The Half Life of Valery K – by Natasha Pulley (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Bloomsbury Publishing; July 26, 2022

384 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocial

7.75 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Bloomsbury & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

In Soviet Russia, the government monitored everything, but especially its own citizens. In 1937, Valery Kolkhanov was sent to Germany by the government to study biochemistry and radiology so that he could use what he learned for the benefit of his motherland. It was an educational and cultural experience that Valery never forgot, though it exposed him to more than he bargained for.

And then, in 1956, it got him arrested.

Jump forward to 1963, where we find Valery in a Siberian gulag, a Zek (a political prisoner) interred for that fateful time spent abroad. Time, if you remember, that the government sponsored. Serving his sixth year of a ten-year sentence, Valery’s priorities are food, warmth, avoiding frostbite, and keeping his head down—though he’s under no illusions regarding his future. He will die here; it’s just a matter of when.

Only the government still has use for him, it seems. Scooped up from Siberia, Valery is transported thousands of kilometers only to be dropped in another site, albeit a much different one. There are townsfolk and apartments, a lake and a reactor, scientists and guards. This, is Chelyabinsk 40.

Chelyabinsk 40, or simply City 40, is a radioecological research facility established to study the longterm effects of radiation on the environment, so that it might one day benefit humanity (i.e. the Soviet Union). Valery is but one of a growing population of scientists stationed at the Lighthouse, a scientific facility built to study the effects of the Event that occurred in the Techa River basin in 1957. An event that is never spoken of, but that left the lake and forest in a 40km radius heavily irradiated. But from what, no one is saying.

Even as Valery begins his research, he’s struck by so many more questions than solutions. In part due to the faulty data he’s been provided. Intentionally faulty, it seems. More than that, why is there so much radiation in the region? Or even, how?

Even more mysteries emerge the more he looks into it. Where is the radiation coming from, and why aren’t the citizens informed about it? Who are the mysterious people living in the forest, and why are they disappearing? What happened in 1957, and how does it relate to the present?

And if he’s to go fishing for answers to these questions Valery might not even live as long as he had had they just left him in Siberia.

That peculiar thing was happening, the one that had happened in Leningrad when Valery was young; everyone knew one thing to be true, but everyone was obliged to keep insisting it wasn’t. Gosh, of course everyone who’s arrested is guilty. Of course Truth only prints the honest-to-god truth, it’s in the name.

Of course the radiation is fine.

It was Sunday, and Valery was still curled up in a ball in bed, watching Albert turn his tank heater right up. On the reasoning that an octopus was the best person to know how warm or cold an octopus wanted to be, Valery had shown him how to use it and put an octopus-friendly lever on the dish, in case dripping shorted the electronics. It seemed to work, and it saved him from worrying that Albert would freeze in the night.

I’ll admit that I mostly just skimmed the prompt for this one before requesting it. An epic from the Cold War set in a mysterious town in the USSR. It got classed as science fiction and fantasy, so it was a shoe-in. Vibes of Wayward Pines and various Cold War spy thrillers. Therefore upon starting it I was curious about exactly how fast and loose it was going to play with history.

It turns out not very much.

Before reading this I was at least familiar with the Malak incident in Russia, which was at the time the worst nuclear disaster in history (it has since been moved to third—behind Chernobyl and Fukushima), despite the wider world not knowing much about it. Like, for example, what the hell happened, or how. Or why. But this book—despite being a work of fiction—fills in many of the blanks. Now, the story is still fantasy; Valery and Shenkov, Resovskaya, the octopus, pretty much the entire plot. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of what happened in it was real. The gulag may not have homed a chemist named Valery Kolkhanov, but it held thousands of political prisoners (and millions more), sent for the very real crimes of speaking English, have visited Europe, getting drunk and vocally disagreeing with the government, or getting outed by people they’d never met on charges that couldn’t possibly have been real. City 40 may not have been the scene of a thrilling plot like this, but it was the scene of a very real and very secretive nuclear incident, a radioecological research zone, and a real laboratory know as “the Lighthouse”. Sufficient that I was wondering how much would be real and how much would be fiction: the setting was entirely real; the history was entirely real; the plot was entirely plausible, but just as much fiction.

Natasha Pulley totally nailed the USSR vibe. Pretending everything’s fine even when everything points to the contrary. Paranoia is rampant. Everyone overanalyzing everything they say with the fear of being sent off to Siberia. Optimism also being a trip to Siberia rather than a bullet in the head. Women actually being contributing members of society, except where science is concerned. Communism and Russia seem to go hand in hand, except that the two together is almost completely nonsensical.

This was a slow build, one that took me longer than I’d’ve liked to get into. For the first third/half of it I had it pegged as a six star (out of 10) read. But as the mystery stretched, the story dug its hooks into me, and there was an octopus introduced—it gradually ranked higher and higher. So much so that I’d class this at about an 8—quite enjoyable and entertaining, but just ever so unfeasible.

This part, however, was easy for me to peg. For as much as I appreciated the romance, it was just hard to sell as anything more than a friendship. Yes, it was plausible, but not in a way that felt very real to me. Now, this might’ve been because I’d been immersed in the plot and the romance felt like a distraction from it, or it might have been that it felt like something inane—a budding friendship that just kept pushing the bounds of belief. Whatever the case, it was mostly this that I objected to. Sure, there were a few little things in the story as well—some of the language, the flashbacks—but the science seemed on point (I’m a physicist, not a chemist), and the story was wickedly entertaining, so who am I to argue?

TL;DR

A story set around the mysterious Malak incident in Russian USSR, the Half Life of Valery K takes place in a secret Soviet city where everyone is expendable and no one is safe. Radiation has crippled the countryside and permeated its citizens. And it’s up to the scientists of City 40 to stop it from happening again. An entertaining and immersive mystery once it gets going, the Half Life features strong characters and an interesting story, if a weak romance that only really takes over on its back half—like it was added as an afterthought to everything else. With vibes of Wayward Pines and every spy thriller set in the Cold War, this was definitely a book I’ve no trouble recommending, and an author I’d very much like to see more of!

Smoke and Ashes – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries #3

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Harvill Secker; June 7, 2018 (UK)
Pegasus Books; March 5, 2019 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for previous Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, or just skim the reviews of them below:

A Rising Man Review

A Necessary Evil Review

Kolkata, British India – 1921

India has become more of a home to Sam than England ever was. After his return from the Great War, at least. Still haunted by the memories of war, his friends dying all around him, and the wife he barely knew, Wyndham has known vices to cope. What started out as morphine has turned to opium, and what was initially a habit has become a full-blown addiction. But before he can attempt to kick this vice, he must see the error of his ways.

For Sam, this error takes the form of a dead Chinese man in an opium den.

At first he thinks this corpse a figment of his drug-addled imagination, but once he touches it, examines it, Wyndham is forced to reconsider. Though he can’t consider it for very long. There are police in the den, and Sam must escape unseen if he wants to keep his job. Still, even after leaving, he can’t get the corpse off his mind. Nor his obligation to the man.

And so Wyndham returns to the opium den. But there’s no corpse to be found. Instead, Sam is summoned to the scene of another grisly murder, this one an Englishman. And yet he’s struck by the manner in which the man was killed—the same that the Chinese man had been struck down the night before.

It smacks of a ritualistic killing—and is not the last body to drop before the week is out. Now Wyndham and Banerjee must find the killer and unravel the case before more bodies drop, and the killer slips away into the chaos.

As with the two British India novels before it, I was once again impressed by the scope of Smoke and Ashes, and just how well early 20th century Kolkata is reproduced. Racism and apartheid rule the city, with the Indians (treated as a lump sum) seen as generally decent workers—for colored barbarians—and bodies to die in war, but little more. The British are the undeniable saviors of the Raj, unless of course one were to ask the natives. Which one wouldn’t, of course. It’s just the kind of attitude I’d expect from the days of the Empire (or the US at that time, to be fair)—and comes across quite well in the text. The tensions, the opposition to British rule, the start of a movement against it. While the roots of this were evident in previous novels—the non-cooperation, the protests—really take form in this book. It’d be an interesting time to revisit even without the undercurrent of a murderer loose in the crowds.

Connecting the two murders takes some time, but that time is thoroughly enjoyable. Wyndham sees the Indians as people in their own right (helps that he’s in love with one of their own), and the rightful rulers of the continent besides. But while they may have a point about who should lead them, fact is that the British do. And Sam’s a native son of England, after all. So, while he’s become conflicted, it’s not difficult to tell where his loyalties lie. Banerjee is a much more conflicted case. While he and Sam are friends, the young man’s Kolkata-born and a native of the peninsula. He may work for the Empire, but it’s really hard to go against one’s family, one’s people, one’s loved ones. But so long as he and Wyndham agree on one thing, they can still work together. That the murderer must be stopped.

The mystery element of Smoke and Ashes may just be the best it’s ever been. Ritual killings. Interconnected murders. How do a Chinese man, an Englishman, and a Portuguese nurse fit together? And why would someone want them dead? This is what drives the tale. And, if I may say so, it has a satisfying conclusion. So many times you’ll reach the end of a mystery/thriller only to find the antagonist has some psychopathic logic, something that only adds up if you have one too many screws loose. The conclusion of Smoke and Ashes reveals a rather normal, human assailant, albeit one who would resort to murder.

The mystery itself, the conclusion, the ending all support the continuation of the Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, as this may well be their strongest case yet. Still not sure it justifies the price, however. But I can do very little to ever rationalize a $17 ebook. At least in the UK it’s more reasonable: £5. But if I were you, I’d pick it up in paperback (where you can probably find it under $10), or audio, or at your local library. But you do need to pick this up—that much is for certain.

TL;DR

Smoke and Ashes is the best Wyndham and Banerjee yet. With the movement of noncooperation in the background, the race to catch a killer is all the more desperate and all the more difficult in the crowds of natives. And if India does one thing well, it’s CROWDS. A nation of over a billion (well, ~300 mil in the 1920’s), the subcontinent is packed with so many different beliefs, ethnicities, cultures, and histories that it was a powder keg even before the British arrived. Especially when factoring in that it was an incredibly RICH powder keg. The series continues to illustrate this quite well—especially when capturing the heightening tensions between all the sides. The Indian people may agree on the British Empire, but it’s only a temporary truce, and a partial one at that. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Death in the East, the 4th Wyndham & Banerjee book, is out already, although I may have to find another format to read it in, as the audio isn’t out in the US (in the Audible store, at least). As usual, the audio performance is strong, albeit with Simon Bubb replacing Malk Williams as the sole reader worldwide (Williams had previously read the US version). While I still prefer Williams’ narration (as a grittier, weathered Wyndham), Bubb is very hard to dislike.

The Cloud Prison – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

The Loyalist Witch #2 / Thieftaker #5

Historical Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Lore Seekers Press; June 22, 2021

112 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

Contains Spoilers for The Witch’s Storm, Part 1 of the Loyalist Witch, and minor spoilers for the Thieftaker series leading up to now.

The Cloud Prison is Part II of the Loyalist Witch arc and continues the right where The Witch’s Storm left off.

October 24, 1770 – Boston

It’s been four days since the massive hurricane descended upon Boston. Some streets remain flooded, debris still litters others. Over a hundred people perished, and many more are missing. But life goes on, and—for the people of the Colonies—that means the trial of Captain Thomas Preston is about to begin. While everything is proceeding smoothly, Ethan Kaille lingers by the courthouse on the lookout for trouble.

He hasn’t seen Charlotte Whitcomb, the Tory Witch, since the massive hurricane struck, but knows better than to assume she has fled. Or perished. For the cause of liberty remains. And the Crown would see it crushed.

Indeed, shortly after the start of the trial, Whitcomb herself confronts Ethan. Rather than underestimating him again, this time she has collected herself a bit of insurance, in the form of Deborah, Diver’s betrothed. Feeling that Ethan’s friend’s fiancé is more than enough collateral, she offers the two men a fair trade—a life for a life. And, in return for Deborah, she expects them to kill Samuel Adams, the very heart and soul of the rebellion.

While I’ve simplified it a bit here, there’s more to Whitcomb’s scheme than just a life for a life. It’s more elaborate—and maybe just a touch convoluted. See, she takes Deborah and imprisons her in a cloud above Boston Harbor (hence the novella’s title, the Cloud Prison). In exchange for her freedom, Whitcomb demands that Ethan and/or Diver kill Samuel Adams.

The honest wording in the text implies that she believes that Ethan will do exactly this, in order to save the life of his friend. And if Diver decides to do the deed instead—that’s fine too. But should she really understand Ethan Whitcomb would know that he has no intention of doing this. Which—if you’re all caught up on the series—you should know as well. Thing is, I really thought she took his measure in the first Part. And Whitcomb isn’t a stupid, blind, vain, Crown asset. She may be conniving and even a bit ruthless, but she isn’t outright cold and calculating. Making it all a bit out of character to assume that Ethan would just accede to her demands.

Even so, it’s not a bad story. It still makes Kaille jump through a fair amount of hoops. Gather intel, assets, friends, and weapons of his own, before he confronts her. And just because he would never kill Samuel Adams just to get Deborah back, that doesn’t mean Diver wouldn’t.

It’s another good read; maybe just a bit less enjoyable than the first one. But still strong, and entertaining. The Thieftaker world is always a joy to dive into, even though the authenticity of it all is ruined a bit by the sample size (novella or less). I can’t wait to continue with the trilogy and see what it will set up for the future of the series to come!

This second Part of the Loyalist Witch sets up a dramatic showdown come Part III: the Adams Gambit, which has been out since July 27 of this year.

The Witch’s Storm – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

Thieftaker #5 / The Loyalist Witch #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Lore Seekers Press; May 16, 2021

105 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for the Thieftaker Series Books 1-4

Boston, Fall 1770. Ethan Kaille, former thieftaker, now lives a quiet life as a tavern keeper with his wife Kannice. Once a loyalist, he now supports the Sons of Liberty following the Boston Massacre. So when the Sons stop by with a problem, Kannice practically shoves him out the door to take the case.

Lately, the Sons have been plagued with death threats, all stemming from the trial of the Captain Thomas Preston, commander of the Boston Massacre. In fact, both the prosecution and defense have been receiving threats should they continue with the trial. And lately, there have been incidents with no explanation, which can only be the cause of magick.

Luckily, conjuring is Ethan’s forte, and he jumps into the case with renewed fervor. Because, the thing is… Ethan really missed being a thieftaker. Prowling the lanes, plying his trade. On the wrong side of the law, Sephira Pryce, helping the working men and women of Boston live out their lives are well as possible. He’s just falling back into the old groove when the conjurer strikes.

And in a moment Ethan is overwhelmed. This new witch’s power dwarfs his own, and even worse—she knows who he is. But can Ethan step away from thieftaking entirely now that he’s just come back to it, and can he really give up the cause of liberty? Or will he press on, risking ending up just another corpse floating facedown in Boston harbor?

Thus begins the Witch’s Storm, Part #1 of the Loyalist Witch.

I’m honestly going to have trouble rating this anything lower than 5 stars. It was just soooo good returning to the world of Thieftaker. Even better to read something new. Nonetheless, this was a great read. So good in fact that I went through it in a day.

There were some minor inconsistencies between this and the previous stories, but nothing that really affects the story. Even though Boston seems a touch less vibrant and detailed than normal, I’d chalk it up to the novella and its length. Not that this is an adequate excuse, but just being back in 1770’s Boston was enough to settle most of my qualms. It was amazing walking the streets of Boston again with Ethan Kaille.

If you’re a fan of the series: the Witch’s Storm is a must-read. It expands upon Ethan’s saga, and tells a never-before-seen story in the Thieftaker universe. Obviously, it’s the first of a trilogy of novellas known together as “the Loyalist Witch”, but tells a complete story on its own. It does seem like it’d be rather important to read some of the Thieftaker stuff first instead of jumping right in here, but a new reader wouldn’t be completely at sea. It’s $3 for the ebook, but that was an acceptable price to pay—if you think of the three novellas of the Loyalist Witch as one novel, it’d be $9 for the book which is just about average. But otherwise I can’t recommend it enough and I cannot wait to read the next one!

The Loyalist Witch continues with The Cloud Prison, out June 22, 2021.

The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis (Review)

Standalone (?)

Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Vampires

Titan Books; May 25, 2021

413 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.25 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Prague, 1868.

The quiet streets of Prague hide a secret, one that haunts these passages in the dead of night. Ancient and mythic beasts lurk in the shadows, preying upon anyone unfortunate enough to be out past sunset. And only those paid to bring light to the city’s dark stand between the monsters and their prey.

Domek Myska is a lamplighter—a profession both dedicated to bring light to the darkened streets of Prague, but also to protect its citizens from the evil that walks it. With the advent of gas lamps, the lamplighter presence in Prague has changed. While the lamps themselves keep the night at bay better and longer, fewer souls are required to keep this army of lights burning. And where there are fewer lamplighters, there are more monsters. With little to no backup, Domek is forced to rely on his own wit and skill to survive the night, with stakes of hawthorn and daggers of silver to help even the odds. But when he discovers a strange jar one night on the corpse of a pijavice (a vampire), the young lamplighter discovers there’s more renaissance in the city then just that of gas lamps.

Lady Ora Fischerová is a permanent fixture amongst the city’s upperclass, but an enigmatic one at that. She’s known as an eccentric widow—having lost her husband a decade prior—albeit a beautiful one who hardly looks as though she’s aged since his passing. That’s because Ora harbors a secret of her own, hidden beneath layers only won by coin and eccentricity. She’s a pijavica, but lives a low-key life for one of her kind preferring venison and pork blood to that of humans. But while she calls some humans friend, some others would only see her as the demon that hunts in the night. Enter Domek, and a mutual hot-blooded attraction between the two. Neither knows about the other’s secret, but with the way things are going, it won’t be long before they find out. And what will happen when the cards fall—will either survive to see another sunrise, or will Prague itself fall into eternal darkness?

For the jar, and its wisp occupant, Kája, represent a new weapon—a hope and danger both. But could these fortunes be reversed? And whom (if anyone) would Domek trust to make that distinction?

With an atmosphere drenched in darkness and steeped in blood, The Lights of Prague represents the best of historical fantasy, combining a killer story, deep and meaningful characters, with a lush if claustrophobic setting. The backdrop of 1860’s Prague was breathtakingly beautiful: a city on the cusp of change from fire to gas; a city drenched in shadow but clinging to the light; a city built on the ruins of another that came before it, with the beings of the night lurking within. From tight back alleys to gilded opera halls to the mansions of the elite to the slums of the Jewish quarter, Nicole Jarvis sets the stage incredibly well! If not for the strength of its characters, I’d say the setting was the story’s strongest asset.

Prague did not know Domek, did not need him, but his life was overlaid on the ancient streets in watercolor, the patterns sheer and impermanent.

But the characters are quite well done as well. Both Domek and Ora are well-fleshed, with their own history and motivations, intentions and ideals—so that while they may want in one another’s pants and/or gowns, they don’t necessarily want the same thing for Prague. And while the two may fall on the same side now and then, they definitely aren’t that way all the time. I loved their interactions—be they hot and heavy, violent, or even casual—and it was this that kept the story from ever feeling too weighed down or stagnant, even toward the end when the action-sequences sometimes threaten to override the plot. While Domek isn’t the brightest tool in the river, he makes up for it with his deep- and well-thought-out plans, his ingenuity and stubbornness. Ora’s just pretty amazing—no notes! But where these two are so strong, I found the supporting cast was a bit hit and miss. Some characters seemed deep enough to carry their own POVs, while others felt too hollow to be little more than set dressing. The POVs definitely carry the load, however, so there’s relatively little to complain about, story-wise.

TL;DR

1860’s Prague provides an incredible backdrop for any fantasy adventure, at least when one plays it up as well as Nicole Jarvis does. The city was resplendent, despite the story mostly taking place in the dead of night, where the streets are quiet, dark, and claustrophobic, and the atmosphere one of tension. While the story might get a bit iffy later on, the interactions between the two POV leads Domek and Ora provide more than enough of a reason to press on. Turns out, the characters are just as impressive as the world-building. Come for the vampires and dark atmosphere, stay for the romance, action and characters. Heartily recommended!

I’m not sure if The Lights of Prague will remain a standalone or spawn a series, but the ending sets up a possible future if the author decides to go down that road. Best just to read it now.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #1

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; May 5, 2016

390 pages (ebook)

11hr 37m (audio)

Goodreads

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

The year is 1919.

The Great War has ended. The British Empire spans the globe. Former Scotland Yard Detective Sam Wyndham has recently returned home from the continent to find the life he lived pre-war is at an end. All the friends he shipped out with are dead. As is his young wife, Sarah, to whom he was wed not two days before leaving for the war. With nowhere to turn, Sam soon finds himself in the gutter, addicted to the morphine they’d given him to dull the pain of his war wounds. After the morphine runs out, he turns to opium—a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

A chance telegram saves Sam’s life. A few months later, Sam Wyndham sets foot on the Indian subcontinent for the first time. His new life as a Captain in the Imperial Police Force in Bengal to begin on the second of April, one day after his arrival. A week later, the body of a senior official is found in the sewer, a note in his mouth warning of a potential insurrection among the natives.

So begins an investigation that will drag Wyndham all across Kolkata (Calcutta)—from the slums packed with native Indians to the upscale mansions of the British Elite, from seedy opium dens to the jungles of the rural countryside. A son of the empire and a native son rub elbows in the Imperial Police, while an intoxicating woman split between both worlds may yet steal his heart away. From natives to expats, Wyndham must choose his allies wisely, as there’s no telling which allegiance they hold any more than whose pocket they may be in. The only certainty is that Wyndham must solve this murder and soon, before tensions between the Indians and the Empire boil over.

I stumbled upon A Rising Man while shopping for a Christmas present for my father. While I ultimately did not get him this, I ended up buying it for myself as it sounded so interesting. A historical mystery, A Rising Man does a pretty good job of transporting us to Colonial India—a melting pot of English “civility” and native “savagery”. With Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Indians, and more alike all forced together by the hands of capitalism, Colonial India feels like a caldera waiting to erupt. Abir Mukherjee does an incredible job capturing the atmosphere of the place: the tensions, the humidity, the jungle and predators and flies, the wealth and poverty all jammed together. It’s quite good.

The mystery itself toes the line between fascinating and convoluted, with so enough twists and turns that kept me on my toes throughout. While everything is a bit thick and murky at the outset, the waters eventually cleared enough for me to get a handle on everything as the mystery progressed. While I did call one major reveal very early on, it actually took me quite some time to figure out whodunnit in time for the conclusion. The pacing was a bit stop-start, but I realize that’s a tough ratio to hit, especially for a new author and in a debut series. While it’s not a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot calibre mystery, A Rising Man kept me easily entertained throughout, and guessing until the final page was turned.

One final note on A Rising Man is the issues it tackles. The story takes place at a global crossroads, where many historically rival cultures compete with one that is very heterogeneous, and used to having its own way. At the time it would’ve been one of the few places on earth with so many different cultures locked in a war against homogenization, as opposed to somewhere like Colonial America where everything seemed to just blend together (well, not everything, sadly). From bigotry to religious discrimination to who and whom its acceptable to love, the story is really set at a very interesting—if incredibly tense—time period. While it does an adequate job of addressing the tension between the English and Bengali people, I would like to see more of the region’s minorities in ethnicity and religion in later books. Additionally, I really would’ve liked to have more of a look into the caste system at this time—which is only rarely mentioned, but never focused on.

TL;DR

A Rising Man combines historical fiction with a complex and engrossing mystery with twists and turns enough to have me guessing until the very end. Though Sam Wyndham isn’t the greatest narrator, he does an adequate job of tackling both the investigation and the region’s tensions. He’s also a bit of git. But while you probably won’t buy A Rising Man for the romance or action, the mystery itself is more than enough of a reason to. All combined with a one of a kind setting that finds opulent wealth rubbing shoulders with crippling poverty and a melting pot of cultures, religions, ideals, and ethnicities, makes A Rising Man a great read, and a mystery you won’t want to put down until the last page is turned.

The Sam Wyndham series continues with A Necessary Evil, out since 2017. I can’t wait to continue this series!

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill – by Sophie Hannah (Review)

The New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

HarperCollins; August 20, 2020 (UK)
William Morrow; September 15, 2020 (US)

346 pages (ebook)
8 hr 54 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to HarperCollins, Willam Morrow and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

It is 1930. Hercule Poirot is traveling by coach to the illustrious Kingfisher Hill Estates when he uncovers a murderer. Prior to the tale’s start, Richard Devonport had written the famous detective and requested he come to the Estates to investigate the murder of his brother, Frank. A year previous, Frank had fallen to his death within the Devonport’s house of Little Key. The incident was ruled a murder, with Richard’s fiancée Helen as the prime suspect. Helen has been arrested and is awaiting hanging, as the authorities are convinced of her guilt. But Richard is not as convinced.

But on the coach to Kingfisher Hill, Poirot uncovers yet another mystery. A woman is convinced that she will be murdered if she sits in a certain seat. To allay her fears, the detective switches seats with her. Putting him next to a woman that later confides in him that she herself has committed a murder. But when the woman disembarks before he does, will Poirot be able to find her again? And how can he solve a murder that he knows all of the details of, yet none of them names for?

This is all before reaching Kingfisher Hill Estates, where another murder mystery awaits. One that may be connected to the hysterical woman, may be connected to the self-confessed murderer, or may be an entirely separate mystery entirely. All that is certain is that Poirot and his associate Catchpool are in for a difficult week, one that they’ll never forget.

First off, Hercule Poirot doesn’t ride in coaches. That’s a thing—look it up.

As a fan of Agatha Christie’s original Hercule Poirot, when Sophie Hannah originally revived the series, I was somewhat dubious. But as we approach the fourth book in the renewed series, I figured it was time to give it a try. By book four, Hannah has had time to fine tune her portrayal of the Belgian detective. And she does a pretty decent job of it. But as I’ve mentioned previously, there are exceptions to this.

All in all, I actually found the book enjoyable, though it took me a bit to warm up to it. This is helped quite considerably by the narrator—Julian Rhind-Tutt—who did such an incredible job as Poirot, that I had to double-check that David Suchet wasn’t actually involved. While I had issues with the depiction of Poirot himself, the mystery is really quite a good one; enjoyable, challenging, interesting, full of twists and turns. As a mystery, I’d say it’s probably a 4+ star read. As a continuation of Agatha Christie’s classic detective however—it leaves a little to be desired.

As Hastings occasionally was before him, Edward Catchpool acts as a friend and narrator for the brilliant detective—one that, while he infrequently picks up on Poirot’s hunches, is most often in the dark. It took me quite a bit of time to warm up to Catchpool enough that I didn’t find him simply exhausting. He’s a bit of a dry narrator. I mean, Hastings wasn’t exactly colorful and interesting. He was English. Old Empire English. But Catchpool seems to be a bit more of a bore, in addition to being even slower on the draw. He is frequently behind Poirot in even the most obvious of deductions, though every now and then he has his moment. It’s done this way for a reason—to make Poirot seem more impressive and amazing. But while Hastings was a captain in the British Army, he was no detective. Edward Catchpool is supposedly an Inspector of Scotland Yard, so he really should be less hopeless.

Poirot just feels different. It’s mostly little things; the bit about the coach, the perhaps inflated sense of superiority. He doesn’t mention any bit of his history beyond that of Hannah’s last novel. There’s actually little I can pinpoint exactly. Poirot seems nearly (nearly!) normal. His ego, his methods, his attention to detail, his cleanliness are all on point. Combined with Cacthpool’s dry witticisms, it’s almost like the old Poirot is back. It’s like running into an old friend, but their recollection of history is different and some of their mannerisms are wrong. But they look the same, they talk the same, and more than anything it’s good enough to have them back that you don’t want to look too closely lest you be disappointed.

TL;DR

Like an old friend you haven’t seen in years, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot looks like you remembered, sounds like you remembered, and is more than anything a sight for sore eyes. Provided you don’t look too closely. Otherwise you’ll unearth a slightly stranger looking Poirot—one that shares much in common with his predecessor, but is subtly different. Nothing too overt here, but his mannerisms, his inflated sense of ego, his peculiarities, his knowledge of and regard for his own history—are all off. If you take the mystery as it is, it will seem an interesting, twisting, and often exciting distraction from the world. But should you look too close, you may just find a doppelgänger masquerading as an old friend. Someone that has nearly fooled you once, but won’t again.