Mastermind (Theo Cray and Jessica Blackwood #1), by Andrew Mayne

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Andrew Mayne, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After developing some strong series, Andrew Mayne has tried something few authors dare to attempt. In this novel, he’s combined the power of FBI Agent Jessica Blackwood—former magician and illusionist—with the analytical prowess of Dr. Theo Cray, a computational biologist. These two protagonists have done amazing things on their own, but when combined, the story takes on an entirely new depth and excitement. After Manhattan appears to disappear in plain sight, Jessica Blackwood is called to the scene, hoping that she can deduce what’s going on. She’s baffled, but wonders if her nemesis, Michael Heywood, could be behind it. Many within the Intelligence community have a list of individuals who may have assisted Heywood in his plan, including one Dr. Theo Cray. Blackwood travels around the world to find him, which only leads to more ‘blackout’ moments as they spend time in Asia. What follows is a series of events that neither Cray nor Blackwood can explain, though it all points to trouble, particularly if Michael Heywood is involved. A chilling tale that is full of thought-provoking moments, showing just how sharp Andre Mayne’s writing can be.

While she has grown up loving magic, even Jessica Blackwood cannot fathom what’s happened when she is called out to help find Manhattan. Having disappeared in some form of electronic pulse, combined with a fog, the city seems too have been carved from the map. Everyone has Michael Heywood—The Warlock—on their minds as a possible suspect, with his recent escape from custody. However, he could not have done it alone. Many suspects are bandied about, but there’s one that catches Jessica’s eye, Dr. Theo Cray.

After travelling to the far side fo the world, Blackwood locates the doctor, who’s been trying to vaccinate local population so they are not murdered by their own government. While noble in his actions, Cray is not seen as a hero by many and has been tossed in a putrid jail cell. Blackwood is able to help him and uses her own form of deception to get him out of the country, while explaining about Manhattan. When two more ‘events’ occur in Asia, both Blackwood and Cray decide to stay in the region to work through what’s going on.

It’s soon clear that the ‘Void’ moments are only a distraction for what’s really going on, the theft of massive amounts of data. While Blackwood and Cray cannot understand what it’s for, this has Michael Heywood written all over it. They undercover some truly horrible science experiments in both Thailand and Ukraine, which could possibly open up new and disturbing outcomes, but the data is not comprehensive enough to offer any concrete answers.

Returning to the US, Cray and Blackwood must jump through some Intelligence hoops to remain on the case, while being goaded by Heywood to decipher what he has in mind. Slowly, but intentionally, they make some progress and learn that something huge is in the works, a plan that would truly help Michael Heywood shed his ‘Warlock’ moniker for another… Mastermind! A captivating novel that had me guessing at every page.

Since stumbling upon Andrew Mayne, I have learned so very much about a wide variety of subjects, whether it be magic, biology, or even police sleuthing underwater. Mayne is so full of ideas and means by which crime can be solved, allowing his books to open new pathways within the genre while keeping his fans entertained throughout. This protagonist amalgamation was ingenious, something I often encourage authors of multiple series to attempt. The premise was strong, working well alongside the novel’s pace and constant revelations.

One essential area in a book is its characters and how they come to life on the page. With established stories for both Jessica Blackwood and Dr. Theo Cray, it was less about building them up, but sustaining what series fans knew about them. Working alongside one another, it is the character chemistry that is essential, something that Mayne did really well. Neither knew much about the other, allowing for some brief mentions of their respective backstories, but it is the strong connectivity that kept the book going and how they are able to feed off one another, developing themselves as individuals and a unit simultaneously.

While there were many characters who helped move the story along, it was the science that stole the show in many regards. Mayne has never shied away from analysis of events through different lenses and this book was full of that. Exploring biology, computer analytics, virology, and even some currency issues, Mayne floods the narrative with ideas that could spark curiosity amongst readers. I found myself lost in the discussion at times, though was able to surmise some of what was being said, through poignant questions the characters asked throughout the discussion.

There is so much going on within this book, it is difficult to determine where I ought to begin. The premise of the piece was quite strong and kept things moving from the outset. Mayne may appear to be taking things in one direction, only to steer them on a completely opposite pathway before too long. The narrative gained momentum throughout and kept me wanting to turn a few more pages. Chapters of varying lengths kept the story on track and left things dangling at the right times, forcing the reader to push onwards to satiate their curiosity. While the science was intense at times, it all came into perspective and Mayne did a wonderful job of keeping the reader engaged and informed. I can see this Blackwood/Cray partnership being one that I will enjoy, as Andrew Mayne keeps the stories coming.

Kudos, Mr. Mayne, on this stellar collaboration between two of your key protagonists. There’s a lot more to explore and you are sure to impress many of your series fans.

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Black Fall (Jessica Blackwood #3), by Andrew Mayne

Eight stars

Andrew Mayne offers a unique spin on crime thrillers in both series I have read. There’s an electricity in the ‘off the beaten path’ aspect, something I highly enjoy and is sure to engage the reader throughout. In this third full-length novel, Jessica Blackwood is forced to wrap her head around a series of random events, all of which are tied to a long-dead academic’s apparent recorded prediction. Additionally, she’s targeted for murder again and must wrestle with the understanding that she has upset many with her past work within the FBI. As the case intensifies and Blackwood learns more, she discovers that one man must be pulling all the strings from his prison cell. It’s a man whose skill with magic and illusion tops even her own!

A small Colorado community vanishes off the face of the earth, or so it seems when a postal worker and delivery truck cannot locate it. While this seems odd, FBI Agent Jessica Blackwood is on a stake-out and trying to stay under the radar. When a woman appears at her door, Blackwood is baffled, not only by the bundle the woman carries, but that this mysterious visitor tries to kill her. Blackwood goes through a variety of emotions and it hits home that she is not safe, having offended many people during her years with the Bureau.

Blackwood is called into the field office to learn some baffling news. An hour after a recent earthquake across the Eastern Seaboard, a video surfaces that a well-respected academic predicted the event—to the day—years in the past. While this does not cause too many eyebrows to rise, the fact that the man died years ago and could not have recently cobbled the recording together has Blackwood a little more intrigued.

While trying to sink her teeth into the case, Blackwood learns that the woman who attacked her has since been found, murdered. Blackwood is torn between this investigation into the eerie predictions and finding out more about this woman and why she, Blackwood, was targeted. Might there be a connection between the two?

As Blackwood forges ahead, she learns a little more about a group calling themselves the Red Chain, a cult that seems to have got their hands on quite the weapon. Blackwood would not believe it had she not seen it for herself. Red Chain has apparently put out a hit on Blackwood for her past casework and one criminal has a special hatred for her.

As Blackwood better understands Red Chain and what they believe, she learns about the small Colorado town of Moffat, which has seemingly disappeared. It is the presumed home of the Red Chain, though it’s nowhere to the found. This could all be part of the larger ruse, one that is part of the cult’s activity. However, it is their ringleader that really sends chills up Blackwood’s spine, especially the way in which he communicates with his followers.

I have come to really enjoy the Jessica Blackwood series, which includes three novels and a short story to date. When I learned that Andrew Mayne was set to bring Jessica back for another adventure, this time working alongside another strong female protagonist, I wanted to get the backstory before diving in (and I will do the same with The Naturualist series soon). Mayne is able to really tell a story with great pizzazz and keep things highly unique, something that is sure to capture the attention of many readers when give this series a try.

This was another winner for Jessica Blackwood. She’s sharp and on point, mixing her past in the world of magic and illusions with a dedication to the FBI. The case develops before her and Jessica is able to balance more revelations in her backstory with some strong character development, sure to enamour the dedicated reader to her personality. Mayne does well to keep her on point, while also showing her vulnerabilities. I cannot wait to see what’s next for Blackwood, whose still got a great deal of pep inside her that needs to come out.

Mayne does well with his supporting cast again, keeping them both on point to complement Blackwood and set the scene for what’s going on. I cannot say enough about the detail put into those who enrich the story, as the piece never lags and the excitement level is high with a vast array of characters. Particularly telling in the Moffat-area revelations, the story’s intensity grows with the development of some key secondary characters.

The story worked and while it was not my favourite of the series, it did present extremely well. I cannot say enough about Jessica Blackwood and how her unique approach to the law and crime fighting keeps the reader enthralled. With a mix of chapter lengths, there is the ever-present pull in and exploration of the plot that keeps the reader wanting to know more. The narrative continues to gain momentum throughout and keeps things on edge until it all comes together in dramatic fashion. There were some political moments in the piece, he first real turn in that direction, but it did not derail the story or the plot whatsoever. I am eager to read more of Mayne work and, as I said above, cannot wait for Blackwood’s return in the coming months to play a joint-protagonist role.

Kudos, Mr. Mayne, for keeping me on the edge of my seat. I am excited to find and review more of your work soon.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Fire in the Sky: A Short Story (Jessica Blackwood #1.5), by Andrew Mayne

Eight stars

Andrew Mayne’s series with Jessica Blackwood in the protagonist seat has something for everyone, at least with the pieces that I have read to date. Mixing the world of illusion with crime fighting, the reader is able to see something from new and unique perspectives. In this short piece, Mayne takes the reader deep into the South, where Blackwood and her temporary partner are sent to appease the complaints of a man who has been begging for FBI investigative attention. While there, Blackwood discovers much about herself and the walls she builds around herself to keep others at bay. A great bridging piece that can be read as a standalone to whet the appetite of the curious reader.

It’s hot in Louisiana, which is yet another reader why Jessica Blackwood does not want to be on a houseboat along the Mississippi. She’s been sent here, alongside her temporary partner, to handle the complaints of a man who says he saw something flashing through the sky fifty years ago. His story has developed over time, to the level of myth, and Blackwood is sure it’s something easily attributed to the weather, a meteor, or even fuelled by the tea-infused moonshine of this man in his last months of life.

However, when bantering with the woman who joined her on the trip, Blackwood reveals that she has become so used to sleights of hand and misconceptions that there is no longer anything that cannot be solved through citing misdirection. Her propensity to dismiss anything other than what can easily be explained away has Jessica Blackwood coming across as closed-minded and refusing to entertain anything other than what she already knows. Tossing caution into the balmy winds, Blackwell agrees to follow up on the story and makes a curious discovery that puts the man’s story into a new realm of wonder.

I have been enjoying the Blackwood stories and thought this short piece would complement them well. It did so, focussing less on the crime thriller from the perspective of a former illusionist, but rather peeling back the layers of Blackwood’s life in a family of magicians. Mayne offers up some great backstory and development for his protagonist, which complements the larger series well. Short and to the point, this story is highly entertaining and revealing, as the reader is asked (much like Blackwood did as an illusionist in her past) to see things not as they are, but as they might be.

Kudos, Mr. Mayne, for a great piece that entertains as well as educates. Perhaps for that morning cup of coffee before getting started on a larger project!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Name of the Devil (Jessica Blackwood #2), by Andrew Mayne

Eight stars

My discovery of Andrew Mayne’s unique perspective to crime thrillers has made me an instant fan. After loving the first book in this series, I rushed to continue the magic (pardon the pun) with this second novel, which packs just as much punch. Jessica Blackwood’s time with the FBI may have started off being somewhat drab, but when she was brought along to help crack open a case of a serial killer with the power of illusion, she discovered her niche. Now, with The Warlock behind bars, Blackwood can bask in some of the fame, though there are new cases that require her attention. When a church congregation disappears in West Virginia, it looks to be something in the realm of magic. However, their discovery, dead, a few miles away, turns talk towards demonic forces. Blackwood and the FBI are there to piece it all together, though what lurks in the darkness is something no one could have predicted. Another stunning piece by Andrew Mayne that will have those who love a unique thriller up late into the night, turning pages.

While she enjoys the notoriety that finding The Warlock brought her, Jessica Blackwood wants something more out of her time with the FBI. When a case in West Virginia crosses her desk, she’s shuttled off to investigate. An entire congregation of a small church disappears into thin air, only to be found, dead, a few miles away. Markings in the area lead to discussion of ritual killing and demonic possession, something that does not go down well in this Bible-toting community.

Blackwood is used to dealing with the unusual, especially with her background as an illusionist. However, this is not all sleight of hand and puffs of smoke, but rather something with far darker origins. While demonic possession could surely play a factor, there has to be a human element to the crime, one that Blackwood must uncover before things get too out of hand.

The investigation takes Blackwood out of the area, as some sort of mild-altering drug may have been involved. Its origin in Mexico may be the key to uncovering what’s been going on. Blackwood makes the trip down there, only to find herself in the middle of other criminal activities. She’s forced to show a gritty side and bail before she becomes a crime statistic herself. However, Blackwood’s time in Mexico reveals some clues that might help with the larger investigation.

Back stateside, Blackwood returns to discover that there are secrets in this small West Virginia town that no one wants uncovered. Truths that relate to children and events three decades ago. Silence may be golden, but for some it takes on an obsession, one that could lead to murder in order to ensure its held in place.

As Blackwood slowly makes some revelations in the case and discovers what’s really going on, she realises that this might be tied to a terror group using new-fangled technologies. What appears clear-cut is simply an illusion, but one that could have significant consequences. No one is safe, including those at the highest levels within the Vatican. Blackwood must act quickly, as a papal visit to Miami is scheduled soon and the target is too large to ignore.

Andrew Mayne does it again with a stunning follow-up novel in this unique series. Pulling not only on the world of magic—read, illusions, not the realm of fairy tales—but also the demonic arts, Mayne pulls the reader into the darkest corners of the genre while remaining grounded in reality. This is a fast-paced story that will take the reader on a ride like no other, leaving them wanting more by the story’s end. Mayne does not skimp on detail or description, which is sure to impress many.

Jessica Blackwood is again in the protagonist’s chair, where she dazzles and shows her mettle. There are some added bits of backstory revealed in this piece, both from her time as a magician (illusionist) and growing up in the family business. There is also a great deal of character development for her, offering the reader a glimpse into how she has been able to bridge her past life with a career inside the FBI. Gritty and ready to risk it all, Blackwood shows that she stands out from many characters in the crime thriller, without too much of the smoke and mirrors that some need to make a difference.

Mayne surrounds Blackwood with some strong supporting characters, pulled from various realms to help accentuate the piece. Blackwood finds herself in a number of precarious situations in all corners of the globe, which begs for a strong cast to enrich the narrative in a variety of ways. Mayne does so in a masterful manner, keeping the reader on edge throughout this piece and leaving them wanting a little more.

Much as the first book flowed well, this one follows in its footsteps, offering a unique take on the crime thriller. Pushing the limits on magic, illusions, and flights of fancy, Mayne leads the reader down quite the rabbit hole and into control of the mind through a number of facets. Demonic worship does come into the story, though readers need not worry that this is a book all about the satanic rituals and pentagram branding. Rather, it takes the reader on a ride like no other. With a variety of chapter lengths, the reader is pulled in at times and taken on intense rides through other parts, all while the narrative gains momentum. There is little time to waste, as the story covers a great deal of ground in short order. All the twists surely pack a punch for the attentive reader and leave them wanting more. Thankfully, Mayne has penned another Jessica Blackwood thriller, which is where I am headed next!

Kudos, Mr. Mayne, for another winner in the series and genre as a whole. I’m a fan and cannot get enough.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Angel Killer (Jessica Blackwood #1), by Andrew Mayne

Eight stars

After recently discovering the work of Andrew Mayne, I quickly became a fan of his unique approach to the crime thriller. Having heard much about Jessica Blackwood, the FBI agent with a past in magic, I could not help but check things out for myself. Mayne does well in this series debut, showing Jessica’s attention to detail and drive to solve crimes using her past experiences to crack open seemingly baffling cases. When a killer uses the same types of sleight of hand, Jessica’s ready to offer her input, hoping that it will help solve a case where the bodies do not seem to be disappearing, but replicating. A great beginning for those who love the mysterious side of the crime thriller.

Jessica Blackwood enjoys her work with the FBI, but admits that it is not the most exciting. Her joy comes from being able to hold onto the magic she grew up learning and passing it on to young children. When Blackwood is summoned to the office on her day off, she knows it is not to commend her for her work, though she cannot think what could be going on.

It would seem her magic past has not been overlooked by some of the higher-ups, as she is called upon to consult on a case that has those within the Bureau baffled. A woman’s body has been discovered, which does not seem all that unusual. However, the woman was declared dead and her body processed a few years early. In fact, this new body’s right around the gravesite, making things all the more eerie.

Blackwood soon realises that there’s been some trickery taking place, the type of illusion that magicians are known for using in their acts. Calling the killer The Warlock, Blackwood and the team slowly try to piece things together, only to be handed another mysterious case when a plane that has been missing for decades randomly appears, alongside its pilot. Blackwood must use her own experiences to piece things together slowly, but seems to be finding a pattern.

As The Warlock continues to show his skills, a woman appears in Times Square, made to look like an angel, though obviously dead. Her body and the location are obvious clues and Blackwood is able to detect how they will be able to make some sense fo the killings. However, this is not a killer who is lax when it comes to preparation. This is a deadly game of cat and mouse, where smoke and mirrors create an added illusion that could turn deadly at any moment.

I have become quite impressed with the work of Andrew Mayne so far, which delivers a strong story with a unique perspective throughout. Using magic as a supporting theme throughout not only adds to the mystery of the plot, but helps flesh out some of the backstory needed to better understand the life that Jessica Blackwood had coming into this piece. Mayne leaves the reader wondering what might await the protagonist, as long as she can escape the grasp of this most sinister killer.

Jessica Blackwood seems to fit the role of protagonist perfectly. She has a strong motive to help others and is shown to be compassionate as her character develops throughout the piece. There is also a great deal of backstory that comes to thee surface, both with her past as an experienced magician and growing up under the pressure of the family name. Mayne does well to develop her throughout this piece, but leaves many threads dangling, as though he hopes to lure the reader in the continue following the series.

The supporting cast works well to complement both Blackwood and the larger plot. Magic does play centre stage in this piece, though it is based not on the fantasy side of it, but the illusionary aspects of the craft that tends to baffle the general population. Using murder within the craft adds insight and those who play a part in the larger ‘act’ serve well in their respective roles to keep the reader on their toes throughout.

The story is strong from the beginning and never seems to lose its momentum. I was quite impressed with how things developed and Mayne’s use of a number of techniques to hook the reader from the early chapters. The story is strong and its use of magic makes it stand out from many others in the genre. There is a definite uniqueness to the plot, which flows well as the story gains momentum. I found myself quite intrigued by the use of magic and illusions throughout, which found its place at the core of the crime scenes. Mid-length chapters kept the reader wanting to know more and I was eager to see what awaited me around each corner, with a killer so adept at false trails. I am hooked and want to get my hands on the next book in short order.

Kudos, Mr. Mayne, for breathing new life into a genre that I love so much. I will definitely be keeping Jessica Blackwood’s adventures in my life as soon as I can.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: