Top Ten Tuesday – The Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies (Ranked – Including Black Widow)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  The official task for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday was for participants to list the top ten favourite book titles that are questions.  While this was a particularly interesting and unique topic, I decided to do something a little different.

I am sure that it will come to now surprise to anyone who has read some of my posts that I am a major fan of all things comic related, which includes the fabulous works coming out of Marvel.  I have an outstanding amount of love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney’s juggernaut film franchise that brings some of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters to life in their own distinctive universe.  I have been a fan since the very moment I saw the trailer for Iron Man all those years ago (it has only been 13, but it sometimes feels so much longer).  Since then 24 films have been released in this series (as well as some excellent television shows), some of which have been good, some of which have been adequate, and most of which have been pretty damn exceptional and have defined a generation of film fans.

This series seems pretty unstoppable at times, which is why it was so very strange that, for the first time since 2009, we did not have an MCU film last year, thanks to our old friend COVID-19.  It has been two years since the last MCU film, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and in that time a lot of stuff as happened.  I know that during some of the worst parts of 2020 and early 2021, I was nostalgic for a time when a new MCU film was just on the horizon, and I felt that having that again would add a little normality back into our lives.  That is why I was so excited last week when I was able to go see the much anticipated and long-delayed Black Widow.  Seeing a MCU film on premiere night was pretty special to me, so, in honour of that, I thought I would take this time to highlight the MCU franchise.

I am sure that many MCU fans can appreciate how much of a task ranking these films in order can be.  Many are absolute masterpieces and some of the very best comic book films out there, and each MCU entry is vastly different from the others, which makes comparing them very difficult.  This is partially compounded by the fact that there is no such thing as a bad MCU film, as even the worse film in the franchise is still leaps and bounds above most other comic book films out there.  In addition, preferences for which film is better than another can change daily, especially as movies become more dated and new material is introduced.  However, I was determined to pull this list together, so I knuckled down and had a long think about every MCU film that I have seen.  During this time, I considered each of the films’ casting, story, graphics and legacy.  However, the most important thing that I considered was how much I would want to watch the film again.  Taking all this into consideration, I was able to come up with a ranked list that I think captures my personal feelings and opinions about these various films at this point in time.  So let us see where the various films ended up.

Spoiler warning below

List (Ranked – Reverse Order):

24. – The Incredible Hulk

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I want to make something clear: The Incredible Hulk is not a bad movie. It is actually pretty watchable, with an interesting cast, some decent graphics and an enjoyable story about the origins of the Hulk and his conflict with the military.  Despite this, it is probably the least enjoyable MCU film, and for that reason many people skip it or try to ignore it when doing an MCU marathon.  Edward Norton, while a fine actor, does not really click as Bruce Banner, and the later re-casting with Mark Ruffalo really highlights that.  In addition, he does not have any chemistry with Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross, who was a borderline damsel in distress (especially when compared to the strong women that dominated the early MCU films).  A pre-Modern Family Ty Burrell is underutilised as Doc Samson, a character that was never featured to its full potential (I want a raging, muscle-bound Ty Burrell with flowing green locks, dammit).  I liked Tim Roth as the villain (before he was CGI’d), and William Hurt is a great Thunderbolt Ross.  While the movie starts off strong, I think it lost its way towards the end, and the CGI fight between the Hulk and the Abomination is sloppy, especially compared to most other MCU entries.  Still a solid comic film, but, unfortunately, something must take out the 24th spot.

23. – Thor: The Dark World

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I must admit that the only reason that this did not score lower than The Incredible Hulk was purely because of Tom Hiddleston’s performance, as he was at his Loki best.  Still, in comparison the rest of the MCU, this movie is not great, especially as it compounds many of the faults of the preceding Thor movie.  It has a weak story, and I am not a major fan of the portrayal of Asgard in this one (I laughed in scorn when the flying boat ships starting fighting the Dark Elves).  The cast, with the notable exception of Hiddleston, is also not amazing here.  Chris Hemsworth, while a better actor in this second film, is still playing Thor way too seriously, and he still lacks any great chemistry with Natalie Portman, who was obviously unhappy to be involved at all.  While Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård and Idris Elba do bring some flair and thespian backbone, the film is very much let down by its villain.  Malekith is one of the worst villains in the MCU and is constantly overshadowed by Loki.  Despite this, The Dark World is still a fun film and has some great moments in it.  The death of Frigga is pretty heartbreaking, and the final fight sequence, while a bit random at times, is very entertaining, combining great visuals with some excellent comedy.  Let us also not forget that this was the first time Infinity Stones are mentioned, making Thor: The Dark World an important entry in the franchise, and one I can re-watch very easily.

22. – Ant-Man and the Wasp

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I was very disappointed by Ant-Man and the Wasp, as it should have been so much better than it was, and it ended up being another weak entry in the franchise.  Most of the comedy, character development and style are recycled from the first film without anything new being added.  In addition, the villains are extremely weak, with Hannah John-Kamen not bringing any strength to the character of Ghost, and Walton Goggins’s Sonny Burch is a very odd, if amusing, secondary antagonist.  This film does have its strengths.  It is visually beautiful, the main cast is great, with Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas keeping the amazing chemistry they had in the first film, and I especially loved Lilly’s expanded use in this film as The Wasp.  Michael Peña still shines as Luis, whose riffing long stories are so much fun to see.  While this is a fun movie, it suffers from being released less than three months after Infinity War.  The sheer expectations that people had going into Ant-Man and the Wasp really altered people’s perception, and I know I was hoping for a whole lot more, especially when the “snap” happened.  Still, the post credit scenes were great, and that clever question mark struck surprisingly hard.

21. – Iron Man 2

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People were hoping for a film that could stand up to the first Iron Man, and unfortunately, Iron Man 2 just did not deliver.  Despite very strong performances from Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a newly cast Don Cheadle, this film was not as good as the first, relying too much on CGI and not enough on story.  Mickey Rourke’s villainous Whiplash was ok, if a bit overacted, but he was nothing to really write home about.  Still, this film has a lot of fun parts to it.  Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer was extremely zany and, as always, it was so much fun to see him perform (I am really hoping he comes back for Armor Wars).  In addition, this was also the film that gave us Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, a role she debuted perfectly, especially with that epic corridor scene, although the character does develop into something better later.  An extremely fun action romp that I am actually pretty fond of, Iron Man 2 just does not live up to some of the other films out there, so it has a lower spot on this list.

20. – Thor

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Thor is a fun movie that serves as a great introduction to some of the best characters in the MCU.  Unfortunately, it is a little rough compared to some of the later entries, which knocks it down a bit.  The film is a little too serious for its own good, perhaps thanks to director Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean approach, and while it has an amazing fish out of water story to it the scenes set in Asgard are over the top, and I am not the biggest fan of the way they turned the Asgardians into a science fiction race rather than a mythological one.  Still, the cast is very good, and it introduced Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston to a wider audience.  While an unnaturally blond Hemsworth was still finding his feet in this film, Hiddleston lays some great groundwork with Loki, setting him up perfectly and ensuring he would be a memorable and exceptional villain.  Natalie Portman fills the role as love interest well, although her chemistry with Hemsworth is a bit off.  Overall, this is a great film defined by the new Thor and Loki.

19. – Captain Marvel

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Though it is ranked a little low, Captain Marvel is still an outstanding comic film.  The first Marvel film to feature a female superhero lead, this film needed to do a lot, while also being one of the unfortunate films to be released between Infinity War and Endgame.  Despite this pressure, it definitely delivered providing a well written, entertaining and clever film.  I deeply enjoyed the cool 1990s setting, and the creative team do a great job bringing some nostalgia to the film, especially with the great music.  The twists about the Skrulls was also pretty fun, setting up some interesting stories for the future, and I liked how it tied into the origins of the Avengers team.  In addition, I reckon you will have a hard time finding anyone who was not moved by the Stan Lee tribute in the opening credits.  Brie Larson does a great job in the titular role, although I look forward to seeing her relax into it a bit more in future films.  Samuel L. Jackson was great as ever as Nick Fury, and the de-aging worked surprisingly well.  Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening are all pretty awesome in this film, although I think Jude Law particularly shone as eventual villain Yon-Rogg.  Overall, the visuals and acting turn this into a good film, and the only reason it is lower on this list is the incredible competition from the future entries.

18. – Doctor Strange

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Doctor Strange is an awesome movie with many cool features to it.  This includes the first-rate cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Tilda Swinton doing some fantastic work in this film, although Benedict Wong was a particular stand out for me.  I did think that Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, Kaecillius, was a bit under defined, and it seemed a bit of a waste chucking an actor of Mikkelsen’s calibre into such a role.  I also felt that Strange could have gone through a little more character development, as he keeps up his arrogant persona well after this film ends.  The story is also a tad unpolished, and I particularly thought that the rift between Strange and Baron Mordo was a little forced.  Despite all this, Doctor Strange is visually spectacular, and viewers are treated to a kaleidoscope of colour and movement every time magic is used.  This visual work really enhances the entire film and I think this was a pretty strong comic film.  I am very keen to see how the next Doctor Strange film turns out, especially if it combines a better story with the already great characters and visual effects.

17. – Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Next we have the second Avengers ensemble movie.  Age of Ultron was another MCU film that had many expectations surrounding it before its release, especially after the success of the original Avengers film.  Director and writer Joss Whedon had to do a lot in this film, including introducing new characters, continuing existing storylines, and setting up future films.  Unfortunately, this proved too much to pull off.  It is still a very good movie, with the all-star cast doing an outstanding job bringing their iconic characters to life, especially the veterans from the first Avengers film.  James Spader brings some real malevolence and humour to Ultron, although the villain’s use of a disposable CGI army was a bit unoriginal.  Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen both debut their characters extremely well, and while they are not as strong as they later proved to be in WandaVision, they are an interesting inclusion.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver is a little less impressive, especially as Evan Peters absolutely killed it as the same character in an X-Men film less than a year before.  The story is pretty fantastic, although it definitely suffers from the creative team trying to fit way too much into it, making it a weak or derivative in places.  In addition, it has one of the most pointless post-credits scenes in the entire series.  I did think the action sequences were very good, especially Hulk vs Iron Man, although I did think they spent a little too much time trying to recreate the feel of the original film.  Still, this an excellent film, and it serves as a major part of the franchise, even if it is outshined by every other Avengers film.

16. – Captain America: The First Avenger

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Captain America is an excellent film that takes the MCU wackiness right into the centre of WWII.  This film features an impressive origin story that does the classic comics proud while also making use of a great cast of characters.  Chris Evans shines as Steven Rogers in this film, and I loved the transition from a weakling with a strong heart to the ultimate symbol of strength, goodness and freedom.  At the same time, you have an outstandingly evil Red Skull in Hugo Weaving, which I think perfectly balanced the entire film.  Add in the great supporting cast in Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Toby jones, and you have a pretty exceptional group of actors in the film (Richard Armitage, Jenna Coleman and Natalie Dormer also have small roles).  The story is very strong, and there are very few flaws or plot holes for it to stumble upon.  An overall outstanding film, this was one of the better entries in the early days of the MCU.

15. – Black Widow

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Now we reach the very latest entry in the MCU, with last week’s fantastic release, Black Widow.  I will admit that I did go into Black Widow with some slightly higher expectations brought on by a two-year drought in MCU films.  However, I still deeply enjoyed this movie, which finally gave Scarlett Johansson her own solo outing.  Anchored by a great cast, Black Widow was an exceptional film which did a great job highlighting the character’s mysterious origins and finally telling her story.  I was pretty hooked after its strong opening, especially after a sequence featuring a beautifully slowed down Smells Like Teen Spirit.  Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are all outstanding, and I loved the unique family dynamic created between these main characters.  Despite this strong start, I did feel that the ending was rushed, and there is a certain two-week gap in the story that is still bugging me.  I was also not blown away by the villains, with Taskmaster and Dreykov being a little underwhelming.  Still, this was a great film, and I was just super glad that it finally came out.  I also am a little more excited to see more of Florence Pugh as the next Black Widow in some future MCU outings, and it will be interesting to see if this film gets a sequel.

14. – Black Panther

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Featuring one of the best African American casts of all time, Black Panther was an exceptional film that combined a great character-driven story with some awesome visuals.  This film did a brilliant job bringing the nation of Wakanda to life, and I had a wonderful time exploring its advanced technology and compelling past.  The late great Chadwick Boseman is an outstanding Black Panther, continuing the great work he did in Civil War.  He is joined by the fantastic Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Winston Duke, who all bring their new amazing characters to life in a distinctive way.  Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis both make fantastic secondary appearances in this film, and I like the manic energy Serkis brings to the role of Ulysses Klaue.  One of the most noticeable stars of the film is Michael B Jordan as Killmonger, one of the best and most complex villains in the entire MCU.  All these wonderful performances are wrapped up in a fantastic story, with some amazing visual scenes.  The entire sequence in Busan is beautiful, and the final fight is pretty epic.  If I were to make a criticism of the film, it would be around the CGI rhinos; whose presence I think was just a little too ridiculous.  An overall exceptional film, you will be shouting “Wakanda forever” until you run out of breath.

13. – Iron Man 3

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Director Shane Black had a lot of pressure to deliver the third and ultimately final Iron Man film immediately after the success of The Avengers.  Luckily, Iron Man 3 is pretty epic, and ends up being a very different film than some of the previous Iron Man movies, as Black presents a gritty, well-written tale around a traumatised Tony Stark.  This was a very clever techno-thriller, which plays off the damaged protagonist perfectly.  Downey Jr is once again exceptional in this film, and you get to see the Tony Stark beneath the snark and sarcasm.  With the usual great cast of supporting characters, as well as a couple of fun villains, this was a pretty cool film.  I personally enjoyed the twist with the Mandarin, and thought it was extremely clever and funny, although it was a controversial choice (I really hope Ben Kingsley has some sort of cameo in Shang-Chi).  While there is more of a focus on the story, there are still some outstanding action sequences, including the assault on the Stark Mansion and the final epic confrontation between the various suits and the Extremis soldiers.  I also very much liked the inclusion of the scenes were Stark has to use more low-tech methods to beat his enemies, and the multi-part suits add a lot of fun to the overall story.  An overall incredible film, I will admit I did not like this one too much when I first saw it, but several re-watches have really enhanced my opinion of it, pushing it above some of the great entries above.

12. – Spider-Man: Far From Home

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This second Spider-Man film faced the daunting prospect of being released less than three months after Endgame.  However, despite all that pressure, Far From Home was an incredible film that continues to highlight one of the best portrayals of Spider-Man ever.  While not as good as Homecoming, Far From Home boasts an amazing narrative loaded with feels.  Featuring an uncertain Peter Parker still reeling from the death of his mentor and the legacy left behind, this story takes the protagonist on a whirlwind adventure in Europe.  Thanks to an outstandingly talented Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, this film is loaded with great twists and false leads, and I loved how we were punked into believing this would be the start of the multiverse.  Tom Holland continues to shine as Spider-Man and I loved the boyish enthusiasm he brings to the role, as well as his sense of fun and duty.  Samuel L Jackson serves as a harsh, but intriguing mentor figure as Nick Fury, backed up by Cobie Smulders.  The recurring cast from the previous Spider-Man movie are still a lot of fun, with Zendaya serving as a great love interest, Jacob Batalon playing a romantically distracted Ned, Jon Favreau as a fun Happy Hogan, and you have to love Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson.  Another spectacular and amazing film, the epic post-credit scene sets up the third Spider-Man film beautifully.

11. – Ant-Man

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What is it with Marvel casting comedic actors as fantastic action stars?  Paul Rudd was a surprising choice to play Ant-Man, but he ended up knocking the role out of the park, and Ant-Man was one of the funniest MCU movies ever.  I have a lot of love for this movie, from the great characters, wicked humour, intriguing origin tale, and the fact that this movie is essentially a super-powered heist story.  It features a fantastic cast, each of whom add so much to the tale, from Rudd’s excellent comedy, Evangeline Lilly’s badass Hope van Dyne, Michael Douglas’s take on iconic comic character Hank Pym, and Michael Peña’s hilarious Luis.  The real strength of this film is the outstanding size shifting, as Rudd and Corey Stoll’s villainous Yellowjacket shrink and grow throughout the film.  I was blown away by the really cool graphics surrounding the shrinking, and you have to laugh as a variety of items are shrunk and grown throughout the final climatic battle.  There was also a great appearance from Anthony Mackie as Falcon, and it is one of the more entertaining hero-on-hero fights out there.  An impressive and hilarious thrill ride that will have you chuckling the entire time.

10. – Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

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One of the most re-watchable films in the entire series is Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.  This sequel is pure fun, bringing back the amazing elements that made people love the first film.  Featuring an outstanding cast, an unbelievably catchy musical score and another fantastic story, you are in for a lot of excitement.  The returning cast continue to seamlessly inhabit the roles they played in the first film, and it is impossible not to fall in love with Baby Groot.  Kurt Russell serves as a particularly good villain (just ignore the de-aging in the first scene), and I loved the eventual reveal of his true nature.  This movie is exciting from start to finish, with a bonkers finale that culminates in two godlike beings fighting with a range of creations, including Pacman.  However, the most memorable and touching part of the movie is the death of Michael Rooker’s Yondu Udonta, a scene guaranteed to make you cry, especially at the funeral with Father & Son playing.  Other highlights include five post-credit scenes, a unique and catchy credit song and one of the best David Hasselhoff cameos ever.  I honestly enjoyed this one just as much as the first, but due to a slightly weaker story and some lost character development, I have it slightly lower on the list.

9. – Guardians of the Galaxy

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From the sequel to the original, the first Guardians of the Galaxy film clocks in at number nine.  While now an established part of the MCU and wider Marvel Comics, Guardians of the Galaxy was originally a bit of a gamble, as it featured a somewhat obscure group of Marvel characters.  Luckily, the gamble paid off, as director James Gunn produced an outstanding and memorable film, with its own unique style and humour.  Bringing together five excellent actors in the central roles, and expanding the borders of the MCU into space, there is so much going on in this epic movie.  The epic music gives the entire movie a touch of nostalgia, and several great acting careers were made thanks to this film.  A beloved and exceptional entry in this amazing franchise.

8. – Spider-Man: Homecoming

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There have been many attempts to do a great Spider-Man film over the years, but the most recent might be the most successful.  Following on from Civil War, Tom Holland brings Spider-Man to his own movie in Homecoming, which takes the character back to his roots as a high school student turned crime-fighter.  This is a sweet and compelling film that shows an eager Spider-Man attempting to rise to his potential.  Holland perfectly inhabits the character in a way few others have, and it was great to have a younger, fresher face to the iconic role.  This movie has a great story to it, and I loved the combination of wider conspiracy and the adventures of a teenage hero.  Michael Keaton is at his best as the Vulture, giving the character a very sinister edge, especially in that menacing car scene.  MCU newcomers Zendaya, Jacob Batalon and Tony Revolori all add so much to the movie’s humour, from Zendaya playing the snarky girl who is totally not watching Peter, to Batalon playing Ned, Peter’s guy in the chair.  I also love the use of Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau in this film, particularly as they start the fun tradition of having another hero mentoring Parker in one of the films.  A great and memorable film.

7. – The Avengers

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Next we have the film that proved that a joint superhero franchise could work, The AvengersThe Avengers is possibly one of the most significant films in the entire MCU, due to the way it brought together the stars of the various introductory movies and forged a cohesive, team-based narrative around them.  Established MCU stars Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L Jackson all perfectly bring their respective characters back and the various larger-than-life personalities have a wonderful time interacting with each other.  Hiddleston shines as the villainous Loki, adding more depth and madness to his already great character, crafting one of the best villains of all time.  In addition, the newly cast Mark Ruffalo proved it was possible for someone to do a good Hulk.  All these actors, characters and existing storylines come together perfectly and viewers are left with a sensational film with some amazing sequences to it.  While the front half of the movie is great, it really picks up steam in the second half, especially after one of the most tragic MCU moments (Coulson, nooooooo!!!).  The battle of New York was one of the most epic moments in film up at that point, and I loved director Joss Whedon’s use of continuous shots.  A perfect first introduction of The Avengers, this series could only go up from here.

6. – Captain America: Civil War

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Sixth spot is given to the amazing third Captain America movie, Civil War.  Loosely based on the Marvel crossover comic of the same name, this film serves as a mini-Avengers movie, bringing in all the characters who appeared in Age of Ultron, as well as Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Winter Soldier and Black Panther.  Serving as a perfect introduction to several amazing characters (Spider-Man and Black Panther really shine here), there is such a good story behind this movie, especially as Captain America and Iron Man are manipulated into fighting each other.  Featuring several epic scenes, including that unbelievably awesome airport fight, and the final emotional battle between two former friends, you cannot leave Civil War without having your pulse raised to the max, especially in that iconic moment when Iron Man’s repulsor beam hits Cap’s shield.  The directors really focus on characters here, and there is so much amazing drama and development.  I do think that the villain, played by Daniel Brühl, was a little understated, but the rivalry between the two main heroes more than makes up for it.  Easily one of the most iconic films in the franchise.

5. – Iron Man

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At number five, we go back to where this series started, with the first film, Iron Man.  This outstanding film completely revolutionised the superhero genre.  Featuring a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr in the lead role, as well as a great group of supporting characters, this film captures the transition from playboy to a selfless hero.  With a tight, powerful story, this movie perfectly combines action, drama, and comedy to make an exceptional film.  The graphics are amazing and still hold up to this day, and there is a great gradual visual evolution of the Iron Man armour.  Despite there being no guarantee that this movie would succeed, the creative team manages to tell a great solo story, while also laying much of the groundwork for the wider MCU to come.  Not only did a surprise Samuel L Jackson cameo popularise the current trend of post-credit scenes, but there are several great references to characters and locations that would be used for years to come.  One of the best films in the franchise to focus on one superhero character, this is the film an entire franchise was built on, and boy did they chose an outstanding foundation stone.

4. – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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When Captain America: The Winter Soldier was announced, I do not think any of us were prepared for just how incredible this film would be.  In their first MCU film, the Russo brothers created one of the most thrilling espionage films in the entire franchise, with twist after twist layered into its captivating narrative.  Chris Evans reaches a whole new level in this film, and his usually naïve and wholesome Captain America is forced to get down into the dirt to defeat his enemies.  Making great use of franchise regulars Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson and Cobie Smulders, as well as a returning Sebastian Stan, this was an incredibly well cast movie.  I loved the introduction of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and it is always great to go back and see where the future Captain America’s journey begins.  Legendary actor Robert Redford is a pretty sinister villain, and I loved the change of pace for this great actor.  However, I must really highlight Stan’s turn as the Winter Soldier.  While I knew who would be behind the mask, it was still a fantastic portrayal of this great character, and you will be moved by his tragic plight.  There are so many epic moments to this movie, and I loved the big twist about Hydra and SHIELD that would change everything about this franchise (it was so good, it turned Agents of SHIELD into a completely different show).  A powerful and captivating film that is one of the absolute classics.

3. – Thor: Ragnarok

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We are now down to the final three, which are easily the best.  Third spot is given to the zany and the fantastically hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.  I know many people, myself included, were unimpressed when they announced that they were doing a new Thor movie.  However, the moment the first trailer came out, I knew that this would be something different.  The brilliant but insane Taika Waititi used all his substantial creativity to produce a wild and crazy thrill ride which takes Thor on a bonkers adventure of self-discovery.  Killing off many of the worst elements of the first two films (sometimes literally; goodbye Warriors Three), and adding in more humour, fantastic actors and an outstanding story, Ragnarok instantly stood out from the other films in the franchise.  Waititi let Hemsworth unleash his full comedic potential in this film, ensuring that fans were laughing along with every sentence.  Cate Blanchett was a fantastically evil villain, while Tessa Thompson brought a drunken anger to the new character of Valkyrie, plus you cannot ignore the hilarious Korg.  Add in a returning Hulk, a teleporting Dr Strange, and the madness personified that is Jeff Goldblum, and you have a cast that is capable of outshining even Tom Hiddleston’s excellent Loki, although Hiddleston is still a hilarious treat with some of the best lines.  Despite this mainly being a comedy, Waititi adds in enough drama and some spectacular drama to hit the feels button, and you run the full range of emotions in this film.  Beautiful filmmaking at its best, you will spend this film laughing your head off at all the awesome jokes.

2. – Avengers: Endgame

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To beat Ragnarok on this list is a pretty tall order, so let us bring in the highest grossing film of all time and the utter culmination of 11 years and 22 films, with Avengers: Endgame.  Following on from the epic conclusion of Infinity War, Endgame is set in a universe where half the universe has been turned to dust, including some of your favourite characters.  When an opportunity to reverse this is presented, the remaining heroes jump at the chance and find themselves facing the biggest battle of their lives.  There is so much that is epic and awesome about this film, from the continued use of the amazing extended MCU cast, to the sheer tragic sadness that inhabits the world after so much loss and defeat.  Each of the surviving characters is caught up in their grief and helplessness, resulting in many different forms, including Ronin Hawkeye and fat Thor (a brilliant comedic choice that is just so hilarious and unexpected).  This film has literally every major hero from the franchise, and more, come together, and the amazing Russo brothers manage to ensure every single one of them gets their moment and no-one is overlooked.  There is an amazing story to this film, raging from time travel adventure to epic battle for survival, with several characters’ journey in the MCU coming to an end.  I challenge anyone not to react during the two big scenes at the end (He is Worthy, and Avengers Assemble), and you will leave this film breathless and in utter joy and happiness.  A worthy and exceptional film that nearly topped the entire list.

1. – Avengers: Infinity War

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That leaves only one film left at the top, and for me the absolute best film in the entire MCU film series is Avengers: Infinity War.  This was a hard choice to make, and while I could have easily moved up Endgame due to shear epicness, I felt Infinity War was the stronger movie.  Not only does it bring together the events of the previous MCU films perfectly, showing fun new character interactions and fights, but it has an incredible and powerful story backed up with an exceptional cast and some amazing visuals.  There are so many cool moments to this film, and very few things you could criticize.  In addition to the outstanding and massive returning cast of characters, James Brolin absolutely shined as Thanos, and this film cemented him as one of the greatest film villains of all time.  Viewers knew that they were going to experience some heartbreak with this film, but nothing quite prepared you for seeing the tragic deaths of several characters, especially Gamora.  Top it off with that memorable and heart-breaking ending, where the villain actually wins and your favourite characters are dusted right before your eyes.  I think every single person left this movie in shock and awe, and there was no way that I could place any other film higher on this list.

Well that is the end of that list.  I think that I chose pretty wisely when it came to my rankings, and this is how I would truly rate each and every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Now, I know that not everyone is going to agree with my ratings (heck I would be extremely surprised if anyone else had the exact same order I do), so feel free to share your feelings in the comments below, and I look forward to seeing which films you enjoyed.  If people like this list, I may revisit it again this time next year, especially as there are six new MCU films coming out between now and then, and it will be extremely interesting to see where the upcoming MCU films end up ranking.  I am particularly keen for Thor: Love and Thunder, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness, and I think that all three have a lot of potential.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, also sound like amazing films, and I am extremely keen to see how they turn out.  I have rather less faith in Eternals, despite its loaded cast; however, I have been surprised before.  Until then, make sure to comment below and have fun enjoying the glorious MCU whenever you are feeling down.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Books from the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  The task for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday was originally to list the reasons why I love reading, however I am going to go off topic and instead look at something else.  We have just crossed into the second half of 2021, which has already proven to be a pretty fantastic year for books.  I have read some incredible novels so far this year, including impressive standalone books, amazing new entries in established series and fantastic debuts.  Because of this, I thought that I would take the time to work out what my top ten favourite books from the first half of 2021 were.

Once I knew what I wanted to pull together for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, I started taking a hard look at all the different novels that I have read this year.  To be eligible, a book had to be released in (or extremely close to) the first half of this year.  I have also excluded any books released during this period that I have not so far read, although a couple of releases I have my eye on might have appeared on this list if I had had the chance to read them before now.

Coming up with this list proved to be a rather bigger task than I originally intended, as I ended up amassing nearly 20 different releases, all of which I consider to be some pretty outstanding reads.  I ended up being able to eventually whittle this down to an acceptable Top Ten list, although I did include my typical generous honourable mentions section.  I am rather happy with how this list turned out, although I am surprised at some of the great releases that ended up being excluded.  Still, the books below represent what I considered to be some of the best books from the first half of 2021, and I would strongly recommend each and every one of them.  So let us see what made the cut.

 

Honourable Mentions:

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

 

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

 

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

 

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

 

Top Ten List (no particular order):

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

The first book on this list is the incredible and wildly addictive fantasy masterpiece, The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell.  Serving as the sequel to last year’s amazing The Kingdom of Liars (which was one of my favourite books, audiobooks, and debuts of 2020), The Two-Faced Queen continues the compelling adventures of its angsty and relatable protagonist, Michael Kingman, as he attempts to uncover the mysteries and conspiracies of his home city.  Containing a wild mass of unique opponents, plots and hidden secrets, this book holds your attention from beginning to end and is one of the best sequels I have ever read.

 

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Next up we have the obligatory Star Wars entry on this list, Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed.  While there have been several other great Star Wars releases this year (Light of the Jedi and Greater Good were both fantastic), none of them were as impressive as Victory’s Price.  Serving as the third and final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series (which previously featured Alphabet Squadron and Shadow Fall), this incredible book features a powerful, character driven narrative that provides readers with tragedy, amazing character development and a full-on war story amid the Star Wars universe.  Beautifully written and incredibly moving, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy and is one of the best Star Wars novels out there.

 

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Epic spy thriller author Mark Greaney returns with the 10th book in his outstanding Gray Man series, Relentless.  I have been deeply enjoying the Gray Man novels over the last couple of years (check out my reviews for Mission Critical and One Minute Out), so I knew I was going to be in for a good time with Relentless.  This was another particularly thrilling tale of international espionage and plots, as Court Gentry and his comrades go up against a sinister, world-changing conspiracy.  A fantastic and action-packed read that comes highly recommended.

 

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Next of this list we have the fantasy novel that everyone was talking about this year, The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne.  Set in a Norse inspired dark fantasy world shattered by warring gods, The Shadow of the Gods contains a powerful and addictive narrative which sets three amazing protagonists on quests for redemption, honour, and family.  Containing some extraordinary world building, great characters, and a really impressive story, this was one of the best fantasy books of the year, and I loved every second I spent reading it.

 

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Artifact Space Cover

Superstar author Miles Cameron made his science fiction debut earlier this year with the captivating Artifact Space.  Containing an epic voyage throughout the stars, Artifact Space was an awesome read, that takes its damaged protagonist to some amazing places as they try to save their ship from a dangerous alien conspiracy.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

I doubt anyone is too surprised that the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume has appeared on this list.  Written by one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai, this latest volume of the long running series was extremely moving and deeply compelling, as Usagi goes through some harsh adventures near his long-avoided home province.  With incredible art, powerful character work and some very elaborate stories, this was another excellent addition to one of the best comic series out there.

 

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary Cover

Another new to me author who blew me away this year was the outstanding Andy Weir, who produced one of the best science fiction novels of 2021.  Project Hail Mary contains an extraordinary tale of an amnesiac scientist sent out into space to find out how to save the sun from burning out.  Containing a deeply enjoyable and addictive story, I powered through Project Hail Mary in no time at all and loved every second of it.  One of the easiest books of 2021 to recommend, you must check Project Hail Mary out.

 

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker Cover

After deeply enjoying her 2020 novel, Race the Sands, I was eager to explore another fun standalone fantasy novel from bestselling author Sarah Beth Durst, and boy was I in for a treat with The Bone Maker.  This clever novel follows five former heroes who are once again drawn into a deadly battle for their nation.  Readers will fall in love with the novels damaged heroes, especially after they once head the call to battle, even after all the loss and trauma they have suffered.

 

Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonyside Cover

Now, technically this novel was released in 2020, however, considering it only came out 31 December (which was technically 1 January 2021 in Australia), I am choosing to count this as a 2021 release instead.  Colonyside is the third novel in the fantastic and impressive Planetside science fiction thriller series.  Following on from the amazing Planetside (one of the best books of 2018) and Spaceside (one of the best books of 2019), Colonyside places its infamous protagonist in the middle of another dangerous conspiracy, as he searches for a missing person on a hostile alien planet.  A masterful and thrilling novel, I deeply enjoyed this amazing book.

 

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

The final entry on this list is the outstanding Protector from Conn Iggulden, which follows on the from the great 2020 novel, The Gates of Athens.  Featuring an awesome story about some of the key battles between the Greeks and the Persians, this was a fantastic piece of historical fiction that is really worth reading.

 

 

That is the end of this list.  As you can see, I have already read some amazing and epic books so far in 2021 and we are only halfway through the year.  I am pretty happy with how this list turned out, especially as it features some extraordinary reads.  It will be interesting to see which of these books ends up being amongst my top reads of 2020, and while I would assume all the above will make the cut, there is some pretty hefty competition coming up in the second half of 2021.  Let me know what you think about the books that made my Top Ten list, and also let me know what your favourite releases from the first half of 2020 are.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai.  This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series.  Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour.  Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing.  This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.

The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry TatamiTatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji.  Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals.  Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami.  When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation.  Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack.  However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan.  Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?

Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before.  Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few.  This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe.  Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process.  The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume.  The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu.  This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja.  This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs.  This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.

In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja.  This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines.  This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards.  This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting.  This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot.  There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.

The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi.  While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents.  There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism).  Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence.  This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up.  I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.

The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune.  However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention.  He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji.  The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them.  Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.

This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic.  Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands.  The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master.  There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years.  It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them.  This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons.  I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi.  The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.

The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village.  After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi.  As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict.  A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers.  Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village.  Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.

The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume.  There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger.  The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai.  This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot.  Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai.  This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades.  There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance.  The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.

The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord.  For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord.  As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!”  There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale.  There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character.  The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way.  I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop.  It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic.  Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.

Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village.  This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking.  Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi.  While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family.  At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko.  All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son.  This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from.  While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi.  The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages.  There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together.  This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good.  This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict.  There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.

There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume.  I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end.  This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together.  I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume.  This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.

As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume.  In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains.  Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings.  I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.

Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming.  Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales.  Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 18 May 2021)

Series: Athenian – Book Two

Length: 397 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of historical fiction, the incredible Conn Iggulden, returns with the second epic book in his Athenian series, Protector.

Following the devastating battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Persian army reigns supreme in Greece as King Xerxes stands triumphant in the burnt ruins of Athens.  However, despite his victories, Xerxes has not eliminated the threat of the Athenians, whose citizens have escaped by boat to the nearby island of Salamis.  Determined to wipe them out, Xerxes commits his mighty navy in an attack of the Greek fleet off Salamis, initiating one of the deadliest naval battle of all time.  Over three days of fighting, the Greeks and the Persians engage in a brutal battle, with boats destroyed and men killed in horrific numbers.  In the end, only a act of subterfuge from the sly Athenian, Themistocles, will be enough to stop the attack, although this action may damn him for all times.

Following this battle, the Athenians attempt to rebuild their once beautiful city; however, the threat of the Persians remains as a massive army lurks within Greece.  To finally cripple the Persian ambitions for Greece, famed Athenians, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus, will work to bring together an army of free Greeks.  Led by the powerful armies of Sparta, the Greeks will face the Persian army as the plains of Plataea, while their navy faces them at Mycale.  Can the Greeks overcome the superior numbers of the Persian army to survive, or will the Persian dominion of Greece continue, wiping out their fledgling democracy?  The future of Athens is written here, and the world will never again be the same.

Wow, that was another exceptional historical novel from the always impressive Iggulden.  Iggulden has been one of the leading historical authors for years, and I have deeply enjoyed several of his works, including his epic War of the Roses series and the fantastic standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  Last year, he introduced The Gates of Athens, the first novel in his new Athenian series, which will cover some of the most iconic formative years of ancient Athens.  The Gates of Athens was an excellent novel that was one of my favourite historical books of 2020.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting the next entry in the Athenian series, and Iggulden really did not disappoint with Protector.

Protector contains an epic and intense narrative that highlights the chaotic events following the battle of Thermopylae.  This novel has a fantastic start to it, as the story immediately shows the iconic battle of Salamis, a deadly battle of ships and men as the fate of the entire population of Athens hangs in the balance.  This first battle is pretty damn intense, and you get a real sense of the fatigue, despair and destruction that the participants and observers of the battle are feeling.  This battle lasts for a good while, and I loved that Iggulden did not waste any time getting into it, ensuring that the reader is pretty hooked for the rest of Protector.  Following Salamis, the narrative focuses on the rebuilding of Athens and the attempts to bring the Spartans into the war to face the lurking Persian army.  While not as exciting as the start of the book, this central part of Protector is deeply fascinating, and I personally enjoyed the interplay of politics and historical fact, as Iggulden expertly depicts the lead-up to the next battles against Persia.  It also perfectly sets up the epic two battles that are the defining part of Protector, Plataea and Mycale, which occurred around the same time as each other.  Both these battles are pretty intense and action packed, although the elaborate and bloody battle of Plataea is the real highlight, especially as the stakes surrounding it are extremely high.  I deeply enjoyed seeing these two amazing historical battles unfold, and Iggulden ensures that they are bloody, action-packed and compelling.  It was also really cool to see the fascinating, if occasionally tragic aftermath of these battles, and it sets up some intriguing historical storylines for future entries in this series.

I really appreciated the incredible historical detail that Iggulden brought to Protector.  The author has clearly done his research when it comes to this iconic historical battles and he does an incredible job bringing them to life.  So many key moments from the battles are fantastically captured throughout Protector, and the reader gets an amazing idea of the tactics, armaments and movements of the participants, as well as their chaotic flow and carnage.  While the battles themselves are pretty amazing, Iggulden also ensures that the underlying politics, motivations and historical figures associated with them are also detailed, ensuring that the reader gets a full view of why these events are happening and their overall impact on the people of Greece and Persia.  All of this is extremely fascinating, and I personally loved learning more about this period, especially as Iggulden presents it in a compelling and exciting manner.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about The Gates of Athens was the amazing portrayal of several major historical figures.  Iggulden continues this fantastic trend in Protector, as he once again looks at several major Greek and Persian characters.  The most prominent of these are probably the three Greek strategos, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus.  Despite their political conflicts in the first novel (Themistocles orchestrated banishments for both), the three are forced to work together for the greater good of Athens and prove to be an effective team.  Iggulden does an amazing job getting into the heads of all three of these figures, and it was interesting to see how the author envisions what these great men would have been thinking or doing during these historical events.  All three have a significant part of Protector told from their perspective.  In particular, each of the three major battles featured within this novel is primarily told from one character’s perspective, with Aristides leading the Athenian force at Plataea, Xanthippus fighting at Mycale, while Themistocles unleashes his cunning during the battle for Salamis.  I really enjoyed the portrayals of all three characters, and it was interesting to see them during some of their most iconic moments.  In particular, Iggulden provides some intriguing insight to Xanthippus’s mental state after Mycale and some explanation for why he participated in several massacres.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which Iggulden portrays the tragedy of Themistocles, whose own cleverness and guile eventually catches up with him.

In addition to these three main Athenian characters, Iggulden also spends time with some younger Athenian figures, particularly Cimon and Pericles, Xanthippus’s youngest son.  This proves to be an intriguing examination of the younger Greek characters and Iggulden is setting up some new protagonists for the later entries in the series, particularly with Pericles.  There is also some significant focus on several great Spartan characters, such as the war leader, Pausanias, who also provides an excellent alternate viewpoint to the battle at Plataea, as well as an alternate way of thinking from the democratic Greeks.  I also liked the way in which several Persian characters were featured, include Xerxes and General Mardonius, especially as it allowed for another fascinating viewpoint that paints the Greek characters in a whole new light.  All these great historical figures are expertly brought to life by Iggulden, and I had a wonderful time learning about their stories and tragic fates.

In his second entry in the Athenian series, Conn Iggulden once again demonstrates his mastery of the historical fiction genre by crafting a captivating and addictive tale of war, intrigue and personal ambition from iconic moments in Greek history.  Protector is an exceptional and fast-paced novel that presents a powerful vision of the unique and world-changing battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.  This is a clever and intense historical novel which comes highly recommended, and historical fiction fans will deeply enjoy the cool and fascinating tale within.  I look forward to the next chapter in the Athenian series and I cannot wait to see the war and politics that is yet to be unleashed on this city.

WWW Wednesday – 30 June 2021

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright (Trade Paperback)

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

I have not made as much progress with Small Acts of Defiance as I would have liked in the last week, but I am steadily getting through it.  I am actually really enjoying this compelling and powerful historical drama, and Wright has painted a fantastic and detailed picture of life in occupied Paris.  I should hopefully knock this excellent book off in the next day or two, and it is a pretty amazing read.


Skavenslayer by William King (Audiobook)

Skavenslayer Cover

After all the fun I had recently reading Trollslayer by William King, I was in the mood for some more Warhammer fiction, so I started reading the second Gotrek and Felix novel, Skavenslayer.  Much like the first book in the series, Skavenslayer contains several excellent short stories that pit the series’ two mismatched protagonists against several dangerous and insidious foes.  I am about an hour into this audiobook at the moment, and I am quite enjoying its thrilling and action packed narrative.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Coward by Stephen Aryan (Audiobook)

The Coward Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry (Trade Paperback)

The 22 Murders of Madison May Cover

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Burning and City of the Dead

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.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, we have a Kellerman double feature, as I look at two intriguing upcoming murder mystery novels that are sure to be excellent and enjoyable reads.

Over the last couple of years, I have been rather enjoying some intense murder mysteries from bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  In particular, I have been lucky enough to receive the last three novels in his long running Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all three of which have been pretty amazing pieces of crime fiction.  Due to how great his latest compelling crime novels have been, I am currently planning to grab any new mystery books that he releases, and, as luck will have it, there are currently two Kellerman novels coming out in the near future.

The Burning Cover

The first of these is the fantastic sounding The Burning, which is the fourth entry in the Clay Edison series.  The Clay Edison series, which has been running since 2017, is actually written by both Jonathan Kellerman and his son Jesse Kellerman, himself a best-selling crime fiction author.  This is the second series jointly written by the father/son duo (the other being the Jacob Lev series), and follows the investigations of Deputy Coroner Clay Edison as he solves various complex murders in Alameda.  The Burning is set for release in late September 2021, and it sounds like it is going to have an intense and captivating narrative.

Synopsis:

Things get personal for Deputy Coroner Clay Edison when a murder hits close to home in this riveting, emotional thriller from the bestselling father-son team.

A raging wildfire. A massive blackout. A wealthy man shot to death in his palatial hilltop home.

For Clay Edison, it’s all in a day’s work. As a deputy coroner, caring for the dead, he speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. He prides himself on an unflinching commitment to the truth. Even when it gets him into trouble.

Then, while working the murder scene, Clay is horrified to discover a link to his brother, Luke. Horrified. But not surprised. Luke is fresh out of prison and struggling to stay on the straight and narrow.

And now he’s gone AWOL.

The race is on for Clay to find him before anyone else can. Confronted with Luke’s legacy of violence, Clay is forced to reckon with his own suspicions, resentments, and loyalties. Is his brother a killer? Or could he be the victim in all of this, too?

This is Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman at their most affecting and page-turning–a harrowing collision of family, revenge, and murder.

I really like the sound of the cool synopsis above, and it looks like the Kellerman’s are going to produce an intriguing and complex mystery.  There several things that I am really excited for when it comes to The Burning, especially as this is the first Clay Edison novel that I will be reading.  Not only am I rather interested to see how Jesse Kellerman influences the writing style of his father, but I am also keen to see a medical pathologist investigation, rather than the pure detective work/psychological based mysteries that are featured within the Alex Delaware books.  On top of that, the two Kellermans have included several great hooks to their story; and I look forward to seeing a murder investigation in the middle of a raging Californian wildfire.  The protagonist is also going to have to deal with some significant family drama, as his ex-con brother becomes a murder suspect.  It will be extremely awesome to see how this mystery unfolds, and I am interested to see how involved the brother is (you would assume he is being set up, but I am hoping for some clever twists).  Based on the cool synopsis, I think that The Burning has some great potential, and I am looking forward to reading this in a few months.

In addition to The Burning, Jonathan Kellerman will also be continuing his fantastic Alex Delaware series in early 2022, with City of the Dead.  The Alex Delaware books are part of an outstanding long-running series that  revolves around titular protagonist, Alex Delaware, as he uses his training as a psychologist (which incidentally was Kellerman’s profession before he took up writing), to help the LAPD solve some of their most complex murder investigation alongside his best friend, Detective Milo Sturgis.

City of the Dead Cover

The latest three entries in the Alex Delaware series have proven to be excellent and compelling crime fiction novels, and I have loved their intriguing mysteries, as well as the great focus on methodical casework and the fun partnership between the main protagonists Alex and Milo.  My favourite so far is probably Serpentine, although The Wedding Guest and The Museum of Desire were also really good.  City of the Dead, will be the 37th Alex Delaware novel, and it is currently set for release in early February 2022.  Kellerman has come up with another impressive story for this upcoming book, and I am very keen to check it out.

Synopsis:

The past comes back to haunt psychologist Alex Delaware and Detective Milo Sturgis when they investigate a grisly double homicide and uncover an even more unspeakable motive in this riveting thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense.

Los Angeles is a city of sunlight, celebrity, and possibility. The L.A. often experienced by Homicide Lt. Detective Milo Sturgis and psychologist Alex Delaware, is a city of the dead.

Early one morning, the two of them find themselves in a neighbourhood of pretty houses, pretty cars, and pretty people. The scene they encounter is anything but. A naked young man lies dead in the street, the apparent victim of a collision with a moving van hurtling through suburbia in the darkness. But any thoughts of accidental death vanish when a blood trail leads to a nearby home.

Inside, a young woman lies butchered. The identity of the male victim and his role in the horror remain elusive, but that of the woman creates additional questions. And adding to the shock, Alex has met her while working a convoluted child custody case. Cordelia Gannett was a self-styled internet influencer who’d gotten into legal troubles by palming herself off as a psychologist. Even after promising to desist, she’s found a loophole and has continued her online career, aiming to amass clicks and ads by cyber-coaching and cyber-counseling people plagued with relationship issues.

But upon closer examination, Alex and Milo discover that her own relationships are troublesome, including a tortured family history and a dubious personal past. Has that come back to haunt her in the worst way? Is the mystery man out in the street collateral damage or will he turn out to be the key to solving a grisly double homicide? As the psychologist and the detective explore L.A.’s meanest streets, they peel back layer after layer of secrets and encounter a savage, psychologically twisted, almost unthinkable motive for violence and bloodshed.

This is classic Delaware: Alex, a man Milo has come to see as irreplaceable, at his most insightful and brilliant.

Wow, it looks like we are going to have another awesome crime fiction story on our hands in February.  This upcoming mystery has a pretty much everything, including a brutal murder, a mysterious second body that may or may not be connected to the main crime, a phoney psychology using influencer and an intriguing connection to the protagonist.  I love all the various intriguing details that are contained in the synopsis, and it sounds like Kellerman has a very complex and clever mystery planned.  I cannot wait to see how all these fascinating details come together and I am expecting that City of the Dead will have a particularly interesting and memorable conclusion to it.

As you can see, it looks like I am going to be getting my Kellerman murder fix twice in the next several months and I could not be happier about that.  Both The Burning and City of the Dead sound pretty damn incredible, and based on my prior experiences with Kellerman’s writing, I know that I am guaranteed a compelling and exciting couple of mysteries.

Top Ten Tuesday – Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this latest Top Ten Tuesday participants need to list their top anticipated releases for the second half of 2021.

2021 has so far been a pretty amazing year for books, with some outstanding and impressive novels coming out and blowing me away.  However, the year is far from over and there are a number of incredible and epic-sounding novels set for release in the second half of 2021.  To fill out this list I have scoured my list of anticipated upcoming releases and tried to work out which of the books coming out between the start of July and the end of December I am most looking forward to.

This proved to be a rather hard list to finalise, mainly because of how many awesome novels are coming out in the next six months.  I honestly had enough awesome upcoming novels on my radar to turn this into a Top 20, but I decided instead to make some hard decisions, and I ended up cutting out several impressive upcoming releases, leaving me with a list mostly featuring books from some of my favourite authors.  Despite this, I am rather happy with the eventual choices that I made, and I think that this list reflects which upcoming novels I am going to have the most fun reading.  Due to how much potential that I think the entries on this list have, several have previously appeared in my weekly Waiting on Wednesday articles, as well as on my recent Winter TBR list.  However, there are also some interesting new books that I am discussing for the first time here, which gives this list a bit of variety.  So let us get to my selections and find out which upcoming novels are my most anticipated releases for the second half of 2021.

Honourable Mentions:

Billy Summers by Stephen King – 3 August 2021

Billy Summer Cover

The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston – 10 August 2021

The Maleficent Seven Cover 2

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – 28 September 2021

The Last Graduate Cover

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow – 11 November 2021

The Honour of Rome Cover

Top Ten List (by release date):

Relentless by Jonathan Maberry – 13 July 2021

Relentless Cover

This list is off to an extraordinarily strong start as it features the second awesome entry in the Rogue Team International series by the always impressive Jonathan Maberry, Relentless.  Spinning off from Maberry’s outstanding Joe Ledger series (which features such epic reads as Patient Zero, Code Zero and Deep Silence), the Rogue Team International series continues to follow action hero Joe Ledger as he goes up against crazy opponents wielding the weirdest science and technology.  The first novel in this thrilling series, Rage, was an amazing read that was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019, and which ended on a fantastic, if tragic, note.  This sets up Relentless to be a gripping and bloody novel filled with revenge as an emotionally compromised Ledger goes up against a new breed of dangerous enemies.

Starlight Enclave by R. A. Salvatore – 3 August 2021

Starlight Enclave Cover

One of my absolute favourite fantasy authors of all times, R. A. Salvatore, returns with the first book in a brand-new series that sets his iconic and long-running protagonists on a whole new adventure.  This first book, Starlight Enclave, will follow on from the events of the previous trilogy (made up of Timeless, Boundless and Relentless), and should result in a very impressive and exciting fantasy read.

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie – 16 September 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

The master of dark fantasy, Joe Abercrombie, returns with the third and final entry in his intense and addictive Age of Madness trilogy.  Both previous novels in the series, A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace, have been incredible masterpieces with some deeply impressive stories to them and I am expecting great things for this final novel.  The Wisdom of Crowds will focus on the aftermath of the revolution that occurred at the end of The Trouble with Peace and should result in an epic and captivating tale.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman – 16 September 2021

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Following his incredible debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, comedian Richard Osman returns with a much-anticipated sequel novel, The Man Who Died Twice, which will present his retired protagonists with another intriguing case.  The Thursday Murder Club was one of the runaway hits of last year, and it was easily one of the best novels, audiobooks, and debuts, I had the pleasure of reading in 2020.  As a result, I have extremely high hopes for The Man Who Died Twice, and I cannot wait to see what hilarious and clever things are featured in this new novel.

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker – 28 September 2021

Over the last two years, the deeply impressive R. J. Barker has been wowing me, and the rest of the fantasy community, with his epic and captivating novels about the notorious crew of the Tide ChildThe Tide Child trilogy, which has so far consisted of The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships, is an outstanding and compelling series, which places a great group of characters in a dark and bloody fantasy world, where crews of condemned men fight aboard ships made from dragon bone.  The final entry in this trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake, looks set to provide an epic and memorable conclusion to this incredible series, especially after Barker ended Call of the Bone Ships on such a fantastic and moving cliff-hanger.  Unfortunately, there has been no preview of The Bone Ship’s Wake’s cover yet but based on how cool the covers for the other entries in The Tide Child trilogy have been, I am sure it is going to be something extremely awesome.

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly – 9 November 2021

The Dark Hours Cover

After a bumper 2020 where he released two fantastic crime novels, Fair Warning and The Law of Innocence, bestselling crime fiction author Michael Connelly returns with another intriguing and exciting novel, The Dark Hours.  The third entry in the Ballard and Bosch sub-series, which has so far consisted of Dark Sacred Night and The Night Fire, The Dark Hours will set its protagonists on the trail of a clever and conniving killer.  This has the potential to be one of the best crime novels of 2021 and I cannot wait to see what unique case Connelly has come up with this time.

Never by Ken Follett – 9 November 2021

Never Cover

I was a little surprised earlier this year when I saw that highly acclaimed author, Ken Follett, was releasing a novel this year, especially after The Evening and the Morning, came out last year.  However, I am not one to complain when another awesome Follett novel drops into my lap, especially as his new upcoming book, Never, looks set to be an intriguing world-spanning thriller novel.  With an intense and captivating sounding narrative, Never, should be an incredible read and I am exceedingly keen to check it out.

Star Wars: War of the Bounty Hunters by Charles Soule, Luke Ross and Neeraj Menon – 23 November 2021

Star Wars - War of the Bounty Hunters #! Cover

While I was very tempted to include the new upcoming Thrawn Ascendancy novel, Lesser Evil, on this list, it quickly became apparent that the piece of Star Wars fiction I am most looking forward to in the second half of 2021 is the major crossover comic, Star Wars: War of the Bounty HuntersWar of the Bounty Hunters, which is set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, details a brutal fight to claim Han Solo’s frozen body after a major returning character steals it from Boba Fett.  Serving as a crossover between the four current Star Wars ongoing series, Star Wars (2020), Darth Vader (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020), and Bounty Hunters, this crossover series sounds like awesomeness personified, and there have already been some major twists and reveals.  I cannot wait to check this comic out, although I probably will wait until the collected edition comes out in November.  This will be one of the biggest Star Wars events of the year, and as a Star Wars mega-fan, I am deeply, deeply excited for it.

Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson – 25 November 2021

Cytonic Cover

Perhaps the greatest authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, the legendary Brandon Sanderson, has a new novel coming out in November, and it is one that I am particularly eager to get my hands on.  This new book, Cytonic, is the third entry in the gripping and clever Skyward series of young adult science fiction novels, which has so far featured two exceptional novels, Skyward and Starsight.  Featuring an intriguing and complex narrative around humans fighting aliens in a deadly war for survival, the Skyward series has been deeply impressive and thrilling, and I have had so much fun with the first two novels.  This next book in the series, Cytonic, looks set to take its likeable protagonist on another unique adventure, this time into a whole new dimension.  This novel has an immense amount of potential, and I already now it is going to be epic beyond belief.

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World by K. J. Parker – 25 November 2021

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World Cover

The final entry on this list is A Practical Guide to Conquering the World by K. J. Parker, which is probably going to be the funniest books I read all year.  Over the last two years, Parker has released two outstanding and hilarious fantasy novels as part of The Siege series, which takes place during an insane and long-lasting siege of a fantasy city.  Featuring two very clever and loosely connected novels, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, this series featured two fantastic narratives around unqualified, but devious men, taking control of the siege and attempting to win it through unconventional means.  I have absolutely loved the first two novels in this series, and I was very excited to see that a third entry, A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, is set for release in November.  While no plot details are currently available, I am extremely confident that this will be a fantastic tale political intrigue, treachery, and humorous ambition, as a new non-hero rises to the challenge of ruling the world.

That is the end of this list.  I am extremely happy with how my latest Top Ten Tuesday article turned out, and this list contains an intriguing collection of upcoming books that should prove to be incredible reads.  I think that every one of the books I mentioned above has some amazing potential, and most, if not all, will probably end up with a full five-star rating from me.  I cannot wait to see what awesome and exciting stories the entries on this list contain, and I think that I am going to have an incredible time in the second half of 2021.  While I am waiting to get my hands on these books, why not let me know if any of the above interest you, and let me know what your most anticipated releases for the next six months are in the comments below.

Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

Quick Review: Black Canary: Breaking Silence by Alexandra Monir

Black Canary - Breaking Silence Cover

Publisher: Listening Library (Audiobook – 29 December 2020)

Series: DC Icons – Book Five

Length: 8 hours and 29 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a bold new story featuring the iconic DC Comics character Black Canary in Black Canary: Breaking Silence by Alexandra Monir, the fifth compelling book in the DC Icons range.  The DC Icons books are a fantastic collection of unconnected young adult tie-in novels that show unique and entertaining new non-canon teenage origin stories of some of your favourite DC Comics characters, including Wonder Woman and Batman.  I have previously read a couple of the books in this fun series, such as Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas and Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Pena, both of which were great reads that did an amazing job bringing their characters to life.  I actually thought that this series finished after four books, so I was very surprised when Breaking Silence came out late last year.  However, the moment I saw it was out, I made sure to grab a copy and had an interesting time reading it a little while ago.

Synopsis:

THE HANDMAID’S TALE meets the DC universe in this breathtaking, thrilling origin story of Black Canary. Her voice is her weapon, and in a near future world where women have no rights, she won’t hesitate to use everything she has to fight back.

Dinah Lance was seven years old when she overheard the impossible: the sound of a girl singing. It was something she was never meant to hear—not in her lifetime, and not in Gotham City, taken over by the Court of Owls. The sinister organization rules Gotham as a patriarchal dictatorship, all the while spreading their influence like a virus across the globe.

Now seventeen, Dinah can’t forget that haunting sound, and she’s beginning to discover that her own voice is just as powerful. But singing is forbidden—a one-way stop to a certain death sentence. Can she balance her father’s desire to keep her safe, a blossoming romance with mysterious new student Oliver Queen, and her own desire to help other women and girls rise up and finally be heard? And will her voice be powerful enough to destroy the Court of Owls once and for all? 


Breaking Silence
turned out to be an excellent tie-in novel that did a fantastic job capturing the character of Black Canary and placing her in a unique situation.  This was the first novel that I have read from author Alexandra Monir, an Iranian-American author who has written several intriguing young adult novels, including her Timeless and The Final Six series.  I ended up getting through this novel very quickly and I had an amazing time listening to its clever and enjoyable tale.

This book’s story starts off quick and fast, establishing the new setting of a futuristic, dystopian Gotham city, where the villains have won and the population, particularly the women, are oppressed and terrified.  Into this setting is inserted a teenage Dinah Lance, who has lived her entire life in the Court of Owls dark and tyrannical shadow.  Desperate to rebel, especially after seeing friends and family victimised by the Court, Dinah finds her inner strength, as well as some mysterious vocal powers, which allow her to fight back in her own way.  This results in an intense and exciting central part of the novel, as Dinah tries to hide her rebellious streak from the Court’s followers, while slowly coming to terms with who she is.  At the same time, she enters into a risky relationship with the glamorous new student at her high school, Oliver Queen, whose family are heavily connected to the Court of Owls.  This all leads up to a thrilling conclusion when Dinah and her friends need to find a way to stop the Court’s most despicable plans and find a way to stop them for good.

I quite enjoyed the cool story contained within Breaking Silence and it was very easy to get addicted to.  I loved the excellent blend of established DC lore with a patriarchal dystopian dictatorship, and it resulted in an excellent tale of resistance and rebellion against a cruel authority.  Monir does a lot within this one novel, not only introducing a unique and compelling new period of DC lore but also setting up a great heroic origin tale that showcases the protagonist’s defining adventure.  The pace of Breaking Silence is very fast, and readers end up moving through the narrative extremely quickly.  The author has set up an intriguing blend of action, suspense, and teen drama, which results in a compelling and moving narrative.  There are several great twists scattered throughout the book, as well as clever references to the main DC comics, although anyone familiar with the DC canon in any way will know that Oliver Queen is no threat to Dinah, despite the constant hints to the contrary.  I did find the ending a little sudden and underwhelming, which slightly tanked my overall opinion of the book, but this was still a great and enjoyable novel that will appeal to a wide base of readers, including both the young adult market and older established fans.

I have to say that I was rather impressed with how Monir took the background of the Black Canary character and adapted it to a completely new setting.  While some substantial character elements are changed to fit the dystopian setting, the author still utilises or alludes to many key details from the comics to great effect.  As a result, you get a fantastic version of the martial arts using, canary cry wielding, strong-willed hero, who is damaged and withdrawn after years of oppression due to her gender.  I loved how Monir managed to rework several other iconic DC characters to fit around the younger Black Canary, and you get to see several different versions of characters essential to the Dinah Lance Black Canary mythos, including Oracle, the original Black Canary, and Lady Shiva.  I also liked the clever rework of the Black Canary/Green Arrow relationship into a typical teen romance storyline which fit the young adult nature of this book perfectly.  Monir makes sure to highlight the importance of music to the character, something that is particularly emphasised in some of the more recent Black Canary comics where she is a bit of a punk rocker, and which is re-worked here to help the character sing some anti-Court propaganda songs.  Fans of Black Canary and DC Comics are going to have fun seeing all the clever references and unique alterations to the hero and her associates, and I really liked Monir’s version of the character.

Easily one of the most intriguing and distinguishing features of Breaking Silence is the extra dark and sinister version of Gotham City that the story is set in.  This is a futuristic Gotham City where Batman is long dead and the ruthless Court of Owls, have taken control and have instituted a fascist, patriarchal regime.  There are some many amazing and horrifying elements to this setting, and it was clear that Monir was trying to combine a The Handmaid’s Tale inspired society with the iconic and dark comic setting of Gotham.  I think that this unique combination worked extremely well, as this dystopian Gotham is a pretty sinister place, with a disturbing and horrifying anti-female agenda.  Monir masterfully crafts together several great scenes and sequences that highlight how women are oppressed, including one shudder-inducing scene where a school doctor gets his kicks “examining” the female students to see if one of them is the Black Canary.  I felt it was interesting that one of the tyrannies that much of the plot revolved around was a forced biological ban of women singing, to limit their ability to raise their voices in protest.  Monir covers this oppression extremely well, and cleverly examines the psychological and emotional impact that the removal of singing could have on already oppressed women.

I very much liked the author’s use of the Court of Owls as the main antagonists.  The Court of Owls are a fantastic group of villains who are a relatively recent addition to the Batman canon (introduced in the Batman comics in 2011, frankly one of the few good things to come out of the New 52).  The Court are a secret society made up of the wealthy elite of Gotham who secretly control the city from shadows and fight to keep the wealthy in power and the poor oppressed.  Monir transitions this group perfectly into a patriarchal organisation who take power after Batman’s death, killing all the other heroes with their ruthless powered enforcers, the Talons.  There are some great parallels between the Court of Owls and right-wing groups like the Nazi Party, and I think that the author did a great job reutilising them for her story.  The Talons also prove to be a particularly dangerous group of opponents for the protagonist and her allies, and it was a lot of fun to see Black Canary attempt to take them down with her fighting skills alone.

Black Canary: Breaking Silence is an excellent fifth novel in the DC Icons range, producing an amazing story that did the Black Canary proud.  Alexandra Monir’s tie-in novel presents a unique and powerful tale that places a teenage version of the character into a dangerous and oppressive version of Gotham City.  With a very intriguing setting and fantastic narrative loaded with revolution and inner-strength, Breaking Silence is a fantastic read with some real heart to it.  A strongly recommended read, especially in its great audiobook format which is narrated by Kathleen McInerney (who did a great job inhabiting the central role of Black Canary), Breaking Silence is your new young adult superhero obsession.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.