Timeless by R. A. Salvatore

Timeless Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 4 September 2018

 

From one of fantasy’s most legendary writers, R. A. Salvatore, comes another electrifying adventure of swords and steel, as Salvatore once again presents a thrilling tale of his iconic protagonist, the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

Centuries ago, the city of Menzoberranzan gave birth to a drow whose talents with the blade were unsurpassed by any other practitioner.  This drow’s name was Zaknafein.  Desired by an ambitious noble house and its twisted Matron, Malice, Zaknafein would become a pawn in the battle of intrigue and positioning that have eternally plagued Menzoberranzan.  His only relief from his arduous life was his friendship with the young mercenary Jarlaxle.

Years later, a young Drizzt Do’Urden fled the city and the violent ways of his people.  However, his escape was only capable thanks to the twofold sacrifice of his father, Zaknafein, who not only allowed himself to be sacrificed to the dark goddess Lolth but also willed his resurrected body to its absolute destruction in order to stop its hunt for Drizzt in the catacombs of the Underdark.  Not only was Zaknafein his father; he was also the man responsible for Drizzt’s moral code and, most importantly, the man who taught Drizzt how to fight, turning him into the most skilled sword wielder in all of Faerun.

But now, after years of Drizzt’s adventures on the surface world, something truly amazing has happened: Zaknafein has been returned to life and has found his way to the surface world.  No-one is certain how he has been resurrected or why, but Zaknafein is determined to be reunited with his son, even if he has changed far more than he could ever imagine.

The world has also changed in the last few years.  The Sword Coast is undergoing a period of rare peace.  The dwarves, led by Drizzt’s friend King Bruenor Battlehammer, rule in Gauntlgrym, while the city of Luskan is secretly ruled by Jarlaxle and his mercenary band, Bregan D’aerthe.  With their territories connected by magical gates, Bruenor, Jarlaxle and the halfling community of Bleeding Vines have formed an alliance, ensuring the security of the realm.  However, the ambitious and greedy Lord Neverember, ruler of Neverwinter, is a constant thorn in their side as he plots to steal power from the lands around him.  While usually only a minor nuisance, Neverember has been making deals with a mysterious noble house of Waterdeep and a minor dwarven clan for vast sums of money.  As the allies investigate further, they uncover the start of a destructive demonic conspiracy that could destroy all they have built.  What foul plans are being hatched, and what will happen with Drizzt and Zaknafein find themselves in the middle of a demon stronghold?

R. A. Salvatore is one of the most experienced and enduring authors of fantasy fiction in the world today. Having written more than 60 fantasy books since his 1988 debut, Salvatore has created a number of worlds and characters across his career, from his 12 books in the Corona universe, which includes the 2018 release Child of a Mad God, to his Chronicles of Ynis Aielle trilogy, The Crimson Shadow series, The Cleric Quintet and The Spearwielder’s Tale trilogy. Salvatore is also somewhat infamously known for his foray into Star Wars fiction, with his 1999 release, Vector Prime, which saw the canonical death of Chewbacca in the original expanded universe, a decision that has since been retconned following the Disney acquisition of the franchise.  However, his most iconic and popular books would have to be his long-running series that follows the adventures of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

The character of Drizzt Do’Urden was first introduced in Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard, which is also the first book in The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Icewind Dale trilogy is set within the Forgotten Realms universe, a large-scale interconnected collection of fantasy books from a range of different authors, all set within the titular Forgotten Realms, a spinoff location of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying franchise.  The Icewind Dale trilogy featured a band of powerful characters including Drizzt, the dwarf chieftain Bruenor Battlehammer, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar, the halfling thief Regis and Bruenor’s adopted human daughter, Catti-brie.  While these characters all had their own adventures within this series, it was clear that Salvatore had intended to focus his series on Wulfgar and make him the main protagonist.

However, the character of Drizzt proved to be particularly popular with the fans.  A large amount of this may be a result of the characters anomalous nature, as not only is Drizzt a dark elf living above the surface, but he was one of the few good dark elves in fantasy fiction at that point in time.  The dark elves, also known as the drow, are a race of dark-skinned elves who live in the Underdark, the dark catacombs that lie under the continent of Faerun, in the world of Abeir-Toril.  In the Forgotten Realms universe, dark elves are generally an evil and self-serving race who consider themselves superior to the other races in the Forgotten Realms and often conduct destructive raids against the surface world.  As a result of this popularity, Salvatore chose to focus on Drizzt more and more as his series progressed.  This included establishing the character as one of the greatest practitioners of the sword in the Forgotten Realms, as well as introducing an equally matched adversary, Artemis Entreri.

This focus on Drizzt continued into Salvatore’s second Forgotten Realms series, The Dark Elf trilogy, which was a prequel series to The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Dark Elf trilogy focused on the birth of Drizzt in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, a female-led society dedicated to the worship of the demonic spider god Lolth.  While this is where Drizzt was raised and first learnt how to wield his iconic dual blades, the character of Drizzt never fit in, except with his father Zaknafein, who tried to teach him that the dark elves, especially those dedicated to the worship of Lolth, were evil.  Drizzt would escape Menzoberranzan at the end of the first book in the trilogy, Homeland, and spend the next two books exploring the world outside the city, eventually coming to the surface and finding his home in the Icewind Dale.  Since then, Drizzt and his companions have undergone a number of adventures both above and below the surface of Faerun, with numerous changes impacting these protagonists.  Timeless is the 34th book to feature Drizzt or his companions, and is one of the few ongoing series still being produced in the Forgotten Realms universe.

Timeless is the first book in Salvatore’s new Noname trilogy, and while the series is invariably going to focus on Drizzt, this first book mostly takes a look at the returning Zaknafein.  As a result, the majority of the story is set in the current chronology of Salvatore’s universe and sees Zaknafein attempting to find his place in the new world he has returned to, while also exploring a new threat to the Companions of the Hall (Drizzt and his friends).  There is also a second timeline that is set many years before the events of Homeland and focuses on the early life of Zaknafein.  While both storylines are enjoyable, I found myself drawn more to the prequel storyline, which focused more on the elaborate and exciting intrigues of the drow and how Zaknafein and Jarlaxle became the drow we all came to know and love.  The contemporary storyline is mostly focused on the reuniting of Zaknafein and Drizzt after their many years apart, both in and out of text.  Their emotional reunion forms the heart of this storyline, while Zaknafein’s exploration of this new world he finds himself in is an intriguing part of the book.  A side effect of this is that some of the longstanding characters, such as Wulfgar and Bruenor, have a reduced role in the book.  While I hope they feature more later in this trilogy, I felt the story was able to survive without them.  This book also spends a lot of time setting up the storyline and threats that will form the focus of this new series.  To that end, Salvatore has done an incredible job, creating several intriguing storylines that readers will enjoy following in future books and presenting the protagonists with a number of potential threats for the series.  However, Salvatore has also ensured that the reader will be hit with some severe emotional gut-punches in this first instalment, ensuring that they are dragged into the next book in this trilogy.  I enjoyed going back and forth between these two separate storylines.  Each of these storylines complemented the other one perfectly and highlighted the character of Zaknafein in more detail.

While The Icewind Dale trilogy and the series that followed it are excellent pieces of fantasy fiction, my favourite Drizzt Do’Urden series has always been The Dark Elf trilogy, which I consider one of the best origin story arcs in all of fantasy fiction.  As a result, I was always going to enjoy any novel tied to this prequel trilogy.  Timeless contains a number of call-backs to this original trilogy and works to provide the reader with some interesting and unexplored backstory for the great character of Zaknafein, including how he became associated with the house of Do’Urden.  It also shows the formation of his distinctive character traits, such as his sense of mercy, his hatred of the female dark elves who enslaved him and his intense rebellion against the drow’s patron goddess, Lolth.  Some of the most emotional parts of this original trilogy revolved around Drizzt and Zaknafein as they attempted to escape from the harsh landscape of Menzoberranzan and Zaknafein’s eventual sacrifices to save his son from Lolth’s evil grasp.  Therefore it was amazing to see the two of them finally reunite after all these years in the most appropriate manner possible: a duel.  Watching Drizzt slowly realise that the person fighting against him is actually his long lost father is incredible and something that I really enjoyed.

It was also a lot of fun to see the earlier days of one of my favourite characters, Jarlaxle.  Jarlaxle is a flamboyant and deceptively cunning drow mercenary who is one of the most compelling characters in Salvatore’s books.  The character was first introduced in the second book of The Dark Elf trilogy, Exile, and quickly revealed himself to be a very memorable character.  Salvatore utilised him in a number of his follow-up series, and even gave him his own trilogy with Artemis Entreri.  I was therefore very happy to see him in both timelines of Timeless, as it provides the reader with some great entertainment as well as answering some interesting questions, like how he came up with his distinctive look.  His bromance with Zaknafein was another fun part of both storylines, and I liked seeing the previous connection these two great characters had with each other.  Overall, fans of Salvatore’s preceding books, especially The Dark Elf trilogy will love Timeless and become engrossed in seeing one of the most impactful characters in Drizzt’s life return after more than 20 years and 30 books.

As you would expect from a novel about Drizzt Do’Urden and Zaknafein, two of the most pumped-up sword users in all of fantasy fiction, there is an absolute ton of action and swordplay in this book.  Throughout the course of Timeless, the father and son duo engage in a number of exciting battles and extravagant duels as they face off against a variety of different foes in both of the book’s timelines.  There is so much going on in this book for readers to enjoy, from battles against demonic foes to Zaknafein and Jarlaxle taking on the most devious of drow opponents they can find in the prequel timeline.  The halfling Regis, who is generally one of the most entertaining characters in Salvatore’s books, also has an amazing sequence as he infiltrates a hidden vault, using a combination of alchemy, daring do and the well-honed thieves’ instincts and skills he has been displaying since The Crystal Shard.  Jarlaxle also steals any fight scene he is involved with, using his various magical devices and hidden weapons to cause all manner of chaos against his opponents, resulting in some of the most entertaining parts of the books.

However, easily the best action sequences have to be the duels between Drizzt and Zaknafein.  These two blade masters are generally regarded as the two best fighters in all of the Forgotten Realms and have not faced each other since the early 1990s.  As a result, Salvatore presents several highly detailed duels between the father and son.  These duels are written in incredible detail and Salvatore does a fantastic job highlighting the speed, intensity and skill that these two combatants have as they battle against each other in scenes which hark back to their original amazing duels in Homeland.  Ultimately, Salvatore is once again able to capture the magic that these two combatants had in their original appearances and their fights take on a completely new edge with the emotional intensity of these characters’ reunion.

Salvatore has once again provided his readers with an exhilarating adventure that pits the monsters and villains of the Forgotten Realms against your favourite fantasy heroes.  This is definitely a book that will have the most impact for existing fans of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, and as such I really enjoyed Timeless.  While newer readers may have a little trouble following the plot after 34 books worth of backstory (39 if you include The Cleric Quintet), Salvatore’s writing will ensure they get an electrifying adventure that will encourage them to look back at the original books in this series.  An outstanding fantasy adventure from one of the best writers in the business, this is fantastic read that is well worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

The Chaos of Now by Erin Lange

The Chaos of Now Cover.jpg

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

From one of the most intriguing authors of modern young adult fiction comes this powerful story about bullying in the modern cyber world and the potential impacts our choices can have on those around us.

One year ago, a student at Haver High, Jordan Bishop, walked into the school cafeteria and committed suicide by setting himself on fire, a reaction to the relentless online bullying he was experiencing.  Since that event, life at Haver High has not been the same.  Not only do the scars of Jordan’s actions remain but radical legislation brought in to combat cyberbullying ensure that students’ online lives are openly monitored by federal cybersnoops.

Eli Bennett is a young hacker who is desperate to graduate and leave town in order escape his father and his father’s new girlfriend, Misty.  Eli is happy enough at school with his only friend, Zach, although he wouldn’t mind getting to know the beautiful Isabel.  But when he is approached by fellow hackers Seth and Mouse, he finds himself drawn into an entirely new challenge.  Seth and Mouse were Jordan’s friends, but have had to keep their relationship with him a secret to avoid backlash from the other students.  Desperate to get some sort of justice for their fallen comrade, they are seeking a way to get back at those students who drove Jordan to kill himself.  Their idea is to create a website where Jordan’s bullies can be publicly shamed, and they need Eli to make it untraceable to the authorities.  Despite being haunted by a previous hacking mistake, Eli agrees to help, interested in the potential of this sort of website.

Calling the website ‘Friends of Bishop’, the site provides the students of Haver High with an anonymous forum to post videos about bad behaviour in the school.  With the help of a few bombshell videos, the site becomes a hit, and Eli and his friends believe they are making some real changes.  With the cybersnoops desperately try to shut down the site, the hidden Friends of Bishop revel in their notoriety and the praise of many of their classmates.  But when their quest for justice takes a nasty turn, Eli finds himself facing the real-world consequences of his actions and must try and work out what the right thing to do is.

The Chaos of Now is the fourth book from the talented and at times controversial young adult author, Erin Lange.  Lange is probably best known for her 2012 debut novel, Butter, which focused on a bullied obese boy’s plan to eat himself to death on a live internet broadcast.  Her next two books, Dead Ends and Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah also looked at the lives of socially isolated high school students, as well as the consequences of bullying behaviour.  The Chaos of Now takes a deeper focus on extreme cyberbullying and the potential impacts it can have.  I absolutely enjoyed The Chaos of Now and powered through it in less than a day as I became absorbed in its fantastic narrative, its emotional and moral heart and its very intriguing elements and warnings.

This book contains a poignant and well-thought-out story that takes its protagonist on a captivating adventure as he is faced with a series of moral dilemmas and explores the resultant consequences of his decisions on himself and those around him.  There are some incredible emotional scenes as the main characters examine their anger, grief, guilt and internal moral compasses when they look back at what they did or what they failed to do.  There is also a heartrending plot twist towards the end of the book which paints the entire narrative in a completely new light while also upping the stakes for the protagonist and his friends.

At the centre of this incredible book lies a powerful message about the modern epidemic of cyberbullying and the dangers of our modern computer based world.  Within the context of the story, the protagonist is drawn into a quest for justice after a young man who is bullied online commits suicide.  The architects of this revenge are the victim’s friends, who feel guilty for not standing up for their friend and not coming forward after his death.  As part of their quest, they create an anonymous website where embarrassing and incriminating videos can be posted about the people who drove Jordan to commit suicide, as well as videos about any other bullies or people the protagonists believe need to be taken down a peg.  Lange does an incredible job exploring all the aspect of this cyberbullying, from an examination of the events that led up to Jacob’s suicide to the impacts of the posted videos on the people they are shaming.  Lange does not try to shape this as a black and white issue; instead, everything that occurs has the potential for negative consequences.  For example, throughout the course of the book, the protagonists post several videos, each of which appears to have different levels of embarrassing or incriminating footage.  While the potential impacts of some of these videos appear to be minor, some are later revealed to have major consequences for the people involved.  At the same time, the more explicit videos have huge, life-altering consequences for the people involved.  Through the course of her narrative, Lange shows the full effect of these videos, whether they are extreme or seemingly innocuous, and shows how the people’s lives are affected and how other people treat them because of what is revealed.  Often these outcomes are quite devastating, and the protagonists, having become cyberbullies themselves, are left examining whether their victims actually deserved to have their lives ruined in this way, and if their actions can truly be considered justice.  The final message of this book, that cyberbullying or any form of negative online actions can have severe and often unforeseen consequences, is quite powerful, and I thought that Lange did an incredible job highlighting this throughout her novel.

Another intriguing part of this book is the extreme way the government attempts to deal with the problem of cyberbullying.  In this book, following the extreme suicide of Jordan, the government introduces harsh and controlling rules about internet privacy for students and gives government officers known as cybersnoops the ability to monitor everything young people do on the internet.  This is a thought-provoking reaction, and one that could potentially be used in the real world to address the problem of cyberbullying.  Readers will be interested to see Lange’s thoughts on such a program being introduced and how the youth impacted by it may react.  The resultant story comes across as a cautionary tale.  While more needs to be done to combat the issues of cyberbullying, Lange’s stories suggests that certain approaches could be just as problematic, as many of the protagonist’s actions are as a result of the restrictions imposed upon them.

I really enjoyed the coding aspects of this book, and it was fascinating to see the various computer and coding terms included throughout the story.  Lange’s ensures that these technical aspects are explained to the reader in a clear and concise manner so that even technical luddites like this reviewer are able to have a good understanding of what is going on in the story.  Readers of The Chaos of Now should also take note of the various ways in which the internet or someone’s personal electronic devices can be used against them, and is definitely an informative inclusion.

Lange’s focus on her protagonist’s personal relationships is another great part of this book, and provides an invaluable social heart to this novel.  At the start of the book, Eli only has one friend, Zach, a fellow coder who serves as Eli’s social and hacking conscience.  When Eli makes friends with Seth and Mouse, he is happy to have new friends and works with them on their website.  But, as the book progresses, Eli’s relationship with Zach suffers as he constantly hides his dodgy actions with the Friends of Bishop website.  It is interesting to see how Eli is forced to assume the more moral and cautious role with Seth and Mouse, who are much more obsessed with revenge than Eli is.  Having assumed this role, Eli feels a lot more guilt for the group’s actions, as he knows he should do more to curtail their more reckless actions.  This is further compounded when Eli gets angry and momentarily abandons his moral position, and the resultant actions cause significant harm.  The later part of the relationship with Seth and Mouse is very intense and contains one hell of a climactic scene.  The Chaos of Now also contains the heart-warming story of the growing relationship between Eli and his father’s girlfriend, Misty, who becomes one of the most likable characters in the entire book.  I also enjoyed the relationship between Eli and the bully Malcolm who Eli has several negative encounters with at the start of the book.  While Eli at first wants to destroy him like the other bullies at Haver High, his discovery of Malcolm’s deeper problems and the future awaiting him makes Eli rethink his position.  This focus on the protagonist’s relationships is an extraordinary part of the book, which weaves into the story very well and plays a big part in the protagonist’s decisions and actions.

The Chaos of Now is a great piece of young adult fiction that provides an amazing insight into one of the key issues affecting the youth of today.  With some mature themes, this book is definitely intended for the slightly older teen audience and is probably most appropriate for high school students who are a similar age to the characters of this book.  As this book provides an intriguing and powerful insight into the modern day issue of cyberbullying and presents a look at the extreme consequences that could result from these actions, I would strongly recommend it to these students, as they would be most interested in the message and story that it contains.  While not intended for older readers, the content of this book is instantly relatable for anyone who has ever been to high school and is aware of the current issues surrounding cyberbullying and problems with the internet.

Lange has created a terrific book which I felt covered some of the issues around cyberbullying perfectly.  Featuring a heartfelt and at times crushing story that tries to understand the different sides of this complex problem, this is another superb and memorable release from an incredible young adult fiction author.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly Cover.jpg

Publishers: Zaffre

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

Prepare to have your fear of the dark reignited in this suspenseful and creative new novel from one of the best horror/thriller writers in the business, which takes the reader on one hell of an adventure.

The world is full of many secrets, cover-ups and mysteries, all of which have been hidden from the public by the academic elite.  At least, that’s what Nolan Moore would have you believe.  Nolan is an amateur archaeologist and former screenwriter whose web series, The Anomaly Files, attempts to uncover weird things from history.  Derided by the experts, The Anomaly Files has a devoted following of conspiracy theorists which Nolan hopes to turn into a television deal, and his latest episode might just be the break that he needs.

Following clues left by an explorer in 1909, Nolan and his production team travel to the Grand Canyon, hoping to find a hidden cave that may contain evidence of an ancient civilisation unrecorded in history.  For once, Nolan appears to be right, as the team manage to find the opening to a cave high up in a remote part of the canyon.  Exploring, they find a cave system filled with mysterious items and artefacts unlike anything ever discovered in this area before.  Their elation at this unique archaeological breakthrough is quickly quashed when they find themselves trapped within the cave, cut off from the outside world.

As their lights start to fade and their supplies begin to dwindle, Nolan and the team hold out hope for a rescue.  However, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong.  Something alive is entombed with them and there is far more to this cave than they could have ever imagined.  As the team try to survive an increasingly desperate situation, Nolan must uncover the secrets of the structure they find themselves trapped in before they all die in darkness.

Michael Rutger is actually a pseudonym for bestselling author Michael Marshall, who has also written as Michael Marshall Smith.  Rutger has been writing since 1994 and is known for his intriguing science fiction novels, which often have a strong horror/thriller element to them.  The author is probably best known for his creepy 2002 release The Straw Men, which spawned two sequels, but his bibliography is littered with a number of other powerful and terrifying novels.  Fans of Rutger’s previous work will no doubt enjoy the quick reference to The Straw Men contained within The Anomaly, and it will be interesting to see if Rutger goes back to that series in the future.  I chose to listen to The Anomaly on audiobook.  The audiobook is narrated by Brandon Williams, and, at just under 10 hours in length, it doesn’t take too long to get to the heart of this great story.

One of the most enjoyable things about The Anomaly is the tense atmosphere that Rutger instils with his skilled writing and terrifying creative elements.  The reader really gets a sense of the desperation and despair slowly creeping up on the characters as the story progresses, even if they attempt to keep a brave face with each other.  With a limited and dwindling number of lights being held by the characters, Rutger is able to create quite a few opportunities for his protagonists to be forced to crawl around in the dark in this hostile environment.  The oppressive darkness takes a real shape during the book and at times has a near physical sense to it as the characters deal with it in different ways.  I felt that the story contained a well-balanced combination of action, exploration, archaeological and scientific exposition, despair-filled periods of rest, several gruesome and traumatic scenes and a surprising amount of humour from the characters.  However, even as the characters crack jokes at each other, you can feel the darkness surrounding them and you are constantly wondering what is going to happen next.

Special mention needs to go to Rutger’s creation of The Anomaly Files webcast show that was a major feature of the book’s early plot and the main plot reason that this group of characters are in this situation.  The author spends significant time describing the creation and filming process behind this show, and it’s intriguing how similar it sounds to some real-life conspiracy theory shows or broadcasts.  This accurate portrayal of a web show adds a lot of realism to the story, especially as it becomes clear that the characters are in over their heads and are different from the usual group of leading experts or military types you’d usually find in this type of novel.

I am not going to go into too much detail about the mystery of the cave as I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  Trying to figure out what exactly is behind the events affecting the protagonists is a big part of the experience, and too many details could potentially ruin the book’s impact.  Suffice to say, this central mystery is a very unique and creative idea from Rutger that is made up of a variety of different elements.  It was very intriguing to see the full extent of this central idea be revealed to the protagonists as the story progresses and readers will be astounded by what Rutger has come up with.  This mystery is made up of an interesting mixture of aspects from a number of different genres, and the author combines them together into one very intriguing conclusion with some massive implications.  I really enjoyed this exploration into the weird, and some of the things that harassed the protagonists as a result of the central mystery element worked very well with the tense nature of the story.

One of the defining features of The Anomaly is the strong focus on the characters entering the cave.  The readers grow to really care for these characters, and quite a lot of time is spent exploring their past and showing them as people who don’t deserve to be trapped in this terrible situation.  Most of the book’s focus is on the protagonist and narrator Nolan Moore, who is the cynical host of The Anomaly Files.  Nolan is a great central protagonist to have tell this story, as he is an observant character who has witty and at times piercing insights into his fellow characters while also providing the reader with his detailed examinations of the locations around him.  Despite coming off as a bit arrogant at the start of the book, the character’s brutal honesty about himself, as well as the exploration of certain parts of his past, does a lot to humanise him to the reader and make him into a character you can really care about.  This humanisation is furthered by his attempts to save his team and the extreme guilt that he feels for having brought his team into this place.

While Nolan is a great central character, Rutger also spends a significant amount of time focusing on the side characters, who in some ways are just as important as Nolan to the book’s overall story.  My absolute favourite of these characters had to be The Anomaly Files British producer, Ken, who spends the entire time quipping, swearing and generally making the most sarcastic comments he can, no matter how dire the situation gets.  Most of the book’s humour comes from Ken’s dialogue, as he makes it clear he’ll be joking and insulting the world right up till his death.  While this sort of character seems an odd choice for a thriller/horror novel, I felt his sarcastic attitude and comments fit the tense tone perfectly as he encapsulates a lot of feelings a normal person would have in that situation.  Ken is also one of those characters you can’t help but love and who you really, really hope will survive all the terrible stuff happening around them.

Molly the assistant producer and Pierre the cameraman also get a significant amount of focus in the book and are really good side characters.  Molly goes from being the most calm and collected character at the start of the book to the person most affected by the darkness and atmosphere of the cave.  Watching her try and work through her issues is quite inspiring, and there is even a descent exploration of the root of these deeper issues.  Not much of Pierre’s backstory is shown; however, the reader gets a good sense of his character throughout the book, and Nolan’s changing opinion and growing admiration for him mirrors the reader’s thoughts on him.  Other main characters include the ambitious reporter, Gemma, and Feather, the new age hippy who acts as a representative of the show’s sponsor.  Both of these characters get some decent exploration in the book, as well as some great scenes that make them stand out in their own ways.

I really enjoyed the audiobook version of The Anomaly.  I would definitely recommend it for anyone interested in finding out more about this compelling story.  I felt that having this book read out to me helped expand on the story’s tension and dark atmosphere, and it was a fantastic way to enjoy this amazing story.  Brandon Williams’s narration of the audiobook is excellent, and his voices for the characters are a highlight of this format.  Williams does a great job capturing the book’s point-of-view character, Nolan, very well, and the audience gets a real sense of the character’s cynical nature and inner thoughts through the terrific narration.  I absolutely loved the voice that Williams created for Ken, as he gives the character a very distinctive English accent that fits Ken’s sarcastic personality perfectly.  The accent is just wonderful and actually reminded me a lot of Matt Ryan’s voice for John Constantine in some of the modern television shows, especially when he swears (‘bollocks’, for example, is used multiple times).  The rest of the voices that Williams creates work well for the other characters and allow the readers to distinguish between them, although the less said about the ‘South African’ accent for minor character Dylan, the better.

With a powerfully intense atmosphere, The Anomaly is an exceptional horror/thriller from bestselling author Michael Rutger.  This is an amazing book, and readers will have a lot of fun trying to unravel the book’s central mystery, while desperately hoping their favourite characters survive this chilling adventure.  Addictive and terrifying in equal measures, this is an outstanding book that comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a weird, thrilling or horror based read.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Release Date – 11 October 2016

 

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.

The apprentice lives.  One of the best Star Wars characters that originated outside of the live-action movies returns in this action-packed, character-driven novel, which follows Ahsoka Tano’s adventures after the destruction of the Jedi Order.

Those people familiar with my previous reviews may have noticed that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several pieces from the current Disney Star Wars extended universe in the last few months.  Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I have watched and enjoyed the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels animated television shows.  Both of these shows are very well done, can be appreciated by a varied audience and contain a large amount of the classic Star Wars heart and respect for the franchise’s lore and history that was missing in some of the more recent movies.  While many memorable characters were introduced in these shows, perhaps the most significant to the lore is the titular character of this book, Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice.

For those of you failing to remember Anakin having an apprentice in the live-action movies, you are not going crazy; Ahsoka has yet to appear in any live action movie.  She was instead introduced in The Clone Wars animated movie and served as one of the main characters of The Clone Wars television series, all of which take place in the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Despite being one of the most popular characters on the show, Ahsoka would leave the Jedi Order at the end of the fifth season of The Clone Wars and only appear in the sixth season as part of a short vision sequence.  As a result, fans of the both the show and the character were frustrated and confused about what Ahsoka’s fate was and whether she had survived the events of the third prequel movie.  Fans didn’t get their answer until a couple of years later, at the end of the first season of Star Wars Rebels, where it was revealed that Ahsoka had survived the Jedi purge, becoming a member of the early Rebel Alliance.  Ahsoka, now wielding a pair of white lightsabers, became a key character in the second season of Star Wars Rebels, in which she was still an incredibly cool and powerful warrior.  She was utilised to perfection in this new show and had what is easily the best scene in the entire run of Star Wars Rebels: her long-awaited confrontation with Darth Vader.  The sheer emotion and intensity as Ahsoka finally came face-to-face with her old master and discovered that he was responsible for the fall of the Jedi was just amazing and is one of my favourite moments from all of television.

Following her appearance in Star Wars Rebels, Disney commissioned a young adult Ahsoka book, which was announced on 31 March 2016, one day after the Star Wars Rebels season 2 finale.  This book was released in late 2016 and was written by young adult author and Star Wars fan E. K. Johnston.  Ahsoka was Johnston’s first foray into Star Wars fiction, although she is currently working on Queen’s Shadow, a young adult novel focused on a pre The Phantom Menace Padme Amidala, set to be released next year.  I have no doubt that a review for Queen’s Shadow will appear on this website in due time.  Now, with the recent announcement of a seventh season of The Clone Wars and the reveal that Ahsoka will be appearing in this new season, I decided to check out this book to see if it did the character any justice.  I chose to enjoy this as an audiobook, rather than read a physical copy.

During the Clone War, Ahsoka Tano was a fierce warrior and a commander of the Republic’s clone troopers.  However, after the devastation of Emperor Palpatine’s Order 66, which saw the clones turn on the Jedi, everything changed.  Fighting on Mandalore, far away from her master, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka is unaware of his fall to the dark side of the Force, and only just manages to escape the purge of the Jedi Order.

Now, one year after the fall of the Republic and the rise of the new Galactic Empire, the former Padawan is in hiding on the outskirts of the galaxy, trying to avoid any Imperial attention.  Living under an assumed name and with her trusty dual lightsabres gone, Ahsoka scrapes a living as a mechanic, intentionally distancing herself from the Force in order to hide her Jedi abilities.

Ahsoka journeys to a remote farming settlement on the Outer Rim moon of Raada.  Settling into her new life and making connections with its inhabitants, Ahsoka believes that she has finally found her sanctuary.  But her hopes of a peaceful life in her new home are quickly dashed when the Empire arrives, imposing their totalitarian rule on the people of Raada.  The agricultural potential of the moon is vital to the future of the Empire, and the workers are being forced to farm a new and mysterious plant.  Determined to help her new friends and wanting to make a difference, Ahsoka uses her wartime experience to help form a resistance in order to undermine Imperial control.

But when she is forced to reveal her full powers in order to save her friends, she once again finds herself on the run.  However, this time her actions have not gone unnoticed.  Her old ally, Senator Bail Organa wants her to join his fledgling rebellion, while the sinister Inquisitor, the Sixth Brother, arrives on Raada with plans to capture her, using Ahsoka’s friends as bait.

Because I am a fan of the titular character, I did go into Ahsoka with some rather high expectations.  Luckily I quite enjoyed Ahsoka, powering through this book quickly while appreciating how Ahsoka’s new adventure fit into the existing Star Wars chronology.  This story is very good, with an excellent blend of character development, Star Wars lore and some scintillating action and adventure.  The book contains a well-paced narrative that not only features Ahsoka’s personal story, but also examines the viewpoint of several side characters, in order to move the plot along, while also showing the impacts of Ahsoka’s actions from a different viewpoint.

This book is mainly focused on the adventures of Ahsoka, and fans of the animated show will appreciate seeing how she not only managed to survived the purge of the Jedi, but how she became the hardened rebel agent we encountered in Star Wars Rebels.  I feel that anyone who reads this book will appreciate the considerable amount of character development and insight that occurs with the titular character.  At the start of the book, Ahsoka is afraid, hiding who and what she is from the world while also denying herself access to the Force.  She is filled with regrets, concerns for her missing Jedi family and guilt not just about surviving but also about leaving the Jedi Order before its fall.  Throughout the book, her adventures, the new friendships she develops, the people she helps and the role she plays on Raada all help her to find a new purpose, as well as re-establishing her connection with the Force.

There are a number of great scenes featuring or concerning Ahsoka in this book.  These include her battle with the Sixth Brother, the forging of her new white lightsabres and the epic scene where she unleashes her Force abilities for the first time in a year.  It was also intriguing to see her advising the farmers in guerrilla tactics and helping them sabotage the Imperial occupation.  Fans of Ahsoka will appreciate the similarities this has to one of the character’s most significant arcs from The Clone Wars that featured her training a guerrilla army to combat a Separatist invasion, including a young Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker’s character in Rogue One).  I also enjoyed Johnston’s focus on the connection between Ahsoka and the female character Kaedan Larte.  It was great seeing this character help get Ahsoka out of her shell, and the subtle romantic feelings between the two of them was an interesting character direction for Ahsoka.  Overall, I thought Ahsoka contained an incredible take on its titular character, as Johnston not only provides the reader with a much clearer picture of Ahsoka’s fate following The Clone Wars, but also provides a powerful look at her thoughts and feelings following the destruction of the Jedi.

In addition to exploring the fates of one of their favourite characters, fans of the franchise are also treated to another intriguing look at events in the Star Wars universe not covered in the movies or television shows.  Ahsoka is set one year after the events of Revenge of the Sith, and shows the early days of Imperial control in the galaxy.  There is a palpable and well-utilised feeling of dread throughout the book as the various point-of-view characters encounter the steady increases in Imperial control as their military expands its influence.  It is fascinating to see the early Imperial military machine in action, especially when it comes to controlling and pacifying smaller planets and moons.  One of the most interesting aspects of this is the type of troops being utilised.  By this point in the Star Wars’ chronology, the Empire has started to phase out their clone troopers, replacing them with the human stormtroopers that appear in the original trilogy.  During her encounters with them, Ahsoka notes that these stormtroopers are still quite green and are nowhere near the clones’ level of competency when it comes to battle, controlling territory or dealing with Jedi.  This changeover in troop type for the Empire has not really been covered in too much detail before and is quite fascinating to see.

The exploration of the Empire’s methods of hunting down the remaining Jedi is also intriguing, as one of Vader’s Inquisitors serves as the book’s main antagonist.  The Sixth Brother is shown not only hunting fully trained Jedi like Ahsoka but also tracking down Force-sensitive children for his masters.  The extent of the Inquisitor’s power and influence is explored in some detail here, and I enjoyed seeing Ahsoka’s impression of these Inquisitors’ skills and actions, especially as the Inquisitors were also trained by Darth Vader.  Readers will also note the obligatory hints at the creation of the Death Star throughout the plot of the book, which is an important part of the overall Star Wars chronology.

These early days of the Imperial military is not the only thing covered in the book, as Johnston also explores the opening actions that would lead to the formation of the Rebel Alliance.  Johnston uses minor Star Wars character Bail Organa to great effect here, showing the work he beings immediately after his heroics in Revenge of the Sith to oppose the Emperor.  Ahsoka also features several cameos from other characters in the Star Wars cannon, and readers can look forward to seeing fan favourite characters Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2, a young Princess Leia and the Grand Inquisitor.  This is a compelling and insightful addition to the Star Wars extended universe, and readers will be amazed by this new viewpoint into one of the franchise’s most volatile periods.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Ahsoka rather than track down a physical copy to read.  This was mainly because the creators of the Ahsoka audiobook managed to score Ashley Eckstein as the narrator.  Eckstein is the actor who voices Ahsoka in both The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and I loved the idea of having the definitive voice of the character narrate this crucial Ahsoka story to me.  As Ahsoka is the most prominent point-of-view character, this works out incredibly well, and the reader can enjoy hearing Ahsoka tell the story of what is around her.  Eckstein also provides excellent voice work for all the other speaking characters that feature in the book, as each of these characters were given a distinctive voice that does not feel out of place.

While I really enjoyed hearing Eckstein narrate the story, another benefit of listening to Ahsoka on audiobook is the use of the iconic Star Wars music, as well as the book’s cool use of sound effects.  The creators of the Ahsoka audiobook have inserted John Williams’s iconic score from the movies into a variety of the book’s scenes.  While this is slightly distracting in one or two places where the music did not quite fit properly, it works incredibly well for most of the book.  Several of the story’s big scenes, such as the pivotal battle sequence where Ahsoka reveals her Jedi powers for the first time since she went into hiding, are underscored by this music.  With this grand and powerful music playing in the background, these scenes are given a real epic quality that you just do not get from reading a psychical copy of the book.  It also serves to make Ahsoka feel a lot more connected to the movies, as the listeners are provided with a score that is instantly recognisable as belonging to this franchise.  In addition to the spectacular musical inclusions, the audiobook also features a range of relevant sound effects that really add to the book’s atmosphere and authenticity.  These sound effects range from droid noises and the sounds of ships starting up, to background music when the characters hang out in the cantina.  None of these sound effects distracts from the story and for some of the battle scenes, the lightsabers and blasters sounds really add to the reader’s excitement and involvement in the action.  Another thing I found fun while listening to Ahsoka on audiobook was the producer’s use of some sort of voice modulator for when Eckstein narrates the voices of stormtroopers or other characters wearing helmets.  This is a nice touch and really speaks to the producer’s attention to detail.  I am unsure how effective this would have been if Darth Vader had appeared in the book, but I’m sure I would found the end result amusing one way or another.

Clocking in at just over seven hours long, this is an easy book to get through and the inclusion of the classic Star Wars music, fun sounds effects and the definitive voice of the titular character make it an excellent way to experience this fantastic story.

Ahsoka has been written with a young adult audience in mind, and is definitely an enjoyable book for younger readers who are curious about the Star Wars universe, are fans of the animated shows, or are just looking for an exciting adventure in space.  That being said, the book does not pull any punches, and features an extended torture scene and quite a few deaths, including one particularly gruesome kill by the Sixth Brother.  While some of this can be a tad heavy, I personally feel that anyone mature enough to be familiar with the Star Wars franchise is probably going to be mature enough to not be affected by this violence.  Despite being intended for a young adult audience, Ahsoka, like many of the Star Wars young adult range, is definitely a series that can be appreciated by an older audience, especially those familiar with the franchise and the titular character.

Overall, I was very happy that I checked out Ahsoka, as it not only provided greater insight into the history of one of my favourite Star War’s characters but also painted a detailed and intriguing picture about the early days of the Empire.  Featuring a surprisingly deep and emotional story, this is a fantastic addition to the Star Wars extended universe that will appeal to fans of the amazing animated show, while also offering character based adventure to the more casual reader.  Definitely best to check out in the audiobook format, readers will love how this morphs this impressive Star Wars story into a memorable experience that becomes very difficult to turn off.

My Rating:

Four stars

If you enjoy Star Wars fiction, check out some of my previous reviews:

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/08/12/star-wars-thrawn-alliances-by-timothy-zahn/

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/star-wars-last-shot-by-daniel-jose-older/

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

For those looking for some down and dirty fantasy crime, look no further than Priest of Bones, the new release from fantasy author Peter McLean, which provides the reader with a dark, violent and downright entertaining story.

After achieving victory in a devastating war, thousands of soldiers begin the long and weary journey back home through a countryside ravished by war, plague and famine.  Among those soldiers returning to the industrial city of Ellinburg is Thomas Piety, priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and leader of a small and loyal band of killers.  Thomas has taken his duty as a soldier and a priest seriously, but now it is time for him to return to what he knows best: crime.

A successful crime lord before his conscription, Thomas believed he had left his territory in capable hands.  However, upon his return he discovers that his entire criminal empire has been taken over by a new gang that appears to have origins outside of Ellinburg.  With no choice but to reclaim what is his, Thomas and his soldiers, including his loyal sergeant, Bloody Anne, and his damaged brother, Jochan, do what they do best and go to war.

As Thomas and his gang, the Pious Men, reclaim territory and re-establish themselves in Ellinburg, they begin to realise that they are facing an opponent far more dangerous than the usual gangs and criminals of the city.  Their opponents are organised, have the best weapons money can buy and even have a couple of magic users.  To make matters worse, Thomas finds himself entrapped by one the deadly Queen’s Men, the feared order of spies and assassins loyal to queen, who have some special plans for the Pious Men.  Now, Thomas and his soldiers must embark on a dangerous and bloody crusade against the other gangs of Ellinburg.  Victory will mean control of the city’s crime, while defeat will spell doom for them all.

Priest of Bones is an excellent example of fantasy crime fiction done right as McLean has produced a story that is action-packed, incredibly intriguing and very enjoyable.  McLean has been writing fantasy for a few years and is probably best known for The Burned Man series, an urban fantasy crime series that focused on a magical hitman.  He also has a few short stories to his name, including some set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Priest of Bones is the first book in his new War for the Rose Throne series, which will continue next year with the highly anticipated Priest of Lies.

The story contained within this first book is an amazing fantasy crime narrative which sees the protagonist work to reclaim his criminal holdings from a powerful new gang that has moved into the city while he was gone.  This starts out exactly as you would expect from this sort of story as the protagonists attempt to regain territory, one business at a time, while their opponents launch counterattacks and raids of their own.  The protagonists come up with some effective plans for taking territory and show what happens when a bunch of soldiers engage in some brutal urban combat.  There is a large amount of action throughout this book, which McLean records in bloody and enthralling detail.  This action mostly takes the form of small skirmishes and battles, although there are some magical battles which do result in some more gory and spectacular deaths.  All of this is incredibly fun, and it works very well with the intriguing side stories and character exploration to create a compelling overall narrative.  As the book progresses, an element of political intrigue takes hold as new players enter the game.  This represents an interesting but subtle change to the pace of the book and doesn’t result in any loss of action or excitement.  In many ways, it appears to be a setup for the next book in the series, which sounds like it’s going to have a much more political focus to it.  McLean wraps this all up with a memorable conclusion that I won’t elaborate on, but is the perfect ending for this outstanding and extremely enjoyable piece of fantasy crime.

The central gang that McLean looked at in the plot, the Pious Men, are a strong bunch of characters who serve as a fantastic focal point for this series.  All of the Pious Men are former soldiers who have recently survived the war and are still haunted by the horrors they experienced, especially at the devastating siege of Abingon.  Quite a few of the characters from this small band of soldiers are explored throughout the book, and while some of these characters only get minor mentions, a number do get expanded roles throughout the book and are shown to have some form of development or are slotted into a role that they make their own.  One of the most interesting features of this book is the way that McLean has focused on just how badly the war has messed up these characters, as pretty much all of them are suffering from PTSD in some way or another, referred to by the characters in the book as battle shock.  This is handled very well and allows for some fantastic scenes, as characters who initially come across as quite amiable for most of the book go berserk when attacked, while other characters who appear quite strong find themselves crippled by these memories.

The leader of this group of former soldiers turned criminals is Thomas Piety, who serves as the book’s main protagonist and only point-of-view character.  Thomas is a good central character to anchor this story, who for the most part comes across as a cold and calculating person who knows how to get what he wants.  As Priest of Bones continues, it is slowly revealed that there is a lot more to Thomas’s character than what is originally believed, as he is trying to hide not only the emotional damage from Abingon but the dark memories from his childhood that are still driving him to this day.  It is interesting to see Thomas try and reconcile his new role as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows with his role as a soldier and crime lord.  It is also intriguing to see that one of his deeper motivations is based on his belief that his criminal enterprises not only will make his city a better place but may also save it from a similar fate to Abingon, something he is desperate to never see again.  As the story is completely shown through Thomas’s viewpoint, the reader gets the benefit of his cynical attitude as well as his humorous and accurate insights throughout the book.  This is a great focal character for this book, and I had fun exploring his full depths.

Quite a lot of time is also spent exploring the other members of the Pious Men that follow Thomas back from the war.  The best of these characters is easily Bloody Anne, the hard-as-nails sergeant who is Thomas’s most loyal soldier and friend.  There is detailed examination of Anne’s past which reveals a lot about her current character, including her distrust of magic users.  This turns into quite a nice side story, as Anne finally starts to overcome her past enough to start exploring a relationship with the prostitute Rosie.  Thomas’s brother, Jochan, is also an intriguing character who fits in well with this darker story.  Jochan is your standard unhinged killer, who has some of the funniest lines and can be found in the middle of all the big fight scenes.  His presence results in a lot of the book’s tension, as he and Thomas clash about everything.  McLean has also created a very traumatic backstory for Jochan that not only helps to humanise the character as the reader gets further into the book but also explains a lot about Thomas’s deeper motivation and the guilt he feels whenever he thinks of his brother.  Other great characters that the reader should keep an eye out for are the fake knight Sir Eland, the mysterious barmaid Ailsa and Billy the Boy, the Pious Men’s good luck charm who is clearly going to be a very important character throughout the rest of the series.

In Priest of Bones, Peter McLean has delivered a fast-paced and captivating piece of fantasy crime that is filled with a ton of graphic violence, a number of exhilarating fight scenes and some excellent character driven story work.  This new book is a wonderful introduction to the new War for the Rose Throne series, and I’m already looking forward to the follow-up book in 2019.  Clever, bloody and all sorts of fun, readers will have a blast checking this book out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Mecha Samurai Empire by Peter Tieryas

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Publisher: Ace

Publication Date – 18 September 2018

 

Prepare to experience one hell of an adventure in this follow-up to Peter Tieryas’s successful United States of Japan, in this incredibly exciting read that can best be described as The Man in the High Castle meets Pacific Rim.

Mecha Samurai Empire is set in an alternate version of our history, in which Japan and the Nazis won World War II.  This change to the outcome of the war was a result of the creation of the mecha, gigantic piloted military machines which gave the Japanese an unparallel advantage against the American forces.  In the aftermath of the war, America was split between Japan and Germany, who created distinct territories.  The western states, including California, became part of the United States of Japan, with its inhabitants swearing fealty to the Emperor.

In the 50 years that followed the end of the war, the United States of Japan entered an age of prosperity and technological advancement, and the development of more advanced mecha made them the most feared and effective military power in the world.  In addition to their military control, Japanese culture and custom has also been incorporated into American society, history has been rewritten and Japan’s wartime atrocities have been whitewashed.

In California, young student Makoto Fujimoto has only one dream: to become a mecha pilot and defend his country against the terrorists who killed his parents.  Unfortunately, Mac lacks the grades or political connections to achieve a placement in the mecha pilot training course at the elite Berkeley Military Academy, and his attempts to pass the special military exam end disastrously.  However, a chance encounter with rebel American forces allows him the opportunity to join up with a civilian mecha security company.  While his new role might not provide him much action, it might ensure his future placement at Berkeley.  But when Mac’s first mission goes horribly wrong, it might take all of his luck and skill just to survive.

Mecha Samurai Empire is an intriguing and exciting new novel from Tieryas and is the second book set in the United States of Japan universe.  Mecha Samurai Empire is not a direct sequel to the first book, United States of Japan, but it does contain a number of the story ideas that Tieryas did explore in his first book, and includes appearances from some of its characters.

As soon as I saw this book in the store and found out it featured mecha battles in an alternate timeline, I knew I was going to have to read it.  Because of the very enticing story concept, I did find myself going into this book with some very high expectations.  After reading it I am very pleased to say that I was not disappointed in the slightest, as I found Mecha Samurai Empire to be an incredibly entertaining book that makes full use of its unique elements and likeable characters to create an addictive story.  If you enjoyed the original United States of Japan, then you will definitely love this latest addition to the universe, that not only continues to highlight Tieryas’s marvellous alternate world, but which ramps the incredible mecha action.

The mecha are definitely the stars of this book, and the author spends a significant amount of time focusing on them and highlighting their importance in this new world.  Most readers of this book are going to be looking for some electrifying mecha combat, and Tieryas delivers this in abundance.  There is a huge amount of different types of mecha action, including training simulations, friendly competitions, small-scale battles between smaller mecha, larger battles between gigantic mechas and Nazi bimorphs (organic mechas), and there is even a large elimination tournament between various mecha pilots.  I’m a sucker for a good tournament, but this had to be one of my favourite extended sequences in the entire book.  Not only is there some incredible action during these tournament battles but the inclusion of multiple pilots allows the author to show off the various mecha battle techniques and fight styles as the competitors go at each other with a variety of close-combat weapons.  I also really enjoyed an earlier sequence when the protagonist finds himself piloting a small crab mecha by himself and must overcome several cannibalised mecha piloted by fanatical American rebels.  During these scenes Mac has to use all his training and skills, as well as the limited resources available to him in order to beat a larger force of opponents, and it is a very gripping scene to read.  Aside from the awesome action scenes, Tieryas has also chosen to present the reader with a much more in-depth view of the mecha in his universe.  The book contains the history of the mecha; the required training, simulations and the teamwork; discussion about famous mecha pilots; examinations of tactics and battle plans; mecha research; and even a look at the cultural impact of the mecha and the reverence shown to the pilots.  All of this additional information is deeply fascinating and really adds a lot to the book as the readers are shown they are more than just weapons.  If you’ve ever enjoyed the idea of mecha combat before, this is definitely the book for you.

While the mecha battles are one of this book’s best features, readers are also treated to an intriguing and memorable alternate history setting where the Axis powers won World War II and ended up taking control of the United States of America.  Tieryas has done an absolutely amazing job of creating a version of America that has been under Japanese control for 50 years, and it is fascinating to see how the author imagines this world would look.  In order to show the reader how the world came to be this way, Tieryas comes up with a clever alternate history of World War II and the years that followed it.  For example, Tieryas explores how a different strategy during the war could lead to a different outcome.  In this case, Japan joined the war by attacking Russia with the Nazis rather than America in the Pacific.  There is also some clever mirroring of real-life history, as the two main victorious world powers, Japan and Germany, end up in a cold war after splitting their conquered territory between them.

In addition to the changes in histories, Tieryas has also been quite inventive when it comes to the impact that a Japanese conquest would have on the culture of America.  While the Japanese influence on these territories in the book is quite noticeable, the author has come up with some captivating combinations between the two distinctive cultures.  I personally though that the way Tieryas continued to provide the reader with a ton of detailed descriptions of the food his characters were having was a very nice touch, as this showcased just how prominent Japanese food is in occupied America, while also featuring some curious examples of fusion cuisine.  It’s also interesting to see how much more advanced certain technology appears to be in this universe, a fact which can be attributed to the research into mecha technology and the fact that Japanese and Nazi scientists were able to operate with the world’s resources, including human test subjects, and a completely unchecked lack of morals.  There is also a dystopian element around this whole country, as there are a range of elements that show how controlling and despotic the United States of Japan government really is.  This is a continuation of the storyline from United States of Japan, and Tieryas continues to explore the nation’s hidden World War II war crimes, the rewriting of history, the use of propaganda, nationwide indoctrination, installed national pride and the fact that the characters are living in thinly disguised police state.  All of this serves to be an amazing background to this book that is both intriguing to explore and adds to the dramatic actions of the characters.

The story of Mecha Samurai Empire is strongly driven by the character development of the narrator and the other protagonists as they attempt to find their place in the world.  The main character and narrator, Mac, is an interesting focal character as the story is primarily set around his attempts to navigate this world and achieve his dream of becoming a mecha pilot.  Due to his past and the tragedy he experiences, Mac has a lot of self-doubt and other emotional baggage.  It is moving to see him getting through these barriers in order to become the hero his friends and country need.  I also got really attached to several of the supporting characters, especially Nori, Chieko, Kujira and Kazu, who we get to see develop in a similar manner to Mac.  Each of these characters has some distinctive character traits and motivations, and it’s cool to see how their personalities affect their mecha combat style.  It’s also intriguing to see the various levels of indoctrination and love for their country that these characters have, especially when they start to experience the darker side of the country and at times infuriating military commanders.  Another superb subplot is the relationship between Mac and Griselda, an exchange student from Nazi Germany.  Despite being old friends, their relationship is constantly criticised or forbidden by the other Japanese or German characters, and the constant us or them attitude is an accurate mirror of similar relationships throughout history.  It was a real treat to watch these characters develop throughout the course of the book, and the final fates of some these characters may leave readers reeling.

Award-winning author Peter Tieryas once again delivers another addictive and captivating story set in an alternate history version of the United States of America.  Making full use of this clever and creative setting, Tieryas packs his story full of pulse-pounding action as his characters pilot giant mecha in a variety of well-written and exciting battles.  With some real heart and emotional depth, Mecha Samurai Empire is so much more than its fun and memorable concept and comes highly recommended for all readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 28 August 2018

 

Hot on the heels of his sensational first trilogy, Robert Jackson Bennett has produced another outstanding fantasy read with Foundryside, a bold and exiting novel that brings together an excellent mixture of action, intrigue and humour and powers it with a great location and some inventive and enjoyable new fantasy elements.

In the city of Tevanne, everything runs on scrivings, magical inscriptions that make inanimate objects sentient and allow them do incredible things.  Scrivings give the city of Tevanne incredible power and influence, and the creation of scrivings has been refined into an industrial process controlled by four powerful merchant houses.  These merchant houses have complete control of the city, and those living outside their compounds are a poor, desperate bunch, attempting to eek a living from a city that doesn’t care for them.

For escaped slave Sancia Grado, the only way to survive is to steal.  Gifted with unique abilities, Sancia is one of the city’s most successful thieves, who dreams of escaping from both the city and the discomfort her abilities provide her.  When Sancia is offered a significant sum of money to steal a valuable artefact from the heavily guarded city docks, she jumps at the chance.  But not everything is as it seems, and after stealing the item, Sancia is betrayed and is now being hunted by shadowy figures with incredibly advanced scrived devices.

At the same time, the guard captain Gregor Dandolo is also hunting for Sancia, determined to bring her to justice for her destructive theft.  Caught in the middle of a conspiracy that spans the entire city, Sancia and Gregor are thrust together and must search for new allies if they are to survive.  As the mysterious assassins descend upon them, their lives may depend on the abilities of one powerful artefact.  But while they find a way to fight back, an ancient evil is about to be unleashed which could bring the entire city down around them.

Bennet is a well-established fantasy writer who is probably best known for The Divine Cities series, which concluded in 2017.  Readers may also be familiar with some of his standalone works, including The Troupe, Mr. Shivers and the science fiction book The Company ManFoundryside is the latest book from Bennet and represents the start of the captivating new The Founders trilogy.  Foundryside contains a powerful and captivating story set within a fascinating city and containing some very unique magical elements that are a truly enjoyable part of the book.  The main story contains a significant amount of adventure as the book’s protagonists attempt to uncover a conspiracy around the origin of the book’s central magical element.  Readers will be left guessing about the secrets behind the conspiracy, while several of the book’s dramatic twists will leave them reeling from the emotional gut punches.  The final conclusion of the book sets up some exciting options for the rest of the series, which I will definitely be checking out when they are released.

One of the main highlights of this book is the fantastically unique magical fantasy element known as scrivings.  Scrivings are a form of magical writings that enhance items they are engraved on, giving them certain properties, abilities or autonomy.  For example, carts can be scrived to make them travel from point A to point B, items can be scrived to move at a greater speed by making them believe they are dropping from a great height, and materials such as wood can be made to believe they have the hardness or consistency of stone.  There are a huge range of elaborate rules around scrivings, and the author has presented some fascinating background lore which provides some interesting explanations around the creation and utilisation of these items.  An unexpected side effect of the scriving process is that the scrived items are given a form of magical sentience.  Throughout the book, Sancia is at times gifted with the ability to listen to the listen to the thoughts of the scrived items, and the items are shown to be shouting out their defined roles and the rules they have to follow, often in the form of riddles.  There are quite a few funny scenes when some of the characters attempt to manipulate scrived items by exploiting loopholes in their programming, and watching people and magical items have a debate is very amusing.  The use of scriving throughout Foundryside allows the author to create some fantastic and, at times, over-the-top action sequences as the characters wield weapons that have been imbued with the ability to hit harder or faster than conventional, or items that give other risky benefits in combat.  The hidden history of the scrivings is also quite intriguing, and watching the characters uncover it is an essential and enjoyable part of the plot.  Overall, Bennett’s magical scrivings are a fantastic part of this book that readers will really love to discover.

In addition to the creative magical elements, Bennett has also set his story in an amazing new fantasy cityscape.  The city of Tevanne is full of scrived items, and Bennett has done a great job inserting these magical items into every part of the city’s day-to-day life.  An interesting feature of this city is the way that significant portions of the city has been broken up into ‘campos’, merchant enclaves where scrived items are created at an industrial level.  Each of these four campos is ruled over by a powerful merchant house, and a large amount of the book’s excellent intrigue elements are fuelled by the competition between these houses.  The campos also serve as interesting social boundaries, with the people living inside having everything that they need, while those living outside, in the area known as the Commons or Foundryside, are barely getting by.  Having areas of the city completely controlled by rich merchants is an element with a lot of potential, especially when these merchants have their own private guards and are essentially laws unto themselves.  Bennett makes full use of this, creating thrilling sequences that feature his characters sneaking into and around these heavily guarded compounds.  The control and distribution of power, here represented by the creation of scrivings, is also a compelling part of the book, and Bennett has created some great characters and scenarios around this development.

I really have to mention the strong and funny characters that are featured throughout Foundryside and are an incredible part of this exciting story.  The main protagonist is Sancia Grado, an escaped slave and thief who finds herself thrust into the centre of a deep conspiracy.  There is a lot going on with Sancia, with her tragic backstory, her unique scriving based powers that are both a blessing and a curse, and her fun and fierce attitude developed from a life on the streets.  All these elements combine together into one awesome character, and Bennett uses her to full effect as his central protagonist.  The book’s other main characters are also quite entertaining and enjoyable.  There is Gregor Dandolo, the tough and law-abiding soldier whose sense of duty draws him into the middle of the conspiracy.  Gregor is a very action based character, but his backstory is also quite traumatic and he shares some great moments with Sancia, a character he initially has very little in common with.  There are also some amazing scenes where Gregor must come to terms with the actions of his family’s merchant house, as well as some strong and emotive twists involving his history.  Other characters include the master scriver, Orso Ignacio, who acts as the book’s resident mad scientist and comes with some very fun ideas, from an audacious break in plan to a funny solution to his legal problems at the end of the book.  I also really enjoyed Orso’s assistant, Berenice, who Bennett uses to great effect as the book’s straight woman for the more outrageous characters, especially Orso, while also serving as Sancia’s love interest.  While all these characters are really enjoyable focuses for the book, the hands-down best character has to be Clef, the sentient key.  Before this book I would have had a hard time believing that a talking key could be a great central character, but I’m very happy that Bennett has proven me wrong.  Not only is Clef a fun and enjoyable character that the reader becomes strongly attached to, but a huge amount of Foundryside’s best humour comes from Clef’s banter and observations.  Bennett has really outdone himself when it comes to these characters and I had a great time watching their adventures.

With an amazing story, fantastic humour, enjoyable and memorable characters and some unique and fascinating fantasy elements, Bennett has once again shown the world what a talented fantasy writer he is.  Foundryside is another outstanding release from Bennett, and I had a lot of fun with this book.  Readers of this book are in for a real treat and they will be very eager to see where The Founders trilogy goes next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars