Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

Europa Editions | 2021 ( 21 January) | 619p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Cathedral by Ben Hopkins

In 1229 Rettich and his brother Emmerich arrive, penniless, in the (fictional) German city of Hagenburg. Rettich has a talent – he can build with stone, sculpt it – and Hagenburg would be the perfect place to settle with its cathedral under construction. But first Rettich must buy his freedom from the Bishop because in this time and in this place people are rarely born free. The cathedral is constructed with the soaring ambition of Eugenius von Zabern, the Bishop’s treasurer. It is designed by Achim von Esinbach, an architect who has visions. He loves Odile, a daughter of a family of mystics. The city is protected by Manfred, a soldier who learns that business has more to offer and marries Grete, a weaver. Funds for all come from the city’s Jews. Everyone is connected, joined together against attack from outside, but, for some, the enemy is within the town’s walls, represented by those who are different – mystics, Jews, women, the poor – to be feared and destroyed in the shadow of the cathedral.

Cathedral is a beautifully written and ambitious novel that on one level chronicles the construction of the cathedral in the Germany city of Hagenburg but, on another, presents the lives of Hagenburg’s people through the 13th century, a time of unrest, war, river piracy, heresy and suspicion. Several generations of people pass through the story, although some characters remain central to the life of the city. We meet the masons, the merchants, the local churchmen and nobles, the mystics, the soldiers, the Jews, their wives and children, their husbands and lovers. This is a novel full of life, a snapshot of a particular place at a particular time in medieval Europe. It is indeed engrossing.

This is a novel about life but it also, not surprisingly considering the period in which it is set, about death. Death takes many forms in a place where life is short but sometimes it can be absolutely shocking and there are scenes here involving the Church’s crusade against the mysticism of the Cathars that are horrifying in their cruelty and hypocrisy. There are also moments of brutality, ambition that soars and then is crushed due to the nature of this world and society.

Ben Hopkins does such an astonishing job of revealing medieval European life by focusing on specific examples, drawn from across society, religions and wealth, gender and status. The mutual relationship between the classes is essential but it is also fragile and vulnerable to assault. This is a city in which pirates and bandits flourish, and not all of them are as they first appear.

Cathedral is an engrossing and compelling novel, especially during the first two thirds of the book when I felt heartily involved with the characters. I did find it a dark and troubling read (this is not an ‘easy’ period of history) but it is a memorable one. It’s difficult to imagine a more convincing portrayal of life and death in 13th-century Europe.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2021 (4 February) | 368p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

A club of metal detectorists, night hawks, are out combing the beaches of north Norfolk for treasures when they come across the body of a young man, washed ashore. DI Nelson suspects he might be an asylum seeker but he soon learns that he was a local boy, recently released from prison. But close to this discovery another is made, a Bronze Age hoard with an ancient body, and it is that which brings forensic anthropologist Dr Ruth Galloway to the scene. Once more, Nelson and Ruth begin to work together. And then there are more deaths. The night hawks call in the police when they hear gun shots at Black Dog Farm – a man has killed his wife and then himself. Nelson suspects there is more to it, as do the locals, as rumours spread that the dead had seen the mysterious harbinger of death, the Black Shuck, a black dog, before they died.

I adore this series, just as I love everything that Elly Griffiths writes (I’ve recently finished her stand alone novel The Postscript Murders and can heartily recommend that as well). Ruth Galloway is one of my favourite people. She doesn’t feel like a fictional character to me. I’m so pleased every time she returns. The Night Hawks is the thirteenth novel in the series and, while you can certainly enjoy it as a stand alone novel, I would really recommend that you read at least one or two (or all!) of the earlier book first. The reason is that the true riches of these novels can be found not in their murder mysteries, although these are certainly enjoyable to unravel, but in their characters – Ruth, Nelson, Ruth’s daughter Kate, Cathbad, Jo, Nelson’s family, Ruth’s University colleagues. Their lives are entwined and complicated and I love them all (except for Ruth’s new colleague David, of course).

The relationship between Ruth and Nelson is one of the very best in any series being written today. We have been put through it as we watch their (not very) merry dance. The tension is great but the reasons against their relationship are just as great. It’s fabulous! And I love Kate. I rarely like children in fiction but I love this one. And I need a Cathbad in my life. He embodies the spirit of ancient wisdom that fills these novels. There is a huge sense of history and the past and, as a former archaeologist of many years, this really speaks to me – the pull of our past and its remains, the significance of the landscape, that tidal zone which mirrors the boundary between life and death.

Which brings me to another reason for this series’ huge appeal – the Norfolk coastal setting. It is glorious! The Night Hawks is set in one of my most favourite areas – Cley next the Sea and Blakeney, places I intend to return to as soon as You Know What lets me. Everything I love about these places is captured in The Night Hawks with an extra helping of something ominous, fearful and frightening. I love the mix of beauty and evil that fills these books.

The Night Hawks is, quite possibly, a cosy crime novel and I love it all the more for it, especially in these days. Everything that I want from a Ruth Galloway novel I found in The Night Hawks. I loved it. And what about Ruth’s new colleague David? Where is that going to go?! I could rave about these books all day and night. You could not find a warmer, kinder series of novels. Instead, I’ll urge you to read them and fall for Ruth, Kate and Nelson and their friends, just as I have.

Other reviews
The Chalk Pit (Ruth Galloway 9)
The Dark Angel (Ruth Galloway 10)

The Stone Circle (Ruth Galloway 11)
The Lantern Men (Ruth Galloway 12)
The Zig Zag Girl (Stephens and Mephisto 1)
The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4)

The Stranger Diaries
Now You See Them (Stephens and Mephisto 5)

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Gollancz | 2021 (4 February) | 336p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Purgatory Mount by Adam RobertsIn the far future, a spaceship carrying a crew of five human entities, the type that can live for thousands of years and regard themselves with godlike eyes, arrives at a distant planet and discovers an enormous artificial mountain, a tower that soars into the sky. For everyone on the vessel, whether human or divine or something else, is this the end of their journey?

In the near future, America is falling apart. Chemical warfare has robbed many of its people of their memories. Memories, essentially identities, are stored on phones. Without their phones, these people will sit and let themselves die, not even remembering that they need to drink a glass of water. The country has become the United States of Amnesia and it is about to get even worse. 16-year-old Otty and her friends have created their own private internet network, a support network, using a technology that isn’t controlled by the eSpires that tower over the land. Agencies want this technology and Otty and her friends must endure a dystopian hell.

Adam Roberts is a master of intriguing science fiction with big ideas and themes. His books also have the most beautiful covers! Purgatory Mount is no different. The novel is in three parts, with the central and longer story of Otty and her friends sandwiched between the far-future story set in space. I loved the opening on an alien world and then we moved to the near-future USA and I was completely captivated by the young Otty. She is a marvellous creation, a living, breathing teenager who is essentially vanished by the authorities. All she has to do is remove their phones, disconnect these bullies from their memories, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want to do that. There is a decency about Otty that I loved. I really felt for her in her moments of fear and isolation but she is so clever and resilient. The world around her is in such a terrible state but with Otty around it’s difficult to give up hope entirely.

The dystopian American world is vividly imagined and portrayed. It’s recognisable. It’s only a step or two away from where we are, which makes it all the more believable and frightening. The end of the world seems so close and yet, when we are with Otty, it feels like this can be avoided.

One of the things I absolutely love about science fiction is that I can thoroughly enjoy a story, be amazed by its vision and wonder, without necessarily having to understand all of its ideas. I don’t need to understand it entirely to be in awe of it. This is the case with Purgatory Mount. Its two threads do join together and I like very much the ways in which they do. The past influences the future. It moves it forward, or in other directions. In the afterword, we are reminded of paradise lost and paradise found, the circles of purgatory and hell. I have read Dante but that certainly isn’t necessary to find oneself immersed in this tale of sin and atonement, humanity and the divine, identity and confusion.

Adam Roberts has always been so good at creating female characters and Otty is one of my favourite fictional characters in a fair old while. I adored her while fearing the world she lives in. I did prefer her part of the novel despite imagining, at the beginning, that I would love most the far future story in space. This is possibly because Otty is far easier to relate to than the entities of the future, however intriguing they are. The best science fiction entertains and dazzles me while also making me think. I’m reminded of the author’s The Thing Itself (I loved that book!) and I’m going to be thinking of Purgatory Mount for quite some time. And that cover!

Other reviews
The Thing Itself
The Real-Town Murders

Daughters of Night by Laura-Shepherd Robinson

Mantle | 2021 (18 February) | 592p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

It is 1782 in London and Caroline (Caro) Corsham desperately waits for her husband Captain Harry Corsham to return from France where he has been for too many weeks. Caro amuses herself in the meantime by visits to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and it is there that she horrifyingly comes across a friend, Lady Lucia, an Italian aristocrat, who has been attacked and dies in Caro’s arms. There are more shocks to come. Caro discovers that Lucia wasn’t Italian or an aristocrat, she was a prostitute known as Lucy Loveless. The police have no interest in hunting for the killer of such a woman and so Caro takes it upon herself to avenge this young woman, hiring thief taker Peregrine Child to lead the investigation. But what a world it is that Caro and Child discover as they become immersed in a London society that values paintings and classical sculptures far more than it does the women it craves.

Daughters of Night is one of my most anticipated novels on 2021 and how could it not be when it follows the superb debut Blood & Sugar? My impatience hasn’t been helped by the repeated delays in publication date due to You Know What. But now it is here and it is every bit as marvellous, and as clever, as its predecessor. There is a link – Caro is the wife of our previous main character Harry (who is largely in the wings for this novel) – but otherwise Daughters of Night stands alone very well. But I also think that the two novels complement each other brilliantly.

In Blood & Sugar Laura Shepherd-Robinson tackled the monster that is Slavery, focusing on the men and women, free and enslaved, of Deptford. In Daughters of Night, the author turns to the place of women in a Georgian society that believes itself cultured, refined and well-educated, largely thanks to its immersion in the classical past and its looted works of art. Caro is an unusual woman (you’ll have to read the novel to find out exactly why) and is largely at the mercy of her brothers while her husband is absent. She seems independent but we see how untrue that is as the novel continues. But while Caro is the main character she isn’t the only woman who matters very much in Daughters of Night. We follow the story of Pamela, a young girl who falls into prostitution and has her real name taken from her. Pamela’s very interesting. She regards prostitution as an escape from her previous life and she grabs what chances she can. She’s not always likable, far from it, but we care for her. And then there’s the powerful story of Lucy Loveless. We also meet wives and daughters and lovers of other men. There are so many secrets, so many lies and, for some, so little love.

Daughters of Night is a complex novel in some ways, while being always accessible and engrossing. It has many layers and it’s Caro and Child who unravel them. I loved the role of art in the book, how a famous artist would use a prostitute as his model for a goddess. These women are both muse and prey. There is so much artifice and hypocrisy. We see the men in the studio, in their clubs, in brothels, in their drawing rooms, with their creditors and in their hunting fields. It is through the character of Child that we’re given deeper access into this world.

It’s an involving story with a wealth of characters moving through the pages. I listened to the audiobook, which is marvellously narrated by Lucy Scott (well known for her depiction of Charlotte Lucas in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) who brings these people to life, both female and male. But, whatever the format you choose (and it is a gorgeous hardback!), it’s engrossing and full of historical details that place the reader firmly in Georgian London, a place both gorgeous and squalid, with its (male) predilection for classical culture, for collecting women and for controlling them, even owning them.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson writes so beautifully and her characters are astonishingly varied and real. It’s a long book and I’m glad of it. I can’t wait for more. An early contender for my top book of 2021.

Other review
Blood & Sugar

Cut to the Bone by Roz Watkins

HQ | 2020 (25 June), Pb 2021 (1 April) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

When social media star Violet Armstrong, a glamorous advocate of eating meat, vanishes it is strongly suspected that she died in the abattoir in the Derbyshire Peak District town of Gritton, a place where she worked. No trace of her can be found but then there are pigs, hungry pigs. The suspicion of such a gruesome and terrible crime casts a shadow over the community, tinged with a superstitious fear of the circumstances of Violet’s possible death – there are rumours of a strange figure, the Pale Child, the sighting of whom means death and it is believed that Violet saw her just before she disappeared.

Emotions are high as vigilante groups join the fray, threatening to execute animals if the puzzle behind Violet’s disappearance isn’t solved. DI Meg Dalton is caught in the middle of an angry and upset community as she faces the question that perhaps Violet isn’t even dead at all and maybe there is something to be discovered in the dark past of Violet’s own family.

Cut to the Bone is the third novel in Roz Watkins’ fine series featuring Detective Inspector Meg Dalton. I love these books, which all stand alone brilliantly, especially because they so richly evoke their setting in the Peak District, a place that means so much to me, and also because of Meg. Meg is wonderful! There’s no darkness to her, she’s kind, witty and well-liked, with such a good team working beside her. Despite the disturbing crimes she must investigate, it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Meg in this atmospheric place. This novel is set during a hot summer and so there is a different feel to it as everyone must struggle in the heat. And once again it was wonderful to hear those names of familiar places.

This case is a little different because Meg, and us, don’t even know if there’s a body. There is so little to go on and what there is is focused on an abattoir, a place of misery (I’m a vegetarian so I am possibly biased!). Also perhaps because I’m a veggie, I did find the character of Violet quite difficult to like but she is quite a force to be reckoned with and there is much to admire in such a young woman. But it’s the parallel story from the past, of Violet’s parents and family, that I found especially engrossing. Roz Watkins is a fantastic writer and she is so good at fleshing out her characters with mood and feelings. It is a dark tale but it is a beautifully written one.

As usual with this series, it’s the figure of Meg who counteracts the darkness of the crimes and their perpetrators. She reminds us why this is such a special place. Meg doesn’t jump to conclusions. She’s methodical and yet trusts her instincts. We know that right is on her side and that, although the journey might be troubled, she will get there in the end. She’s tested to her limit in Cut to the Bone, tension is high and it’s visceral. You can imagine the squeals of the animals in their last moments, the blood and the violence, which isn’t just against animals. Because of the theme, I did find Cut to the Bone quite disturbing at times but, as always, it’s the Peaks and Meg that drew me in. I can’t wait for Meg’s return.

You can always tell when I love a series. I don’t only have the review book of this, I also have the smart hardback and the audiobook! I listened to the audiobook and it was brilliantly read by Caro Clarke.

Other reviews
The Devil’s Dice
Dead Man’s Daughter

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (7 January) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

The Smallest Man by Frances QuinnIt is 1625 and Nat Davy isn’t like other boys. No matter how much he gets his brother to try and stretch his legs and arms he will not grow. Reality hits when Nat visits a circus and sees a tiny woman on display who tells him to run. But it’s too late. When the circus contacts Nat’s father and makes him an offer, Nat is given a year to grow a little bit older before he too will become an exhibit on display. But, before the dreaded day comes, history takes matters into its own hands. The Duke of Buckingham buys the boy as a gift for Charles I’s young bride, Queen Henrietta Maria, and, before he knows it, the terrified and very, very small boy is served up to the Queen in a pie.

Nat Davy is a fictional character based on the figure of Sir Jeffrey Hudson, the Queen’s Dwarf. He is beautifully portrayed and we see the world – at its most poor and then at its wealthiest – through his eyes. And he sees the court from a unique perspective, not least because he becomes the confidant of the young French girl who is now Queen but, at the beginning of her marriage, feels so alone and unloved. Nat and the Queen are caught in the power games of Charles I and his favourite the Duke of Buckingham and, as Nat becomes a man and stays so tiny, he is viewed as more of an oddity than ever. However, over the years, Nat gathers a group of friends around him and, as the novel continues, his size is overshadowed by his stature as a man of the court.

The novel covers the whole of Charles I’s reign and that means that it also covers the Civil War, one of my favourite periods of English history. What makes this particularly unusual is that we view the conflict from the sidelines, as the Queen tries to gather funds and men for the King’s cause. I love how we see the relationship between the King and Queen evolve as they slowly fall in love. We also see how war has impacted the English countryside as people are caught up in a war that they initially think is happening at a distance. Families and friends are divided or they come together, putting relationships above political arguments that don’t interest them. It’s fascinating.

I loved The Smallest Man. It’s beautifully written. There is a love story element that I thought went on a little too long, but I really enjoyed this unusual story. We view all sides of English life through the figure of Nat, who experiences the lows and highs of 17th-century life, including war and exile. He endures real poverty, fear and danger, as well as coping with the sadness of the young Queen. It is a wonderful story, engrossing and full of historical details. I listened to the audiobook, which is stunningly read by Alex Wingfield. His voice truly becomes that of Nat. Nat is a fabulous character, offering an original and vivid perspective on Charles I’s land, court, war and death.

Savage Road by Chris Hauty

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (21 January) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Savage Road by Chris HautySavage Road is a political thriller that follows hot on the heels of its predecessor, the excellent Deep State. It stands alone perfectly well but it completely spoils the shocks of Deep State. Personally, I’d recommend reading them in order, not least because Deep State is one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever read and made me gasp out loud in shock on the bus more than once! With that warning out of the way, on with the review….

Hayley Chill is now a full-time staffer at the White House, having finished her rather eventful time as an intern. But those with the very, very highest clearance know that Hayley is more than that. She works for the ‘Deep State’, the power that really controls the United States, and her mission is to steer the Russian mole in the White House, now turned double agent, Richard Monroe, the President of the United States. And these are dangerous times. The cold war has gone cyber with attacks escalating between the two countries and the President is being pushed towards war. With the clock ticking, Hayley must discover the origin of the cyber attacks and stop them before it is too late.

Deep State was such a reading highlight of 2020 and I did wonder how on earth Chris Hauty could follow it. The answer is that he does a very good job indeed and that is due in large part to his fantastic creation of Hayley Chill and the situation which has placed a traitor in the Oval Office. I love Hayley. She is a diamond with rough edges, largely underestimated and misunderstood as a redneck, a former soldier and boxer, fiercely loyal and courageous, stubborn and relentless, incorruptible. Hayley Chill is brilliant. And she contrasts in every way with Richard Monroe. The relationship between these two is unlike any other I’ve read in a political thriller. The tension is incredible.

There are shocks in Savage Road that challenge those in Deep State. It’s staggering how Chris Hauty can do this time after time! You never know what will happen in these novels. The plotting in Savage Road is second to none.

I can say no more as you need to discover what’s going on here for yourself but it seems like such a good time to read a political thriller. I read it during the last days of the Trump administration. No longer do I think that the events described by Chis Hauty are impossible, while nothing about the activity of spies would surprise me. And yet these books do just that! And, just as with Deep State, Savage Road has left me wanting more.

Other review
Deep State

Slough House by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2021 (4 February) | 320p | review copy | Buy the book

Slough House by Mick HerronWe have reached the seventh novel in this truly brilliant series by the genius that is Mick Herron. If you haven’t read the others (and I can definitely recommend the audiobooks read by Sean Barrett if you want to catch up), then Slough House does stand up very well on its own but much of its impact does come from having met before these extraordinary inhabitants of Slough House. Known as the Slow Horses, these men and women have been cut adrift from M15 for the worst of reasons and Slough House is where they go to fester, under the disturbing control (or manipulation) of Jackson Lamb, a man you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley even if he were able to squeeze down it.

Relations between the secret service agencies of Britain and Russia are hotting up – or should that be colding down? – and Jackson Lamb and his ‘team’ of spy rejects are caught in the middle. But, should ‘Princess’ Diana Taverner, now M of M15, assume that they are a spent force then she couldn’t be more wrong. They still have tricks up their sleeves. The Slow Horses are under attack again, with their number in severe risk of reducing further but, incredibly, one former colleague appears to be back from the dead, albeit probably temporarily. It’s time to fight back.

The Slough House series of books are must reads if you have any interest at all in contemporary spy novels and, incredible as it is to say as they are all excellent, this latest novel is in my opinion the best of the series. One reason for this is that the characters and the building of Slough House itself are now well established. I love how the novels begin with a tour of the House by our omnipresent narrator. These sections always remind me of Bleak House and set the stage every bit as well. These novels reek with the corrupt atmosphere of Slough House – the cigarette smoke, the mess, the flatulence of Jackson Lamb, the booze, misery, guilt, dejection and failure. All is contrasted with the refined and clean rooms of the M15 headquarters in Regents Park. But in Slough House we become more aware than ever that rot can be found in that location as well – corruption, vice and the old boy’s network. This is a world where an Etonian Prime Minister is trying to hold everything together and in which ‘Yellow Vests’ march on the streets, ugly and extreme.

Despite all of the problems and power struggles at home, there is a war on between the spies of the UK and Russia, triggered by the novichok poisoning that has left a British citizen dead. This is a fascinating starting point for the novel and the plot is involved, complex and gripping throughout.

We meet old ‘friends’ in Slough House, each of whom is dealing with their own problems, addictions, mistakes and griefs. Roddy Ho is as abhorrent (and hysterical) as ever but we spend much of the time with River, a man whose very blood is steeped in the secret service. We are involved with these people. Even Jackson Lamb excels himself (his potential for violence has never been more coldly shocking). But we retain an emotional investment in them. That’s the extraordinary thing.

Mick Herron is a brilliant spy writer. He has created an incredible cast of men and women, both the rejects and the powerful. His portrayal of Diana Taverner is particularly well developed in Slough House and I enjoyed her appearances – especially the scenes between Diana and Lamb. The books are witty and chillingly cool and atmospheric, as the reader strives to reach out to characters in very real distress. And danger. A great deal of danger. As always, I was left wanting more. These novels are essential reading.

Other reviews
London Rules
Joe Country

January 2021 – a book review (and dissectology update)

A new year always starts with good intentions, even this one, and so I am resurrecting my monthly reviews. I stopped doing these last summer for various reasons but, feeling rather rejuvenated, I thought I’d reboot them. There is the caveat that, if Lockdown drags on until 2022, the posts might just say ‘Ditto’. But what about January 2021? The best thing about January 2021 is that it’s over but the good news about it is that my reading powers were restored to me! I don’t read for as many hours a day as I did in Normal Times because I’m still working from home and still have no commute or a fixed lunch hour but I am reading much more than I did in 2020 and, more to the point, I’m enjoying it more. One reason for this is that I’m only finishing books I’m really enjoying. I read solely for entertainment.

I read fourteen novels in January and they brightened up a very Dry and rather dull month (and did I say Dry?). I’m behind on reviews but that’s because I seem to have spent 90% of the month in Teams meetings. They’ve been a good mix of books – historical fiction, science fiction (well, Jodi Taylor – I read so many of her books she should have her own section on FWN), spy thrillers past and present, action adventures, horror and crime. Three of the books were audiobooks – I love audiobooks so much! The Lockdown Revelation.

The Coffinmaker's Garden by Stuart MacBrideThere were some great reading highlights. Favourite authors were greeted with open arms (hugging books is to be recommended in these Post-Hugging Times) – Matthew Reilly returned to give the ultimate action hero Jack West Jr a really hard time in The Two Lost Mountains. Mick Herron was back to continue his guided tour of Slough House, the unloved refuge for secret service rejects.

My favourite crime writer Stuart MacBride re-opened the Ash Henderson case files in The Coffinmaker’s Garden and Professor Tom Wilde must hide from Nazis and Allies alike in the wake of a prince’s mysterious wartime death in Rory Clements’ A Prince and A Spy.

The Smallest Man by Frances QuinnI do much more reading of older books now. Perhaps because life is now slower, I feel that I want to give time to books I’ve missed or have newly discovered. Or is this an age thing? I really enjoyed Roz Watkins’ Cut to the Bone, which I missed last year (I love the Peak District locations). I also continued to catch up on Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s, gobbling up the audiobooks (so fantastically narrated/lived by Zara Ramm) of books 6 and 7 – What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (an awful lot) and Lies, Damned Lies, and History. The heroine Max is now a member of my family. I must write a post about these books.

Historical fiction continues to be my Lockdown Genre Of Choice and I read some goodies in January. Cathedral by Ben Hopkins is a massively ambitious and immersive novel about the people of Hagenburg, Germany, during the construction of their cathedral in the 13th century. The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn takes us back to one of my favourite periods of history, the English Civil War, and we view it from the unusual and insightful perspective of the Queen’s Dwarf Nat.

Other reading highlights in January include Chris Hauty’s Savage Road, in which secret service agent Hayley Chills returns to continue her battle to protect the White House from Russian interference. The stakes are higher than ever as the new cold war goes cyber. I love political thrillers and I’m now hooked on Hayley Chills. I’m also hooked on haunted house ghost stories and so I couldn’t resist Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims – a haunted house has become an entire haunted tower block! Perfect! As long as I don’t have to live in it.

February is starting in fine fashion. I’m reading The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper (a truly fabulous novel about the unfree women of Pompeii) and listening to Daughters of Night by the brilliant Laura Shepherd-Robinson. I have some other enticing books lined up for the month.

In addition to book reading, I have continued my activities as a Dissectologist. Due to popular demand (by two people) I will be incorporating a jigsaw update into each new book post. As you can see, jigsaw puzzles can be very educational.

The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

Orion | 2021 (21 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew ReillyJack West Jr is back! The Two Lost Mountains is the penultimate novel in Matthew Reilly’s corking series of thrillers in which Jack West Jr and his team must fulfil a sequence of ancient challenges in order to save the planet, the world, everything, from extinction. If, like me, you’ve been putting these books to the top of your reading pile for a fair few years now, then you don’t need me to tell you how good they are and how close we’re all getting to the end! But, if you haven’t read them before, then you won’t want to start with this one, the sixth, you’ll want to go back to Seven Ancient Wonders, which takes the story back to its beginning about twenty years ago. A lot has happened since then. A lot!

The Two Lost Mountains is not an easy book to review because, as you may well know, the previous book The Three Secret Cities (yes, the number countdown continues) ended at quite a crucial point and I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say, that this latest adventure picks up where the other one ends – we land on our feet and we’re off and running again.

Our heroes, and our baddies (and they are brilliant villains in these books – they’re evil on both a human and mythological scale, which I really enjoy) are focused. They know what they have to do before the final challenge. The sides are all declared and they’re desperate to beat each other to be the first to the Labyrinth, the goal of this novel. The main aim of these groups is, of course, to beat Jack and his team. There’s a sense that they just might do it. Jack’s team isn’t the size it used to be and you can bet that events in this book might shrink it further. You’re going to have to hang on when you read this. And there’s a new villain! Someone who wants nothing more than to welcome annihilation and die in a blaze of glory – how do you fight someone like that?

The adventures are breathless to read! I love the challenges in these books. The tension is enormous. The locations are great. The mix of thriller, classical history and mythology, disaster novel is so good. I love the references to ancient Egyptian and Greek history and legend. As you’d expect in an adventure such as this, archaeological remains do take rather a battering (to put it mildly). The potential destruction of the Earth is now closer than ever and so it’s fitting that we begin to see its impact on the wider world. It’s felt in these pages and in cities across the globe. I also love the experience of reading these books, with their diagrams, maps and charts. They’re so exciting!

At the heart of the novel is Jack West Jr, a man with so many responsibilities, who is now facing up to the passing years, and is more protective than ever of the younger people in his care. I really like Jack. I’m not sure he’s going to survive all this. His team members all leave messages for the others, to be read out in case they should die. We’ve read a few of them over the years. I worry that we’ll read Jack’s.

Matthew Reilly has written some fabulous thrillers over the years, including my favourite thriller of all time – Ice Station (the first novel to feature the beloved Scarecrow). I can’t wait for ‘The One Thingummy’ that will complete the Jack West Jr series and I also can’t wait for whatever will follow it.

Other reviews
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves
The Tournament
The Great Zoo of China
The Four Legendary Kingdoms (Jack West 4)

The Three Secret Kingdoms (Jack West 5)