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.

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

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Runaways Volume 1: Find Your Way Home by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 8 May 2018

 

From bestselling young adult fiction author Rainbow Rowell and exciting Marvel artist Kris Anka comes the revival we have all been waiting for, with the return of Runaways.

Years ago, six young friends found out a terrible truth: their parents were members of a supervillain group known as The Pride and were working towards the destruction of the planet.  Uncovering their hidden powers and strengths, these friends, genius Alex Wilder, the sorceress Nico Minoru (Sister Grimm), alien Karolina Dean (Lucy in the Sky), mutant Molly Hayes (Princess Powerful/Bruiser), mad scientist offspring Chase Stein (Talkback) and proud dinosaur owner and daughter of two time travellers Gertrude Yorkes (Arsenic with her deinonychus, Old Lace), became the Runaways to escape their parents’ evil plans.

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After the death of Alex and all of their parents, the surviving Runaways become family and even brought in new members, including the cyborg Victor, the Skrull Xavin and the time displaced mutant Klara.  While the team’s plans to live in peace were often disrupted by their forced heroics, for a time they were happy.  But even the best families have a hard time staying together in the Marvel Universe, and following the death of Gert, Xavin’s forced departure for the stars, the events of Murderworld and the elevation of several members to the Avengers, the Runaways have gone their separate ways.

However, one former Runaway has had a hard time letting go of the past.  Stealing a time machine, the team’s wildcard member, Chase, has gone back in time to fix his biggest regret: the death of his girlfriend, Gertrude.  But being brought back to life several years in the future is tough, and all Gertrude wants to do is reunite with her friends, even if they are now older than her.  Chase is his old goofy self, but Nico and Carolina have moved on with their lives, , Victor is now just a head and Molly has moved in with her grandmother.  Will the Runaways get together again, or have their subsequent adventures affected their relationships too much? And who is the evil scientist stalking them from afar?

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Runaways was a ground breaking series originally released in 2003 that focused on a fresh new group of heroes with no previous connections to other characters in the Marvel Universe.  Created by Brian K Vaughan of Y: The Last Man and Saga fame and artist Adrian Alphona, Runaways represents some of their most significant work with Marvel.  Runaways was an exciting tale of teenage rebellion which was amplified by the superhero elements.  Featuring some incredibly iconic characters, the initial series of Runaways featured a fantastic enclosed story about crime and heroics in Los Angeles with only minimal inclusions from the outside Marvel Universe.  Featuring characters who acted in a contrary way to the other superheroes by actively avoiding fights, making fun of costumes and team names (they never actually referred to themselves as the Runaways) and only using superhero monikers ironically, this was a fun series with some clever new ideas.

Following this initial run, the story became a more traditional superhero series, focusing on the adventures of the titular heroes as they fought crime and other threats in LA.  There were a series of great adventures during this period, which included memorable events such as the tragic loss of Gert, Xavin’s sacrifice, several team-ups with the Young Avengers and involvements in the Civil War and Secret Invasion crossover events.  The series would abruptly end in 2009, and readers would have to wait years to see a significant follow-up.  The characters have appeared in several other series, including Daken: Dark Wolverine and Avengers Academy.  However, the characters would not significantly return until Avengers Arena, where Nico and Chase found themselves trapped in Murderworld, and Avengers Arena’s follow up series, Avengers Undercover, which saw the return of Alex Wilder.  At the same time, Victor would join the cast of Avengers A.I.  An alternate version of the Runaways got their own series as part of the 2015 Secret Wars crossover even, and Nico would eventually become a member of the female Avengers team in A-Force.
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With the release of 2017s Runaways television show, a new comic series of Runaways was announced by Marvel which saw the first run of the original characters in nearly nine years.  This new series is helmed by acclaimed young adult fiction author Rainbow Rowell and dedicated Marvel artist Kris Anka.  Volume 1 of their run of Runways, Find Your Way Home, contains issues #1-6 of the series, with a second volume to be released in October 2018.

Runaways has long been one of my favourite series, and is probably one of the best comic examinations of young teenage characters that Marvel has ever produced.  As a result, I was very excited to get my copy of Find Your Way Home, and headed into this new series with high expectations.  I was not at all disappointed by the result and really enjoyed this new series.  This first volume expertly captures the heart and soul of the original series, reunites several fan favourite characters, and skilfully addresses all the tragic events that have impacted this team over the last few years.

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The first thing that can be seen in this series is the extreme emotional damage that most of the characters have experienced over the last few years and the strain this has placed on the team.  Because of all the pressures in their lives, the Runaways have disbanded and each have gone their separate ways.  This appears to have affected team members Nico and Chase the most because of their traumatic experiences in the Avengers Arena series.  Nico comes across as very emotionally compromised from the very first scene, while Chase is still obsessed with his greatest tragedy, the sacrifice Gertrude made to save his life.  The other Runaways are just as damaged in their own separate ways.  Karolina is apparently trying to live a normal life, but while she seems unhappy, she is the most reluctant to re-join the team, and her eventual return results in emotional upheaval between her and Nico.  After dying, Gert finds herself alive again in the future with older versions of her friends, as well as an adult boyfriend.  She spends most of the volume trying to deal with these significant changes, the fact that her only real family fractured after her death, and the emotional trauma she experienced dying.  After his death in Vision, Victor spends the entire series as a disembodied head, and keeps his status hidden for most of the volume as he tries to work out if he wants to remain online and re-join the team.  Of all the characters, Molly seems to be the most together, as she is being looked after by her grandmother and is her usually bubbly and high-energy self.  However, her behaviour disguises the fact she knows about some of the deep problems happening around her, and her emotional breakdown at the end of the volume is quiet heartbreaking to behold.  Overall, the creative team handle these deep emotional issues well, and I really appreciated the fact that they did not deny or shy away from the trauma that these characters experienced in other Marvel series.

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Despite the high level of emotional trauma, there are quite a few very nice moments within the book that fans of the original Runaways series will really appreciate.  The team coming together at the end of the volume to save Molly and Gert is an amazing moment.  After viewing all of the above trauma, it was also great to see the team decide to get back together to become each other’s emotional support.  I also challenge anyone not to get emotional during the scene where Gertrude is reunited with Old Lace, as the two mentally connected friends are finally reunited for the first time in years.  Once again, the youngest Runaway, Molly, is the heart and soul of the team, and it is great to see that despite her age, she is still one of the most emotionally mature, giving sage advice and actually being the only person to notice the threats around them or the fact that Victor’s head is rolling his eyes at the events around him.  I also love that she still has the same Marvel fangirl attitude that she had in the original series, as she spends time wearing Captain Marvel inspired leggings.  Here’s hoping she gets to have some fun interactions with the rest of the Marvel Universe as she did before (the issue she spent running around with Wolverine is one of the funniest bits in Runaways’ previous run).

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One of the more interesting parts of this volume is that it focuses more on the character interactions than on action or adventure.  There really is not too much violence until the end of the book, and even then their biggest fight is against a group of psychic cats whom they do not actually want to hurt or kill.  I think that this is a good choice for the first volume, as this allows them to really focus on the characters, while also showing off the difference this series has to a classic comic book story.  Despite the lack of action, the series starts with one of the best scenes in the entire volume, when Chase appears in the middle of Nico’s apartment with a mortally wounded Gert.  Nico, despite her shock and the implications of what Chase has done, tries to use her magic to try to save Gert.  While Nico is a powerful magic user, all her magic is tied up in The Staff of One, her parent’s magical staff that has bonded to Nico’s body.  The Staff of One can bend reality to what Nico requests, however, it will only do the specific spell once.  This far along in their adventures, Nico has used a lot of spells already, including ‘heal’, and must use a range of more obscure or very specific statements to try and achieve her goals.   The first sequence where she uses a huge range of different spells really shows off the unique and in some ways limited nature of Nico’s powers and really shows emotional depth right off the bat as the characters get more and more desperate in their attempts to save Gert, and there is palpable relief when they manage to save her.

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This series of Runaways has a new artist at its helm, Kris Anka, and as a result the art style of Find Your Way Home is slightly different from the previous series.  It still works well to show off the story, and the depictions of the characters’ superpowers being used are pretty cool.  The new character designs are interesting, as Nico, Chase and Karolina are each given a different design to reflect how they’ve aged up since the last series.  Nico looks particularly worn and sad at the start of the comic, and is definitely showing off the strain of her adventure.  Anka has created an interesting look for Chase, and he now looks like a cross between a beach bum and a mad scientist.  The other characters, Molly, Victor, Gert and Old Lace retain similar styles to those they had in the previous series.  These similarities make a lot of sense, as Gert has time-travelled from the previous series, Victor is a cyborg head and Old Lace is a dinosaur.  The artist has also chosen not to change Molly’s age too much, and thankfully she retains her distinctive looks and hats.  One of the highlights of Anka’s work is the dinosaur Old Lace, and quite a lot of the book’s humour can be seen in her funny reactions and antics.  Overall, I really enjoyed the new art style of the book and found that the new character designs suited the book’s necessary changes.

Runaways return in top form with this fantastic first volume, which sticks true to the core of the beloved original series while also going off in some interesting new directions.  Rowell has created an intense narrative that expertly plucks at the heartstrings and examines all the problems and horrors that this group of young heroes have experienced since their initial run.  This is a superb new start to an excellent series.  I’m so happy to have my Runaways back, and I can’t wait to see how they resolve some storylines from the original series.  This is definitely a must-read for fans of the original series, but this is also the perfect chance for new readers to find out about this awesome superhero family.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

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Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

From of eight of the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy writers comes the latest addition to the superhero-filled Wild Cards universe, edited by fantasy legend George R. R. Martin.

Wild Cards is one of the more interesting series currently running in the world today due to its distinctive anthology format and the unusual way the series came into existence.  The stories that would eventually form the Wild Cards books were originally written as part of a lengthy Superworld role-playing game campaign that had Martin as gamemaster.  Martin and the other players, all of whom were science fiction writers, created elaborate backstories for the campaign and characters, which were eventually incorporated into the first book in the series, a dark and gritty superhero based anthology also called Wild Cards.  The following entries in the series, despite routinely changing authors, tended to follow the same format as the original book by combining together a series of short stories into a connected narrative.  Low Chicago is the 25th Wild Cards book to be released since the 1987 debut, with two other entries due to be published later in 2018.

The Wild Cards books are set in an alternative universe where an alien virus, known as the Wild Card virus, was released in 1946 above New York City.  This virus affected thousands throughout the planet, killing most of the people it came into contact with and altering the DNA of the survivors.  The vast majority of the infected who remained alive were mutated physically and are now referred to as Jokers.  However, a small percentage gained superhuman abilities and powers and are referred to as Aces.  The stories that followed have been set between 1946 and a time period that usually corresponds to the book’s real world publication date.

In Low Chicago, Martin continues to serve as editor.  The book includes input from two long-running Wild Cards contributors, John J. Miller and Melinda M. Snodgrass, who authored stories in the original Wild Cards.  There is also input from previous contributors Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kevin Andrew Murphy, as well as newcomers to the series, Saladin Ahmed and Christopher Rowe.

Low Chicago starts in 2017, where a high-stakes poker game has been set up in the city’s famous Palmer House Hotel by a prominent mafia boss.  Each of the seven players has a one million dollar buy-in, and is allowed to bring two attendants including bodyguards.  However, all hell breaks loose when a mysterious assailant targets one of the players, causing the other players and attendants, many of whom are powerful Aces, to unleash their abilities throughout the room.  In the middle of the chaos one of the bodyguards unleashes his own mysterious power and accidently scatters everyone in the room back in time.

Now with history changing outside the hotel, it falls to John Nighthawk and the Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, to travel back to various points of Chicago’s past and find the people trapped there before the present unravels.  But among those who have been sent back are some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, who have decided to change time for their own benefit.  Stuck throughout key points of Chicago’s history, can the time travellers be recovered before the present is permanently altered?

Like many of the books in the franchise, Low Chicago is an anthology featuring several short stories that have been combined together into one overarching and interconnected narrative.  Each of the short stories is unique and features one or more of the characters sent back in time, or inhabitants of the timeline they encounter.  Whilst these short stories all have the same starting plot point, they all have different focuses thanks to that story’s specific characters or time periods.  As a result there are several varied stories, each with their own unique features.  For example, the story Stripes, by Markos Kloos, features a fantastic narrative about the half-human, half-tiger character Khan being trapped in Chicago in 1929 and getting involved in the events surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Not only is the narrative about an obviously powered individual attempting to influence such an iconic moment in a mob war fun and exciting, but Kloos also includes some significant and heartfelt ethical and emotional decisions that really make you feel for the character of Khan.  At the same time, the story Meathooks on Ice is a complex and emotional story from Saladin Ahmed that focuses on a young and troubled Ace, Meathooks, as he attempts to find redemption and his place in the world back in prehistoric times.

In addition to the overarching time travel plot feature, each of these short stories is also connected together by the characters of John Nighthawk and Croyd Crenson, who could be considered the book’s main protagonists.  Nighthawk and Crenson either appear in the stories themselves or later interact with a story’s central character in order to resolve the specific storyline.  Nighthawk and Crenson are also the main characters of the book’s central storyline, A Long Night at the Palmer House, written by one of the founding authors of Wild Cards, John J. Miller.  This central storyline, told from the viewpoint of John Nighthawk, a character created by Miller in a previous book, is broken up into 11 parts and spread between Low Chicago’s other stories.  The first part of this storyline features the initial poker game and shows the events leading up to the other characters being sent back in time, while the reminder of this storyline focuses on the protagonists’ attempts to find them.  Large portions of this storyline directly tie into Low Chicago’s other short stories, but there are also some sections where they hunt down characters not featured in any of the other short stories.  Miller has included some great scenes in this central storyline, and they get particularly compelling when they encounter the results of the other characters meddling in time and they have to discuss the ethical implications of resetting the timeline.  One particularly outstanding example of this is a sequence that requires the characters to navigate through and fix up a messed up dystopia caused by one of the runaway Aces.

Despite the different authors and the varied content of Low Chicago’s stories, many of the entries complement each other and fit together really well as a result.  Nearly all of the stories contain links to the Wild Cards universe, make full use of Chicago’s rich history, have a comparable dark humour, feature intense action sequences, tell the story in the third person from point of view characters, and have a very similar pace.  There is however, one story that doesn’t follow this trend.  A Bit of a Dinosaur, by Paul Cornell, stands out from the rest of the entries in Low Chicago, as it breaks from third person narration that the other authors utilised, and is instead written in the first person.  Cornell capitalises on this by ramping up the humour in the story and making it a little lighter in tone than the other stories in the book.  The first line of A Bit of a Dinosaur, “I think it’s important to say, immediately, that I am no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs” really sets the tone for this whole short story and it only gets better from there.

One of the most enjoyable parts of Low Chicago is the rich history of the book’s titular city, Chicago.  Throughout all of the short stories, the reader is transported to various periods of Chicago’s history in order to witness several of the most significant events in the city’s past.  These include The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the opening of the first Playboy Club, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  All of the authors take significant pains to explore the significance of these events and the impact they had on Chicago and the rest of America.  The reader is given a crash course in the history of these proceedings, and also experiences the author’s interpretation of several key historical figures.  Many of these events occurred before the 1946 release of the Wild Card virus which removed the Wild Cards universe storyline from real world history, and it is fun to watch these events get altered due to the inclusion of several super-powered beings.  It is also extremely fascinating to see the various authors’ interpretations of the historical occurrences that happened after 1946, as they occur in a world where superpowers and mutations are rampant.  As a result, the authors have provided some inventive and captivating alterations that will prove to be highly enjoyable for the reader.

Fans of the Wild Cards universe will also love the deep connections that Low Chicago’s stories have with the rest of the franchise.  In addition to some interesting and complex new characters, Low Chicago features a huge range of characters who originated in the previous Wild Cards books.  There is a deep focus on the history of many of these characters and the readers get to see them placed in a range of unique and compelling situations.  In addition, the authors make full use of the overarching time travel storyline as they visit a range of characters who were killed off in previous books or whose main adventures occurred in storylines set many years before 2017.  Long-time fans of this series will love the inclusion of or nods to these early characters, especially as several have significant roles in the narrative.

Readers unfamiliar with this series may be slightly overwhelmed at the start of the book, but all of the authors contributing to Low Chicago do an amazing job of providing the relevant exposition and explanation for all the characters and the overall history of the Wild Cards universe.  Indeed, Low Chicago might be a perfect book for first time readers of the Wild Cards franchise, as the huge range of characters and the focus on time travel provides the reader with a huge amount of backstory and history that the previous books did not need to contain.

Low Chicago is an outstanding new release that is a sensational and memorable inclusion to one of the best science fiction series currently on the market.  It makes incredible use of its distinctive anthology format and the overarching time travel storyline throughout Chicago’s history that is an inspired and marvellous in its execution.  Low Chicago really stands out from the rest of the books in the Wild Cards franchise and readers will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 8 February 2018

 

A classic and complex murder mystery in a English manor combines with ingenious elements from fantastic genres to create one of the best new releases of 2018.  Reading like the outrageous combination of Groundhog Day, Inception, Downton Abby and Sherlock Holmes written by Agatha Christie, The Seven Deaths of Eveyln Hardcastle is the triumph debut from outstanding new author Stuart Turton.

In a turn-of-the-century country manor, Blackheath, a group of distinguished family guests have gathered for the first time since a terrible incident many years ago.  Before the end of the weekend’s masquerade, a terrible crime will be committed.  A young woman will be killed, and no one will realise that her death was the result of murder.

Inserted into the middle of all this chaos is Aiden Charles, who awakens with no memory of who he really is.  Aiden thinks at first that he is a cowardly doctor with amnesia until a man wearing a plague mask reveals that nothing is as it seems.  Aiden is an outsider, inhabiting and controlling the body of the doctor through unknown means.  The plague doctor reveals that Aiden has been trapped within the manor and is being forced to repeatedly relive the same day again and again, awakening each morning in a different host and living the entire day in their body.

There is only one way Aiden can earn his freedom: solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the estranged daughter of the manor’s owners.  If Aiden can solve the murder by the end of his eighth day, he will be able to leave.  If he fails to solve the murder his memory will be erased and the cycle will start again.

Using the abilities and connections of his eight very different hosts, Aiden must navigate the halls of Blackheath and the various guests who have arrived for the party.  However, Blackheath has a dark history of murder and betrayal that still casts a shadow to this day.  Every one of its inhabitants has a secret, and many of the guests would willingly kill to protect theirs.

Aiden is also forced to overcome several unnatural problems associated with his circumstances.  While the bodies he inhabits all hold the means to solving the crime, he is forced to balance the varied personalities of his hosts, each of which causes him to act or think in a very different way.  The longer he remains trapped in Blackheath, the more powerful the personalities are.

It also soon becomes apparent that Aiden is not as alone as he thought.  Two other people like him have also been trapped in Blackheath, but only one of them can solve the murder and earn their freedom.  One of his competitors appears to be trying to help him, but Aiden may not be able to trust the mysterious Anna, even though her name is the only thing from his past life that he can remember.  The third competitor has taken on the persona of a murderous footman and has no qualms about killing all of Aiden’s hosts to remove him from the competition.  Can Aiden solve an unsolvable crime before all his hosts are killed, or will he be trapped forever within Blackheath?

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fantastic read that features a unique and imaginative combination of genres.  The basis of the story is a complicated murder mystery placed within the setting of a British manor house.  However, there is a certain and mysterious fantastic element that makes the narrator relive the day over and over again within a new host.  The murder mystery, the manor house setting and the time travelling body swapping, combine together perfectly into a tremendously addictive narrative.

At the heart of the story is an intense and compelling mystery that quickly becomes the main draw for the reader.  Solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle requires the protagonist to discover and expose every single secret and lie within the manor.  The sheer amount of details and enigmas that Turton has included with the book are so immense that it takes nearly eight different perspectives of the same sequence of events to get them all together.  Even then, the reader will be amazed by every single twist and turn that it takes to get to the final reveals.  The time travel and body  switching elements of the plot cleverly tie in and enhance the book’s mystery elements.  These elements allow the reader to see multiple versions of the same event, provide a wide variety of different perspectives on the clues, and pull together different testimonies from the same characters as they are questioned by the various hosts.

In addition to enhancing the murder mystery elements, the time travel and body switching aspects of the novel also help to increase the pacing and suspense throughout the book.  The transition between the main character’s various hosts is not as linear as it first appears.  Not only does the narrator switch to his next host once a day is over, he can also switch back to a previous host when he one of his hosts is knocked out, falls asleep or is killed.  This allows the reader to flip through these hosts when a lot of action is occurring, especially when the narrator’s various hosts are targeted in quick succession.  Additional suspense is also introduced due to many of the incidents within the story being out of sync with the narrator.  Various events have been put into place by either future hosts of the narrator or by characters from different points of the book’s timeline.  As a result, the reader has no idea why some events are happening, especially at the start of the book, and it is cool when the various causes of these events are revealed throughout the later parts of the book.

An appealing part of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the eight unique hosts for the main character to possess.  Each of these hosts has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is intriguing watching the main character try and work out what they are.  They also have their own distinctive personalities that affect the main character in different and subtle ways.  The hosts also have their own way of dealing with people or situations, and this affects how the main character reacts and goes about his investigation.  It is intriguing to see how he changes from host to host.  In addition, there is no certainty about who the main character’s future hosts are going to be.  While there are hints, the reader doesn’t know until the narrator wakes up in the body, so the reader can’t help but examine the other characters with whom the narrator interacts in case they are a future host.  There are also some interesting scenes in which the narrator attempts to find and interact with a future version of himself.  Turton’s use of multiple hosts for his narrator is an important and distinctive part of this book that cleverly adds additional mystery to the narrative while also providing suspense and a changing array of personalities and challenges for the protagonist.

Representing a masterful combination of crime fiction and otherworldly attributes, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is pure enthrallment that is guaranteed to transfix all eyes to its pages.  As one of the best releases of 2018, I cannot recommend this book enough.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Vallista by Steven Brust

Vallista Cover

Publisher: Tor

Australian Publication Date – 28 November 2017

World Publication Date – 17 October 2017

 

One of fantasy’s most iconic heroes returns in Vallista, the latest book from acclaimed fantasy writer Steven Brust.

In the world of Dragaera powerful and long-lived humanoids known as the Dragaerans are the planet’s dominant species, while humans, called Easterners, are second-class citizens.

Vlad Taltos is a rare anomaly, being an Easterner with a title, money and influence.  Having made his name as an enforcer and assassin, Vlad was a respected member of House Jhereg, the Dragaeran clan in charge of the Empire’s organised crime.  However, Vlad’s relationship with the Jhereg has deteriorated.  Having betrayed his clan, Vlad has spent the last few years on the run, hunted day and night by ruthless assassins.  Luckily, Vlad has friends in very high places, including the Empress, some powerful sorcerers, a necromancer and even a Dragaeran god.

Throughout his travels, Vlad has had several meetings with Devera, a small Dragaeran girl who is the daughter of one of his many powerful friends.  Devera is a mysterious creature of considerable power, an overabundance of enigma and a casual relationship with the rules of time.  Devera has once again appeared to Vlad, requesting his help and leading him to a mysterious manor that has suddenly materialised by the sea.

Despite the fact that the manor should not even exist, Vlad enters, only to find himself trapped with the manor’s mysterious inhabitants.  The inside of the manor is a weird collection of rooms and corridors altered by magic and no longer obeying the rules of reality.  Mirrors teleport people from room to room, mysterious portals lead to the ancient past, and a certain door leads to the Halls of Judgement, the Dragaeran afterlife.

The more Vlad explores, the more he understands that the manor is home to many lies and death.  The overly helpful servants are determined to keep the manor’s past a secret.  No one will explain how an unused and empty kitchen keeps providing Vlad with warm meals.  On top of this, Vlad encounters a ghost unaware of how she died, a mutant deformed by magic, and a powerful demon determined to kill him.

In order to escape, Vlad must uncover the manor’s bloody history and reveal all of its inhabitants’ dark secrets.  With his sarcastic familiars and a sentient sword to aid him, Vlad must use every trick at his disposal to survive while trying to interpret some beguiling visions of his own past lives.  If only Devera, his only guide, would stop disappearing in the middle of every conversation.

Vallista is the 15th book in Brust’s iconic Vlad Taltos series, and is set before the 14th book in the series, Hawk.

One of the most appealing features of Brust’s books has always been their trademark combination of fantasy world-building, action, adventure and fun comedic undertone.  Brust continues this trend in Vallista, creating a fast-paced book that delivers several exhilarating action scenes and a good amount of comedy without compromising the fantasy elements of the plot.  Fans of the Vlad Taltos series will be excited to see an in-depth look at Devera, a minor character who has long mystified readers, as well as visions into several of the titular character’s past lives.

Brust also has an enjoyable habit of combining elements of other genres into his stories.  This ensures that many of the books in the Vlad Taltos series are transformed into different genres, such as murder mysteries, political thrillers or heists contained within the fantasy setting.  Vallista continues this trend with its interesting and unique fantasy mystery.  The main character is forced to uncover the secrets of the mysterious manor in which he is trapped in order to escape.  As a result, Vallista reads a lot like a typical mystery, which is enhanced by the book’s various fantasy elements.

Vallista also borrows several elements from classic haunted house tales.  The main character is trapped and imperilled, the house is filled with servants reluctant to reveal their secrets, and ghosts, monsters and strange events are around every corner.  However, as this is a fantasy book, our hero has far more experience in dealing with such things, and quite a lot of the book’s humour revolves around Vlad responding to the manor’s various challenges.

Unsurprisingly, this book will appeal greatly to those readers who enjoyed the previous instalments of the Vlad Taltos series.  At the same time, this is one of the most inclusive fantasy series that I have ever read.  Burst is very good at succinctly explaining the universe’s lore so that new readers will easily be able to enjoy Vallista every bit as much as any seasoned veteran of the Vlad Taltos series.

Overall, Vallista is fun fantasy adventure that will appeal both to Brust’s established fans and to casual fantasy readers.

My Rating:

Four stars