The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly Cover.jpg

Publishers: Zaffre

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

Prepare to have your fear of the dark reignited in this suspenseful and creative new novel from one of the best horror/thriller writers in the business, which takes the reader on one hell of an adventure.

The world is full of many secrets, cover-ups and mysteries, all of which have been hidden from the public by the academic elite.  At least, that’s what Nolan Moore would have you believe.  Nolan is an amateur archaeologist and former screenwriter whose web series, The Anomaly Files, attempts to uncover weird things from history.  Derided by the experts, The Anomaly Files has a devoted following of conspiracy theorists which Nolan hopes to turn into a television deal, and his latest episode might just be the break that he needs.

Following clues left by an explorer in 1909, Nolan and his production team travel to the Grand Canyon, hoping to find a hidden cave that may contain evidence of an ancient civilisation unrecorded in history.  For once, Nolan appears to be right, as the team manage to find the opening to a cave high up in a remote part of the canyon.  Exploring, they find a cave system filled with mysterious items and artefacts unlike anything ever discovered in this area before.  Their elation at this unique archaeological breakthrough is quickly quashed when they find themselves trapped within the cave, cut off from the outside world.

As their lights start to fade and their supplies begin to dwindle, Nolan and the team hold out hope for a rescue.  However, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong.  Something alive is entombed with them and there is far more to this cave than they could have ever imagined.  As the team try to survive an increasingly desperate situation, Nolan must uncover the secrets of the structure they find themselves trapped in before they all die in darkness.

Michael Rutger is actually a pseudonym for bestselling author Michael Marshall, who has also written as Michael Marshall Smith.  Rutger has been writing since 1994 and is known for his intriguing science fiction novels, which often have a strong horror/thriller element to them.  The author is probably best known for his creepy 2002 release The Straw Men, which spawned two sequels, but his bibliography is littered with a number of other powerful and terrifying novels.  Fans of Rutger’s previous work will no doubt enjoy the quick reference to The Straw Men contained within The Anomaly, and it will be interesting to see if Rutger goes back to that series in the future.  I chose to listen to The Anomaly on audiobook.  The audiobook is narrated by Brandon Williams, and, at just under 10 hours in length, it doesn’t take too long to get to the heart of this great story.

One of the most enjoyable things about The Anomaly is the tense atmosphere that Rutger instils with his skilled writing and terrifying creative elements.  The reader really gets a sense of the desperation and despair slowly creeping up on the characters as the story progresses, even if they attempt to keep a brave face with each other.  With a limited and dwindling number of lights being held by the characters, Rutger is able to create quite a few opportunities for his protagonists to be forced to crawl around in the dark in this hostile environment.  The oppressive darkness takes a real shape during the book and at times has a near physical sense to it as the characters deal with it in different ways.  I felt that the story contained a well-balanced combination of action, exploration, archaeological and scientific exposition, despair-filled periods of rest, several gruesome and traumatic scenes and a surprising amount of humour from the characters.  However, even as the characters crack jokes at each other, you can feel the darkness surrounding them and you are constantly wondering what is going to happen next.

Special mention needs to go to Rutger’s creation of The Anomaly Files webcast show that was a major feature of the book’s early plot and the main plot reason that this group of characters are in this situation.  The author spends significant time describing the creation and filming process behind this show, and it’s intriguing how similar it sounds to some real-life conspiracy theory shows or broadcasts.  This accurate portrayal of a web show adds a lot of realism to the story, especially as it becomes clear that the characters are in over their heads and are different from the usual group of leading experts or military types you’d usually find in this type of novel.

I am not going to go into too much detail about the mystery of the cave as I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  Trying to figure out what exactly is behind the events affecting the protagonists is a big part of the experience, and too many details could potentially ruin the book’s impact.  Suffice to say, this central mystery is a very unique and creative idea from Rutger that is made up of a variety of different elements.  It was very intriguing to see the full extent of this central idea be revealed to the protagonists as the story progresses and readers will be astounded by what Rutger has come up with.  This mystery is made up of an interesting mixture of aspects from a number of different genres, and the author combines them together into one very intriguing conclusion with some massive implications.  I really enjoyed this exploration into the weird, and some of the things that harassed the protagonists as a result of the central mystery element worked very well with the tense nature of the story.

One of the defining features of The Anomaly is the strong focus on the characters entering the cave.  The readers grow to really care for these characters, and quite a lot of time is spent exploring their past and showing them as people who don’t deserve to be trapped in this terrible situation.  Most of the book’s focus is on the protagonist and narrator Nolan Moore, who is the cynical host of The Anomaly Files.  Nolan is a great central protagonist to have tell this story, as he is an observant character who has witty and at times piercing insights into his fellow characters while also providing the reader with his detailed examinations of the locations around him.  Despite coming off as a bit arrogant at the start of the book, the character’s brutal honesty about himself, as well as the exploration of certain parts of his past, does a lot to humanise him to the reader and make him into a character you can really care about.  This humanisation is furthered by his attempts to save his team and the extreme guilt that he feels for having brought his team into this place.

While Nolan is a great central character, Rutger also spends a significant amount of time focusing on the side characters, who in some ways are just as important as Nolan to the book’s overall story.  My absolute favourite of these characters had to be The Anomaly Files British producer, Ken, who spends the entire time quipping, swearing and generally making the most sarcastic comments he can, no matter how dire the situation gets.  Most of the book’s humour comes from Ken’s dialogue, as he makes it clear he’ll be joking and insulting the world right up till his death.  While this sort of character seems an odd choice for a thriller/horror novel, I felt his sarcastic attitude and comments fit the tense tone perfectly as he encapsulates a lot of feelings a normal person would have in that situation.  Ken is also one of those characters you can’t help but love and who you really, really hope will survive all the terrible stuff happening around them.

Molly the assistant producer and Pierre the cameraman also get a significant amount of focus in the book and are really good side characters.  Molly goes from being the most calm and collected character at the start of the book to the person most affected by the darkness and atmosphere of the cave.  Watching her try and work through her issues is quite inspiring, and there is even a descent exploration of the root of these deeper issues.  Not much of Pierre’s backstory is shown; however, the reader gets a good sense of his character throughout the book, and Nolan’s changing opinion and growing admiration for him mirrors the reader’s thoughts on him.  Other main characters include the ambitious reporter, Gemma, and Feather, the new age hippy who acts as a representative of the show’s sponsor.  Both of these characters get some decent exploration in the book, as well as some great scenes that make them stand out in their own ways.

I really enjoyed the audiobook version of The Anomaly.  I would definitely recommend it for anyone interested in finding out more about this compelling story.  I felt that having this book read out to me helped expand on the story’s tension and dark atmosphere, and it was a fantastic way to enjoy this amazing story.  Brandon Williams’s narration of the audiobook is excellent, and his voices for the characters are a highlight of this format.  Williams does a great job capturing the book’s point-of-view character, Nolan, very well, and the audience gets a real sense of the character’s cynical nature and inner thoughts through the terrific narration.  I absolutely loved the voice that Williams created for Ken, as he gives the character a very distinctive English accent that fits Ken’s sarcastic personality perfectly.  The accent is just wonderful and actually reminded me a lot of Matt Ryan’s voice for John Constantine in some of the modern television shows, especially when he swears (‘bollocks’, for example, is used multiple times).  The rest of the voices that Williams creates work well for the other characters and allow the readers to distinguish between them, although the less said about the ‘South African’ accent for minor character Dylan, the better.

With a powerfully intense atmosphere, The Anomaly is an exceptional horror/thriller from bestselling author Michael Rutger.  This is an amazing book, and readers will have a lot of fun trying to unravel the book’s central mystery, while desperately hoping their favourite characters survive this chilling adventure.  Addictive and terrifying in equal measures, this is an outstanding book that comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a weird, thrilling or horror based read.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Murder Mile by Lynda La Plante

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Publisher: Zaffre

Publication Date – 23 August 2018

 

One of English crime fiction’s most distinctive voices, Lynda La Plante, returns with her iconic female detective, Jane Tennison, for another dark and shocking case.

In February 1979, recently promoted Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison has been posted to Peckham CID, one of the toughest beats in all of London.  Previously known as the Golden Mile due to its well-to-do shopping areas, the area is now in decline, a fact not helped by the garbage strikes besetting the entire city, ensuring that the entire area is covered rubbish and filth.

When the body of a young woman is found in the heart of Peckham, Jane and her team must investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.  But when another body is found nearby, the possibility of a serial killer raises all sorts of problems.  The media scrutinise the case and rename the area Murder Mile.  Even worse, the second victim’s son is well connected, and several important people want the matter dealt with quickly.

As more bodies are uncovered, Tennison must use all of her investigative ability to uncover this dark murderer, while also dealing with the police force’s inherent sexism and disregard for her talent that she has dealt with her entire career.  Can Tennison catch this killer, or will they find a terrible and unexpected way to win?

Lynda La Plante is a talented author and screenwriter responsible for several hit British crime series and movies.  She achieved early success with the 1983 television series, Widows, which has been adapted into a major motion picture set to be released in November this year.  Other successful shows that La Plante has created include Trial and Retribution and Above Suspicion, with nearly all of her books having been either adapted into screenplays or inspired by one of her televisions shows.  Murder Mile is the fourth book in her Jane Tennison series, which serves as a prequel series to one of La Plante’s most successful and iconic shows, Prime Suspect, which features Helen Mirren as an older Jane Tennison.  The first book in this prequel series, Tennison, also served as the basis for the short-lived prequel television series Prime Suspect 1973.

Murder Mile features a dark and disturbing mystery that serves as the central focus of this book.  The protagonist must investigate a series of murders spread out among the dilapidated Peckham area. La Plante has created an intriguing and compelling investigation storyline as Tennison and her team follow a series of promising leads across Peckham and the rest of London, finding clues in a variety of places, as well as several other bodies.  While the majority of the book leading up the conclusion of the story and the solution of the mystery is captivating in its own right, the best part of the book has to be its chilling conclusion.  Not only is the revealed antagonist a despicable creature, but the way in which they attempt to manipulate Jane and the rest of the police characters is just plain creepy.  The conclusion of the story and the ultimate reveal of the antagonist’s last actions are particularly shocking in their execution and extent.  Worse, both the reader and the protagonist can see that the villain is planning something, but you just cannot predict the terrible lengths they will go to win and spite the police.  This memorable conclusion serves as the perfect end to this dark and powerful story and represents some excellent writing from La Plante.

This story is set in 1970s London, and the author does a fantastic job bringing this iconic city to life during a period of economic downturn.  There is a certain gloom around the city, especially in Peckham, where the majority of the book’s investigation takes place.  The plot of Murder Mile is set during the infamous Winter of Discontent, a period of strikes and financial uncertainty that hit the country during 1978 and 1979.  There are several discussions about the situation from the characters and it is interesting to see a fictional perspective of this part of England’s recent history.  In addition, some of the physical effects of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ have some significant impacts on the case.  During January and February 1979, the waste collectors of London were on strike, resulting in a build-up of rubbish throughout the city.  As a result, many of the scenes set in the city feature streets strewn with garbage and littered with filth and rats.  La Plante also examines the parks that were filled with rubbish by London authorities as a stopgap measure for this situation.  This becomes particularly important in the story, as the police discover a dismembered body in one of these parks as the murderer attempted to utilise the situation for their own ends.  The author has also cleverly highlighted the police techniques and technologies that would have been available during the time.  Overall, La Plante has made full use of this chaotic period in Murder Mile, and readers will enjoy her vivid descriptions of these events.

In addition to the general descriptions of 1970s England, one of the key features of La Plante’s latest book is an examination of the inherent sexism in the London police force.  Jane as a Detective Sergeant must continue to fight to gain respect from her co-workers.  In Murder Mile she is constantly talked down to by her superiors, deals with disrespectful comments from the rank-and-file police, and must also deal with having her authority undercut by colleagues she considers to be her friends as they step in quickly to defend her.  It is infuriating to see how senior police ignore Tennison’s detective work and observations, especially as she is right most of the time.  This sexism also requires Tennison to act in a more maverick way, as her frustrations force her to work outside the main police investigation in order to prove herself – a decision that will have significant impacts on her life and career.

While the portrayal of sexism mentioned above has been used in all of the books of the Jane Tennison series, in Murder Mile La Plante has chosen to also focus on police homophobia and how it affects the investigation.  The police homophobia is quite prevalent throughout the series, especially when one of the suspects is revealed to be gay.  The police response to this is extreme, as several of the characters are quite hostile to this suspect and his relatives, alienating potentially helpful people in the investigation.  In addition, there is the stupid assumption that all homosexual males were automatically paedophiles, and this sends the investigation into several biased directions.  Tennison and several of the other characters attempt to change the minds of their colleagues, often without much success.  In addition, one of the more approachable and capable members of the police team is revealed to be homosexual in this book, which serves as a good counterpoint to the more old school and homophobic cops.  Overall, this is an intense and important part of the story, and it is intriguing to see how these old biases would likely have affected cases in the past.

Crime legend Lynda La Plante returns in fantastic form with Murder Mile, an exciting continuation of her Prime Suspect prequel series.  Featuring some deep and powerful examinations of the 1970s London police force, this absorbing mystery takes its readers to the edge of darkness and beyond.  Featuring an incredibly dark and unforgettable ending, Murder Mile is another exceptional release from La Plante and a highly recommend piece of crime fiction.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

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Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 May 2018

World Publication Date – 8 March 2018

 

Ballista is back, baby!  One of the best writers of Roman historical fiction, Harry Sidebottom, brings back his original protagonist for an incredibly gripping and action-packed novel that perfectly combines the thriller and historical fiction genres.

In Rome, in 265 AD, Marcus Clodius Ballista, former Dux Ripae of Rome and loyal friend of Emperor Gallienus, enters the Mausoleum of Hadrian to meet with an informant who wishes to talk to him about a plot to kill the emperor and usurp his throne.  But the meeting is a trap, the informant is murdered, and Ballista is forced to jump into the River Tiber to escape the horde of assassins sent to kill him.

Washed up outside of the city and pursued by killers, Ballista only has 24 hours until Gallienus is murdered.  With the conspirators still unknown to him, Ballista has no idea who he can trust and who can help him, but he must find a way to warn the emperor of the plot against him.  If he fails, not only will his friend will be assassinated but Ballista’s family will also die in the ensuing takeover.

Now alone, unarmed, and with no money, bodyguards or friends around him, Ballista must find a way to re-enter the city and transverse the entirety of Rome to get to the emperor’s side.  But the city is now a very dangerous place for him.  The city watch are fully mobilised and ordered to arrest Ballista at all costs.  In addition, mobs of disguised killers are searching for him everywhere, and they have no intention to taking him in alive.

As Ballista makes his way through the streets of Rome, he must find a way to avoid all the people searching for him while also overcoming the other dangers that lurk throughout the city.  Will Ballista be able to save his friend and his family, or will his final defeat take place in the heart of the empire he has spent his whole life protecting?

Harry Sidebottom is a renowned British historian and veteran author of Roman historical fiction, having previously written two best-selling series, Warrior of Rome and Throne of the CaesarsThe Last Hour is the 10th book from Sidebottom and a spinoff off from his Warrior of Rome series, featuring his original protagonist, Ballista.  Ballista is a heavily fictionalized version of a famous Roman prefect, and served as the main character of Sidebottom’s first six books.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sidebottom’s works, as his debut novel, Fire in the East, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction that I ever read, and featured one of the best accounts of a siege that I have ever read.  His second book, King of Kings, was also one of the first books that I ever reviewed, and was a fantastic sequel that featured great story elements, set in an interesting and underused period of Roman history.  Sidebottom’s latest book, The Last Hour, is an amazing hybrid of the thriller and historical fiction genres, featuring an intense, high-stakes journey through the ancient city of Rome.

The thriller aspects of this book are exhilarating.  The protagonist is aware of a devastating assassination that is about to be committed and has only a limited time to reach and save the target.  Sidebottom incorporates a ticking clock element to the story, as Ballista is constantly aware of the passing of time and how short a period he has to complete his objective to save not only his friend but his entire family as well.  Needless to say, the author takes this story right down to the wire, and the reader has no idea whether Ballista will succeed or not; readers who are familiar with the previous books in the series will recall that King of Kings ended with Ballista and the previous emperor being both betrayed and captured by the enemy.  The story gains a significant amount of intensity as the protagonist has no idea of who he can trust, nor who is aligned against him.  Sidebottom also goes out of his way to ensure that the readers are in the dark about who the main conspirators are, even towards the end of the story.  This intrigue is compounded as Sidebottom gives his audience a tantalising view of the antagonists meeting while also frustrating the readers by ensuring that these characters use codenames when talking to each other.  As a result, the reader is intently drawn into the story by both the protagonist’s mad dash through the city and the immense desire to work out who the conspirators are and what their full plan is.

In addition to its electrifying thriller elements, The Last Hour also features an incredible exploration of ancient Rome and the range of people the protagonist encounters during his time in the city.  Sidebottom is determined to highlight several different groups of people that were a factor in the city, including the city watch, the Praetorian guards, the emperor’s Germanic bodyguards and the frumentarii, who served as the emperor’s secret police.  Each of these groups is an essential part of the emperor’s security and has a significant role to play in this novel, and the readers will be intrigued by Sidebottom’s descriptions of each of them.  Ballista also encounters a range of other Roman citizens, from simple shopkeepers and men of the street to members of the city’s criminal underground, cults of Egyptian priests, hidden Christians and even drunk Roman nobles looking to assault people they meet on the street.  Each of these adds to the rich tapestry of the historical city that Sidebottom has woven into existence.  This tapestry is further enhanced by Sidebottom’s determination to provide detailed examinations of several of ancient Rome’s buildings and locations.  These range from historically significant locations, like the coliseum, the Praetorian camp and the emperor’s palace, to more mundane locations that were a unique feature of the city of Rome, such as massive bathhouses and large apartment-style buildings.  All these historical elements serve as terrific background for this extraordinary thriller based story.

Readers of this book are also in for an action-packed treat as the protagonist rampages through ancient Rome, continuously fighting off either the people hunting him or the regular citizens of Rome attacking him for their own reasons.  As a result, The Last Hour is filled with innumerable action sequences that are guaranteed to amuse and delight all the action fanatics out there.  Readers will be gifted with sequences that include a crazy fight and flight across the rooftops of the city, and a down-and-dirty fight in the steamy and mechanical workings of a bathhouse.  There is also a siege on the roof of one of the city’s monuments and a large pitched battle in the streets of Rome.  These fight scenes are great fun and increase in intensity throughout the book as the protagonist’s countdown goes on.

Harry Sidebottom has once again produced an incredible, fast-paced and exceedingly exciting action novel that combines the very best elements of a first-rate thriller with all the research and detail of an excellent historical fiction novel.  A truly unique and utterly entertaining piece of literature, The Last Hour once again shows why Sidebottom is one of the very best authors writing about ancient Rome.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Nucleus Cover.jpg

Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 March 2018

World Publication Date – 25 January 2018

 

In June 1939, war is on the horizon.  While many in England still hope to avoid another conflict with the Germans, it is becoming clearer that war may be unavoidable.  Nazi Germany is aggressively moving throughout Europe, while back in England the IRA has embarked on a new bombing campaign.

While the world watches and waits, many governments have turned their focus towards a dangerous new arms race.  Advances in nuclear fission have allowed scientists to envision a potentially game-changing weapon: an atomic bomb.  Many believe that the research at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory will lead to the creation of the first bomb, and the laboratory is now the subject of intense scrutiny.

While holidaying in America, Cambridge professor Tom Wilde is summoned to the White House to meet President Roosevelt.  The president requests that Wilde use his position to spy on the research at Cavendish and report their progress to the Americans.  Upon his return to Cambridge, Wilde begins to suspects that Nazi spies may have infiltrated the laboratory when one of the Cavendish researchers is brutally murdered.  As he investigates further, he learns that the murder may be connected to a wealthy family with Nazi sympathies and the famous movie star sister of one of his colleagues.  Wilde is forced into a web of spies and assassins as he tries to discover what terrible plans the Nazis have for Cavendish.  What does his long-lost cousin have to do with this plot, and how do these attacks tie into a kidnapped child that Wilde’s girlfriend, Lydia, is searching for in Germany?

Nucleus is a pulse-pounding thriller that combines mysterious events and spycraft with a dark historical background and a grounding in nuclear physics.  This is the second book in Clements’ Tom Wilde series, and the follow-up novel to his 2017 bestseller, Corpus, which was a stunning historical thriller that featured a plot against the royal family.

Clements has a lot of experience with historical thrillers, having previously examined espionage during the Elizabethan era in his acclaimed John Shakespeare series.  In Nucleus, Clements combines several intriguing storylines into one compelling plot that will draw the reader into the book’s many mysteries.  With a series of hidden adversaries, twisting character loyalties and several shocking conclusions, Clements tells a first-rate thriller that combines well with his story’s historical setting and locations.

Clements uses his latest book to once again explore the period of calm immediately before World War II.  Clements does a masterful job of depicting the dread and apprehension filling England as the whole country found itself drawing closer and closer to war.  This bleak and foreboding historical period is the perfect setting for Clements’ thriller, especially as the characters realise the major repercussions their actions could have on the world.

The historical locations used throughout Nucleus are an essential part of the book and add a lot to the story.  Clements once again returns to the Cambridge backdrop that was one of the defining features of Corpus.  The academic background is used less during this book, but the reader is compensated by being able to see the famous Cavendish Laboratory.  There is also a harrowing journey into Nazi Germany for one of the characters, Lydia, which Clements uses to full effect, highlighting the terror many German citizens felt during that time and their attempts to flee the country before it was too late.  Another highlight of the scenes set in Nazi Germany was the interesting focus on some of the groups attempting to get refugees out of the country, such as the Quakers and the staff at the British Embassy.  The reader also experiences Lydia’s palpable dread as she comes into direct contact with the dark mechanisms of the Nazi machine, and these scenes contain an amazing and appropriate level of suspense.

Due to it being a major plot point for Nucleus, Clements spends a significant amount of time focusing on the state of nuclear science in the 1930s.  Clements does a good job of explaining the science in some detail without it getting too complicated.  As a result, the reader receives a basic understanding of nuclear science of the time, at least enough to appreciate what the spies and nuclear physicist characters within the book are up to and are attempting to achieve.  This is a good balance to have and it allows the reader to experience the fascinating early history of nuclear fission and the early arms race for the atomic bomb.

By infusing his excellent storytelling with a dark historical period, Clements once again delivers with an exhilarating historical thriller.  Featuring a gritty and captivating storyline and making full use of its excellent historical setting, Nucleus is guaranteed to blow you away.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Cradle by James Jackson

Cradle Cover

Publisher: Zaffre

Australian Publication Date – 1 January 2018

World Publication Date – 2 November 2017

 

Death, despair and political espionage!  Welcome to the dawn of America in Cradle, the latest book from historical fiction veteran James Jackson.

1607 AD. Jamestown, on the shore of Virginia, is England’s first colony in the New World.  Life is a dangerous struggle for survival, with the settlers forced to endure starvation, disease and relentless attacks from the natives.  Worse, Jamestown has the ire of its namesake, King James of England, who is violently opposed to the settlement.

However, while Jamestown suffers from the king’s displeasure, Prince Henry supports the mission and views Jamestown as a symbol of England’s ambition and colonial intent.  Resolute that Jamestown must succeed, the young prince instructs intelligencer Christian Hardy to travel to Virginia and ensure its survival against any threats.  In response, the king instructs his chief advisor, Hardy’s former employer, the spymaster Robert Cecil, to sabotage the colony.

Hardy finds Jamestown near starvation and constantly under attack by warriors of the Powhaten nation.  The town survives only through the actions of a brave few, including the legendary John Smith, while split loyalties, incompetence and dissent ensure that the colony moves closer to destruction.  As Hardy works to save the town, a far more insidious threat approaches: his old foe, the deadly renegade Realm.

This is the ninth book from Jackson and his third to feature the character of Christian Hardy as its protagonist.  A fourth book, Blood Rock, featured the Hardy’s father, also named Christian Hardy, as its protagonist.  Cradle is a direct sequel to Jackson’s previous novel, the action-packed Treason, which featured a captivating account of the Gunpowder Plot.

Jackson continues his examinations of some of the more interesting and unique areas of history, this time looking at the initial days of the Jamestown settlement.  The early settlement of Virginia falls within a turbulent time in world history, and creation of Jamestown itself is a fascinating example of colonisation gone wrong.  Jackson does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the brutality and depravation that the inhabitants of the town experienced during their ill-planned expedition.  The descriptive writing provides the reader with a vivid picture of the violent battles, ghastly conditions, cannibalism and torture that the settlers were forced to endure.

Readers will be love the large amount of well-researched historical detail about Jamestown that Jackson has included in Cradle.  The story covers a number of key events which occurred in America and England which affected the colony, and Jackson has made sure to include a large number of real life historical figures who were part of the Jamestown community.  Jackson’s dedication to historical detail shines through, as some of the events incorporated into the plot only have minor mentions in the historical record.  One particular inclusion that many will find enticing is a more accurate and realistic account of James Smith and Pocahontas.  People familiar with the Disney version of the story will find this retelling of events particularly enlightening.

A noticeable feature of Jackson’s novels, whether historical or contemporary, is his love of spies and espionage.  Many of his novels that focus on historical events include subplots or detailed examinations of espionage going on behind the scenes.  This is extremely prevalent in the novels featuring Christian Hardy, as they focus on the intelligence-gathering that started under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Fans of this historical espionage will not be disappointed, as a large portion of Cradle is spent examining the espionage that may have been manipulating Jamestown, both in Virginia and back in Europe.  In addition, Jackson has done a superb job of combining the political thriller storylines into this historical fiction novel and including alternative but plausible motives for the actions of real historical figures.  The fictional character of Hardy is seamlessly inserted into this historical novel, and readers will enjoy watching him influence and bring about real historical events, like the brutal death of John Ratcliffe, who many may remember as the main antagonist of Disney’s Pocahontas.

The ninth book from James Jackson is an over-the-top account of the circumstances surrounding the original Jamestown settlement.  Featuring highly detailed and brutal descriptions of the formation of America and making full use for Jackson’s propensity for thrilling spy stories, Cradle is perfect for those looking for some exhilarating action and adventure in their historical fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars