Tag Archives: steampunk

Review of The Executioner’s Heart – Book 4 of the Newbury and Hobbes Investigations by George Mann

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This is the fourth full-length novel in this entertaining series featuring the pair of Victorian sleuths battling all manner of evil-doers, with gothic overtones and all manner of intriguing steam-powered contraptions. I have really enjoyed the books up to now – see my reviews of The Osiris Ritual and The Immorality Engine – so will I enjoy this latest instalment?

theexecutionersheartWhen Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, is called to the scene of the third murder in quick succession where the victim’s chest has been cracked open and their heart torn out, he sends for supernatural specialist Sir Maurice Newbury and his determined assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes. The two detectives discover that the killings may be the work of a mercenary known as the Executioner. French, uncannily beautiful, her flesh covered in tattoos and inlaid with precious metals, the Executioner is famed throughout Europe. But her heart is damaged, leaving her an emotionless shell, inexplicably driven to collect her victims’ hearts as trophies.

This book immediately plunges us into a tension-filled scene where we witness a terrible event overtaking one of the main protagonists – and then the narrative timeline jumps backwards to the events leading up to it… We regularly see this device in the CSI franchise, but it occurs less often in books. It certainly works here. The character in questions happens to be my favourite, so I was gripped by the need to discover exactly what went on and ensure that this major character emerges from her terrible experience unscathed.

I also liked the fact that we were taken into the world of this shadowy assailant, learning of her tragic past and how she turned into this merciless, brutal killer. It is always a bonus when the main antagonist has a convincing backstory which gives us an insight as to how she becomes a heartless murderer.

Alongside this ongoing investigation, is the ongoing tension from the overarching narrative arc and the continuing shockwaves from the shocking denouement from the previous book, The Immorality Engine. All series deserve to be read in the correct order, and while you could crash into the middle of this one (for once, something I didn’t do…) because of the characters’ journey and development, it really pays to read these in sequence.

I enjoy this world – steampunk at its best can be great fun, and Mann has Queen Victoria hooked up to a steam-powered life support machine, growing ever more paranoid and lethal. As those tasked with keeping law and order in her capital city, Newbury and Hobbes are unavoidably caught up in her machinations. But the newly emerging Secret Service is also causing concern – are they a nest of traitors, colluding with the German agents plotting for the Kaiser to overthrow Victoria? She certainly thinks so.

This could all collapse into a real mess if not handled with skill. It doesn’t. The climax is every bit as shocking as the explosive finish to The Immorality Engine and leaves the book on something of a cliffhanger. I’m not going to say more, but I’m certainly looking forward to the next instalment The Revenant Express, due out next year.

9/10

Review of Hive Monkey – Book 2 of the Ack-Ack Macaque series by Gareth L. Powell

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I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first book Ack-Ack Macaque – see my review herehivemonkey – in which this bio-engineered gaming hero blasts out of his reality to find himself stranded in another timezone. Would this second book, which has been hanging around on my TBR pile far too long, be as entertaining?

In order to hide from his unwanted fame as the Spitfire-pilot-monkey who emerged from a computer game to defeat the nefarious corporation that engineered him, the charismatic and dangerous Ack-Ack Macaque is working as a pilot on a world-circling nuclear-powered Zeppelin. But when the cabin of one of his passengers is invaded by the passenger’s own doppelganger, our hirsute hero finds himself thrust into a race to save the world from an aggressive hive mind, time-hopping saboteurs, and an army of homicidal Neanderthal assassins!

This alternate world adventure hits the ground running and doesn’t let up as the action continues full-bore throughout this entertaining read. While I have read the first book, I think you could dive into this series with Hive Monkey, as Powell ensures new readers are fully briefed. Ack-Ack is a cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed, hard drinking character who is all too keen to get involved in bar brawls as his constant anger and loneliness finds an outlet in such behaviour. For all the chirpiness of the narrative, there is a poignant undertow as all the main characters grapple with life-altering loss. The monkey leaps off the page with splendid vividness, such that I’m very grateful I’ve only encountered him between the pages of a book – I certainly wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner…

The other main characters are similarly adrift – the airship captain Victoria Valois, whose brain is augmented by experimental gelware after suffering major brain damage; her hologram husband, Paul who is uploaded in the ship’s operating system. And K8, the young hacker who initially freed Ack-Ack from the corporation who had been exploiting him, before he burned out and died like all his predecessors, as well as struggling science fiction writer, William Cole. As Powell shifts between his main characters while the story hurtles forwards, we get to learn about the sorrows and losses that motivates each of these people.

What could so easily be a fairly downbeat read avoids being so because there is a bounce and relish to all the mayhem. I very much enjoyed the zaniness of the storyline and the twisting plot – chiefly because Powell writes with attention to detail and ensures there is rigour in his plotting and science, despite the oddness. There are a couple of nifty surprises that I really enjoyed and the antagonist was also all too believable, as well as creepily convincing.

All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing read and provided a welcome break from the dreary rain that seems to be constantly falling this January – and if you are yearning for a similar escape, I can recommend this slice of mayhem.
9/10

Review of Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the successful Newbury and Hobbes series set in a version of Victorian London – see my reviews of The Immorality Engine here and The Osiris Ritual here. All very anarchic and entertaining stuff with plenty of action and the alternate, cool touches that defines steampunk. Would I enjoy this new genre mash-up series?

ghostsofmanhattan1926. New York City. It’s the Roaring Twenties but not as history remembers it. Coal-powered cars line the streets, while zeppelins and biplanes patrol the skies. The US is locked in a bitter cold war with a British Empire that still covers half the globe and the Lost Generation is drinking away the nightmares of the trenches. In Manhattan, a run-down police force is losing the fight against a tide of powerful mobsters and against one in particular: The Roman. His henchmen – not all of them human – with the streets and the body count is rising. It’s time in need of a hero. It’s a time in need of THE GHOST.

As you can immediately see from the blurb, steampunk has shifted from its more usual Victorian timescape, which was really successful in my opinion. There are some significant problems with the Victorian era – not least that many of the ingrained attitudes towards anyone not white, male and upper middle-class jar with modern tastes. Not that I’m holding up the 1920’s as any ideal of broad-mindedness – but attitudes and behaviour had been modulated by the Great War. Did Mann take account of that huge event? Absolutely. I have read books set in the 1920’s that completely ignore the Great War, while Mann effectively depicts the damage wrought upon his protagonist, who is still haunted by the carnage experienced in the trenches.

There is a gothic-noir feel to this book that puts me in mind of the Batman films. Not that I have a particular problem with that – Mann knows how to tell an entertaining tale. His characters are reasonably convincing and I’m guessing that there are untold layers about the Ghost we will uncover in subsequent books.

The baddies are satisfyingly nasty – in fact my chief grizzle is that I would have liked to learn more about The Roman who appeared to have really fascinating backstory. I will be looking out for the next in the series – I generally enjoy Mann’s work and I’d like to see where he takes the Ghost in future instalments.
7/10

Review of The Iron Wyrm Affair – Book 1 of Bannon & Clare by Lilith Saintcrow

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Steampunk is maturing into a thoroughly established sub-genre with genuine strength and depth – and the proof of that is the appearance last year of this offering.

iron wyrmLondon’s geniuses are being picked off by a vicious killer, and Emma Bannon, a sorceress in the service of the Empire, must protect the next target, Archibald Clare. Unfortunately he’s more interested in solving the mystery of the murders than staying alive…  In a world where illogical magic has turned the industrial revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare will face dark sorcery, cannon fire, high treason and the vexing problem of reliably finding hansom cabs in the city.

This book hits the ground running. Emma Bannon has a dark, difficult past and Saintcrow doesn’t bother filling us in on all the high jinx she has previously got up to – just alludes to it from time to time. Which is fine by me. She is a sorceress at the top of the pile, wealthy and established, and very loyal to Queen Victrix, the young queen who also embodies the ancient force of Britannia. To have that much reach and become so powerful in such a world, she is bound to have trodden on feet and knocked about a bit. She is also a protagonist in – hopefully – a reasonably long-running series. Saintcrow can go one of two ways – start with her as a raw apprentice and take her on a journey of steadily growing in power (sound familiar?) – or she can drop us into her career at its zenith where she will be fighting big scary stuff and teetering constantly on the edge of burnout. Given the plethora of well-written series that have taken the former option, I am very comfortable that Saintcrow has chosen the other course. And that she doesn’t choose to chart Bannon’s previous intrigues with her readership – the slight mystery and threat surrounding her makes her all the more alluring.

Archibald Clare also has a murky past. As a mentath, he is borderline high-functioning autistic and leaves geniuses trailing in the dust. He is also allergic to magic on the grounds that it is entirely illogical. So the relationship between himself and Bannon is innately tense. Refreshingly, there is no romance between them. I’d like to think it stays that way – their professional relationship is interesting enough and Bannon has her own way of seeking comfort. Lucky girl!

The world is detailed and engrossing – I found some of her descriptions owed more than a touch to Dickens – but at no time did the backdrop impede the narrative pace that clipped along at the usual headlong charge that seems to be the default in steampunk. I loved it. Saintcrow brings to the genre the taut, coiled-spring tension I normally see in urban fantasy and as soon as I finished this book, I cast around for the sequel, The Red Plague Affair, which I shall add to my special Christmas stockingful of particular treats for the festive holiday.
9/10

Review of The Black Lung Captain – Book 2 of The Tales of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding

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This Fantasy swashbuckler is a steampunk novel with all the manic energy and larger than life characters we are used to seeing in that particular genre.

Darian Frey is down on his luck. He can barely keep his squabbling crew fed and his rickety aircraft in the sky. Even the simplest blacklungrobberies seem to go wrong. It’s getting so a man can’t make a dishonest living any more. Enter Captain Grist. He’s heard about a crashed aircraft laden with the treasures of a lost civilisation, and he needs Frey’s help to get it. There’s only one problem. The craft is lying in the trackless heart of a remote island populated by giant beasts and subhuman monsters.

Dangerous, yes. Suicidal, perhaps. Still, Frey’s never let common sense get in the way of a fortune before. But there’s something other than treasure on board that aircraft. Something that a lot of important people would kill for. And it’s going to take all of Frey’s considerable skill at lying and stealing if he wants to get his hands on it…

The blurb gives a good sense of the sort of story – full-on adventure and more than a hint of the nice touches of humour that run through the book, adding to the enjoyment. However it doesn’t give a sense of the strong characters peopling this tale. Wooding is not just capable of writing an action-packed adventure in an alternative world – he also manages to provide his readers with a ringside seat to the issues haunting Darian Frey and his odd crew, which include a demonologist, a fighter pilot suffering from post- traumatic stress syndrome, and a navigator with some inhuman qualities. In addition, we get an insight into Frey’s relationship with the woman he jilted – Trinica Dracken – with some genuinely moving moments in amongst all the battles, plots and double-crossings.

Although, once more, I’ve started a series in the wrong place  the story is sufficiently self contained, which allowed me to enjoy the adventure to the full.  This entertaining read held me throughout – and it is a substantial book nudging five hundred pages. So, given the fact that Wooding pulled me into his world and provided me with a lot of conflicted fun and high jinks, does he also succeed in nailing the ending, so that it brought the whole adventure to a satisfactory conclusion? Yes – he got that right, too.

If you want a late-summer treat, track down this book and lose yourself in the escapades of The Ketty Jay’s crew – with the addition of ice-cream, Life is as good as it gets…
9/10

Review of The Rise of the Iron Moon – Book 3 of The Jackelian Series by Stephen Hunt

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ironmoodThis steampunk epic has the rip-roaring enthusiasm that we’ve come to expect from this particular sub-genre, but given that I’d managed to pick up the third book in a series, would it be a constant struggle to understand what is going on?

Born into captivity as a product of the Royal Breeding House, lonely orphan Purity Drake suddenly finds herself on the run with a foreign vagrant after accidentally killing one of her guards. Her mysterious rescuer claims to have escaped from terrible forces who mean to enslave the Kingdom of Jackals as they conquered his own nation. Purity doubts the story, until reports begin to filter through from Jackals’ neighbours of a murderous Army of Shadows, marching across the continent and sweeping all before them.

But there’s more to Purity Drake than meets the eye. And as Jackals girds itself for war against a near-indestructible army, it soon becomes clear that the Kingdom’s only hope is a strange little orphan girl and the last, desperate plan of an escaped slave from a land far, far away.

The blurb has chosen to tease out one particular plotline running through this book – and while Purity is certainly one the main protagonists, there are also a handful of others that ensure this book is bristling with a variety of strong characters, each of whom arguably deserve a book to themselves. Which is probably what Hunt is providing with the other novels in this series… His world is detailed and – in common with many other books in this genre – bears a striking resemblance to the Victorian era. There are some entertaining additions, however. I particularly enjoyed Coppertracks and the notion of a race of sentient machines that have established their own independent Kingdom.

The characterisation is strong and each of these striking protagonists packs a punch – and is probably why the pace in the first third of the book was slightly slow, as far as I was concerned. There was a fair amount of scene setting and establishing the main players and hats off to Hunt – he didn’t see fit to resort to chunks of exposition. But that did mean that the actual story took a while before it really picked up the pace and got going.

However, at no point did I find I was floundering, despite that The Rise of the Iron Moon is the third in a series – so this is probably the price to pay for ensuring readers can do silly things like starting an established series in completely the wrong place. Once the story did shift out of second gear, though, it galloped forward at a breathless pace with more twists and turns than a corkscrew and had me hooked right to the end.

If you enjoy your Fantasy vividly epic, but are more than a tad tired of elves and dwarves trudging through a medieval landscape, then give Hunt’s world a go – you’re in for a roller-coaster ride.
8/10

Review of A Conspiracy of Alchemists – Book 1 of The Chronicles of Light and Shadow by Liesel Schwarz

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This book is something of a genre mashup – it certainly has strong steampunk elements in it, and the early descriptions of the airship are especially enjoyable. But it is also part romance and part Fantasy, with a strong and well-designed world in which the failing warlocks are desperately trying to rally their fading forces against the powerful, well organised alchemists.

When dirigible pilot Elle Chance accepts an unusual cargo in Paris, she finds herself in the middle of a deadly war between the consipracyAlchemists and Warlocks. The Alchemists will stop at nothing to acquire the coveted carmot stone and its key, and Elle must do everything in her power to thwart their diabolical plans.

I felt Schwarz managed to achieve a strong sense of the Edwardian era in her writing, without unduly holding up the action. The period details and customs were well depicted and, particularly the scenes in Constantinople which were full of colour and a number of interesting characters. Schwarz’s lively and pacey writing style is well suited to keeping the tension going in a variety of settings, without losing a sense of place.

Elle is also an engaging heroine – a suitably plucky gel, with plenty of the intrepid drive that finally won women the vote. Her determination to break away from the boring, narrow life of a married woman of the time was both appealing and convincing. However, I was less persuaded by the romantic thread running through the story. Mr Marsh is an interesting character in his own right – and his views on women and their role in society certainly is of the time. The trouble was, this part of the story suddenly seemed to fall into a clichéd dance that didn’t happen in the rest of the narrative. So I found I was slightly skimming the scenes between the two protagonists in order to get to the more interesting plotlines. Fortunately, there is plenty going on that is great fun, so that this was a minor disappointment rather than a big deal.

As the story romped to the climax, I stayed up reading until the small hours to find out what happens – and Schwarz manages to bring this slice of the story to a satisfying conclusion, while leaving some interesting plotlines dangling for the next instalment. Patrice, in particular, is an intriguing villain who kept popping up throughout the book and promises to figure prominently in the next slice of this adventure. Which I shall definitely be looking forward to with interest and anticipation. Steampunk can only benefit with a series like this to add to the genre.
8/10

Review of Wizard Undercover – Book 4 of the Rogue Agent series by K.E. Mills

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If you happen to come upon this book and you haven’t read the three previous books, The Accidental Sorceror, Witches Incorporated and Wizard Squared – don’t. Go back to the beginning and track down these other books, first. Otherwise there will be a whole raft of asides and references that you will simply miss or find irritating, which would be a real shame.

This is a really interesting fantasy series – it started off quite light with plenty of humour and some sharp-tongued exchanges between the main characters, who nonetheless are very fond of each other. But in the third book of the series, the whole premise takes a left turn into something a whole lot nastier and darker, making Wizard Squared a compelling page-turner. So, can Mills sustain that angst and tension in Wizard Undercover?

Wedding bells are ringing for the constantly battling nations of Splotze and Borovnik and the upcoming royal nuptials could at last putwizardundercover an end to their dangerous hostilities. But in a development that hardly bodes well, one of Gerald’s fellow janitors goes missing – after delivering a dire warning of danger surrounding the marriage treaty. So Gerald must embark on a perilous mission to uncover the troublemakers, before wedded bliss becomes international war. But going undercover isn’t as easy as it looks, even with Melissande and Emmerabiblia for camouflage. Soon Gerald finds himself fighting for his life as well as world peace.

But poor old Gerald is still reeling from his terrible experiences in the previous instalment – should someone still traumatised and possibly unstable be sent out without a suitable recovery time? And if international relations and potential war looms, is that sufficient reason to also risk two spirited young women? These are the kinds of moral questions that confronts Gerald’s devious superior, Sir Alec.

Other than that, we still have the wonderfully bossy Reg, a talking bird who has adopted Gerald and has a frighteningly indepth knowledge of all sorts of gnarly magic – although there are now some uncomfortable issues around Reg, after the fallout from shocking events described in the previous book… There is a love interest between Gerald and his best friend’s sister, Emmerabiblia Markham. However after the last book, where all these characters were confronted with a terrible evil and many of them simply didn’t prevail, there is the after-echo of that experience that still reverberates through this story. I found it added a darker twist that Mills skilfully played on throughout the book.

I was worried that after the last book, I would find this something of an anti-climax, but of course Mills is far too experienced and adept to commit that kind of crime against her readers. While this episode in the series doesn’t hit the same savage climaxes as those in Wizard Squared, there is still plenty of tension and pace as Gerald desperately tries to pinpoint exactly who is creating such vile magic. I also very much appreciated the fact that Mills isn’t minded to roll her adventures blithely forward without showing the battle scars still evident in all her main characters after their terrible experiences. All in all, a great addition to the series which left me wanting more.
8/10

Review of The Island – A Noreela novel by Tim Lebbon

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Tim Lebbon’s name keeps cropping up in chats with speculative fiction fans, so when I saw this book on the shelves, I decided it would be worth a read.

theislandKel Boon thinks he has managed to escape his past as an agent in the secret organisation the Core, protecting the blissfully unaware Noreelans from the threat of the lizard-like Strangers – creatures from beyond the known world capable of untold destruction. In the sleepy fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks, Kel has become a woodcarver, leaving fighting behind and forming a tentative relationship with trainee witch Namior.  But a storm is brewing and at its centre the witches sense something dark and deadly. What follows the wake of the storm threatens the Noreelans’ very way of life. With the people and land he loves in terrible danger, Kel quickly realises that he cannot escape his past.

Yes… I know it sounds fairly run of the mill – but it isn’t. For starters, Lebbon is excellent at delivering tension-filled fear without slowing down the action – partly because he is an extremely competent writer who keeps all the action centred around Kel and Namior. The terrible storm and the havoc it wreaks on the fishing community is very well portrayed as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the devastating waves that sweep away their homes, families and livelihoods. Kel is conscious that he doesn’t belong as he watches everyone around him grapple with the enormity of the disaster – and it is that sense of detachment, along with his Core training, that has him already alert for any possible threats. That and the inexplicable disappearance of magic… This tale is a real genre mash-up – dark fantasy, swords and sorcery and steampunk. I have seen claims that it qualifies as science fiction, but I personally think that there would need to be more emphasis on the technology to tick that box. Not that it really matters – it doesn’t stop this being a cracking read. While Lebbon has written other books set in this world, he has ensured that it is a standalone novel, so no one will find their enjoyment blunted by picking up this book before visiting any of the other Noreela books.

Kel’s character leaps off the page right from the start and his hopes, personal demons and increasing concern at what is happening was, for me, the reason to keep turning the pages. Namior, his lover and young witch who has been born and raised in the small community all her life, wasn’t quite as strong. She certainly suffers in comparison to O’Peeria, Kel’s former Core partner. Although we only learn about O’Peeria in flashbacks through Kel’s point of view, the gutsy, foul-mouthed fighter immediately engaged my attention and loyalty in a way that Namior didn’t until much further into the book. However, this is a minor niggle and didn’t stop me staying up way into the night to discover what would happen next.

Lebbon can definitely weave an engrossing tale, full of menace and punctuated by bursts of sudden violence. I enjoyed the fact that though Kel is a trained killer, the fight scenes are less about swashing buckles and much more about the gritted business of surviving any encounter without major injury or death. The world-building is exceptional and I loved the descriptions of the island and the stricken fishing village, which were depicted with cinematic clarity. Overall, this is an outstanding tale. Now knowing why Lebbon is regarded with such respect by committed speculative fiction fans, I will be looking for his other work.
9/10

Review of Cyrus Darian and the Technomircron by Raven Dane

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The Technomicron: ancient, deadly, powerful. In the 1860’s London every seeker of power – natural or supernatural – wants to wield it; and will stop at nothing to get it. Enter Cyrus Darian: hedonist, philanderer, alchemist and necromancer; hired by wealthy American Zachariah P. Dedman to find it. Dedman’s life, the honour of his beautiful haughty daughter Athena and the future of the world; all depend on Cyrus Darian. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll come clean – steampunk isn’t my all-time favourite Fantasy genre. However, Dane doesn’t depict this particular slice of English history as any rose-tinted version of the burgeoning brutality of the Industrial Revolution – it is all shown in grubby detail with a reasonably clear-sighted view of just what was true the cost of all those steam gismos. Air pollution, dying vegetation and dirt, with a plummeting life expectancy for the poor souls trapped in English cities. Dane even describes a gloriously grandiose scheme to blow the toxic smog engulfing London out to sea.

cyrusdarianBut Dane gives herself an even greater challenge – Cyrus Darian is an anti-hero. Greedy, selfish and ambitious, his most constant companion is a fallen angel. This is tricky to really pull off successfully. Joe Abercrombie’s crippled torturer, Inquisitor Glokta, in his First Law series is the most convincing anti-hero I’ve encountered to date. But he is just one amongst a cast of strong, if flawed protagonists. Dane has chosen to construct the whole novel around Darian – so if we are too disgusted with his antics, there is nowhere else to go. We drop the book and find something else to read. Being the shallow, old fashioned sort of reader who enjoys rooting for the main protagonist, I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t want to bond with Darian – particularly as Dane chooses to dot around Darian’s timeline in the opening scenes. Personally, for me, this is the least successful part of the book. If I hadn’t already met and liked the author at Bristolcon, I may have abandoned the book right at the beginning and for those who are a bit underwhelmed at this patchy beginning, my advice is – persevere. It gets better. A lot better.

Because Dane manages to depict Darian as a thorough-going villain with a charismatic streak. And at no point did I feel that she flinched or side-stepped the harder or trickier aspects of this. So we are confronted with a main character who consistently doesn’t behave all that well… It could have all been a rather grim read, if the overall tone wasn’t briskly breezy with some nicely humorous touches – which isn’t to say that there aren’t also some genuinely shocking moments. What befalls Athena had my jaw dropping somewhat and I’m still slightly uncomfortable at that particular plotline – especially as we didn’t ever get to the bottom of who was exactly responsible for drugging her. However, it further establishes that Dane isn’t afraid to take risks as an author – while being capable of pulling them off.

Overall, this is a thoroughly accomplished, riveting read that certainly stands out from the crowd. If it is the start of a series, I’ll be looking out for the next instalment – and Dane’s other work. If it is as good as this, it’ll be worth it.
8/10