Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

Please beware minor spoilers (and major spoilers—in one paragraph that’s marked as spoilery).

1980’s New England. An 11th century manuscript of untold value and much deeper worth has gone missing from haut monde boarding school Danforth Putnam, where the elite intermingle with the destitute. Sam Gregory—insurance investigator and scarred war vet—sets forth to the isle to investigate.

Upon landing Sam finds more cause for concern than just a lost manuscript. There are students missing—not that anyone seems too concerned. Danforth Putnam has an interesting system on the books to balance its aristocratic pedigree. Namely, granting orphans a full tuition at the school so long as they help out with some of the more unsavory labor, below the status of the rich and famous. The students that have gone missing, of course, belong to the lower class—motherless urchins that no one will miss. And indeed no one seems to.

But Sam is only here for the book. And while the missing students worry him—he really can’t do anything about them.

But the longer he spends at Danforth Putnam, the more Sam worries that the missing students might tie-in to the absence of the book. Confronted with wild rumors of witchcraft and murders, he must navigate the warren of gossip and lies that exist at any school, at least so long as he hopes to find the book. But Sam is tireless and ardent in his duty, which is good—for one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole might go.

“Cops know how much the book’s worth?”


Thomas Arundel sighed. “Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don’t care what it’s worth. As far as anyone own that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category.”

The story is entertaining, exciting, and immersive. The mystery itself is interesting and fast-paced, so I never had any trouble reading it. Sam Gregory is a little bit of a cliché—a Vietnam vet who uses cigarettes and a wise-ass routine to mask his PTSD, while refusing to play by the rules. Good thing he’s a PI and not a detective, or it would’ve been an unacceptable level of cliché. But I guess my tolerance for freelance or third-party gumshoes is a lot more lenient than beat cop. I actually quite enjoyed his renegade persona and sarcasm, though I still feel like it’s the default state for any 80’s cop. Don’t get me started on the reporter angle. If there are two POVs in any mystery/thriller nowadays, odds are they’re a reporter and some kinda detective.

The character development in this was about as deep and intricate as the characters themselves. As in, they weren’t. Everyone—even Sam and Harriet—were one-sided and shallow. Only one character showed anything even remotely like growth, and yet I really wouldn’t’ve called it that.

While Friend of the Devil doesn’t try anything new at the outset, the more you dig into the story, the more it threatens to exploit these clichés in unexpected ways. Overall, the story was interesting, immersive, and thrilling. An 11th century manuscript missing, a wayward teen obsessed with magic and power, missing students, terrible secrets, a plot that refused to slow down once it got rolling. And then comes the end.

And the main issue I had with it. The scene comes close to the end and is the lynchpin for everything that follows. And it’s… ridiculous. It’s clear that the author had an ending in mind, and had written up a thrilling conclusion to match, but was having trouble connecting the two. And instead of reworking one or the other—they forced it.

°°

Beware spoilers for the following paragraph
The scene in question takes place between a teenage girl and a grown man. The girl is noted as being undersized, appearing much like a twelve-year old instead of her actual sixteen. The man is described as strong, 6’3, 220, built a bit like a boxer. Additionally, the teenager has no history or interest in martial arts or dedicated exercise (yes, I know one can be physically fit without an interest in such things—that’s not the point I’m trying to make—just give me a minute here). She also suffers from none-too-rare epileptic seizures. The lynchpin exchange has her suffering a seizure just after taking the man’s hand. She proceeds to judo-throw him over her shoulder ten feet. While seizing up. No, he’s not off-balance. Yes, this is vital to the plot. If it were reversed, and it were a 200+ pound man seizing up and throwing a girl over his shoulder teen feet, I’d still be calling bullshit, so it makes perfect sense that I’m equally incensed about it the other way around.

°°

And forcing it—particularly in this manner, in this case—just doesn’t work. Like, at all. It soured me on the ending, and a bit on the plot to this point. Which just had (I’ll point out) dropped another bombshell on us, which I was still working through, deciding if it made any more sense (it DID, but only just, not that that mattered for very long). I’m not saying that this was the intent, but it just struck me as lazy: you’ve written a thrilling and entertaining story; you dropped your big twist; and now see fit to ruin it with some uncooked scenario just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Two weeks out, and I still find myself looking back on the tale: the immersion of the setting, the story; the way the tense atmosphere slowly devolves into horror and terror; the mystery that’s there to solve, that has you looking one way for so long and then suddenly opening your mind to a dozen new possibilities—and then I remember the ending. And it’s mostly soured.

TL;DR

If you happened to read the entire review—welcome to the end! If you didn’t, that’s okay too, I guess. But only one of you will understand just how hard it is for me to rate this book. I mean, you’ve seen my star-rating above, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book—or around 90% of it. Around the 80% mark things started to get a little weird, but that’s to be expected with these horror titles. 9/10ths of the way down, Friend of the Devil was sailing towards an 8 star rating, with little that could derail its bright, bright future. But at the close, everything fell apart. An impossibility; a ridiculous moment that should’ve been laughed off and rewritten, but instead went down as a major plot-point, something the entire ending hinged on. And it soured everything for me. And yet… I guess I’m still going to recommend this. Maybe it won’t be as big an issue for you. Maybe you’ll be willing to overlook a few clichés, a few shallow characters, a few stumbles.

After skimming the other reviews of this, it seems I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. So, maybe… wait for it to go on sale. Or look for it at your local library. Or go in with an open mind, but temper your expectations.

The Harbor – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #3

Mystery, Nordic Noir

Gallery/Scout Press; February 22, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
9hr 38m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Scout/Gallery Books for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

He looked around and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free.

So ends the first and only clue in the disappearance of fifteen year-old Oscar Dreyer-Hoff. As clues go, this one’s shit, but Anette Werner and Jeppe Kørner are used to much worse. Odds are the missing teen is no more than a runaway, but as he’s from an influential family—one used to kidnapping and threats before—the Copenhagen Police are taking it seriously. Thus the inclusion of detectives Kørner and Werner.

But as each hour passes, and the potential for finding the boy alive grows ever more slim, the case itself changes to match. Patterns form and fade, relationships appear and vanish, and the mindset of a trouble teen slowly begins to reveal itself. But rather than helping the case, these revelations instead push the search into murkier waters still.

A possible sexual relationship between Oscar’s brother Viktor and his only real friend, Iben. A family bed. Something shared between Oscar and his teacher. A banished sister, a middle child, a shared secret. Another disappearance. A love of boating, of the water. Everyone has something to hide, everyone has something to lose—though some more than others. Clues come and go—but which relate to the disappearance and which are just there to distract? Will Kørner and Werner be able to locate the missing teen while he yet lives, or will the inevitable finally come to pass?


Eroticism has many faces.

This was an intricate, murky case set on the Øresund between Zealand and Scania, between Copenhagen and Sweden. The Sound gives the whole book an overcast, grey feel—much like the cover itself. Though not all the case and its avenues take place or have anything to do with the waters, they certainly feel like the focus for the book.

I want to make this clear up front: I really enjoyed this one. The murky, grey, confusing feel to the case, with all the clues that may or may not relate, the leads that sped off on tangents or eventually wormed their way back to the heart of it all—it all worked quite well for me. And when everything came together in the end: oh, it was magnificent! The thing is, however, that when you have a story with so many false-starts, with so much deception, it doesn’t help to add other, less… related aspects to an already twisting tale.

While I enjoyed the initial release, the Tenant, I definitely liked the second book better due in no small part to its inclusion of the detectives’ lives. Anette and her baby; Jeppe and his search for love. Both main characters return in the Harbor and once again their personal lives take center stage, but this time it’s all about love. Jeppe and Sarah have taken their relationship to the next level (Sarah has introduced her boyfriend to her daughters, Jeppe has pretty much moved in with the three), but things could be going better. Anette is having problems of her own at home, as her husband Sven hasn’t appeared interested in her anymore. And so she’s been letting her mind wander at work, envisioning sex with all kinds—colleague or suspect alike. Jeppe’s best friend Johannes returns to play a bit part, and while I loved having him (after not seeing him at all in the Butterfly House), I would’ve liked even more from him still. Well, maybe next time. The thing I still cannot fathom is Esther de Laurenti’s (and Gregor’s) inclusion. I complained about it in Book #2—as it didn’t really feel tied to any part of the story, or the main characters within—and I’m going to roast it even more now. Esther, a literature major, is consulted briefly about the opening quote, which is apparently a passage by Oscar Wilde. Full stop. Nevertheless, despite being out of the story after this brief interlude, we continue to share her POVs. In a book of false-leads and tangents, where the story toes an ever-murky line, her inclusion does little other than to distract from an already confusing story, something that is as nonsensical as it is infuriating. “So, we’re going to take a break from this twisting, confusing, but immersive case to go check in on Esther, who really has nothing to do with anything.” While I love developing more backstory on the leads, visiting their lives and seeing their problems and how it all affects their jobs—I don’t understand checking in on someone who barely relates at all to the case, to the detectives, or to the story at all.

As with other Engberg mysteries, or some Nordic Noir, don’t expect a happy ending. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t one. Just that Nordic Noir is so-named for a reason. It’s not grimdark, but it’s not “and they all lived happily ever after”. I mean, there’s certainly a conclusion—which I quite liked, in fact—and it’s definitely enjoyable to the reader, as it ties up any loose ends quite nicely, just: it might not be the happiest. Think of it as “some of them lived, some were happy, and there was some measure of after”.

TL;DR

All in all, the Harbor is probably Katrine Engberg’s most ambitious mystery to date. It’s certainly the most intricate, thrilling, and entirely plausible one. Reality aside, not every mystery can end with a mountain of corpses and a serial killer behind bars. A murky, twisting tale set out over the Øresund and its isles in the Copenhagen harbor, the Harbor chooses an already dark and overcast setting to stage its latest tale, one that replaces a world of greys with that of blues instead. And while it delves even more into the lives of its characters than any release before it, the inclusion of previous characters and their lives—which don’t seem to relate to the case at all—is a mystifying choice, and one that holds the story back from being something truly special. Because at no time during your already twisting and intricate, highly immersive investigation should you take a break to visit someone who has nothing to do with anything, and talk for a while about their lives. This aside, I’d thoroughly recommend the Harbor, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Kørner and Werner, and where the series goes from here!

Audio Note: Once again, I loved Graeme Malcolm’s narration! It brought the story to life and helped sell the characters not just as individuals, but as part of a whole, interconnected to each other and the world around them A great read, all around. Thoroughly recommended!

Review of The Tenant (Kørner & Werner #1)

Review of the Butterfly House (Kørner & Werner #2)

Stars and Bones – by Gareth L. Powell (Review)

Stars and Bones Universe #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Titan Books; February 15, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
8hr 28m (audiobook)

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Author Website

6.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When worst came to worst, the Angel stepped in to save us. Not an actual Angel mind, but super advanced aliens that stepped in in humanity’s last hour and saved it from destruction. So, kinda an actual Angel. Something that saved humanity. Or, rather, saved the Earth from humanity.

Now, cast out upon the stars, humanity exists on a multitude of great Arkships, where everything is provided and no one is left behind—a true paradise. And so the fleet wanders, knowing that the eye of the Angels will forever remain on them, and knowing that they can never return to Earth.

Eryn is a scout pilot. Together, she and her ship, the Ferocious Ocelot, scout the edges of the Arkships’ path as they wander through space. When her sister Shay disappears while responding to an alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew to find her.

Candidate-623 is a lonely rock, but harbors something both terrifying and deadly. Something that might spell humanity’s doom should it reach the Arkships. When the crew is attacked, Eryn races to warn the fleet, all the while dreading whether or not this certain something might have followed her home…

“Holy shit,” she breathed, “You are not going to fucking believe this.”

And she was right, I didn’t. At least, not at first. Because high above the atmosphere, something vaster and older than the Earth had reached down and snatched every ICBM from the sky, every torpedo from the ocean, and every tank shell, mortar round, and bullet from every battlefield on the planet.

And is was not at all amused.

Man, this was a weird one.

First off, if you’re put off by language, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or terribly done romance—maybe skip this one, eh? Otherwise, read on.

It started out like a house on fire: an extraterrestrial attack right out of the gate that quickly transformed into a desperate race against time. That transformed into a… mystery? Whereupon suddenly introducing several new characters and plot-lines around the third- or halfway mark. The last third read a bit like the latest Star Wars movies, where they just ran with whatever thing first came to mind (despite it making little sense in the overall narrative) and made sure to add plenty of action sequences.

Beware spoilers ahead for the romance! If you want to avoid them just skip the next paragraph.

The romance was… cringeworthy. What happens between Eryn and Li isn’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a why-is-something-going-on-i-hadn’t-noticed. What starts out as a one-night stand (or, a not-even one-night stand) in the face of a certain-death mission, slowly resolves into… nothing. There are a couple of kisses, interspersed by long gaps where Eryn looks at Li like a guest, but a stranger. Seriously, they talk only a handful of times—and it actually equates to anything meaningful once. And yet I’m supposed to believe that they’re madly in love by the end? That Eryn is so smitten with the person she routinely describes as a stranger that she actually says “I realized that I was always going to love her unconditionally and forever” at the end. Now I realize that some people can go head over heels damn quick but… were they reading the same book I was, or did I just miss something? Because this romance seems so forced it literally made me cringe, and gape when they so unexpectedly ended up in love.

In addition to a truly cringeworthy romance, the conclusion to the story was a bit of a blur. By which I mean confusing. I’m not going to get into it because of spoilers, but… I spent half of the time lost and the other half either experiencing deja vu or wondering how it’d possibly come to this point. But despite all odds when the end actually came, all my questions had been answered. As far as I could tell, all major threads had been tied up. It was extremely odd, but extremely impressive.

Yes, there was a talking cat, no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Despite it all, Stars and Bones wasn’t bad. It had a solid story, so long as you overlooked all the tangents, pseudo-parenting, and the romance (ye gods, don’t get me going on the romance again). A race against the clock as humanity faces extinction. Where Eryn must do everything she can to save the human race, despite the fact that all of it should be so, so far over her pay grade. From an action and adventure stand point: it was a decent read; there was a lot of both action and adventure. As an existential crisis: it wasn’t bad; it tackled several surprising issues like the nature of love and friendship, parenting, existence, and perseverance. As a mystery: it was crap; a bit like playing pin-the-tail while ignoring any and all hints or clues—you’re bound to get it eventually, monkeys and Shakespeare and all. As a book though… Stars and Bones was certainly a mixed bag. It had a lot of strong points, but some weak ones as well. And there was a lot to unpack.

I believe that was the biggest problem I had with Stars and Bones: its identity. This is simply a case of trying to do to much. In its bones, this was a Science Fiction/Space Opera. But with a little bit of thriller thrown in. Political thriller too. Romance, as well. Mystery. Adventure. Allegory for life. Philosophical endeavor.

TL;DR

There’s a lot to love about Stars and Bones, partly due to the fact that there’s just so much going on in it. Too much, I’d argue. A science fiction/space opera by nature, the story tries to hit up every single genre on the way from start to finish. Thriller. Romance. Mystery. Philosophy. Existentialism. The list goes on. And in the end, there was just too much going on. Stars and Bones couldn’t seem to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. And while it pulled some of these transitions off seamlessly, others it definitely didn’t. The mystery and romance, to start. But either way a number was done on the pacing; what started out as a house on fire quickly transformed to a barnburner, then an… allegory for life? A decent read, but one that I just never could get a handle on. I promise you—there’s a good story in here somewhere, even if I could never find it.

Audio Note
I suffered a few burnouts reading this. I started it only to lose interest fairly quickly. Part of this could be down to timing—early March is a busy time of year for me, then I got the flu immediately after. But then these both happened in the early part of the story, when it’s all action all the time in Eryn’s POV, and we’re just learning the fate of Earth in Haruki’s. Eventually, I picked it up as an audiobook and read it to fruition. Rebecca Norfolk did a great job—most of the time. While her reading of Eryn and most other POVs proved excellent, whenever she contrived to do an accent it… just sounded ridiculous. Frank was passable; Sheppard and Ginet were decidedly not. The AIs were night and day; the Ocelot was great, while any others were flat and emotionless, even when they seemed to be expressing emotion.

Curfew – by Jayne Cowie (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Thriller, Dystopian

Berkley Publishing; March 22, 2022

320 pages (ebook)

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5.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Berkley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Curfew takes place in a near-future Britain where women dominate the workforce, police, wealthy, important, and government. Where the gender pay gap is a thing of the past. Where motherhood opens doors rather than closing them. Where women are no longer afraid to walk the streets alone after dark, dress how they like, or have a few too many drinks while out with their friends.

A world where—from 7pm to 7am—all men are tagged and kept under a strict curfew.

But while the Curfew has fixed some problems, it has just exacerbated others.

Sarah is a single mother whose life started anew when her husband Greg was sent to prison for breaking curfew. After three-months inside, Sarah isn’t expecting a warm reunion—and doesn’t want one. If it were up to her, neither she nor her daughter would ever see Greg again. Though her daughter Cass doesn’t see it that way. She misses her father terribly—and blames her mother for his arrest. And she hates living in a world that restricts her best friend, Billy, simply because he’s a boy.

Helen works as a teacher at a local school. Secretly desperate for a baby, she’s applied for a Co-hab certificate for her and her boyfriend, Tom, and is terrified they won’t get it. All her friends hate Tom, but to Helen, he’s the most perfect man in the world.

But nothing is ever perfect, and perfection never lasts. The town is shocked when a woman is found violently murdered in the middle of town. Evidence suggests that she died late at night—long after Curfew came into effect. And yet, is Curfew as foolproof a system as they all think, or has a man somehow managed to trick the system and kill one of their own, again?


Women kill in self-defense, or because they have psychiatric problems. Men kill because they can.


Curfew was an interesting read for a number of reasons, but there were a fair amount of issues I had with it as well. I’m a little worried that my review will come off as a bit misogynistic, or dismissive of domestic violence, or how some men treat some women. So let me just say up front that domestic violence and crimes committed by men against women are horrible. OBVIOUSLY horrible. What I objected to was the author’s view of how certain laws would completely change the world. Take out the… shall we say “most dangerous predator” in any system, and a new one is going to rise to fill the gap.

First off (and I know how this is going to sound), I found it a bit misandristic (that’s the opposite of misogynistic, FYI). I mean, women being full equal members of society sounds amazing, but then, equality isn’t really equality at all. Now men are treated as second-class citizens. The pay gap swings the other way. Little boys are commonly aborted before birth while girls are seen as an incredible blessing. I would’ve liked to see more on this side of things, but it really wasn’t addressed. A male perspective would’ve helped us see the story from another angle, and perhaps opened up a more interesting debate on the subject. Furthermore, non-binary genders weren’t addressed at all. By itself though, the premise is definitely intriguing: a society that favors the lives of women over men—in opposition to so many of the historical patriarchies and patrilineal kinship systems favored by cultures around the world. Though it’s interesting to see what might’ve happened if a historically patriarchy flipped to a matriarchy, I would’ve liked to see a bit more done on the history of it. As it was there was mention of one particular murder, a few vague references that aren’t well explored—and nothing else. I realize that some crime—particularly violence against women would be down during the 12 hours that men are under curfew—would be down, but it certainly wouldn’t eliminate most crime. Likewise, I think the idea that murder was “a thing of the past” was a bit ridiculous. Because of course, not only men kill people.

The story itself goes along pretty quick. While I got more and more disillusioned by the male characters—well, by most of the characters—the farther we got into it, Curfew was never a very difficult story to read. It flows quite well, and quite quickly. I think that I finished it in a couple of days. But it wasn’t so much the whodunnit that kept me reading, exactly—more on that later.

Throughout the story, we are confronted by several asshole male characters, as well as a few grey-area ones. The further and further we move into the story itself, the less room for interpretation there is. The male characters are one-sided, have no depth, no development, and are either detestable and forgettable. The female characters honestly aren’t that much better—with only a couple showing any sort of depth or growth. The ending is more than a bit bleak, to be honest. The story itself boils down to the conclusion that most men are just evil—an illation that the author doubles-down on come the her post-note, to the point that I wasn’t actually sure whether she believed it or not. Really. It just… it sure sounded like she did. Even after glancing at the author links above, I still couldn’t tell whether or not she ACTUALLY believed that men are just evil, and to be blamed for all the world’s problems. Which is… worrying.

For so much of the text, especially later on, Curfew boils down to an “Us vs. Them” (men vs. women). It is actually quite the motivator in the big reveal, though I won’t reveal how. It’s also something I found stupid—a poor attempt at tying up a loose end. The murder case itself I found to be clumsy. The police aren’t terribly competent. Or professional. For the most part they bumble around trying to pin the murder on one suspect after another, without paying much attention to, like, evidence. They seem convinced that the Curfew is completely infallible—except for one lone officer, Pamela, who’s on the brink of retirement.

My biggest issue with the mystery is with the body itself. The story takes place in two parts: a flashback starting three weeks earlier and including several POVs (which takes up most of the story), and a present day (and intermittent chapter) following a single POV, Pamela. One of the most important aspects of a whodunnit is to not give too much away at any given point. You really want to parcel information out at increments, let the reader guess and try to puzzle it out for themselves. But Curfew provides contrasting information up front, and it all gets a little muddied come the end. Early on a body is discovered, and it’s noted that the fingerprints of the victim don’t match any in their database. The problem is that all the main characters in Curfew (save one) are police, government employees, or teachers—all professions which require fingerprinting. Which meant that the corpse could really only be one person. Only that it couldn’t be that simple. And so by the time the Big Reveal eventually came, I’d been assuming that the author was going to completely ignore the whole fingerprint thing from earlier. It doesn’t count as a plot twist if you just provide false information up front.

Oh—and this is just a note—at one point a detective visits a woman’s cohab flat and judges that a gaming console is out of place in her place and must therefore belong to man. Thus perpetuating the stereotype that women don’t play video games. Which is ridiculous.

TL;DR

Curfew raises many good points about sexual assault, domestic violence, and unequal pay. But so much of it comes across as misandristic that it’s hard for me to fully untangle the two. Honestly, I’m not convinced that the author doesn’t actually believe that most men are evil. The story itself runs along quite nicely, though there are more than a few holes in the plot and hiccups in the story. It’s a fairly quick read, but profoundly disappointed me with the execution of the mystery and the bleakness of the message such that I never felt that I really enjoyed it. The history and lore could’ve done with a bit of expanding, as I never really felt that enough had been done to steer humanity down this path. And maybe most importantly: I’m not saying that men aren’t assholes. Some of them are, definitely. I’m just saying some people are assholes—there’s no need to be so restrictive about it.

The Butterfly House – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #2

Mystery, Detective, Nordic Noir

Gallery/Scout Press; January 5, 2021

349 pages (ebook)
10hr 1m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the Tenant by Katrine Engberg, Book #1 of the series.

My Review of the Tenant – by Katrine Engberg

An overworked and under-appreciated nurse in Copenhagen’s national hospital takes upon herself to rid the ward of a nuisance. An older patient overdoses on his heart medication and enters cardiac arrest, releasing him and everyone around him from his very vocal suffering. She slips out, stealthily, sure to close the door upon exit.

Six days earlier, a body was discovered in a fountain in central Copenhagen. The dead woman was naked and posed, with small and precise incisions marking her arms and nary a speck of blood to be found. Cause of death: exsanguination—not that it’s clear. From what the first on the scene can tell, the woman might as well have never had any blood at all.

Or there are vampires loose in Denmark.

Lead Investigator Jeppe Kørner arrives on the scene, albeit without his erstwhile partner, Anette Werner, now on pregnancy leave. And so it is up to Kørner to solve this himself. Which he must do with the entire attention of Copenhagen tracking his progress, as the cause and manner of death soon draw media attention.

While Jeppe is struggling with the press of a major case, Anette is struggling with a newborn she never asked for, never expected to have. Pregnancy leave is boring, it turns out, with nothing to do but assess and reassess how exactly this came to pass. She wants—needs—to do something, anything else. And so Werner throws herself into Jeppe’s new case, albeit with no backup, no departmental approval, and no way to tell her husband the truth of the matter. After all, who would believe that she is just avoiding the attentions of her newborn, and the relaxation having a baby demands?

But the case itself is no escape. Soon the pair uncover the greed and ambition that lurks beneath the surface of the shockingly lucrative practice of caregiving to mental health patients. And just what some will do for power, wealth, or status. And when a person decides to drain another of blood, it’s not likely to be a one-off. The first life is always the hardest to take, so the saying goes.

The dynamic duo return! If you’re not familiar with the Nordic languages, Werner and Kørner go quite well together, if not exactly rhyming. Feel free to look it up, or just take my word for it. While the Tenant focused on the issues the two had while working a case together, the Butterfly House instead focuses on the two working apart, each one tackling the case alone. Because of course Anette Werner can’t exactly tell her partner she’s investigating an open (and classified) police case rogue, and neither can Jeppe talk through his theories with her. And if the Tenant demonstrated just how well these two work together, this is indicative of how much worse they are apart. Not that that’s a spoiler; it’s common that in matters such as these, two heads are better than one. And Kørner and Werner, despite their faults—or perhaps because of them—work quite well together. So it’s very interesting to see how poorly they work on their own, apart.

In the last novel, Kørner was struggling through a particularly nasty divorce. And while he had his oldest and best friend helping him through it, it was more than enough to keep his body and mind functioning amidst the overwhelming heartache and depression. But it’s been a whole book since, and Jeppe is back on more solid ground. Back, but not fully healed. He is seeing someone—his colleague, Detective Sarah Saidani—but is it for casual sex, or is there something more? While not everyone may agree, I like the inclusion of a detective’s personal life in a mystery such as this. It helps paint them as human; with strengths and weaknesses that affect their professional lives the same as anyone else.

This mystery was about the same level of Nordic Noir as the last: that being… somewhat, but not overwhelmingly so. It still isn’t exactly sunny and warm, but also nowhere near the dark and oppressive atmosphere found in similar works by Ragnar Jónasson or Jo Nesbø. Additionally, the Butterfly House ties up all loose ends quite nicely—even the most obscure ones. I left the novel feeling a sense of fulfillment, with no lingering questions to answer.

Well, almost.

My two biggest problems with the text center around the inclusion of some characters while others are left out. Esther de Laurenti and her friend Gregor (the landlady and tenant from Book #1) are back—for some reason. I mean, they kinda relate to an offshoot of the overarching plot, but just at the end. For the most part, I found their inclusion baffling, and their chapters a meander from the otherwise greatly immersive main mystery. But with their inclusion, comes a bizarre absence. Johannes—Jeppe’s oldest and best friend, who helped him through the lowest lows of his divorce in Book #1—is gone. I mean, we still see quite a lot of Jeppe’s personal life, but there’s just one offhand mention of the man—nothing more.

There’s one other thing I wanted to address. One of my biggest issues with the Tenant was the division of the partnership. That being—while Kørner and Werner shared the headliner, it was Kørner who hogged the spotlight. I mentioned that I’d quite like to see this addressed in Book #2. And it was. Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner much more equally share the spotlight. It’s great! And a pattern I hope will continue as we approach Book #3, the Harbour.

TL;DR

Where Anette Werner and Jeppe Kørner united in an unstoppable but entirely human combination in the Tenant, the two return in the Butterfly House to investigate the murder—separately. It’s quite the change of pace, albeit one that sees them more equally share the spotlight—both in their professional and personal lives. But while these highlight several rewarding alterations from the initial entry, there are a couple equally baffling choices. Especially the inclusion of two characters from the murders of Book #1, which have little to nothing to do with those in Book #2. Honestly I felt that their chapters detracted somewhat from the overall flow. But despite this, the story is quite good. And quite immersive. The crime and the detectives are on full display—not just in their investigation, but in their personal lives as well. It does a lot to cast them as human: with their own faults and insecurities, strengths and weaknesses. There’s also a open and ofttimes blunt discussion of mental health. Not only does the plot center on it, but so much of the detectives’ personal lives delve into it as well. From Kørner’s natural anxiety, and depression following his recent divorce; to Werner’s postpartum depression following her pregnancy; to the advantage taken on mental patients in the country’s caregiving programs—it addresses so much of what in my youth was swept under the rug and avoided. While I found this refreshing to bring to light, it was a bit uncomfortable for me as well. I’ve always had terrible anxiety but the overwhelming feeling when I was younger was that it was something best avoided in conversation, something that someone should deal with on their own and best hidden. Nowadays it is much more out in the open—which is great—but it still fills me with the same reluctance and discomfort whenever it’s addressed. Call it habit. Anyway, whether or not you find these things an issue, just be aware that they are front and center, central to the plot of the Butterfly House.

I’d definitely recommend this, and the rest of the series! Especially with the release of the Harbour—Book #3 of Kørner and Werner, out February 22, 2022.

Audio Note: Graeme Malcolm returns from his awesome performance in the Tenant, where he did an amazing job of bringing the Copenhagen crime world to life. I’m happy to report that the Butterfly House is a repeat performance, and I had no trouble drinking in his dulcet tones and immersing myself in the world while this Scandinavian thriller unfolded around me.

The Tenant – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #1

Mystery, Thriller

Gallery Books; January 14, 2020

368 pages (ebook)
10hr 21m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph

Author Instagram

3.5 / 5 ✪

I wouldn’t exactly class this as “Scandinavian dark” (or true Nordic) noir, but it’s not exactly bright and sunny, insomuch as murder mysteries ever are.

After a young woman is discovered brutally murdered in her downstairs apartment, we get our introduction to Police Detectives Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner. They make up part of the Copenhagen homicide department, and are seen as a dynamic duo (if only because their names rhyme).

First thing they notice are the intricate patterns painstakingly carved into her face. Add to it the depraved, if “artistic”, juxtaposed nature of the crime—is all it takes for the pair to decide that they’re not dealing with a typical killer, instead one whose lust for murder is likely not yet sated. All done even before they discover the victim’s name.

Julie Stender was a tenant at the flat of Esther de Laurenti; landlady, patron of the arts, and budding novelist. As it so happens, Julie was a key character in Esther’s new crime novel. She was, in fact, the murder victim.

But is Esther the murderer, or is she just another victim? People certainly have done stranger things for fame, but the detectives question if she had the physical prowess to restrain the girl, let alone carve her up. And while her novel featured Julie as its lone victim—it remains unpublished. In fact, only a chosen few had access to it, and after interviewing them, Kørner and Werner are left with no great options. Almost everyone connected to the crime has an alibi. Except Esther. But has she blurred the lines between art and insanity, or are Kørner and Werner seeking a different killer, one that may yet strike again?

I picked this up after reading Mogsy’s review of it—where she classes it as a bit of a classic whodunnit. And after reading it… yeah, I’m inclined to agree. If you’re not familiar with Nordic Noir, then you’re in for an experience. Not that I would class this as nordic noir—it’s not as dark as Ragnar Jónasson or Jo Nesbø—it’s more of a crime thriller, mystery with dark Scandinavian vibes, but it’s not too gritty. But then Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. And you can kinda tell from this—if only by contrast.

The characters are fairly well developed and grow and change over the course of the text—or, well, Kørner does. And Esther, I suppose. I really would’ve expected a well-thought out character like Anette Werner to experience more growth, but don’t get to know her very well in this. While this is remedied in the second book, I really would’ve liked to see more from one of the two title characters. Jeppe certainly has his time in the spotlight; it’s a shame that Anette doesn’t share it.

Though a crime drama, noir mystery, thriller what-have-you, the Tenant is about more than the murder of Julie Stender. Yes, we get to explore Julie’s life—all the choices that led to this, that made her her, that ultimately contributed to her life and death and the fallout from each—but we get to see a lot more besides. Esther gets more time in the spotlight than I was expecting (while as I’ve previously mentioned Anette Werner does not). She actually makes quite an interesting character, though most of what we’re focused on (as she is as well) is the murder itself. Jeppe Kørner, on the other hand, gets to live more than just the case. We see a career cop, fresh off a divorce that’s almost ruined his life. His attempt to get his life together while attempting to avoid alienating all the people his still cares about is one that many of us can relate to—even if we haven’t all been through a messy divorce. Through this book, Kørner tries to compartmentalize the case from his personal life, with varying levels of success. His love, sex, social, and private lives are all laid bare. Though his job may not have always been so deeply connected to his identity before his life came to shambles, one thing becomes increasingly clear: it’s not just another case. This time, it really is personal.

TL;DR

Overall, this was a great read and a good crime thriller. It’s not perfect, but combines an interesting story and adequately perplexing mystery with realistic characters and an immersive setting. Though Copenhagen may be one of the fabled happiest cities in the world, the whole story has a decidedly dark twist to it—something that the story is decidedly better for! Though some aspects—character depth and development, especially—could certainly do with improvement, their deficiencies were more understandable (if not entirely forgivable) given that it is a debut series. If you’re not familiar with nordic noir, this is an excellent place to start as it’s not quite the bleak torrent that you might find in other such contemporary works.

The series continues with The Butterfly House, Book #2 of Kørner & Werner, out since 2018.

Diablo Mesa – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #3

Thriller

Grand Central Publishing; February 15, 2022

368 pages (ebook)

Author Website
GoodreadsStoryGraph

3.0 – 3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Grand Central. All opinions are my own.

Yeah, there’s a reason I couldn’t land on an exact rating for this one. Read on to find out why.

If you’re not familiar with the series or wonder how we’ve gotten to this point, here are my reviews of the first two books:

Old Bones (Nora Kelly #1) Review

The Scorpion’s Tail (Nora Kelly #2) Review

Nora Kelly has a job to do—it’s just not the one she ever expected.

Former lead archaeologist at the esteemed Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, she is approached by Luccas Tappan, a wealthy and eccentric billionaire and incidentally the reason that she is “formerly” at the Institute at all. See, only hours before Nora was asked to lead a dig at the Roswell Site—perhaps the site of the single greatest conspiracy in American history. Unwilling to be mocked for the rest of her probably short career as “that alien archaeologist”, she refused. But then, the Institute wasn’t really asking at all. And Nora wasn’t backing down.

Enter Lucas Tappan, handsome and persuasive billionaire who’s ready to write Nora a blank check in return for her services. Yeah, a blank check. From a billionaire. And even for a successful archaeologist like Nora Kelly, it’s really, really hard to say no to that.

And so she leads the dig to uncover what really happened at Roswell. But she’s going to need some help.

After her initial excavations uncover a couple of murder victims, Special Agent Corrie Swanson is asked to investigate. But what she finds only begets more questions than answers. And after carrying on with her own excavation, Nora’s path does as well. But just what exactly is going on in Roswell? And is it really aliens? And is there really a government conspiracy that will threaten the lives of the entire team, or will the desert—and the little grey beings—claim them first?

What makes a good series? After starring as a mainstay in Preston & Child’s Pendergast series for several of the first ten books, Nora Kelly was granted her own spinoff, and given her own co-star, Corrie Swanson, who played second fiddle to Pendergast in several more. The premier, Old Bones, was pretty good, but far from captivating, falling especially flat in its last third. A few leaps in logic really ruined what could have been a great debut.

Three-quarters of the followup, Scorpion’s Tail, wowed me. But again, the final hundred or so pages were quite a letdown. It makes some rather large leaps of faith with little or no evidence or justification beyond gut-feeling behind them. It was still an interesting read—just not a great one.

Which brings us to Diablo Mesa.

This one started out interesting. An excavation of the Roswell crash site? A possible government conspiracy? A bit of danger, adventure, and romance thrown in? Yeah, sounds like a pretty great read!

Which it very much was—for the first 75%.

Then it crashed and burned. Much like the alien spacecraft—I mean, “weather balloon”. And also like the rest of the series before it; all failing at the same point in each book.

So what can I really say about it? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Until that three-quarters mark, I was pretty much captivated. It was a great read; despite the obvious government conspiracy, despite the alien buildup, despite the kinda ridiculous romance(s), despite all the technical terms and archaeological process (take it from a former archaeologist: it ain’t interesting. Archaeology is a bit like war—99% of it is incredibly boring).

And so when it failed—at the 75% mark, like I KNEW it would—it was a disappointment. And so much of one that that’s most of what I remember about it, nearly two weeks later. Not the plot, not the thrill, not the conclusion (that really tried to turn that failure around)—but the failure itself. This one collapsed for the same reasons as those before it: gut-instincts and ridiculous leaps of faith. The resulting chaos was a mixture of bad plans and terrible logic, and the resulting fallout almost unbelievable chance working up to a happy ending. Happy, so long as your favorite character wasn’t any of the bit parts. In other reviews I might clock these as spoilers, but they’ve been done time and again in this series (and the Pendergast before it, at that), so I’ve pretty much come to expect them. So when I say that Diablo Mesa is a solid 3 to 3.5 star book, believe me that no one is more disappointed by this than I am.

TL;DR

75% of Diablo Mesa was gripping, thrilling, and a middle-finger to those two books before it. Or to most of the last half-dozen of Preston & Child thrillers. It was going to succeed where they could not. Not make the same mistakes, not falter in the final stretch, turn the entire series around and finish out an amazing story. But then. A leap of faith. Impossible logic. Another ridiculous, underdog story and a plan that would never work on paper but somehow ends up doing just that.

I mean… it’s really frustrating. This one fails in the exact same spot as the two before it. And even though the ending is actually, legitimately good—it’s not chilling in the way it should have been. Upon finishing Diablo Mesa I had the same reaction that I have writing this review nearly two weeks later: disappointment. Because it could have been great. But it was ruined for the same reasons, at the same time as those before it.

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.

(Nowhere to) Hide – by Nell Pattison (Review)

Standalone

Mystery, Thriller

Avon; December 9, 2021 (UK)
HarperCollins; March 1, 2022 (US)

368 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Avon and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

I usually try to avoid language in my reviews, but if that’s something that bothers you, you probably shouldn’t read this book.

They say that everyone has the potential to kill under the right circumstances.

Lauren, late-20’s. Has recently reconnected with her sister after decades apart, though neither are entirely comfortable with it. Works at a nature reserve in the country, where the group will be meeting up. She considers herself the de facto leader of their little group.

Emily, mid-20’s. Lauren’s little sister has suffered from hearing loss since birth. But she never lets it hold her back. Now she works at a tech startup making cochlear implants. After growing up in a children’s home, she and her sister ran in different directions and did not speak for most of twenty years.

Ben, early-30’s. Works at a law firm. Pursued Lauren for years before becoming infatuated with her little sister. Shy, quiet, he’s not too sure how to get her attention, but thinks this meeting might be the perfect time.

Kai, mid-20’s. Perpetually late. Feels intimidated as the only black member in a group of outdoorsy white people. Originally had little interest in birds, but recently thinks he’s found his calling.

Morna, late-60’s. Has a daughter. A volunteer at the reserve, she likes to have everything orderly and likes to see everyone get along. But she doesn’t get on with Lauren. At all.

Dan, late-30’s. The newest member of the group. No one seems to know what to make of him since Lauren invited him in. Recently lost his wife Rachel to a tragedy and doesn’t know what to do with his life.

Alec, mid-50’s. He is the undisputed leader of the group. With all the best equipment and years of experience, he’s the natural choice. Plus he knows all their secrets. While he may have ruffled some feathers at their last meeting, he knows that their group will just get over it in order to best witness the murmuration. they’ll just have to follow his lead.

Seven friends. Seven people with secrets to hide. Seven potential killers. An out of the way nature reserve in Lincolnshire plays host to their Christmas holiday. When night falls, the starling murmuration will begin in earnest. But as the sun sets, a gunshot shatters the peace and sets the flock aflight. As night falls, one of their number lies dead. And one of their friends has killed them.


“What the fuck is going on?”

So… “friends” is a bit of a stretch. Plus they’re all kinda awful. Especially to one another.

Nowhere to Hide is told from the perspective of seven different members of the same group of birders. Each is told in first-person. I’m fine with books being told entirely in 1st person, so long as there’s one of them. Two is a stretch, but in some instances it works out. Three or more… it just doesn’t work. I can’t keep track of who is whom and everyone’s POV eventually blend into one. ALL SEVEN POVs in Nowhere to Hide are told in first-person.

It should be insanity.

But it works.

All seven of them have personalities different enough to differentiate them for one another, so I rarely (if ever) got confused about who was who. Right from the start I assigned personas and voices to each of the group, which made it much easier to keep them separate. Alec had an English accent that any colonial overlord would be jealous of. Emily and Ben I assigned based on internet personalities. Kai inherited Kedar Williams-Stirling’s voice. Lauren reminded me of someone I work with, so she got that voice. Morna was granted Liza Tarbuck’s accent. Wasn’t sure what to make of Dan at first, to the point that I assigned him a generic American accent.

It’s a little hard to explain why this worked so well for me. It just did. I’ve seen some mixed reactions on this one, which initially surprised me. But I liked it. A nice mystery with just the right amount of thrill. An idyllic setting for this type of murder-mystery as well; on an otherwise abandoned nature reserve, the day after Christmas. It’s a good setting—or a bad one, if you will.

However good I found the story and its characters, the conclusion was a bit of a letdown. Just when I thought that everyone was perfectly human and had believable motives and intentions, it was revealed that someone (no spoilers!) was some kinda demented evil villain with logic to match. The ending and epilogue brings everything back around, however. Otherwise it was a wild ride. In addition to sussing out who the murderer is (and it IS one of them), the reader is also assigned the task of discovering all their secrets. And I’m happy to say that when everything wound down, I had everything pegged correctly!

Well… mostly correctly.

TL;DR

I’d definitely recommend Nowhere to Hide but would understand if you’re a bit leery. Seven first-person POVs is a lot to take in, and just because it worked out for me, it might not work for you. Honestly I think that this would be a good one to try as an audiobook, as I’ve heard there’s a full cast. But if you want to try it in some standard format, just remember: Take your time, there’s no rush—the story’s not going anywhere. Just because one of them’s a murderer doesn’t mean you can’t relate with everyone just a bit (except Alec—no one should relate to Alec). Nowhere to Hide is a work of fiction, one that should be read for fun. So if you’re not having fun, maybe consider stopping it. And most important of all: everyone can kill under the right circumstances—so trust no one.

This Fallen Prey – by Kelley Armstrong (Review)

Rockton #3

Thriller, Mystery

Minotaur Books; February 6, 2018
Macmillan Audio; February 6, 2018

368 pages (ebook)
12hr 12m (audiobook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

May contain minor spoilers for the Rockton series books 1 & 2.

City of the Lost (Rockton Book #1) – Review

A Darkness Absolute (Rockton Book #2) – Review

This Fallen Prey picks up just a bit after A Darkness Absolute ended, as Rockton prepares for summer in the Yukon taiga. Now you should be familiar with Casey Duncan: one-third of the police force in Rockton, one-half of the town’s resident power-couple, and newest and lone town puppy owner. Also, by now we’re all intimately familiar with Rockton—its foul-mouthed sheriff with a heart of gold; its deputy with a shady past; butcher with a curious relationship with violence; and the residency with its own share of scars and secrets, each and every one come to the Yukon wilderness to avoid something down south.

But Rockton is about to welcome its newest resident, who might be a bit of an oddity. For starters, he’s not here so much to escape trouble down south, than to isolate him from it. Where Rockton isn’t exactly unfamiliar with criminals, Oliver Brady might just be the first of his kind to set foot in the town. See, Brady’s a serial killer—and is to be considered armed and dangerous.

Of course, objections are made.

First by the sheriff—not only is Rockton not equipped for someone like Brady; it isn’t a prison, but a town full of vulnerable people looking to escape. Many of them someone like Brady. Next up is Brady—he claims to be framed. His stepfather is loaded, and wants his stepson out of the way for a while while he assumes control of their company. Last but not least, the townsfolk weigh in: some on the side of Brady want him released, others however demand the animal be put down for his—and their own—good.

But in the end the council overrules them all. After all, someone is paying them a lot of money to send Brady to Rockton—and in the end that’s what is most important.

Thus it’s up to Casey and Dalton to navigate these murky waters and decide what is best for the town before bodies start dropping.

Our third trip to Rockton begins in a promising fashion. Fresh off the convoluted warren of plot-devices, threads, twists and turns that made up A Darkness Absolute, we’re thrown into a story where an innocent man gets accused of murder then bundled up north for his own lynching. Or… probably innocent. Maybe innocent? For the longest time, I couldn’t make up my mind on Brady—which was the whole point—and this made the plot work very well. Did he do it or not? In a place with no internet or phone service, it’s harder than ever to dig into a person’s past, let alone sort fact from fiction. Brady claims he’s been framed—and even fingers someone else for his crimes. It all seems so obvious …until it doesn’t. Oliver’s a handsome, charismatic SOB. Yeah, he might be telling the truth, but there’s an equally strong case he ain’t, and it’s up to the detectives to parse this. And that’s the core of the excitement.

Because by now he’s managed to divide the town, with some going as far as to try to free him, while others attempt to kill the bastard. And it was all going so well until Rockton received a new visitor—and things kinda fall apart. First there’s an entire interlude involving Storm that detracts from the case itself. I found myself boggled by this as it did the story no favors. Everything had just ramped up and the tension was high—and now we’ve run down a side path for whatever reason and lost 1-2 hours. And when the main arc picks back up, it’s transformed into a he-said, she-said back and forth, which again starts to feel just as convoluted as the last book.

It’s not nearly as bad as that, however. This Fallen Prey delivers a much better setup and story than the last, particularly excelling in the first half and ending. Honestly there’s just that gap in the middle that derails everything. And then the plot tries to get back on its feet in the oddest way possible—by yelling and pointing fingers. It does eventually get back on track, but for that period in-between… well, it’s less than a fun time.

TL;DR

The third installment in the Rockton series, This Fallen Prey attempts to rebound of the failings of the previous book, a tangled mess that was interesting and tried so many things but ultimately was bogged down as everything it tried got all mixed together. “Convoluted” is the best word for it. Well, while Fallen Prey has its own helping of convolution, it’s a much better read, and much more to the point. With a great opening and a good buildup—the story falters just past the halfway mark and takes some time finding its bearings. It manages to right the ship in time to deliver an unexpected and satisfying end, but ultimately wastes a goodly amount of the built-up tension and thrill in the process. In the end, This Fallen Prey may be a better read than A Darkness Absolute, but is still nowhere near the bar that City of the Lost set. And yet, while I do have misgivings about the series’ future, I’m optimistic that the next installment—Watcher in the Woods—will get Casey Duncan and Rockton fully back on track. Here’s hoping!