Review: Expectant

Vanda Symon – Expectant (Blog Tour)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £9.99, also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. You can buy the book direct from the publisher at:

First, the official blurb: The shocking murder of a heavily pregnant woman throws the New Zealand city of Dunedin into a tailspin, and the devastating crime feels uncomfortably close to home for Detective Sam Shephard as she counts down the days to her own maternity leave. Confined to a desk job in the department, Sam must find the missing link between this brutal crime and a string of cases involving mothers and children in the past. As the pieces start to come together and the realisation dawns that the killer’s actions are escalating, drastic measures must be taken to prevent more tragedy. For Sam, the case becomes personal, when it becomes increasingly clear that she is no longer safe, and the clock is ticking…

At the end of the previous novel featuring Sam Shephard, Vanda Symon left us on a real cliffhanger of a moment for the Dunedin detective – and while it’s been two long years for UK readers to wait to see what happens next, it’s been more than a decade for New Zealand readers; that’s a whole lot of expectation built up! But after the longest gestation in history, Sam is finally back.

You can dive straight in to Expectant and enjoy it with no previous knowledge, as Symon includes all the information you need, but you’ll get more out of it if you’ve seen at least some of Sam’s journey to this point in Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound (you can also read my interview with Vanda Symon, published around the time standalone Faceless was published in the UK).

Oh, and fair warning: this was a one-sit-read for me, so get comfy and prepare to ignore everything else – cat, kids, ringing phone – because you will not want to stop turning the pages until you’ve finished every last word.

We’re straight into the action here, and despite reading the blurb on the jacket it’s still a shock to read the scene where a group of teens find a dying woman covered in blood in a dark alleyway – and if that wasn’t enough, there’s then a huge emotional hit as Sam talks to Timi’s parents about his bravery in staying with the woman as his pals all fled. No, he shouldn’t have been there – but it turns out to have been a very good thing that he was. 

The dead woman, Aleisha, was 38 weeks pregnant when she was cut open and left to bleed to death. The team now have a kidnapping as well as a murder to solve. It doesn’t get much more high stakes.

A hugely pregnant Sam, stuck with desk duties as she counts down to her maternity leave, is obviously going to feel a connection to the case, and take it even more personally than normal. So a clash with the big boss, DI Johns, is inevitable – thank goodness her partner, Paul, is also part of the squad, and her best friend Maggie is still at hand to dole out great advice along with the Toffee Pops (and everything else: our Sam is currently like The Very Hungry Caterpillar!).

Sam digs into previous cases of baby kidnapping, and every one would break your heart – so much pain and anguish for the victims, but so often there’s just as much pain in those who commit the crime. Symon’s empathy washes through all these cases, seeing all sides. As a new case comes in, there’s a brief scene which gave me a huge lump in the throat, as Sam admits all her fears about being pregnant and the huge changes in her life that spring from that. Its so personal to Sam, while at the same time being feelings I suspect many parents will have experienced.

Finally there’s some good news for Aleisha’s family – but still no firm answers, upping the tension among the detectives. And then Sam gets away from her desk and involved a little too personally for good measure, as we and the cops race towards the finale, which is a knot of formal justice and intimately human action and emotion. 

How far will you go for your family? It’s a question that features in a lot of crime novels, and for good reason: on a planet with six billion or so inhabitants, there are six billion answers. Expectant gives us not just one, but a whole host of answers – all equally valid in the moment to the person doing the deed, even if they are, if seen from another perspective, utterly appalling. A full spectrum of family life is on show here, one way and another. It’s not always pretty, but it’s all very real. And in a world still dominated by men (in the case of Sam’s working life, literally) this book is a quiet but determined claiming of space for women, mothers or otherwise, which was hugely satisfying.

Sam’s final decision of the novel is one she realises she cannot make alone -and it’s this realisation as much as the answer she and Paul agree on that shows how much she has grown as a person from the opening pages of Overkill. 

I’ve loved the Sam Shephard series since it was first published in the UK, and Symon’s writing has always had power, empathy underpinning everything, even while the surface crackled with humour and the slings and arrows of life that someone unable to keep their mouth shut in front of the boss experiences. But there’s something more to this instalment – slightly less jokey, slightly more intense, slightly more distilled – and the result is worth Sam’s very pregnant weight in Toffee Pops. Vanda Symon, you made your readers wait but what a prize you’ve given us. 

Vanda Symon lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. As well as being a crime writer, she has a PhD in science communication and is a researcher at the Centre for Pacific Health at the University of Otago. Overkill was shortlisted for the 2019 CWA John Creasey Debut Dagger Award and she is a four-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for her critically acclaimed Sam Shephard series. The fourth in the series, Bound, was shortlisted for a Barry Award. Vanda produces and hosts Write On, a monthly radio show focusing on the world of books at Otago Access Radio. When she isn’t working or writing, Vanda can be found in the garden, or on the business end of a fencing foil.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @vandasymon
Find her website at:

Don’t forget to check out the other reviews on the blog tour!

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