A tale of intrigue that’s thrilling enough to overcome its lack of realism.

THE SECRET EMPRESS

In Heller’s debut thriller, a retired CIA operative is recruited to protect the secret heir to China’s dynastic throne from ruthless gangsters.

Joe Wilder was once a government agent as well as a bodybuilding champion, but he’s now the founder of a billion-dollar health and fitness conglomerate. He receives word that the Chinese government plans to excessively raise the price on his contracts in Guangdong, so he immediately travels there to meet with Wen Shu Xian, the local deputy minister of trade, in order to plead his case. However, it turns out that the contracts were merely a ruse, and the minister, who goes by the name “Wendy,” reveals that she’s secretly the empress of China—the daughter of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty. She also has a 12-year-old son and heir, Chao Li, nicknamed “Charley,” whose very existence is kept under wraps, as many people would attempt to either kill him or exploit him for personal gain. Wendy asks Joe to bring Charley to the United States, where he can live freely, without fear. Joe accepts the assignment—one for which he is well-suited, given his past as an accomplished CIA field operative. However, Wendy is found dead shortly afterward, and the Bai Lang, a criminal organization that dates back to the Opium Wars, unleashes a menacing, German “covert assassin,” named Max Sterne, among others. In this thriller, Heller conjures a remarkably ingenious premise with the secret Chinese dynasty, and he always makes sure that the plot races forward at a blistering pace throughout the novel. Along the way, he provides readers with equal measures of suspenseful and action-packed sequences. The author’s knowledge of Chinese history and culture is impressive, and even when the story doesn’t seem entirely plausible, it’s never so dubious as to be distracting. That said, the prose style can be overly earnest at times: “Who are you kidding? he thought. You’re enjoying the intrigue and the danger!” Even so, the tale remains consistently dramatic and engrossing throughout.

A tale of intrigue that’s thrilling enough to overcome its lack of realism.

Pub Date: March 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5320-6831-7

Page Count: 232

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2019

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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