Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

TOLL reviews are in

writing, kestrel & books 8 min read

It’s been a little over a month since the second book in my KESTREL action-thriller series, entitled TOLL, was released. Lots of emotions are involved when a new book comes out: primarily relief that it’s done, but also some fear. Will people like it? Is it as good as the first one? Does it hold up as a story on its own, and not lean too heavily on the previous book?

I’m glad to say that the reviews are in, and TOLL has been very positively received so far. To those who left ratings or reviews, thank you. I’ve learned some interesting things from those comments, which I’ll mention below.

TOLL is available on various bookstores, including on Amazon.com as an ebook and paperback and also on Amazon UK (and all other Amazon sites around the world), plus Apple Books, and in various other formats too (including autographed paperbacks and ebooks). You can find a master list of all the formats and stores here.

At time of writing this article in mid-January 2019, TOLL has:

  • 4.9 out of 5 stars average on Amazon
  • 5 out of 5 stars average on Amazon UK
  • 5 out of 5 stars average on Apple Books
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars average on GoodReads

That’s wonderful, and I’m absolutely thrilled. The dreaded second novel seems to have turned out OK after all, and I’ve learned a lot while writing and editing it. According to readers who reviewed the book, here’s what they most enjoyed about it, with my own thoughts on those aspects as the author.

Plot

Continues the fascinatingly plausible story telling of the first book.

I really liked the premise the story is built around, it’s intriguing and written plausibly

A fast paced intelligent thriller - a real page-turner

Amazing novel. Well paced, interesting content, and an excellent balance of reality and fiction. Always plausible enough and keeping you turning the page.

Obviously, plot is something that a writer puts a great deal of time into, and the details arrive in fits and starts while planning and also while actually writing. The hope is always that it’s cohesive and interesting, doesn’t have any huge holes, and pulls the reader along. I’m always terrified about how the plot will be received.

A part of me still thinks it’s blind luck that the stories turn out so apparently well. That’s probably lingering insecurity about doing something creative.

European focus and settings

Set across a beautiful European backdrop

I found some scenes in the book to be very filmic - dramatic events in a southern European city bringing to mind the best action sequences from the Bond films and some historical aspects reminding me a little of Raiders of the Lost Ark

Finally, an author who manages to develop and exciting story and very well-crafted characters that are not located in America

The US is very well-served as a setting for thrillers, but even books set in other places very often have American protagonists. Living here in Scotland and Europe, with the richness of cultures, languages, locations, and the sheer weight of history, my goal with the KESTREL series was to show that the drama and grandeur and complexity of all the aeons-established places of the world are a natural fit for even contemporary action.

I make it a point to be as true to my settings as possible, visiting them first whenever I can. And of course, Europe itself is just the beginning — TOLL does go beyond its boundaries too.

Blend of genres

Seamlessly blends soft sci-fi into an action thriller tapestry

Deftly blends accessible science fiction, and expertly painted and immensely tactile scenes set on a tour of some of Europe’s most stark and beautiful locations

The KESTREL books are described as action-thrillers because it’s a well-understood primary shelving category. In reality, they also add conspiracy, soft sci-fi (in the present day), and fringe science into the mix. They take place in our world, but at its edges, where the boundaries blur into things beyond everyday experience.

It’s what I always loved about Stephen King’s books, and The X-Files, and so on: not just the subject matter, but that the tales took place immediately adjacent to the world I knew. To me, that’s more thrilling than a purely fictional context. It’s also such a rich vein of material for stories.

Relatable antagonist

An antagonist so genuine you’ll be wondering if you might be the bad guy

The main baddie is actually someone you’d have a lot of time for and maybe even side with

One of the richer “villain” characters than the genre is used to make it a great, well-paced read

You connect and empathise with TOLL’s antagonist almost as much as you will do with Greenwood and her team

Having a three-dimensional villain whose motivations you can not only understand, but actually empathize with, really raised the stakes and kept me invested in the story the whole time.

The villain is not a mustache-twirling Bond villain, and is instead a nuanced character. It is easy to symphathise with his cause, but not his methods.

Fast chases, an enemy with a noble cause you will hate to love, and a weapon that would get Einstein out of his grave to cheer.

I think that TOLL is more tightly plotted than CHANGER, and is more sure of itself (reflecting its author), but if I had to pick one thing I’m most proud of, it would be the antagonist. He developed on his own as I wrote him, diverging from my initial notes as a more classic bad guy, and very quickly turning into an ethical, nuanced, empathetic, and intriguing character. CHANGER’s primary antagonist was much more in the megalomaniac style — and I still miss him — but KESTREL’s adversary this time round presents the much more difficult obstacle of actually being right and justified in essentially everything he says or does.

Opposing him becomes a matter of arguing as to what scale of ethics you adhere to, and both lamenting and grudgingly admiring his sense of conviction. There are a few quiet and economic scenes with him spread throughout the book that still give me chills. One of my personal goals for the book was to explore an entirely different type of adversary, and it was enormously fun to do so. I’m going to try to diverge again to a third type of antagonist in the next book. Authors have the greatest love for their heroes, but stories like these are really brought to life by their villains. Every moment I spent on this particular character was well worth it.

Character development

Deep and lovable characters

I enjoyed the development of the KESTREL team, in particular Captain Greenwood and Aldridge and their character and relationship evolution

Deftly-drawn characters figure in vivid, harrowing and relentlessly taut set-pieces suffused with cinematic immediacy

This is not only a great standalone read, but also a fantastic sequel. It does everything a sequel should do, and it does it all in style. I especially loved how the main characters evolved and the relationships between them grew. And of course, the story was every bit as nail-biting as the first one, if not more. It was believable (within the genre’s established boundaries) and extremely well-paced, and my only regret is that it seemed to end far too soon.

One of the blessings of a series is that you get to jump straight back in with familiar faces each time — though you do have to gently and succinctly reintroduce them, because it might have been quite a while since the reader last had them in mind. What you can’t do, though, is keep them in stasis: things have to change. People do, as do their relationships with each other, and its a privilege to be able to steer the group dynamics and personal interactions of people who become more and more real to you as each chapter rolls by.

Character development is a top-level category in my notes for these books, and it’s something I have to think about consciously, and then bounce the ideas around to see what works (usually to avoid rushing things). I’m eager to see what’ll happen in the next instalment.

Pace and engagement

Hits that wonderful place where it’s easy to read and accessible as a story, but has technical detail if you’re interested in that

I stayed up way too late to finish Toll; it’s nearly impossible to put it down

Great story, nice pacing, and lovable characters.

Racing to a heart-pounding climax

Beautifully crafts an engaging techno-thriller complete with believable characters, incredible locations and a fast paced storyline that once it grabs you doesn’t let go, with evocative writing and attention to detail

A worthy villain and fast-paced action keep you glued to the book

I’m always happy to read comments like these, but I do so a little nervously, because the truth is that I don’t put any planning or conscious effort into pace. Scenes and chapters break where it feels right, and the story flows as seems most intuitive while I’m writing. I don’t edit for pace, and I don’t feel like I have to work for my cliffhangers. I think that all the reading I’ve done of thrillers in the past has imprinted the genre’s conventions into my mind, and the words just tend to come out that way. I hope that doesn’t change!

Contemporary issues

So great that an author uses our immense challenges with climate change as part of the fictive plot

To connect environmental topics in an exciting way with a thriller is outstanding

The satisfaction of the characters’ interactions, the moral qualms, the geopolitical challenges, the relentlessness of human destructive inventions, and the darkness of history re-emerging.

TOLL is indeed an example of what’s now called cli-fi, or climate-change science fiction, though perhaps not in the way you’d expect. The KESTREL series as a whole isn’t about that issue, but this particular book is — and I only found that out when big chunks of the plot were already in place. I had my McGuffin, and the broad strokes of my villain, and a number of locations and pieces of character development. There were the bones of something, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly what the book was really about, in terms of broader issues. It hit me one evening when I was walking along a cycle path and past a supermarket here in Edinburgh, and I mean that it really did stop me in my tracks. I wasn’t thinking about it beforehand, but it sprang into my mind from nowhere, and I stepped over to the side of the path and whipped out my phone to feverishly type up some notes. I told my wife about it fifteen minutes later, and we both knew that we’d discovered the heart of the book. It was an exciting moment.

Writing fiction is a strange thing, and a lot of it happens at a level beneath conscious thought. TOLL is accordingly the most thematically-woven work of fiction I’ve written, sprinkled with warnings and symbolism and so on. It was a very different challenge than CHANGER, and in some ways it was a lot to heap onto my plate during the notoriously-hard second book, but I think the end result is something to be proud of.

I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who has read the book, and especially to those who reviewed it on Amazon, Apple Books, Goodreads, or elsewhere. If you’ve read it too, please do consider writing a review — even just a few words would be wonderful.

If you’re interested in reading TOLL, which can be enjoyed as a standalone novel whether or not you’ve previously read CHANGER, you can find out more about it here. There’s also a page for the KESTREL series, where you can jump off to each individual book.

As always, thanks for reading.