Category Archives: Reading

The Vivaldi Cipher by Gary McAvoy

Disclosure: I’m writing this review while listening to a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s a classical piece of music I’m sure most of us are familiar with, with all four violin concertos taking up less than 45 minutes (by which time I should be editing this review). Another disclosure: Gary McAvoy sent me an ARC of his latest book, for which I’m truly grateful; so not only am I listening to some Vivaldi, I’m writing about him, too, in a weird sort of way. Cheers, Gary.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Mr McAvoy’s fascinating and supremely entertaining Magdalene Trilogy. I reviewed each one of this very blog. I wondered if we the readers would hear from Fr Michael Dominic and his intrepid crew of fellow adventurers and relic-hunters again. I am happy to say that we are mere weeks away from the publication of a new book. The Vivaldi Cipher is being published on August 18, 2021. And if you’re a fan of the previous three books, then I’m happy to say that you’re in for a bigger treat.

Whereas Magdalene focused on the search for the truth behind the mystery of Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus, as well as a cover-up within the Vatican City regarding her gospel and the eventual discovery of her final resting place, Gary McAvoy takes us in another direction. This time he uses his extensive knowledge and research to uncover some unpleasant truths behind the massive art collection that’s housed within the walls of the papal city. And the mystery is no less intriguing, particularly when our heroes are faced with life or death scenarios in nearly every chapter, thanks to the Camorra, one of the oldest and largest criminal organisations in Italy.

The prologue sets the scene. It’s the mid-18th century and a new pope is about to be elected. However, one of the favourites for the highest position in Christendom is poisoned, and just before his death he passes on a secret to Vivaldi who, and not many people know this, was training to become a priest. Horrified by what he hears, he knows he must share it with the world. But how can he do so without putting himself in peril? The answer is simple: he hides it in a piece of music. Nearly three hundred years later, the leader of the Camorra has a crisis of conscience, and on his death bed confesses a similar secret to Fr Rinaldo, a local priest. Lucky for him, his friend Fr Dominic is in town, Venice to be precise, and Fr Rinaldo confides in Dominic as much as he can without breaking the all important seal of confession. Dominic and his journalist friend, Hana Sinclair, enlist the help of cryptologist Dr Livia Galla, and together they play detective. Finding themselves involved in a centuries-old plot to defraud the Vatican, they chase leads up and down dark alley ways and canals. Aided by Karl and Lukas, from the elite Swiss Guard, and Marco Picard, a Green Beret and Hana’s bodyguard and now lover, the closer they get to the truth, the closer they are to certain death.

Gary McAvoy

This book is a blast. It is so entertaining and fast moving, that I could barely draw breath at times. And yet, like Mr McAvoy’s previous books, I got myself an education. I was taken on a tour of Venice that not only included an art and music history lesson, but by God, some of the food these characters eat had my mouth watering, too. I felt I was in Venice a lot of the time. And now I need to go for real, though not via cruise ships. I must also beware of pigeons. Everything that made the Magdalene Trilogy one of my favourite reads of the year is here in spades. The Vivaldi Cipher is also markedly more violent than its predecessors, which is the right way to go because of the active presence of organised crime. People die and die quickly. Parts of the book might not be for the faint-hearted, but let this not be a distracted from a welcome change of pace and location. Yes, there is still skullduggery to be found within the Vatican, but the good guys will always win out. This time, however, there will be a cost.

Next book, please, Gary. Your readers and I are waiting.

The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

I wonder if readers of this blog will remember a show which premiered in the US in 1974. It was called Petrocelli, and it was about a defence lawyer who lived in a house trailer in San Remo, Arizona. All through the two seasons the show was on, Tony Petrocelli and his wife Maggie toiled away with building a house for themselves near their trailer home. Viewers never got to see the finished product because the show finished airing after these two seasons. When I read an Eddie Flynn novel from Northern Ireland author Steve Cavanagh, I always think of Petrocelli. He took the cases in which his client appeared guilty as sin, looking for holes in the prosecution’s evidence, and upon finding them, exonerate his clients in the eyes of the law. What happened after that was of no concern to Petrocelli. His job was done once his client got released.

I loved Petrocelli and I recently rewatched the pilot episode. It still stands up. Barry Newman is a good actor and the stories were always compelling. I happened upon Steve Cavanagh‘s creation a couple of years ago and found myself reading the first four books in the Eddie Flynn series one after the other. They are tightly plotted novels, with enough twists and turns to make your hair stand on end. Forever getting into scrapes that threaten his life and the lives of those he cares about, Eddie uses his ingenuity and skills as a one-time con-artist to help his clients who would otherwise be incarcerated for life or worse.

The Devil’s Advocate is the sixth book in the series and for my money it’s the best yet. The stakes for Eddie, his team, and his client are high: literally life and death. But Eddie is well out of his comfort zone. Used to the hustle and bustle of New York streets, police stations, and courtrooms, Eddie is in a backwater town of Buckstown, Alabama, a relic of the Confederacy era, where the local District Attorney Randall Korn has sent more convicted murderers to the electric chair than any other DA in US history. Eddie is approached by a ‘frenemy’ from a previous case and asked to take on the defence of Andy Dubois, a young Black man whose been accused of the murder of his colleague and friend, a popular girl called Skylar Edwards. Andy’s previous lawyer, who’s already had dealings with Korn, is missing under suspicious circumstances, and the young man seems destined to be found guilty and sentenced to death. Eddie has never taken on a capital murder case before, but it’s not long before he and his team, Kate, Harry, and Bloch find that all is not what it seems with the prosecution’s case. Plus, if Andy didn’t brutally murder Skylar, the question is: who did?

Steve Cavanagh (photo c/o: Belfast Live)

For fans of Steve Cavanagh and Eddie Flynn, there’s no need for me to tell you to get on out there and buy this book. Chances are you already have it preordered. But for the unconverted, let me tell you that this book, and the others in the series, are a delight to read. What sets The Devil’s Advocate apart from previous novels is not just the change of scenery, but Cavanagh allows the supporting characters to share the spotlight in many sections of the story. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Bloch, Eddie’s investigator: you do not want to mess with this woman. The Rogue Gallery is especially strong, too. Not only does Eddie and his team have to contend with Randall Korn, but the sheriff of Buckstown is a force to be reckoned with, too, despite and because of his own tragic backstory. And then there’s the mysterious Pastor. We don’t find out his identity until the climax of the novel, and what a surprise that turns out to be. So, not only do the good guys have to deal with an insidious district attorney, they also find themselves up against the worst of the worst: domestic terrorists and white supremacists. The Devil’s Advocate will rock your boat. I defy you to finish it in fewer than three or four sittings.

Thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with an ARC of The Devil’s Advocate in exchange for an honest review.

The Dark Chorus by Ashley Meggitt

Some books are a pleasure to read. Others, more of a nightmare. The Dark Chorus, the debut novel from British writer Ashley Meggitt, gave me pleasure, in that it is exquisitely written — but man, those nightmares are going to follow me around for a while.

The novel unfolds in two distinct voices and personalities. The Boy, who remains unnamed throughout, is the primary character. He sees lost souls, calling them his Dark Chorus. Among these souls is the one that belongs to his mother. When we first meet the Boy, he’s in a boys’ home, but he manages to sneak out and persuade a local woman to become the new owner of his mother’s soul. Unfortunately for the poor woman, the ritual involves her death. The Boy’s powers of persuasion and his ability to see these souls is a gift (or curse) that has supernatural and historic origins. These are explored in detail throughout the story. But for now, once he knows his ritual has been unsuccessful, he persists in his mission, despite the intervention of Ma’am, the local detective inspector (also unnamed), and Dr Eve Rhodes, his appointed psychiatrist — the second point-of-view of the novel. Her journey to understanding the Boy’s motivations is as engrossing to read as the Boy’s exploits themselves.

By far the most amazing aspect of The Dark Chorus is the relationship between the triumvirate of the Boy; Makka, an angry and pathalogically violent young man of mixed-Asian heritage; and Vee, a young and damaged girl whom the boys rescue from men who wish to commit heinous acts in her. As they form a friendship, while on the run from both the law and men who want them dead, the Boy’s mission to save his mother’s soul takes on a different perspective. Learning more about his power and his history, the Boy decides he must condemn all corrupted souls into oblivion. The scenes of violence are not for the faint-hearted, but all kudos to Ashley Meggitt: while the death scenes are extreme and bloody, they are not gratuitous. Think of the Boy as being Dexter-like, with only the truly evil being vanquished into nothingness.

Dr Eve Rhodes is a compelling character in her own right. Without giving too much away, as The Dark Chorus proceeds, she learns she may have a connection to the Boy’s power. What she does with this knowledge provides much of the climax’s intensity. As outlandish as all of this may seem at first glance, there is a visceral realism to these dirty streets of London. I give Ashley Meggitt full praise for writing a novel that both horrified and moved me. His hold over his characters only goes so far, because there are forces beyond even his control at work here. For better or worse, when people start dying, there is chaos behind it. But there is also a cleansing taking place, a natural order of things, the way life and death take on a meaning that is unknown to only a few.

The Dark Chorus is a story of revenge and redemption. It is the story of love and loss. It is also the story of the power of friendship and connection. The Boy cannot do what he needs to do without Makka, Vee, and Dr Rhodes. And they in turn, cannot complete their own arcs without him. This is a breath-taking work from an author to keep an eye out for.

Scorpion by Christian Cantrell

We know what we are, but not yet what we may be. (Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Act 4, scene 5.)

Ophelia is going through a crisis in Shakespeare’s play. Her husband Hamlet has killed her father and she is cracking up. She knows only what she knows and is reacting to that, but she doesn’t know what the future holds for either of them. This is an entirely human feeling. Each of us reacts to events in the here and now; we can’t help it. But we also wonder where these events will eventually take us. This quote from Ophelia forms the basis for the prologue of Scorpion, a mind-bending, jargon-heavy, but superbly entertaining and well written science fiction thriller from Christian Cantrell, a software engineer who lives near Washington, D.C.

Quinn Mitchell is an analyst for the CIA, a desk jockey with little to no experience in the field. She has suffered a profound loss in her past, with the accidental drowning of her young daughter Molly, which resulted in the protracted separation and eventual divorce from her husband James. She is happy enough to stay out of the limelight and is very good at her job. However, her so-called easy life comes to a disturbing end when she is sent out into the field to track down and stop a man dubbed the Elite Assassin. All around the world, bodies are turning up — more than 20 of them, in fact — and there appears to be no apparent motive except that they are almost perfect killings. There is no rhyme to reason, but Al Moretti, Quinn’s boss, knows there’s more to these assassinations so Quinn must follow the trail of bodies that hopefully will lead to an arrest.

Christian Cantrell identifies our assassin almost straight away. He is Ranveer, an Iranian national, with limitless resources and finance, and a steady supply of eccentric individuals who supply him with the knowledge and know-how to complete his killings. He travels first-class and stays at the most luxurious of hotels and resorts. He is a man with a mission, however horrendous it may first appear. He’s also on the clock. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs only Quinn can find, there is method to his sociopathy. Quinn doesn’t know it yet, but there is a connection between the pair of them. In the mix is Henrietta Yi, a diminutive woman, originally from Korea, where terrorists set off a nuclear bomb that destroyed Seoul and killed millions of people including her parents. She has a visual impairment that causes her to wear special glasses, otherwise she sees afterimages, which she calls ‘ghosts’, all the time. This comes in handy later in the book. She is working on a top-secret project for Moretti based on data from something called The Epoch Index.

Christian Cantrell (imagec/o crowdcast.io)

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot. But there is a connection between all three characters that doesn’t become apparent until the last third of Scorpion, the first two-thirds of which is taken up by a captivating and off-the-wall cat-and-mouse chase between Quinn and Ranveer. The setting is near-futurish, the technology is unique but not far-fetched, and I got particular delight from the author’s description of The Grid, an area of Qatar that is closed off to anyone without influence, money, or a really good reason to hide from the authorities. The climax is straight out of genre favourites like Looper and Minority Report, and while some of the techinical jargon may go over your head from time to time, the characters make the story relatable. You may know what you are, but not yet what you may be.

My thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers of Scorpion for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Blue Madagascar by Andrew Kaplan

There was a period in my life in the early to mid 80s when I read everything the thriller writer Robert Ludlum published. At the time I was working in a hotel in north Dublin, and I spent a lot of shifts manning the phones at reception. By this point I hadn’t yet read any of the Jason Bourne trilogy, but my manager put me wide straight away. They still hold a place of fondness in my list of favourite books, and after Ludlum passed away, I couldn’t read any of the other books published by permission of his estate. I hear Eric van Lustbader did a great job, but I was finished with literary Jason Bourne once The Bourne Ultimatum was published. I remain a big fan of the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass movies, though.

That said, I remained on the lookout for books of a similar type, and through NetGalley I found Blue Madagascar by New York Times bestselling author Andrew Kaplan. Kaplan is the author of Homeland: Carrie’s Game, the official prequel to the award-winning television show, and followed this up with a novel that focused on another of Homeland’s main characters, Saul Berenon. This book, Saul’s Game, went on to win the Scribe Best Novel of the Year. Kaplan is also the author of the Scorpion series of thriller novels as well as a bunch of stand-alone books. But what caught my eye about Blue Madagascar was how its plot brought me back to those halcyon days of Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, and John le Carre. The story takes its characters and readers on a whistlestop tour through some of the most picaresque and dangerous locations in the world.

The plot’s cold open is tight, effective, and shocking. It’s mere days away from the presidential election and the apparent front-runner, by a county mile, is dead, allegedly by his own hand. The political process is thrown into disarray, and there are reports of an unknown woman who may or may not be responsible for the man’s death. We won’t know this for a while because the story then moves back in time to a heist gone wrong in Nice on the south coast of France. A previously well-planned robbery of a jewellery store ends up with an innocent American tourist dead, and his companion, inexplicably, escaping with the robbers. French investigators realise that the dead man has lived under a false identity and their attempts to gain assistance from U.S. authorities have mixed results at best. But the Department of Homeland Security sends one of their agents, Casey Ramirez, to help and hinder the investigation.

Casey is a fascinating character. Shunted into the foster care system due to her mother being a constant jailbird and liaising with men who abused both Casey and her sister, Casey’s talents and fearlessness gets the attention of the DHS, and she becomes one of their best investigators. Haunted by the memory of her sister, missing for many years, Casey hopes that one day her career will give her the answers she so desperately needs. In the meantime, she has a mission to find out who this dead American is, and pretty soon she’s following a trail of bodies that takes her to places and people that are more dangerous than she could have imagined. Behind it all is the secret of Blue Madagascar. What is it, and why did it make a seemingly innocent witness to murder join up with a gang of thieves?

Andrew Kaplan

And the most important question, perhaps, what does it have to do with the apparent suicide of a presidential election candidate?

There was a lot for me to sink my reader’s teeth into with Blue Madagascar. I enjoyed the thrill of the ride, the constant intrigue, the twists, and the number of times Casey needs to escape from almost certain death. The villains of the piece — for there are many — have their own agendas, often clashing with each other for personal reasons. This book has the lot: car chases, family secrets, bosses who Casey doesn’t trust a lot of the time, and a pervading sense of menace and deadly threats. Supporting characters remain important to the book, and it’s not just a cat-and-mouse story. At the heart of Blue Madagascar is a woman who only wants to know if her sister is alive. By the end of the book, we might get an answer to this question. And a possible sequel.

The Twin Paradox by Charles Wachter

There comes a point in some works of science fiction when you’re better off not trying to understand the physics behind a particular concept, and just run with whatever point the author is making. It’s enough to know that they know what’s going on. It’s at this juncture that we decide to sit back and be entertained. In Jurassic Park, we were there for the dinosaurs; not so much for the science behind their creation or whether or not it is ethical to recreate them for the modern audience, as interesting as these debates undoubtedly are.

The Twin Paradox by Emmy Award-winning TV executive producer Charles Wachter is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. At its heart, it’s a hugely entertaining book set in the very near future where brilliant minds from the past live among us in the form of clones. By snatching body parts from such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Leonarda da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, and Catherine the Great, scientific minds from the United States have been able to use this DNA to create cloned copies. These children are nurtured and schooled by Gen-E Corp, run by the billioniare and slightly megalomaniciacal Teigen Ralls (a villain James Bond would be proud to know). They are clueless to their origins until the day they are put on a plane that’s taking them to a location on the coast of Texas. Alastair is Einstein, Milk is MLK, Kat is Catherine the Great, Zach is one of two Newtons in the book, Leo is, obviously, the Italian da Vinci. Together they are brought to Cornerstone, where they must solve the greatest problems humanity has ever faced.

Charles Wachter

Wikipedia describes: In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in special relativity involving identical twins, one of whom makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket and returns home to find that the twin who remained on Earth has aged more. You can follow the link and go down the rabbit hole as deep as you wish. All you need to know for the story at hand is that the children are taken to an ecosytem that exists in a time and space continuum of its own. For every three minutes that passes in our world, ten years passes inside Cornerstone. Therefore, millennia can pass in mere days and weeks. Living within this system are creatures not meant for this world, including a race of humanoid cannibals, related through time to a group of immigrants who were crossing the US-Mexico border at a time when the system was created.

The clones are given free rein to research for themselves and Gen-E, but the world is in grave danger. The Russians and Chinese are conducting their own experiments within the ecosystem, and when Isaac Prime betrays the new kids on the block, it becomes a race against time to learn the truth behind Cornerstone and escape the jaws and claws of monsters and men. The scope is breath-taking and the chapters fly by, as long as you don’t think too hard on the physics. I’m sure it all makes sense, but I like my brain where it is, not coming out of my ears.

The Twin Paradox is the first in a projected series, with a sequel, The Divine Paradox, due for publication early next year. I will certainly read it, for I found this book fun and engaging. I was happy to review it for the publishers, author, and NetGalley.

Her Ocean Grave by Dana Perry

It is said, though I do not know the source of the quote, that a brave soldier never looks back. I take this to mean that it’s a bad move generally to revisit past glories and/or failures, and that one should always look face forward. The past has passed; it’s history; what’s done is done and there’s no need to dwell on what might have happened if circumstances and feelings were different. If this was indeed the case, then therapists would be out of business and writers would run out of material to write about. Sometimes, though, we find that, in the end, we have no choice but to look back and consider our life choices in relation to where we are now.

Her Ocean’s Grave is the first book in a new crime fiction series from author Dana Perry. In it, she introduces a compelling new character who comes to realise that returning to where it all began is the most important step many of us need to take if we are to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Abby Pearse faces this kind of dilemma when, after a decorated career in the New York Police Department comes to a tragic end, she finds herself back in her hometown of Cedar’s Cliff, Martha’s Vineyard as the island’s police force’s sole detective. While not exactly a hotbed of crime, Abby has enough to keep her going, despite not fitting in and others being suspicious of her position and notoriety. But Abby knows her job, and when a young girl goes missing, Abby wastes no time getting to the truth of what happened to Samantha Claymore.

Abby’s personal life is a bit of a mess. Recently divorced, she struggles with an alcohol addiction that follows her around like a shadow. Bouts of sobriety are punctuated with blow-outs which cost Abby both her marriage and her position in the NYPD. Coming home hasn’t really helped because she’s estranged from her mother, who’s in a nursing home, and her father has been dead for some time. The only person she feels she can talk to is her father’s ex-business partner Stan Larsen, whom she calls ‘Uncle Stan’. Memories of past events haunt her as she patrols the streets of Cedar’s Cliff, with one particular traumatic incident rearing its ugly head during the course of her investigation into Samantha’s disappearance.

Abby must form a working relationship with Teena Morelli, a uniformed cop who resents Abby for taking the detective job she felt was hers by right. She doesn’t know whether or not she can trust her boss, Chief Wilhelm, because of his past association with Samantha’s father who died in suspicious circumstances years earlier. And then there’s Lincoln Connor, a local journalist looking for a big scoop, whose presence is an unwanted distraction in Abbey’s life and investigation. With a number of characters who have secrets of their own, Abby has a lot on her plate sorting the good guys out from the bad.

The plot has a pleasing amount of twists and red herrings, more than enough to satisfy fans of crime fiction and police procedurals in particular, and will certainly have you flying through the chapters until the end. I feel there is more to come from Abby Pearse, not just in the way of crimes to investigate but in her personal development. At the end of Her Ocean’s Grave, Dana Perry sheds a little light on Abby’s history and suggests that the detective’s greatest battles and triumphs are ahead of her.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers of Her Ocean’s Grave for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Claire’s Apocalypse by K.T. Rose

Many authors will tell you that it’s harder to write a short story than it is to pen a full novel. With a novel you have freedom to roam the countryside, smell the flowers, talk to the animals, and camp out for a few nights. With a short story, writers tend to focus on a limited number of characters, a couple of settings, and a tight plot. Also, with a short story, it’s quite common for the ending to be ambiguous and open to interpretation: a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. A genre perfect for the short story is horror.

Detroit writer K.T. Rose writes horror, thriller and dark fiction, and posts some of her work on her website. Recently she published Claire’s Apocalypse, a disturbing short story that fits the criteria set out in the above paragraph. The main character is Dr Claire Lyle, a renowned scientist who specialises in virology, and is employed by the US government to head up their bioweapons division. After reaching a major breakthrough in the development of a weaponised virus, she and her colleagues are distraught when a new general takes over and orders the project shut down and the serum destroyed. Claire has devoted her entire working life on this project, to the detriment of her family and personal life, and she decides to take immediate and drastic action.

K.T. Rose wastes little time and uses every word and scene to portray a woman driven close to insanity by the very nature of her job. She makes a rash decision that heralds the end of the world and the climax is both brutal and shocking. The action takes place in two locations: Claire’s laboratory and a coffeeshop where she hopes to meet the person who will help her with her dangerous plan. In the end, though, there is no way out for Claire. Nor is there one for any of us in this story. Claire’s Apocalypse is a great example of what might happen when people who should know better play God with the lives of others and nature itself. It’s well worth reading, and K.T. is an author to look out for.

Reality Testing by Grant Price

Over the course of recent months and years, I have come to the firm belief that whatever is in store for humanity, it’s not going to be good. Too many countries have elected indiduals to positions of power who have no right to be there. They have little experience or worse, they couldn’t care less what happens to the people they were elected by and the world around them. To them it’s all about power and how to maintain it. They pay lip service to climate change, and brush the refugee crisis under the carpet. To them, such catastrophes are always someone else’s problem. Very few novels published today focus on what happens when things go well for humanity, instead dydtopian fiction forms the bedrock of a lot of speculative fiction you see in bookstores or online, especially since 2016. In short, bad news sells books.

But that doesn’t mean these books are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of them are really good. Allow me to introduce you to Reality Testing, by Berlin-based author Grant Price. You’re probably familiar with the cyberpunk genre, made famous by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which combines a hi-tech futuristic setting with general societal degradation: basically the rich get richer and have access to all the mod cons in technology, and the poor are so far down the bottom of the ladder they have no chance of improving their lot in life. The Berlin of Grant Price’s novel is a perfect example of a society gone worng. It’s the aftermath of the Second Water War, and the Big Five conglomerates have taken control of the city and its citizens, advertising their products and services in very obtrusive ways. They say their technology and policies are in aid of the failing environment, whereas in fact they’re outbidding and out-manoeuvering each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. Automatons known as bulls patrol the streets, dishing out instant justice for even the most petty of crimes. Citizens make ends meet how they can, working enough jobs to ensure they get cheap food and entertainment. Mara Hinzig gets a lot more than she bargains for when she signs up for a gig which will allow her to be paid while she undergoes a few months of sleep in a programme called LINK, run by Ahe+d, and overseen by the mysterious Klaus Koje.

Grant Price

Mara wakes up next to a dead body. She’s got blood on her hands and she has no idea what happened. She runs for it and ends up at the door of her ex-partner Jema. The only problem is, the body Mara how inhabits isn’t her own. Not only is she wanted for a murder she doesn’t remember committing, but she now has a face she doesn’t recognise and a voice inside her head is giving her instructions and at times taking control over her body. This is not a good time to be Mara. When tragedy ensues, Mara is driven literally underground, where she meets a cohort of individuals who either want to kill her, turn her over to the authorities for a reward. Price creates a beautifully realised subterranean world with characters that are unique and off-the-wall crazy. I loved Mantis and Prestone, both augmented and damaged human beings, victims of circumstance and hubris. With their help, Mara is led to another part of Germany where the mythical Vanguard await. There she finds a group of people, mainly women, who live off-grid, and with the aid of the Abbot, the group’s leader, she tries to understand what’s happening to her and how she can get revenge on Koje. Her right-hand man is Daniel Van Morden, a veteran with a secret of his own. Along with Abbadine, Xi Yang, and Theo, Mara plots a way to get back control of her life and identity.

Reality Testing is a fast-paced and action-packed novel that I raced through in a couple of sittings. It brought back memories of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. The aesthetics are similar but Price tells his own story. This is a world that is terrifying, where life has little value, and where the stakes are so high, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to come through unscathed. I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of a society where, despite everything else going on, people are allowed to be whatever they prefer to be: gender is fluid, and non-binary characters are front and centre of this fascinating future. Grant Price makes us think about how the next step in human evolution might look, and we wonder whether or not it would be best for the planet and ourselves if we just die off as a species and let the Earth start again. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of adventures to have in the meantime.

Bonus Review: The Devil’s Mistress by David Barclay

California based David Barclay’s novella The Devil’s Mistress is a quick and involving read that left with me with a ton of questions I need answering, the most relevant one being: Is that it? Yes, I know it’s a novella, but there is so much mythos to explore in the story’s setting that I hope the author comes back for more.

The year is 1705, the town is Blackfriar, Virginia, in a country that has yet to shake off its British colonizers and puritanical roots. Isabella Ashcroft is in fear for her father’s life and when the story begins she’s making a dangerous late-night dash to the legendary and feared Lady of the Hill. The Lady offers to help Isabelle with her problem, but there will be a price–there’s always a price to pay when you deal with forces you can’t even begin to understand, and when words have more than one meaning.

Isabelle’s worries are not just confined to her father’s failing health, but she’s also betrothed to a man with such callous disregard for human life. Don’t forget, this is a time when rich white people had slaves and treated them abominably. For me, this is and will always be the real horror. Thomas Huxley and his mother, Marianne, are characters that are without redemption and will deserve their fate when it arrives. But I digress.

Events overtake Isabelle and she finds herself accused not only of murder but of witchcraft. The novella then races towards its grisly and brutal climax. Barclay finely balances his writing, mixing historical accuracy with the necessary components of a horror/revenge story. Overall I liked it, but for me, I would like to see a deeper exploration of the themes. Particularly in the story behind the story: there is so much to written and characters to be developed even before The Devil’s Mistress begins. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the novella is what we don’t yet know. I ask David Barclay to give us more.

The Devil’s Mistress was published on March 16, 2021, by Silver Shamrock Publishing, and I thank them for providing me with a copy to review here.

David Barclay