The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 August 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Debuting author Vikki Petraitis delivers an impressive and deeply moving Australian thriller skilfully set around the powerful subject of sexual violence with The Unbelieved.  This is Petraitis’s first novel, which has been receiving a large amount of buzz, including some awards.  As such, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it had a very interesting plot, and this ended up being one of the most compelling and memorable Australian debuts of 2022.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has spent many years investigating terrible and destructive crimes in Melbourne.  After one case goes horribly wrong, Antigone decides to seek the quieter life and moves to her grandmother’s house in the Victorian coastal town of Deception Bay, where she was raised.  However, her attempts at finding peaceful policing quickly go up in smoke when a series of drug assisted sexual attacks occur throughout Deception Bay and the neighbouring towns.

After a sting operation at the local pub reveals a suspect who attempts to drug her, Antigone believes that they have perpetrator dead to rights.  However, they are soon forced to let him go when the male witnesses to the event refuse to cooperate and her superior attempts to brush the case under the rug.  Reaching out to the community, she finds a wall of silence and shame surrounding sexual crimes in Deception Bay, which has failed to lead to any convictions in the town.

Determined to stop the attacks no matter what, Antigone continues her investigation against her superior’s wishes, and uncovers a series of attacks across town.  Attempting to break through the fears of the women of Deception Bay, Antigone and her partner begin closing on the information they need.  However, Antigone also finds herself under threat from all corners and must work swiftly before she is shut down for good.  But can she succeed before another girl is attacked, and what happens when the darkness from her past rears its ugly head again?

Wow, I was not prepared for just how good and moving The Unbelieved was going to be.  Vikki Petraitis has really shown off her skill and talented as a writer with her first book, presenting a powerful read on an extremely relevant subject that strikes the reader hard.  Featuring an exciting and very clever mystery storyline that also intensely examines violence against women in Australia, The Unbelieved is an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At its centre The Unbelieved has an exceptional multifaceted narrative that follows detective Antigone Pollard as she finds herself investigating terrible events occurring around Deception Bay.  Detective Pollard initially attempts to stop a series of sexual attacks, but she soon becomes involved in several other cases while trying to fit in to the community, despite opposition from some of its male residents.  As her case develops and more victims come forward, Pollard also finds herself investigating a suspicious death, a historical murder-suicide, a series of domestic violence cases, and more.  These investigations are often hampered by her superior and problematic members of the community, and Pollard also finds herself being threatened or attacked as she attempts to do her duties.  At the same time, elements from her past in Melbourne are revealed through a series of well-crafted flashbacks that expand on her motivations and begin to bleed into her current cases, especially once a prior suspect is brought back into the light.

Petraitis takes the story in some interesting directions throughout the course of The Unbelieved, and I loved the fantastic combination of the compelling yet heartbreaking cases that are explored throughout.  This investigation angle is well balanced with the character development of the protagonist, as well as the emotional exploration of several interesting supporting characters, and you really get involved in the narrative and the character’s fates as The Unbelieved continues.  The story becomes more complex as the book unfolds, and the protagonist finds herself caught up in a devious local conspiracy that seeks to take her down at the same time.  There are some brilliant twists and reveals throughout the plot, and I loved how several of the storylines developed.  The entire book was very well paced out, and I found myself getting really absorbed in so many key elements of the plot, especially as the author blends compelling investigations with dark, emotional examinations of the victims.  This all leads to up to a moving, thought-provoking and extremely satisfying conclusion that will leave every reader caught up in the plot happy.  I particularly enjoyed the final twist that Petraitis left the story on, and the way it was hinted at through the rest of the novel was extremely clever.  I honestly had such a remarkable time reading this great narrative, and there are so many excellent story elements to enjoy within it.

Easily the most distinctive part of The Unbelieved is the author’s detailed and powerful examination of the current situation of sexual and domestic violence in Australia.  Most of the book’s plot revolves around the investigation and attempted conviction of multiple sexual predators, and the author does not hold back in showcasing just how dark and damaging these sorts of cases can be.  Multiple viewpoints of the impacts of these crimes are examined throughout The Unbelieved, and readers are in for some emotionally devastating moments as you see so many of the different aspects of them.  There is a particularly good and dramatic look at how police investigating sexual crimes are impacted, especially when they are unable to get justice for the victims.  More importantly, Petraitis spends a lot of time exploring how Australian society perceives sexual crimes, and the book is loaded up with characters who don’t see them as a big deal or attempt to blame the victim.  There are multiple interludes within The Unbelieved that show short transcripts of interviews with people involved with these crimes, either as a witness or the accused, and the unguarded and unsupportive comments they make are both enlightening and a little infuriating.  Throw in some comments and interviews by the author’s accurate depiction of a typical Australian radio shock jock, which really boil the blood, and you have an excellent depiction of some of the main issues and attitudes towards sexual crimes, such as victim blaming.  These issues become a key part of the book’s plot, especially when the system fails so many victims, and it leads to some extremely emotional and painful moments.  I felt that Petraitis did a spectacular job working this confronting subject into the plot of her novel, and it certainly gave The Unbelieved a powerful edge that is hard to ignore.

I also really appreciated Petraitis’s examination of regional towns in Australia, which proves to be a great setting for this compelling book.  Rural and remote settings are always an excellent feature of Australian fiction, and I think that Petraitis used it extremely well in The Unbelieved.  The transfer of a big-city cop to the small town she grew up in results in a great change of pace for the protagonist, and the change in priorities and issues helps to add to the narrative complexity of The Unbelieved.  The use of this small-town setting comes into play throughout The Unbelieved in multiple intriguing ways, from the constant spread of rumours, the lack of secrets, and the fact everyone knows each other, and I liked how this affected several aspects of the police investigation plot line.  However, the most important part of this setting is the wall of silence that springs up during the book.  Many people know about the sexual and domestic violence going in in Deception Bay, but are unwilling to talk for various reasons, often keeping secrets from the police.  This becomes a key complication in the investigation, and it was fascinating and moving to see the protagonist attempt to overcome it.  As such, I felt that this small-town setting worked extremely well for The Unbelieved’s plot, especially with its specific criminal focus, and it definitely enhanced the story for me.

The final thing that I need to highlight is the excellent protagonist that Petraitis works the story around in Detective Antigone Pollard.  Pollard is an emotionally charged badass who has returned to her hometown after a devastating case in Melbourne, and now finds herself amid all manner of dark criminal activity.  While she is raw from the impacts of her last case and there are some dramatic moments surrounding here, the author portrays her as a practical and very capable cop, who takes charge and starts to clean up Deception Bay.  I really do think that Petraitis hit the right balance of vulnerable and determined in Pollard, and you grow quite attached to her as the book continues, especially once you learn the full extent of her last case.  Combine Pollard with several other fantastic characters in The Unbelieved, such as her partner, Detective Senior Constable Warren “Wozza” Harvey, and her loyal dog, Waffles, as well as some slimy villains, and you have a great cast for The Unbelieved that really add to the overall quality of this remarkable book.

With her impressive debut novel, The Unbelieved, Vikki Petraitis has set herself up as an exceptional talent in the Australian crime fiction game and she is a major new author to watch out for.  The Unbelieved has an outstanding crime fiction narrative to it that does an amazing job balancing a compelling mystery storyline with powerful dive into a sensitive and highly relevant subject.  Thanks to its well-written plot, clever mystery, distinctive setting and great characters, The Unbelieved comes together perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to put down.  While this book might be best avoided by those readers triggered by depictions of sexual violence, I cannot recommend this powerful novel enough, and it stands as one of the better Australian crime fiction books and debuts of 2022 so far.

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Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

Kagen the Damned Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 May 2022)

Series: Kagen the Damned – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of my favourite unusual thriller writers, the legendary Jonathan Maberry, enters the world of fantasy in a big way with Kagen the Damned, a dark fantasy masterpiece with a brutal heart to it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a huge Jonathan Maberry fan.  I got into Maberry’s writings when I chanced upon a copy of his 10th Joe Ledger novel, Deep Silence, a few years ago, which introduced me to both Maberry’s unique writing and his iconic protagonist, the titular Joe Ledger, a badass action hero who saves the world from crazy and dark science creations.  I deeply enjoyed Deep Silence (it was one of my favourite books of 2018) and quickly moved onto his other Joe Ledger books, diving back to the start of the series with Patient Zero, and then working my way through the rest of the awesome entries, such as The Dragon Factory, Code Zero, Predator One and Dogs of War.  I also kept up with his latest releases, including the two entries in the follow-up Rogue Team International series, Rage (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021), and his standalone novel Ink (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020).  I have been very eager to see what awesome novel Maberry releases in 2022, and, luckily for me, that materialised in the form of Kagen the Damned.

Kagen the Damned is an interesting and unique read from Maberry, as it is his debut foray into the fantasy genre.  While many of his other books have had fantasy elements to them (albeit with a horror edge), this is his first pure fantasy fiction novel, as well as the start of his Kagen the Damned series.  Naturally I was rather curious about how Maberry would transition to a new genre, and while I was a tad disappointed that the Rogue Team International series isn’t getting a new entry any time soon, Kagen the Damned ended up pretty high on my most anticipated reads for 2022 list.  After a few weeks of other books getting in the way, I finally got the chance to listen to Kagen the Damned, and it turned out to be quite an impressive novel.

Kagen Vale was once one of the most trusted and revered fighters in the entire Silver Empire.  A scion of the legendary Vale family, who have served the Silver Empire for generations, Kagen was a beloved member of the royal court and so highly regarded that he was entrusted as the guardian of the Seedlings, the Empresses’ children.  That was until the fateful night when, out drinking and whoring, he was drugged and left for dead.  Awakening in a daze, Kagen found himself in the midst of hell as the capital of Silver Empire, Argentium, was besieged by a foe long thought dead, the dread nation of Hakkia, whose dark magic has once again emerged to blot out the world.

Arriving to the palace too late to save anyone, including the Seedlings, Kagen falls into despair at failing his sacred duty and can only watch in horror as the Gods of the Garden, the deities of the Silver Empire, turn their back on him and damning him for all time.  Now with everything and everyone he has ever known lost forever, Kagen the Damned wanders the ruined countryside a broken drunk, dreaming of revenge on the one man responsible for all his ills, the mysterious and feared Witch-king of Hakkia.

However, not everything is as lost as it seems, as shadowy figures across the world being to formulate their plans to repel the Witch-king’s evil.  As two young women embark on a deadly quest to awaken a sleeping, ancient god from beneath the waves, a covenant of resistance attempts to find their own magic to oppose the Witch-king with.  Determining that Kagen may bear the best chance of recovering the tools needed to succeed, they manipulate events to set him on his path to revenge.  However, what price will a doomed man truly pay to get the revenge he so desperately seeks, and will Kagen be ready for the terrible secrets he uncovers along the way?  Only the gods and the damned know for sure!

Well, it is now more apparent than ever that there is no Jonathan Maberry book I will not enjoy to the extreme.  Kagen the Damned is an incredible and very memorable novel from Maberry, who puts the ‘dark’ in dark fantasy, with this barbaric and action-packed journey into hell.  Making use of his trademark style, flair for horror and exceptional character work, Maberry pulls together a deeply addictive and extremely exciting story that I fell in love with very, very quickly.  This was another easy five star read for me, and I loved every single second I spent reading it.

Maberry once again blew me away with an outstanding and high-action narrative, and I quickly got very attached to Kagen the Damned.  This book has an extremely memorable start to it, showing the bloody fall of Argentium from the perspective of Kagen, who awakens from a drunken haze to find a vast army in his supposedly impenetrable city, destroying and killing everything they see.  This was a very compelling and brutal start the novel, and its one that I quite enjoyed, especially as you see just how dangerous the enemies are and the chaos they have unleashed.  Maberry does a great job of setting up multiple key storylines, settings and characters in this early section, and while the focus is primarily on Kagen, you get some interesting insights into other figures that will impact the rest of the book.  The entire first part of the book is very distinctive and really showcases how dark this novel is going to get, especially when it comes to the character of Kagen and the fate of the royal children.  This whole first section ends on a brilliant note, with Kagen left broken and damned, while the once great Silver Empire, which you only saw glimpses of, is destroyed and replaced with a new world order.

Following this epic start, the narrative slows down a little, as Maberry works to set up some alternate storylines and characters, while as taking the time to do some compelling and extended word building.  Set in the direct aftermath of the opening sequence, the story primarily splits into three different streams at this point, with the main one following a despondent Kagen as he traverses the former Silver Empire, lost in grief and drink.  At the same time, two separate storylines tell some great connected narratives, with one following two young women as they journey off into the unknown, while the rest focuses on the Hakkian takeover back in Argentium.  This focus on the Hakkians and their plans, as told by the Witch-king’s advisors, as well as a resistance group, is very awesome, and it was fascinating to see some impressive political intrigue going on behind the scenes as the antagonists work to consolidate power through various methods.  While the rest of the narrative continues in a straight line, the story around Kagen slowly adapts as he meets some new friends and begins his mission of revenge as planned, with some detours.

This leads up to the excellent final part of the book, which I powered through extremely quickly to see how everything ended.  All three major storylines are reaching there climax here, and they start to blend a lot more closely, especially the ones focusing on Kagen and the Hakkians.  Everything leads up to a highly anticipated confrontation that sees Kagen finally face his enemies, and it is just as epic as I was hoping.  There is a ton of action, tragedy, twists and revelations here, as many of the plot elements and storylines come full circle.  I loved the various reveals that happen here, and most have been set up really well throughout the extended course of the narrative.  I really should have seen the identity of the Witch-king coming, but it was the right choice by Maberry, which leaves some big questions open for the future.  Everyone will come away from Kagen the Damned extremely satisfied, as Maberry leaves everyone on a brilliant note, that ensures that readers will definitely come back for more.  This is an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that is guaranteed to grab your attention early one and refuse to let go.

I really enjoyed how well Kagen the Damned was written, as Maberry brought his unique style to bear to help create an outstanding story.  In many ways, this novel proved to be essentially one of Maberry’s thrillers set in a fantasy universe.  Indeed, there were a lot of similarities in the style, the structure of the chapter, the pacing and even the use of familiar horror elements that I have previously seen and loved in the Joe Ledger books and I think this cool style worked well to tell an intense fantasy narrative.  As such, Kagen the Damned is a swift and well-structured book that pushes the story along at a swift pace, while also taking the time to build up the universe and the multitude of characters.  Maberry utilises a great range of story elements throughout this novel, and the readers are treated with a fantastic blend of action, intrigue, dark, over-the-top moments, horror, despair and humour, as the characters experience all manner of devastating trials and oppositions.

I also have a lot of love for the way that the author sets up the story and showcases the elaborate events that are occurring.  Maberry makes excellent use of a huge number of shorter, focused chapters told from a variety of viewpoints.  These briefer chapters really increase the pace and intensity of the book, and I deeply appreciated how the narrative quickly jumped across the various characters.  The interplay between the three central storylines, which are primarily anchored around Kagen, is extremely good, and I loved seeing the characters react to some of the same events or actions of their fellow cast members.  These storylines are also joined by a series of interludes that show the various impacts that the Hakkian invasion has on the wider world, especially those attuned to magic.  These interludes are usually very fascinating, and they are often used to introduce some minor supporting characters in a fun and unique way.  I loved the complexity that these interludes usually have, and the often self-contained stories are well structured and always feature a distinctive or chilling conclusion.  Maberry uses these interludes cleverly, often inserting them between major or extremely powerful chapters to help relieve tension, or to remind the reader of the wider stakes or events occurring around the main story.  I definitely enjoyed this larger look at the world that Maberry provided through them, and it was an outstanding part of Kagen the Damned’s story.

One of the major highlights of the writing in Kagen the Damned is the intricately described and fast-paced action, which is a major hallmark of Maberry’s writing style.  Maberry has always excelled at writing brutal fight scenes in a way that paints a vivid mental picture for the reader, and this was once again the case for Kagen the Damned.  The many, many action and fight sequences are brought to life in exquisite and bloody detail, and the reader is easily able to imagine every strike and slice as they happen.  This makes the action sequences really pop, and they were a particularly awesome highlight of this great book.  This focus on action and combat was really effective in this fantasy novel, and it was very cool to see Maberry bring his knowledge of combat and the accompanying writing skill to bear on large scale battles between armed and armoured fighters, while magic and gods blow stuff away around them.  There are some really great fight scenes loaded throughout this book, and I loved every skirmish, battle and duel that was featured within it.

While I did really love the action and brutal combat sequences within Kagen the Damned, I probably should add a warning about how dark and gruesome it can get in places.  Maberry’s writing style has always relied on over-the-top violence, cruelty and brutality to a degree, and this was once again the case in Kagen the Damned, which not only featured a ton of killing but also gruesome scenes of torture, corpse desecration and depictions of sexual violence.  While I think that these ultra-violent moments do work to showcase just how dark and savage the new world order is, they are often a bit hard to witness.  I will note that Maberry did take the time to discuss the emotional and social impacts of the various acts of sexual violence in the book, rather than just including them for gratuitous effect.  There are also some great scenes where the protagonist calls out and belittles several characters willing to commit such acts, before delivering his own violent justice, and I think that the author did his best to show have damaging it can be in his own way.  However, readers should probably be aware that these scenes exist, as people might find them to be a bit shocking.

I was also a major fan of the cool new fantasy universe that Maberry cooked up with Kagen the Damned, mainly because it is such a distinctive creation of the author.  Set on a giant continent made up of various nations, this is an impressive and compelling world, filled with a unique history, gods, people and settings.  The author does a great job of swiftly introducing this world and some of the key parts of its history in the early parts of the book, mainly so that readers can be a little more shocked at the early events and full appreciate the destruction and change that the Hakkian nation brings with it.  Maberry is clearly emulating some classic fantasy novels and settings throughout Kagen the Damned, and I loved seeing this bold new world that he has created.  There are some unique and cool elements featured within, and I liked how there are certain shades of grey shown when it comes to the morality and righteousness of the various factions.  Maberry also takes the time to highlight the changes that are coming to the world, thanks to the return of the Hakkian Witch-king, and the slow and steady resurgence of magic and the death of a certain pantheon of gods, are highlighted really well, both in the main story and the interlude chapters.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of this new world is the horror elements that Maberry worked into the plot.  I really should not have been surprised at the strong Lovecraftian elements that featured, as the author has used them strongly in some of his previous books.  However, it is even more explicit here in Kagen the Damned, with several notable Elder Gods playing key roles in the plot and even appearing in some epic scenes.  While I am not personally a fan of Lovecraft, I did quite like how Maberry utilised these elements throughout this book, and they gave parts of the book a darker and more eldritch quality that I quite enjoyed.  This, and certain discussions about other worlds and alternate realities, potentially links this series to some of Maberry’s existing works, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some form of crossover in the future, although it would have to be handled well.  I had a great time exploring this new fantasy world in Kagen the Damned, and I look forward to seeing what other surprises and dark gods appear in future entries of this series.

I also must highlight the incredible character work featured with Kagen the Damned, as Maberry went all out to create an excellent and unique cast of characters, whom the excellent narrative revolves around.  There are some amazing characters featured within this novel, and the author works hard to feature all of them in some impressive roles.  I had a lot of fun with the huge cast of Kagen the Damned, and there are deep and emotional figures featured here.

The most prominent and intriguing character is the titular Kagen, who takes on the moniker of Kagen the Damned.  Maberry really does a number on his central protagonist early on, as Kagen awakens from a drunken haze to find that everything he cared about and held dear had been lost while he slept.  Despite his best efforts to redeem himself in the battle that follows, he still fails miserably, and manages to escape the conquered capital in a fractured haze.  Broken, dazed and emotionally destroyed, Kagen becomes even more despondent when he sees his gods in the sky turn their back on him due to his failure to maintain his sacred oaths, which convinces him that he is damned.  Naturally, these events leave him severely emotionally damaged, and he spends most of the book trying to come to terms with his failure while also trying to find some way to get revenge on the Witch-king for all he has done.  A large amount of the book is dedicated to Kagen falling into despair, and Maberry presents a realistic depiction of a man who has lost everything and who is barely able to survive, relying heavily on drink and violence to get through his days.  While Kagen is eventually able to throw off much of this despair, it is still lurking within him, and he is often shown living in regret at his failure, even though no one else blames him as much as he does.  Kagen working through these complex feelings of failure results in much of the novels emotional strength, and Kagen serves as a moving and powerful heart for the entire novel.

While I did deeply enjoy this intriguing central character and his rough and emotional journey through this book, it is hard not to notice some similarities between Kagen and another one of Maberry’s protagonists from another series.  Kagen is in many ways a fantasy version of Joe Ledger, with similarities including a propensity for violence, extreme skill with knives (technically short-swords in Kagen’s case), and even a similar sense of humour during some of the lighter moments of the books.  There is also the same high level of mental damage brought on by extreme trauma, with both characters often seeking revenge against the people who wronged them and those they loved.  Despite these similarities, I still really appreciated Kagen as a protagonist, and I felt that some of his additional elements, such as his complex familiar bonds and strong sense of failure, did set him apart in some key ways.  No matter what, Kagen is a pretty awesome character to follow, and I loved seeing him continue to go through all his dark moments to keep going.

Aside from Kagen, there are several other amazing characters featured in this novel, all of whom have some outstanding storylines around them.  Two of the most prominent are Ryssa and Miri, who were in Argentium when the Hakkians invade.  Both junior members of the Silver Empire’s clergy, the two women initially appear to be primarily concerned with surviving the invasion.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Miri, whose knowledge of the gods and creatures of this world are far greater than they should be, has a different agenda.  Taking Ryssa with her on a big journey to a remote island nation, Miri soon engages in a plot to save the world her way.  Ryssa and Miri make up a fun combination that Maberry weaves some interesting storylines around.  While these characters aren’t explored as deeply as Kagen, you still get a great sense of who they are, particularly Ryssa, who is the primary point-of-view character between them.  Their entire storyline is covered in mystery and uncertainty as Ryssa is left in the dark about what is coming her way.  I liked the religious world-building that went into this character storyline, and there are some excellent moments in it loaded with tragedy and despair.  Even with their storyline being mostly separated from the rest of the characters, and it was a little predictable that Maberry would turn them into a lesbian couple, they had a compelling relationship and I felt that they added a lot to the narrative.

I also had a great deal of fun with the primary Hakkian characters featured in Kagen the Damned.  While they are ostensibly the antagonists of the book, Maberry takes the time to really establish the main four characters and presents them as a lot more complex and even sympathetic in places.  The main Hakkian character is their leader, the Witch-king, a character shrouded in mystery for most of the book.  A previously unknown figure, the Witch-king uses his magic to defeat the entire Silver Empire in a night and then spends the rest of the book trying to set himself up as the legitimate ruler of the land while also advancing the position of his brutal god.  I loved the way that Maberry kept the details about the Witch-king’s past and identity hidden for most of the narrative, although there is some great foreshadowing of his identity scattered throughout the novel.  The Witch-king cuts a fantastic and menacing figure for most of the book, and it was intriguing to see him present himself as a fair and loving ruler, while simultaneously exuding an aura of menace and dark magic.  It was pretty hilarious to see him terrify his key advisors for much of the book, and I loved all the hints about his true objectives.  An overall excellent central antagonist, I look forward to getting more details about him and his history in the rest of the series, especially after the revelations at the end of this book.

The other three key Hakkian characters are the Witch-king’s advisors, the chamberlain Lord Nespar, necromancer Lady Kestral, and newcomer Jakob.  Nespar and Kestral are fantastic characters who spend most of the book administrating the Witch-king’s will, running his empire, hunting for Kagen, and setting up the upcoming coronation of the Witch-king to become emperor.  While they are initially shown to be quite dangerous and evil, mainly due to their role in destroying the Silver Empire and Kestral’s disturbing magic, you eventually see that there is a lot more to them.  In particular, you see that they are actually extremely terrified of the Witch-king and are desperately obeying his will in order to survive.  You actually end up feeling a bit sympathetic for the pair of them, even after you see Kestral tear a corpse apart for a ritual, and I enjoyed the intrigue and politics they got involved with to rule the new empire.  The other character is Jakob, a Silver Empire historian who is drafted into the Witch-king service as his minister for propaganda.  Rechristened as Jakob Ravensmere, he becomes fully compliant in the Hakkian takeover and proves to be a very competent advisor and political mind while also working to rewrite history to increase the legitimacy of the Witch-king.  It was extremely fascinating to see Jakob discussing the control given by those who control history and propaganda, and I really enjoyed his role in the new empire.  It was also fun to see his rather quick slide towards the dark side as he fully embraces the Hakkian lifestyle and even starts to develop a taste for a power.  I always love seeing Maberry’s narrative unfold from the antagonist’s point of view, and this worked out extremely well again in Kagen the Damned.

The final characters I need to highlight are some of the excellent supporting cast surrounding Kagen.  Kagen has two excellent companions who work with him throughout the book, Tuke and Filia.  Tuke is a giant professional thief who recruits Kagen for a job that will help an anti-Hakkian resistance movement.  Tuke serves as the comic relief for much of the book, and I loved the outstanding chemistry he had with Kagen.  The two play off each other extremely well, and their excellent camaraderie and humour were pretty fun to see.  Not only does Tuke have some of the best lines (and the funniest curses) in the book, but he also serves as an emotional sounding board to Kagen, helping him get better after all the tragedy he experienced.  Filia is a strong-willed warrior and former associate of Kagen who finds herself dragged into the chaos around the war and Kagen’s wild adventures.  Filia’s no-nonsense attitude and sarcasm are a great counterpart to the other characters in Kagen the Damned, and I especially liked it when it combined with the humour of Kagen and Tuke.  These characters, and more, really enhanced the overall quality of this impressive narrative, and I loved seeing their powerful storylines unfold in some excellent and enjoyable ways.

There was no way that I was going to check out the new Jonathan Maberry novel in any format other than audiobook.  I have had some outstanding experiences with Maberry’s audiobooks over the years, and all of them have been deeply impressive and extremely enjoyable.  This again proved to be the case with Kagen the Damned, as I had an outstanding time having this dark epic read out to me, especially as it really helped me to absorb all the details of the characters and the impressive new universe.  With a runtime of just under 21 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook to get through, but it is well worth the time investment, especially as it delivers the story in such an awesome way.

Easily the best thing about this audiobook is the outstanding narration from the very, very awesome Ray Porter.  Porter, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators, who has previously narrated Maberry’s books, as well as contributing his voice to other works like The Apollo Murders and The Sandman audio adaptation.  As such, the moment I heard that Porter was also going to narrate Kagen the Damned, I knew that I had to get this audiobook.  Porter has an amazing ability to move the story along, and his voice is perfect for all the intense action, world-building and intrigue Maberry features in his novels.  I love the way that Porter dives into the various characters featured in the books, with every single person getting their own distinctive voice, while Porter also effortlessly emotes all their emotion to the listener.  This includes a very sinister voice that Porter saves for when the villains are talking or some incredibly dark moments are happening, and having him use variations of this voice to highlight just how brutal a moment is being, is always a great experience.  It also works well when the characters start speaking in the languages associated with the Elder Gods, and the resultant ceremonies and spells are quite spooky to hear in Porter’s voice.

Porter also did a particularly good job at inhabiting the voice of Maberry’s central protagonist, Kagen, and you get a real sense of who he is and the intense pain he is feeling throughout the book.  While the voice Porter uses from Kagen is a little like that of Joe Ledger from Maberry’s other audiobooks (a side effect of Porter ensuring that the main protagonist’s voice matches the tone he uses for basic narration), Porter does add a little more of a growl to it here, which helped to a degree.  This was another incredible performance from Porter, and I am so very glad that they got him back to narrate Maberry’s new series.  I cannot emphasise how outstanding the Kagen the Damned audiobook turned out to be (although I did feature it in my recent best audiobooks from the first half of 2022 list before I’d even finished it), and this is the absolute best way to enjoy Kagen the Damned.

Well, after rabbiting on for nearly seven pages, I think it is exceedingly obvious that I loved Kagen the Damned.  Jonathan Maberry’s latest novel was extremely compelling and deeply exciting, and I was really impressive with the author’s jump to the fantasy genre.  Featuring a clever, complex, and action-packed narrative loaded with destruction, thrilling revenge and some great, damaged characters, Kagen the Damned was an outstanding read and its one that I absolutely flew through.  Kagen the Damned is easily one of the top books of 2022 and this is a favourite new series for me.  I am extremely excited to see where the Kagen the Damned series will go in the future, and the next book, Son of the Poison Rose, is out in a few months’ time, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

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Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

Nine Lives Cover

Publisher: Faber (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 321 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare yourself for an engrossing and captivating mystery from the talented Peter Swanson, with the standalone read Nine Lives.

Back in 2020 I was lucky enough to receive a very cool book called Rules for Perfect Murders (also released as Eight Perfect Murders), written by a new-to-me author, Peter Swanson.  This fantastic novel focused on a bookshop owner who discovers that a blog list he wrote about the most perfect murders in crime fiction was being used as inspiration by a serial killer.  I deeply enjoyed this awesome concept, not only because it was very unique read that served as a fantastic love letter to multiple classic crime fiction authors/novels, but also because the idea of a killer using a blog post to plan their crimes appealed to me as a blogger (think of all the Star Wars themed murders you could plan if you used my lists as a basis for crime).  I ended up having a great time reading Rules for Perfect Murders and have been interested in reading more stuff from Swanson ever since.  I recently got the chance when I received a copy of his latest novel, Nine Lives, a few weeks ago, and I quickly jumped at the chance to read it, especially as it had another unique plot.

On a seemingly normal day, nine random strangers receive a mysterious envelope at their homes.  Each unmarked envelope is unremarkable except for its contents: a single sheet of paper with nine names typed upon it.  None of the recipients recognise any of the names upon the sheets, except their own, and are baffled by the seemingly random piece of mail.  Most assume it to be an advertisement scam or a silly prank and start to go about their day, forgetting about the strange letter they received.  However, one of the recipients, an old man in Maine, is brutally killed the moment he receives his letter.

As the local police and FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who herself received one of these letters, attempt to investigate and discover the connection between the names, another person on the list is killed, this time in Massachusetts.  Quickly determining that the others on the list are at risk, the FBI jumps in and tries to protect the potential victims, but they soon discover they are facing off against an extremely clever murderer capable of killing their victims in elaborate ways.  But why is he targeting these specific people?

Desperate to find the identity of the killer before everyone on the list ends up dead, the investigators and the potential victims each attempt to find the connection between themselves.  However, it appears that they have nothing in common, as they live across the country from each other and have a range of jobs and backgrounds.  The truth behind the killings lies in a dark place, and the lengths the killer will go to for their revenge will rock everyone to their core.

This was a great murder mystery novel from Swanson, who really amped up the twists and turns to create a compelling and intriguing read.  Nine Live’s story starts off with the various characters each receiving the relevant list with their names on it in several short chapters told from their relevant perspectives, and I found this interesting introduction to be good way to grab the reader’s attention.  From there you start to get to know the characters in some detail, except for a couple of people on the list who are efficiently and systematically killed off.  This serves as a pretty good basis for this story, and I loved getting to know the various characters, as well as seeing the cool and clever investigation angle that forms around it as the FBI attempt to find the killer.  Swanson sets the entire narrative/mystery up extremely well, and there are some very clever moments at the start as important clues and hints are laid down for the observant reader.

The first few kills come quick to set the rest of the characters into a panic, and once you get to the third or fourth person on the list you start to have an idea of what the killer is after.  I felt that the novel started to get really good towards its centre, as there are some big surprises as certain events really did not turn out the way I expected.  Once a particularly massive and game-changing twist occurred, I was absolutely hooked and I honestly powered through the remainder of the novel extremely quickly.  The following plot falls into place extremely well, and I loved seeing the entire mystery unfold, especially as Swanson keeps the twists coming as more of the characters you get to know are targeted by the killer.  While I was able to see elements of the solution from a distance, I was pleasantly surprised by several reveals towards the end, and I really appreciated how well Swanson set everything up throughout the novel.  The book comes to an excellent end reminiscent of a certain classic crime novel, and readers will come away very satisfied with how this standalone read turned out.  I did think that Swanson went a twist too far, as a big reveal in the last four pages was completely unnecessary and the book would have honestly been better if the author had just left it out.  Still, this was a really impressive and fun mystery, and I had an absolutely brilliant time getting through it.

There are a lot of fun elements to this book that really help enhance the story and turn Nine Lives into an excellent read.  However, my favourite is probably the way that Swanson turns it into a massive homage to a specific classic murder mystery novel.  While I won’t reveal which one, I will say that Swanson did an extremely good job of utilising its iconic elements throughout Nine Lives.  Just like he did in Rules for Perfect Murders, Swanson provides a detailed examination of this classic novel through his character’s eyes, especially once they themselves start to realise the similarities between it and their own situation.  These similarities are slightly more subtle at the start of the book, but by the time you get to the end the homages are very striking and cleverly tie into some of Nine Lives’ big moments.  These intriguing connections and clever recycling of story and writing elements from this iconic crime fiction novel worked really well in Nine Lives, and I felt that it complemented the rest of Swanson’s story perfectly, helping to turn it into a particularly great read.  Swanson also throws in some references and discussions about similar notable mystery novels at various parts of Nine Lives to throw the author around and to highlight his passion for the classics.  I love how the author takes the time to reference his personal favourites in his own works, and hardcore crime fiction fans and aficionados of classic murder mystery novels will no doubt have a blast seeing how Swanson utilises parts from a famous novel throughout Nine Lives.

I also loved the fantastic characters contained within Nine Lives, and Swanson achieves quite a lot with them.  Even though there are 10 or more point of view protagonists in a relatively short novel, Swanson ensures that each character stands out.  I felt that each protagonist was set up extremely well and they have their own quirks and back stories.  You swiftly get to know all the main characters as the book progresses, even with the quick changes between perspectives, and once you have made a good dent into the book, the reader finds themselves getting attached to several of them.  There are some great character arcs featured throughout the novel, and I liked how these distinctive characters came together and interacted.  The focus on FBI agent Jessica Winslow, herself a person on the list, works to set up the investigative angle of the novel, and her storyline goes in some very interesting directions.  I also quite enjoyed the intriguing storyline around Ethan Dart and Caroline Geddes, who meet because of the list and form a moving, if inevitably tragic, relationship.  The antagonist is also set up brilliantly throughout the novel and I found their motivations and methods to be expertly portrayed and explored as the narrative continues.  None of these characters are perfect or particularly have their life together, and it fascinating to see how a random list of names can change this for better, or more likely, for worse.  Swanson really does some great character work in Nine Lives, just don’t get too attached as your favourites may not survive.

Peter Swanson continues his entertaining and unique blend of crime fiction with the extremely clever and highly addictive Nine Lives.  Featuring a compelling, wide-ranging mystery and some brilliant references to classic murder mysteries, Nine Lives proves to be highly entertaining and memorable read, and I really had fun getting through it.  A great novel to fulfil all your murder mystery needs, Nine Lives comes highly recommended and will not disappoint.

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Throwback Thursday – Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair.

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

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Welcome back to 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.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

It is fair to say that the early to mid-2000s was one of my favourite periods of comic books, with some truly cool and epic ongoing and limited series being released.  This was particularly true for DC Comics, who produced some of their best work during this time, many of which rank amongst my all-time favourite comic series.  This easily includes the exceptional and brilliant crossover event, Identity Crisis, which to my mind is one of the best limited series ever written.

Made of seven issues, Identity Crisis combines the unique writing talent of thriller author Brad Meltzer with the artistic stylings of veteran DC Comics collaborators Rags Morales and Michael Bair.  This ended up being a near perfect combination of talents and skill, and I have a lot of love for the exceptional story, which absolutely hooks me every time, and its outstanding associated artwork.  I particularly impressed with the addition of Meltzer, who, despite his more literary background has written some of the absolute best and most human comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading, including Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest and the two Justice League of America storylines, The Tornado’s Path and The Lightning Saga.  However, his story in Identity Crisis is particularly powerful and thought-provoking, and it ends up being a comic that completely changes everything you knew about your favourite heroes.

For years the members of the Justice League of America have protected the world from all manner of evil and destruction, always prevailing no matter the odds.  But who can protect them when someone goes after those closest to them?  And what if they actually deserve the punishment being visited upon them?

On an unremarkable night, a mysterious attacker breaks into the home of long-serving Justice League associate, Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and commits a terrible crime, the murder of Ralph’s beloved wife, Sue Dibny.  With no evidence about who the killer is and no idea how they breached the Dibnys’ impressive security, the superhero community rallies behind their bereaved friend and seeks to find the killer by any means necessary.

As the rest of the heroes seek answers at any potential suspect within the supervillain community, the Elongated Man and a small group his closest friends hunt for a minor villain, Dr Light, whose secret connection to the League’s darkest moment may hold the answers they seek.  However, when a second attack occurs on another publicly known relative of a superhero, Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, it soon becomes clear that someone else is targeting the heroes and their loved ones.

Identity Crisis #1b

As Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and others attempt to get to the bottom of the case, cryptic threats to one hero’s relative reveal that whoever is targeting them knows all of the League’s secrets, including their hidden identities.  As even more tragedies befall the superhero community, dark secrets from the League’s past are brought into the light and no-one will be prepared for the terrible truth behind these brutal murders.  Can the League weather this latest attack, or is this the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest heroes?

Damn, no matter how many times I read this comic, the tragic and powerful events of Identity Crisis still really get to me.  This exceptional comic contains one of the most impressive narratives I have ever seen in a limited series, taking the reader on a captivating and emotional dive into the world of your favourite heroes.  Perfectly combing a dark, mysterious narrative with incredible character work and some truly amazing artistic inclusions, this comic gets an extremely easy five-star rating from me.

For Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer really went to the well, producing an insanely compelling and moving story that relentless drags you in and introduces you to a completely new side of your favourite heroes.  Utilising his experience as a crime thriller writer, he produces a powerful, character driven superhero narrative with detailed crime fiction elements to create an exceptional and unique story.  Identity Crisis has an amazing start to it, which not only carefully introduces several key figures but also installs some dark tragedy, as the wife of a superhero is killed off.  The subsequent investigation into her murder by the enraged superhero community is extremely compelling and intense, as the emotional heroes turn over every rock and stone, much to the horror of the villains.  However, it is soon revealed that several members of the Justice League are harbouring a devastating secret, one that could reveal the identity of the killer.  This secret becomes one of the most important parts of the first half of the series, and it leads to an epic, action-packed fight sequence against a particularly dangerous foe.

Identity Crisis #2

The story starts to go in a bit of a different direction at this point, with the above secret not really panning out regarding the investigation.  However, other superhero relatives, both public and secret, are targeted, resulting in pandemonium around the characters.  I loved the narrative’s move to a more classic investigation at this point, as the heroes start following every lead they can, while more character development and big moments are explored.  This all leads up to the defining moment when another superhero loses a loved one and the identity of the killer is seemingly revealed.  However, this turns out to be a bluff, as the real killer is still hidden.  The reveal of who did it and why are revealed pretty suddenly towards the end, with some curious and clever motivations exposed.  This leads to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, as more secrets are revealed, dangerous lies are uncovered, and several characters leave the story more broken and destroyed than ever before.  You will be thrown through the emotional wringer as you check this comic out.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Meltzer told Identity Crisis’s excellent story, especially as it quickly and effectively engrosses the reader and ensures their undivided attention.  The author utilises a mass-character narrative that follows a substantial collection of heroes and villains, many of whom have distinctive or semi-separate storylines.  This works to tell an intriguing, rich narrative that not only has some clever dramatic components but also allows for some intriguing and compelling retcons and expansions to the already elaborate DC universe.  It is very cool how the story developed into more of a murder mystery/thriller story as the comic progressed, and this really played to Meltzer’s strengths.  The investigation is handled very well, and I liked how the superhero elements altered and enhanced it in some clever ways.  The mystery itself is complex and clever, with Meltzer adding in some great twists, false leads and compelling surprises to keep the reader guessing.  The twist about the actual killer is pretty good, and Meltzer did a great job layering in hints and clues throughout the rest of the story while also introducing a few good alternative suspects.  While the motivations and complexities surrounding the killer’s actions are great, I did think that how the protagonists worked it out was a little abrupt, and it might have been a little better if they worked it out from some earlier clues.  The use of female characters wasn’t the best either, especially as most of them are there simply to be victims in one shape or another.  Having a long-established character getting both raped and murdered in a comic as a plot device is pretty unfortunate, and some stronger female figures might have helped balance this out.  Still, this ended up being an awesome read and I deeply enjoyed how it turned out.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Identity Crisis is the interesting examinations that were included as part of the plot.  Meltzer and the artistic team obviously had a lot of fun exploring or introducing some cool aspects of the DC Universe in this series, especially when it comes to the secret or hidden lives of superheroes and supervillains.  I particularly loved the in-depth examination about how both groups are officially or unofficially organised, and there are some very intriguing views of them socialising or working together.  The inclusion of a highly organised superhero death investigation squad, made up of a range of random heroes (the Ray, the Atom, Animal Man, Mister Miracle and two of the Metal Men) is particularly clever, as is the way the various heroes organise into a vengeful posse to question potential suspects.  The deep dive into the importance of a superhero secret identity also becomes an important part of the story, especially as the loss of the secret brings pandemonium thanks to the killer stalking them.  I also loved the counterbalance look at organised villainy, and there are some excellent scenes that see the villains gathering to socialise or talk shop.  Having an organising force like the Calculator, as well as a secret space station hangout, is pretty elaborate, and the deeper look at the villains of this universe, definitely gave Identity Crisis a compelling and intricate edge.

Identity Crisis #3

However, easily the most groundbreaking and compelling new inclusion to the universe is the reveal about the unofficial league within the Justice League who have some dark secrets.  Made up of heroes Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna and Atom, as well as the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, this group of heroes apparently operated separately of the main Justice League during their classic Silver Age adventures, acting as their clean-up crew.  This retcon by Meltzer provides an interesting explanation for why villains never remember the secret identities of the heroes they switch minds with or whose dreams they invade, namely they have their mind erased by Zatanna’s magic after being captured by this inner-League.  While this is already a dark move by these established heroes, it gets even worse when they are forced to reveal that they intentionally destroyed Dr Light’s brain to make him less of a threat.  This and other revelations, acts to make many of your favourite heroes appear much more morally grey and fallible, and it was a particularly impressive and monumental inclusion, that will have grave consequences down the line for the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly for something written by Meltzer, Identity Crisis contains some insanely complex and impressive characters who form the heart of the tale.  Due to the way the story is told, Identity Crisis follows a massive cast of comic characters, including several obscure or underappreciated figures.  Meltzer does a brilliant job of utilising all these established characters throughout his story, with nearly every major cast member getting a moment to shine in some way or another, and multiple figures who were underutilised or unappreciated before this comic were given brilliant and defining second chances here.  While the use of multiple focus characters had the potential for a scattered narrative, Meltzer was able to direct the flow of the story around all these various protagonists and antagonists perfectly, and you still get a tight and concise story, which also takes the time to dive into each of these figures and showcase them to their greatest degree.  As I mentioned before, there is a real focus on highlighting the darker side of the superhero characters throughout Identity Crisis, and you end up really seeing these fantastic figures in a whole new scary light.

Let’s start with Ralph and Sue Dibny.  I must admit that the very first time I ever read Identity Crisis, many years ago, I honestly had no idea who Elongated Man and his wife were, as they were a little obscure.  However, Meltzer really goes out of his way to feature them in this story (even adding in a few retcons) and you are given a great introduction to them at the start.  In just a few panels, you understand who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the other superheroes, as well as some unique characteristics and relationship quirks.  This excellent introduction makes you start to care about them just as Meltzer brings the hammer down and kills Sue.  The subsequent grief, rage and despair from Elongated Man is just heartbreaking, and you go through the rest of the comic seeing him attempt to recover from these terrible events.  This amazing use of characters at the start of the comic has a great flow-on effect to the rest of the story, and you become exceedingly invested in finding the killer as a result.

Identity Crisis #4

From there, a lot of the superhero focus goes to the surviving members of the Justice League who formed the league within the League I mentioned above.  There is some exceptional character work around some of these team members, especially as they come to terms with the decisions they made in the past and how they are impacting them now.  I loved seeing them attempt to justify their actions to the other heroes, even their darkest decisions, especially as you can understand why they did what they did, while also feeling disappointed in them.  You really get a sense of determination and shame from them as the story continues, and you see all of them go through a lot in both the past in the present story.  Despite multiple differences, this team are still friends and comrades, and watching them come together to brawl with some of the most dangerous characters is pretty heartwarming, even if darker elements lie just beneath the surface.

While there is a focus on these inner-Leaguers, some of them are utilised a lot more frequently than others, particularly the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen.  Green Arrow is an excellent figure in this comic and is probably the closest thing to a heroic narrator/central protagonist the story has.  His unique perspective on the events acts as a good foil to many of the other characters, such as Batman and Superman, and he proves to be a calm, if potentially vengeful figure for much of the story, organising many of the League actions and forensic investigations.  He also proves to be the voice of reason for the inner League, calmly justifying many of their actions and serving as a bridge between this existing group and the newer Flash and Green Lantern.  Despite his belief that they are doing the right thing, you can see some real emotion and regret in his face, especially when the further revelations about Dr Light and Batman come out.  I also appreciated the deeper look into his antagonistic relationship with Hawkman, which partially originated in the past events mentioned here, and it is interesting to see how the events of this comic impact future Green Arrow storylines.

Aside from Green Arrow, other members of this secret League who get an intriguing focus include the Atom, Ray Palmer, and his ex-wife, Jean Loring.  Due to his status as another public hero, Atom and Jean are also targeted throughout the story, and you end up getting a rather intense and fascinating look at both.  Watching their failed relationship rekindle is a nicer part of most of the comic, although eventual reveals and tragedies naturally ruin it and smash everything around.  Still, their complicated emotions and issues surrounding their fractured relationship make for some of the best parts of the comic.  I liked the interesting look at Zatanna throughout the comic, especially as she is largely responsible for some of the worst moments of this group of heroes, as she clearly feels guilty about her magic messing with the villain’s minds.  I also need to highlight the younger Flash, Wally West, who finds out about the actions of the other characters during the current events of the comic.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to see Wally learn that his mentor and predecessor, Barry Allen, was not as perfect as he imagined, and actually participated in some of the team’s worst events.  The distress he exhibits with every subsequent reveal is showcased through the comic’s art extremely well, and his subsequent guilt as he is forced to keep it secret from other Leaguers like Batman is quite noticeable.

Identity Crisis #5

As you can expect from any major DC Comics crossover event, members of DC’s Big Three are strongly featured throughout Identity Crisis.  While Wonder Woman only has a few intriguing scenes, in which you get to see both her ferocity and her kindness, there is much more of a focus on Superman and Batman.  Superman gets some great sequences throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team sinisterly focus on his family and friends, all of whom are potential targets.  Watching Superman slowly get frustrated with the investigation, especially when Lois is threatened, helps to enhance the seriousness of the story, and he has some powerful moments here.  I did appreciate the way in which Meltzer attempted to paint the big blue Boy Scout in a darker light, as it is revealed that even the supposedly righteous Superman is not as innocent as you’d believe.  It is subtly implied that Superman always knew what the inner League was up to (yay for super hearing), and chose to ignore it for convenience.  This brilliant and dark suggestion that even Superman isn’t infallible is a pretty weighty one that  helps to enhance the weight and power of Identity Crisis’s narrative.

Batman is a lot more involved in the story and leads his own investigation into who is behind the killing.  Even though he does not actually appear until halfway through the comic, he is a heavy presence throughout Identity Crisis, both because of his brusque, loner ways of trying to solve the crime, but because of the dark shadows of the past.  There are multiple moments that revisit his childhood and the death of his parents, which parallels some of the other losses in Identity Crisis, and you get to see the human side of grief impacting this usually stoic character.  Batman’s storyline gets even more intense when it is revealed that part of his memory was erased by his fellow Leaguers to cover up their actions surrounding Dr Light, which is a very haunting inclusion.  Meltzer makes this even more intriguing by having Green Arrow suggest, mostly out of guilt, that Batman likely has done something similar in the past, while also acknowledging that he has likely already deduced that his memories were erased.  This really makes you consider Batman’s relationship with the rest of his heroes, and it certainly has a big impact on future Batman storylines.

The Batman impact on this story is also felt through the great focus on the current Robin, Tim Drake, who plays a surprisingly big role in the events of Identity Crisis.  At the start of the comic, Tim is one of the few members of the Bat-family who still has a father, which puts him at odds with Batman and the Robin predecessors.  As his father has only just discovered his dual identity as Robin, he becomes one of the more interesting protagonists, as the comic explores the stress of the superhero lifestyle on family.  Tim’s storyline ends up being extremely tragic when his father is murdered.  Watching Robin talk to his father over the phone as he’s about to die is just damn horrific, and your heart can’t help but break during that epically drawn-out scene where he and Batman arrive too late.  The subsequent parallel between him, Bruce Wayne and previous Robin Dick Grayson during this moment is particularly poignant, and it results in a whole new chapter of this amazing incarnation of Robin.

Identity Crisis #6

While there are a few other interestingly featured heroes in Identity Crisis, I’m going to start talking about the villains, as many of them have a brilliant role in this comic.  Thanks to Meltzer’s fantastic writing, Identity Crisis proves to be just as much about the villains as the heroes, as many of them are deeply impacted by the events disclosed here.  While I won’t reveal the identity of the killer here (I’m keeping some spoilers locked up), I will say that their motivations are pretty fascinating and provide a compelling insight into the super lifestyle.  The rest of the villains in Identity Crisis are fair game for discussion, though, and I deeply loved the creative team’s excellent examination of them.

Easily the villain I need to talk about the most is Dr Light, an old school Justice League villain who had not been really utilised in recent years.  Mostly known before this comic as the Teen Titans’ punching bag, Meltzer completely revitalised the character in Identity Crisis and, with a stroke, turned him onto one of the most deranged and dangerous figures in the entire universe.  It is revealed throughout the comic that Dr Light used to be an extremely powerful villain, but after invading an empty Watch Tower and raping Sue Dibny, the League brutally took him down, erased his memory of the event and then magically lobotomised him.  This resulted in him becoming the moronic and weakened villain who was routinely taken down by the teenage heroes and other embarrassing foes.  This entire reveal is pretty damn epic and horrifying at the same time.  Not only does Dr Light seem excessively evil and deranged in the flashback scenes, but the shocking revelations of his actions immediately make you hate him.  Meltzer’s explanation for why he turned into such as pathetic creature (aside from the real reason of capricious authors) really hits home hard, and even though Dr Light is a terrible person, you can’t believe that members of the Justice League went so far.  The subsequent scenes where Dr Light regains his memories and his powers feature some of the best artwork in the comic, and while he doesn’t do much here, the scenes with him brooding and plotting hit at his returned and future malevolence.  I deeply appreciated how much Meltzer was able to morph this villain, and while the reliance on rape for antagonist purposes is a bit low, he succeeded in making him a very hateful and despicable figure.

Aside from the killer and Dr Light, several other villains hold interesting and significant roles in Identity Crisis, and I deeply enjoyed how they were portrayed.  This includes Green Arrow villain Meryln, who serves as an interesting shadow to Oliver Queen throughout the comic (more so than usual).  While Green Arrow provides the superhero community’s viewpoint on events, Merlyn’s narration examines the supervillain community and their various reactions.  I loved his fun insights into his fellow villains, and he ends up being an interesting inclusion to the cast.  The same can be said for the Calculator, a formerly silly figure who has turned himself into a non-costumed villain who acts as an anti-Oracle, providing the villain community with tech support and intelligence by charging them $1,000 per question.  I loved this interesting revamp of this minor character, especially as this suave, behind-the-scenes information broker became his default look for years.  Calculator’s conversations and business dealings offer some compelling insights into the superhero community, and I loved the occasional jokes about his old costume.  Meltzer also makes exceptional use of one of my favourite villains, Deathstroke, who once again shows why he is the DC universe’s ultimate badass.  Hired by Dr Light to protect himself from the League, Deathstroke takes on an entire team of heroes single handily and essentially spanks them.  I love how the creative team not only showcase his insane physical abilities, but also his tactical knowhow, as he expertly takes down major heroes in brilliant ways (he takes down the Atom and Hawkman with a laser pointer, true story).  His scene in the centre of the comic is the best action sequence in Identity Crisis, and it perfectly showcased this awesome villain (seriously, give this man a movie), while also hinting at some future grudges.

Identity Crisis #7

The final character I want to talk about is the lecherous and always entertaining Captain Boomerang, who has a major role in the plot.  I absolutely loved the exceptional story that Meltzer wrote around this infamous villain, and it is easily one of his most defining depictions.  Captain Boomerang has always been shown as a bit of a joke, but this comic shows him as a fat, washed up has-been, who leaches off his fellow villains and is generally looked down upon by them.  However, he gets a very intense and emotional story in this comic, as he meets his long-lost son and starts to develop a relationship with him.  The father/son moments add a rather interesting and nice edge to the main story and seem slightly disconnected from the rest of the plot.  That is until the final killing, when it is revealed that Captain Boomerang has arrived to kill Robin’s father.  The implied suggestion that Captain Boomerang of all people might be behind the killings is pretty iconic, and I loved the split panels that contrast his phone call to his son with the phone conversation between Robin and his father.  The subsequent results of the attack, as well as the reveals in the aftermath are pretty awesome, and I really appreciated the fun second chance that Meltzer and the artistic team gave to this iconic, old-school villain.

While I have gone a lot about story elements and characters, I also really need to highlight the incredible artwork featured in Identity Crisis.  The artistic team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair did an outstanding job in this limited series, producing some of the absolute best artwork from this era of DC Comics which perfectly enhances Meltzer’s epic storytelling.  There are so many impressive and memorable artistic moments and sequences throughout Identity Crisis, and I loved the various ways in which the artists convey movement, action, and emotion in their detailed and captivating panels.  There are so many brilliant action sequences in this comic, with my favourite being the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight I mentioned above, although a few others are also very cool to see.  I also loved the character designs featured throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team took the opportunity to seriously reinvent several heroes and villains.  The streamlined look of the Calculator is particularly fun, and I also loved the balding and fat version of Captain Boomerang.  While I didn’t love how a couple of characters looked (what was with the hair on Connor Hawke?), most of it was pretty exceptional, and I love how it was later reutilised by other artists.

There are multiple truly brilliant and eye-catching artistic highlights of Identity Crisis that I must highlight, including the massive and powerful funeral sequence that takes place in the early part of the series.  There is an incredibly elaborate double-page public funeral spread that shows every single emotional superhero in attendance, with the various heroes organised by team or connection to the grieving family.  The use of the multiple heroes and associates is pretty awesome, especially as there are a range of character-appropriate reactions, and I loved seeing the whole costume crowd surrounded by members of the press and public as they mourn.  You also get also some excellent and heartfelt sequences in the subsequent scenes which show the eulogies, especially when Elongated Man starts to literally deteriorate due to his grief, which is just so powerful.  Other great examples of the artist’s work include the fun flashback scenes that allowed them to draw events in various classic comic styles, that offer a little bit of simplicity compared to the darker modern spread.

I particularly loved some of the brilliant sequences that are set around Dr Light, as not only do you see him at his most dangerous in the past but you also have some outstanding scenes when he regains his memories and powers.  The excellent parallels between the Justice League’s takedown of Dr Light and their attack on Deathstroke are incredible, and the subsequent massive panel of blinding light around Dr Light’s face is perfection.  However, the absolute best-drawn sequence in Identity Crisis must be the panels leading up to the death of Robin’s father.  Watching the insane amount of emotion on Batman and Robin as they realise that Robin’s father is about to die is so damn moving, especially the anguish on Robin.  The most moving of these panels is the one that focuses on Batman’s face after Robin begs his mentor to save his father.  The look of pure dread, fear and despair on Batman’s face takes my breath away every single time I look at it, and it perfectly conveys all of Batman’s repressed feelings as he realises that history is once again going to repeat itself.  While there are some other great scenes, the above are easily the cream of the artistic crop and definitely make this comic stand out.  I have so much love for the artistic work of Morales and Bair here, and it markedly enhances the already exceptional story, turning Identity Crisis into a true epic classic.

Well, that’s pretty much everything I have to say about Identity Crisis here.  As you can no doubt guess from the excessive way I have waffled on, I have a lot of love for this exceptional comic and I’m not afraid to show it.  The brilliant creative team behind Identity Crisis did an incredible job with this comic and they really turned out something special.  Perfectly bringing together a deep and clever story with impressive artwork, amazing characters, and so much damn emotion, this comic has something for everyone and is so very highly recommended.  I deeply enjoy everything about Identity Crisis, especially how it leads to some other epic comic books (the continuation of the mindwipe stuff in Justice League of America, Green Arrow, Teen Titans and more is particularly good).  One of the most distinctive and amazing comics ever and a must read for all DC Comics fans.

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Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

Publisher: Hodder Studio (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare yourself for shocks, twists and so many sweet surprises as impressive new author Sarah Bonner presents her epic debut thriller, Her Perfect Twin.

Megan Hardcastle has always lived in the shadow of her estranged twin, Leah, who always took everything Megan had, while exploiting their dramatic family past to obtain fame, fortune and the freedom to do anything she wanted.  Despite that, deep down Megan still loves her sister, until she finds explicit photos of her on her husband’s phone.  Rushing to her sister’s house, she is unable to contain her rage, and their argument ends tragically when she kills Leah.

Determined not to get caught, Megan comes up with the desperate plan to become Leah, fooling the world into thinking she is still alive.  Diving deep into Leah’s perfect life, Megan starts to become her sister and soon finds her carefree life intoxicating and irresistible, especially when she falls in love with the new man in Leah’s life.  As life at home with her controlling husband gets even more difficult, Megan decides to give up her entire existence and start living as Leah.  However, just before she can enact her escape, the pandemic lockdown hits.

As the country adjusts to a new normal, Megan struggles to maintain two separate lives under lockdown.  Her problems are only just beginning when it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret and they are willing to use it to take everything from her.  Soon, Megan finds herself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse against a sadistic foe with her life, freedom and identity on the line.  However, not everything is as it seems, and all the dark secrets from these twin’s life are about to come out.

OMG, well that turned out to be exceedingly epic and amazing.  Sarah Bonner has come out of the gates swinging here, and her first book was such an outstanding and epic read.  Her Perfect Twin is easily one of the best psychological thrillers of the year, and I loved the exceptionally clever and wildly entertaining story it contained.  Loaded with complex and deeply flawed characters as well as some impressive examinations of self and identity, Her Perfect Twin is an incredibly addictive novel that gets a five-star rating from me.

Let me just start off here saying that you are going to really fall in love with the intense and captivating narrative contained within Her Perfect Twin.  Bonner has gone out of her way here to create an exceptional read that quickly drags you in and then hits you with clever twist after clever twist, until the only thing you can think about is getting to the end of the story.  Her Perfect Twin starts off strong, introducing the protagonist Megan and showing the events through her eyes as she uncovers her husband’s affair with her twin sister, Leah, who she then kills after they get into an argument.  The reader slowly gets to see Megan enjoying the new freedoms and fun associated with living her sister’s life, while she also plans to escape from her normal life and terrible marriage.  This first part of the book is very good and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist dive into her new identity, especially as she grows as a person under it.  While I liked this part of the story, I thought I could see where the story was going, including the introduction of lockdown part way through.  However, it turns out that I was so very, very wrong, as Bonner had some amazing tricks up her sleeve.

The first real indication you get about how much Her Perfect Twin is going to change happened about halfway through when, after a major and surprising reveal, the narrative suddenly starts getting told from the perspective of an entirely different character.  This honestly altered everything, as not only did it throw you right into the mind of a psychopath but it starts showing some of the previous events of the book in an entirely new context, revealing just how much set up and foreshadowing Bonner included in the first half of the novel.  From there you are forced to watch an incredibly evil villain make their move, manipulating the situation to their advantage while appearing to have total control, which is both infuriating and extremely compelling at the same time.  And then, just when you think you have a handle on the situation, Bonner throws another big twist at you, along with another new point-of-view character, and you honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  At this point, I was honestly reeling with all the revelations as I began to fully understand just how talented Bonner is as an author, but the story isn’t done yet.  There are even more great reveals and twists from there as the third character tells their story, which changes everything that you thought you knew already.  A final major shift occurs for the last part of the book, which seeks to wrap up everything and showcases the full cleverness and feelings off all the previous characters.  While this final part of the book is a tad slower and seems a little disconnected from the main plot, it concludes everything up beautifully and leads to an impressive and well-thought-out ending that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

This was a pretty incredible story, and it is one that I had so much fun getting through.  I honestly read the last 250 pages in a single sitting, and it was physically impossible for me to put down the book after the first big reveal.  I cannot emphasize enough just how clever and brilliant all the twists in Her Perfect Twin were, and Bonner sets all of them up perfectly.  I loved how multiple small details and seemingly throwaway lines came back in a big way as the novel progressed, and there was some brilliant planning here.  Bonner writes a pretty dark psychological tale here, and Her Perfect Twin does an impressive dive into the inner psyches of its various characters, with a particular focus on identity, freedom and the terrible secrets that bind us together.  While a few scenes get a bit disturbing and might be upsetting for some readers, it all works for the greater good of the story, and every brutal scene is incredibly well written and impressively moving.  I did appreciate the way in which Bonner was able to work England’s COVID-19 lockdowns into the story.  While some recent novels tend to shoe-horn lockdowns into their story, Bonner’s examination and use of the lockdowns was particularly clever, expertly tying into the story and becoming one of the better inclusions of it that I have seen in recent years.  An overall incredible and powerful narrative, you will fall in love with Her Perfect Twin’s perfect story.

I must also highlight the incredible characters that Bonner featured throughout Her Perfect Twin, although I might avoid specifics to keep some of the twists hidden.  All the characters in this book are extremely well developed, and Bonner produces some intricate and powerful backstories for them that drive them to do the bad things in this novel.  Megan was extremely well written, and her constant battles with her identity, her devious twin, and the constant fear of obtaining the same memory issues that plague her mother, become important parts of her story.  Watching her develop and attempt to find happiness is pretty satisfying, although she goes through a lot in this novel, especially as the story gets darker and darker.  The rest of the main characters were also really good, and you get some intriguing perspectives as the novel progresses, which help to produce such a rich and striking story.  A particular shoutout must go to the main antagonist of the book, who is quite frankly one of the best/worst villains I have seen in fiction.  This antagonist is a malicious, deceitful and sadistic figure who puts all the other characters through the emotional wringer as they attempt to get their ultimate goal.  I hated this character so much in Her Perfect Twin, especially after finding out the full extent of their plans, and once the book jumps to their arrogant perspective, you will grow to hate them too.  Watching them put their devious designs into motion is pretty horrific, and you will hang in there just to wait and see if they fail.  You will really come to love or hate these characters by the end of Her Perfect Twin, which just goes to show how awesome an author Bonner really is.

I think it is clear from my excitable ramblings up above that I really loved this incredible novel.  Her Perfect Twin was an exceptional debut from Sarah Bonner and I still cannot get over how much I loved its cool and clever story.  Loaded with insane twists and powerful characters, this novel is just so damn good, and you honestly will not be prepared for how crazy the story gets.  A must-read for all fans of the thriller genre; I cannot recommend Her Perfect Twin enough.

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City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman

City of the Dead Cover 2

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 37

Length: 319 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive back into the excellent world of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series with the latest fantastic entry, City of the Dead.

There are some awesome crime fiction authors out there now who have some brilliant long-running series, but one I have been particularly drawn to is bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  Kellerman, who debuted in 1985, is an impressive murder mystery author who is best known for his Alex Delaware books.  This fantastic series follows titular protagonist psychologist Alex Delaware as he helps his police detective best friend solve some of the strangest or disturbing murders throughout Los Angeles.  I started reading this book a few years ago and have had an excellent time with the last three entries, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all of which had an impressive and clever murder mystery narratives.  As such, I made a real effort to grab City of the Dead when it came out as I knew I was going to have a great time with it.  City of the Dead is the 37th Alex Delaware book and features another twisty and powerful mystery.

On a dark LA early morning, a moving truck runs over a naked body on the street.  As the police investigate this tragic accident, they discover a blood trail, which leads them to a nearby house, where the body of a murdered female is found.  Finding many of the details of this case to be unusual, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis once again brings in his friend, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to consult.  While the identity of the naked male out on the street is unknown, Alex is shocked to discover that he knows the female victim from one of his custody cases.

The victim, Cordelia “Cordi” Gannett, was a fraudulent mental health practitioner who specialised in manipulating the vulnerable for her own advantage.  Concerned that her deceptive practices may have led to her death, Alex and Milo examine her past to try and discover who killed her.  But as they dig into her intriguing life, Alex and Milo quickly discover that their victim had a troubled past, filled with mistakes, betrayals and bad influences.  But the more they uncover, the more they begin to question everything they think they knew about this terrible murder.  Was Cordi the dangerous manipulator everyone believes, or was she something far more vulnerable?  And what role, if any, did the dead man on the street play in her death?  A dangerous and disturbed murderer lies behind this crime, and their reasons for killing will shock even the hardened team of Alex and Milo.

Kellerman has done it again, producing an excellent and compelling murder investigation that will quickly hook you and take you to some dark places.  I loved the brilliant narrative of City of the Dead, which combines a complex mystery with interesting characters and the author’s unique style and perspective.  The author sets the start the story perfectly, with a couple of bodies discovered in unique positions that immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  This interest is intensified once the connection between Delaware and the victim are established, which also reveals the victim’s scandalous past.  From there the story continues at a slower pace, with Alex and Milo carefully building their case and their profile of the victim through intriguing interactions with various people with connections to the victim and her past.  This helps to set the scene for the rest of the novel, and the reader gets to see how all the details of this case are collected and pulled together.  The plot picks up a notch about halfway through when certain interesting developments to key suspects occur, producing extra complexity to the case, although I question the use of a couple of outrageous figures around this point.  From there the story reaches its zenith, as the protagonists get closer to their answers and a big reveal comes to light.  I really liked the twist towards the end, although it did kind of come out of nowhere and relied a little too much on coincidence.  However, I was very impressed by how Kellerman set up the big reveal from the very beginning of the book, especially as it helped to soften the randomness factor of the sudden reveal.  The entire motivation behind the killings was pretty bonkers (in a good way), and I loved how dark the story got, as well as the intriguing connections to the protagonist’s psychology background.  While I did think the story ended a tad too abruptly after this reveal, this was still a great story and I honestly could not put this down once I started.

Kellerman has a great writing style which I think complemented this fantastic narrative perfectly.  There is a really unique feel to each of his novels, especially as the characters have a distinctive way of interacting and talking, which I feel is a little more natural, even if they sometimes go off on some odd tangents.  I definitely liked Kellerman’s sense of pacing, and he strings this story our extremely well, with the slower, investigative side of the narrative perfectly balanced with the more intense and powerful moments.  The author hits all the right notes when it came to timing and fun reveals, with every great scene or unique character receiving a great introduction that brings the reader in.  Like all of Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, I found City of the Dead to be extremely inclusive to new readers, and the reader does an excellent job of re-introducing the recurring characters, plot threads and dynamics.  City of the Dead can easily be read as a standalone novel, and people with no pre-knowledge of the series can jump in here without any problems.  I had a great time getting through this impressive story and I ended up powering through the last 200 pages in less than a day, especially after I got really invested in the outstanding mystery.

One of the main things that I love about the Alex Delaware novels is the grounded and realistic approach that Kellerman takes to investigating a murder.  The characters investigate each case, including the one in City of the Dead, with a very methodical style, assessing the facts and slowly building up the case one fact at a time.  There is a particular focus on interviews and research, with the characters talking to multiple people who might know something to gain insight into the victims or potential suspects, while also diving into their past anyway they can.  This, combined with other real-life details such as delayed lab results or overworked cops and technicians, makes for a much more accurate portrayal of a murder investigation.  I personally love this style of mystery solving, and it helps to give City of the Dead a much more unique feel than some other murder mysteries out there.  I will say that some of the jumps were a bit over-the-top in places, and certain key revelations are only gained due to coincidental interactions outside of the main investigation.  Still, this is a great crime fiction story and I have a lot of fun with how a typical Kellerman investigation unfolds.

The final thing I need to discuss are the great characters of City of Dead, especially the two protagonists, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis.  By this point at the series, Kellerman has established an excellent dynamic between these two characters, and the brilliant psychologist and the seasoned police detective play off each other perfectly.  You can really sense the close friendship they have, and their excellent and distinctive back-and-forth banter is very entertaining.  Pretty much any story involving this partnership really works, and I have a lot of fun with this great team.  I also was quite impressed with the unique character of Cordi, the main victim of the story.  While we never see the character when she’s alive, Kellerman does a deep dive into her past and personality throughout the course of the novel as the two protagonists attempt to find out everything about her.  While you initially form a negative opinion of Cordi (even though she’s a murder victim), Kellerman successfully builds some nuance around her as the investigation continues.  The resultant picture, of a neglected and damaged person who is determined to never be poor or mistreated again, is very moving, especially as it speaks to some of her notable character choices and mistakes.  This makes for a very striking and compelling figure, and it is fascinating how much you become invested in finding her killer.  The killer was also an interesting choice from Kellerman, and while I won’t reveal too much here, I liked how they connected into the narrative, and I had a lot of fun when their motivations were revealed.  An excellent group of characters who enhance a compelling and exciting narrative.

With this latest amazing novel, City of the Dead, Jonathan Kellerman continues to shine as one of the more interesting crime fiction authors currently writing.  This fantastic novel brilliantly continues the long-running Alex Delaware series and presents the reader with an entertaining and thought-provoking murder mystery narrative.  Filled with a great story, some excellent investigation elements and a fantastic cast, City of the Dead was an impressive and addictive read that comes highly recommended, especially to fans of the iconic Jonathan Kellerman.

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Kill Your Brother by Jack Heath

Kill Your Brother Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s most brilliant and potentially psychotic crime fiction authors, Jack Heath, returns with a powerful and captivating thriller, Kill Your Brother, which was one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I read all year.

Would you kill your brother to save your own life?

That is the question that Elise Glyk is forced to ask herself after being placed in an impossible situation.  Elise, a disgraced athlete hated by the entire country, is a woman on a mission.  Her brother, Callum, a popular local teacher, has been missing for a month, and the police have been unable and unwilling to find him.  Determined to locate Callum, Elise’s investigation eventually leads her to a dilapidated local farm, where she is shocked to discover her brother being held prisoner in a modified septic tank.  However, before she can rescue him, Elise is captured and thrown into the same hole as her brother.

Their captor is heartbroken former sheep farmer Stephanie Hartnell, who believes that Callum is responsible for her daughter’s death and has been attempting to force him to confess to his supposed crimes.  However, Stephanie doesn’t have room for two prisoners, and while she doesn’t want to hurt the innocent Elise, she needs to make sure that she won’t immediately go to the police.  To that end, she offers Elise a deal: kill your brother and you’re free to go.

Not even considering the deal, Elise attempts to find another way to gain their freedom.  Trying to find a way to escape while also working to prove Callum’s innocence to Stephanie, Elise hopes that someone will eventually be able to find them before time runs out.  However, the more Elise digs into her brother’s story, the more inconsistencies she discovers.  What is her brother really hiding, and how will either sibling react when the truth comes out?

Kill Your Brother was an awesome and impressive novel that I powered through in a couple of days due to its incredible narrative and amazing twists.  This was a great standalone book from Jack Heath, an author from my home city of Canberra, who has written some fantastic thrillers over the years.  This includes his bestselling Timothy Blake series, the third book of which, Hideout, was one of my favourite pieces of Australian fiction in 2020Kill Your Brother was originally released as an Audible original audiobook, with the paperback version I read subsequently rewritten and adapted into a novel format.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and it was an excellent and impressive Australian thriller.

This book has an incredible story that takes the reader on a powerful thrill ride that they cannot get off if they tried.  Told using several character perspectives, Kill Your Brother quickly launches into the book’s deadly and compelling scenario, with Elise, a universally hated woman, attempting to find her brother.  Her hunt, which has been going on for months, has been largely unsuccessful, and the evidence found at her brother house’s, combined with her own reputation, means that everyone in her life constantly brushes her off.  However, Elise’s perseverance pays off when she finds Callum being held in a septic tank in Stephanie Hartnell’s backyard.  Posing as a private investigator, Elise tries to reason with Stephanie while plotting an escape, but she is soon forced into the ultimate no-win situation when given the option to kill her brother.  From there, the story devolves even further, with several escape attempts and mounting danger from their captor, and the two siblings turning against each other as their situation gets more desperate.  As the story progresses, several viewpoints on the situation and the events leading up to it are presented.  As the protagonist attempts to survive you get an interesting view of what Callum is accused of, and the eventual reveal of the full picture really influences the rest of the narrative.  This all leads up to the gripping and deadly finale in which every secret comes out and no-one is left untouched by the revelations and accompanying violence.

I really cannot exaggerate how awesome this cool narrative is.  Heath has gone out of his way to make Kill Your Brother’s story as clever and thrilling as possible, and I loved every single second that I spent reading it.  This book is filled with some brilliant twists and reveals, and Heath does a wonderful job of setting each of them up and slowly revealing them as the book progresses.  I honestly did not see half the twists coming and I loved how several small and seemingly inconsequential details eventually come back with amazing significance towards the end.  Heath also perfectly utilises a series of flashbacks that examine Elise’s past, showing why she is so disliked, while also revealing several clues about her family and the circumstances that lead to her brother’s imprisonment.  This was a really good standalone read, and potential readers are guaranteed a satisfying ending after getting stuck into the unique mystery and scenario.  I deeply enjoyed how this novel flowed, and there were no obvious issues with this being an adaption of an audiobook novella.  The impressive combination of character history, twisty writing and fast-paced storytelling ensured that I was deeply addicted within a few pages of starting.

One of the things that I must highlight is the fantastic central protagonist, Elise.  Elise is a brilliantly complex and sympathetic figure due to her complicated and tragic past, which has led to her current ostracism from her community and the hatred of the entirety of Australia.  I really enjoyed the impressive and complex backstory that surrounds this interesting and unique protagonist, especially as Heath did a great job of gradually introducing the full character history as the book progressed.  The whole angle is perfectly portrayed, including her motivations and the distinctly unfortunate events surrounding her disgrace, as well as the predicted reaction of the ordinary Australian sports fans.  This compelling and damaging backstory gives her quite an interesting insight and set of emotions regarding the events around her, as well as some intense determination to survive no matter the odds.  This helps produce a really fascinating character driven narrative, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the captivating and emotionally rich development that surrounded this brilliant protagonist.

I also deeply appreciated the way that Heath captured the feel of small-town Australia in his writing.  Most of the story is set in the fictional town of Warrigal, which draws a lot of inspiration from the small rural settlements throughout Australia, such as Braidwood, where Heath apparently wrote a good portion of this novel.  I really think that Heath did an amazing job of portraying the attitudes and mindsets of people in these sorts of locations, and you get an impressive sense of the location.  Watching the protagonist attempt to deal with the challenges of being the biggest pariah in her small town is pretty fascinating, and it was also compelling to see some of the limitations of a police investigation in this location, especially when it comes to locating a missing teacher.  The impacts of growing up in such a location also become a major part of the protagonist’s backstory, especially as the pressures of succeeding and representing her family and town drive her to make some mistakes.  I also must highlight the tiny pit that the protagonist and her brother find themselves held captive in.  Heath ensures that the reader gets the full sense of claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped as the book progresses, especially once the characters become weaker and start turning on each other.  This intense and claustrophobic setting really helps to amp up the tension, and you will feel very uncomfortable during the scenes set down there.  Finally, I had a lot of fun with the author’s occasional visits to Canberra throughout the book, mainly because it was interesting to see the author’s take on my home city.  Overall, these settings are perfectly portrayed and the reader gets a real sense of them, especially the small-town lifestyles.  These work in the narrative extremely well, and it was a lot of fun to see the various characters’ experiences and impressions of them.

Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read from Jack Heath, who is quickly becoming one of Australia’s most impressive thriller writers.  This brilliant, dark and exceedingly clever thriller takes the reader on an incredible ride, and I loved seeing all the unique and captivating twists and turns that Heath came up with.  Focused around an amazingly complex protagonist and making full use of the rural Australian landscape, Kill Your Brother’s story is just incredible, and I am still reeling about some of the twists it contains.  This is a highly recommended read that gets a well-deserved five-star rating from me.  I am extremely excited to see what Heath writes next.

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The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

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The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Age of Madness – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the best authors of dark fantasy, Joe Abercrombie, returns with the final book in his brilliant Age of Madness trilogy, the thrilling and deeply captivating The Wisdom of Crowds.

Joe Abercrombie is a particularly impressive author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last few years ever since I dove into his iconic First Law trilogy.  This great dark fantasy trilogy followed a group of complex and damaged characters who are thrust into a series of dangerous adventures in a corrupt fantasy world.  The original trilogy was pretty damn perfect, and I loved the outstanding story and universe that Abercrombie came up with.

Following his original books, Abercrombie wrote three standalone novels that continued the universe’s overall story in different ways before introducing his Age of Madness trilogy in 2019.  The Age of Madness trilogy is set around 20 years after the events of the First Law books and follows the children of the original trilogy’s protagonists as they are engulfed in additional chaotic events, including war, revolution, and lots of betrayal.  This trilogy has already featured two outstanding five-star novels, A Little Hatred (one of the best books of 2019) and The Trouble With Peace (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020).  Due to how awesome the previous novels were, I was deeply excited for The Wisdom of Crowds, and it turned out to be another exceptional read with an impressive story to it.

Following King Orso’s decisive victory over the rebellious young hero Leo dan Brock and his wife, Savine dan Glokta, Orso believes that he has finally gained control of the Union.  However, he is unprepared for the chaos and destruction that is about to befall the kingdom.  The revolution, known as the Great Change, has finally descended upon the Union, with the people rising up and overthrowing the hated nobles.  Led by former Arch Lector Pike, known by the masses as the Weaver, the rebelling Breakers and Burners soon take the capital, Adua, bringing hope and destruction in equal measure.

Imprisoned by the mob, Orso soon discovers that there is nothing lower than a deposed king.  The freed Citizen Leo and Citizeness Savine must adapt and find new ways to manipulate a mob that both loves and hates them.  The newly raised up Chief Inspector Teufel must soon decide where her loyalties lie as she begins to see the insanity of the new rulers, while former soldier Gunnar Broad once again finds himself causing trouble as a key citizen of the new regime.  At the same time, the magically prescient Rikke has taken control of the North, capturing the former King Stour Nightfall.  However, taking the North and keeping it are two very different things, especially as the forces of her family’s old enemy, Black Calder, advance towards her, determined to free Stour.  With enemies around every corner and even her closest allies beginning to doubt her, Rikke must implement a drastic plan and make use of every tool at her disposal, even notorious turncoat Jonas Clover.

As the Great Change starts to devolve into anarchy, the death toll starts to rise and no one is safe, least of all those who have profited in the past.  Soon hard choices will need to be made and only the strongest and most cunning will survive.  The Age of Madness is well and truly here, but who will live and who will die as the fires of anger, resentment and despair burn throughout the land?  No matter who survives, the Union and the North will never be the same again, especially with unseen hands manipulating events from the shadows.

How the hell does Abercrombie do it?  I knew in advance that this was going to be an awesome book, but I was yet again blown away by the author’s clever blend of captivating storylines, outstanding characters, and outstanding dark fantasy settings.  The Wisdom of Crowds served as an excellent conclusion to the Age of Madness trilogy, and I found myself absolutely powering through this amazing novel in no time at all.  This gets another five-star review from me as I had such an incredible time reading it.

Abercrombie has come up with an exceptional narrative for his latest novel, and I deeply enjoyed the captivating and extremely dark story contained within The Wisdom of Crowds.  This novel has an impressive and memorable start to it with the aftermath of the previous novel immediately giving way to the Great Change.  This uprising quickly overcomes the existing government and changes everything, with Orso imprisoned, Savine and Leo freed from captivity and incorrectly hailed as heroes of the people, and characters like Gunnar Broad and Inquisitor Teufel pushed to the fore due to their suffering under the previous regime.  After a great extended revolution sequence, Abercrombie spends a good chunk of the first act of the novel showcasing all the severe changes to the setting of the Union, including the impacts to the protagonists, as well as the nation’s quick decline after the initial glorious revolution.  At the same time, you have the events in the North occurring at the same pace, with Rikke trying to solidify her power in the face of a rising opposition.  Most of the novel’s major storylines are either set up here or transported over from the previous novels, and it moves at a great pace with some fantastic moments.  The novel really heats up in the second act, when a group of extremists take over the Union and Rikke’s war in the North gathers speed.  The storyline set in the Union during this section of the novel is filled will all manner of insanity and terror, and this is probably one of the darkest parts of the entire book.  While there is a noticeable focus on the craziness of a Burner revolution, there is also a lot of character development occurring here, with most of the protagonists starting their last bit of major growth here, with their big plans set up.  This second act is capped off with a massive battle in the North that changes the entire fabric of that setting and provides a great deal of fantasy action and bloodshed to keep the reader satisfied, while also featuring a pretty fun story twist.

All this leads up to an impressive final act which takes up the last third of the novel.  Most of this is set in the Union and showcases the protagonists making their moves.  There are some very good scenes here, with a mixture of big character moments, destructive fights, and a cool trial sequence, which help this part of the book really stand out.  All of this leads to a major change in the plot that occurs with roughly a quarter of the novel left to go.  While there are some great scenes involved with this big shift, I must admit I was a little surprised that the book didn’t end right there, due to the resulting significant change of pace, and I wonder if Abercrombie might have been better off using this final quarter in another novel.  However, the story is still extremely cohesive, especially as it leads up to some major reveals and big character moments that had me gasping with surprise.  I really did not see some of the big twists coming, even though they were really well set up throughout the trilogy (although I really should have known who was behind everything).  The book concludes on an interesting note, with some noticeable tragedy and some outstanding character moments as the surviving protagonists settle into their new roles.  I did think that Abercrombie may have spent too much time setting up events for his next trilogy, with multiple scenes containing open-ended events that will clearly get picked up in later books.  However, to be fair it did get me excited for the next novel like it was supposed to, and I don’t think it took too much away from the overall narrative.  This was such an awesome story, and The Wisdom of Crowds’ character focus had me hooked the entire way through.

Abercrombie has a real talent for writing awesome and complex dark fantasy novels, and I really enjoyed his outstanding and compelling style.  I deeply appreciated his excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and vibrant tale, as the story seamlessly flicks between seven major characters throughout the book.  The spread of character perspectives has been an outstanding feature of all the author’s First Law novels, and it is extremely cool to see this complex tale told from various points of view.  Not only does it ensure you get a brilliant, multifaceted exploration of the setting and the progress of the plot, but it really helps the reader get into the mind of the characters and see their personalities, emotions and opinions.  I also really appreciated the two great extended sequences that were told through the eyes of multiple supporting or one-off characters, especially as it captured the chaos and destruction of both revolution and a major battle.  The author has quite a vivid and adult writing style, which works with the realistic characters and complex storylines extremely well.  Not only does this result in some particularly graphic and powerful action sequences, including one amazing and massive pitched battle, but it also works in some distinctive and very adult dialogue.  While some of the language gets a tad over the top at times, it does give the book a very realistic feel and is a lot of fun.  Readers should be warned that this is a pretty dark tale including torture, ultra-violence and a lot of brutal deaths.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with the changes to the major setting of the Union in this novel.  While the other significant setting, the North, remains pretty much the same (its always snow, death and blood there), the Union is majorly impacted quite early on as part of the revolution known as the Great Change, which Abercrombie had been expertly setting up throughout the trilogy.  The Great Change, which was brought on by rioting workers and peasants disenfranchised by the industrial revolution that was such an amazing and distinctive feature of this trilogy, hits the city with most of the nobles, the wealthy, the ruling Closed Council, and the King all arrested.  This initial overthrowing was done pretty perfectly, with several chaotic sequences, and it eventually leads to a whole new era for the nation.  This part of the novel was very clearly inspired by the French Revolution, and I deeply appreciated the way in which the author evoked the iconic imagery of destructive historical events into his fantasy novel.  I loved the initial set-up of the new democratic government that replaced the monarchy, and I had a good chuckle at the character’s glorious ideas of a utopian society with a pompous constitution.  However, the real fun occurs when these high ideals fail miserably and are replaced by a general purge where no-one is safe.  Abercrombie did a really good job here of capturing the terror, uncertainty and horrible human nature that accompanies these sorts of purges, with a series of one-sided trials and brutal executions in front of a cheering crowd.  This chaotic setting serves as an outstanding backdrop to novel’s various storylines, and it was an amazing and dark part of The Wisdom of Crowds that made it really stand out.

As with the rest of Abercrombie’s books set in this connected universe, one of the absolute best things about The Wisdom of Crowds was the exceptional and complex characters.  Just like the previous two novels in the Age of Madness trilogy, the story is primarily shown from the perspective of seven unique and well-established point-of-view characters.  Each of these characters is extremely complex and layered as Abercrombie has been setting up some fantastic storylines around each of them throughout the course of the series.  These characters include:

  • Orso – the son of King Jezal, a point-of-view character from the original trilogy, and current High King of the Union, for whatever that title is worth. Orso is a very fun character who has probably grown the most out of all the characters featured in this series, going from a foppish, unmotivated prince, to a decisive, competent and victorious king in the second novel.  Despite his victory over his rival Leo and his secret half-sister (and former lover) Savine, Orso soon finds himself a prisoner when the Great Change leads to a people’s revolt.  Despite being imprisoned and constantly mocked by everyone, Orso keeps most of the confidence he built up in the previous novels and is a constant figure of comedy, especially with his great sarcastic observations of the events around him.  Abercrombie has done a masterful job with Orso over the last three books, and I really appreciated his growth and humour, making him one of my favourite characters in this trilogy.  Due to this it is pretty hard to see him get taken down and condemned by his people, especially as he is a much better ruler than everyone thinks he is.  I once again found myself really pulling for him in this novel, and I think he was the character I wanted to survive and win the most.
  • Savine dan Brock (formerly dan Glokta) – a formidable businesswoman and adoptive daughter of Arch Lector Glokta (the best character from the original series). Savine has been an awesome character in this trilogy, experiencing some massive highs and significant lows.  After marrying Leo and organising a revolt against her half-brother Orso in the previous novel, Savine starts this novel in chains.  However, once the Great Change occurs, she is quickly freed and must find her place amongst the revolutionaries.  Rightly terrified of being tried for her ruthless business practices, and changed by motherhood, Savine engages in charity works and tries to save herself through generosity.  I quite enjoyed Savine’s storyline in this latest novel and it had some awesome moments.  While I do think she was a bit underutilised in the middle of the book, she eventually emerges in full form and shows everyone why she is the most dangerous person in the Union.  There are some outstanding scenes surrounding her, especially that awesome court sequence, and I quite liked where her story ended up.
  • Leo dan Brock – the former governor of Angland and shining hero of the Union, before he had an arm and leg blown off during his big battle against Orso in the previous book. Leo starts this novel a shell of his former self, full of regret that his recklessness and arrogance caused his injuries and the death of his friends.  However, this regret soon turns to anger and ruthlessness as he uses his hero status to become a key part of the Great Change, attempting to manipulate it for his benefit.  I must admit that Leo was always my least-favourite character in this series, and I liked how the features I disliked about him led to his downfall in the previous book.  Abercrombie perfectly follows this up by making him a much more unlikable character in this novel, and I deeply appreciated the realistic way his personality was twisted and darkened by anger, jealousy and frustration, giving him a new ruthless edge.  Out of the characters in The Wisdom of Crowds, Leo probably goes through the most development in this novel, and it was pretty captivating to see where his new hate and frustrations led him.
  • Rikke – a Northern protagonist and the daughter of the Dogman, Rikke has had a very interesting story arc within this series due to her magical Long Eye, which allows her to see into the future. Rikke was able to outsmart all her opponents in the previous novel, taking the Northern capital and capturing her opponent, Stour Nightfall.  Now Rikke is forced to lead her people against Stour’s father, Black Calder, while also trying to balance the concerns and treachery of her allies.  I have been really impressed with Rikke’s storyline throughout The Age of Madness, and I liked the great transition from scared girl to effective leader.  This book continues to showcase her skills, even if she still appears a bit rash and too clever for her own good.  She ends up being forced to make some hard and heartless decisions, which really highlights just how far she has come.  There are some outstanding movements with Rikke in this novel, and I particularly loved the good twist around her that occurred at the big battle scene (I did see it coming, but it was still a lot of fun).  I also loved the fantastic scene where she confronts Bayaz, the First of the Magi, as it was one of the first times that you see the master manipulator of the series appearing rattled and impotent.  Rikke was a really well set up character and I really appreciated the epic and compelling storylines around her.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union inquisitor and protégé of Arch Lector Glokta, Vick is a master spy and investigator. Despite all her skills, Vick was taken by surprise by the revelation that Pike is the Weaver and is forced into supporting the Great Change against her will.  Falling back on her old survivalist mentality to support the winners, Vick is eventually shaken into action by the destruction caused by the Burners and finds herself supporting the losing side.  After being a little underused in the previous novel, Vick has a very strong outing in The Wisdom of Crowds and her character changers are quite essential to the plot.  Like Leo, Vick goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, although her development is a lot more positive as she tries to do what is right rather than what will keep her alive.  Vick also experiences some very crushing moments, and it was fascinating that out of all the characters, she maintained the moral high ground the best.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier with a gift for extreme violence, who has been both a Breaker and a servant to Savine as an enforcer and bodyguard. Imprisoned after the last book, Gunnar is freed with Savine and Leo and once again finds himself drawn into the fight, despite his desire to stay out of trouble and get back to his family.  While he once again tries to be a good person at first, he is eventually seduced by the dark appeal of the Burners and truly loses himself, giving into his inner violence and anger.  While he does do some redemptive actions, Gunnar remains a bit of a lost cause, which is pretty tragic to see.  Gunnar proved to be a great character throughout this series, despite a lack of any real development, and I enjoyed his darker scenes and compelling personal insights.
  • Jonas Clover – the cunning and treacherous veteran Northern warrior who, after spending the last two books serving Stour Nightfall, betrayed him at the end of The Trouble with Peace and sided by Rikke. However, he soon finds his loyalty divided between Rikke and Black Calder, with both sides aware of his tendency to turn on the losing side, and he must finally decide who to support.  Due to his very entertaining personality and cynical viewpoint about the world, Clover was my favourite character in the series, and I love all the clever insights and subtle jokes that are characteristic of his scenes.  I really appreciated his mindset of patience, self-restraint and picking your moment, which is mostly unheard of amongst the other Northerners, and which usually sees him through most conflicts.  Despite this, Clover is finally forced to face the music in this novel after his various betrayals come back to bite him.  While he doesn’t always make the best decision, his entertaining and canny attitude ensures that the reader is constantly amused by his antics, and I am really glad that Abercrombie included him in this series.  It will be interesting to see how he is utilised in the future, especially as the author tried to evoke some similarities between his journey and that of original character Logan Ninefingers.

I deeply enjoyed each of these impressive characters, with each one bringing something very memorable and entertaining to the table.  While a couple of these characters were a bit underutilised in previous novels, I think that Abercrombie struck the right balance in The Wisdom of Crowds, with each of them shown in pretty much equal measure.  All seven character arcs are pretty awesome in their own right, but the real strength is the way that they come together to tell the overall story.  It was pretty cool to see multiple character perspectives of the same events, especially as each of these complex characters have very different views on what has happened.  I think that each of the arcs ended extremely well, with each of the characters going in some very interesting and surprising directions.  I was a bit surprised by who was left standing and in control at the end of the novel, and I must admit that I really did not foresee the fates of several of the characters.  Abercrombie sets up each of these events incredibly well, and there were some very fitting endings or transformations here.  It was interesting to see how some of these characters ended up mirroring the cast of the First Law trilogy, which seemed fitting as some were inspired by these prior characters, while others tried to escape becoming them.  I also really appreciated the way that barely any of the primary characters end up being portrayed as good people by the end of it.  While all of them initially tried to do the right thing, even the best of them is forced to make some terrible compromises which shatter their morality and impact their personality.  As a result, the reader is left with little sympathy for some of the surviving characters, and it was once again really amazing to have such morally ambiguous and naturally selfish characters.  It looks like Abercrombie might strongly feature the remaining characters again in his next trilogy, and I cannot wait to see how their various story arcs are continued.

Aside from the seven focal characters above, The Wisdom of Crowds also featured a vast collection of supporting and side characters, each of whom added a ton to the novel.  Most of the supporting characters where previously introduced in the first two novels of this trilogy, as well as a few holdouts from the original trilogy, and there weren’t too many new characters in this final novel.  The author ensures that the reader has a pretty good idea of these characters’ feelings and motivations, and it was fascinating to see the complex and powerful storylines told around several of them.  There are some really good twists around a few characters in particular, and I have to admit that I did not see most of them coming, with Abercrombie doing some masterful writing to set up these reveals throughout the entire trilogy.  Many of these side characters inspired some excellent and moving storylines, although readers should be aware that, as this is the final novel, quite a few of these characters did not survive, and I was particularly cut up by the death of one major supporting character near the end.  It will be very interesting to see what happens to the survivors in the future, and I am especially curious about a couple of key characters from the original trilogy who are set for some major events in Abercrombie’s next outing.

While I did get a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook instead, which proved to be an awesome decision.  The Wisdom of Crowds has a substantial runtime of 23 hours and 36 minutes (it would have placed 17th on my latest longest audiobooks list).  However, despite its length, I was able to power through it in about a week, especially after I got pretty damn hooked on the awesome story.  I found that this format moved the story along at a pretty fast pace, and it was a great way to absorb the fun and compelling details of this dark and epic tale.  It also works extremely well thanks to the outstanding voice work of the incredible Steven Pacey, who is one of my absolute favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Pacey, who has narrated all the other books in the First Law and Age of Madness trilogies, does another outstanding job with The Wisdom of Crowds.  Not only does he ensure that every aspect of the narrative comes across in a fun and compelling way; he also ensures that every character is perfectly brought to life.  Pacey brings back all the fun and fitting voices that were featured in Abercrombie’s previous novels, which proved to be a lot of fun, especially as he perfectly captures the unique personalities and characteristics of these fantastic figures.  Pacey makes a lot of effort to portray all the emotion and intensity of the characters, and you really get a sense of the heartbreak and darkness that surrounds all of them, especially by the end of the story.  This results in another incredible audiobook which I had an outstanding time listening to; at one point I managed to listen to it for over five hours straight and was not bored in the slightest.  As a result, I would strongly recommend The Wisdom of Crowds’ audiobook version, and it is easily one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in 2021.

With another incredible and powerful story, filled with outrageous and complex characters, impressive settings and clever twists, Joe Abercrombie brings his latest trilogy to end with the brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds.  This final book in the Age of Madness trilogy was an exceptional read, and I deeply enjoyed the dark and clever places this amazing book went.  An epic and captivating dark fantasy experience, readers are guaranteed to power through The Wisdom of Crowds in no time at all, especially as they become more and more engrossed with the excellent central protagonists.  A must-read for all Abercrombie fans, this was easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 so far and I cannot wait to see what madness and destruction are unleashed in the author’s next awesome series.

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover 2

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The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

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