We are positively flush this holiday season with great new fiction offerings. Personally, I’ve always tried to abide by the rule “one for me, one for you” when buying books as presents (because that way you guarantee yourself immense joy on both sides of the literary equation, like that needs explaining, and you wouldn’t want to leave the bookshop without a teetering stack with which to grinningly contend, would you?) So, whichever way you opt to do it, here are our reviews of five brand new novels from big names guaranteed to hit the right spot this Christmas. Don’t panic if you can’t grab a copy straight away – those that haven’t yet hit the shelves will be doing so soon.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
With her debut novel, The Night Circus, Morgenstern certainly made it into the popular consciousness. And quite right too. Its seductive and rich imagery alone are headily charming, and Morgenstern’s handling of its complex and elusive narrative demonstrates a true literary talent. Her second offering, The Starless Sea, is just as steeped in magic, just as full of wonder and just as compulsively readable: a marvellous testament to storytelling and imagination.
Far beneath the Earth’s surface is a hidden library as old as time. The Starless Sea. Watched over by specially appointed guardians, and accessed only through a system of secret doors unapparent to the uninitiated, its ports and coastlines harbour a wealth of all that is lost and all that yet might be; a wealth of books and stories and worlds as infinitely mysterious as the place itself. Those who guard it do so at great cost, sacrificing parts of themselves that they might better protect its treasures. Of course there are those, too, who would see the place destroyed.
Graduate student Zachary has his first fleeting glimpse of the place when he discovers a strange book… a book that contains the story of a thing that he once didn’t do. Rapt by its mysterious message, he undertakes a journey whose manifold clues and riddles lead him into unknown company and circumstance, and finally down into The Sea itself – where he encounters storytellers and luminaries… and Allegra, whose foresight tells of a looming threat, who seeks to seal its doors and preserve The Starless Sea’s myriad wonders .
This does sound rather like your typical fantasy quest but, as readers of her debut know full well, Morgenstern’s relationship with fantasy is unlike any other. The Starless Sea is a spectacular concoction that twists myth and fairy-tale to its own purposes, giving tribute to the handed-down stories that fantasy canon so often employs while always favouring invention, while conjuring sublime and beautiful things without the need to explain every single one of them. Best just to plunge into its ineffably beautiful magic and let the currents take you. Certainly it concerns a search for purpose, but The Starless Sea is too lavish and giddily-weaved a thing to think that its gifts are straightforward. Besides, with an imagination this grand and rewarding, straightforward would be something of a let-down.
A Minute to Midnight by David Baldacci
With Long Road to Mercy, Baldacci introduced us to gifted and relentless FBI Special Agent Atlee Pine – a tenacious hunter of those who hurt others, haunted by the loss of her twin sister to a notorious serial killer. Now she’s back and her continuing quest for justice and healing is about to lead her headlong into a new web of secrets… and a fresh new string of deadly threats.
As ever, Baldacci brings us a dark and twisted thriller packed with tension and suspense. But Special Agent Pine is certainly among his most compelling characters and her search for redemption and clarity among the worst and most torturous that humanity has to offer makes his new novel especially delicious.
A Minute to Midnight opens in a maximum security prison, with Pine visiting the monstrous serial killer Daniel Tor. This is the man, she is convinced, responsible for the disappearance of her twin sister, Mercy, when she was just six years old. Subsequently, she returns to her hometown in Georgia to revisit the site of Mercy’s kidnapping, hoping at last to lay her demons to rest. But just as she is reopening the investigation, a woman is found ritualistically murdered, her head covered by a veil, and, when a second victim soon shows up, Pine finds herself with a more urgent and deadly case on her hands. The hunt for this new killer has her digging ever-deeper into the past of her hometown, uncovering secrets that are more dangerous than she could have imagined. Could these brutal new murders have something to do with what happened all those years ago?
Baldacci’s newest opens with a bang and maintains the excitement all the way through to its powerful ending. It weaves together a vibrant cast of characters and a gripping array of evils and traumatic flavours. For gleefully taught suspense and relentlessly page-turning thrills, you can’t go wrong with this one. Though it’s the second instalment in a brilliant series that all crime fiction buffs should be reading, it also works well as a standalone.
The Guardians By John Grisham
With his new bestselling thriller, Grisham delves deep into the failings and damaging biases of the legal system, weaving a story which, while delivering on the trademark suspense and engrossing yarns for which he is well famed, is especially affecting and emotionally charged.
Once, it was unusual to hear about falsely imprisoned men spending dozens of years locked away for something they didn’t do. Today, we are rightly compelled to suspect that this happens more than it ought to – and it’s far easier to imagine that these are not mistakes but carefully orchestrated miscarriages. This is where The Guardians comes in.
Quincy Miller has languished on Death Row for 22 years. He has been deeply alone for what feels like multiple lifetimes, without friends, without family, without legal support. Though he was sentenced to death for the murder of a Florida lawyer, Keith Russo, the case is obviously flimsy. No motive was established, there were no witnesses and there was only one piece of (arguably planted) evidence. Miller suffered the grave misfortune of being young and black in an all-white neighbourhood and, as such, made for a convenient and sadly easy-to-swallow culprit. He has maintained his innocence through all these years of isolation and now, finally, there is one other who believes him.
Cullen Post, lawyer and minister, has spent the last ten years of his life exonerating innocent men. Quincy Miller, he is sure, will be his ninth. But as he probes further into the case, Post will discover that the real perpetrators of Keith Russo’s murder are not forthcoming. More than that, they are perfectly happy for an innocent man to die in their place, they’ve carefully made sure of it, and no bleeding-heart is about to change anything. After all, they’ve killed one lawyer, what’s one more?
The Guardians is an expertly constructed thriller that enthrallingly explores the many fine lines between guilt and innocence, heroism and villainy, justice and exploitation. Heart-breaking, thought-provoking and taught with suspense, Grisham reminds us again that a brilliant thriller can indeed by woven around a humane and socially-conscious core.
Blue Moon by Lee Child
Fans of the dependably action-packed and fast-paced Jack Reacher series will not be disappointed by this new entry, which, while being markedly more violent than the preceding entries, gives us a chance to see a little more of Reacher’s vulnerability and humanity. In Blue Moon, what begins as a random act of kindness soon has Reacher caught in a brutal feud between two rival gangs, squaring off against a fearsome line up of seasoned heavies and cut-throats. Playing the part of lone-wolf-enforcer/good Samaritan, Jack may be the only one who can save this city and its vulnerable residents from the destruction already engulfing it.
On a Greyhound bus bound for an essentially non-descript town in America, Reacher spots an old man looking intensely distressed. He has with him a bulging envelope full of cash and Jack immediately realises that the man is in danger. Sticking close to the elderly gent, Reacher manages to thwart an attempted mugging, only to become aware that this is only the tip of the iceberg. It transpires that the man, Aaron Shevick, was forced to borrow a large sum of money from the Ukrainian loan sharks already tightening a strangle hold on his home town in order to pay his daughter’s medical bills. Now the gangsters want their money back, with a ton of interest. Moved by Shevick’s plight, Reacher decides to infiltrate the shady gang and break their hold on the downtrodden. But this is not the only gang vying for quick and callous profit and soon Reacher is in the thick of an all-out gang war. A war that he will not be able to fight on his own, a war already spilling so much blood and claiming untold lives.
The action never stops in Blue Moon. What’s especially notable about it is the underlying sense of chivalry that spurs Reacher on: the idea that a highly-trained mercenary might take time out from whatever other calamities he has to thwart in order to help the vulnerable. It’s a bit of a bloodbath, but the thrills are as relentless as always and the simple but affecting premise certainly pays dividends.
The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer
Meyer, as you must surely know, is pretty much SA’s biggest crime author, and his tight plots, believable characters and topical themes seldom disappoint. The Last Hunt is no different. Number six in the Benny Griessel series (and the English version of Prooi), Meyer’s newest is a wild safari through corruption, danger and mystery that lets up only once it has reached its shocking conclusion.
The Last Hunt chiefly concerns three people and their interlocking stories: Benny Griessel, who is on a mission to rebuild his precarious personal life while investigating a peculiar cold case, ex-policeman Johnson Johnson who appears to have jumped to his death from a famous luxury train, and Daniel Darret, Bordeaux-based international hitman tasked with eliminating one last, incredibly high-stakes target.
While Griessel and the Hawks Unit attempt to piece together what happened to Johnson, Darret is forced to evade elite Russian agents on his way to killing a corrupt president. The police have already proved themselves incapable of solving the Johnson case and, though what few leads they had have already vanished, Griessel’s own life will be threatened by the progress he makes in their stead. Two conflicting missions meet in this explosive thrill-ride as objectives take a backseat to survival.
The Last Hunt is a top-notch police procedural that is able to deliver as much fraught and pungent emotion as it is packed with action. It’s palpably solitary atmosphere is skilfully built and, like only the very best of its genre, it’s able to explore some poignant aspects of humanity without compromising on raw excitement. Meyer goes from strength to strength.