Deepfake (Zack Wilder #3), by C.J. Croft

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to N.J. Croft for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Having discovered the novels of C.J. Croft during the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not get enough of them. When she approached me to become a Beta reader for a new series, I was eager to help, hoping to get an early glimpse at more captivating stories. This is certainly some of the best writing she’s done, and perhaps some of the strongest I have read in the genre for many years. When FBI Special Agent Zack Wilder is approached to assist a sitting US senator, he is shocked to learn that there is a scandalous sex tape that could bring a political career to an abrupt halt. Working alongside a select few, Wilder learns that this video is not unique, part of a collection of ‘deepfakes’ that appear highly authentic, presumably seeking to blackmail others and stir up the pot. When these videos surface, the consequences are dire, leaving many to riot on the streets and America to enter a nuclear standoff that could end in catastrophe. A stunning continuation of the series, showing that Croft is the real deal when it comes to such thrillers.

FBI Special Agent Zack Wilder has been harbouring a secret connection to the Fulcrum for years, an organisation seeking to enact change with strong ties throughout the world. Tied to that is his connection with US Senator Peter MacNally, who is also his brother. When MacNally approaches him to help with a delicate situation, Wilder is all ears. It would seem that someone has sent the senator a video that shows him in a compromising sex video. Problem is, MacNally purports that it is a fake. While Wilder can hardly stomach watching the video, he has to admit that it looks real, down to a birthmark on his brother’s body. Still, he trusts MacNally and vows to get answers.

Working alone for the time being, Wilder tries to piece the truth together, but surmises that he is out of his element. When he gets a little outside assistance, Wilder soon discovers that this is not the only video of its kind. Other ‘deepfakes’ have been surfacing, so realistic that they are fooling all the software available at present. As Wilder and his new connection, a tech guru, comb through the videos, an eerie pattern emerges. These are videos that can easily dupe others, making them feel that what they see is actually taking place. Wilder must protect his brother at all costs, without revealing their connection to the Fulcrum or one another.

As Wilder sees things snowballing, he brings his partner and superior into the mix, which opens up an official FBI investigation. All the while, more videos emerge, including news reports that North Korea is set to launch nuclear weapons at America. With both sides unsure what is truth and fiction, the streets fill with people ready to riot. All the while, someone is churning out more deepfakes and pulling the strings on what might soon be a catastrophic turn of events.

Using his connections to the Fulcrum, Wilder tries to make sense of what is going on, but is stymied by the realistic nature of the videos and lack of any opening to prove their fallibility. However, as with everything the Fulcrum does, there are powers they possess that might open a door to locating the creator and getting answers before things turn disastrous. Wilder will have to play it safe, while forging ahead once again to ensure tranquility. C.J. Croft amazes fans again with this piece, sure to keep the reader turning pages well into the night.

This series developed from a great novella and has not looked back. C.J. Croft has used some stellar writing and wonderful plot lines to keep the reader enthralled and positively baffled as to where things will go. Research into a number of topics is evident throughout the narrative, while the reader is left stunned at the intricate nature of the discussion, without being bombarded throughout the reading journey.

Zack Wilder has a great deal on his plate, as can be seen by those who have followed the series to date. He’s a determined member of the FBI’s New York Field Office, while also juggling the secret connection to the Fulcrum. Pushed to help his brother and others in need of assistance, Wilder does all he can and finds himself in heaps of trouble throughout. With a partner who accepts no nonsense and a need to set things right, Wilder pushes forward at every opportunity. Finding time to romance the pretty lady who crosses his path, Wilder has developed a reputation for himself, which may endear him to some readers. He’s one protagonist I am eager to learn more about, as the series gets better with each new publication.

C.J. Croft knows her stuff and seems completely in tune with the sort of American crime thriller that will sell,. She’s got all the ingredients for a stellar series and has shown that heaps of research into subject matter can go a long way. I was pulled into the middle of the narrative early on and never lost interest, as Croft added layers that made the story even better. With an array of strong characters placed into the story at key moments, things gain momentum and keep building throughout. Plot twists are plentiful and there are times when the reader cannot help but push onwards, as the breadcrumbs are just too tantalising. This is a series that has the potential to rise to the top of the genre, with amazing writing keeping it there for years to come. Croft is a master and it is time others see it as well!

Kudos, Madam Croft, on yet another successful novel. Please, keep them coming and I will keep reading about the trials of Zack Wilder, with The Fulcrum in the shadows.

Water (Zack Wilder #1), by N.J. Croft

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to N.J. Croft for providing me with a copy of this novel, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I was yet again excited when N.J. Croft asked me to read a beta copy of her latest publication in the Zack Wilder series. This one proves just as exciting as the novella series debut, with a massive mystery and a number of potential suspects. When FBI Special Agent Zack Wilder has something go horribly wrong during some undercover work, he’s whisked off to help with a case of water contamination that has claimed the lives of many. Confused as to why he might have been personally chosen, Wilder works with a local EPA agent to get to the bottom of things. What begins as some corporate finger pointing turns sinister, especially after the chairman of the local company thought responsible turns up dead by an apparent suicide. Wilder receives anonymous texts demanding that he shut things down or his secret will be revealed. When more mass water poisonings take place, Wilder is sure there is something more to the story. He’s equally worried that someone will learn of his position within the Fulcrum, an organisation he has been a part of since age 4. Working both cases, Wilder discovers that nothing is quite as it seems and he may be the prime target. A brilliant piece by N.J. Croft that kept me enthralled throughout.

FBI Agent Zack Wilder is working undercover with his partner, but things go horribly wrong when a botched raid leaves her dead. This is the second of his partners who have died in the line of duty over the last few months, leaving him a little leery. What’s worse, he is quickly shuttled off by his superior to help with a water contamination case, something about which he knows little.

As Wilder begins working with EPA Agent Dr. Olivia Bishop, they learn that the contamination in the water could not have been a simple dumping from the local factory, as its concentration levels are far too high. Rather, it must have come at the hands of an individual seeking to make a point. Dr. Bishop’s ex-husband is part of an environmental group and has a motive, but she is sure that he was not involved in any of it. Wilder receives an anonymous text warning him to close things down or his ‘secret’ will be revealed to all, which likely means his role in the Fulcrum. Wilder wants to keep that under the radar and does his best to close the case, just as a local businessman commits sluice and claims responsibility for the contamination.

No sooner than that case is closed off, than another contamination takes place and Wilder rushes off with Dr. Bishop and his newest partner. Things continue to make no sense, with contamination levels higher than could be naturally occurring. When another business owner suffers a brutal and apparently self-inflicted death, Wilder is told again that he must shut things down. Is there someone out there who knows of his role in the Fulcrum? Could all of this be Fulcrum related and there is a rogue member seeking to end him?

After being given a lead that Hoover Dam might be a subsequent target, Wilder rushes there, only to find himself caught in the middle of a trap. He’s left to protect himself and almost dies when concrete comes crashing down around him. Now, Wilder is sure that someone wants him dead and that there has to be a Fulcrum connection. Reaching out for help, Wilder learns little, but knows that he will have to watch himself or risk dying. Who is behind all this and how will Wilder uncover the truth? A thrilling piece by Croft that has me begging for more!

I have long have an interest in the work of N.J. Croft, as she pushed me outside of my comfort zone while tackling issues of science and scientific discovery. There is a degree of science to this book, in that the discussion of water contamination weaves its way into the early portion of the book, but it is not technical, nor are the issues overly complex. Rather, it is a book filled with a wonderful narrative and strong character development, while also allowing the reader to delve a little deeper into the Fulcrum and what that means for Zack Wilder. After reading the opening novella, I was very eager for this piece and am happy that I got to read it so quickly.

Special Agent Zack Wilder is back with more and keeps the reader highly entertained with both his curious backstory, as well as some wonderful development in the present. His lack of relationships may leave some baffled, but he is by no means a stranger to the ladies, as things progress in an interesting manner within the pages of this book. All that being said, his focus in the job, as well as keeping his secret about being part of the Fulcrum. Grit and determination fuel him throughout and his is not prepared to let anything stand in his way from getting answers, while always being leery about who or what awaits him around every bend. I cannot wait to learn more about him in the next year or two.

As with the introductory novella, there was much action throughout to keep the reader attentive and curious about what is to come. The limited backstory served to keep Zack on point and yet there is much about the Fulcrum that Croft will have to share in the coming novels. A swift narrative keeps the reader engaged from the outset and allows them to wonder about what awaits for Zack and others. The plot was complex enough that it could not be easily predicted, while not tangling anyone up in knots as they made their way through it all. Short chapters keep the reader on point and forging ahead, allowing me to say “just a little more” on numerous occasions. I cannot wait to see what else is to be revealed for all to see in the coming years and. how the Fulcrum will play a key role in it all.

Kudos, Madam Croft, for a great series that keeps me curious and wondering with each flip of the page.

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