The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown

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Publisher: Corsair

Australian Publication Date – 11 December 2018

World Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

An intense and exhilarating military thriller filled with advanced military robots duking it out across America, now that sounds like my sort of novel!  Prepare for an explosive technological thriller as Dale Brown, the bestselling author of the Patrick McLanahan series, returns with his latest novel, The Moscow Offensive.

For years, Russia’s ambition to conquer the entire world and defeat the United States has been growing, with its leaders unleashing a series of advanced weapons against the West.  Russia’s dominance was only held in check thanks to the actions of United States pilot Patrick McLanahan, who utilised America’s most innovative technology to counter the Russian attacks.  However, with McLanahan now believed dead, the brilliant and manipulative Russian president, Gennadiy Gryzlov, sets forth a new attack.  Secretly buying a large airfreight company, Gryzlov uses this proxy business to ferry weapons and military personnel into the United States undetected.  Identifying a string of high-value targets, Gryzlov attempts to cripple the United States from within, and strike its citizens with terror.

The only force that might be able to stand up to Gryzlov’s machinations is the legendary Iron Wolf Squadron and their parent private military company, Scion Aviation International.  Formed by McLanahan and former United States President Kevin Martindale, the Iron Wolf Squadron utilises their advanced Cybernetic Infantry Devices (CIDs), twelve-foot-tall piloted combat robots, whose technology and weapons are capable of overpowering conventional military forces.  Currently employed by Poland and its Alliance of Free Nations, the Iron Wolf Squadron is responsible for knocking back several of Russia’s attempted invasions and more ambitious bids for power.  However, their success in Poland has alienated America’s selfish and paranoid president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, who is determined to bring Martindale and Scion down.

Taking advantage of President Barbeau’s incompetence, Gryzlov is able to launch a series of attacks, placing the blame on the Iron Wolf Squadron.  Now targeted by both the Americans and the Russians, a small detachment of Iron Wolf Squadron CIDs, led by Patrick McLanahan’s son Brad, deploy to the United States to counter the Russians and reveal their involvement.  However, the Russians have succeed in reverse-engineering combat robots of their own, and are now fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the Iron Wolf Squadron.

Dale Brown is one of the world’s leading authors of the technological and military thriller genre, having written a huge number of high-octane, electrifying reads since the 1980s.  The Patrick McLanahan series is his main body of work and started in 1987 with his debut novel, Flight of the Old Dog.  This series has mostly focused on the adventures of its titular character, Patrick McLanahan, across a variety of different military situations, inside and outside of the United States armed forces.  These novels have generally been set around the same time as their publication date, meaning that the characters have aged and matured with the series.  As a result, in later years, Patrick McLanahan has taken a back seat from the action, with the role of main series protagonist taken up by his son, Brad McLanahan.  The Moscow Offensive is the 22nd book in the series, and continues with some of the storylines from the previous books in the series.  A 23rd book is already in the works, and The Kremlin Strike is set to come out in early May 2019.

I had not previously read any books in the Patrick McLanahan series before, and while I thought the synopsis sounded pretty awesome, I was not too sure what to expect from it.  After reading it I found The Moscow Offensive to be an incredible novel with some fantastic thriller elements and outstanding action sequences.  The overall story of this book is extremely compelling, and I had a very hard time putting this book down as I really loved this wide-ranging thriller storyline.  I was a little worried about coming into a series 22 books in, but I found that the author did a fantastic job in The Moscow Offensive of introducing the reader to his thriller universe.  Throughout this book, Brown provides the reader with ample descriptions and discussions about the book’s characters, technology specs and the relevant history of the various military organisations, countries and fictional military actions.  As a result, it is really easy for readers unfamiliar with Dale Brown’s work to come into the Patrick McLanahan series with The Moscow Offensive, and at no point while reading it was I lost or confused about any of the book’s plot elements.

The international thriller elements of this book and the utilisation of current world politics were some of my favourite inclusions in The Moscow Offensive.  I liked how the author inserted bits and pieces of real world political and social issues into his writing to create an intriguing and familiar background for the story.  On top of this, he also includes the more outrageous elements from his previous novels, including the Iron Wolf Squadron, whose pilots command high tech robots to stop Russia from invading Poland and other Eastern European countries.  This is a fun mesh of realistic and out-there settings which I found to be an incredible basis for this novel.

The intelligence battle between the United States and Russia has been a firm and dependable element for innumerable thrillers over the years, and Brown constructs a fantastic story around this battle.  The battle is more one sided in The Moscow Offensive, as Brown makes great use of an incompetent United States President character, the use of which has become a much more common element in fiction in recent years (hard to imagine why).  It is utterly fascinating to see the various ways that Brown comes up with to attack America and damage the country’s military infrastructure.  These attacks have a range of different purposes, from outright attacking the US military, to setting the President against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  All of these international and militarist thriller elements are an awesome part of this book, as not only do they help create a great story, but the reader is able to consider the realism of a such a story.

In addition to the cool international thriller elements of this book, I liked the deep look at military technology both real and fictional.  Brown, a former US Air Force aviator, has an excellent understanding of modern military hardware and the people that use them, creating an outstanding militaristic narrative as a result.  The descriptions and analyses of Russian and American weapons, planes and other vehicles are very intriguing and give the book another deep sense of realism.  Of course the most epic inclusions in this book are the CIDs, the large, manned combat robots that the Iron Wolf Squadron have utilised in several of Brown’s previous books to frustrate the Russians in battle.  These machines really amp up this series to new heights, and in The Moscow Offensive, Brown ups the ante by having the Russians develop their own combat robots in response to their defeats against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  This adds a whole new element to the book, as the United States is attacked by these machines and finally has to deal with the devastation they can cause.  Both sides having these machines is incredibly intriguing, as it really allows the author to examine the advantages of these potential machines in a military setting and showcase what sort of damage they could potentially do, even to their creators.  These advanced military elements are a terrific part of The Moscow Offensive, and I was really impressed with how Brown was able to combine it with the book’s other thriller elements to create a captivating read.

The Moscow Offensive contains a faction of Americans fighting a covert war with the Russians, with both sides utilising advanced combat robots.  As a result, this book is packed full of action and there are a number of fantastic high-tech battle sequences.  Without a doubt, the CIDs and their Russian counterparts really are the stars of the book.  These two sets of machines go up against a range of conventional military opponents in some massively destructive and very one-sided scenes.  Brown cleverly saves the combat between the two opposing groups of combat machine until the end of the book, and does a fantastic job at pumping up the hype for their eventual confrontation.  This final climatic battle does not disappoint, as the two sides engage in a brutal and devastating fight that is well worth the wait.

Dale Brown has once again provided the reader with an extremely fun piece of fiction, as he continues his ambitious, clever and entertaining Patrick McLanahan series.  As someone coming into Brown’s fictional universe for the first time, I was blown away by the intense action and outstanding thriller elements contained within this book and it is easily one of my favourite new series.  As a result, I highly recommend The Moscow Offensive to new readers and those existing fans of the series.  This is an excellent choice for anyone looking for some insane action or a truly unique story.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

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Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

Tens of millions of the years in Earth’s future, during the period known as the Thirteenth Occupation, humanity travels across space in sailed spaceships, with many crews searching for relics and treasures from previous eras of human and alien occupation.  For years, the greatest threat to these ships was the legendary pirate Bosa Sennen, whose deadly black ship, the Nightjammer, ruthlessly hunted down and ambushed hundreds of ships, killing all onboard, before vanishing back into the darkness.  Continuously moving her consciousness from one body to the next, Bosa was able to keep her reign of terror going for years, becoming a near-horrifying myth throughout space.  However, Bosa unexpectedly lost everything when she came up against the Ness sisters, Adrana and Fura, whose courage and daring resulted in them taking Bosa’s ship and her life.

Now the Ness sisters command Bosa’s infamous ship, rechristened as Revenger, and seek to make their own fortunes.  Veering away from the ship’s previous profession of piracy, the Ness sisters and their crew scavenge through old abandoned bases, attempting to find lost treasures or supplies as they slowly establish a new life for themselves.  But the legacy of Bosa Sennen is constantly around them, and not even her death is enough to end her legend.

While Adrana seeks to come to turns with the horrors she witnessed as Bosa’s captive, Fura becomes obsessed with finding Bosa’s hidden cache of treasure from her extended lifetime of piracy.  En route to the planet of Wheel Strizzardy to find a source who may be able to lead them to the pirate trove, Revenger is attacked, forcing the crew to brutally defend themselves.  Arriving at their destination, they find that ships they encountered were hired by a consortium of hundreds of planets who have placed a massive bounty on Bosa Sennen’s head.  What’s more, they do not particularly care if she is already dead, as long as her ship and all aboard are captured and destroyed.  Now, with an armada behind them and the crew of Revenger stuck on the gangster-controlled world of Wheel Strizzardy, the Ness sisters must find a way to escape with the information they need.  But are they prepared for the devastating secrets their search will uncover?

Reynolds is a highly regarded science fiction writer who has been writing since the 1990s.  Throughout his career he has written a slew of short stories, novels and other works of fiction.  His main body of work include the Revelation Space series, The Prefect Dreyfus Emergencies, the Poseidon’s Children series and several standalone novels.  Shadow Captain is the second book in his Revenger series, and follows on from the first book in the series, 2016’s Revenger.

Shadow Captain is an intriguing and enjoyable piece of science fiction that follows a mismatched group of semi-pirates as they navigate their way through space.  Reynolds has created an ambitious new universe for this series, and set an interesting and compelling story in the heart of it.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read the first book in the series, Revenger, beforehand, and this somewhat negatively impacted my enjoyment of this book, as I failed to understand several key aspects of the series universe.  Despite this, I ended up really liking this fantastic read and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

This main reason why my lack of experience with this series impacted how much I enjoyed Shadow Captain is the detailed new science fiction universe that Reynold’s has created.  This universe is pretty impressive, with a number of unique flourishes and a fascinating-sounding history made up of multiple, distinctive eras of widespread human occupation across space.  While this is a really fun feature, I found that Reynolds did a poor job of re-explaining a number of key features of his universe that were introduced in his first book.  Without these explanations I was somewhat lost during a number of important discussions that took place during the early parts of the story.  This was not a massively widespread issue and quite a few important elements were explained to the reader at various points of the book, although Reynolds did delay some explanations longer than necessary.  However, it was a bit frustrating not having an understanding of what some key elements of universe were, or what some slang or terms being discussed by the protagonists in the early parts of the book were, and there are still one or two elements that were mentioned in Shadow Captain that I am not 100 percent certain about.

I also did find the first third of the book was a little slow going, and it took me a while to really get into the story.  This was due to an early combination of not completely knowing what the characters were talking about at certain points, and some slower pacing as the author sets the scene.  While there were some good points to the start of the book, including an great summary of events in Revenger, and some intriguing scenes inside a ‘bauble’, an ancient and abandoned human construction in space, I did find it a little hard to stay interested.  However, I stuck with it and was very glad that I did, as the rest of Shadow Captain was a very entertaining and exciting read.  The last two thirds of the book are an excellent, fast-paced adventure, which features some great battles in space, an intrigue-laced period on the planet of Wheel Strizzardy and a hunt for a hidden trove of treasure.  I really enjoyed the part of the book set on Wheel Strizzardy, as it featured the crew going up against a bunch of ruthless gangsters on a backwater planet.  While there, they have to face off against a cannibalistic crime lord, deal with the secrets of aliens and attempt to outsmart several of the planet’s colourful inhabitants, all the while the bounty hunters chasing after them quickly get closer towards them.  This awesome last two-thirds of the book more than makes up for the slower start to the narrative, and makes Shadow Captain into a very good book overall.

One of the things I liked the most about Shadow Captain was the lingering impacts of events that occurred in the first book, which results in some fantastic character work from Reynolds.  In the first book, Revenger, the primary antagonist, Bosa Sennen, was a fairly impressive villain who perpetrated a number of terrible acts against many of the book’s characters.  Both of the book’s protagonists, the Ness sisters, were impacted in different ways by her actions.  Adrana was kidnapped in Revenger in order to be conditioned to become Bosa’s next host, a process that required her to endure significant torture and physiological abuse.  As a result, throughout Shadow Captain, Adrana must constantly deal with lingering issues impacting her psyche.  She is continuously angry throughout the book, and finds herself constantly holding back new and terrible thoughts that she is convinced are the last lingering aspects of Bosa’s mind and personality that might have been partially imprinted on her.  Fura is also severely impacted by the events of the first book, and has become angry and secretive, with goals she is hiding from her crew and even her own sister.  I liked the reasons behind Fura’s change in personality, as the character was forced to become more ruthless and paranoid in order to get into the mind of her foe, Bosa.  The focus on these characters’ changes in personality is an outstanding addition to the book that results in some significant and intriguing drama throughout the book.  I personally enjoyed seeing a villain’s impact continue so significantly after their death, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the various ways she lived, especially in these different but devasting impacts on the Ness sisters.

In the end, I am going to award Shadow Captain four stars out of five.  While I really enjoyed the book as a whole, the initial problems I experience with the early story and the somewhat ordinary job that Reynolds did re-explaining all of the significant elements of his universe lowered my overall rating.  As a result, I would highly recommend that readers interested in checking out Shadow Captain should probably read Revenger beforehand, as it may increase their overall experience.  There is still an amazing amount to enjoy about Shadow Captain, including an inventive science fiction setting, an entertaining story that ramps up as the book continues and some excellent character work surrounding the actions of the first book’s primary antagonist.  Overall, this is a great piece of science fiction that is well worth checking out, and any future books in the Revenger series will definitely be on my radar.

My Rating:

Four stars

Waiting on Wednesday – Queen’s Shadow and Superman: Dawnbreaker

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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I have never made any secret about the fact that I love novels that tie-in to movies, televisions shows, video games and comic books, with multiple examples featured on my blog and Goodreads page.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a huge number of tie-in novels are going to appear on my must-read list for the future.  This week I am taking a look at two intriguing young adult tie-in novels that are going to be released in early March 2019: the latest Star Wars novel, Queen’s Shadow, by E. K. Johnston and the fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, by Matt de le Pena.

I am a massive fan of both the Star Wars and DC Comics universes, and generally go out of my way to watch, read or play anything associated with these franchises and extended universe.  Honestly, I am going to get both of these books no matter what, but I may as well try and discuss what about these books I am most excited about.

Both of these books have some pretty awesome-sounding story premises.  Queen’s Shadow will apparently follow a young Padmé Amidala immediately after the events of The Phantom Menace, as she transitions from Naboo’s queen to its representative in the Galactic Senate.  I think it is a story with some potential, as this book is likely to become a bit of a political thriller/espionage hybrid, and will explore the politics of the Republic leading up to the Clone Wars.  No doubt Padmé will see some forms of corruption and intrigue, as well as the future Emperor’s devious plots.  I am also looking forward to Padmé getting a story to herself.  While Padmé started off as a badass ruler in the movies, most of her appearances were overshadowed by that frankly terrible romance with Anakin (he’s an angry, stalking man-child who attempted to hit on her by talking about sand, and the whole age gap is pretty darn creepy).  Therefore I will be extremely happy to get a story which will hopefully have no appearances from Anakin, and which will allow the character of Padmé to live up to her own potential (although I will not be surprised if creeper teenage Darth Vader makes some sort of appearance in this book).

While Queen’s Shadow has an interesting-sound story premise, I am actually a bit more intrigued about the proposed story in Dawnbreaker.  It sounds like it will focus on a young Clark Kent still living in Smallville as he learns to control his powers and find his calling as a hero.  Clark will find some dark secrets in the heart of his small town and be forced to investigate.  I have no doubt that this will be an intriguing re-imagination of Superman’s origin, and I am eager to see what sort of mystery or villain will be behind these terrible events.  Just from the synopsis alone, I think this book has potential, and I am looking forward to uncovering all of the story’s hidden secrets.

Another reason why I am hoping to get copies of both of these books is due to my previous experiences with these authors or franchises.  I have been in a real Star Wars expanded universe mood for the last few years now, but I am also excited to get another entry from E. K. Jackson.  I previously read her last entry in the Star Wars universe, Ahsoka, and I was struck by the author’s understanding of the character and the intriguing young adult storyline she was able to create.  As a result, I am eager to see this author’s treatment of another strong female Star Wars character, and I hope she will craft another great story.  I have not previously read anything from Dawnbreaker author Matt de le Pena before, but I have read some of the previous books in the DC Icons series before, such as the last book, Catwoman: Soulstealer.  I really enjoyed the unique ways the author of that book was able to alter the established origin story of Catwoman, so I am very eager to see the new and different story DC will allow in Dawnbreaker.

While I will be very happy with physical copies of both these books, there is a very strong chance that I will seek out audiobook copies.  Both Queen’s Shadow and Dawnbreaker will have their audiobook formats released at the same time as their paperback formats, and neither audiobook sounds like it will be too long, with Dawnbreaker apparently clocking in at around eight hours, while Queen’s Shadow is only a little longer, at 10 hours.  After listening to the audiobook version of the previous DC Icons book, Catwoman: Soulstealer, I know that they will do a good job with it and produce an enjoyable and easy-to-listen-to book.  I am really excited about the audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow.  Not only is it likely to have the same high-quality production value, music and sound effects that the previous Star Wars audiobooks have all featured, but it will also be narrated by Catherine Taber, the voice of Padmé in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated movie and television series.  With Natalie Portman extremely unlikely to narrate an audiobook, Taber is the perfect voice to get for this book.  Not only does she have a perfect Padmé voice, but fans of extended Star Wars universe cartoon shows will love to see her jump back into the character, especially as she is likely to voice the character again in the recently announced new season of The Clone Wars television show.  With the producers going all out for Queen’s Shadow’s audiobook format, it will be a hard target for me to miss and will no doubt be an incredible way to enjoy this book.

These two books will be among the first two tie-in books of 2019 that I seek out, so I am really hoping that I will enjoy them.  I think both of them have intriguing sounding stories, and I have had some great experiences with their respective franchises and their specific authors or series.  I am very likely to get the audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow, but I will have to see how I go with Dawnbreaker.  I have no doubt that I will really love both of these books, and I am definitely going to get copies of both.

The Blood of Rome by Simon Scarrow

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Publisher: Headline

Publication Date – 13 November 2018

 

One of the best and most prolific writers of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with another outstanding adventure of his two Roman protagonists, Cato and Marco.

In AD 55, Nero has recently ascended to the throne, and the Roman Empire prepares itself for war with its great rival, the Parthian Empire, which sits to the east of Rome’s territories.  This recent conflict is centred on the neutral border kingdom of Armenia, which sits between the two great empires.  Years earlier, the brash Iberian prince Rhadamistus conquered Armenia and declared himself king, ruling as a terrible tyrant.  In response, a recent Parthian backed invasion routed Rhadamistus from Armenia and placed a Parthian prince on the throne.  Unwilling to let this strategic territory fall into Parthian hands, Rome sends its greatest general, Corbulo, to the east to reclaim Armenia for Rhadamistus and meet any subsequent hostilities from the Parthians.

The recently promoted Tribune Cato and his long-time companion, Centurion Marco, desperate to escape the deadly politics of Rome, lead the escort for General Corbulo.  When an early opportunity to take Armenia with minimal interference from the Parthians presents itself, the only forces that Corbulo can rely on are Cato and Marco’s elite cohort of Praetorian Guards.  Placed in command of an advance force, Cato must lead a mixed column of Romans and King Rhadamistus’s troops through unknown and hostile terrain towards Armenia’s capital.  Forced to balance his orders against the desires of the unstable Rhadamistus, Cato struggles to maintain the strength of himself and his men.  With traitors and enemies all around them, can Cato and Marco succeed, or will they find themselves killed in a strange land?

Scarrow is one of the leading authors of the historical fiction genre, whose work over the last 18 years is comparable to such established authors of the genre as Bernard Cornwell, Ben Kane or Conn Iggulden.  The Eagles of the Empire series, which started in 2000 with Scarrow’s debut, Under the Eagle, is the author’s most distinctive work, and features some superb description of Roman military action.  In addition to his main series, Scarrow has also written several other great pieces of historical fiction.  He co-wrote the Roman Arena and Invader novella series with T. J. Andrews, which are set in the same universe as the Eagles of the Empire series.  He also wrote the epic Wellington and Napoleon Quartet, also known as the Revolution Quartet, which provided an impressive examination of the opposing lives of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington.  In addition to his series work, Scarrow has also written two standalone novels, The Sword and the Scimitar, which covers the siege of Malta, and Hearts of Stone, a dramatic novel set in Greece during World War II.  All of Scarrow’s novels are amazing pieces of historical fiction, and are really worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre.

The Blood of Rome is the 17th book in The Eagles of the Empire series, and follows the two protagonists’ return to Rome’s Eastern provinces for the first time since the eighth book in the series, Centurion.  I have always been a massive fan of this series and consider it to be one of the best pieces of Roman military fiction series on the market today.  After reading all of the previous books in The Eagles of the Empire series, I was particularly keen to get a copy of The Blood of Rome and eager to see where the protagonist’s latest adventure would take them.  After powering through it in a day, the result was pretty much what I expected: I loved Scarrow’s latest literary offering.  This latest book contains another fantastic historical fiction story, as the protagonists embark on an exciting campaign into an interesting new historical setting and it was great to see how the characters continue to evolve and progress in their lives.

Scarrow’s The Eagles of the Empire series has always boasted some incredible depictions of ancient Roman military combat, with most books containing several battles of varying size used to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman tactics and techniques.  This is continued in the Blood of Rome, with several battles featured throughout the book.  While most of these battles are small and quick skirmishes that differ from the traditional Roman battle sequences, the Roman soldier’s tactics and training and the effectiveness of their equipment are on full display, creating some amazing scenes.  In addition to the classic Roman legionnaires, which make up the bulk of Cato and Marco’s forces, Scarrow also focuses on the more unusual forces that the Roman’s used in combat, in the form of a cohort of auxiliary slingers, as well as a detachment of Roman siege equipment.  Both of these distinctive units get a good showing throughout the book, and both are fascinating to see in action.  The author also contains an interesting portrayal of Roman soldiers fighting side-by-side with allied troops, and it is intriguing to see the issues and advantages involved with such allies.  Overall, The Blood of Rome is another excellent example of Scarrow’s skill at portraying Roman military action sequences, and is one of the best parts of this book.

This book is also set in an extremely fascinating historical period and focuses on the rivalry between Rome and Parthia.  The continuous conflict between Rome and Parthia has always been a great literary background for many pieces of Roman historical fiction, and Scarrow has already examined it in some of his earlier books.  The conflict within The Blood of Rome continues to explore this legendary rivalry, and is an opening book in what appears to be a sequence of novels that will focus on an expanded war between the two rival nations.  This first book in this sequence looks at a rather minor opening conflict, played out as a proxy war within Armenia, but it contains a great examination of the politics at the time and the differences in battle style and tactics of the two nation’s militaries.  I really enjoyed the examination of the role of border kingdoms and provinces, such as Armenia, stuck in the middle of these two proud and ambitious empires.  The main story of The Blood of Rome, the invasion of Armenia and Rhadamistus’s attempts to claim the throne, are real pieces of history, and it was really interesting to see them utilised in this story.  All of the historical background for this book is incredibly fascinating and I had a great time reading about an amazing period of history.

The character of Rhadamistus was another intriguing addition to the book that added a whole new element to story.  Rhadamistus is a well-known historical tyrant and brutal man of ambition, and Scarrow did a good job showcasing the character’s casual cruelty and arrogance.  He was a pretty despicable character as a result, and watching the protagonists attempt to placate and counter his more ruthless actions added some dramatic twists to the story.  Scarrow examines certain parts of Rhadamistus’s life, and it was very fascinating to see his eventual fate and the role his reign as king had on the rival empires of Rome and Parthia.

I really liked Scarrow’s depiction of one of his main characters, Cato, throughout this novel.  Cato has never had an easy life, having been forced into the army at an early age, but the events of the last few books have been particularly hard on him.  As a result, certain incidents within The Blood of Rome finally push him over the edge, and it was a refreshing change of pace to see one of these usually indomitable characters show some real vulnerability.  This was a very realistic inclusion, and I thought it added some much-needed character growth to Cato.  It also served an essential story element, as his condition resulted in Cato being open to Rhadamistus’s manipulation.  This was a great part of The Blood of Rome that represents some intriguing adaptation within this long-running series.

Simon Scarrow once again produces an epic piece of historical fiction as he continues his outstanding The Eagles of the Empire series.  His long-running protagonists, Cato and Marco, are once again thrust into a fantastic historical military fiction adventure, and there are a ton of great elements for the readers to enjoy.  Another amazing outing from Scarrow, this is a highly recommended read for all fans of the historical fiction genre, as the author continues to produce some of the best Roman military fiction in the business.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Quick Review – OtherEarth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the superstar team of comedian Jason Segel and young adult author Kirsten Miller comes the second book in their Last Reality series, OtherEarth.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Simon saved his best friend, Kat, from the clutches of the Company and their high-tech VR gaming experience, Otherworld. But it was at a steep price. Now he, Kat, and their friend Busara are on the run. They know too much. About the Company’s dark secrets. About the real-life consequences of playing Otherworld. And about Kat’s stepfather’s involvement in everything. The group is headed to New Mexico to find Simon’s old roommate, who is a tech genius and possibly the only person who can help them reveal the truth about the Company before it’s too late and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is erased… forever.

Imagine a future in which you can leave reality behind and give in to your greatest desires. That future is now. And the future is terrifying.

Segel and Miller are an interesting team with some history, having previously written the Nightmares series together.  While Segel is best known for his film, television and comedy work, Miller is an established young adult author, having written two additional series.

I read the first book in this series, Otherworld, late last year, and it was one of the first young adult books I actually reviewed, as I had not professionally looked at this genre much before.  After reading and enjoying the first book a lot, I started checking out more young adult books in the last year, resulting in some really fun finds and some truly excellent reads.  As a result, I was very excited to check out the follow-up to this book and I was curious to see if I would enjoy OtherEarth the same way I enjoyed Otherworld.  I have to say that overall I had a lot of fun with this second book in the Last Reality series, and it had a lot of great and memorable elements to it.

OtherEarth follows on straight after the events of Otherworld, with the protagonists on the run from the Company.  During their previous adventure, the protagonists were able to determine that the Company had been experimenting on coma victims, installing them into their high-tech video game Otherworld, and killing anyone who learns about their secrets.  Simon, Kat, Busara and newcomer Elvis are now determined to expose the sinister actions of the Company while also saving the sentient programs that have come to life within the game.

One of the interesting things I liked about OtherEarth was the way that the authors split the story between the characters going on adventures within the Otherworld game and their attempts to evade and manipulate the company in the real world.  In order to solve their real-world problems, the protagonists are forced to venture into Otherworld in order to locate the consciences of people the Company have trapped within the game in order to obtain the information or resources to shut the Company down for good.  The blend between these in-game adventures and the subsequent real-world actions they take while evading and attacking the Company works really well and helps create an intriguing story.  Both parts of these stories have some great moments, and there are some fantastic twists throughout the book that will keep the reader keen to check out the final book in this series.

The focus on video games continues to be a major part of this book, and the authors offer up a bit of a critique of the future of this medium.  In OtherEarth, every player of Otherworld is a certifiable psychopath, as the world’s richest gamers buy up the extremely exclusive access to the game.  Watching the various players use the game to fulfil their violent desires and use the game to act as gods is quite eye opening, as is the protagonist’s growing addiction to the game and the combat mechanisms within it.  The programs within Otherworld who have gained sentience also offer a unique edge to the story and it is fascinating to watch them react against the players and creators they encounter.

There is a certain amount of humour and comedy throughout the book, although it is not as strictly comedic as other works by Jason Segel.  However, there are some pretty fun and amusing sequences throughout the novel.  The one that springs to mind the easiest is one particularly entertaining high-stakes sequence that suddenly devolves into a weird and comedic discussion about Dame Judi Dench in some very unusual contexts.  The combination of OtherEarth’s humour and the mostly serious nature of the story gives the book an unique flavour which comes together in a very enjoyable way.

From a young adult perspective, this book is probably best intended for an older teen audience as it contains some adult content.  While not as bad as the first book in the series, which contained a pretty inappropriate early scene in which the protagonist blackmails a couple of bitchy high school girls with their nudes, the intense action and some sexual content is probably not ideal for younger readers.  However, this book will be perfect for the older teen market, and most adult readers will have a good time reading this book.

Overall, OtherEarth is an excellent follow-up to Segel and Miller’s Otherworld, and continues their fun techno-thriller adventure.  With some great humour, an intriguing story and some interesting examinations of the gaming medium, OtherEarth is another exciting read for the older young adult audience.  This is a brilliant read that is well worth checking out.  I will personally am looking forward to the third book in the Last Reality series, OtherLife, which is coming out in October 2019.

My Rating:

Four stars

Tombland by C. J. Sansom

Tombland Cover

Publisher: Mantle

Publication Date – 18 October 2018

 

One of the best historical fiction authors in the world today creates another exceptional piece of literature with Tombland, the epic historical crime fictional book set during the fictionally unexplored events of Kett’s Rebellion.

It is the summer of 1549, and King Henry VIII has been dead for two years.  The young Edward VI is on the throne, while his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, rules the country as Lord Protector.  However, the country is slowly descending into chaos as a long, unsuccessful war with Scotland, religious conflict, poverty and the corrupt actions of the rich landowners are raising discontent among England’s peasant population.

In the midst of this, Matthew Shardlake is working as a lawyer for the King’s sister, the young Lady Elizabeth.  When a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is found murdered near Norwich and her husband, John Boleyn, is accused of the crime, the case could have political implications for Elizabeth.  Matthew is sent to organise a legal defence of John and to investigate whether or not he committed the crime.  Travelling with his assistant Nicholas, Matthew travels to Norwich and begins to examine the details of the case.  Meeting up with their old friend Jack Barak, the three friends are convinced of John’s innocence, but malevolent forces intervene to disrupt their defence.  As several deaths occur around Norwich, Matthew’s investigation is disrupted by events outside of his control.

A well-organised peasant rebellion erupts around the city, throwing everything into chaos.  Led by the charismatic Robert Kett, the rebels march on Norwich and set up a large camp outside the city, filled with thousands of disenfranchised peasants.  Captured by the rebels, Matthew and his companions find themselves in the midst of a dangerous and divisive situation.  Nicholas’s established views about the superiority of gentlemen sees him imprisoned, while Barak finds much in common with the peasants and their cause.  Matthew is forced to make a decision about where his loyalties lie, as Kett wishes him to assist in organising trials for the landowners they have captured.  As the rebellion drags on, Matthew finds evidence about the Boleyn murder case in the camp.  Following these leads, Matthew soon uncovers a terrible conspiracy that will not only endanger John Boleyn and his lawyers but could affect the fates of every peasant in Kett’s Rebellion.

C. J. Sansom is one of historical fiction’s most highly regarded authors, having written a series of amazing novels in the genre. His most significant body of work is the Matthew Shardlake series, which follows the titular lawyer as he finds himself forced to solve a series of elaborate mysteries during the Tudor period. All the books in this series are extremely impressive, as they all feature clever mysteries and an excellent use of the book’s historical setting.  In addition to this series, he has also written a standalone historical thriller, Winter in Madrid, as well as an alternate history novel, DominionTombland is the seventh book in the Matthew Shardlake series and Sansom’s first book since 2014, but considering the sheer amount of detail and the length of the text, this is hardly surprising.

Tombland is another epic novel from Sansom and one that I really enjoyed reading and ranked as one of my top 10 reads for 2018.  This book contains an outstanding combination of an intense and complex murder mystery and some amazing historical settings and storylines.  All of these elements are extremely amazing by themselves, but together they create one of the best reads of the year.  While I really loved this book, potential readers really need to set aside a lot of time to get through Tombland.  It has over 800 pages of story, with an additional 50 plus pages of the author’s historical notes and discussions about what events he included.  In addition, each page has such a rich amount of detail and plot that I found myself getting through this book at a lot slower pace than I usually would.  While it does take a while to get through Tombland, I personally believe it is well worth the effort, as the incredible story within had me hooked from the very first page.

This book has an intricate and powerful investigation angle, as Matthew and his associates attempt to solve a terrible murder that they believe their client has been wrongfully accused of.  The mystery part of this book is very well done and features an elaborate and intriguing solution that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book.  Sansom introduces a significant number of potential suspects, all of whom have substantial motives to kill the victim, designed to throw the reader off the scent of the real solution.  I liked how the case continued to expand out as the book went on, as the protagonists not only attempt to solve the original murder but must also investigate several murders committed to cover up the initial acts, as well as several attempts to eliminate John Boleyn.  There are several major and surprising twists throughout the investigation, as a number of small clues and characters that at first appear minor turn out to have major implications for the overarching mystery.  The solutions to the mysteries at the end of the book reveal a dark and powerful motive that has severe consequences for several of the characters involved.  Overall, Tombland contained an outstanding central mystery, which is guaranteed to keep the reader deeply curious and engaged with this fantastic text.

One of the most interesting features of Tombland is the fact that Sansom has set it during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.  This is a somewhat obscure piece of history that many readers might not be familiar with, but it is an incredibly fascinating event of English history.  Sansom does a masterful job of portraying the entirety of the rebellion throughout the novel and use it as a fantastic secondary storyline as the protagonists witness the beginning and end of the mystery.

Sansom does an outstanding job covering the events of this rebellion, including the events that led up it and caused the peasants to rise up against the rich landowners.  As a result, he expertly examines all the events and conditions that were making the peasants and poor of Norwich, and the rest of England, discontented with the way the country was being run.  In order to do this, a number of relevant elements are effortlessly inserted into the story and become key parts of the plot.  These elements include discussions about the poorly run war in Scotland contributing to armed deserters on the rebels’ side, talks about the political structure of the country and thoughts about the religious disagreements and schisms that were rife in the country during that period.  One of the most fascinating and significant elements that apparently led to the rebellion was the rich landowners’ focus on sheep farming and the creation of large sheep enclosures rather than the growth of traditional crops.  Before reading Tombland I would never have thought that sheep farming would have the potential to be a cause of rebellion; however, Sansom is able to explain in some significant detail how sheep farming and enclosures were negatively impacting many poorer individuals in England, and how it became a key part of Kett’s Rebellion.

In addition to covering the causes of the rebellion, Sansom’s narrative grows to cover the entire length of this intriguing event.  All sorts of elements of it are explored, and readers get an excellent idea of how the peasants were organised, what their motivations were, what sort of actions they were undertaking, how the government reacted to it and what the overall attitude of the participants was.  This was all boundlessly fascinating, and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the book it becomes harder to put the book down as they become extremely curious about what the overall fate of this group of people was, especially after the reader gets an idea of how big the rebellion was and what sort of victories they were able to obtain.  The final results of this rebellion and the long-term impacts it had on the country are really interesting to hear about, and I had an amazing time seeing all the significant events that occurred during this underexamined historical rebellion.

As always, I was immensely impressed with the sheer amount of research that Sansom did and the historical detail that resulted from it.  Tombland includes over 50 pages of the author’s notes about the event and the conclusions he drew from his extensive research.  While these 50 pages are extremely interesting to read, the revelations about how many of the events the protagonist witnesses actually occurred were astounding, and it sounds like Sansom was able to recreate nearly every significant event of Kett’s Rebellion throughout the course of Tombland, with some necessary dramatic flourishes to create the overall story.  It was amazing how many of these events actually occurred, and how many of the secondary characters were actually real-life people who had significant impacts on the outcome of the rebellion.  Readers will also be amazed by the historical details that Sansom has included on every page of this book and will have a hard time forgetting the events of 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion.

There are several other elements I enjoyed in this book, including the seamless ways that the investigative storyline combines with the historical background of Kett’s Rebellion.  So many characters that are potential witnesses or suspects in the murders that the protagonists are investigating become key figures in the historical events that occurred around Norwich.  Suspects and witnesses are also found in the rebel camp, and I liked how the key to crime and the downfall of the rebels were both in the same place.  I also enjoyed the examination of 16th century English legal procedures and the depictions of murder trials, and found the scenes featuring them very fascinating.  The book’s focus on the divide between the rich and the poor is also a great addition to the story and gets a significant look in throughout the entire book, and it is a discussion that is still relevant to this day.

C. J. Sansom once again hits his literary ball out of the park with Tombland, another five-star historical mystery that has the perfect combination of compelling mystery and intriguing historical elements. With an incredibly addictive overall narrative and a focus on a fascinating historical event that is rarely used in other pieces of historical fiction. One of my favourite reads of 2018, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who love a great mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars