Throwback Thursday – The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings Cover.jpg

Publishers: Tor Books

                       Macmillan Audio

Publication Date – 31 August 2010

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I will be reviewing one of the best pieces of fantasy fiction from the last decade: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  I listened to this book for the first time earlier in the year and have been seeking to review it for some time.  However, I just finished reading the latest Brandon Sanderson book, Skyward, which I will be reviewing next week, and decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to finally get a review of The Way of Kings together.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the best writers of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, with several iconic series created by him.  These include the Mistborn series, the Wax and Wayne series, the Warbreaker series, The Reckoners series and his latest book, Skyward, which serves as the first book of his new Skyward series, just to name a few.  Perhaps the biggest indication of how highly regarded Sanderson is the fact that he was the author chosen to finish off Robert Jordan’s iconic Wheel of Time series of fantasy books, generally considered one of the most important fantasy series ever created, and the second bestselling series since The Lord of the Rings.  Following Jordan’s death, Sanderson put several of his series on hold to write the final three books in the Wheel of Time series, finishing off these epic fantasy novels with the help of Jordan’s notes.

The Way of Kings is the first book in Sanderson’s most iconic series, The Stormlight Archives, an epic fantasy series set in gigantic fantasy world.  The Stormlight Archives is a massive series from Sanderson with at least 10 books currently planned.  The first three of these books have already been released, with a fourth planned for 2020.  Each of these books is a massive undertaking to read, each totalling over 1,000 pages.  I chose to listen to The Way of Kings in its audiobook format, read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading.  At over 45 hours in length, it does take a while to get through, but it was well worth it for the epic adventure within.

The Stormlight Archives is set within the world of Roshar, which has seen much chaos and bloodshed and is constantly beset by powerful storms, known as highstorms.  Centuries ago, a recurring event, known as the Desolation, unleashed the demonic Voidbringers upon the lands, devastating all before it.  To counter these creatures, the legendary Knights Radiant were formed.  They were powerful warriors with magical powers who wielded the epic magical armour and swords known as Shardplate and Shardblades.  After years of fighting, the Desolation was stopped and the Voidbringers defeated.  With their task complete, the Knights Radiant abandoned their weapons and disappeared.  Centuries later, when the main story is set, these events have become myths and legends, with many doubting that they ever existed.  However, the remaining pieces of Shardplate and Shardblades have become valuable commodities to the warring nations that have sprung up since the end of the Desolation, as they allow normal men to become the mightiest of warriors.

The main story of The Way of Kings begins with the assassination of the powerful King of Alethkar, Gavilar Kholin by Szeth-son-son-Vallano, apparently on the order of the Parshendi, a recently discovered race of humanoids who Gavilar was seeking peace with.  This killing results in a war between the Alethi and the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains.  After years of fighting, the war has mostly stymied, with neither side gaining a significant advantage, as the two armies compete for magical resources on the Plains.

This book has three distinctive main plot lines that lie mostly unconnected throughout the course of the novel.  The first plot follows the brother of the slain King Gavilar, Dalinar Kholin, and his sons, as they serve the new king on the Shattered Plains.  After years of fighting, Dalinar has grown weary of war and the competitive and caste based Alethkar way of life and attempts to find solace in the ancient book The Way of Kings, a volume that his brother became obsessed with before his death.  Questioning the merits of his people’s current ways of life, Dalinar attempts to find a way to unite the squabbling highprinces in a final strike against the Parshendi, while also dealing with visions of the past that affect his ability to lead.

The second plot line follows Kaladin, a former solider to an Alethi lord.  Kaladin was betrayed and has been sold into slavery.  Transported to the Shattered Plains, Kaladin is forced to become a bridgeman, carrying the heavy bridges into battle that the armies require to cross the canyons and broken landscape of the Shattered Plains.  Bridgeman have low life expectancies and are usually targeted first by the Parshendi in the battles that dominate the plains.  Determined to survive, Kaladin attempts to form his unit of bridgemen into an effective team in order to minimise casualties in each battle.  But the lord he serves has no interesting in having his bridgeman survive, and Kaladin must utilise newly discovered magical abilities if he is to keep his unit alive.  A part of this storyline also follows a younger Kaladin and shows how he gained his skills and abilities, and the events that resulted in his enslavement.

The final storyline follows Shallan Davar, a minor noblewoman and scholar who seeks the patronage of Jasnah Kholin, the current king’s sister, who is Dalinar’s niece.  While Shallan succeeds in becoming Jasnah’s apprentice, she is really plotting to steal an item of great value from Jasnah that will ensure her families survival.  But as she makes her plans, she finds herself embroiled in a series of plots while also uncovering her own powerful magic.

In addition to these three main storylines, there are a series of interludes that help build up the world in which The Stormlight Chronicles is set, while also briefly introducing a number of characters who are likely to become major players in future volumes of this series.  Each interlude also features an extended sequence that focuses on Szeth-son-son-Vallano, the assassin forced to kill King Gavilar, as he finds himself controlled by a mysterious organisation that appears to be behind many of the books more mysterious events.

Quite frankly, there is so much going on within The Way of Kings.  Not only are there several substantial storylines that combine together into one massive and captivating overall narrative, but Sanderson also creates a massive and detailed new fantasy world with significant history and character backstories to form the basis of this massive series.  It is actually quite amazing that Sanderson has managed to combine so much together into one book without it getting away from him, but The Way of Kings is proof that it is possible.

Without a doubt, the most impressive thing about The Way of Kings is the sheer amount of world building that Sanderson is able to cram into one book.  There is so much that forms the basis of The Stormlight Archive’s universe, from its magical based technology, to the iconic weapons and armour, the unique battle tactics, the creatures found within, the caste system based upon eye colour and this world’s history.  Every different nation appears to have its own unique and fascinating culture, all of which come into play within the plot of the story in some way or another.  For example, the Shin culture results in the character of Szeth-son-son-Vallano becoming a servant to whoever holds his Oathstone, while the Alethi culture produces quite a lot of backstabbing and conflict due to the competitive nature of its citizens.  There are some really fun cultural details added into these world cultures, such as women being the sole scholars of this world, while men do not even learn to read, or several cultures requiring all the women to wear gloves on one hand.

In addition to the culture, the world of Roshar is pretty impressive in itself.  One of the most distinctive and defining features of Roshar is the continuous gigantic storms, known as high storms, that devastate the land on a regular basis.  As a result, the people have had to adapt to these conditions, and there are a number of interludes where the protagonists have to shelter for periods from the storm.  I loved the way that Sanderson was able to come up with a range of impacts that these destructive storms would have on this world, such as the way that plants would grow and become reactive in response to constantly being hit by storms.  A large portion of the story is set around the landscape known as the Shattered Plains, which, as the name suggested, is a shattered landscape made up of a series of massive canyons and gaps between plateaus, haunted by giant monsters and prone to flash floods during high storms.  There are a number of massive battles and smaller explorations occurring in this landscape throughout the book, and it serves as a distinctive background which quite a number of fantastic plot points build up around.

All of this world building is quite incredible, but it is also impressive in the way that Sanderson has linked this world to some of the other series he has created or is currently planning to create.  This shared universe, known as The Cosmere, is made up of a number of worlds where some of his fantasy books are set.  The books in The Cosmere share several characters who travel from world to world, as well as some overarching themes and plot points.  For example, some of the chaos that the characters explore is the result of a massive conflict that affects all the books within The Cosmere universe.  There are several aspects of this explored within The Way of Kings, and it results in some interesting storytelling.

In addition to the massive world in which this book is set, Sanderson has filled The Way of Kings with a series of incredible storylines.  I really enjoyed each of the storylines, as each of them added something different to the book.  The storylines that focused on Dalinar Kholin and his family provide the reader with large-scale battles and a deep look at the culture, history and lifestyle of one of the main nations on Roshar, while also exploring the mystery of the disappearing Knights Radiant.  The storylines that are mostly told from the point of view of Shallan Davar are a bit slower paced, but contain an intriguing storyline of research, teaching, ethical deliberations, various plots and even a planned heist of a magical item.  Without a doubt however, my favourite storylines focused on the Kaladin and his attempts to turn his bridgemen into a cohesive unit.  These storylines contain some great scenes of comradery, friendship and training, while also allowing for some intense and clever battle sequences.  The storylines focusing on Kaladin’s youth were among my least favourite in the entire book, but they were still intriguing as they allowed the reader to see how Kaladin gained his complicated personality, his hatred for the world’s noble class and his determination to save lives.  In addition, I have no doubt that all that backstory will serve an important part in a future book in the series.  All three of these main storylines, as well as the shorter stories contained within the interludes, come together perfectly to form a complex narrative that interweaves subtly for most of the book.  While there are some brief mentions or crossovers for the majority of The Way of Kings, Sanderson does not focus too much on bringing these characters together until the very end of the story.  This allows Sanderson to set up each of these main characters and their associated minor characters in more detail, and allows them to be defined on their own terms.

I really loved how each of the main point-of-view characters within The Way of Kings is incredibly complicated.  For example, Dalinar Kholin is a person who spent years becoming the most feared warrior in the world.  Nicknamed the Blackthorn, his skill in battle and bloodlust helped unite Alethkar under his brother’s rule and he was considered the epitome of Alethi warrior culture.  However, after the death of his brother, Dalinar is weighed down with guilt, and his desire to follow ancient codes of conduct and the teachings of The Way of Kings causes him to doubt everything he previously knew.  Szeth-son-son-Vallano, is a killer without peer, but he is not in control of his own actions, due to becoming Truthless.  Forced to obey whoever holds his Oathstone, Szeth is constantly forced to kill for a rotating string of masters, and he despairs at the death he deals around him.  Finally there is Kaladin, a man so full of regret and despair for the friends and family he has lost, he is constantly drawn to the brink of sanity.  He is brought out of his stupor by his desire to help the men on his bridge crew and his relationship with the spren Syl, and is a fantastic character to follow, especially when Sanderson spends time simultaneously examining his past and previous tragedies.  Each of these storylines also features a huge number of intriguing side characters, and the reader can get quite attached to a number of these, especially the members of Kaladin’s bridge crew, who unfortunately have a short life expectancy.

Those people who like a healthy dose of action with their incredible storytelling will not be disappointed with The Way of Kings, as it features an incredible number of battles and warfare throughout its various storylines.  There are so many different and unique action sequences throughout this book for the reader to enjoy, and the inclusion of the epic magical weapons and armour, Shardblades and Shardplate, in many of these scenes provide some truly awesome moments.  There are a number of fantastic large-scale battles throughout the book, often with the character of Dalinar leading the charge.  However, I always quite enjoyed the sequences where Kaladin and his bridge crew are forced to carry a massive bridge at the front of the army.  These scenes are always extremely intense as the bridgemen come under intense fire and many die in the attempts to cross the gorges that make up the Shattered Plains.  As the book continues, Kaladin and his crew experiment with a number of different techniques and strategies to try and stay alive during these assaults, with varied and intriguing results.

While all the above scenes are pretty epic, nothing can top the sequences where Szeth-son-son-Vallano unleashes his full potential.  Szeth has unique magical abilities and wields a powerful Shardblade so is quite a powerful opponent, even against Full Shardbearers (those wielding both a Shardblade and Shardplate, essentially indestructible warriors).  There are two great scenes where Szeth unleashes his abilities against his opponents.  The first time is one of the best opening scenes in fantasy fiction as he storms the palace of King Gavilar, taking out a number of opponents with his abilities.  Quite frankly, if this scene were to be the first thing that was shown in an adaption of this series, it has the potential to be one of the most epic opening moments in movie or television history.  This is actually topped later in the book, when Szeth falls into a trap against one of his targets, who utilises a number of Shardbearers against him.  This scene is great not only because it has a number of additional opponents for the assassin but because Szeth unleashes his full rage when he realises how many people his opponent has sacrificed to trap Szeth.  All of these action sequences are fairly epic, and are enough to make any action junkie extremely happy.

At this point, I have not had the chance to read any additional books in The Stormlight Archive, mainly as I have not had time to dive into such a big book with so many other great reads coming out this year.  That being said, I fully appreciate how much of a great introduction to this series The Way of Kings is.  It sets up so much of the universe and starts each of these major storylines and introduces several fantastic main characters.  I have no doubt that future books in these storylines will be awesome, and I really appreciate how well Sanderson introduces his series.  I fully intend to read the next books in this series soon, and my goal is to get through the second and third book in The Stormlight Archive before the fourth book is released in 2020.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Way of Kings and have to say it was an incredible way to enjoy this incredible book.  The publishers utilise two separate narrators, Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, who split the book between them.  Kramer reads the chapters told from male characters’ point of view, while Reading does the same for chapters told from a female characters’ point of view.  Both of these narrators are pretty epic and do an amazing job portraying their various characters and bringing them to life.  I would mostly recommend using the audiobook version of The Way of Kings because I find it helps the reader remember all the insane amount of information, detail and lore that the author has crammed into this book.  I also loved the way that the narration dragged me into the centre of some of these epic battles, and it is definitely one of the best ways to enjoy The Way of Kings.

Overall, The Way of Kings is an incredible piece of fantasy fiction and really lives up to the hype.  This is the perfect book to start exploring Sanderson’s work, and readers can expect a massive read, chock full of intricate and detailed world building, intense and unique action and a series of outstanding characters.  This is some of the best fantasy fiction you will ever read.  Clear out your calendar and make room to read this book.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

Dracul Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

You think you know the story of Dracula?  Prepare to have your understanding of one of history’s greatest horror novels completely turned on its head as Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew presents a captivating new story of horror based off Bram Stoker’s notes and his original version of the iconic book.

The year is 1868, and a young Bram Stoker has barricaded himself in the top room of an abandoned abbey.  This room has crosses carved on every wall, mirrors hanging from every angle and garlic smeared around the door frame, while Bram himself is armed with roses, holy water and a rifle.  Outside the room lurks an ancient evil, its greatest desire to enter the room and claim the man waiting within.  As Bram waits for the sun to rise, he writes in his journal, desperate to describe the events that lead to this moment.

The tale he tells is an intriguing tale of horror and mystery set in the midst of 19th century Ireland.  Bram was born a sickly youth whose constant illness stopped him from leaving his bed for most of his early life.  One of the few points of comfort in his life was his nanny, Ellen Crone, who nursed him through the worst of his maladies.  Bram seemed destined for a short life, until one day a miracle occurs and Bram’s sickness is cured by the mysterious intervention of Nanny Crone.  But as Bram and his sister Matilda investigate the suspicious behaviour and abilities of Nanny Crone, she disappears, leaving behind questions about who, or what, she really was.

Years later, it appears that Ellen Crone has returned, as strange and bloody events haunt the lives of Bram, Matilda and their older brother Thornley.  As they investigate further they find that the mysterious Ellen Crone has not aged a day, is accompanied by those who died years earlier and has a strange hypnotic hold over Bram.  But even as the siblings attempt to find answers, they soon realise a far more powerful and malevolent creature is hunting in Ireland, one who will forever change the life of the Stoker family.

This is one of the most intriguing books of 2018, as it is a reimagining of the origin of one of the world’s most iconic horror novels, Dracula, which was originally published in 1897 by author Bram Stoker.  The authors of this new book are the team of established horror writer J. D. Barker, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker.  This is not the first Dracula book that Dacre Stoker has had his hand in, as he also wrote the 2009 book, Dracula the Un-dead with Ian Holt, which serves as the official sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracul is a clever and compelling read that takes a deeper look at the story behind the classic horror novel.  The plot of this novel is apparently based upon Bram Stoker’s notes, journals and around 100 pages that were culled from the original draft of Dracula by his editors.  As a result, the authors of Dracul strongly hint that Bram Stoker and his family actually encountered a vampire, and that his experiences led him to publish Dracula as a warning to people about the dangers that were hidden around them and the apparent weaknesses of these creatures.  There is a great quote at the very start of this novel that the authors attribute to Bram Stoker and indicate was part of Dracula’s original preface: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

This new novel by Stoker and Barker is an outstanding piece of fiction.  Not only is it a powerful piece of horror fiction in its own right but it has a number of clever and intriguing connections to Dracula.  The horror elements of this book are fantastic, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the dread that surrounds the protagonists as they investigate the horrors that surround them and their family.  There are a number of great scenes throughout this book where the characters encounter supernatural elements that slowly seek to drive them mad with fear or horror, and the attacks come from a variety of sources.  I have to mention the fact that the monster who inspires Dracula is particularly fearsome in Dracul and the authors really paint him as a powerful and soulless being far beyond the comprehension of the human protagonists.  I really loved the overall story of Bram and the other Stokers as they find themselves bound to this adventure at an early age and slowly encounter all the horrors around them.  There are some very clever turns throughout this book, and there are some surprising twists.  This is a great chronicle of Bram’s life and the writers even try to answer some interesting unanswered questions, like why Bram Stoker left instructions to have his body immediately cremated upon his death, an unusual custom for the time.

I really loved the way that this story is told, especially as Stoker and Barker have set large portions of this story out in a similar manner to the original Dracula novel.  Like Dracula, a large part of Dracul’s story is told in an epistolary format, featuring a series of diary entries from Bram and Thornley Stoker, as well as several letters from Matilda Stoker.  This serves to provide the reader with a large amount of backstory to the Stoker lives and show how they initially met their first vampire and the crazy events that followed them uncovering her secret.  This epistolary format is used for around the first two thirds of Dracul, and these journal entries are interlaced with short chapters set in the story’s present, with Bram stuck at the top of a tower and an evil force trying to get into him.  These scenes are particularly awesome, as they show strange forces trying to get through the door in front of Bram, while the protagonists utilise a number of techniques to force it back.  As the book continues, the reader is given a view into why Bram is up in the tower, what he is facing and the truth to everything that is happening to him, revealing a completely different story than you were expecting.  All of this is a fantastic and unique way to tell this story, and I felt it added a lot to the book, especially as the lack of knowledge about what Bram was facing in the tower at the start of the book really increased the book’s early horror elements.  These notes are also an item within the story, as the characters combine their journals together and the letters to Nanny Crone appear in a number of places that the protagonists are exploring.  At one point, the characters even arrange some of the older journals together to form a more coherent story, indicating that these journals and letters formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and play into the idea that the events of Dracul could have actually happened.

While this book is a fantastic horror novel in its own right, fans of Dracula will appreciate how this book calls back to the original novel in a number of captivating ways.  For example, the major character of Nanny Crone has her backstory explored at one point and her real name is revealed to be Countess Dolingen of Gratz.  Fans of Stoker’s work may recognise her as a vampiric character featured in Bram Stoker’s 1914 short story, Dracula’s Guest.  While very little about this character was revealed in Dracula’s Guest, Stoker and Barker flesh her out in this book, creating a fascinating backstory for her and an interesting connection to Dracula, perhaps even explaining why she featured in Dracula’s Guest.  There are a number of other interesting features of Dracul that call back to the original novel.  For example, a large part of Dracul is set in Whitby, England, a major setting in Dracula.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of real life historical figure Ármin Vámbéry as a major character in this book.  Vámbéry, a noted scholar and a close friend of Bram Stoker, is considered by some to be the inspiration for Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and in Dracul he plays a similar role, understanding the threat that is before them and providing the Stokers with the tools to fight against the Vampires.  I also really appreciated the vampiric lore that Stoker and Barker put into Dracul, as the vampire characters only have the vampiric traits found around the time that Dracula was published, and not the ideas that have been included in more recent versions of the vampire legend.  As a result, Dracul comes across as an intricate and clever tribute to Dracula, which fans of the original novel will greatly appreciate.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker have produced an incredibly exciting and deeply fascinating novel that breathes new life into the familiar story of Dracula.  Setting the plot around the life of a pre-Dracula Bram Stoker and his family is an amazing idea that works incredibly well to create a dark and captivating horror story.  One of the more unique books of 2018, Dracul is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have an appreciation for one of fiction’s greatest and most iconic monsters.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Waiting on Wednesday – Tiamat’s Wrath

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.
Tiamat's Wrath Cover.jpg

In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday review, I will be looking at a book that is probably on the waiting list of every science fiction fan out there: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey. Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in Corey’s bestselling The Expanse series, which has been developed into the popular epic science fiction television series of the same name.  Tiamat’s Wrath is currently being billed as the penultimate book in the entire series.  I really enjoyed the previous book in the series, Persepolis Rising, especially as it set up the story for this final trilogy within the series, while also really raising the stakes for the entire The Expanse universe.  I, like many other readers, was very disappointed when Tiamat’s Wrath was delayed from December this year to March 2019.

This new book sounds like it will have some incredible plot elements to it, as the crew of the Rocinante are forced to fight a desperate war against the Laconian Empire, an old and powerful enemy that easily conquered the galaxy in the previous book using advanced alien technology.  At the same time, their captain, James Holden, is trapped on the enemy’s planet and will find himself involved in some political intrigue.  In the midst of all this, mysterious alien powers threaten everyone in the galaxy, which will ensure the return of Elvi Okoye and focus on her trying to get to the bottom of the threat while being hunted by the Laconian Empire. All of these story elements sound incredibly fascinating, and Corey already has a proven ability to combine several great storylines into outstanding overall narratives.

As a result, Tiamat’s Wrath sounds like it has the potential to be an amazing book, and is probably already a contender for the best science fiction book of 2019.  I am very much looking forward to checking out this book, especially as it will set up the final book in this iconic science fiction series.

Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer

Heads You Win Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the mind of one of modern fiction’s most controversial authors comes a two-in-one fantastic and elaborate piece of historical fiction that utilises an intriguing narrative device to create one of 2018’s most unique stories.

Young student Alexander Karpenko is the bright, talented and ambitious child of two hardworking citizens of the Soviet Union.  Living in Leningrad in 1968, Alexander’s dream is to become the first democratically elected president of his country.  However, when he is betrayed and his father is killed by the KGB, Alexander and his mother realise that their only hope is to flee Russia and make a new life for themselves in another country.

Arriving at the docks, Alexander and his mother are given a choice between two different ships: one heading to London or one heading to New York.  The decision is made by the flip of a coin, and Alexander’s life splits into two separate paths: one where he heads to Britain and one where he heads to America.  Alexander arrives in these countries with great ambition and a desire to succeed no matter what.

Over the next 30 years, in both these lives, Alexander finds success in a two separate ways.  He fights his way up from the bottom as a lowly immigrant to an influential person, overcoming obstacles and antagonists along the way.  Both Alexanders’ journeys are inspirational, but no matter what these two Alexanders accomplish, the fate of their home country is always on their minds, and the shadow of the Soviet Union constantly surrounds them.

Jeffrey Archer is a rather interesting individual, with a very eventful and controversial background.  A former British MP, Archer is probably better known for the various accusations of fraud he has attracted throughout his life, and he has even spent some time in jail as a result.  However, rather than let that ruin his public profile, Archer has used his experience and imagination to create a number of fascinating novels, many of which utilise aspects of his political, academic or professional life or expertise to some degree.  As a result, Archer is now one of the most high-profile authors in the world and has written over 20 adult novels, including the three books in his Kane and Abel series and the seven books in his bestselling Clifton Chronicles.  On top of that, Archer has also written a number of short stories, a couple of plays, several children’s books and his Prison Diaries, three non-fiction novels that chronicle his life in prison.

Heads You Win is an extremely fascinating novel from Archer, which takes his protagonist on two separate adventures through over 30 years of American and British history and life.  Archer utilises a very clever divergent timelines narrative device (think Sliding Doors), which creates two separate timelines around the different outcomes of one event, in this case, the outcome of a coin toss.  As a result, in one timeline, the protagonists and his mother get on a ship to London, while in another timeline they board a ship bound for New York.  This is a very interesting concept to utilise in this story, and one that works to create two separate narrative threads to follow.  Both of these storylines focus on the protagonist attempting to find his place in the country that he eventually ends up in, and then moves onto the protagonist becoming a powerful and influential individual in his own way, all the while dealing with the terrible people that seem to inhabit Archer’s world.

I rather enjoyed both of the separate storylines in this book, and had a lot of fun seeing the different or similar ways that the protagonist attempted to make his fortune in each lifetime.  The differences between these two storylines happen right away, as in the London timeline, Alexander and his mother find themselves on a nice ship with a friendly crew who mostly want to help, while the New York timeline finds them in a poorly maintained vessel with a self-serving crew who seek to exploit the two main characters.  I found it rather fascinating to see the way that their treatment and the environments they find themselves in change the way in which they act.  For example, Alexander’s experience in the English setting encourage him to seek the full Cambridge academic lifestyle, while his American counterpart was less focused on his formal education and learned more on the street.

Both of these divergent timelines feature an intriguing look at the cities and countries that the protagonists end up in, and both serve as a good historical backdrop to each of the main storylines, featuring several real historical events and some historical characters.  For example, the Alexander who ends up in the American timeline is forced to fight in the Vietnam War, while the British Alexander rubs elbows with a number of the country’s prominent politicians.  I liked how the divergent ways that the two separate protagonists gained their power and prestige matched the country that there were in.  The American Alexander became rich through his business acumen and financial brilliance, while the British Alexander went the academic route and eventually become deeply involved with the British political system, something close to the author’s heart.  Not only does this help match the locations and people that the protagonist deals with, but it allows the two separate stories to diverge out slightly, with the British storyline containing political intrigue, while the American storyline reads a little bit more like a financial thriller.  While the focus on the protagonist’s two adopted homelands is a great part of this novel, the protagonist’s history in the Soviet Union is a major part of this story.  The initial chapters capture the uncertainty and despair that inhabitants of the Soviet Union would have felt in the 1960s, while the character’s subsequent visits helped highlight the obvious differences between the Soviet Union and the countries that Alexander escaped to.  There is also a rather exciting reveal about one of the Russian characters towards the end of the book that will prove to be the most memorable part of Heads You Win, and is definitely something to look out for.

While I enjoyed the divergent timelines narrative device that Archer employed throughout Heads You Win I did feel that he could have done more with it.  I would have loved to see a bit more crossover between the two separate timelines, and, for example, see how key characters from one storyline would have fared without their Alexander in their lives.  Instead there is minimal crossover between these two separate storylines, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.  I am also not the biggest fan of what these quick crossovers revealed, as it strongly hinted that both storylines actually exist together at the same time, and as a result, there are two Alexanders existing in the world at the same time.  This is a bit of a weird twist, and while it does not negatively impact the vast majority of either storyline, it does result in a conclusion that some may find slightly confusing.  As a result, while this did slightly mark down my rating of Heads You Win, the split storyline concept is a fantastic and unforgettable part of this book and makes it quite a distinctive read.

This latest novel from one of the world’s most colourful professional authors is a fun, historical thrill ride that features a very unique and memorable narrative device.  With a great look at two different countries during the same historical time period and featuring two separate by similar stories of life, adversity and success, this is an extremely enjoyable novel that will appeal to a varied range of readers.  Heads You Win is definitely worth checking out, and I am planning to keep an eye out for the next read from Archer.

My Rating:

Four stars

Throwback Thursday: Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero Cover.jpg

Publishers: St. Martin’s Griffin

                       Blackstone Audiobooks

Publication Date – 3 March 2009

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to and reviewed the latest book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, Deep Silence, and found myself hooked on the insane, mad science based thriller adventure.  After enjoying Deep Silence and giving it a five-star review, I started checking out some of the previous books in the Joe Ledger series that I had not had a chance to read before, and found myself enjoying the plot concepts of the other books in the series.  The moment I finished listening to Deep Silence, I immediately jumped back to the first book in the series, Patient Zero, to review as part of my Throwback Thursday series.

When Baltimore detective Joe Ledger is assigned to a joint terrorism taskforce, he thinks it is an opportunity to fight back against the people responsible for 9/11.  What he was not expecting was to have a crazed man try to bite him on his first raid with the taskforce after discovering a warehouse filled with terrorists.  His elation about a job well done is destroyed when he encounters one of the terrorists again later that week.  There is just one problem: Ledger knows that he killed him during the first raid.  Someone has created a terrifying bio-weapon that can turn ordinary people into zombies, and worse, they have supplied this virus to a destructive terrorist organisation that plans to release it within the United States.

As the full extent of the horror being unleashed against them is revealed, Ledger finds himself recruited into a newly created covert organisation that was set up to handle extraordinary threats such as this.  Known as the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), this organisation wields the latest technology and the country’s brightest scientists under the command of the mysterious Mr Church.  As a member of the DMS, Ledger leads an elite team of combat specialists in the field in an attempt to contain any attempts to unleash the virus on the population and to destroy those who have already been infected.  As Ledger’s investigation progresses, he uncovers an elaborate conspiracy that will have devastating impacts for all of humanity.  But with the fate of the world in the balance, it soon becomes clear that there is a traitor within the DMS who has no qualms about unleashing a zombie apocalypse.

I have to admit that after absolutely loving Deep Silence, I had very high expectations when I started reading Patient Zero.  Luckily I was not disappointed and found that Patient Zero had a fantastic action based storyline that makes good use of its mad science elements to create an intense and very enjoyable novel that sets up all the elements for this future series.  I also chose to check out the first book in this series in its audiobook format, which, at just under 15 hours, is a great way to enjoy this high-octane story.

Hands down, the best thing about this novel has to be the zombies and the way that Maberry has created a compelling and intricate thriller story around this classic horror story concept.  The thriller aspect of this is really clever.  Rather than being the central antagonists themselves, the zombies are a tool being utilised in a wide-reaching conspiracy that the protagonists have to unravel in order to figure out the origins and endgames of the book’s true antagonists.  These thriller elements are quite detailed, and Maberry utilises a number of chapters told from the antagonists’ point of view to add some depth to the conspiracy and showcase the extent of their plot, as well the problems these groups have.  The protagonists also have to deal with potential traitors in their ranks, advanced science that they do not understand and a surprisingly organised, devious and well-equipped terrorist organisation.  All of this is an extremely captivating thriller storyline, and I love how Maberry has managed to utilise the book’s zombie element to help flesh this out.

Maberry has also created a unique and intriguing zombie origin for this book that is based on potential real-life science.  The zombies in this book are the result of a disease rather than a supernatural calamity.  They have been created by some advanced science and extreme mutations of existing diseases and viruses, such as prion diseases.  As a result, Maberry and his characters spend a lot of time examining the potential science behind this zombie virus, which pulls the reader in as they consider how close something this crazy could be to a reality.  I was really struck by the way that Maberry tried to show the horror that these creatures would inflict on the people who encounter them, and the sheer terror that they inflect on normal humans.  The point-of-view protagonists spend significant time explaining how terrifying and emotionally damaging it is to have to encounter and fight these infected people, as well as how guilty they feel about having to kill them.  There are quite a few parts of the book where the characters discuss how damaging these events are to them, and it really adds some emotional gravitas to this story.  Maberry is a prominent author of zombie fiction, so it is no surprise that he is able to create quite a number of awesome and terrifying scenes featuring the zombies as they attack and kill all around them.  There are also some interesting zombie deviations that appear and offer some unique elements to the story.  Overall this is an incredible and memorable addition to this story and one that will really appeal to fans of zombies and the horror genre.

Action is a major part of the Joe Ledger series, as the protagonist leads an elite special forces unit against all these elite scientific threats.  As a result, there are a huge number of action sequences throughout this novel and the reader is constantly left with a racing pulse.  There are so many great fast-paced elements throughout Patient Zero for action junkies to enjoy.  Maberry is always great at describing special forces tactics in his stories, and I enjoyed seeing them used against the unique threats in this book.  There are a number of excellent firefights throughout the story, and the author has a great mind to examining the psychology of a gun battle.  Maberry’s love of martial arts and close-combat fighting once again shines through in Patient Zero, as his protagonist is an expert fighter who has innumerable hand-to-hand fights with a number of different opponents.  While the above actions scenes are all extremely awesome, the best scenes have to revolve around the desperate fight between these elite soldiers and the horde of zombies that they encounter.  These scenes are really fantastic and watching the special forces characters fight tooth and nail against a horde of zombies becomes a captivating and powerful part of this book.  There are quite a few crazy action scenes throughout Patient Zero for the reader to look out for and which are defiantly a highlight of the book.  I personally found that listening to these scenes in the audiobook format really brought me into the centre of the action, and it was an excellent way to enjoy this element.

Patient Zero is an excellent introduction to the Joe Ledger series and contains a number of elements that will continue into the rest of the series.  I came to this book having first read the 10th and latest book in the series, Deep Silence.  As a result, I was really intrigued to see what characters were introduced in the first book and which ones do not appear in the final book of the series.  There are some interesting differences between Patient Zero and Deep Silence that I found quite fascinating.  For example, the opponents and technology in this first book are a lot more realistic, as Maberry has yet to start utilising the Lovecraft-inspired aliens which feature in some of the later Joe Ledger novels.  The head of the DMS, the mysterious Mr Church, also comes across as a much colder character in this first book, as well as someone who is more comfortable with civilian deaths and sacrifice if it results in the survival of the rest of the world.  That being said, there are some familiar elements.  Ledger is still an incredibly sarcastic and funny protagonist, and the author tries to highlight a huge range of varied viewpoints to show the whole range of the plot the DMS is trying to unravel.  Patient Zero serves as a great introduction to the DMS, and I really enjoyed seeing the early days of this organisation.  I also love how everyone is quite confused about what this organisation is and the mystery around Mr Church, who appears to have an incredible amount of influence and power in Washington.  For example, at one point he actually tells the president of the United States that he is wasting his time and hangs up on him in, an action an incredulous Ledger describes as “bitch-slapping the president”.

Patient Zero is an incredible first novel in Jonathan Maberry’s incredible Joe Ledger series and one that serves as a fantastic introduction for readers unfamiliar with this series.  Featuring all sorts of mad science, impressive action sequences, a five-star thriller storyline and a ton of amazing zombies, this is an outstanding novel and one that proves very hard to put down.  After loving this book, as well as the latest book in this series, Deep Silence, I am now fully determined to read the rest of the books in the Joe Ledger series.  Fully expect to see a review for The Dragon Factory very soon; I have no doubt that I will really enjoy that book as well.

My Rating:

Five Stars