If you don’t want to read my entire review, I thought this book was a solid 3.5 stars- aka solidly above average (3 stars is average) and well worth reading.
Lots of spoilers below! I can’t talk about this book if I don’t spoil some of it. I’ll try to keep the spoilers moderate. You’ve been warned.
All reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. This review contains mild criticisms of the text, so if you are a fan of Mr. Greene and are not in the mood for criticism, you might want to stop reading now. I don’t judge you. Go live your best life.
I’ll start off by saying this is a good story. Greene is a fairly major booktuber, so when I heard he was publishing his own novel I was a bit worried that this book would be a cash grab. I heard some positive reviews for this novella, and I decided to give the audiobook version a shot. I’m glad I did, because I had a good time reading this. This book is not one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I thought it worth the money I spent on it.
It’s grimdark-meets-murder mystery novella for the first 2/3, but the final 1/3 is a straight up horror. This is not a book with a happy ending. I got Sherlock Holmes, ‘Promise of Blood,’ ‘Blackwing‘ and ‘Mistborn Era 2‘ vibes from reading this.
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
This section contains spoilers for this book and the movie Alien.
Reading the first part of the book, my primary emotional response was ‘That was gross.’ But not in a bad way! The author successfully established a dark tone via utilizing visceral horror tropes. It made for an engaging and memorable beginning.
The middle part of the book involved the protagonists investigating the crime. My emotional response to this section was a bit ‘meh.’ Why ‘meh?’ Because I’ve read better mysteries. These detectives didn’t do much detecting; the answer just fell into their laps. The best part about this part was the fact that it didn’t overstay it’s welcome. (I’ll talk more on this later.)
The end of the book was a somewhat terrifying experience, reminding me most of the movie Alien, where the protagonists where gradually whittled down to nothing. In Alien, Ripley was the last character left after her crewmates were slain. The movie viewer was left wondering if she would survive the alien, or if the monster would kill her too. The end of this book had a similar vibe to that.
My after-the-book-is-over emotional response is curiosity for more worldbuilding info. A LOT of questions remain unanswered. Curiosity is a good emotion, (because I want to read more) but also a bad one (because I’m not satisfied entirely with what I got here).
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B)
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
The book’s concept was: ‘Police investigate a heinous murder scene. They uncover layer upon layer of the mystery, uncovering a secret which goes straight to the top of the government.’ Basically ‘Three Days of the Condor’ but with Police State Cops vs body horror monsters. I loved this concept.
The execution upon this concept was fair. Not great, not bad.
Here’s the good in the execution:
- The author did a good job of rapidly establishing compelling (but not likeable) characters.
- The twist that ‘it wasn’t the rebels, it was bad actors in the government!’ worked okay, but it was improved by the further twist of ‘it wasn’t bad actors in the government, it was the actual government!’
- The body horror worked well, as did the Final Girl trope the author used.
Here’s the bad.
- I’m a fan of mystery novels, especially whodunnits. This was not a great mystery. The solving of the mystery in this book didn’t feel earned. Instead, the solution fell into their laps.
- In short, an informant approached the police and told them the vital piece of information. The police didn’t need to ferret out the informant.
- If the police did need to ferret out the informant, the ending would have felt earned.
- Because the informant proactively approached the cops, the ending did not feel earned.
I’d give the Concept an A+, but Execution trumps Concept 100% of the time. Consequently…
Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B-)
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
Khalid was an engaging and well-realized protagonist. I sometimes complain in my reviews some protagonists pop into existence the moment the book begins, and pop out of existence the moment the story ends. Not with Khalid. From the moment the story begins we learn
- She’s a smoker, trying to quit, and unhappy that she can’t quit.
- She’s somewhat estranged from her husband, but still loves him.
- She’s in shape, and looks down on some of her fellow officers of the law for being out of shape. (Which is ironic, considering that she smokes and she knows smoking is unhealthy.)
These facts rapidly establish her characterization as being a flawed character with deep seated hypocrisies, but is so lost in her moment-to-moment life that she can’t get a handle of why her life is collapsing around her.
I want to talk about the other characters for a moment.
- Chapman is a Sherlock Holmesian type detective, who instantly enters a scene and rapidly figures out what transpired. Unlike Holmes, he’s not always correct and his colleagues Sam and Khalid can help point out logical mistakes he’s made. He was a good character, but I didn’t really get his motivation. I think the author was trying to code him as being autistic, but I’m not sure.
- Samuel is Khalid’s brash husband, and the reader learned very little about him despite the fact he was a protagonist.
- There were a few side characters I liked as well. I’m not getting into the weeds with all of them, but the side characters had enough details that I thought they had potential. I’m looking forward to finding out more about them in future novellas! 😉
- At the midway point, there was a twist involving one of the book’s main characters, Chapman. Spoilers!
- I was left feeling cold by this twist. The protagonist Khalid was shocked by the twist, and I got the feeling the author wanted me to feel equally shocked. I did not feel equally shocked, because I was not invested in the twist character at that point.
- When the twist occurred, my thoughts were, “I met this guy five minutes ago and I’ve barely any idea who he is. Why should I care Chapman is a rebel spy?”
- An author has to put in the hard work of characterization before plot twists involving a character for the twist to have impact.
I’ll now mention the book’s primary antagonist.
- The antagonist in this book was off screen for most of the book. Because they were offscreen for so much, they remained very mysterious.
- Consider these two examples.
- In ‘The Poppy War‘ by R. F. Kuang, the protagonists don’t meet and speak with one of the Mugenese antagonists until really, really late in the book. We don’t really learn their motivations. Consequently the reader lacks an important perspective on why the Mugenese are invading, so the Mugenese remain dehumanized.
- In ‘The Rage of Dragons‘ by Evan Winter, we do meet with the antagonists and speak with them. We know the hedeni want to reclaim their lost lands, and fix the drought and disease the Omehi inflicted upon the hedeni. When the reader gains this knowledge, the antagonist becomes humanized.
- Is one example better than the other? No. The authors wanted to do different things with their stories. Kuang wanted to write a story about dehumanization and genocide. Winter wanted to write a story about tribal warfare over scarce resources. What tropes you use depends on the story you want to tell. But what tropes an author uses causes tradeoffs.
- ‘Breach of Peace’ is like The Poppy War, in that we finally met the evildoers really late in the story. By meeting the antagonists so late, the narrative made a tradeoff between increasing the mystery surrounding the enemy at the cost of the reader not really understanding their motivations.
- Consequently the bad guys in this book are very mysterious (good), but also have confusing motivations (not so good).
- Now for my personal opinion: I wanted less confusion. I wanted to know their motivations.
Net total, I enjoyed this book’s characters. While I thought Sam’s characterization was a bit weak, the dialog and the dynamic between the protagonists (as well as between the cops writ large) was well done and made up for some underdeveloped aspects. I am deducting some points for the underdeveloped antagonists (both the rebels and the evil theocracy scientists).
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B-)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
I believe this story follows the 7 Point Plot Structure.
- Hook/Status Quo
- The Hook of the story begins with the gristly murder scene.
- The purpose of this act is to introduce the setting and characters and intrigue the reader into reading further.
- Plot Turn 1/Inciting Incident
- The Inciting Incident is the discovery and battle with the monster in the wine cellar.
- The purpose of the inciting incident is to kick off the plot.
- Pinch 1/Protagonist Acts 1
- Pinch 1 is the protagonists returning to HQ and speaking with the police chief, and then deciding to go speak with the rebel informant.
- Pinch 1’s purpose is to show how the protagonist reacts to the Inciting Incident.
- Midpoint Confrontation
- The showdown with the rebel informant.
- The Midpoint Confrontation’s purpose is twofold: to create a spike of tension in the middle of the story, and also to echo the climax of the novel.
- Pinch 2/ Protagonist Acts 2
- Pinch 2 is the cops leading a strike force upon the antagonistic warehouse full of scientists.
- Pinch 2’s purpose is to show how the protagonists react to the midpoint confrontation.
- Plot Turn 2/ Relief and Respite (Or The Darkness Before the Dawn)
- Relief and Respite is when Khalid escapes the disaster in the warehouse, and is saved by the friendly neighborhood madam.
- Plot Turn 2’s purpose is to either provide the relief and respite needed to the protagonist after a disasterous Pinch 2, or to provide a setback to the protagonist after a successful Pinch 2. Act 5 was disasterous, so we got Relief and Respite.
- Resolution/Climax and Denouement
- The story’s climax is the final fight (if you can call it a fight) in the police station.
- The denouement is a tacked-on final scene by a government propagandist. Which I thought worked well.
- This act’s purpose is to wrap up the story.
This novella is well structured. I have no complaints or critiques. Good job to the author.
This story had a fast paced beginning and end, and a saggy middle. The stakes and tension in the beginning and end are what made them fast paced (more on this later). The not-so-hot mystery investigation made the middle seem slow (see my earlier complaint that the solution to the mystery not feeling earned). To elaborate this point, I felt that Pinch 1 was slow. Everything else was fast. Good job to the author.
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (A-)
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
There are two types of mystery stories: Fair Play Mysteries, and Genius Detective Mysteries. Fair Play Mysteries (a story type mastered by Agatha Christie) lay out all the clues for the reader, and allow the reader to figure out the story for themselves. Genius Detective Mysteries have a genius protagonist who figures out the criminal, and the reader is unable to piece together the evidence to come to the conclusion (a story type mastered by Arthur Conan Doyle). Most books float somewhere in between these two poles.
This book is mostly of the Genius Detective mold. Personally I prefer the Fair Play mold, but I will not deduct points for this book’s subgenre not being my preferred subgenre.
This book was a mystery story in Acts 1 through 5. Acts 6 & 7 were pretty much straight out of the horror handbook (of the ‘maiden fighting against ungodly monster’ variety). I liked this transition, and the narrator did a great job of foreshadowing it without making it too obvious.
Stakes: Unfortunately, I found the stakes to be rather low in this story.
- Not all books have to be high stakes- for example, Slice-of-Life novels are low stakes. However this is a mystery/thriller, and mystery/thriller novels need to be higher stakes to make the plot feel propulsive.
- The author failed to answer the all-important question ‘Why should the reader care if the detectives don’t solve this mystery?’
- In most murder mystery novels, the ‘why should the reader care?’ question is answered by an implied ticking clock of the murderer killing again- sometimes with the added threat of killing a character the reader is fond of.
- In this book, I didn’t feel that ticking clock. The narrative didn’t satisfactorily establish “The bad guys will kill again if we don’t stop them!”
- The narrative made lip service to ‘bodies being thrown into the ocean’ and ‘homeless people going missing’ to provide stakes, but that’s just lip service. I needed more than that.
- In this book, I didn’t feel that ticking clock. The narrative didn’t satisfactorily establish “The bad guys will kill again if we don’t stop them!”
- Another possible source of stakes is the villain be so unlikeable that the reader REALLY wants them to have a comeuppance (see Umbridge(Harry Potter) or Regal(Farseer) as examples).
- The villains in this book were such enigmas that I didn’t find them unlikeable either. That source of stakes was also minimal.
- I liked the tension early in the story, as the police were searching the crime scene and stumbled upon *something* in the dark cellar. Horror tropes are great at setting up tension. To quote Hitchcock, “There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation.” There was a lot of anticipation in the horrifying murders and stumbling around in the dark, trying to find *the thing* which committed the murders.
- The middle of the novella was quite tense, when the characters were forced to trust someone who was untrustworthy. The tension created by that lack-of-trust was satisfying to read.
- The end of the story was also high tension, thanks to yet more horror tropes.
I enjoyed the plot, and the tension was excellent. Unfortunately the stakes just didn’t work for me at all. I will be deducting some points for it.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B)
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The author’s voice was clean, and not fancy. The prose in some grimdark books verge into edgelord territory; not here. The author uses clean prose, and lets the horrifying and dark moments speak for themselves. It was well written, in terms of being easy to read and I had no slip-ups in understanding what the author was trying to say.
Let’s talk tone.
- The author quickly established the dark tone of the book with a gristly murder scene. As I mentioned above, the darkness drew me in.
- The tone in the middle of the book reminded me of a crime thriller movie, where the cops were trying to bring down someone powerful, knowing that if they fail they’re going down instead.
- And the tone at the end REALLY got dark, which is saying something considering how dark the story started.
The book’s most major theme is that of the unaccountability of the government.
The book takes place in a Theocratic Police State where every cop is allowed to be judge, jury and executioner. The military is also above the law.
The author has stated in interviews/on videos that he believes that such a police state is bad, and you can kinda see his perspective if you read into the text a little. Basically, the protagonist (a cop who’s above the law) winds up getting on the bad side of the military (also above the law) and is forced to go on the run because military>cops. I think the author wanted the reader to come to the conclusion that “the protagonist is now a victim of the Police State; ergo the Police State is bad.” If so, the protagonist never really mentioned her innermost thoughts or regrets vis a vis the Police Unaccountability thing. The theme needs to be explored some more in future books.
I give the Authorial Voice: (B)
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I found the setting/worldbuilding to be confusing. While this book wasn’t quite on the ‘Malazan’ level of cold opens with no explanation, I needed more than what we got. I didn’t really understand the wheels of the political structure underpinning the society portrayed there, which is bad considering this turned into a political thriller.
The author mentioned a ton of things and didn’t explain them. The Almighty, the Red Hand, the rebellion, the chosen, the anointed, the war. Who is the Almighty, and what is it’s motive? Who are the Red hand, and what is their motive? And on and on and on. As this book had political themes, so the reader needed to know about the politics of the government for the sake of the plot and the theme.
- It’s a common bit of fantasy writing advice that you shouldn’t infodump.
- It’s hard to introduce complex worldbuilding in a short story format (or novella sized format, in this case) without devolving to exposition and infodumping, or Maid and Butler Dialog.
- If any aspiring authors out there read this, I want you to know it it’s okay to exposit and infodump a little. Don’t go overboard and infodump too much! But a paragraph here and there spent infodumping is fine.
- I wanted the author to infodump a little.
As for originality, I felt this was original. I haven’t read a fantasy book about a police state before, except sorta ‘Last First Snow‘ by Max Gladstone and ‘City of Stairs‘ by Robert Jackson Bennet (incidentally some of my favorite books). The weird monsters and the strange divinity reminded me of the initial Powder Mage books, where the antagonists turned people into mutant hulks and called upon godlike sorcerers.
Upon finishing reading this, I was left with more questions than answers. Some people might be satisfied with how little we got. For me, I wanted more answers. All the weird worldbuilding bits about this setting were compelling (the all-powerful god, the police state, the monsters), but there was so little information underpinning these concepts that I was left wanting more. If you read this book and were satisfied by how few questions were answered, more power to you.
I give the Setting: (C)
It’s an audiobook by Kramer and Redding. They’re very reliable, very good voice actors. But I didn’t feel as though they brought anything special to their roles. In retrospect I wanted a female, smoker voice actor for this because Khalid is a smoker. Kramer and Redding did a great job(they’re my favorite voice actors) but they didn’t add a zing to this project.
I give the Audiobook: (B+)
I like to learn writing lessons from the books I read- indeed the main reason I do these in-depth reviews is to improve my own writing. I’m going to write a couple down here.
- I enjoyed how the narrative in this used horror tropes to instantly create tension and ask the question ‘how did this happen?’ right at the beginning of the story. I’ll try to replicate this in my own stories at some point.
- When you write twist characters, make the characters compelling before you introduce the twist.
- I enjoyed Khalid’s characterization. The author was unafraid to make her seem like a hypocrite. She was flawed but trying to be better- and that made the tragedy at the end all the more bitter. Good stuff.
- Stakes are all about ‘Why should the reader care if the heroes succeed?’
- Transitioning between one genre of story and another genre of story (in this case mystery and horror) midway through the story can work really well if it’s well foreshadowed. This book did that well.
- When writing mystery genre stories, the solving of the mystery needs to feel earned.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- 16+ crowd. Someone younger can read it, but they’d need parental supervision.
- Grimdark fans
- Fans of the ‘Powder Mage’ books, and ‘Mistborn, Era 2’ (aka mystery fantasy stories with a gunpowder/flintlock vibe)
- People in the mood for a mystery which transforms into horror.
I liked this book more than a good number of books published by mainstream publishing houses. Could this book have been improved? Yeah. But I was intrigued all the way through, and the ending was brutal in a good way. I’ve no serious complaints.
In the individual sections above (Characters, Plot, Pacing…), on average I gave this book about a ‘B’ rating. This applies to the book as a whole.
My estimation of Mr. Greene has improved as a result of me reading his book. He has chops, a good editing team, or (most likely) both. Let me give this book the highest praise: count me in for novella 2.
STARS: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)
Overall Rating: Recommended (How I Rate Books)
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:
A Literary Review of ‘Blackwing’ by Ed McDonald
A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series
A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series
A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion
A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter
A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series
A Review of ‘Blue Moon Rising’ by Simon Green