Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

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Publisher: Century

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Two Star Wars fan favourite villains come together in the ultimate bad guy team-up in the latest novel from the extended universe icon, Timothy Zahn.  I reviewed the previous Star Wars release, Last Shot here: https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/star-wars-last-shot-by-daniel-jose-older/

It is the height of the Empire’s tyranny over the galaxy, but threats are always on the horizon.  When the Emperor senses a disturbance in the edge of imperial space, he despatches his two most capable servants.  One is his apprentice, the powerful dark lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, and the other is the master tactician, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  While both men are fiercely loyal to the Emperor, Vader and Thrawn are rivals for his favour and have differing views when it comes to command, combat, tactics and the future of the Empire, especially over the construction of the Death Star.

Vader and Thrawn travel to the planet of Batuu in the Unknown Regions, the vast, uncharted areas of space outside of the imperial galaxy.  As these two ambitious individuals attempt work together, they encounter a threat not only to the Empire but to Thrawn’s secret plans.  Can these two succeed in their mission, or will Vader’s distrust of Thrawn result in the Grand Admiral’s early death?

This is not the first time these two men have worked together.  Back during the Clone Wars, Jedi General Anakin Skywalker encountered Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Ascendancy.  Their chance encounter resulted in these two combining forces to uncover a Separatist plot that has resulted in the disappearance of Senator Amidala.  But as these soldiers, now known as Vader and Thrawn, grow to respect each other, their differing priorities may break their newfound alliance apart.  What connections do these two missions have to each other, and what will happen when their tragic past is brought into the present?

Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more interesting characters in the Star Wars universe.  Created by Zahn back in the 1991 story Heir to the Empire, Thrawn was the commander of the Imperial Remnant following their defeat in Return of the Jedi and was presented as the ultimate tactician and a major threat.  Appearing in several books, he quickly became a massive fan favourite character, and is easily one of the most popular creations in the entire Star Wars extended universe.  However, following the Disney buyout of the franchise, the books that introduced Thrawn to the Star Wars fandom are no longer considered canon.

But the Grand Admiral could not be denied and has since resurfaced in the new Disney official Star Wars universe in all his villainous glory.  First reappearing in the third season of TV’s Star Wars Rebels, voiced by Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn serves as one of the series’ primary antagonists, masterminding plots that devastate the heroes.  In addition, a new series of books dedicated to the character of Thrawn were commissioned as part of the new extended universe, which sees the return of Timothy Zahn to the fold.  The first of these books, 2017’s Star Wars: Thrawn, saw Zahn recreate  Thrawn’s origins to fit into the new universe and detail the rise of the alien officer to the rank of Grand Admiral in the xenophobic Imperial Navy.

In addition to the two novels mentioned above, Zahn has created a huge number of books since his first release in 1983.  In the last 35 years, he has released over 50 books, most of which were science fiction novels, as well as a number of short stories, novellas and graphic novels.  Of these books, 12 are set within the Star Wars universe, with many of them representing significant entries in the now defunct extended universe.

Thrawn: Alliances is evenly split between two separate timelines, both set in different parts of the Star Wars canon.  The main story is set after the events of the third season of the Star Wars Rebels television show, which is set in the period between the Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope movies.  The repercussions of that dramatic season finale are certainly felt within this book.  The Alliances storyline set in the past focuses on a time period after the end of the Clone Wars television show, which is set between the Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith movies.

Like in Zahn’s previous books, Thrawn once again shines as the best part of Alliances.  The cool, tactical way he approaches everything is a fantastic character trait, and I could almost hear Lars Mikkelsen’s voice every time Thrawn spoke in the book.  The author continues to portray Thrawn as an incredibly insightful being who is able to come to perceptive conclusions from the most mundane of items or actions.  These insights come into effect throughout the book as Thrawn comes up with some unique and effective tactics in his various encounters.  While Thrawn is an awesome character, Zahn has also included one of the greatest film villains of all time within his story.  Darth Vader is a great character throughout this book and has some destructive and memorable scenes.  Fans who enjoyed his devastating appearance in Rouge One will love to see him power through his opponents is this story.  There are also other excellent sequences where he shows off his renowned piloting skills, this time in a TIE Defender.  Readers will also see a great comparison between the styles of the two imperial commanders that really highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both characters.  Vader’s immense power and Thrawn’s tactical ability are on display as a result, but they also show off Vader’s barely contained rage and his limited ability to trust anyone.  Overall, this is a creative and thrilling use of two of these two amazing Star Wars characters.

For fans of science fiction action adventures, one of the most exciting elements of this book is the significant amount of space combat throughout the story.  Ship-on-ship battles in the darkness of space have always been some of the most impressive parts of the Star Wars screen instalments, and Zahn goes all out to showcase this in Alliances.  There are a huge range of these sequences, from smaller fighter-on-fighter combat, to demonstrations of the destructive power of a Star Destroyer, to even a large-scale space battle between multiple ships.  Zahn has spread the story across multiple characters, including imperial naval commanders and members of the stormtroopers, to really showcase these battle sequences, and this also allows him to present several boarding actions being led by the stormtroopers.  Seeing Thrawn in command of all of these engagements is also fantastic, as his well-documented tactical abilities come to the fore again.  These space engagements are a great part of the story and will prove to be exciting for the reader.

The use of the two split timelines is also an excellent way of telling this story and provides a number of noticeable benefits to the book.  There are a number of connections between the two separate storylines that come into effect throughout the book, and it’s always fun to view some hints about the past hidden in the storylines set in the present.  This split storyline is also an exceptional way to expand on the connection between Vader and Thrawn, two characters who, despite their respective service to the Empire, have never had much to do with each other before.  Having one storyline feature Vader and one storyline feature Anakin is also a smart way to show the differences between the two aspects of the one man.  Not only does Zahn examine how much Vader has changed since the Clone Wars but he also hints at the darkness already inside Anakin even back then.  This is further showcased by examining the relationship Thrawn has with both Anakin and Vader and how the character has gone from being a trusting individual to a creature more concerned about his ties to the Emperor.  That being said, Thrawn provides several taunting hints about knowing who Vader really is, and the reader is constantly wondering if the master tactician has actually worked out the biggest secret in the Star Wars universe.

Alliances also takes the reader to a more obscure part of the Star Wars universe: past the Outer Rim and into the Unknown Region.  There is less of a focus on the central story of Rebels versus the Empire which is heavily featured in the films and television series, and more on the exploration of an area never seen on screen.  This is an intriguing change of pace for this newer extended universe and opens up some interesting options for future books.

Legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn once again returns to what he knows best with another book focused on his most iconic and memorable character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Alliances sees Thrawn team up with Darth Vader in an electrifying and powerful adventure into the unfamiliar areas of the Star Wars universe.  This book is definitely geared towards the hardcore Star Wars fans, but it is also extremely accessible to the more causal science fiction reader, who will appreciate the inclusions of two sensational main characters, substantial action and combat, and a clever use of different perspectives and timelines.  This is another sensational read from Zahn, and I can’t wait to see where his greatest creation, Thrawn, next appears in the Star Wars universe.

My Rating:

Four stars

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

From award-winning fantasy author Naomi Novik comes an innovative novel that repackages the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and portrays a fresh and much darker take on a story no longer fit for children.

Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective village moneylender, whose kind nature is taken advantage of by their neighbours.  Forced to harden her heart and take over the family business, Miryem is soon successful in her new career and quickly turns her family’s fortunes around.  As her business grows, rumours soon spread that she has the ability to turn silver into gold.  But words have power, and this boast has been overheard by the king of the Staryks, powerful fairies who hold dominion over winter.  The Staryk king sets Miryem an impossible task: to turn three increasing amounts of silver coins into gold.  If she fails, she dies, but if she succeeds, an even worst fate awaits her: marriage to the cruel king in his harsh kingdom of ice.

Forced to find a way to escape her life of captivity, Miryem finds a common cause with Irina, the daughter of a powerful nobleman.  Irina has caught the attention of the Tsar and has used magical Staryk silver to win his hand in marriage.  However, the Tsar has a dark secret that could threaten the realm, and Irina must find a way to survive his terrible powers.  With no other choice, Miryem, Irina and Miryem’s servant, Wanda, embark on a daring quest to free themselves from these terrible forces.

The story within Spinning Silver is told through first person narrations from a variety of the characters featured within the book.  The three main characters, Miryem, Wanda and Irina, each have their own adventures and narrate the vast majority of the book.  Other side characters, such as Wanda’s younger brother, Stepon, and Irina’s old maid, Magreta, also narrate several parts of the book, although these sections are usually tied into the storylines of the main characters.

Naomi Novik is an exciting name in fantasy fiction, best known for her nine Temeraire books set in an alternate version of 19th century Europe in which the English and French fought the Napoleonic War with the help of dragons.  Her latest book, Spinning Silver, is more reminiscent of her 2015 release, UprootedUprooted, which is currently being looked at for a movie adaptation, was a standalone fantasy novel that utilised common fairy tale elements to create a unique and enthralling tale.

Spinning Silver is a dark and gripping fantasy story that is a loose adaption of the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  The book’s main character, Miryem, is this story’s version of the local village girl who runs afoul of the magical creature.  However, rather than being a miller’s daughter whose father claims she can weave straw into gold, Miryem is a money lender and businesswoman who earns gold through her business acumen and mercantile skill.  Her initial challenge to change a material, in this case silver, into gold is done in a much more practical way than making a deal with a supernatural force.  This is a fantastic and modern twist on a key point of this classic story, and Novik follows up with an inventive fantasy narrative which uses other key elements from the original fairy tale to an amazing effect.

Novik weaves several other unique story points from Rumpelstiltskin into this story, and readers will enjoy seeing several memorable elements of a story they have known since childhood inserted into a new and more adult fantasy tale.  For example, in the fairy tale, the imp Rumpelstiltskin appears to the miller’s daughter three times to spin straw into gold.  The first time he appears he demands the daughter’s necklace as payment for this gift, while during his second visit he demands her ring.  Novik reverses this in her story, by having Miryem use the silver she has been given to create a ring and a necklace, which she can then sell to raise the gold she requires.  Another example is the idea of the miller’s daughter having to fill three rooms with gold to marry the king and stay alive.  In Spinning Silver, the fairy king demands that Miryem turn all the silver in three rooms into gold or else be killed.  Novik instils her character with a certain amount of logic, which allows her to come up with a simple and clever solution to this task.  Other parts of the book that have their roots in the fairy tale include the fairy king only allowing Miryem to ask three questions every night, his unwillingness for anyone to know his name and the general death sentence hanging over her head should she fail any of her undertakings.  Novik’s ingenious use of elements associated with Rumpelstiltskin is a highlight of this book which results in a bold and captivating new story.

In many ways, this is a story about exploitation, as the main characters try to overcome their situation and take control of their own lives.  For example, Wanda and her bothers live with an abusive father, and Wanda attempts to use her connections to Miryem to earn enough money to flee.  Another character, Irina, is initially exploited by her father, who sees her as a political tool rather than a daughter.  However, her exploitation by her eventual husband, the Tsar, is far worse, and Irina is forced to think of some inventive ways to manipulate the Tsar and his demonic ally in order to gain her freedom and keep her people alive.  While Miryem does have a loving family, the entire village exploits Miryem and her family.  Miryem is forced to become a hardened moneylender and then must outsmart the Staryk king to stay alive.  Watching the characters change their nature and way of thinking in order to overcome the people using them is a fantastic piece of this story.

Like her previous book, Uprooted, Novik has set her book in an Eastern European landscape, during an unknown period of history.  Despite the Germanic origins of Rumpelstiltskin, the setting of Spinning Silver feels somewhat more like Russian or Slavic in origin, with Tsars and Russian currency included in the narrative.  The dark, snow-filled forests that surround the story’s towns and cities are the perfect backdrop for this story, and Novik does an amazing job of conveying the cold and hidden menace that they contain.  Several of the characters in the book, including Miryem, are Jewish, and Novik spends time exploring how this group were treated and exploited.  There are many examples of the other characters, especially the inhabitants of Miryem’s village, treating these characters poorly, which reflects the poor treatment that the Jewish population suffered throughout Eastern Europe, while also focusing on the role they often played as moneylenders.  Overall, the dark Eastern European setting helps turn the usual child-friendly story into something colder and more hostile, and it is fascinating to see Novik’s supernatural and fantasy elements included in this historical situation.

Naomi Novik has completely reinvented one of our oldest and best-known fairy tales into a deeply fascinating and captivating story.  This book highlights Novik’s fantastic understanding and utilisation of key elements of the original tale and makes full use of its deeply haunting setting and compelling dark twists.  Spinning Silver is an excellent outing from Novik, who once again shows why she is one of the most creative minds in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Throwback Thursday: The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

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Publishers: Paolini LLC, Knopf Books, Random House AudioBooks

Publication dates:

Eragon – 2002

Eldest – 2005

Brisingr – 2008

Inheritance – 2011

 

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.

For my first edition of Unseen Library’s Throwback Thursday series, I have decided to review an important series from my youth, the Inheritance Cycle.  Loved by many, strongly criticised by others, the Inheritance Cycle is a highly inventive young adult fantasy series with an epic narrative of good versus evil

Released between 2002 and 2011, the Inheritance Cycle is the first series from author Christopher Paolini and contains four books.  Since its initial release, the first book in the series, Eragon, has been adapted into a movie starring Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou and Rachel Weisz.  Despite its strong cast, the movie was a poor adaption of the source material and flopped both critically and financially.  As is often the case, however, the books are stronger than the film.

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I received a copy of Eragon as a birthday gift a short time after its initial release in 2002 and powered through it in short order, as I was instantly hooked by the ambitious plot, massive amounts of lore, and the inventive fantasy elements.  Following Eragon I made sure to grab every other book in the Inheritance Cycle as soon as they came out and I considered it one of my favourite series.  Having re-listened to the entire Inheritance Cycle a few times on audiobook I still massively enjoy the series, although I have noticed a few flaws with the franchise.

The books are all set in the world of Alagaësia, a land filled with classic fantasy elements such as dragons, elves, dwarfs and magic, in addition to a few unique creatures and powers.  Many years before the start of the series, an order known as the Dragon Riders were formed to keep peace and harmony in Alagaësia.  The elven and human Riders were bound to their sentient dragons and formed a lifelong partnership with them, gaining powerful magical abilities as a result.  Following years of peace, the Dragon Riders were wiped out by a crazed former member of the order, Galbatorix, and his followers.  After destroying the Riders and driving the dragons to near extinction, Galbatorix conquered the human kingdoms of Alagaësia and forced the elves and dwarfs into hiding.

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The first book in the series, Eragon, starts with the titular character, the young human Eragon, receiving one of the last surviving dragon eggs, which hatches forth the dragon Saphira.  Following an attack by Galbatorix’s servants, Eragon, Saphira and their mentor, Brom, are forced to flee their village of Carvahall and travel throughout Alagaësia before finally joining up with the rebel organisation, the Varden.  Along the way, Eragon and Saphira lose Brom, encounter the mysterious Murtagh, and rescue the elf Arya from Galbatorix’s captivity.

The following books in the series follow Eragon and Saphira as they lead the fight against Galbatorix while also learning about their powers and the history of the riders.  They encounter new mentors, find out terrible secrets about Eragon’s past, and eventually confront Galbatorix in a final battle.  At the same time, Eragon’s cousin Roran becomes a fugitive from the crown and must lead the entire village of Carvahall in an epic journey to the Varden.  There is also a focus on young political rebel Nasuada, who becomes leader of the Varden in the second book, and examines the trials and tribulations of leading a war against an all-powerful magic tyrant.

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The last two times that I enjoyed the books in the Inheritance Cycle, I chose to listen to them by audiobook, which are narrated by the outstanding Gerard Doyle.  Eragon is the shortest audiobook at 16 hours 27 minutes, while Inheritance, the finale, clocks in at 31 hours 28 minutes.  I am a huge fan of listening to books with large amounts of internal lore, history and background as it means I am less likely to miss an interesting fact or accidently skip over something with tired eyes.  As Paolini has created a massive amount of background lore and detail to accompany his story, I would heartily recommend listening to the Inheritance Cycle, as I felt that I absorbed so much more from the series as a result.  Doyle is an excellent narrator for this series, and at no point did I find his voice work either distracting or annoying.  His character voices are done very well, and he was able to produce excellent voices for both the male and female characters, as well as the various fantasy species.  I particularly enjoyed the Scottish accent that Doyle attributed to the character of Murtagh, as I felt it fit the character perfectly and made him very distinctive throughout the series.  Other features of the audiobook editions of this series that might appeal to potential listeners are the exclusive interviews with the author that were included at the end of two of the books.

Without a doubt, the best feature of this entire series is the sheer amount of imagination and lore that Paolini has invested in his book’s settings and history.  Each of the books in the Inheritance Cycle contains an incredible amount of background information, elaborate settings and a huge range of fantasy creatures, each with their own skills and history.  Paolini’s immense creativity is particularly evident in the series’ complex rules of magic that are a major feature of all the books.  The detailed explanation provided in Eragon is massively expanded upon in the later books in the series, and represents a significant part of the narrative.  It is also incredible to consider that Paolini created a completely new language for this magic.  With huge amounts of effort expended in creating complex lore, magic and history for all the races and peoples of Alagaësia, it is worth reading this entire series just to see all of these wonderful inclusions.

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There are some amazing story elements contained within the Inheritance Cycle books.  Paolini has created an epic fantasy adventure that draws the reader in and makes them care about the battle for Alagaësia.  This series has everything from impressive duels to large-scale battles that range from small groups of soldiers fighting to massive pitched battles and sieges.  There is also a significant amount of magic, politics, intrigue, romance, family and everything else that makes up a great fantasy story.  The main character, Eragon, is a classic hero coming into his great power storyline that fantasy fans will appreciate and enjoy.  However, I personally thought that the storylines that focused on Eragon’s cousin Roran were the best parts of the entire series, and business really picked up when he was made a point of view character in Eldest.  Roran is a much more grounded and likable character than Eragon, especially as he has to rely on his skill, cunning and luck to survive in a world where massive monsters and powerful magicians run rampart.

The first book, Eragon, is the only edition in the Inheritance Cycle that is told completely from the viewpoint of its titular character.  This book is a superb introduction to the series and spends significant time laying down the groundwork for the next three books.  Some great characters are introduced within this first novel, and there are a range of terrific battle scenes, the establishment of some fantastic relationships and some deep emotional moments.

The second book, Eldest, is another amazing part of this series.  Eragon spends a significant part of the book physically crippled following the final battle in Eragon, and Paolini’s descriptions of his despair and hopelessness are particularly vivid.  I am a real sucker for fantasy teaching sequences, so the scenes where Eragon learns magic, history and other subjects in the elven kingdom were really enjoyable for me.  However, the standout parts of this book focus on Eragon’s cousin Roran and the inhabitants of Carvahall.  Eragon’s actions in the first book results in Carvahall being targeted by Galbatorix and his forces, and Roran and the villages must first defend their home and then attempt to flee to the Varden.  Their exodus has some great scenes, including an extended voyage at sea, and is it fascinating to see how Eragon’s adventures impact the people he left behind.  Special mention should also be made of the scenes told from the viewpoint of Nasuada as she takes control of the Varden and leads its invasion of Galbatorix’s kingdom.  The final battle sequence of the book is another huge highlight, as the reader gets to see Eragon unleash his new powers in a massive battle scene.  The combination of the book’s three storylines into one conclusion is particularly enjoyable and epic, and there are some amazing battles and several important character revelations for the protagonist.

The third book, Brisingr, represents another fun addition to the series.  Eragon sets out on a journey of discovery during his arc.  Of particular note is the extremely intriguing look at dwarf politics and emotional reveals about Eragon’s heritage and family.  Roran’s arc is action-packed and exciting as it focuses on his role as a new member of Varden as he works his way up to becoming a high-ranking commander in the army.  The devastating conclusion to this book provides an emotional punch to the reader as one of the most likable characters meets their end.

Inheritance, the final book in the Inheritance Cycle, draws this story to its epic conclusion.  Readers who have enjoyed the first three entries in this series will have no choice but to see how this adventure ends.  Once again Roran’s arc shines through as the most enjoyable part of the entire book.  Not only does this arc focus on his own fantastic siege storyline, but it is through Roran’s eyes that we watch the massive battle for Galbatorix’s capital.  While Eragon and most of the other supporting characters are fighting Galbatorix, Roran is the only point of view character observing the fierce street-to-street combat happening in the city below.  Roran’s epic battles in this sequence more than make up for certain deficits with the main fight between the remaining Dragon Riders above.  That being said, Eragon, Arya and Angela’s earlier confrontation with a group of fanatical priests in tunnels below an ancient temple has a certain sinister edge to it that will appeal to some readers.  Offering a satisfying conclusion with a number of intriguing storylines left open for future books, this is a superb final chapter for the entire Inheritance Cycle.

While this series has a lot of great features and positive points in its favour, there are a few negative issues that need to be addressed.  When it was released, one of the main criticisms the Inheritance Cycle received was about its similarities to other works, and it’s honestly not hard to see some striking resemblances to the original Star Wars movies.  The Dragon Riders are extremely similar to Jedi, down to the unbreakable, colour-coded swords.  Obi-Wan Kenobi’s monologue from A New Hope about the destruction of the Jedi can pretty much be substituted for Brom’s description of the fall of the Riders.  The main character, Eragon, is essentially Luke Skywalker.  When we first encounter him he is living with a gruff uncle and suddenly receives a MacGuffin (in this case a dragon egg rather than a droid) that dramatically changes his life.  The arrival of the MacGuffin results in the death of his guardian and he flees the only home he knows with a mentor character.  The mentor character, Brom, the former Rider, has way too many similarities with Obi-Wan as he gives the protagonist his early, uncompleted training, provides him with his first weapon, and then dies about two-thirds through the first volume.  In the course of the first book Eragon also meets up with a rogue-like character, rescues a trapped female who he first sees from a distance (through magical scrying rather than a hologram) who later turns out to be a princess, and then flees to a rebel stronghold for an epic confrontation.  In later books Eragon meets a Yoda-like character in Oromis and finds he is related to the Darth Vader equivalent, Murtagh (after Murtagh obtains a red sword).  He eventually faces the Emperor-like villain, Galbatorix, at the very end of the series, and is forced to have a final duel with Murtagh in front of him.  Upon Galbatorix’s death and the utter destruction of his ultimate base, the heroes liberate the whole world from the control of the evil empire and Eragon sets out to teach a new generation of Riders.

These are only some of the more obvious similarities to Star Wars, and they are pretty glaring; however, this has never ruined the series for me.  Other criticisms about similarities to fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings, due to the inclusions of dwarfs and elves are a bit harder to credit, as these are hardly unique fantasy races anymore and Paolini does a fantastic job creating distinctive histories and traits for these races.

One thing that I really disliked about the series, however, is the terrible romantic arc between Eragon and the elf Arya.  Eragon pretty much falls in love with her the second he sees her, but Arya is strongly opposed to his romantic advances for various reasons.  Eragon’s unrelenting pursuit of her, especially in the second book, is very uncomfortable, and his depression and self-pitying attitude following her rejections are some of the worst parts of the series.  While their relationship in the third and fourth books becomes more natural and builds up as a result of mutual respect, I’m personally glad that Paolini doesn’t pull the trigger on their relationship at the end of the series.

I was also not a big fan of the extreme amount of self-doubt that Paolini injected into his protagonist, possibly to counterbalance the overpowered nature of Eragon.  Eragon spends way too long feeling sorry for himself, and the scenes where he deals with these feelings of inadequacy and doubt are some of the hardest to get through.  These character flaws, along with the Arya romance subplot, make it hard for the reader to like Eragon at times, and are part of the reason that I feel Roran is the better hero in the series.

While they did have some amazing parts, the third and fourth books in the series did seem to drag at times.  While I enjoyed Brisingr, when you view the whole series, I feel that Paolini could have probably gotten away with turning the series into a trilogy and simply incorporating some of the key story points into Inheritance instead.  The final conclusion of Inheritance is also a bit clichéd, especially when, out of nowhere, Eragon is able to use magic to make Galbatorix understand all the pain his actions have caused.  It’s a pretty weak way to end this epic confrontation, but luckily the reader isn’t too disappointed, especially with the epic Roran storyline down in the city ramping up the action in this part of the book.

Despite the above criticisms, I still rate all of the books in the Inheritance Cycle four stars out of five.  While this rating may be slightly bolstered by nostalgia, I do believe that this is an excellent series that will appeal to many fantasy fans, especially those younger readers who are only just starting to read the genre.  With an absolutely incredible amount of fantasy details, world history and established lore, I am still amazed by Paolini’s sheer imagination every time I go back to this series.  There are some electrifying storylines within all four of these books, as well as enough action, be it physical, mental or magical, to make any action junkie’s pulse run wild.  Readers looking for the next epic fantasy series to enjoy will find an incredible adventure awaits within the Inheritance Cycle.

My Rating (Series and Each Book):

Four stars

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

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Publisher: Corvus

Australian Publication Date – 25 July 2018

World Publication Date – 22 May 2018

 

The Devil’s Half Mile is a spectacular debut from new author Paddy Hirsch that combines history, mystery and financial wrongdoings into one gripping read set in the heart of historic 1799 New York.

On the eve of the 19th century, freshly graduated lawyer Justice “Justy” Flanagan, returns to his home city of New York after fighting the English in the Irish Rebellion.  Changed by his education and his memories of the vicious war, Justy is determined to investigate the tragic death of his father.  Most people believe that his father, a speculative trader, committed suicide following his role in the Wall Street Panic of 1792.  However, Justy is convinced that his father was actually murdered and he is determined to find out the truth.

After reconnecting with old friends and family, Justy starts his investigation by seeking work in the fledging Wall Street stock market.  As he begins to examine the fraud and the people that led up to the last great financial panic, he finds that his most promising leads are all long gone, while any new witnesses he encounters soon turn up dead.  In addition, Justy is drawn into the case of a brutal killer who is stalking the streets of New York, targeting women and leaving them dead and disfigured.

Establishing a connection between the death of his father, the 1792 crash and the current spate of murders, Justy finds himself embroiled in a massive conspiracy that could bring down the fledgling American nation.  With his friends in danger and with few people that he can trust, Justy must use all his skills to unravel this plot or else wind up the same way as his father.

The Devil’s Half Mile is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction that contains an impressive dark mystery designed to enthral the reader with its rich and compelling cat-and-mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonists facing him.  There are a number of great twists and turns throughout this story, as well as some truly surprising reveals, astonishing character decisions and dark and unique motivations for the underlying conspiracy.  Hirsch has also filled this book with some dark and tense moments, including a fantastic sequence in which the protagonists and his comrades engage in a shadowy fight aboard a docked ship, with both sides trying to find and outthink the other in the darkness.

A real standout part of this book is Hirsch’s fabulous use of the historical setting of New York.  Back in 1799, New York was a large town, quickly growing in size and importance.  The author includes some amazing descriptions of the city’s landscape and buildings during this period as the reader is brought back in time to this historical cityscape.  There is a real effort to showcase how the people of this era lived, and includes examinations of the people inhabiting the city and the young nation of America, with a particular focus on the criminals, the former slaves, the Wall Street traders and the fledgling police force.  The author has also done a spectacular job of conveying how people of New York felt during this time, as well as the sense they had about the importance and potential future of the city.

Hirsch has also ensured that this novel is filled with a huge amount of time-appropriate vocabulary.  This vocabulary is inserted throughout the entire story and gives it a real sense of authenticity and accuracy.  This also includes a comprehensive appendix that contains all the slang and terms used throughout the book.  If you have ever been keen to see ‘fart catcher’ or ‘snakesman’ used in context with a story, this is the book for you.

The book’s title, The Devil’s Half Mile, is a reference to Wall Street, the banking and stock-trading hub of New York.  Because of its prominence in the book’s overarching mystery storyline, significant time is spent examining the financial aspects of this young city, with a particular focus on one early example of modern economic history, the Panic of 1792.  The Panic of 1792 was a financial credit loss that rocked America only a few years after the country’s banking service was first introduced.  Hirsch, who has a financial background, explores the origins of this panic and does an amazing job tying it into the plot of the story and using it as a motive for the book’s various murders.  There are some absolutely captivating descriptions of the early Wall Street stock market, as the author explores its origns in coffee houses, how trade was undertaken, and the rules and early regulations that controlled it back then.  This examination of the stock market is a fascinating part of The Devil’s Half Mile, and all of it works well as a part of dark, murder mystery story.  Readers should also keep an eye out for mentions and brief cameos from American historical figures that were a part of the burgeoning bank scene, including Alexander Hamilton.

The author has created a great protagonist for this story.  While at first Justy seems to be a basic main character, with a huge range of skills and plans, such as being a lawyer, soldier, policeman and man familiar with the city’s criminal element, it soon becomes apparent that he has a dark side to him, as the author spends time examining his history during the 1798 Irish Rebellion.  The protagonist has been changed by his wartime experiences, and this plays well into the main story, as he tries not to let the horrors he experienced and perpetrated affect who he is.  This deeper examination of the character’s past also allows the reader a glimpse of the Irish Rebellion, a part of history rarely even mentioned in historical fiction.  Examining the cause, how it was fought and some of the people involved is a great story in itself, and I can easily see parts of it being used in future books in this series.  It also gives a bit of backstory for Lars Hokkanssen, the large half-Irish, half-Norwegian sailor comrade of Justy, who is definitely one of the best side characters in the book.

Filled with an enthralling overarching mystery and brilliant settings, this superb story is an amazing debut from newcomer Paddy Hirsch.  Featuring unique looks at underutilised parts of history and one of the best examinations of old school New York you’re likely to find in all of fiction, this is a highly recommended read and a great piece of historical fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Destroying Angel by S. G. MacLean

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Publisher: Quercus

Publication date – 12 July 2018

 

Prepare to experience an excellent multi-mystery story set deep in the heart of Cromwell’s Puritan England in Destroying Angel, the new book from historical thriller sensation S. G. MacLean.

It is 1655, a time of great change for England.  Oliver Crowell’s forces have cleared the Royalist armies from England, and exiled the King and his court to the continent.  The country is now in the grip of Puritan morals and the rule of Cromwell’s major-generals.

In York, Captain Damian Seeker of Cromwell’s army is responsible for hunting down Royalist elements hiding within the country and quelling dissent against the new regime.  His latest mission requires him to journey to the small village of Faithly on the Yorkshire moors to deliver the government’s new laws and ordinances and inspect the area for traitors.  In addition, a fugitive member of the King’s exiled court may have returned to his family estates near Faithly, and Seeker is charged with searching the village and the surrounding countryside.

But upon arriving in Faithly, Seeker bears witness to the tragic death of the young ward of the town’s commissioner.  Her death appears to be the result of poisoned mushrooms, slipped to her at a formal dinner attended by Seeker and several of the village’s notable citizens.  Was she the intended target or just a causality of a far larger game?  As Seeker begins to investigate, he soon finds that Faithly is a seething hotbed of resentment and fear.  Plots, secrets, lies and petty jealousies lie just beneath the surface, and many of the village’s inhabitants seek to use the dramatic changes in England’s rule for their own gain.  As Seeker attempts to navigate the chaos he finds in Faithly, a chance encounter from his past will change everything for the captain.

MacLean has once again delivered a fantastic and intensely thrilling piece of historical fiction.  Destroying Angel is the third book in the Captain Seeker series, and the seventh overall book from MacLean, who has also published four historical thrillers in his Alexander Seaton series.  In his latest book, Maclean has created several compelling mysteries that are expertly combined with the book’s fascinating historical background.

The main storyline of Destroying Angel is a fantastic investigation into the secrets and mysteries surrounding a small village.  When the book’s protagonist arrives at Faithly, the central location of the plot, he encounters a village that is brimming with hidden secrets and lies.  While the core mysteries revolve around the poisoned girl and the location of the fugitive Royalist lord, the protagonist is forced to uncover all of the village’s many secrets in order to find the solutions to the murder and treachery that he encounters.  The reader is presented with a massive stream of information about many of the characters in the book, all of which is cleverly woven into a series of intriguing solutions.  For example, the eventual motives for the poisoning of the commissioner’s ward are particularly captivating, and fairly tragic.  MacLean ensures that every single secret and hidden past is tied into the overall story and has created an outstanding narrative that highlights his substantial skill at historical mysteries.

In addition to the huge range of mysteries that MacLean has inserted into his book, there is also a significant storyline that will prove to be extremely interesting to fans of the previous books in the Captain Seeker series.  While performing his other investigations, the protagonist is thrust into an emotive storyline when he suddenly encounters ghosts from his past.  This new storyline is particularly intriguing as it goes deep into the protagonist’s past, uncovering old wounds and substantially increasing his emotional stake in the story.  Previous readers of this series will find it intriguing to see the usually implacable character of Seeker so rattled and unbalanced in this story.  The sudden and violent introduction into this storyline is particularly memorable and represents a noticeable change in the book’s tone, and is an excellent inclusion in an already fantastic read.

One of the most impressive and enjoyable elements of this book is the author’s spectacular use of an absorbing historical setting.  During this period, England is experiencing significant change, as the King and his followers have all been expelled from the country and a new group of people have risen in power.  Despite it being a significant part of England’s history, not too many historical fiction authors have chosen to set their books during this period.  MacLean does an amazing job of exploring the various aspects of this new regime and tying them into the overall plot of Destroying Angel.  This includes the new laws that have been put in place, the changes to local governance and the effect of military rule on the people.  However, one of the most fascinating aspects of the entire plot is MacLean’s examination of the Puritan moralities that were imposed on the people of England.  Destroying Angel focuses on how this affected day to day life, what role the new church had in England and how they treated priests who didn’t meet Puritan expectations.  One of the best parts of the book is the blatantly biased trial of the priest of Faithly village, as members of the populace and a special state examiner, known as ‘the Trier’, attempt to remove him from his parish.  The author has chosen a great location to showcase these examples of life under Cromwell, as the small village setting allows the reader to see how it affected normal, everyday people.  It also allows the reader to get an idea about some of the discontent and petty power plays that could have possibly resulted from the changes to the system.  Overall, MacLean has set his series with a deeply interesting time period that serves as the perfect background for a murder and conflict ridden story.

Destroying Angel is a fantastic and incredibly enjoyable novel that serves as an outstanding and powerful new addition to MacLean’s Captain Seeker series, combining several captivating mysteries with an outstanding and rarely utilised historical setting.  Readers will find so much to love about this book, which is historical murder mystery at its very best.

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Honourable Thief by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

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Publisher: Macmillan Australia

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

In her first solo novel, Australian Meaghan Anastasios has produced a deeply compelling historical drama that combines a thriller storyline with an archaeological investigation into one fun and invigorating narrative.

In 1955, world-renowned archaeologist and war hero Benedict Hitchens has been living a life of academic exile in Istanbul.  His promising archaeological career and professional reputation were destroyed after a chance encounter with the mysterious Eris, who held a horde of ancient treasures that validated the legends of the Iliad.  When Eris and her treasures suddenly disappear, Ben’s attempts to find her result in suspicion from the authorities and disbelief from the world at large.  His only tangible proof of the encounter is a small tablet that hints at the existence of Achilles, Ben’s archaeological obsession.

Now, Ben embarks on an ambitious plan to flush out the people responsible for Eris’s disappearance, hoping to bring her to justice and salvage his life and reputation.  The clues that he uncovers take him on a quest to find the tomb of Achilles, travelling through Greece, London and Turkey in order to locate one of the world’s greatest treasures.  However, a shadowy group is manipulating Ben at every turn.  Can Ben find the Achilles’s tomb before the ghosts of his past catch up with him?

Despite this being her first solo book, Anastasios is already a successful author, having previously teamed up with her husband to produce the historical drama The Water Diviner, which was adapted into a movie starring Russell Crowe.  While this book does not appear to be connected to Anastiasios’s previous work, both stories are primarily set in Turkey and focus on key events in the country’s history.  The Honourable Thief does contain a fun little callback to her other novel when its main character is at one point nicknamed ‘the Water Diviner’ due to his uncanny ability to find archaeological material.

The overall story that Anastasios presents with The Honourable Thief is a fantastic narrative that combines mystery and suspense aspects, great historical fiction elements, exploration of Greece and Turkey, and a whole lot of archaeology.  There is a great focus on the impact of World War II on Greece, especially Crete, as well as a detailed examination of Turkish history and culture.  Having the protagonist work on uncovering both an archaeological investigation and a conspiracy around missing artefacts is an interesting combination that creates a very interesting story.  The ties to the stories of the Iliad as the protagonist examines the possibility of finding the tomb of Achilles are fascinating and will appeal to fans of the classics.

The author has split The Honourable Thief into two parts and three separate timelines.  Part I of the book only briefly touches on the storyline set in 1955, and instead focuses on the events in the protagonist’s life that led up to the latest timeline.  One of these storylines looks at Ben’s early life during the 1930s and 1940s, including his experiences during World War II.  The second storyline is set in the early 1950s and focuses on the events that led up to Ben losing his reputation and the beginnings of his self-destructive life in Istanbul.  Part II of the book mostly contains the 1955 storyline, and follows Ben’s quest to clear his name.

This split into three distinct storylines is a great way to highlight The Honourable Thief’s intricate narrative, and it was interesting to focus on the earlier timelines in the first half of the book.  This also allows the main plot to continue almost uninterrupted in the second half of the book, ensuring that the reader can completely focus on the intense and electrifying adventure set around the protagonist’s hunt for answers.  This formatting decision was a great change of pace from other novels that slowly reveal their protagonist’s past through the course of the entire story.

While the vast majority of The Honourable Thief is told from the protagonist’s point of view, some very short chapters that buck this trend have been added into Part II of the book.  These smaller entries are inserted before the longer chapters that focus on the protagonist and contain brief, shadowy conversations between the story’s villains.  During these chapters, these hidden characters discuss and analyse the actions of Ben and work out ways to manipulate him further.  The identities of these conspirators are not revealed within these chapters, which builds intrigue as the reader tries to work out who they are.  These short chapters are a terrific addition to the book, as they provide the story with some short, but stimulating, breaks in the narrative.  It also adds a completely new perspective to the story and allows the reader insight into the machinations of the book’s antagonists.

Anastasios has created an interesting and memorable protagonist for her excellent story.  When Benedict Hitchens is introduced, he is a disgraced and self-destructive character who does not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the audience.  However, the author’s clever use of the separate storylines allows the reader to view his backstory, which explores his obsession with finding Eris and Achilles.  Both earlier timelines are vital in explaining the character’s motives and emotional baggage, turning Ben into a tragic and sympathetic character.  It is also fascinating to see the changes that have happened to the character during the various timelines.  For example, his experiences change his entire outlook on life and make him more likely to engage in reckless actions.  It also changes his style of archaeology as he goes from the academically accepted practice of carefully digging trenches and laboriously recording every single detail, to a more reckless technique reminiscent of a tomb raider like Indiana Jones.  Anastasios has included an interesting character flaw for her protagonist: despite him being a brilliant archaeologist, he keeps falling for a series of blindingly obvious manipulations, which becomes quite frustrating for the reader to watch.

The reader may find it is possible to predict many of the book’s various twists well in advance, and that lessens the impact of the story.  The eventual reveal of who the antagonists are also was not too uprising.  However, there is one significant, if not slightly ridiculous, twist in the last few pages of the book that nobody is likely to see coming.  While these negative aspects are slightly detrimental to the story, I felt that the all the book’s other amazing elements more than make up for it and turn The Honourable Thief into a captivating and highly enjoyable read.

This fantastic novel is a superb first solo outing from Anastasios, who has crafted an excellent story of betrayal, mystery and adventure, all bound together with archaeology and history.  Cleverly utilising three separate timelines into one compelling narrative, The Honourable Thief is a powerful and distinctive read that will appeal to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars