak highly enough about this part of the volume, and I think this was what made me initially fall in love with the series.  The final storyline shows each of the characters during the school week, when it really helps to highlight the issues that being a part of the Teen Titans is helping them face.

One of the things that I really like about this volume is that each issue contains a shocking reveal at the end.  I know that some comics overuse this, but I felt that Johns and his team were pretty justified in doing this, as they were trying to up the stakes during these first comics in their new series.  A lot of significant and surprising things are revealed during each of these issues, many of which would have ground-shaking impacts not just for the Teen Titan, but for the DC universe as a whole (Spoilers ahead).  This happens right in the first issue, with the reveal that half of Superboy’s DNA comes from Lex Luthor.  Other big events occurring at the end of each issue are the kneecapping of Impulse, the revelation that Jericho was still alive inside Deathstroke, Bart’s first appearance as Kid Flash, Wonder Woman showing up to start the brawl between the League and the team and the reveal that Lex Luthor is the person leaking information about Superboy’s genetics to Robin.  Even the quiet, final issue of this volume has a big reveal at the end, with the revelation that Rose Wilson is now working with her father Deathstroke.

Teen_Titans_v.3_5.jpg

The creative team behind this original run obviously had a great appreciation for some of the preceding Teen Titans series, as they utilise a number of key characters from these earlier series.  I personally thought that the issues contained with A Kid’s Game did a fantastic job of blending these old school Teen Titans storylines and character together with the former Young Justice characters, creating an excellent new dichotomy for the team.  This blend of the old and new helped create an excellent new series and was one of the best features of John’s run, and I also enjoyed the respect he showed towards the old Young Justice series.  I was also really impressed in hindsight with how well Johns and his team set up or hinted at a number of future storylines or character developments in these initial issues.  Many of these storylines (such as Superboy being a mixture of Superman and Lex Luthor’s DNA, Wonder Girl being related to Ares, Rose Wilson joining with Deathstroke, the resurrection of Raven and Jericho and the new Brother Blood) would have impacts for years to come and some are even utilised in comic series, television shows and animated movies to this day.  The creators of A Kid’s Game did an incredible job including them this early in the series, and they were really good introductions.

One of the best things about the entire 2003 run of Teen Titans is the focus on the characters and their development throughout the series.  While other volumes of this series feature some great character moments, nowhere is this more prevalent than within the issues that make up A Kid’s Game.  Most of the focus within this book is on the four characters, Robin, Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl, who are moving over from Young Justice to the Teen Titans.  The creators take a significant look at each of them and really work to develop each of them as substantial characters and develop them deeper than what they were within Young Justice.  With this impressive focus on developing and utilising these characters to their full potential, it is no wonder that they were utilised as such major characters during the Infinite Crisis storyline and beyond.  I also like how the older members of the team had to step up and assume a leadership role that readers had not seen before.  As a result, Cyborg and Starfire attempted to fill these leadership roles, while the slightly younger and less mature Beast Boy acts as the bridge between the two generations.  I thought that these new roles were really clever and added some new dynamics to the team.  I was also really impressed with how the creators focused on the trauma that all of the team members were feeling in the wake of Donna Troy’s death.  Each of them was racked with guilt after they were unable to help stop her death, and the anger and grief that each of them was feeling was extremely evident throughout the volume.

Teen_Titans_v.3_6.jpg

Another incredible part of this initial volume was the strong look at the relationship between the sidekicks and their mentors.  Despite the high regard each of their mentors holds in the superhero world, each of these sidekicks has issues that stem from how they perceive or are treated by their mentor.  The creative team really go out of their way to highlight these issues, and many are quite clever.  For example, Superboy, who is living as Conner Kent, appears to be frustrated at living a quiet life in Smallville, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is having trouble living up to the legacy of not only Superman but Clark Kent as well.  Robin is stuck wondering what his future holds and it soon becomes clear that he is reluctant to become like Batman, despite the fact that his is more like him than any of the Robins that came before him.  Wonder Girl is extremely angry and rebellious throughout this volume and is beginning to doubt her mentor Wonder Woman.  This is revealed to be a side effect of her trauma at the death of Donna Troy, and it soon becomes clear that she is one most impacted by the former Wonder Girl’s death.  Finally, Bart is sick of being considered not good enough to be part of the Flash legacy, as his own mentor does not think he is responsible enough to bear the Flash name (which is ironic, considering he is the only one of these young heroes whoever takes up their mentor’s mantle).  As a result, he acts like he does not care, while deep down he craves approval and Flash’s respect.  Bart easily shows the most growth within this volume, as he takes the Kid Flash mantle for himself, dedicates himself to learning all he needs to be a hero and vows to leave the Flash in his shadow.  All of these character issues come to a head perfectly when the Justice League arrives unannounced at Titan’s Tower and they try to meddle with their sidekicks lives and there are some amazing and cathartic moments between the younger heroes and their mentors.  His is comic book character work at its very best.

I have to note the great job the artistic team does throughout these first seven issues.  There are some great new character designs, such as Superboy’s iconic new look of jeans and a superman t-shirt, something that is still utilised within the Young Justice television show.  I also liked the way that Bart looked in the Kid Flash outfit.  The artwork on the action sequences is also pretty awesome, and there are a huge number of eyepopping scenes throughout this volume.  That shot of Kid Flash getting kneecapped is very impressive and really sticks with you.  Overall, there is some fantastic artwork, which works really well with the outstanding story and character work to create an excellent first volume.

Teen_Titans_v.3_7

Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game is an amazing first volume in the 2003 Teen Titans series.  I cannot speak highly enough about the storylines and the way that the creative team handle the complex young heroes.  A spectacular start to an incredible run one of DC’s most iconic series.  I fully intend to review some other volumes in this Teen Titans in the future so stay tuned for them.

Phantom Wheel by Tracy Deebs

Phantom Wheel Cover

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date – 16 October 2018

 

When six genius teen hackers are invited to audition for the CIA in order to receive an exclusive scholarship and job offer, five of them, Issa, Harper, Ezra, Alika and Seth, jump at the opportunity and create the code that is requested of them.  The sixth teen, Owen, walks out of the room, refusing to participate.  Later, when the other five return home they each receive a message for Owen, “You’ve been played.”  Owen has uncovered that the people interviewing them were not from the CIA; instead they work for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, Jacento.  Worse, the hackers’ combined code works together to create a virus, known as Phantom Wheel, which is a malicious piece of code that will give Jacento access to everyone’s personal data and unparalleled control of the world.  Determined not to let their creation be unleashed, the six teens band together to break into Jacento and steal back their code.  While they are young, these teens are among the most creative hackers in the world.  But will their combined skill be enough to protect them from a dangerous corporation with everything to lose?

Phantom Wheel is a fun young adult thriller that focuses on the adventures of six teen hackers determined to save the world from their unintentional creation.  This book has a cool style to it, some interesting characters and an intriguing story that features a lot of technological and hacker elements to it.  I only got this book a little while ago and managed to read through it pretty quickly, enjoying its various elements and aspects.

The author of this book, Tracy Deebs, is actually the young adult pseudonym of prolific romance novelist Tracy Wolff.  As Tracy Deebs, the author has created a number of varied young adult titles, including the techno-thriller Doomed; the mermaid based Tempest series; the superhero based The Hero Agenda series, which was cowritten with Tera Lynn Childs; and the teen romance series, Dahlia and Keegan, which started with her 2016 release The Secret Life of a Dream Girl.

When I first heard the premise of Phantom Wheel, I was intrigued and interested to see if the story could live up to the awesome-sounding plot summary, and overall I was fairly satisfied with the end result.  The story is told from the point of view of three of the main teen characters, Issa, Harper and Owen, and focuses on their fast-paced and exciting story of technological espionage and high-stakes hacking.  The plot moves quickly from the protagonist discovering what they had been tricked into doing, to them attempting a complex heist to steal it back.  I loved the heist scene, especially at the start when the protagonists split off into three teams, each with a point-of-view character, in order to obtain security items off three different members of the company at a party, especially as it allowed all the characters to play to their strengths during this sequence.  The sequences following the heist were also particularly good, as the protagonists attempt to escape from a horde of evil corporate security goons and the police by using their hacking skills to crash cars and stop trains.  I have no idea how realistic this is, but it was still fun to read about.  Overall the story is pretty fun, and has a lot of memorable moments.

The style of Phantom Wheel is also really interesting and has some great elements to it.  I personally really enjoyed the inclusion of the several different case study summaries of the protagonists that were scattered throughout the book.  These case studies also included amusing video surveillance files that follow each of the protagonists as they use their hacking skills to either get revenge or justice, or look at the characters having key conversations with each other.  I also liked the various uses of text messages and other electronic communications throughout the entire book, which fits in well with the technology based theme of Phantom Wheel.  The protagonists also speak a large amount of techno-talk and hacker slang throughout the novel, which gives the entire story a whole lot of authenticity.

Deebs has included six interesting and varied protagonists in the novel.  Despite the various first impressions of these characters, each of them has a lot more depth revealed throughout the course of the book, especially as they grow to trust the other members of their little band and open up to them.  Each of the characters has varying degrees of emotional backstory, which explains why they are the people they are and why they have taken to hacking, all of which is revealed throughout the course of the book.  I have to say I was impressed by Deebs’s inclusion of an asexual character in Harper, especially as asexual people are an under-represented group in modern fiction.  This asexual character seemed like a natural fit, and her acceptance by the group with only minimal questions or comments came across as a quite realistic and generally positive.

While I enjoyed the characters, they did at times stretch the plausibility of the book just a tad too much for my liking.  While I am willing to accept that hackers are just as likely to be in shape as other members of society, the actions that these teenagers were able to do, such as evading professional killers, fighting off trained security guards and jumping out of buildings, did seem a little ridiculous to me, and made me slightly question what I was reading.  I also found it interesting that four out of the six main protagonists were all members of rich families and had a huge net worth, one of them was even the daughter of a fictional Secretary of State.  While each of them had issues as a result of their wealthy lifestyle and the poorer characters of Issa and Harper balanced them out a little, even calling them out on their wealth, it did seem a little odd to include so many rich kid characters.  While this could potentially be explained away by the fact that hackers need money to pay for training and equipment, I feel that Deebs could have made one or two of them more middle class.  Still, none of these impacted my enjoyment of the book too severely and are easy to get around.

As a young adult book, Phantom Wheel is a good read for younger to older teens, although adult readers could also have a lot of fun with this.  The technological aspects of the book are quite intriguing and are easy to follow and understand, and will probably spark the interest of technically minded youths.  Readers will be able to relate to some of the characters in the book, and once again I have to point out my respect for Deebs’s great portrayal of an asexual character, as well as other minor LGBT+ elements.  With nothing too over-the-top in this book, it is a perfect read for a wide audience.

Overall, this new techno-thriller from veteran author Tracy Deebs is a fun and exciting novel that most readers will find quite entertaining.  Deebs has created a compelling story, used some great characters and installed some intriguing elements, all of which makes Phantom Wheel quite enjoyable and definitely worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four stars