Waiting on Wednesday – The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

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For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I check out the new upcoming book from one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, RJ Barker.  Barker shot to prominence in 2017 with his debut novel, Age of Assassins, which was quite an impressive piece of fantasy fiction.  Age of Assassins was the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and the rest of the trilogy, made up of Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins, were released to high critical acclaim in quite a remarkably short time period.  With The Wounded Kingdom trilogy finished, Barker has moved on to a brand new series with The Bone Ships, the first book in his planned The Tide Child series, which is set to be released in September 2019.

I really enjoyed Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, with Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins being among the top fantasy books I read in 2017 and 2018 respectfully.  I still have to read King of Assassins, even after featuring it on my Books I Wish I Read in 2018 Top Ten list.  Despite not getting around to reading it yet, King of Assassins is still quite high up on my must-read list, especially as I have heard that it is the strongest book in this inventive and exciting trilogy.  I hope that I will get a chance to read it in the next few months, and I would like to read it before I look at Barker’s upcoming book.

A number of details about The Bone Ships have already been released.  The book’s amazing cover has been out for some time, and plot details about the book are available on Goodreads.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A crew of condemned criminals embark on a suicide mission to hunt the first sea dragon seen in centuries in the first book of this adventure fantasy trilogy.

Violent raids plague the divided isles of the Scattered Archipelago. Fleets constantly battle for dominance and glory, and no commander stands higher among them than “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn.

But betrayed and condemned to command a ship of criminals, Meas is forced on suicide mission to hunt the first living sea-dragon in generations. Everyone wants it, but Meas Gilbryn has her own ideas about the great beast. In the Scattered Archipelago, a dragon’s life, like all lives, is bound in blood, death and treachery.

The above summary sounds like The Bone Ships is going to be a lot of fun, as Barker goes from a trilogy about assassins to a book that focuses on a suicide squad of pirates as they attempt to kill a dragon.  I mean, that is just plain awesome: pirates fighting dragons!  Even if I weren’t already familiar with Barker’s ability as a fantasy author, I would already be trying to get a copy of this book.  With Baker at the helm of this epic-sounding story, I have no doubts that this book will an absolute joy to read, and I am really looking forward to it.

The Bone Ships has real potential to be one of the best fantasy books of 2019, and no doubt it will be one of the most sought-after releases this September.  I am quite excited for this latest novel from Barker, and I am sure it will prove to be an interesting book to review.

Top Ten Tuesday – First Ten Books I Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, bloggers get to talk about the first ten books that they ever did a review for.

This is quite an interesting topic for a top ten list, and it is one that proved to be a lot of fun for me to put together.  It is always an intriguing prospect to dig back into one’s past, and I was quite curious to see what my earliest reviews were.  Luckily, I have kept a copy of some of my earlier professional reviews for The Canberra Times, which were among the first reviews I ever did.  Thinking back even further, I also remember doing a bunch of reviews or review-like documents for a random assortment of books back in my school days.  I decided to include them, as I count them as books I have reviewed, especially as many of them required a large amount of work to do.  As a result, my list is going to be an interesting combination of historical fiction books and some of the novels I read in high school, which luckily proved to be quite a unique and diverse collection of tomes.

While I am confident that I have listed the books in the order that I read and reviewed them, I may have to get a little vague when it comes to the dates I did them on.  The actual dates are probably lost in some ancient hard drive or long dead family computer, but I am fairly certain of which year I did them in.  Anyway, here is my list in the order that I reviewed them:

 

1 – The Other Side of Dawn by John Marsden – Reviewed in 2004

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I reviewed The Other Side of Dawn when I was in year 8 for an English class I was doing.  I cannot quite remember why we had to do reviews, but I remember inadvertently spoiling parts of the story for someone who hadn’t read it (an important lesson I remember to this day).  The Other Side of Dawn is the seventh and final book in John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, which is one of the best and most iconic Australian young adult series of all time.  I was a huge fan of the Tomorrow series when I was younger (I still am, to be honest; it is a pretty epic series) and I had just finished the final book when I had to write a review for class, so it seemed the logical choice.  I cannot remember too many details about the review, but it got me a good mark, so it must have been alright.  This is one of those series I have read numerous times, and I will have to review it on my blog at some point.

2 – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Reviewed in 2006

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I reviewed this classic American novel from acclaimed author Harper Lee in an English class in year 10.  We were starting to learn a lot about analysis and essay writing at the time and To Kill a Mockingbird was a major focus of our class.  I wrote a bunch of reviews and essays for this book, and I found it to be quite a powerful and moving novel that is still relevant in this day and age.

3 – Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst – Reviewed in 2007

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In the latter half of 2007 I was still in school, and we got a choice of which English classes we wanted to attend.  Due to my love of the genre, I chose to do a fantasy fiction course, which was unfortunately taught by the very worst English teacher in our school, whose bad teaching still haunts me to this day.  While the class as a whole was pretty shocking, we did get to read and review Daughter of the Empire.  I was already a huge fan of Raymond E. Feist and his Riftwar series, so this was the perfect book to read in class.  We did a number of reviews and essays for this book, and I loved it so much I have re-read Daughter of the Empire and its sequels several times in the last 12 years, even doing a review of the Empire trilogy on my blog last year.

4 – The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett – Reviewed in 2007

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The same fantasy course also required us to read and give an in-depth presentation on a fantasy book of our choice.  I chose one of my favourite books in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, The Last ContinentThe Last Continent is the 22nd book in the Discworld series, and follows one of Pratchett’s most entertaining protagonists as he adventures around a continent on the Discworld that is definitely not Australia.  I gave quite a good presentation on this book, if I do say so myself, and it was a great book to round out the class on.  A review of The Last Continent will probably show up on this blog in the future, as it is quite a funny read.

5 – Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell – Reviewed in 2008

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Another book reviewed as part of an English class.  Postmortem was the book we had to read and review as our main assessment in a pretty good crime fiction course.  It was an interesting book to analyse, and we did a pretty detailed examination and discussion of the book throughout the length of the course.  I have never really gone out of my way to read any other Cornwell books, but I am glad we got the chance to review Postmortem, and it was quite an intriguing piece of crime fiction.

6 – Outlaw by Angus Donald – Reviewed 26 September 2009

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Back in 2009, while I was in my first year of university, I got an opportunity to review some books for The Canberra Times.  They were in need of someone to review historical fiction, and as that was the genre I was mostly reading at the time, I managed to secure a position as The Canberra Times’s historical fiction reviewer for a few years.  For my first review, they gave me a couple of books publishers had sent them and told me to have a go at writing an article.  The first book I read for this was Outlaw, the first book in Angus Donald’s The Outlaw Chronicle series.  I really enjoyed this book and thought that it was a great reimagining of the classic Robin Hood story, and it proved to be an excellent book to do a proper, professional review for.  Despite enjoying this book, I never got the chance to read any of the other books in The Outlaw Chronicles, which I see managed eight books in the end.  I might have to see what Donald has been writing lately.

7 – Pieces of Eight by John Drake – Reviewed 26 September 2009

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In addition to Outlaw, my first article in The Canberra Times also featured a review of Pieces of Eight by John Drake.  Pieces of Eight was another reimagining of a classic tale, as Drake created his own version of Treasure Island in this series.  Pieces of Eight is the sequel to Drake’s first book, Flint and Silver, and featured a compelling adventure on the high seas.  This was another great book to read, and I had a lot of fun reviewing Pieces of Eight.

8 – King of Kings by Harry Sidebottom – Reviewed 21 November 2009

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This was the second book in Sidebottom’s Warrior of Rome series, which continued the story started in his amazing debut, Fire in the East.  Sidebottom is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, and back in 2009 I was very excited to check King of Kings out after enjoying his first book so much.  This was another great historical adventure, with an epic twist at the end.  Sidebottom is still going quite strong; The Last Hour was released last year, and his latest book, The Lost Ten, has just come out.

9 – Raiders from the North by Alex Rutherford – Reviewed 21 November 2009

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Raiders from the North is the first book in Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series, which charted the rise and fall of one of history’s most powerful and self-destructive dynasties.  This was a very good book that looked at a very unique period of history that is quite under-represented in fiction.  I ended up reading and reviewing nearly every book in the Empire of the Moghul series over the next couple of years, and I really enjoyed this very intriguing series.

10 – The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow – Reviewed 19 December 2009

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This is a good place to end my list.  I am a huge fan of the Scarrow’s The Eagles of the Empire series, and it was one of the main historical fiction series that got me into the genre.  As a result, I was very happy that I got a chance to review the ninth book in The Eagles of the Empire series, The Gladiator, so early in my reviewing career.  The Gladiator is an excellent addition to the series which pitted its protagonist against a new type of opponent.  This series is still going strong, with its 17th book coming, The Blood of Rome, coming out last year.

 

I hope you enjoy my list; I had a good time putting it together.  I will have to try and scan a few of these earlier columns onto my blog in the future.  It was fun going back and seeing what some of my earliest reviews were.

Treason by Rick Campbell

Treason Cover

Publisher: St Martin’s Press (Hardcover Format – 19 March 2019)

Series: Trident Deception

Length: 320 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The world is once again heading towards war in the latest military thriller from Rick Campbell that sets the United States against Russia in a battle for domination.

After Russia’s last attempt to take control of the countries on their western border ended in disaster, the Russian military is eager for another invasion that will restore Russia’s place as a superpower.  However, even with America’s forces weakened after recent conflicts, Russian President Yuri Kalinin is reluctant to challenge NATO again.  His generals have no such reservations and initiate a sudden military coup, arresting Kalinin and taking Russia to a war footing.

America is once again ready to oppose Russia’s advance into Europe, until a routine weapons test sends several ballistic missiles hurtling towards Washington DC and crashes several of America’s B2 Bombers.  The Russians have apparently found a way to disarm America’s nuclear arsenal and are using this to keep the US out of the latest conflict.

As several European countries are overrun, America must find a way to regain control of their weapons and push back the Russians.  Their only hope may lie in the hands of Christine O’Connor, the President’s national security adviser, who was being entertained by Kalinin at his official residence when the coup occurred.  After freeing Kalinin, O’Connor hatches a plan to return him to power in exchange for an end to the invasion.  Can America achieve this with only one submarine and a small team of SEALs, or will NATO and Russia be forced into a destructive war for Europe?

This is the fifth book from Campbell, and it follows on his military thriller storyline that was started in his 2014 debut, The Trident DeceptionTreason follows on the storyline from these previous books, and once again sees America fighting against its iconic adversaries the Russians in an intriguing story of war, espionage and treachery.  I have been on a real military thriller kick recently, so I was quite excited to pick up Treason.  This book is an extremely fun piece of fiction that I really enjoyed and was able to get through quite quickly.  Campbell tells an entertaining story that, while connected to the storylines of the previous books in the series, is fairly inclusive and able to be enjoyed by those readers who have not had the chance to read any of Campbell’s previous works.

This is a pretty good example of military fiction, as two superpowers face off against each other for control of Europe.  The story is a great combination of imaginative storytelling and real-world politics, as Campbell is able to bring in elements of current international relations into his already established fictional version of our world.  This allows for some more realism behind the story, especially when combined with the sheer amount of military detail Campbell injects into the story, showcasing how both sides would prepare for and enact the early stages of a war to control all of Europe.  Treason is told from a huge range of different character perspectives as the author attempts to show as many sides of the story as possible.  While this does result in the book having a somewhat distractingly high number of quite short chapters, it does allow for a much fuller story, especially as it shows the plans of the book’s Russian antagonists.  This also allows for a story that is slightly less “America good; all opponents evil” direction that many military thrillers turn into, as the Russian characters’ motivations and perspectives are taken into account, although America does come out of this book looking pretty good.  Still, this is a very intriguing military thriller book, and I quite enjoyed reading Campbell’s view of how war between the US and Russia could potentially start up, while also leaving room for additional conflicts in future books.

While Treason does not turn into the full-on total war story action junkies might be hoping for, there is a substantial amount of battles and fighting in this book.  A large amount of the action is between covert squads of Americans and Russians, and it always fun to see SEAL teams kick ass against more numerous opponents.  Without a doubt, the most impressive sequence in this book is the superb submarine fight between opposing US and Russia vessels.  These scenes are pretty epic, and they really highlight the author’s writing ability as he drags the reader into the battle.  His quick change of perspectives between the opposing submarines means that the reader is aware of every action being undertaken and they get a spectacular view of the intense battle occurring beneath the waves.  Campbell’s past as a commander aboard a US Navy submarine clearly comes into play here, as he describes all the aspects of submarine combat in extreme detail.  This results in the reader getting an outstanding idea of the various tactics and weapons both sides utilise in these incredible battles, and it was amazing how the fight between submarines felt like a game of chess.  These extended submarine battles are easily the best sequences in the whole book, and I really loved reading them.  This book is perfect for those readers who love to read a good action sequence, and I am looking forward to reading any additional submarine battle scenes that Campbell comes up with.

Overall, Treason is a fantastic military thriller and well worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre or of Campbell’s previous books.  I am intrigued to see how the author will continue this series in the future, and I especially hope to see more of the superb submarine-on-submarine combat sequences.  Treason is a very entertaining and enjoyable book and is perfect for those who are looking for something fun and exciting to read.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback Format – 9 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 350 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, now this was one hell of a book!!!

K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction that keeps the reader enthralled with its excellent story, fantastic self-aware humour and one of the best depictions of a siege that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The end result was an excellent read that I just had to give a full five stars to, and it has to be one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

The Robur Empire is one of the great civilisations in the world, and at its heart lies the City, capital and seat of power of the Emperor, kept safe by its impenetrable walls, powerful armies and unsurpassed navies.  However, that safety is unexpectantly compromised when a massive force of soldiers appears out of nowhere, slaughtering the entire imperial army, crippling the navy and completely surrounded the City.

The only forces left garrisoned in the City are the men of the Empire’s Engineering Corps, led by Colonel-in-Chief Orhan, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the defence of the City.  Orhan is a coward, a glorified bridge builder, a man able to work the complex imperial military system for his own gain and a foreigner despised by most of Robur society, but he is not a great military leader.  He is, however, one of the most devious and underhanded men the army has ever seen, and these might just be the qualities needed to save the City from destruction.  As Orhan works to unite the various factions in the City to his cause and come up with a range of unique defences, he makes a shocking discovery.  A figure from his past is leading the assault against the City, and Orhan quickly realises that he might be on the wrong side of this battle.

I really enjoyed this latest book from Parker, who has created a complex and captivating fantasy tale that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  K. J. Parker is actually a pseudonym of author Tom Holt, who was able to keep the dual identity secret for 17 years before it was revealed in 2015.  Between his two identities, the author has written an amazing number of books since his 1987 debut, mostly focused on the fantasy genre.  This includes over 30 humorous fantasy novels as Tom Holt, five historical fiction novels, the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies as Parker, a number of standalone fantasy books and a huge range of short fiction, some poems, songs and even some non-fiction work.  For those who may be concerned, no reading of any of Parker’s prior work is required to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City as this latest book is a standalone novel.  Still, I will be keeping an eye out for any future books by either Tom Holt or K. J. Parker as I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and fantastic sense of humour.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an intriguing novel that is told from the perspective of its “hero” Orhan, who is narrating the story of his defence of this city within a historical text.  This story is incredibly entertaining, as not only does it feature a first-rate siege within an excellent fantasy location, but it is told by a complex and multi-layered character who paints the entire ordeal of being in charge in a very funny light.

I am a man who loves a good siege storyline, but this has to be one of the best ones that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  At the start of the siege the situation looks grim, as a vast host surrounds the City, whose defenders have all been slaughtered outside the walls, with the exception of Orhan’s engineers, who lack the basic military supplies and machinery to defend the City.  As the enemy start a conventional long-term siege with advanced weaponry and superior forces, Orhan is forced to come up with something to delay their inevitable defeat in the hopes of reinforcements turning up.  Without the required men, equipment or leadership, they cannot rely on the traditional 15 methods of defending a walled city that the books suggest, so he has to rely on the on his own 16th way, which involves bluffing, chaos and mad-cap innovation.  As a result, much of the book features Orhan’s many unconventional methods to defend the City, whether it involves taking symbolic control of the entire empire, legitimising and attempting to control two rival criminal gangs or creating devastating new siege weapons.  The protagonist and his men’s engineering prowess comes in effect quite a bit throughout the book, and I loved seeing the machines and other unique defence methods that he deploys as a result.  All the various deceptions and tactics used to hold the City against this superior force is widely entertaining and I absolutely loved the siege storyline which serves as an amazing centre to this incredible story.

The setting that the author chooses for this book is pretty interesting and adds a lot of great elements to the story.  The Robur Empire is pretty much the Roman Empire, with the City being this universe’s equivalent of Rome.  I thought that the City was a fantastic setting for the vast majority of the story, and the various factions and problems with such a large city really tied into the great siege storyline.  The City’s criminal organisations, the Greens and the Blues, former charioteer supporters (very Roman) turned rival criminal unions, are the cause of a large amount of strife, and I liked how their own battles and self-importance became such a major part of this book.  I also felt that Parker did an amazing job portraying a city that sits at the heart of a massive empire, and the attitudes of the people within felt pretty accurate.

On top of the great setting, Parker has also created an intriguing, extended world for this story.  The Robur Empire is a great overall setting for most of this book, as its setup, design and attitudes are very similar to the ancient Romans.  Parker’s initially subtle use of racial identity in this empire is quite intriguing, and it becomes a major part of the book.  Essentially the empire is made up of the pure-blooded Robur, who are called blueskins due to their darker skin colouration.  Then there are those people with white skin, who are given the derogatory name of milkfaces, who are treated like second-class citizens within the empire, and who came from lands conquered by the Imperials.  Not only does this become an important plot point with the army attacking the City made up completely of milkfaces, but it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, when the pure-blooded Roman citizens looked down upon the paler barbarians from Gaul, Britain or Germany.  I also liked how the author tried to replicate the precision military system of the Romans with the Robur, and it was fun to see how the problems of such a system came into play throughout this book, such as having the military resources of the entire empire being kept in supply depo sites rather than in the capital.  I quite enjoyed these fantastic settings, and I thought that they were an excellent place to set these complex stories.

While the siege storylines and settings are extremely amazing, this book would be nothing without its main character and the person narrating this fictional historical text, Orhan.  Orhan is an amazingly complex character, and the personality that Parker creates for his hero is outstanding.  Orhan is a milkface who has risen to high military command within the Robur Empire due to his abilities as an engineer.  As a result of his hard early life and the constant belittlement and discrimination by the blueskins he serves under, he is an incredibly cynical person with a very jaded outlook on life.  The author does an amazing job transcribing these character traits onto the page, often in a sarcastic and very entertaining manner as he describes the events going on around him, and the reader gets a great sense of the character’s frustrations.  While Orhan is attempting to defend the City, his own narrations reveal him to be an extremely self-serving and selfish person who has been forced by circumstances rather than duty to protect the City.  His motivations become even more complex as he begins to wonder if he is on the wrong side of the conflict, as the invading army is completely made up of milkfaces like himself, and even when he is doing the right thing the blueskins in the city that he is defending still treat him badly.  Even with that doubt, he is a surprisingly (especially to himself) effective commander, whose deceitful and inventive nature, as well as his extensive knowledge of history and engineering, allows him to come up with some outstanding defensive strategies.  My favourite has to involve his unique method for dealing with the enemy’s sappers, which sees him use his knowledge of the City, his craft and his ability to manipulate his opponents to create a fantastic response.  The entire sequence involving this anti-sapper technique is one of the best parts of the book, and I love the doubt and regret he experiences as a result of his actions.  Overall, Orhan is an outstanding narrator, and his depiction of the chaotic event and his part in them really made this story for me.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, and I think I already have a contender for my future top ten books of 2019 list.  This book has to be read to fully appreciate its complexity and cleverness, and I found it to be boundlessly entertaining and widely funny.  K. J. Parker’s latest book comes highly recommended, and it is well worth checking out.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

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In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I take a look at The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean, one of the historical fiction books of 2019 that I am looking forward to the most.  The Bear Pit is the fourth book in MacLean’s The Seeker series, which follows Captain Damian Seeker as he uncovers conspiracies and solves murders in Cromwell’s England.  I absolutely loved the third book in The Seeker series, Destroying Angel, last year, and I am eager to see where the author takes the series next.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

London, 1656: Captain Seeker is back in the city, on the trail of an assassin preparing to strike at the heart of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic

The Commonwealth is balanced on a knife edge. Royalists and disillusioned former Parliamentarians have united against Oliver Cromwell, now a king in all but name. Three conspirators, representing these factions, plan to assassinate the Lord Protector, paving the way back to the throne for Charles Stuart once and for all.

Captain Damian Seeker, meanwhile, is preoccupied by the horrifying discovery in an illegal gambling den of the body of a man ravaged by what is unmistakably a bear. Yet the bears used for baiting were all shot when the sport was banned by Cromwell. So where did this fearsome creature come from, and why would someone use it for murder?

With Royalist-turned-Commonwealth-spy Thomas Faithly tracking the bear, Seeker investigates its victim. The trail leads from Kent’s coffee house on Cornhill, to a German clockmaker in Clerkenwell, to the stews of Southwark, to the desolate Lambeth Marshes where no one should venture at night.

When the two threads of the investigation begin to join, Seeker realises just what – and who – he is up against. The Royalists in exile have sent to London their finest mind and greatest fighter, a man who will stop at nothing to ensure the Restoration. Has Seeker finally met his match?

From the description above it sounds like this will be a book that heavily combines murder mystery with historical conspiracy, as the protagonist hunts a murderer in London while also attempting to stop several assassins coming for his boss.  The murder sounds like it will be incredibly fun part of this book, especially with a non-existent bear being the potential murder weapon.  I will be very interested to see what solution MacLean comes up with for this murder and I hope it will be something very inventive.  I am also looking forward to the conspiracy part of the book, and I am sure that the assassins and mysterious Royalist agent will prove to be impressive antagonists for this book.  The murder and the conspiracy parts of this book will no doubt be tied together, and I am looking forward to an excellent overall story.

I am also looking forward to diving back to the chaotic and intriguing historical setting of Cromwell’s England that the author used to such great effect in the previous books.  I thought this setting worked really well in Destroying Angel’s small-town setting, and I am curious to see how the city of London looks like in this interesting historical period.  It also sounds like the protagonist will be forced to visit several unique locations around the city, and I am sure that will result in some fun and exciting plot points.

The Bear Pit is shaping up to be an incredible new addition to The Seeker series, and I am really looking forward to this coming out in July.  If the story matches the fantastic sounding description, I am sure that this will be another five-star book and it should be pretty awesome.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton and MacMillan Audio (5 March 2019)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of international thriller sensation Steve Berry comes the 14th book in his acclaimed Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange.

When the pope unexpectedly dies, opportunity and chaos grips the Vatican.  As the world’s cardinals arrive in Rome in preparation for the conclave to elect a new pope, one cardinal, the controversial Kastor Gallo, suddenly leaves for an impromptu visit to Malta.  He has been summoned for a clandestine meeting, the results of which could hand him the papacy.  The only witness to this meeting is United States Justice Department operative Luke Daniels, whose covert observations of the meeting is quickly compromised, forcing him to fight for his life.

While Daniels attempts to uncover what is happening in Malta, his former colleague, Cotton Malone, is in Italy working for British intelligence.  An Italian collector claims to have letters between Churchill and Mussolini that could prove extremely damaging to Churchill’s legacy, and MI6 is eager to recover them.  What is meant to be a quick mission for Malone is complicated when armed men kill the collector and steal the letters.  Malone is able to trace his assailants to the legendary Knights of Malta, and his chase to recover the letters leads him into a hunt from a mysterious document from the reign of Emperor Constantine.

This document, revered by the Knights of Malta and feared by the church, has been lost for hundreds of years.  Hunted by some of history’s greatest tyrants, including Napoleon and Mussolini, this secret document not only has the potential to influence the current concave if revealed, but it could also tear the church down completely.  As a secret society within the modern incarnation of the Knights of Malta and elements of the Entity, the church’s intelligence organisation, both attempt to claim the document, Malone and Daniels once again team up to recover the document and destroy the conspiracy threatening to envelope them and the entire Catholic world.

Steve Berry is a veteran author of thrillers that focus on complex conspiracies, having written a number of exciting books since his 2003 debut.  While Berry has written four standalone novels, including The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy and The Third Secret, he is probably best known for his long-running Cotton Malone series of books.  The Cotton Malone series, which began in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, is made up of 14 books, each of which features the series titular character, retired U.S. Justice Department operative Cotton Malone as he is forced to investigate a series of elaborate conspiracies or secrets with origins in history.

The Malta Exchange features several characters from the previous books in the series.  While this is the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange can easily be read as a standalone book, as no prior knowledge of the Cotton Malone series is required to enjoy this story.  While there are some mentions of previous adventures in the series, none of these brief references are really relevant to this book’s story.  Likewise, the series’ recurring characters are re-introduced in some detail, and no pre-existing knowledge of them is needed.  Those readers who are already familiar with this series will enjoy another amazing thriller from Berry, although there may be some repetition, as the protagonists once again dive into another elaborate conspiracy centred with a secret order associated with the Catholic Church.  As one of my reviewer colleagues who is somewhat more familiar with this series than me stated, “How many conspiracies can one man wander into?”  Still, for those people who have enjoyed Berry’s stories before, The Malta Exchange is another exceptional read with a thrilling mystery that is a lot of fun to unravel.

While I received a physical copy of this book to read, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Malta Exchange narrated by Scott Brick.  This book was an absolutely fantastic piece of thriller fiction as the reader is thrown into an extremely intriguing and wide-reaching conspiracy involving hidden documents, major historical figures and deep dives into the history and background of several fictional and real-life organisations.

This is an excellent book for thriller fans, as The Malta Exchange contains a number of intense and complex conspiracies and plots overlayed across each other to create an addictive and enjoyable read.  The main plot focuses on the search for a long-lost document that originated during the reign of Emperor Constantine, which has the potential to damage or destroy the Catholic Church.  As a big fan of the historical fiction genre, I loved how this central mystery cleverly utilised a number of massive historical events and figures in its overall conspiracy.  For example, this central conspiracy has ties to Emperor Constantine, the founding of the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Mussolini, the Crusades and important events in World War II.  It even features a number of cool flashbacks to Mussolini and Napoleon’s life, showing how they were embroiled in this conspiracy.  This results in a treasure hunt so large, mysterious and potentially world-changing you cannot help but be intrigued and eager to see how it ends.  On top of that, a number of secret organisations with conflicting agendas and plots are duking it out around the hunt for this document and the reader is uncertain of their true motivations until later in the story.  All these story threads come together incredibly well at the end of the story, resulting in an intense, intelligent and entertaining thriller storyline that I could not wait to fully uncover.

Except for a couple of chapters featuring flashbacks to historical figures like Mussolini or Napoleon, The Malta Exchange is told from the point of view of four main characters: Cotton Malone, Luke Daniels, Cardinal Kastor Gallo and a mysterious ‘knight’ who remains unnamed for most of the book.  Malone and Daniels serve as good central protagonists, and I liked the contrast in their styles and personalities.  While Malone is the older, wiser and occasionally more careful protagonist who puts together the various clues around the hidden location of ancient document, Daniels is the younger, more action orientated character who does a number of crazy stunts throughout the book while also hiding his intelligence and cunning behind a convincing “good ol’ boy” routine.  The unnamed knight is The Malta Exchange’s main antagonist, whose identity remains hidden for much of the book.  This knight is an interesting character, and it is always fun to see the antagonist’s point of view as they attempt to outwit the protagonists.  While the reveal of this character’s secret identity is somewhat obvious due to there only being a few significant secondary characters, the antagonist’s overall plan was quite ingenious and devious.  Kastor Gallo is another interesting character; a self-serving Cardinal who wants to become Pope, he skirts the line between protagonist and villain in this story.  While the character considers himself an honest and pious priest, he is not particularly likeable due to his extremely conservative religious views and unbridled arrogance.  Still it was fun watching him try to manipulate the other characters, as well as his plot to try and gain the papacy.  There are several other fantastic side characters whom I will not discuss in any detail lest I hint at the identity of the unnamed knight above, but they really add a lot to this story.

One of the things that really impressed me about this book was the way that Berry dived into several organisations and locations in extreme and intriguing detail, particularly when it comes to two specific organisations.  The first of these organisations is the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Throughout this book, Berry spends a significant amount of time exploring this order, from their origins as the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades, to their current existence as a massive charitable organisation.  Berry examines a large amount of their history, how they are organised, where they are located, what they do, their political status and how they have evolved over the years, and this amazing examination is further extended out into the incredible history of the nation of Malta.  Even the order’s leadership crisis between 2016 and 2018 is somewhat represented in the book, as the author describes a similar crisis affecting the organisation featured within The Malta Exchange.  All of this is deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed the author’s examination of this organisation and how he was able to utilise the Knights of Malta’s actual history to the degree he did, with only a few alterations to fit his story.

The second organisation that Berry dives into is the Catholic Church, as a number of key aspects of the church and the Vatican come into play throughout the plot.  Like with his deep dive into the Knights of Malta, the author included a number of detailed examinations about church history, organisation and key events, like the selection of a new pope, that I quite enjoyed learning more about, and which fit incredibly well into the story.  The part of the examination into the church that I enjoyed the most was the look at the church’s supposed intelligence organisation, the Entity.  While the church has never confirmed they have an official intelligence organisation, several historical books have discussed its potential activities, and a number of thriller writers have utilised such an organisation, often known as the Entity, to great effect.  Perhaps because thrillers are not a genre that I read an awful lot of, this was the first book I have read that featured a church intelligence agency.  I really liked the idea of a secret intelligence organisation working for the Vatican, and Berry really utilises them well throughout his book, making them out as one of the most elite and effective intelligence organisations on the planet, who people really should not mess with.  I absolutely loved all the Catholic Church inclusions that the author featured and that, combined with the captivating examination of the Knights of Malta, helped turn this into an amazing overall story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, which was narrated by Scott Brick.  This was not a massively long audiobook, only clocking in at around 13 and a half hours, and I was able to power through this really quickly, especially as I become more and more enthralled with the book’s compelling story.  I was quite glad that I chose to listen to this book rather than read it.  While you do lose out on some of the book’s visual elements, like some of the diagrams of anagrams or secret codes that feature throughout the physical copy, I found that listening to The Malta Exchange really helped me absorb the massive conspiracy storyline, as well as the history and organisation examinations, a hell of a lot more.  Brick has an amazing voice for thrillers, and I quite enjoyed listening him narrate this fantastic novel.  The voices he creates for the various characters in this book are quite good, and I liked some of the accents that he came up with.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, although readers will still be able to get a huge amount out of the physical copy of the book.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is an incredible and addictive ancient conspiracy thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Once you get sucked into the book’s various conspiracies and mysteries it is hard to pull yourself out until each and every one of them is untangled.  What I enjoyed most about the main conspiracy was the author’s ability to explore fascinating history and famous organisations in outstanding detail, and then use these events to really enhance his story.  The end result is an awesome novel that comes highly recommend from me.  Appealing and accessible to established fans of the Cotton Malone series, as well as other fans of the thriller genre, I was really glad I decided to check this book out and I am curious to see what historical conspiracy Malone uncovers next.

Book Haul – 14 April 2019

I had a pretty good book haul in the last week, not only getting some of the top books of 2019, but also a couple of intriguing Australian reads that will be interesting to check out.

 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

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Already about halfway through this book, it’s pretty amazing.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and the Jay Kristoff

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Looking forward to this one, it is getting a lot of buzz and could potentially by the young adult novel of the year.

Daughter of Bad Times by Rohan Wilson

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The Castori Intervention by Margaret Cawsey

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Not too sure about this one, but should be interesting to check out.

The Last Second by Catherine Coulter and J. T. Ellison

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This sounds like a fun thriller and I am looking forward to reading it.  I really enjoyed the latest book in Coulter’s connected series, Paradox.

The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu

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I have never really gotten into the Shadowhunter books before, so this should be an interesting part of the series to come into.