Blog Tour - Sleeper by J.D. Fennell review and Q&A

Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will's notebook and will do anything to get it. As Will's memory starts to return, he realises he is no ordinary sixteen-year old. He has skills that make him a match for any assassin. But there is something else. At his core is a deep-rooted rage that he cannot explain. Where is his family and why has no one reported him missing? Fighting for survival with the help of Mi5 agent-in-training, Anna Wilder, Will follows leads across London in a race against time to find the Stones of Fire before the next air raid makes a direct hit and destroys London forever.

I'm delighted to be the host today for the Sleeper blog tour. Sleeper is an exciting YA/crossover story from debut author J.D. Fennell. You can read my review below but first I'm pleased to introduce J.D. who was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

1. The events in Sleeper take place during the Second World War, what made you decide to set it during this period?
I loved the idea of an action/mystery set in London during the Blitz. Not only do Will and Anna fight for survival against evil villains, but they have to navigate a city that is being destroyed around them. I wanted back to basics action and having no high tech such as mobile phones, internet or laptops was a huge appeal. Also, as a writer, weaving Sleeper into the timeline of 1941, and setting it in real places, during real events, was just too irresistible a world to create. 

2. The Blitz is so much a part of the nation's consciousness, how much and what sort of research did you have to do?
I did quite a lot of research, before and during the writing of Sleeper. I drew up the actual timeline of what was going on in London, and the world in 1941, and then developed my story around that. 

3. Are any of the characters in Sleeper based on real people or are they all from your imagination?
Mostly from my imagination, however, there is much of me in Eoin and a some of me in Will. 

4. I loved your main character, Will Starling and was also really pleased that he is helped by a girl, Anna Wilder who is just as brave and resourceful as he is. Do you have a favourite character in the book, and if so, why?
I’m so glad you loved Will and Anna. I do too. It was very important to me that Anna is on an equal footing with Will. She is as remarkable as him, if not more so. Will is special; he was a long time in the making and almost feels like an imaginary son to me. That said, what a wicked father I am for making his life so difficult. I’m really fond of all the characters, however, if I were to pick one I would say the Pastor because his darkness is terrifying, entertaining and fun to write. Blimey, what does that say about me? *smiles*

5. Sleeper is a YA novel but doesn't patronise your younger audience at all, there's a real sense of danger throughout. How difficult was it to get the balance right between keeping the plot so tense whilst still remaining suitable for your target readers?
Thank you so much for saying that. It really means a lot. When I wrote Sleeper I did not think once about holding back because some of my readers might be younger. As a writer you are limiting your creativity if you start down that path. Also, young people are not as fragile as some people might think. They are tougher and smarter than most adults when it comes to dealing with hard core subjects. To answer your question - it was not difficult, mainly because I wrote the book that I wanted to read.

6. Any British spy novel will almost certainly be compared to James Bond and I'm sure Sleeper, with the shadowy VIPER threatening Will and all of London will be no exception. However, I was also reminded of John Buchan's Richard Hannay books probably because both are faced with anarchic traitors aiding Britain's enemies but also because both Will and Hannay seem rather reluctant heroes who nevertheless have a great deal of skill plus a generous helping of luck. Were you influenced by other fictional spies and do you have a favourite spy novel?
Interesting that you say that - It’s been a long time since I read it but I loved The Thirty Nine Steps. I also loved the many different movie and TV adaptations. I am also a fan of the Bond novels. 

7. Although it has a wartime setting, the mystical Stones of Fire so sought after in the book add a fresh element to the story, was it a challenge to combine the historical adventure with the mythology and yet remain believable and not too farfetched?
It was challenging but also great fun. The key here was to not go overboard with the mysticism. I wanted to keep it mysterious throughout the story with the big reveal at the end.

8. I was intrigued by the ending of Sleeper as clearly there is more to come. Without giving too much away, can you tell us what you have planned next?
There is more to come. I can’t say much other than there will be consequences. Make of that what you will. ;-) 

And now for some more general questions

9. What authors influence your writing?
I love Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, JK Rowling and Ken Follet, to name a few.

10. What underrated book would you most recommend?
I loved the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which is a wonderfully written, atmospheric tale of love, magic and a creepy circus. I think it did quite well, but really needs to be read by more people.

11. What was your favourite book as a child and have you reread it as an adult?
Yes, I still love the Tintin books and am collecting the original first editions. One book that springs to mind is Richard Matheson’s post apocalyptic thriller, I am Legend, which tells the story of the last man on an earth populated with vampires. It spawned four different movie versions and was the inspiration for many zombie films. I read it again four years back and enjoyed it just as much.

12. When you're writing a book do you have much of the outline worked out in advance or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
I am a planner. I cook the idea in my head, write a rough synopsis followed by what happens in the structure, i.e. Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. I will then do a chapter by chapter summary and crack on. 

13. What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
Don’t doubt yourself. Read more poetry and dream big.

14. What can you tell us about how you structure your day when writing? Many authors seem to tweet about their favourite writing/procrastinating snack - do you have one?
I’m a planner, so I usually know what chapter or scene I am about to tackle, which has the advantage of extra thinking time before I start writing. Regarding snacks: I don’t really have a favourite. That said, if you were to press me I would say cheese or chocolate.

15. Are you currently reading a book?
Yes, I am reading Spellslinger by Sebastian De Castell. It’s a wonderful fantasy with a western influence.

Thank you for hosting me today, Karen. 

Many thanks J.D, I'm very much with you when it comes to cheese and chocolate! Now for my review...

I was delighted to be asked to take part in the Sleeper blog tour, although I haven't read much historical fiction of late I'm always a sucker for novels set in the First and Second World Wars. That this is an adventure story piqued my interest still further, as you may be able to tell from the Q&A I loved the Hannay books!
Sleeper opens with Will Starling still knowing who he is and what he is doing. At this early point the reader is told very little. It is clear he is on some sort of mission but why and who he is working for is a mystery. However, it is immediately obvious that there are people who want him dead. After Will loses his memory we are on equal footing with his character, which I found a really clever way of revealing the truth, neither the protagonist nor the reader knows before the other. What follows is a hugely enjoyable tale, in some ways it's almost an old fashioned rollicking yarn, filled as it is with spies, dastardly baddies, thrilling twists and a mysterious artefact, the Stones of Fire, that threatens London's very existence. However, don't be fooled into thinking old fashioned equals tired or cliched, Sleeper may have a historical setting but the story feels fresh throughout. The mythological element of the novel adds an intriguing twist but the story stays plausible, J.D. Fennell's research pays off well here as events in the book are linked to historical incidents.
Although an action story, Sleeper is equally strong when it comes to the characters in the novel. Will himself is a deeply engaging protagonist, with a novel and indeed trilogy that is centred on him there was a risk that he could have become a rather two dimensional figure but thankfully this is far from the case. He is a highly skilled and resourceful young man but his memory loss has made him confused and more vulnerable than whatever training he has received intended. Not knowing who he is or who he can trust makes him a more sympathetic character and of course leads to a real sense of tension as he learns more about why people want him dead. He is joined by MI5 agent-in-training Anna Wilder and she is probably the character who most gives Sleeper a contemporary feel despite the wartime setting. She is never there as window dressing to be rescued or patronised, like Will she is highly trained and skillful, that she is a girl is immaterial when it comes to her capabilities.
The enemies they face are truly menacing and a real threat, the Pastor in particular is really quite terrifying. Without giving anything away, there are multiple deaths, J.D. Fennell is never condescending to his younger readers and doesn't let all his characters walk away unscathed. Sleeper is genuinely tense and also deeply moving, losses are felt and characters aren't merely disposable.
I really enjoyed Sleeper, I'm very much in the 'crossover' part of a YA/crossover and while this is clearly written to appeal to readers younger than me I still found it a gripping and often dark story that surprised me several times and managed to keep me guessing. The book ends with a tempting glimpse into Will's plans for the future and leave the reader in no doubt that his life isn't going to become any less dangerous. I can't wait to find out what happens next!
Many thanks to J.D. Fennell and the publishers for my advance copy received in return for my honest review.

Sleeper is the first book from exciting new independent publisher, The Dome Press. You can follow them here on Twitter and follow the author at @jd_fennell. Sleeper has its own webpage here.

About the author

J.D. was born in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, and began writing stories at a young age to help him understand the madness unfolding around him. A lover of reading, he devoured a diverse range of books - his early influences include Fleming, Tolkien, Shakespeare and the Bront√ęs.
He left Belfast at the age of nineteen and worked as a chef, bartender, waiter and later began a career in writing for the software industry.
These days he divides his time between Brighton and London, where he lives with his partner and their two dogs. 

It's been an honour to be the host for Sleeper's blog tour today, you can follow the rest of the tour too, details are on the poster below.