Throwback Thursday – Teen Titans Volume 1: A Kid’s Game

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Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback Edition – 1 April 2004)

Series: Teen Titans (2003)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Writer: Geoff Johns

 Artists:  Mike McKone

                Tom Grummett

                Marlo Alquiza

                Nelson

                Jeromy Cox

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.

Ever since I mentioned Geoff Johns’ 2003 Teen Titans series in one of my Top Ten lists last week, I have wanted to revisit the series.  I have always loved this run of Teen Titans the most.  Something about the combination of storylines, characters and this version of the artwork always spoke to me.  It was also one of the first comic series that I read and subsequently went out of my way to get every collected edition.  Even years later I still love dusting this series off, so I figured this would be a good time to go back and have a try at reviewing parts of this series.  That is why for this Throwback Thursday I will be looking at the first collected volume of the series, Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game.

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The Teen Titans are a team of teenaged heroes in the DC universe, usually the sidekicks of the universe’s adult heroes, but also featuring several characters without mentors.  The first formation of the Teen Titans occurred in 1964 and featured the original Kid Flash (Wally West), Robin (Dick Grayson) and Aqualad (Garth).  After a short while the original Wonder Girl (Donna Troy) joined their ranks and the team started calling itself the Teen Titans before it was given its own series.  Teen Titans was DC’s attempt to appeal to the younger generation of comic book fans, and it proved to be an extremely successful series, featuring a number of DC’s younger characters, including Green Arrow’s sidekick, the original Speedy (Roy Harper), who is considered a founding member of the team.  Teen Titans went through a number of different relaunches, with probably their most famous one occurring in 1980 with the launch of the New Teen Titans series, which brought back most of the original Titans, revamped Changeling to Beast Boy and introduced a number of iconic characters, including Cyborg, Starfire and Raven.  It also introduced several of the team’s most famous villains, including Deathstroke and Trigon.  The Teen Titans are one of DC’s most iconic superhero teams and have been featured in a number of media platforms, including the amazing Teen Titans animated show, Teen Titans Go (the less said the better), the dark and surprisingly good live action Titans and a number of key story and character elements have been included in the awesome Young Justice animated show.

Teen Titans went through a number of relaunches throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the one most relevant to the 2003 Teen Titans comic series is the 1999 Titans comic series, which followed the adventures of adult versions of the original Teen Titans, most of whom had new superhero personas.  At the same time, DC launched the Young Justice comic book series (which I have talked about before) incorporating the younger generation of sidekicks (for example a new and younger Robin and Wonder Girl).  Both these series ended after the 2003 crossover limited series, Titans/Young Justice: Graduation DayGraduation Day featured a number of important events, including the sudden death of longstanding Titans member Omen; however, the most significant event was the death of the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy.  The resultant despair and guilt following the death of this significant character led to both the Titans and Young Justice dissolving in what was to be conclusion of both these series.

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However, shortly after this, Geoff Johns started this specific run on Teen Titans, which combined elements of the cancelled Young Justice and Titans series, with the main four characters from Young Justice teaming up with some of the classic Teen Titans.  Another new series of Outsiders started around the same time and was heavily linked to this run of Teen Titans and featured Dick Grayson and Roy Harper.  This specific run of Teen Titans lasted until 2011, when DC initiated their New 52 relaunch (which I may or may not have some issues with).  Geoff Johns was the principle writer of this series until the 2005-06 Infinite Crisis limited series, which was a significant story point for all of DC’s titles at that point.  Due to the fact that Johns was the principle writer of the Infinite Crisis series, several of the younger Teen Titans (Superboy and Wonder Girl in particular) played a key part in this big crossover event, and several storylines from the 2003 Teen Titans turned out to be heavily linked to the crossover event.

Following the tragic events of Graduation Day, the young heroes that made up the superhero team Young Justice are lost.  Tim Drake (Robin), Conner Kent (Superboy) Bart Allen (Impulse) and Cassandra Sandermark (Wonder Girl) dissolved the team in their grief over losing the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, and have been avoiding each other since her funeral.  They may be the sidekicks of the greatest heroes in the world, but they are all missing their friends.  Despite their reluctance to team up again, each of them accepts an invitation from Victor Stone (Cyborg) to form a new version of the Teen Titans.  With a new base in San Francisco and other veteran Titans members Starfire and Beast Boy to help as mentors, Cyborg wants to bring these young heroes together again and forge an effective team.

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However, before Cyborg can attempt to work with the four new Titans and convince them to stay on the team, a massive explosion rips through Alcatraz, endangering tourist lives.  As the Teen Titans mount a rescue, one of them is ambushed by the team’s oldest and most dangerous adversary, the world’s best assassin, Deathstroke the Terminator.  Deathstroke has long had a complicated relationship with the Teen Titans, but this time it looks like he wants to put the team down for good.  Claiming that kids should not wear costumes, he attempts to take out each member of the team, but what is the real reason behind his attack?  Can this new version of the Teen Titans survive the ruthless assassin?  What role will recently reborn Titan Raven play? Moreover, what will happen when the Justice League arrives to shut them down?

As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan in general of this entire run of Teen Titans, but this has to be one of the best instalments in the entire series.  Geoff Johns and his creative team came out of the gate swinging with this one and started the series off with a bang.  Not only does A Kid’s Game feature a fantastic storyline and contain some excellent character work, but it also serves as an outstanding first instalment of what turned out to be one of DC’s most consistent and captivating comic book series between 2003 and 2011.  The A Kids Games collected edition is made up of Teen Titans (2003) #1 – 7 and also features parts from Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files 2003, which can be useful for those readers unfamiliar with the characters, or at least that incarnation of them.

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The storyline contained within A Kid’s Game has a lot of fantastic elements to enjoy within it.  The initial formation of the team is handled very well, as each of them is shown to be lonely or unsatisfied with their lives without their friends, and despite their misgivings decide to join up.  The follow-up battle between the team and Deathstroke is really good, and the team learning how to fight together while uncovering their antagonist’s motivations is very exciting.  Deathstroke has a hell of an entrance in this volume when he kneecaps Impulse at the end of the second issue in what is a pretty shocking and memorable moment.  I personally loved the storyline that occurred right after this in Teen Titans 2003 #6, when the Justice League, including the mentors of each of the younger Teen Titans’ members, show up and try to meddle with how the team is run.  This results in some chaotic action and a huge amount of amazing comic book drama, as the sidekicks fight and vent their well-justified frustrations to their mentors while also coming to terms with the guilt they feel over Donna Troy’s death.  I really cannot speak highly enough about this part of the volume, and I think this was what made me initially fall in love with the series.  The final storyline shows each of the characters during the school week, when it really helps to highlight the issues that being a part of the Teen Titans is helping them face.

One of the things that I really like about this volume is that each issue contains a shocking reveal at the end.  I know that some comics overuse this, but I felt that Johns and his team were pretty justified in doing this, as they were trying to up the stakes during these first comics in their new series.  A lot of significant and surprising things are revealed during each of these issues, many of which would have ground-shaking impacts not just for the Teen Titan, but for the DC universe as a whole (Spoilers ahead).  This happens right in the first issue, with the reveal that half of Superboy’s DNA comes from Lex Luthor.  Other big events occurring at the end of each issue are the kneecapping of Impulse, the revelation that Jericho was still alive inside Deathstroke, Bart’s first appearance as Kid Flash, Wonder Woman showing up to start the brawl between the League and the team and the reveal that Lex Luthor is the person leaking information about Superboy’s genetics to Robin.  Even the quiet, final issue of this volume has a big reveal at the end, with the revelation that Rose Wilson is now working with her father Deathstroke.

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The creative team behind this original run obviously had a great appreciation for some of the preceding Teen Titans series, as they utilise a number of key characters from these earlier series.  I personally thought that the issues contained with A Kid’s Game did a fantastic job of blending these old school Teen Titans storylines and character together with the former Young Justice characters, creating an excellent new dichotomy for the team.  This blend of the old and new helped create an excellent new series and was one of the best features of John’s run, and I also enjoyed the respect he showed towards the old Young Justice series.  I was also really impressed in hindsight with how well Johns and his team set up or hinted at a number of future storylines or character developments in these initial issues.  Many of these storylines (such as Superboy being a mixture of Superman and Lex Luthor’s DNA, Wonder Girl being related to Ares, Rose Wilson joining with Deathstroke, the resurrection of Raven and Jericho and the new Brother Blood) would have impacts for years to come and some are even utilised in comic series, television shows and animated movies to this day.  The creators of A Kid’s Game did an incredible job including them this early in the series, and they were really good introductions.

One of the best things about the entire 2003 run of Teen Titans is the focus on the characters and their development throughout the series.  While other volumes of this series feature some great character moments, nowhere is this more prevalent than within the issues that make up A Kid’s Game.  Most of the focus within this book is on the four characters, Robin, Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl, who are moving over from Young Justice to the Teen Titans.  The creators take a significant look at each of them and really work to develop each of them as substantial characters and develop them deeper than what they were within Young Justice.  With this impressive focus on developing and utilising these characters to their full potential, it is no wonder that they were utilised as such major characters during the Infinite Crisis storyline and beyond.  I also like how the older members of the team had to step up and assume a leadership role that readers had not seen before.  As a result, Cyborg and Starfire attempted to fill these leadership roles, while the slightly younger and less mature Beast Boy acts as the bridge between the two generations.  I thought that these new roles were really clever and added some new dynamics to the team.  I was also really impressed with how the creators focused on the trauma that all of the team members were feeling in the wake of Donna Troy’s death.  Each of them was racked with guilt after they were unable to help stop her death, and the anger and grief that each of them was feeling was extremely evident throughout the volume.

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Another incredible part of this initial volume was the strong look at the relationship between the sidekicks and their mentors.  Despite the high regard each of their mentors holds in the superhero world, each of these sidekicks has issues that stem from how they perceive or are treated by their mentor.  The creative team really go out of their way to highlight these issues, and many are quite clever.  For example, Superboy, who is living as Conner Kent, appears to be frustrated at living a quiet life in Smallville, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is having trouble living up to the legacy of not only Superman but Clark Kent as well.  Robin is stuck wondering what his future holds and it soon becomes clear that he is reluctant to become like Batman, despite the fact that his is more like him than any of the Robins that came before him.  Wonder Girl is extremely angry and rebellious throughout this volume and is beginning to doubt her mentor Wonder Woman.  This is revealed to be a side effect of her trauma at the death of Donna Troy, and it soon becomes clear that she is one most impacted by the former Wonder Girl’s death.  Finally, Bart is sick of being considered not good enough to be part of the Flash legacy, as his own mentor does not think he is responsible enough to bear the Flash name (which is ironic, considering he is the only one of these young heroes whoever takes up their mentor’s mantle).  As a result, he acts like he does not care, while deep down he craves approval and Flash’s respect.  Bart easily shows the most growth within this volume, as he takes the Kid Flash mantle for himself, dedicates himself to learning all he needs to be a hero and vows to leave the Flash in his shadow.  All of these character issues come to a head perfectly when the Justice League arrives unannounced at Titan’s Tower and they try to meddle with their sidekicks lives and there are some amazing and cathartic moments between the younger heroes and their mentors.  His is comic book character work at its very best.

I have to note the great job the artistic team does throughout these first seven issues.  There are some great new character designs, such as Superboy’s iconic new look of jeans and a superman t-shirt, something that is still utilised within the Young Justice television show.  I also liked the way that Bart looked in the Kid Flash outfit.  The artwork on the action sequences is also pretty awesome, and there are a huge number of eyepopping scenes throughout this volume.  That shot of Kid Flash getting kneecapped is very impressive and really sticks with you.  Overall, there is some fantastic artwork, which works really well with the outstanding story and character work to create an excellent first volume.

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Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game is an amazing first volume in the 2003 Teen Titans series.  I cannot speak highly enough about the storylines and the way that the creative team handle the complex young heroes.  A spectacular start to an incredible run one of DC’s most iconic series.  I fully intend to review some other volumes in this Teen Titans in the future so stay tuned for them.

Waiting on Wednesday – Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

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

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For my latest Waiting on Wednesday I will be looking at one of the science fiction releases of 2019 that I am looking forward to, Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio, set to be released in July.  Ruocchio made a remarkable debut last year with Empire of Silence, the first book in his Sun Eater series, which chronicles the life of the universe’s most infamous hero, Hadrian Marlowe, the man who blew up a sun to stop an alien invasion at the cost four billion human lives.  The Sun Eater series is formatted as a written retrospective, told from the perspective of Hadrian, detailing the events that turned him from a prospective scholar to the biggest mass-murderer in the universe.

I was extremely impressed by Empire of Silence last year, and it even made it onto my Top Ten Books of 2018 list.  I really enjoyed the captivating and epic space opera adventure that featured within this book and I am very curious to find out what events force the mild-mannered protagonist to cause such destruction and how he will justify his actions.  I was also a massive fan of the gigantic and intriguing science fiction universe that Ruocchio crafted in his first book and I am eager to return to it.  I have wanted to feature this book in my Waiting on Wednesday series for a while, but I needed to wait for one of the book’s covers to be released.  This wait was well worth it, as the cover I found is a spectacular and eye-catching piece of art.

I have found two separate plot summaries for Howling Dark so far, including the Goodreads synopsis and a different synopsis found on the Hachette Australia website:

Goodreads:
The second novel of the galaxy-spanning Sun Eater series merges the best of space opera and epic fantasy, as Hadrian Marlowe continues down a path that can only end in fire.

Hadrian Marlowe is lost.

For half a century, he has searched the farther suns for the lost planet of Vorgossos, hoping to find a way to contact the elusive alien Cielcin. He has not succeeded, and for years has wandered among the barbarian Normans as captain of a band of mercenaries.

Determined to make peace and bring an end to nearly four hundred years of war, Hadrian must venture beyond the security of the Sollan Empire and among the Extrasolarians who dwell between the stars. There, he will face not only the aliens he has come to offer peace, but contend with creatures that once were human, with traitors in his midst, and with a meeting that will bring him face to face with no less than the oldest enemy of mankind.

If he succeeds, he will usher in a peace unlike any in recorded history. If he fails…the galaxy will burn.

Hachette Australia:

Hadrian Marlowe may be revered as a hero and despised as a murderer, but there’s only one way to hear his true story: relayed in his own words, in this incredible fusion of space opera and epic fantasy.

It was not his fight.

But he will still be the one to end it.

The galaxy remembers Hadrian Marlow as a hero, who burned every last alien Cielcin from the sky. The man remembers how he tried to save them – to negotiate with them, to learn more of them – and how his attempts were frustrated by his own side and creatures stranger still than any Cielcin he’d encountered thus far.

Defying his orders, at the cost of love, position and power, Hadrian Marlowe’s path might have ended in fire . . . but the road to it was winding, and leads through intrigue, and battle, to war . . .

I find the two contrasting plot synopses to be very interesting, as they focus on different aspects of the overall story.  The Goodreads synopsis follows the plot that the end of Empire of Silence sets up, where Hadrian has been recruited by the Sollan Empire on a secret mission to try and communicate with the aliens known as the Cielcin and try and make some sort of peace with them.  The Goodreads synopsis hints a lot of captivating story details as well as indicating that Howling Dark will have a widespread and complex plot.  I am quite excited by this plot synopsis, as it suggests additional antagonists and problems outside finding a way to communicate with the Cielcins.  It also sounds like Ruocchio will be expanding out his universe in a variety of different ways, and I am quite excited to see what it turns into.

The synopsis from Hachette Australia is also interesting, as it provides hints more in touch with the overall series rather than this specific book.  I like the constant secrecy about what drove Hadrian to destroy the Cielcin, which is hinted at in plot snippets like this.  I also like the line about “how his attempts were frustrated by his own side and creatures stranger still than any Cielcin he’d encountered thus far”.  The references to his own side hints at interference from the Chantry, an inquisitorial-type religious organisation controlling the Sollan Empire.  This could be a potentially intriguing inclusion to Howling Dark, as the protagonist came into various conflicts with the Chantry on a number of occasions in the first book, and their strict anti-technology religious control of the Sollan Empire was an extremely interesting part of the universe.  I wonder if the stranger creatures he mentions are a reference to the former humans mentioned in the Goodreads synopsis or “the oldest enemy of mankind”.

Based on both of these synopses, this story sounds like it will be as epic, compelling and inventive as the first book in this series.  I am very excited about Ruocchio’s second book and I am eager to continue the incredible story set out in Empire of Silence.  I am already predicting that Howling Dark will make it onto my Top Ten Reads of 2019 and cannot wait until I get my hands on this book.

Mission Critical by Mark Greaney

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Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback Edition – 26 February 2019)

Series: Gray Man – Book 8

Length: 513 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Mark Greaney returns with another entertaining and fast-paced instalment in his enjoyable Gray Man spy thriller series.

Court Gentry used to be a ruthless covert assassin known as the Gray Man, a highly skilled killer considered a legend in the clandestine circles.  However, times change, and Gentry now finds gainful employment as a CIA hitter, one of three elite agents that make up the Agency’s super-secret Poison Apple program.  Going under a new codename, Violator, Gentry is redirected aboard a CIA flight in Europe.  Tensions rise when the plane’s other passengers, a team of heavily armed agents, attempt to remove Gentry from the flight in order to protect their prize, a hooded man who may have knowledge that could identify a mole within the CIA.

Allowed to remain on the plane, Gentry finds himself thrust into the middle of a firefight when the plane lands in England.  A team of mercenaries ambush the plane, overcoming the CIA and MI6 agents waiting to meet the flight and taking the kidnapped man for themselves.  Gentry gives chase to the surviving mercenaries to regain the kidnapped man and soon finds himself investigating the case by himself.

As Gentry attempts to uncover what is going on in England, one of Poison Apple’s other operatives, the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, finds herself under attack in her CIA safe house.  With Zoya going off the radar, Gentry’s handlers are convinced that a mole within the CIA is tipping of a dangerous opponent.  Gentry and his team are soon the only agents who can stop a devastating attack that could bring the West to its knees.

Mark Greaney is a highly regarded spy thriller writer who has some substantial works to his name.  He was Tom Clancy’s co-author for legendary espionage author’s final three books, Locked On, Threat Vector and Command Authority.  Following Clancy’s death in 2013, Greaney continued to write an additional four novels in Clancy’s Jack Ryan Universe.  Aside from the books he wrote with Clancy, Greaney has his own series, the bestselling Gray Man series, which started in 2009 with the author’s debut book, The Gray ManMission Critical is the eighth book in the Gray Man series.

This was an incredibly thrilling story which contains hell of a lot of action and espionage.  I really liked the sound of Mission Critical’s plot synopsis and was glad that I picked up a copy of this book, as the action and intrigue did not stop the entire time.  At over 500 pages long, I was worried that this might drag in some places, but I found myself fairly absorbed by the awesome plot and sufficiently pumped up by the huge number of firefights, close combat sequences and high-speed chases.

I loved the spy thriller storyline that was a prominent part of Mission Critical.  Greaney weaves together a number of plotlines to create a fantastic overall spy thriller narrative.  Because Mission Critical is told from a number of perspectives, including those of the protagonists and antagonists, the reader gets a great idea of all the action, spycraft and dirty tricks that both sides employ to complete their respective missions.  Greaney obviously has a large amount of knowledge about the espionage world, and I loved all his depictions about the inner workings of spy agencies, rogue operatives and the various tricks and techniques that agents employ.  I also liked Greaney’s depiction of the inner politics of the CIA and how that might impact on missions and the distribution of resources, as well as a look at the CIA’s relationship with other countries’ intelligence agencies.

I really liked some of the characters featured within this book.  The protagonist, Court Gentry (and I have to point out how much I love that name), is a solid and dependable badass agent to anchor this series.  He’s your typical thriller protagonist, with some badass skills and a reputation to match.  I loved his anti-authoritarian vibe, and I also quite enjoyed how he actually got his ass handed to him multiple times throughout the book, rather than being unbeatable in every encounter.  I was also impressed that Greaney kept showing him being slowed down by his injuries, rather than having him at 100% for every encounter like some other authors do.  Zoya is also a good protagonist for this story; let’s face it, a sexy Russian agent never goes amiss in a spy thriller.  The author dives into this character’s background quite a bit in Mission Critical, and her connections to the plot and the antagonists were explored in an intriguing manner.  The third Poison Apple operative, Zack Hightower, aka Romantic, was used a little less than his comrades, but he was a fun addition to the team, adding some humour to the story, especially when it came to his codename, as well as some complex history and camaraderie with Gentry.  The Poison Apple program handler, Suzanne Brewer, also adds some great things to the story.  A career-orientated CIA administrator, she has to try and play straight-woman to the three anti-authority, disrespectful operatives that are under her command.  The fact that she does not want to be working with these people and is at times actively sabotaging them to try and get a different posting adds some really intriguing elements to the story, and I liked watching her work against her agents for her own selfish ends.

Mission Critical is the eighth book in Greaney’s Gray Man series.  While this latest entry does feature a number of characters from the previous books in the series, readers are not required to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this story.  I felt that Greaney did an excellent job of explaining any elements from the previous entries in the series that become relevant throughout Mission Critical.  Fans of the Gray Man series will probably really enjoy the deeper examination of Zoya’s history and backstory, as well as her inclusion in the other Poison Apple agent’s operations.

Overall, Mission Critical was a deeply entertaining espionage novel that is bound to keep readers absorbed with its excellent action and thriller elements.  It is easily enjoyable for both existing fans of the franchise and new readers alike.  I had a lot of fun reading this book and I powered through all 500+ pages in fairly short order.  I am planning to keep an eye out for Greaney’s next book, Red Metal, a really cool-sounding war thriller that is coming out in July this year.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

Cold Iron Cover 2.jpg

I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

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

The Lost Ten Cover.jpg

This week I will be looking at an exciting new historical fiction novel that is coming out in April 2019, The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom.  Harry Sidebottom is a well-established historical fiction author whose novels set in the Roman Empire are some of the best in the business.  I have long been a huge fan of Sidebottom.  I have previously mentioned how his second book, King of Kings, was one of the first books I ever reviewed, and I absolutely loved his most recent release, 2018’s The Last Hour.  So I am extremely eager to get my hands on The Lost Ten, which sounds like it will be quite a fantastic read.

Goodreads synopsis:

A desperate rescue attempt deep behind enemy lines . . . this nail-biting adventure has all the hard-edged appeal of the Bravo Two Zero mission.

When Valens, a junior officer in the Roman Army, joins a crack squad of soldiers on a dangerous mission, little does he know what’s in store for him. Tasked with rescuing the young Prince Sasan, who has been imprisoned in the impenetrable Castle of Silence, the troops set out across Mesopotamia and into the mountains south of the Caspian Sea.

Deep in hostile territory, inexperienced Valens finds himself in charge. And as one by one his soldiers die or disappear, he begins to suspect that there is a traitor in their midst, and that the rescue is fast becoming a suicide mission.

Valens must marshal this disparate group of men and earn their respect, before it’s too late…

I love the sound of this plot synopsis, as it implies that Sidebottom will continue his winning formula from The Last Hour, where he combined pulse-pounding thriller elements with his usual detailed and intriguing historical fiction plots.  This worked extremely well with The Last Hour, which was essentially 24 in Rome, and I am excited to see how a high-risk special forces mission will play out in this ancient setting.

I very intrigued by the Castle of Silence that is referenced in the synopsis, which brings a very intense and impenetrable stronghold to mind.  From the other details contained within plot summary, it sounds like the Romans will have to infiltrate the Parthian Empire.  I love the idea of a small force getting into this massive and sprawling empire, and I am very interested to see how the Parthians are able to insert a spy into a crack Roman unit.

Overall, I am extremely excited for this latest book from Harry Sidebottom, who has to be one of my favourite historical fiction authors.  The Lost Ten sounds like it will be a thrilling and action-packed novel, and I really cannot wait for Sidebottom to once again blow my mind with his thriller/historical fiction hybrids.

Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

Half Moon Lake Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback Edition  – 2 January 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 320 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.

In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns.  Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found.  As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas.  For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son.  But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.

However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp.  As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny.  But is he truly her missing son?  There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.

As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins.  However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.

This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events.  Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader.  I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible.  I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century.  Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four.  After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity.  In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child.  I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book.  As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story.  This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.

For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book.  Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case.  I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers.  I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child.  I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.

I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book.  There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book.  Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation.  The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case.  Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings.  All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.

Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story.  There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts.  It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it.  I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

Top Ten Tuesday – Book’s I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  This week’s challenge is to provide my top ten books that I loved with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.

While in theory this sounds like an easy list to produce, I actually found that I had some real difficulty finding books with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.  Quite a few of my favourite books, series or comic books all had more than 2,000 Goodreads ratings, so I had to sadly exclude them.  I was actually surprised at some of the books that had more than 2,000 ratings and I had to do quite a detailed search of my library and comic collection to come up with this list.  In the end, I had to omit pretty much all my favourite fantasy and historical fiction series, as most of the books within them had been rated way more than 2,000 times.  Still, I was able to come up with a very interesting top ten list that features a wide range of fantastic books I would definitely recommend.

 

Honourable Mentions:

Punisher Max, Vol. 1: In the Beginning by Garth Ennis and Lewis LaRosa – 1,652 ratings

Punisher Max 1 Cover

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio – 967 ratings

Empire of Silence Cover

Teen Titans, Vol. 2: Family Lost by Geoff Johns – 886 ratings

Teen Titans 2 Cover.jpg

My List – In order of Goodreads Ratings:

 

Green Arrow, Vol. 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Ande Parks and Phile Hiester – 1,933 ratings

Green Arrow Archer's Quest.jpg

The Green Arrow series that begin in 2001, following the resurrection of the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, in Kevin Smith’s Quiver, has to be one of my favourite runs of Green Arrow.  Not only did it feature some great storylines and some excellent characters both new and old but it also focused on a truly flawed DC superhero.  Easily my favourite out of the stories featured in this series is the third volume, The Archer’s Quest, written by thriller and mystery writer Brad Meltzer.  Meltzer has written several of my favourite DC comic books, including the incredible Identity Crisis (which unfortunately has over 18,000 ratings, or it would certainly be on this list).  The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic story that sees Oliver attempting to come to terms with his resurrection by heading out on a road trip with his former sidekick, Roy Harper, in order to retrieve several items from his past that have deep emotional significance to him.  What follows is a touching journey that sees the original Green Arrow interact with a number of characters from his past while also offering the reader several major character revelations.  This is a classic Green Arrow tale that all fans of the character need to check out, and I am very glad it squeaks in at just below 2,000 ratings.

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai by Stan Sakai – 1,410 ratings

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover.jpg

I have mentioned on my blog before how much I love Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series, and quite frankly I would award all 32 volumes five stars.  However, the second volume of this series, Samurai, stands out as one of the best early volumes in this series, which sets out much of the protagonist’s backstory and establishes a number of future storylines and characters.  It is also when Sakai hits his stride artistically with his character and environment, incorporating the designs that would be a fantastic hallmark of his future volumes.  This is essential reading for those fans of this rabbit samurai, and a fantastic starting point for those interested in checking out the series.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke – 870 ratings

City of Lies Cover

Another outstanding debut from 2018, City of Lies was one of the best fantasy books I read last year. After the much-deserved hype it has received online I was surprised that it only had 870 ratings.  With its iconic poison-based storyline, this was an incredible book that successfully introduces a fantasy series with a lot of potential.

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby – 749 ratings

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The Pericles Commission is the first book in the Athenian Mysteries series (also known as the Hellenic Mysteries series) by Australian author Gary Corby, which has to be one of my favourite historical crime series of all times.  Released in 2010, The Pericles Commission is the best book in this series and it also served as an excellent introduction into this fun series.  The Pericles Commission is a fantastic blend of historical fiction and murder mystery that also contains a huge amount of humour, mostly achieved through a series of modern actions that feel out of place in historical Athens.  This is an outstanding book that I had a lot of fun reading and reviewing in The Canberra Times.  I still chuckle at the fantastic court scene that Corby wrote near the end of the story.

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – 745 ratings

The Defiant Heir Cover

This is the second book in one of my favourite new fantasy series, the Swords and Fire series.  I found this second book to be an excellent addition to this fantastic series, which expands on the interesting new universe while also offering some incredible character development.

Deep Silence by Jonathan Maberry – 731 ratings

Deep Silence Cover

I have mentioned Deep Silence several times in the last few months, including on my Top Ten Reads of 2018 list.  It is still one of the best new audiobooks of last year and is also the book that introduced me to the outstanding Joe Ledger series, which is one of my favourite series that I am reading at the moment.  As the other two books in the Joe Ledger series that I have read, Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory, both have more than 2,000 ratings, Deep Silence was an easy inclusion for this list.

Planetside by Michael Mammay – 682 ratings

Planetside Cover

Planetside is one of my favourite debuts of 2018 and I am very happy to be able to feature it in this list.  Mammay crafts an amazing story that blends together a great science fiction narrative with a first-rate investigate thriller storyline.  Featuring one of the best story endings of the year, this is a book well worth checking out.

Teen Titans, Vol. 5: Life and Death by Geoff Johns – 624 ratings

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Geoff Johns’s extended run on the 2003 series of Teen Titans was one of the first comic series I really got into and it remains as one of my favourite comic book series of all time.  During this series, Johns completely re-imagined the classic superhero team of the Teen Titans by incorporating standout characters from the Young Justice series and teaming them up with an older generation of classic Titans for some incredible adventures.  I had to include at least one volume of this series in this list, but this was the one I struggled with the most.  With the first volume having too many ratings on Goodreads, I had to choose between Volumes 2, 4 and 5.  While Volume 2: Family Lost, features an outstanding re-introduction of iconic DC character Raven, and Volume 4: The Future is Now, contains several amazing storylines, including a grim look into the future and a massive brawl between all the previous Teen Titans and Dr Light, I had to choose Volume 5: Life and Death in the end.  Life and Death is a bit of a companion piece to DC’s massive Infinite Crisis crossover event and features an extended look at several storylines that make up the main Infinite Crisis story.  While I enjoyed all the storylines featured within this volume, I am mainly choosing it because of the tragic fate of Superboy, who, after finally admitting his love to Wonder Girl, sacrifices himself to save the world.  As it features one of my top comic book moments of all times, this volume of Teen Titans is a welcome addition to this list.

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis – 614 ratings

Pandora's Boy Cover

Without a doubt, Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series is one of the best historical crime series running at the moment, and I am a huge fan of this amazing crimes series set deep within ancient Rome.  While I have quite enjoyed all of the books in the series, my favourite has to be the sixth book, Pandora’s BoyPandora’s Boy featured an intriguing mystery that fully utilises the book’s classic Roman setting while also creating some extremely humorous moments.

Star Wars Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith, Volume 3: The Burning Seas by Charles Soule – 550 ratings

Darth Vader - The Burning Seas Cover

I have been loving this Star Wars comic series over the last year, as Charles Soule and his creative team have been doing a superb job of reminding everyone why Darth Vader is one of modern fictions biggest badasses.  The third volume, The Burning Seas, was my favourite volume of this series, and featured some exceptional storylines and marvellous artwork.  A fantastic comic to round out this list, this volume is a perfect read for all Star Wars fans.