Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: United States of Japan – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If you like the sound of a gritty spy thriller set in an alternate version of America filled with destructive mechas, then you really need to check out Cyber Shogun Revolution, the third novel in Peter Tieryas’s outstanding United States of Japan series.

The United States of Japan novels are a fun and inventive series that is routinely described as a combination between The Man in the High Castle and Pacific Rim.  This series is set in an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II after Japan invented mechas to defeat the Allies.  Following the end of the war, the United States was split between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis, who subsequently engaged in an extended and brutal Cold War against each other.  This latest novel is set in 2020 and features an intense and thrilling new tale that is separate from the stories told in the previous two entries in the series.

Following the end of the latest war against the Nazis, the United States of Japan is facing a crisis as their corrupt governor appears to be a Nazi sympathiser, secretly doing their enemy’s bidding.  Seeking justice after a brutal Nazi attack in Kansas, mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa joins a secret organisation of high-ranking soldiers, mecha pilots and politicians, known as The Sons of War, who plot to assassinate the governor and replace him with one of their own.  While their initial plan to kill the governor goes awry, their target is still killed thanks to the intervention of the mysterious assassin and feared Nazi slayer, Bloody Mary.

However, Bloody Mary has a whole different agenda and swiftly turns against The Sons of War, assassinating key members of the organisation in a brutal strike that leaves Reiko as the only survivor.  Determined to find out why Bloody Mary betrayed them, Reiko teams up with Bishop Wakan, an agent of Japan’s secret police, the Tokko, to hunt her down and stop her plot.  Tracing a shipment of black market mecha parts to Nazi America, Reiko and Bishop travel into enemy territory to find answers and soon find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy.  Bloody Mary has plans to change the entire United States of Japan forever, and she does not care who dies to achieve her goal.  Can Reiko and Bishop stop her before it is too late, or will the entire world feel Bloody Mary’s wrath?

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an exciting and compelling new novel from Tieryas, which serves as the third entry in the United States of Japan series.  I have a lot of love for this series after powering through the second novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, when it came out a couple of years ago.  I have been meaning to check out this latest entry for some time now, and I was glad I was able to get around to it before the end of 2020.  This latest book was really cool, and I loved the bold new story that Tieryas was able to come up with, especially as he once again makes excellent use of his unique and captivating alternate world.

This latest entry in the United States of Japan series proved to be a fun and fast-paced novel, which sees two intense protagonists forced to investigate a lethal conspiracy in an inventive and clever setting.  Told from the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, Reiko and Bishop, this story gets off the ground quick and does not slow down one bit throughout the entire book as the protagonists quickly find themselves in the midst of all manner of intrigue and suspense.  This was a deeply exciting novel, and I liked how the author changes focus from the previous novel, writing Cyber Shogun Revolution as more of a spy thriller with alternate history and science fiction elements.  I really liked the impressive pace of this novel and I was quickly drawn in by the compelling and complex thriller that Tieryas weaves for the reader, especially as it makes great use of its setting and unique world elements to tell the entire story.  The author throws in a few good twists and turns throughout the narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing the story unfold in all its action-packed glory.  Readers do not need to have any pre-knowledge of the United States of Japan series to enjoy this book as the narrative is mostly unrelated to the events of the previous novels, although fans of the series will no doubt enjoy seeing the various changes to the universe.  Overall, Cyber Shogun Revolution had a fantastic and exhilarating story that is guaranteed to keep the reader wildly entertained throughout the entire run of the book.

A major highlight of Cyber Shogun Revolution, and indeed the entire United States of Japan series, is the inventive and unique alternate version of the world that the author has created.  The Japanese-controlled America featured within this series is an intriguing blend of Western and Japanese culture, mixed with advanced technology and an entirely new history.  I really enjoyed seeing all the clever combinations of culture that the author featured throughout his story, and there are quite a few amusing references and ideas featured throughout.  There is a particular focus on cuisine, and Tieryas once again enthrals the reader with descriptions of intense and interesting-sounding fusion foods, many of which I would love to try out.  These descriptions of the United States of Japan are really cool, and it proves to be a rich setting for the narrative to run through, especially as it is not the shiny utopia that it appears on the surface.  The country is instead a dangerous and oppressive regime ruled over by fanatical thought police, where even a momentary slipup is enough to condemn you to a horrible fate.  Tieryas spends time really highlighting this darker side of his universe in Cyber Shogun Revolution and it ends up become a major part of the plot.  The author also takes the reader on a brief tour of Nazi-occupied America, which proves to be a particularly horrible experience (strangely enough, the Nazis are just as bad, if not worse, in this reality), mainly due to the Nazis’ reliance on bioengineering rather than machines, which results in a number of disturbing and disgusting creatures, such as their bimorphs (giant organic mechas).  The comparisons between the Japanese and Nazi controlled parts of America are really fascinating, and I am really glad the author based a bit of the story there.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved the setting for Cyber Shogun Revolution, especially as it helped create a clever and complex narrative, and I cannot wait to revisit it in some of Tieryas’s future novels.

Now there is no way that I can talk about Cyber Shogun Revolution without mentioning the mechas, the giant and powerful human-controlled battle machines which won the war for the Japanese.  Mechas are a distinctive and exciting pop culture creation, especially in anime, and Tieryas uses them to great effect throughout the entire book.  While this latest entry in the series has a definite focus on conspiracies and espionage, Tieryas still slips in several mecha fights and combat scenes.  Indeed, the entire last third of the novel sees the protagonists go up against a series of different and powerful mechas in some intense and epic sequences.  The author has clearly had some creative fun in this book as Cyber Shogun Revolution features a raft of new mechas, each with some unique or advanced piece of technology that gives them an edge over their opponents, including mechas with magnet guns, a mammoth-shaped mecha with a chainsaw trunk, and a mecha that has super speed.  This naturally leads to some fantastic and distinctive sequences, as the protagonists need to find a way to defeat the varied opponents around them.  I particularly enjoyed one sequence that saw one of the characters fighting against a rival mecha, while the other protagonist assists from the outside while riding a jetpack.  Needless to say, if you love mecha combat and fantastic battle scenes (who doesn’t?) then you are going to have a lot of fun with Cyber Shogun Revolution.

In order to tell this fantastic novel, Tieryas utilises two excellent, if damaged, point-of-view protagonists in the duo of mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa and secret agent Bishop Wakan.  After both have separate run-ins with Bloody Mary in which they are the only survivor, the two team up in order to get to the bottom of why she betrayed their nation and what her end goal really is.  Both characters are extremely interesting, mainly because they both have complex and tragic pasts which drive them towards their goals.  Tieryas does an amazing job diving down into these characters’ inner psyches, creating some truly complex characters with major flaws who the reader are inexorably drawn to.  In addition, both characters also have some intense history with Bloody Mary and some of her co-conspirators, resulting in some emotionally charged moments throughout the novel.  These two characters are also a little anti-authoritarian, having seen the dark side of their nation firsthand, which alters the way that they deal with events, and also ensures that they are a little more susceptible to their enemy’s manipulation.  I really enjoyed these amazing characters and I thought that they made for a great duo of central protagonists.

While I had initially planned to grab a paperback version of this book, I ended up splashing out and getting Cyber Shogun Revolution’s audiobook format.  This audiobook has a relatively quick runtime of just under 11 hours and was narrated by the talented Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller, who I recently enjoyed in the Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, did an exceptional job narrating Cyber Shogun Revolution and I had an outstanding time listening to it.  Zeller came up with some fantastic and distinctive voices for the various characters featured within this novel, and the entire audiobook quickly flew by thanks to her fast-paced narration.  I also loved having the cool mecha fights being narrated to me, as hearing the action being described made it pop a lot more for me than simply reading it on a page.  Because of this, Cyber Shogun Revolution comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I really enjoyed hearing all the awesome action and excitement contained within this amazing novel.

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an epic and captivating novel from the amazing Peter Tieryas that serves as the third entry in his fantastic United States of Japan series.  Containing an intense story laden with action, intrigue, and treachery, all set with a clever alternate version of America, Cyber Shogun Revolution is a ball of excitement that readers will have an incredible time reading.  An excellent and fun read to check out, I look forward to exploring more of Tieryas’s outrageous universe in the future.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 22 September 2020)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

British comedian and television personality Richard Osman presents one of the best debut novels of 2020 with The Thursday Murder Club, a clever and hilarious murder mystery novel that was an absolute treat to read.

Welcome to Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement estate near the town of Fairhaven where the elderly can relax and enjoy their final years in peace, quiet and good company.  But for four enterprising septuagenarians, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, retirement also offers them a bold opportunity for some excitement and adventure as the Thursday Murder Club.  Meeting up each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room, these four friends attempt to solve cold cases forgotten by the police.  While it may seem like a harmless hobby, these retirees are thrilled by their amateur investigations and welcome the chance to bring a little justice in the world.  However, when a local property developer with a dodgy past is brutally murdered with a mysterious photograph left next to his body, the Thursday Murder Club jump at the chance to investigate a real live case.

Thanks to a lifetime of connections, skills and intuition, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are able to quickly position themselves in the middle of the burgeoning case, much to the frustration of the local police.  Using every unorthodox and somewhat unethical trick at their disposal, the club members gain vital information about the murder.  However, when a second person is poisoned right in front of them, the club soon begin to realise how high the stakes are.  A killer is stalking Coopers Chase and they will do anything to protect their secret.  Can the Thursday Murder Club stop them before it is too late, or will their first real mystery be their last?

Well, that was exceedingly delightful.  Osman is a fantastic British comedian who has been in a number of great British television programs (we’re big fans of Pointless), and, like many celebrities, he decided to have a go at writing his own novel.  I have to admit that when I first heard that Osman was writing a crime fiction book, I was intrigued but I did not initially plan to read it.  However, after hearing some positive buzz from other reviewers and being in the mood for something a little different I decided to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did!  The Thursday Murder Club turned out to be an exceptional read which blew me away with this incredible and unique crime fiction story.  Osman has come up with something special with this book, and I had an outstanding time listening to it and exploring the fun story, unique characters, and clever depictions of the elderly of Britain.  This is easily one of my favourite debuts of 2020 and it gets a full five stars from me.

Osman has come up with an elaborate and entertaining story for The Thursday Murder Club that combines an excellent murder mystery with large amounts of brilliant humour and several amazing and tragic moments of drama.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives to tell his clever story, and the reader is soon wrapped up in a number of different personal tales that all tie into the murders that form the centre of this book.  While The Thursday Murder Club is a little slow at the start, it does not take long for the story to get going, and once the first body drops the reader is firmly entranced and cannot wait to see where the author is going next.  There are so many great elements associated with this book, and you are guaranteed to have an outstanding time getting through The Thursday Murder Club.

At the centre of The Thursday Murder Club’s narrative lies a compelling and intriguing murder mystery that follows an intense case around the Coopers Chase retirement village.  Osman has weaved together a pretty impressive murder mystery here, with two disreputable people killed in quick succession in apparently connected killings, which prompts the members of the Thursday Murder Club to get involved.  Watching these characters investigate proved to be extremely fascinating and entertaining, especially as they employ some much more unique and unusual methods to get the answers they are looking for.  Osman pairs this unorthodox search for the killer with the official investigation being conducted by the police, and the two different methodologies make for a good contrast, especially when they both get some extremely different results.  The two murder cases go in some extremely compelling and clever directions, and Osman has come up with a number of impressive twists and misleading suspects to deflect from the real culprits.  The conclusions of the cases were really good; I loved how the entirety of the mystery came together and how the various crimes were connected.  Osman adds in lot of foreshadowing for the various twists featured within The Thursday Murder Club, but some of the results were still pleasantly unexpected.  I was able to predict one of the major twists of the book in advance, which allowed me to work out who a killer was and why they were doing it, but I did not see certain other twists and reveals coming.  I really love it when a mystery can shock and surprise me and I think that The Thursday Murder Club was one of the best murder mystery novels I read all year.

An exceptional highlight of The Thursday Murder Club is the excellent characters from whose eyes we see the story unfold.  The Thursday Murder Club is made up of four unusual friends who make for very fun central protagonists.  All four members of the Thursday Murder Club are entertaining and complex characters in their own right and who each add a lot to the story.  Osman spends a great deal of time exploring each of these characters, and the reader soon becomes intimately familiar with their lives while also becoming enamoured with their intriguing personalities.  The main character of the book is probably Elizabeth, the founder of the Thursday Murder Club and its apparent leader.  Elizabeth is extremely determined, and it is strongly hinted throughout the book that she was formerly a rather successful spy.  Described by one of the other characters as being essentially Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Elizabeth is the driving force behind the club’s investigation into the murders around Coopers Chase, especially with her innumerable contacts and natural intuition.  Elizabeth has a very strong personality, and it is fantastic to see her go about her business, intimidating and outmanoeuvring everyone she encounters with practiced ease.  Despite this hard, clever exterior, Elizabeth has a number of emotional vulnerabilities, including an ailing husband and a comatose best friend, which Osman explores throughout the novel.  These vulnerabilities help to drive Elizabeth throughout the book, and she becomes quite a complex character as a result.

The other female member of the Thursday Murder Club is Joyce, a former nurse.  Joyce is a great character who becomes an invaluable part of the investigation.  Appearing to be mostly quiet and somewhat placid, Joyce is actually a deeply intelligent person who uses her mild and kind personality to get people to do what she wants.  As the newest member of the club, Joyce provides the reader with an outsider’s view of the other major characters, and you get an interesting glimpse of how the investigation is progressing as her point-of-view chapters are written in a fun journal format that is unique to her.  Aside from Elizabeth, Joyce probably gets the most character assessment and development in The Thursday Murder Club, especially as some of her personal relationships become key parts of the plot, and she proves to be a particularly intriguing character as a result.

The other members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron, two very different people who are actually the best of friends.  Ibrahim is a particularly pleasant man, a former psychologist, who is nice and sociable to everyone he meets and who serves as the heart and soul of the team.  Out of all the main characters in this book I think that Ibrahim got the least amount of development, which was a shame considering how entertaining he proved to be.  I hope he gets more of a storyline in the future entries of this series and I look forward to seeing how Osman expands this character out.  Ron, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ibrahim.  A famous former union activist, Ron enjoys the spotlight and revels in fighting for lost causes against authority figures.  Ron is the hot-headed member of the group and he has a personal stake in the investigation when his son becomes a prime suspect for the police.  Despite his rough and impulsive attitude, Ron fits in well with the rest of the club and is a keen investigator, mainly because of the way he refuses to believe anything anyone else tells him.  All four of these main characters are exceptionally well written, and I really enjoyed the way that they played off each other and used their unique talents to solve the case.

This novel also focuses on two police officers, Donna and Chris, who are leading the official investigation into the murders and who find themselves working with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  Donna is a young rookie cop who has transferred over from the London Police and now finds herself bored to death as a member of a small town force.  Thanks to the manipulations of Elizabeth, she finds herself assigned to the case, which revitalises her and helps address some of her issues and concerns from her past.  Donna proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as she is the only younger person who sees through the members of the Thursday Murder Club and doesn’t fall for their antics.  She also has a fun partnership with Chris, the senior officer investigating the case, and the two swiftly form a connection throughout the story.  Chris, despite being a clever and experienced detective, is a bit of a sad-sack who finds himself stuck in a rut.  This fresh case also reinvigorates Chris, and he starts to fall out of his bad habits with Donna’s help.  However, unlike Donna, Chris is a lot more susceptible to the charms of the Thursday Murder Club, and it is extremely entertaining to see him get manipulated for a good part of the novel.  These two police characters get a fair bit of attention throughout the novel, and their official investigation nicely complements the unofficial one being run by the Thursday Murder Club, with the divergent information they receive coming together perfectly in the final results.  I also quite enjoyed the friendship that forms between Donna and Chris, as it allows both of them to grow and has a very nice development at the end which I thought was rather sweet.

Osman also creates a bevy of distinctive and entertaining side characters, many of whom have a connection to the crime or are a potential suspect.  This includes all the residents of the retirement village, which is filled with unique personalities with lifetimes of secrets.  Osman explores several of these great characters throughout the course of the book, providing some rich backstory and intriguing motivations for their potential involvement.  I personally enjoyed the character of Bogdan, a relatively young Polish immigrant who works as a labourer for the local property developers and who finds himself involved in the case after finding a body.  Bogdan forms a fantastic friendship with Elizabeth and her husband throughout the book, and I really enjoyed his guarded personality and shrewd intelligence, which proves to be an excellent match for the secretive Elizabeth.  I also have to highlight the two major murder victims.  Both of these victims get a few scenes early on in the novel before they are killed, and Osman sets them up as particularly outrageous and unlikeable people.  While this does ensure that the readers are not too cut up when they end up dead, it does mean that there are a whole of suspects when it comes to their murders, and I liked how that added to the case.  All of the characters featured in The Thursday Murder Club were a lot of fun and I had an amazing time seeing how each of their individual arcs unfolded and what each of them was capable of deep down.

I quite enjoyed how Osman turned The Thursday Murder Club into a fun and entertaining ode to the elderly that highlights the fact that retirees can achieve quite a bit and have a lot to offer to the world.  I really enjoyed the author’s story idea of four senior citizens investigating a murder and it produced a truly entertaining and enjoyable read.  Some of The Thursday Murder Club’s funniest moments revolved around the four protagonists manipulating or swindling the younger characters in the book to get what they want, whether it be information on the case or a confession about certain illegal actions.  The way in which they go about influencing the younger people they encounter is very entertaining, as they mostly utilise the classic trick of appearing helpless and innocent, while in reality they are controlling the entire situation.  Some of their methods will be very familiar to any reader with an elderly grandparent or parent, and I personally laughed my head off at one scene where one younger character is slowly worn down through a unique interrogation method involving crowded chairs, friendly company, an overflowing mug of tea and crumbly cake.  Watching the veteran police characters slowly work out how and why they are being manipulated was extremely funny, and by the end of the book they are noticeably more wary about dealing with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  As this is a book about senior citizens, there are naturally a number of jokes about growing old, including entertaining discussions about their thoughts on today’s society and several depictions of them trying and failing to work modern technology.  While most of the discussion about the elderly is light-hearted and inspiring, it does get quite sad in places.  There are a number of scenes that focus on the debilitating impacts of aging, with each of the protagonists witnessing someone close to them starting to fade for one reason or another, resulting in several deep sequences when they consider their own mortality or frailty.  There are also a number of extremely tragic character moments involving age, and you can’t help but feel a little heartbroken in several places thanks to Osman’s excellent writing.  This adds some memorable and necessary drama to the overall narrative and it really helps to turn The Thursday Murder Club into a much more captivating read.  Overall, I think that Osman captured the issues surrounding aging extremely well, and I very much enjoyed his depictions of these badass septuagenarians outsmarting everyone they meet.

I also liked how Osman went out of his way to make his debut novel exceedingly British.  Everything about this book screams “British” to the reader, from the way the characters, act, talk and interact with each other, to the classic, subtle humour that is featured throughout.  Osman also includes a ton of references to various cultural, social and political elements of the country, with the characters discussing or reminiscing about everything from their favourite foods, television shows, bands, locations, historical experiences (Ron, for example, has some thoughts on Thatcher) and various other aspects of day-to-day life.  Due to the way that British culture funnels down into Australia, I had a decent understanding of most of the references that Osman made, although I imagine that some readers could get a little offput by the many references to aspects of the culture they are unfamiliar.  That being said I found the constant discussion about everything British to be exceedingly fun, and I really appreciated the way in which the author made a truly British book.

In order to enjoy this fantastic book I decided to grab a copy of the audiobook version of The Thursday Murder Club which was narrated by actress Lesley Manville.  The Thursday Murder Club audiobook has a run time of 12 hours and 25 minutes, and I got through it rather quickly, especially once I become wrapped up in the fun and captivating mystery.  I found myself really enjoying this excellent audiobook version of this novel and I think that having the events of the book narrated to me helped me follow the plot more closely and connect to the characters more.  I do have to admit that I was a tad disappointed that Osman did not narrate his own audiobook, but this disappointment quickly faded once I experienced Manville’s excellent narration.  Manville’s voice and narration style really fit into the unique tone of The Thursday Murder Club, and she was able to convey all of the novel’s humour, mystery and drama extremely well.  I also absolutely loved the great voices that Manville came up with for the characters featured within the novel, and I felt that she was able really accentuate the various personalities that made up the story, as well as come up with several different accents.  While Osman doesn’t narrate this audiobook, there is an interview between Osman and Marian Keyes featured at the end of it, in which Osman details how he came up with the idea for his book and why he wrote it, which I am sure many people will find fascinating.  I ended up having a wonderful time listening to this version of The Thursday Murder Club, and it ended up being one of my favourite audiobooks of 2020.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is an exceptional and masterful crime fiction novel that is easily one of the best debuts of 2020.  Osman has crafted together an outstanding read that follows some entertaining and compelling protagonists as they investigate a complex murder mystery in a very fun way.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic novel and I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun and intriguing read.  This was an absolute triumph from Osman, and I am extremely keen to see what he writes next.  I note that a sequel to The Thursday Murder Club is planned for next year and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.

Top Ten Tuesday – Favourite Audiobooks of 2020

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 needed to list the top ten books they hoped that Santa would bring them, however, I am going to do a slightly different topic.  As we are nearing the end of 2020, I have decided to once again produce a series of lists that highlight my favourite books for the year, judged by several different criteria.  I have previously listed my Top Ten Pre-2020 novels I read this year and now I am going to focus on something else, my Top Ten Favourite Audiobooks of 2020.

Readers of my blog only need to check out my extensive audiobook category to know that I have a lot of love for the audiobook format.  In my opinion, the audiobook is often the best way to experience a good book, and in many cases this format makes a book more enjoyable for me.  As a result, I listened to quite a few audiobooks this year, and while several of them are books that had been released before 2020 and featured in my Throwback Thursday posts, a large majority of them were released this year.  There were some outstanding audiobook adaptions this year, and while I had a few books to choose from, I was eventually able narrow my absolute favourites down to a top ten list.

For this list I have only included audiobooks released in 2020 that I have listened to and completed, so I am excluding a few books that probably had some great audiobook productions (for example, I am sure that audiobooks of The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett or Devolution by Max Brooks were amazing, but I ended up reading a physical copy of them instead).  While all of the books that made the top ten are outstanding novels, I have tried to take overall audiobook production into account while choosing my list.  Each of the books that I included below had great narrators and I think that for most of these novels the audiobook format actually enhanced the story and helped me enjoy the book even more.  I am extremely happy with how this list eventually turned out (with my typical extended honourable mentions section), and I had an amazing time coming up with this latest Top Ten article.

 

Honourable Mentions:

 

The Salvage Crew, written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and narrated by Nathan Fillion

The Salvage Crew Cover


House of Earth and Blood
, written by Sarah J. Maas and narrated by Elizabeth Evans

House of Earth and Blood Cover


Star Trek: Discover: Die Standing
, written by John Jackson Miller and narrated by January LaVoy

Die Standing Cover

I was also strongly tempted to use Star Trek: Picard: Last Best Hope, but I felt that Die Standing had a stronger and more exciting story that worked well with the audiobook format.


Song of the Risen God
, written by R. A. Salvatore and narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds

Song of the Risen God Cover

Top Ten List:


Battle Ground
, written by Jim Butcher and narrated by James Marsters

Battle Ground Cover


The Thursday Murder Club
, written by Richard Osman and narrated by Lesley Manville

The Thursday Murder Club Cover


Harrow the Ninth
, written by Tamsyn Muir and narrated by Moira Quirk

Harrow the Ninth Cover


Race the Sands
, written by Sarah Beth Durst and narrated by Emily Ellet

Race the Sands Cover


Into the Fire
, written by Gregg Hurwitz and narrated by Scott Brick

Into the Fire


Star Wars: Doctor Aphra
, written by Sarah Kuhn and narrated by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

While a couple of other 2020 Star Wars tie-in novels did have more compelling or original stories, I felt that the combination of the fun adapted narrative in this audio drama and the excellent full voice cast made Doctor Aphra the best Star Wars audiobook of the year.


The Trouble With Peace
, written by Joe Abercrombie and narrated by Steven Pacey

The Trouble with Peace Cover


Ink
, written by Jonathan Maberry and narrated by Ray Porter

Ink Cover


The Kingdom of Liars
, written by Nick Martell and narrated by Joe Jameson

The Kingdom of Liars Cover


One Minute Out
, written by Mark Greaney and narrated by Jay Snyder

One Minute Out Cover

 

Well that is the end of this latest Top Ten list.  All of the above novels are extremely good, and I would highly recommend each of them in their audiobook format.  There is still time for me to listen to a few more great audiobooks this year, and I am planning to listen to either A Fool’s Hope by Mike Shackle or Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas next.  Let me know what your favourite audiobooks of 2020 were in the comments below, and I might try and check them out.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.

Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death by David Mack

Star Trek More Beautiful than Death Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 August 2020)

Series: Star Trek – Kelvin Timeline – Book Two

Length: 8 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Prepare to once again dive into the alternate timeline version of the Star Trek universe, known as the Kelvin timeline, in this latest exciting tie-in novel from acclaimed author David Mack, Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death.

Set shortly after the events of the 2009 Star Trek film, in which the planet of Vulcan was destroyed by the mad Romulan Nero, Captain James T. Kirk is now captain of USS Enterprise.  Given a new mission, the Enterprise and its crew are ordered to rendezvous with Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, and escort him to the planet of Akiron.  Akiron, a resource-rich world containing a substantial amount of dilithium, has recently sent out a distress signal to the Federation, who are hoping to exchange aid for favourable trading rights.

Arriving at Akiron, they find the planet in a state of chaos as the population are under attack by demonic dark-energy creatures, known as wights, who strike from the darkness, eat energy, and appear to suck the life right out of any living being.  Determined to save the people of Akiron no matter what, Kirk begins his preparations to investigate the wights.  However, before he can act, Sarek orders Kirk to abandon the mission and leave Akiron.

Refusing to obey Sarek’s orders, Kirk attempts to find the cause of the terrible events on Akiron and save who he can.  With the help of an old mystic who believes that Kirk has faced the wights in his prior lives the Enterprise crew are soon able to discover the source of the wights on Akiron and the deadly potential their invasion has.  As Kirk and his crew attempt to save the entirety of the planet they must overcome several deadly attacks as well as the sinister agenda of Sarek’s Vulcan aide, L’Nel, who hatches a dangerous personal plan to kill Spock.  Can the Kirk and the Enterprise succeed, or will darkness engulf everything it touches?

Over the last couple of years, I have had a great pleasure of reading/listening to several amazing pieces of Star Trek fiction and I always love seeing the unique and varied tales that the talented team of tie-in authors can come up with.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent example of this as it features a fantastic and captivating tale of exploration and desperation within an interesting part of the Star Trek canon.  This latest novel is written by a true veteran of Star Trek fiction, David Mack, who has not only written a ton of different tie-in novels but who also has writing credits for two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space NineMore Beautiful Than Death is set in the alternate timeline introduced in the 2009 film Star Trek, known as the Kelvin timeline.  This is the second Kelvin timeline novel I have read this year after previously enjoying The Unsettling Stars, and it set between the events of Star Trek and Star Trek: Into DarknessMore Beautiful Than Death ended up being an impressive and exciting Star Trek novel, and I had an amazing time listening to it.

Mack has come up with an excellent narrative for More Beautiful Than Death which sees the crew of this alternate timeline Enterprise attempt to defend an alien planet from a series of demonic creatures.  The author writes this much like an episode of a Star Trek series, with the crew arriving at the planet, analysing the situation, facing all manner of conflicts, getting beat up and then engaging in a course of action to save the day.  I felt that this worked extremely well for the novel and readers are treated to a captivating and dramatic science fiction story that easily keeps the attention from start to finish.  The stakes are high throughout More Beautiful Than Death, and Mack keeps the tension and excitement going through much of the book, focusing both on the mission at hand and on the contentious personalities aboard the ship.  There are a number awesome action-packed sequences throughout the book, and I especially enjoyed the various scenes that showed the Enterprise being attacked by the wights, forcing the crew to flee from an opponent they cannot even touch.  There is also a particularly good subplot around the Vulcan characters aboard the Enterprise, with the mysterious character of L’Nel apparently plotting to kill Spock.  I really enjoyed the way that Mack explored this subplot, showing L’Nel’s attack on Spock as a prelude to the rest of the book, and then slowly exploring the events that led up to it in the main story.  This subplot combined with the main narrative extremely well and the result is a deeply compelling overall novel that I had an amazing time listening to.

Like many Star Trek tie-in novels, More Beautiful Than Death is best enjoyed by those readers who have some familiarity with the franchise.  However, I felt that Mack made his latest book extremely accessible to new readers, and anyone can have a great time enjoying the fast-paced and intriguing novel with minimal knowledge of Star Trek lore.  There are a lot of fun Star Trek elements associated with this novel, and I really enjoyed the author’s intriguing additions to the canon.  Not only does this book serve as an excellent follow-up to the 2009 movie, showing the early missions of this younger Enterprise crew, but Mack also utilises the alternate timeline setting of this novel to come up with clever alterations to the classic Star Trek lore.  One part of the book’s narrative ends up being an extremely ingenious homage to a key episode of The Original Series.  Mack cleverly inserts this compelling altered version of this episode throughout the book, and it was deeply fascinating to see it unfold, especially as the events of the Star Trek film have ensured it is sufficiently different.  This revision of a classic Star Trek episode was extremely impressive and it was one of my favourite parts of the entire book.  All of this makes for an amazing Star Trek read, and fans of the franchise are in for a real treat with this book.

In addition to some cool call-backs to The Original Series, Mack also does an exceptional job bringing the Kelvin timeline versions of the Enterprise crew to life.  The author ensures that all of the main characters in this book are portrayed slightly differently to how they are in The Original Series.  For example, Kirk is a lot more impulsive, younger and combative than the classic version.  Spock is a little stiffer, as he has only been influenced by Kirk a short while.  Uhura is a lot more combative and emotional, mainly due to her relationship with Spock.  Scotty is a lot more humorous, channelling his inner Simon Pegg, while McCoy is a lot gruffer and even more reluctant to get involved in the usual crazy Enterprise adventures (if that was possible).  All this makes for a tie-in novel that is a lot more in line with the newer generation of films and I personally appreciated the effort from the author.  I was tad disappointed that Sulu and Chekhov were not featured as heavily as the other major characters in the novel (something I have noticed in other Star Trek tie-in novels), but this was still a great novel for Star Trek characters.

I also appreciated how Mack takes the time to explore the psyches of several of his major characters, especially as it produces some compelling and dramatic results.  This includes a deep dive into this version of Captain Kirk, such as exploring his mental state after the events of the 2009 film, with a particular focus on the guilt and hopelessness he felt over watching the destruction of Vulcan, which has made him more determined to save entire worlds.  There is also an intriguing inclusion about Kirk’s past lives, with a couple featured as part of the plot.  This leads into some great discussion about how the character is destined to be thrust into great and tumultuous events, which I quite enjoyed.  Spock also gets a major focus in More Beautiful Than Death, thanks to the author’s inclusion of other Vulcan characters like Sarek and L’Nel.  Spock’s complicated relationship with his father and other Vulcans is a major theme throughout the novel, and aspects of his life aboard the Enterprise, particularly Spock’s romantic attachment to Uhura and his loyalty to Kirk, increase the tension.  This adds an excellent amount of drama to the narrative and it plays extremely well into the clever subplot around L’Nel, resulting in an intriguing and compelling narrative arc.  I had a great time diving down into several of these characters, and it helped to produce a much more complete and emotionally driven narrative.

As I do with most Star Trek books, I ended up checking out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format rather than getting a physical copy.  The More Beautiful Than Death audiobook has a run-time of just over eight hours, making it an extremely easy audiobook to get through quickly.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, especially as it features the vocal talents of the outstanding Robert Petkoff.  I have mentioned Petkoff before in several my reviews as he is the go-to narrator for any piece of Star Trek fiction that gains an audiobook format, due to his fantastic ability to perfectly replicate the cast members of both The Original Series and The Next Generation television shows.  Petkoff did another exceptional job in More Beautiful Than Death, expertly bringing every key member of the Enterprise’s crew to life and providing fantastic voices for each of them.  While they do sound more like The Original Series cast than the actors from the 2009 Star Trek film, this was still excellent work from Petkoff, and listeners are well aware which character is speaking at every point in the audiobook.  I also liked the voices that Petkoff utilised for the various supporting characters in More Beautiful Than Death, and there are some great differentiation in tones between the various alien species, such as for the Vulcan characters Sarek and L’Nel.  All of this makes for an epic listen, and Star Trek fans are strongly advised to check out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format.

With his latest novel, David Mack continues to explore and add to the Star Trek expanded universe, this time diving into the intriguing Kelvin timeline.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent and entertaining read that takes the reader on a gripping adventure in space.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of characters, Star Trek elements and his fantastic and unique narrative, More Beautiful Than Death is a fantastic Star Trek tie-in novel which will really appeal to established fans of this franchise.  Highly recommended.

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 7 May 2020)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive new fantasy author Nick Martell presents The Kingdom of Liars, an outstanding fantasy novel that is easily one of the top debuts of 2020.

Welcome to The Hollows, the slowly disintegrating capital of once-great kingdom where magic costs memory to used.  Once a shining beacon of culture and nobility, the city is now a shadow of its former self, surrounded by firearm-wielding rebels while petty nobles fight for scraps within and a corrupt prince plots for power.  While the people suffer under the rule of a grieving king, their only hope of survival may lie in the hands of the son of the kingdom’s most despised traitor.

Michael Kingman was only a child when he was branded a traitor for the crimes of his father.  Once the King’s loyal right-hand man, Michael’s father, David Kingman, was convicted and executed for the murder of the King’s nine-year-old son, and his family was cast out into poverty and infamy.  Now, 10 years later, Michael makes a living running petty cons on minor nobility while desperately trying to escape the legacy of his family.  However, after a devastating rebel attack rocks the city and kills someone close to him, Michael is determined to change his destiny.

Accepting employment with an eccentric and powerful noble, Michael is given a chance to re-enter noble society and find evidence that proves that his father was framed for the prince’s murder.  Participating in the Endless Waltz, the social highlight of year, Michael needs to gain influence and supporters in the court in order to gain an invitation into the king’s palace, where he believes the evidence he needs to vindicate his father can be found.  However, nearly everyone in the Endless Waltz has their own agenda and no-one wants to see a traitor’s son succeed.  Can Michael prove his father’s innocence and restore his family’s place in the kingdom, or is he doomed to share his fate and be executed as a traitor?

So, this is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time.  Despite it coming out in May this year, I only managed to get around to listening to it a couple of weeks ago and I instantly realised I made a mistake in not reading this one sooner as The Kingdom of Liars was an epic and deeply impressive novel that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This was the debut novel from new author Nick Martell, which serves as the first entry in his planned The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series (which is a cool series name btw).  This amazing novel from Martell contains a deeply captivating and complex story that proved incredibly irresistible to me, especially when you throw in the great characters and inventive new fantasy world that the author came up.  The end result is an exceptional and powerful read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome book is a first-rate story that sees the protagonist, Michael Kingman, attempt to navigate his treacherous city in order to find the truth behind the death of his father.  Martell starts his narrative off with an impressive opening sequence that sees Michael being found guilty of the murder of the king, a charge he does not refute.  The story then backtracks a few weeks and the full story of Michael Kingman and his adventures is revealed to the audience through the first-person narration of Michael in a way that is reminiscent of a historical chronicle and shows how the protagonist goes from street hustling to regicide in a short period of time.  This proved to be an extremely epic tale loaded with conspiracy, political intrigue, lies, deceit and dark magic, as Michael primarily battles through a series of intense social occasions while also attempting to outwit or survive the machinations of jealous royals, betrayed friends, dangerous mercenaries, fickle nobles and scheming rebels.  At the same time, he also has to work out the motivations for the various people he encounters, most of whom have deep secrets or interesting connections to Michael and his family, as well as diving down into the history of The Hollows and the Kingman family.

There is quite a lot going on in this book, and the readers get to witness a series of different storylines and character arcs, all of which are loaded up with surprise twists and intriguing revelations.  All these storylines prove to be quite entertaining and very cleverly written and I had a great time seeing how each of them unwound.  These separate story arcs come together extremely well, and it results in a deeply compelling overall narrative which proved very hard to stop reading.  I loved all the narrative surprises that Martell came up with throughout The Kingdom of Liars and he added in some great twists which did an outstanding job keeping my attention.  While I was able to guess some of the reveals that Martell was telegraphing, several others caught me completely by surprise, which is something I deeply appreciate in a novel.  I was particularly impressed by the eventual reveal of the main antagonist and I thought that the choice of character was a real masterstroke from Martell.  I was immensely annoyed with myself for not picking up on it sooner, especially as I missed an obvious clue.  I cannot emphasise how I much loved this clever narrative, and I look forward to seeing how Martell continues this captivating tale in the future.

Because he serves as the central protagonist and only point-of-view character, most of The Kingdom of Liars is spent examining the character of Michael Kingman.  Michael is a complex and damaged protagonist who finds himself burdened with the legacy of his great family and the deeds of his traitor father.  At the start of the novel, Michael is a rather self-destructive being, who attempts to find redemption from random and pointless acts of heroism and by skimming some cash off the nobles he despises.  However, after a series of personal losses, Michael begins the path to redeeming himself and his family by attempting to prove his father’s innocence and he starts to reconnect with figures from his past, including several he had forgotten.  I quite enjoyed the character of Michael and it proved to be quite fascinating to see his constant internal battle to determine his identity and his place within the world.  Do not get me wrong, at times Michael proved to be a frustrating protagonist to follow due to his stubbornness and anger, but I think this examination of his damaged emotions helped to make him a stronger character who the reader could emphasise with more.  Thanks to the various events and revelations that become apparent to Michael as the story progresses, the protagonists develops substantially throughout The Kingdom of Liars and by the end he is a vastly different character who is placed in an interesting position for the next novel.  I look forward to seeing how Michael’s story continues throughout the rest of The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and I am sure it is going to be suitably dramatic and enjoyable.

In addition to the central protagonist, Martell includes an impressive supporting cast of characters who guide, befriend, manipulate, or try to kill Michael throughout the course of the narrative (sometimes they try to do all four at once).  I really enjoyed the various supporting characters that the author included in The Kingdom of Liars, especially as he ensures that each of them has a substantial and compelling backstory that is somehow interwoven with Michael’s past.  It proves to be extremely fascinating to see how each of these characters play into the larger picture of the narrative, especially as everyone has an alternate motive when it comes to dealing with Michael.  While each of the characters is suitably complex, there are a couple I need to particularly highlight.  This includes the other Kingman children, Gwen and Lyon, both of whom have been impacted by their father’s execution in a similar way to Michael, but who both deal with it in alternate ways, either by running from their family’s name or by subtly investigating it through their own means.  These two prove to be a dramatic counterpoint to Michael’s inner struggle about being a Kingman and it was fascinating to see the various, high-tension discussions they have with the protagonist on the subject.

There is also the excellent character of Trey, Michael’s best-friend, who, thanks to a tragic event early in the novel, ends up becoming more of an antagonist due to major feelings of betrayal that emerge between the two.  Trey ends up become a fantastic part of the book’s plot, as Michael is forced to constantly worry about his former friend attempting to kill him, while also attempting to do what is best for Trey’s well-being.  The various sequences with Trey are amongst the most emotional and powerful in the novel, and they add a real dramatic kick to the overall story.  The end of The Kingdom of Liars hints at a dark future for Trey in the rest of the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for him.  I also had quite a liking for the mysterious mercenary, Dark, a dangerous and shadowy being who Michael becomes inadvertently entangled with.  Dark is a fun and ultra-powered figure throughout the novel, and he had some great interactions with the protagonist.  However, out of all these characters my favourite is easily Charles Domet, the rich and powerful drunkard with innumerable secrets.  Domet serves as an excellent mentor character for Michael, while also being one of the most entertaining members of the cast.  I loved every scene that Domet appeared in, especially as he had a particularly intriguing backstory.  Each of these characters, and more, added substantially to The Kingdom of Liars, and it will be fascinating to see how each of them evolves in the future.

On top of the outstanding and clever story and the complex characters, Martell also invests in a captivating and highly inventive new fantasy realm, primarily set around the city of The Hollows.  This is a dark and dangerous world, with the major feature being a fractured moon hanging in the sky with occasional pieces falling to world below and causing substantial damage, while also offering cryptic remarks to those people who hold the shards.  The Hollows itself serves as an excellent setting for the novel, thanks to its dangerous politics, oppressed people, besieging rebels and withering monarchy.  Watching the scion of a once powerful house that was renowned as a force for good attempt to navigate the avenues of power throughout The Hollows proves to be extremely compelling and I really enjoyed it.  There are also some intriguing examinations of the city’s history, and each revelation about the past added a new layer to elaborate story that Martell came up with for The Kingdom of Liars.  The author has also come up with an intriguing magical system which allows people to wield substantial power at the cost of their own memories, ensuring that each magic user must work hard to maintain control.  I found this memory factor of this magical system to be very clever and it added a lot of great elements to the overall story, especially as several characters, including the protagonist, experience memory losses throughout the novel, which hinders them, and by extension the reader, from seeing the full picture.  There is also a rather intriguing comparison between magic and firearms throughout the story, as the nobles wield arcane power, while the rebels have guns.  This results in some thrilling sequences and it should be fun to see more elaborate fight scenes in the future.  Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and compelling new setting and Martell really showed off his creativity in this first novel.  It seems likely that Martell is planning to massively expand this world in the future The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novels and I am confident there will be some fantastic new inclusions in the future (like who actually fractured the moon).

As I mentioned above, I ended up buying The Kingdom of Liars’ audiobook format rather than grabbing a physical copy of the book.  I am extremely happy that I chose to do this as the audiobook was particularly good and it proved to be a fantastic way to enjoy this awesome novel.  I had an amazing time seeing the cool fantasy world that Martell came up be bought to life in this format and I found myself really getting into the story details as I listened to it.  The Kingdom of Liars audiobook has a relatively substantial run time of 15 hours and 37 minutes, although I found myself powering through it extremely quickly due to how much I enjoyed the story.  The audiobook features the narration of Joe Jameson, who I recently talked about in my review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker.  Jameson’s narration in The Kingdom of Liars is pretty amazing and he does an incredible job inhabiting the various characters featured within the novel.  I think his voice and narration style really fit the way that this novel was written, and I felt that the point-of-view protagonist really came to life in his hands.  All of this results in a captivating and deeply enjoyable audiobook and this is the format I would recommend to anyone who wishes to check out The Kingdom of Liars.

The Kingdom of Liars is an incredible, compelling, and deeply exciting novel that I had an absolutely wonderful time listening to this year.  Debuting author Nick Martell really outdid himself with this first novel in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and this superb book comes highly recommended.  I loved everything about this book, including the two different but equally awesome covers that it was released with (see above and below), and I know I am going to have an amazing time following this series in the future.  The next The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novel, The Two-Faced Queen, is set for release in March next year, and it looks set to be one of the top books of 2021.

The Kingdom of Liars Cover 2

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 17 November 2020)

Series: Standalone/Pine Deep series

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to journey back to the weirdly dangerous town of Pine Deep as one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Maberry, presents his latest novel, Ink, an intriguing and clever horror thriller that dives down into the world of memories and tattoos.

Pine Deep, Pennsylvania is a town long-steeped in blood and death.  After barely surviving the terrible events of 15 years ago, now known by the locals as The Trouble, the town has slowly recovered, with fresh businesses and people bringing in new life.  However, no one is ever truly safe in Pine Deep, especially with a malicious predator haunting the streets, one with very particular appetites.

Monk Addison is man who has experienced many weird and horrifying things in his life, but what he is about to encounter in Pine Deep will shake him to his core.  A bounty hunter who has sought redemption in life by covering his body with tattoos depicting the faces of murder victims, Monk has recently moved to Pine Deep to be closer to his friend and tattoo-artist Patty Cakes, but what he arrives he finds Patty in a state of shock.  An important tattoo on Patty’s hand has started to disappear, and as it fades, so do the memories associated with it until Patty can no longer remember anything about, not even the precious person who inspired it.

As Monk desperately tries to understand what is happening to his friend, a pattern begins to emerge.  Several people within Pine Deep are experiencing losses of traumatic or significant memories, and in every case tattoos related to these events have also disappeared.  Worse, in some cases new tattoos are appearing on people, forcing them to do terrible deeds.  Working with Pine Deep’s chief of police, Malcolm Crow, and his adopted son, Mike Sweeney, Monk, Patty and other impacted residents of Pine Deep attempt to discover who or what is behind these stolen memories.  But can they find who is responsible before their memories fade, or will this predator continue to feast on the very thing that makes them human?  The Lord of the Flies is hungry, and his reign of terror has only just begun!

Over the last couple of years, I have become a major fan of Jonathan Maberry’s writings, and I only just recently finished reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels, as well as the first Rogue Team International book, Rage, so I was very excited to get my next fix of Maberry excitement with InkInk was one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020, and it really did not disappoint in any way, as Maberry has produced an intense and captivating horror novel that proved to be both extremely exciting and deeply terrifying.

Ink is an outstanding and impressive book that contains one heck of a story that sees several remarkable characters attempt to deal with a weird and powerfully scary supernatural threat that is attempting to destroy what is most precious to them.  Maberry has crafted together a fantastic narrative for this book that is equal parts clever, compelling and scary, and which dives down deep into the psyche of several complex individuals.  The author utilises his trademark style to produce a wide-ranging, multi-character story that shows the full impact of the antagonist’s dark machinations, and the slow hunt of the protagonists to comprehend what is happening to them, and their subsequent attempts to combat the threat.  While I did think that the story was a little slow at the start, once it gets going the reader has a hard time putting it down, as they become obsessed with seeing the full extent of the horror, as well as becoming connected to the characters featured within.  While Ink contains a lot less action than a typical Maberry novel, this is an extremely exciting and fast-paced read, with the thrilling game of cat and mouse between the villain and his victims proving to be quite intense.  Readers should be warned that this is an extremely adult read, containing some fairly graphic sequences of violence, torture, mental manipulation and sexual content, which may not be for everyone.  Overall though, this is an exceptional read, and I really loved getting to the end of this enthralling and excellent narrative.

While Ink is ostensibly a standalone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to Maberry’s debut series, the Pine Deep trilogy, while also being set in the same universe as several of his other books, namely the Joe Ledger novels.  The entirety of Ink is set in the town of Pine Deep, which was the titular setting of the original trilogy.  As a result, several characters from these books appear throughout the course of the novel and there are a lot of mentions of the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, some of which play into the plot.  While you potentially could get a little more out of Ink by reading the Pine Deep novels first, I would say that you really do not need any prior knowledge of these books to enjoy Maberry’s latest novel.  Like always, Maberry’s writing is very inclusive, providing the reader with relevant information about the events that occurred in these previous novels.  As a result, the reader gets a decent summary of what occurred in the Pine Deep trilogy and how it relates to Ink.  This allows readers unfamiliar with the Pine Deep books to enjoy Ink without any issues, and this might even be a good Maberry starter novel for anyone who has been interested in reading some of his books.  On the other hand, those fans of Maberry who are familiar with this prior trilogy will no doubt really enjoy the return to this iconic setting and will have an amazing time seeing what has happened in the 15 years following the end of Bad Moon Rising (the third and final book in the Pine Deep trilogy).  The summaries of the Pine Deep novels contained within Ink are rather easy to get through and Maberry works them into the story extremely well, so those people familiar with these prior works should be able to read them without getting bored of a forced recap, and this is book that any horror or thriller fan can easily enjoy.

At the heart of Ink are the excellent main point-of-view characters that Maberry utilises to tell his complex tale.  There are several major characters featured throughout the book, including several original characters created specifically for Ink.  The most notable of these is Monk Addison, the relentless and scary former soldier who is desperately seeking redemption after a long and bloody life.  Monk turned out to be an amazing central character for this book and I loved the way that Maberry slowly revealed his past in order to show just how special he his.  Monk goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, and I found myself getting quite attached to him as the story progressed.  In addition to Monk, Ink also has a particular focus on Patty Cakes, Monk’s tattoo artist friend whose memories are impacted by the book’s antagonist.  Patty is a deeply tragic and magical character who has gone through a lot in her life and who now finds herself being attacked in a much more personal and devastating way.  Seeing Patty being overwhelmed by the loss of her memories is really disturbing and heartbreaking and you cannot help but feel her loss deep in your soul, which is a testament to Maberry’s excellent writing.  Patty is another character who you grow to care for as the story unfolds and the constant danger she is put into, both mentally and physically, keeps the reader on edge.  The other two original major characters I need to highlight are Dianna and Gayle.  Dianna is a medium who also has her memories stolen by Ink’s antagonist, while Gayle is someone who builds a connection to Dianna, who is then impacted by Gayle’s lost memories in a different way.  I liked the way that Dianna and Gayle were worked into the story, and they helped to provide a new angle to the narrative.  Watching them team up with Patty added some enjoyable female empowerment elements to the novel, and there is a touching LGBT romance between Dianne and Gayle that I thought Maberry handled well, even if it was a tad explicit.

In addition to these new characters, Maberry also makes use of the protagonists from the Pine Deep novels who return as major characters in Ink.  This includes major characters Malcolm Crow, Mike Sweeney, Val Guthrie and Jonatha Corbiel (now Jonatha Newton).  While Val and Jonatha have mostly smaller roles in this book, Malcolm and Mike are major point-of-view characters, performing their own investigation of the latest batch of weird events occurring around Pine Deep.  Both proved to be exceptional additions to the cast, as not only are they complex characters (especially after the events of the Pine Deep trilogy), but they also add some distinctive viewpoints into the investigate parts of the book.  Maberry does a fantastic job introducing these characters to new readers, while those who have read the Pine Deep books will deeply appreciate seeing what has happened to them since the events of this initial trilogy.  While I am sure that many of Maberry’s readers would have hoped for happy lives for Malcolm, Mike and Val after all they have been through, all three characters have experienced additional difficulties and tragedies in the last 15 years.  These additional life events, as well as their traumas from the Pine Deep books, are expertly incorporated into their characterisation for Ink, and it proved deeply compelling to see their arcs unfold.  I personally enjoyed seeing the new protagonists’ reactions when encountering Malcolm and Mike, and there are a lot of depictions about realising how dark, dangerous and damaged both of them are.  Some of these new characters are also in for a hair-raising surprise when it comes to Mike, and it was interesting to see how that certain aspect of Mike’s character has evolved since his last book.  All of the characters featured in Ink were deeply compelling, and I felt that Maberry did an exceptional job featuring them throughout this novel.

If there is one thing that Maberry is particularly good at it, it is creating iconic and despicable antagonists for his novels.  Ink is no exception to this, as Maberry has once again produced a dark and sinister figure in Owen Minor, the self-proclaimed Lord of the Flies.  Owen is an inherently creepy and deeply disturbing individual who has gained the ability to steal people’s tattoos and the associated memories with them, as well as several other abilities.  Thanks to a series of intriguing interludes, Maberry dives into the history of Owen, showing his origins as a character, what his motivations are and how he realised what his powers were.  This examination of Owen’s psyche and history is both fascinating and unsettling and getting this deeper look into the character’s soul makes the reader dislike him even more, especially as you begin to realise just how twisted he truly is.  The author also includes a number of chapters from the point of view of several different side characters who have been infected by Owen in some way or another.  These scenes not only help to explore the true extent of his abilities but they also show the lengths he is willing to go to get his favourite meal.  The way in which he attacks his victims and then revels in their mental agony ensures that the reader builds a deep hatred for him and you really cannot wait to see him get some form of comeuppance.  All in all, this was another great antagonist from Maberry, and I look forward to seeing what sort of maniac creature he comes up with next time.

As I mentioned above, Maberry returns to his iconic town of Pine Deep for this latest novel, with most of the story set within it.  This proves to be a fascinating and dark location for this great book, and I think that Maberry had fun revisiting this haunted town.  The author really loads a sense of menace and despair into nearly every scene set within the town, and this is enhanced by every character recognising just how weird and dangerous the place can be.  There is a lot of history associated with Pine Deep, as during the original Pine Deep trilogy the town was nearly destroyed by dark forces, with the survivors deeply traumatised as a result.  These events, now know by everyone as The Troubles, are a major part of the town’s identity, and Maberry does a great job teasing out what happened during The Troubles to new readers, with only hints and vague comments describing for the first part of the book.  It proved to be quite fascinating to see how the town has recovered in the roughly 15 years since the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, and Maberry fans will have an amazing time seeing this continuation of the setting.  I really enjoyed seeing the characters explore Pine Deep once again and I hope that Maberry has plans to revisit again in some of his future novels.

One of the more compelling elements of this book is the author’s examination of the importance of tattoos and the memories that people associate with them.  I have to admit that I am not particularly into tattoos; while I can appreciate the cool art that other people get, it is really not something I would consider doing for myself.  However, I deeply enjoyed the way in which Maberry explored the tattoo world in this novel, examining both tattoo artists and the people who desire the art on their body.  In particular, he explores the way in which people get tattoos to mark special or significant occasions, or how tattoos can be used to memorialise tragedy or dark moments from someone’s life and the emotional and memory connections that result from the tattoos.  This becomes quite a significant part of the novel, because the antagonist steals the tattoos to get to the memories associated with it.  As a result, Maberry than examines the impact of losing such a memory and what it could potentially do it to a person.  While some characters manage ok with losing these darker memories, a lot of them are deeply troubled by it, as going through these events and overcoming them, are key to their identity.  Without these memories, and the tattoos that personify them on their body, these characters become despondent, and in many cases it becomes too much for them to bear.  It helps to really emphasise just how evil and malignant the actions of the antagonist is, and I really appreciated the author’s dives into the human psyche and his compelling depiction of what happens when someone loses their memory and identity.  The removal of certain memories from the various point-of-view characters also adds a new level of difficulty to the protagonist’s investigation, as they have to try and find a way to hunt down someone who they can’t remember.  These inclusions really added a lot to the story, and readers may come away with a deeper understanding of how important tattoos can be to people.

As with all of Maberry’s novels that I have so far enjoyed, I really could not resist grabbing the audiobook version of Ink.  The Ink audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, which is a typical length for one of Maberry’s novels, and I found it extremely easy to power through this book in less than a week.  Part of this was because of the excellent narration of long-time Maberry narrator, Ray Porter, who once again lends his awesome vocal talent to this thrilling book.  Porter is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment, and I cannot imagine listening to one of Maberry’s novels without his amazing voices.  Just like he does in the Joe Ledger novels, Porter really dives into the characters he is portraying, ensuring that the full range of their emotions become abundantly clear to anyone to who listening to the story.  He is also does an amazing job enhancing the horror elements of this book with some of his creepier tones, and the listener can get chills at the horrible and slimy voices he uses for the antagonist or for some of the darker scenes in Ink.  While it was a little disconcerting at time to hear some of the familiar voices from the Joe Ledger audiobooks in this new novel, Porter was once again fantastic narrating Ink, and I would strongly recommend this format as the ideal way to check this book out.

Jonathan Maberry once again shows why he is one of the preeminent authors of the weird thriller novel, with this outstanding horror book InkInk is an extremely clever and thrilling horror book that grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Thanks to the outstanding narrative, impressive characters and interesting themes, Ink proves to be a captivating and exciting read, especially when combined with the distinctive setting of Pine Deep from Maberry’s previous novels.  As a result, Ink comes highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and this novel is worth checking out.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and I cannot wait for Maberry’s next novel, Relentless, which comes out in several long months.

Quick Review – Dark Forge by Miles Cameron

Dark Forge Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 January 2019)

Series: Masters & Mages – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After finally getting around to doing a quick review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker the other day, I thought I would take this opportunity to do a quick review for the exceptional 2019 fantasy novel, Dark Forge, the second entry in the Masters & Mages trilogy by Miles Cameron.

Miles Cameron is an interesting and talented author who has written several amazing fantasy novels over the last couple of years.  I am a little more familiar with Cameron under his main writing name, Christian Cameron, which he uses for his enjoyable and detailed historical fiction novels, such as last year’s The New Achilles.  However, I really got into his fantasy fiction last year when I read the first Masters & Mages book, Cold Iron, which proved to be a particularly captivating and impressive novel that is really worth checking out.  After enjoying Cold Iron I also decided to have listen to its sequel, Dark Forge, late last year, and while I had a fantastic time reading it, I completely failed to write a review for.  This is a shame because Dark Forge was a really great read and I actually considered it to be one of the best books (and audiobooks) I read in 2019.

Synopsis:

Only fools think war is simple.
Or glorious.

Some are warriors, some captains; others tend to the fallen or feed the living.

But on the magic-drenched battlefield, information is the lifeblood of victory, and Aranthur is about to discover that carrying messages, scouting the enemy, keeping his nerve, and passing on orders is more dangerous, and more essential, then an inexperienced soldier could imagine . . . especially when everything starts to go wrong.

Battle has been joined – on the field, in the magical sphere, and in the ever-shifting political arena . . .

Dark Forge is an excellent novel which takes the reader on a vast and complex adventure through Cameron’s detailed fantasy world.  The book follows the life of its protagonist, student Aranthur Timos, who, after getting involved in some intense espionage and intrigue in the previous novel, now finds himself on the battlefield as his city state goes to war to stop a dangerous and tyrannical new empire gaining power and destroying the current, benevolent status quo.  There is a lot going on in this book, and the authors sets the reader on an impressive and extensive adventure which proves extremely hard to put down.  Cameron starts this book off in impressive fashion, with the protagonist and many of the key side characters from the first novel involved a brutal and elaborate battle sequence that sees magic, gunpowder and troops utilised to a destructive degree.  From there, the story follows Aranthur as he engages in an extended scouting mission, where he attempts to work out the origin of his enemies and the full extent of their plan.  This is followed up with a particularly desperate siege before Aranthur finds himself back in the city that served as the main setting of Cold Iron, where political shenanigans see him branded a traitor and force him to sneak around the city in order to save his friends.

The author blends a lot of different story elements together into this book, which I felt came together well and helps to produce an extremely enjoyable narrative.  The author continues to utilise his distinctive, detail-orientated writing style which fits the scope and tone of the series and helps to produce a fun read with the feel of a classic fantasy novel.  I ended up having an outstanding time seeing the various fun and compelling places where Cameron took this great story, and it ended up being quite an enjoyable book.  It also leaves open some compelling storylines for the final entry in the series and it will be interesting to see how the author ends him impressive overarching plot.  I do think that readers who are interested in checking out Dark Forge should really read Cold Iron first.  While Cameron did do a good job of examining some of the key events that occurred in the first novel, Cold Iron contained an immense amount of story detail, and I personally feel that readers would be well suited to have this story fresh in their mind before getting into Dark Forge.

One of the things that I like the most about the first entry in this series, Cold Iron, was the way in which it served as a coming-of-age story for the protagonist, Aranthur.  Cameron continues this in Dark Forge, as the protagonist once again goes through a lot of growth.  Not only does he begin to become a key player in the fight against the Master (the antagonist of the series), but he also starts to come into his own as a magical user, a swordsman and a leader.  While he is somewhat reluctant to become a warrior and a killer, despite his clear aptitude for it, he eventually becomes more confident in his role, especially after seeing all the dangers and darkness out in the world.  All this great growth continued to endear me to Aranthur, and it was a lot of fun to see the author portray a normal character who has vast responsibilities and adventure thrust upon him and must either adapt or crumble as a result.  Dark Forge also continued to showcase several of the amazing side-characters who were initially introduced in Cold Iron.  Each of these characters gets their own intriguing arcs throughout the book and it was fantastic to see them, and their relationships with Aranthur, evolve over the course of their extended adventure.  Several new compelling characters were also introduced in this novel and their unique narratives helped to enhance Dark Forge’s story.  All of these excellent characters are a lot of fun to follow and I look forward to seeing where they end up at the end of this series.

I also have to highlight the impressive world-building that Cameron featured in Dark Forge.  The author continues to dive down deep into the lore and history of his new realm, particularly as the characters spend most of the novel exploring a new continent that was mentioned but not featured in Cold IronDark Forge’s narrative spends significant time expanding the reader’s knowledge of this new continent, mainly because the protagonists engage in an epic and lengthy trek throughout it, and it was fascinating to see the cool new landscapes that Cameron describes.  In addition, I really enjoyed the expansion of the awesome magical system featured throughout the series.  Much of this is because of a world-changing event that increases the importance and power of magic, but it is also because Aranthur is becoming much more proficient with his magical abilities.  Not only does this result in a deeper understanding of this universes magic systems work, but you also get to see some much more destructive and elaborate displays of magical ability, which results in some very impressive sequences throughout the book.  I personally found the authors inclusion of a series of magical roadside booby traps to be particularly clever, and I also had a lot of love for one of the scenes at the start of the book where the protagonist speeds up his own body in the midst of a battle, ensuring that everyone, except a few opponents, is fighting in slow motion in comparison to him.  I found all of this to be extremely cool and I really appreciated all the amazing new features that Cameron was able to fit into Dark Forge.

Like the first book in this series, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Dark Forge, which is narrated by Mark Meadows.  The Dark Forge audiobook has a run time of just under 17 hours, which is a couple of hours shorter than Cold Iron, making for a quicker listen, and dedicated listeners can get through it in a short amount of time (I know I did).  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I really think I followed this novel a lot more closely by listening to it.  I was also really glad that Meadows returned to narrate this second novel in the series.  Meadows’s voice serves as a perfect match for Cameron’s unique writing style and he did a fantastic job moving the story along and bringing the various characters to life.  As a result, I would really recommend the audiobook format for anyone interested in checking out Dark Forge and it ended up being an excellent way to enjoy this outstanding book.

Dark Forge by Miles Cameron is an impressive and captivating fantasy read that presents the reader with an intense adventure that follows a relatable and likeable protagonist.  Filled with all manner of action, great side-characters and clever world building, Dark Forge serves as an amazing second entry in the Masters & Mages series, and I had an exceptional time listening to it.  This book gets a full five-star rating from me and I really need to check out the final entry in the series, Bright Steel, next year.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books for a Holiday Road trip

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 have a Holiday/Seasonal Freebie, meaning that we can do whatever topic we want, preferably with a seasonable twist to it.  Well, down here in Australia, summer has just rocked up and this usually means long drives to family homes for Christmas or to some magnificent stretch of beach for a well-deserved break.  While I myself do not have any upcoming travel planned, this topic did get me thinking about trips and I had the idea to try and help those people with upcoming road trips, or any form of extended travel, choose an audiobook to keep you and any potential passengers entertained.

People familiar with my blog will know that I am a big fan of audiobooks; in many ways, they are some of the best way to enjoy a book from a talented author.  However, not all good audiobooks make for great entertainment on a road trip.  With that in mind, I have scrolled through some of my favourite audiobooks to find the ones I think would be the best for anyone taking a long trip.  To make this list, the audiobooks I chose had to not only be amazing novels but also had to have an excellent narration and the ability to keep a driver or passengers’ attention on a long trip.  While I know that some people are going to be experiencing particularly long trips in the coming weeks, I tried to feature audiobooks with shorter runtimes so that those who are taking shorter excursions (say a roundtrip of eight or nine hours) can get through an entire book without trying to make time at home to finish it off.  That being said a few longer novels did end up making the cut, but all of these are great for longer trips.  I also tried to avoid any novels that would require a great deal of prior knowledge or hard-to-obtain background information so that everyone in the car could enjoy the book without any need for explanation or lectures from those people more familiar with the series.  To that end, I have tried to avoid any novels that are later entries in a series or which require some form of assumed knowledge about a franchise.  While I have included a couple of tie-in novels, I tried to use those books that require only a smidge of familiarity with their respective franchise to enjoy, and I am confident anyone can easily enjoy any book I ended up featuring.

While I did have quite a few criteria to meet, I was eventually able to come up with a good list for this topic, including several honourable mentions.  I am pretty happy with how this list turned out and I have personally really enjoyed each of the below audiobooks.  I honestly believe that all of them would make for a great listen during an extended bit of travel or a road trip and each of them comes highly recommended.

Honourable Mentions:


The Black Hawks
, written by David Wragg and narrated by Colin Mace – 12 hours and 9 minutes

The Black Hawks Cover

Those in a mood for an exciting time of their road trip could do worse than check out this excellent and entertaining debut from last year, The Black Hawks by David Wragg.  The Black Hawks is a great read that takes several compelling characters on an action-packed adventure across a dangerous landscape.  Filled with betrayal, battle and clever twists, listeners will be well entertained with is book.

Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope, written by Una McCormack and narrated by Robert Petkoff – 11 hours and 40 minutes

Star Trek - Picard Cover

While there are several cool Star Trek novels that could make for great road-trip listening, I would personally suggest this fantastic tie-in to the recent Picard television show.  Serving as an introduction to the darker Star Trek world Picard encounters in his new television series, there is a lot to love about this book and it is well worth checking out.

Star Wars: Ahsoka, written by E. K. Johnston and narrated by Ashley Eckstein – 7 hours and 4 minutes

Ahsoka Cover

After recent developments in the phenomenon that is The Mandalorian, one of the Star Wars audiobooks I would strongly recommend is Star Wars: Ahsoka.  The Ahsoka audiobook helps to expand on the character and presents listeners with a compelling and personal adventure.  Narrated by Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka in the animated television series, this is a fantastic and timely audiobook to check out on the road this holiday.

Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, written by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, and narrated by Kristen Bell – 8 hours and 43 minutes

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line Cover

Speaking of audiobooks that feature iconic characters being voiced by their actors, listeners will have an awesome time with this Veronica Mars tie-in novel, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Written by series creator Rob Thomas and narrated by Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell, this is an outstanding tie-in to the clever television show that also contains a compelling crime fiction story and people will be able to quickly power through this on the way to their destination.

Top Ten List (maybe add listening times):


The Salvage Crew
, written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and narrated by Nathan Fillion – 8 hours and 21 minutes

The Salvage Crew Cover

The first entry on this top ten list is The Salvage Crew, a very clever and intense science fiction novel that is guaranteed to keep everyone entertained on your trip.  Featuring the silky voice of the one and only Nathan Fillion, you will find yourself entranced with this audiobook, especially as the author backs up the awesome narration with a top-notch science fiction adventure story.

Race the Sands, written by Sarah Beth Durst and narrated by Emily Ellet – 15 hours and 45 minutes

Race the Sands Cover

Those readers with a particularly long drive in their future and who are in the mood for an excellent standalone fantasy novel would do well to check out Race the Sands by the always impressive Sarah Beth Durst.  Race the Sands is an extremely exciting and compelling novel that features great characters, political intrigue and clever worldbuilding, all set around people racing monsters in the desert.  This is a very easy book to listen to and the miles will fly away as you listen to Race the Sands.  Just don’t let the race scenes inspire you too much on the road; I don’t want to be responsible for you getting a speeding ticket!

Redshirts, written by John Scalzi and narrated by Wil Wheaton – 7 hours and 41 minutes

Redshirts Cover

If you want to laugh your way through an entire road trip you should definitely check out Redshirts by acclaimed science fiction author John Scalzi.  Redshirts is a very entertaining parody of Star Trek and is essentially one big sendup of all the tropes, bad writing and over-the-top characters The Original Series is known for.  Despite being a parody, Scalzi comes up with an incredibly clever story that gets extremely meta in places, while also introducing the listener to some very interesting characters who you become surprisingly attached to.  Top that off with the narration of Wil Wheaton (who else would you want narrating a Star Trek parody), and you have yourself an exceptionally fun audiobook to listen to.  My wife and I recently listened to this on a road trip ourselves and we were absolutely cracking up the entire time, and this comes highly recommended as a result.

The Holdout, written by Graham Moore and narrated by Abby Craden – 10 hours and 15 minutes

The Holdout Cover

Those drivers who would prefer a crime fiction novel should think about checking out The Holdout by Graham Moore.  The Holdout is a standalone crime fiction novel that follows an infamous jury who found a notorious murderer not guilty and who must now find out who killed one of their members years later at a reunion.  This is an extremely captivating book that features an amazing split-timeline narrative, showing the original trial and the murder investigation set in the present.  This is a great novel and listeners will be on the edge of their seat for the entire trip.

Legend, written by David Gemell and narrated by Sean Barrett – 13 hours and 13 minutes

Legend

Now if I had a particularly lengthy road-trip on the horizon one of the books I know I would be loading up Legend by David Gemell.  While this might not be too practical for shorter trips, I would gladly do a trip twice if it meant I could finish this epic book in one go.  Featuring an extended and desperate siege, Legend is one of the better fantasy novels I have had the pleasure of listening to and it does not take long for readers to get utterly enthralled with its impressive and thrilling story.

Star Wars: Scoundrels, written by Timothy Zahn and narrated by Marc Thompson – 13 hours and 57 minutes

Star Wars Scoundrels Cover

While there are a number of awesome Star Wars tie-in novels I could have included on this list, I decided in the end to go with Star Wars: ScoundrelsScoundrels is an exceptional novel from one of the top authors of Star Wars fiction in the world today, Timothy Zahn.  This is an excellent book that features fan favourite characters Han Solo, Chewbacca and Lando engaging in an elaborate heist with a team of rogues and thieves.  This is a perfect read for a longer car trip, and it is filled with several fantastic characters engaged in some good-old fashioned thievery in the middle of the Star Wars universe.  Requiring very little knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe, this audiobook can be enjoyed by anyone even vaguely familiar with the series and is really worth a listen to.

Tomorrow, When the War Began, written by John Marsden and narrated by Suzi Dougherty – 7 hours and 20 minutes

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Those looking for a new series to get obsessed about should use any upcoming road trips as an opportunity to try out the first book in the acclaimed Tomorrow series, Tomorrow, When the war Began.  Essentially Australia’s answer to Red Dawn, this book follows a group of teenagers as they try to survive a sudden invasion of Australia by a foreign power.  This is one of my absolute favourite series of all times and is probably some of the best Australian young adult fiction ever written.  It is extremely easy to power through these audiobooks in a short amount of timer and they would be among some of my first choices if I had a long trip planned.

Any Discworld novel, by Terry Pratchett

The Colour of Magic Cover

I am kind of cheating by including an entire series here, but I could honestly listen to any of these books again and would not hesitate to recommend the entire Discworld series to anyone in the mood for a book that is wacky, clever, compelling and wildly entertaining.  Practically any of these books would make for excellent entertainment during a car ride and I find it hard to believe that anyone would be bored while listening to them.  While I love each of these books, I would probably recommend either Moving Pictures or Guards! Guards! (both with a runtime of 10 hours and 8 minutes) as they are great entry points to the series for new readers.  An incredibly series to get into, you will not regret listening to them these holidays.

Planetside, written by Michael Mammay and narrated by R. C. Bray – 8 hours and 38 minutes

Planetside Cover 2

Another great read with a shorter runtime is Planetside by Michael Mammay.  Planetside is an incredible novel and it is probably one of my favourite debut novels of all time.  Mammay packs an intense and addictive story into this shorter audiobook, and listeners are treated to an outstanding and clever science fiction mystery novel, which sees an old veteran attempt to find a missing soldier on an occupied alien planet and instead uncovers a massive conspiracy.  Listeners are guaranteed to be transfixed from start to epic finish with Planetside and it would be an exceptional novel to listen to while on a long drive.

The Anomaly, written by Michael Rutger and narrated by Brandon Williams – 9 hours and 41 minutes

The Anomaly Cover

For the final entry on my list, I have included The Anomaly by Michael Rutger.  The Anomaly is a great horror novel that follows the makers of a web series as they explore an ancient cave in the Grand Canyon, only to find it filled with ancient terrors.  This is a great novel for those who are in the mood for a scary book to listen to on their way home and readers will really love this amazing audiobook.  I was particularly impressed with the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that this audiobook produced and horror buffs will have an amazing time listening to this.  That being said, maybe turn it off if you have to drive at night.

Well that’s my latest Top Ten Tuesday list.  I think it turned out extremely well, and if you have some upcoming travel planned (or even just some time to kill in lockdown), you would do well to try any of the above books.  Let me know which of the featured novels you enjoyed the most, as well as what audiobooks you would recommend for a car trip in the comments below and makes sure you drive safe these holidays.

Quick Review – King of Assassins by R. J. Barker

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I recently received a copy of R. J. Barker’s latest epic fantasy novel, Call of the Bone Ships, but before I dive into that I figured I would finally review for the third and final novel in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins.

Barker is a talented fantasy author who has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years, creating several outstanding fantasy novels since his 2017 debut, Age of Assassins.  I was lucky enough to receive Age of Assassins, which is also the first book in The Wounded Kingdom series, when it first came out and had a fantastic time reading it.  I also really enjoyed the sequel, Blood of Assassins, which continued the excellent storylines from the first book in epic fashion.  I was quite keen to read the third book, King of Assassins, when it first came out, but I did not get a chance to read it back in 2018, which I had deep regrets about.  I did  manage to read it late last year, but I then completely failed to review it, even after I enjoyed Barker’s new novel, The Bone Ships.  So it is high time I got off my ass and pulled something together for it, especially as King of Assassins was a particularly amazing novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of 20 years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Barker is the way in which he significantly improves as an author with every single book that he writes.  King of Assassins is a particularly great example of this, as the author does an impressive job expanding and enhancing his already amazing series in this novel, presenting the reader with an incredible story that makes excellent use of its dark setting and exceptional characters.  The result is an awesome and deeply captivating read that was easily my favourite book in the entire trilogy, which is saying a bit considering how good the first two entries were.

At the centre of this novel is an outstanding dark fantasy narrative which sees the assassin, Girton Club-Foot, accompany his lord, Rufra ap Vthyr, into the dangerous capital of the broken and war-ravished kingdom this series is set in.  This results in Girton and his companions stuck in the middle of a dark and crumbling citadel, surrounded by nearly every enemy and manipulator that they have encountered throughout the course of the series, as well as several new ones who pop up in this book.  As Rufra attempts to politic his way into becoming High-King, Girton navigates his way through the many dangers of the citadel, attempting to uncover the hidden motives and plans of his enemies.  Unsurprisingly, nearly every other player gathered in the citadel has plans to either kill Girton and Rufra or manipulate them for their own advantage.  As a result, King of Assassins quickly turns into an intense and exciting narrative, as the characters must unravel every plot and conspiracy in the fortress to find out everyone working against them and what their ultimate goals are.  These leads to several amazing storylines and impressive reveals throughout the course of the book, as Girton desperately attempts to save his friends while also protecting his darkest secret.  All of this comes together in an amazing conclusion which will not only satisfy fans of the series but which also delivers some clever and surprising twists that will leave the reader breathless.

There is a bit of a significant time skip between the events of this book and the preceding Blood of Assassins, which Barker works into the story very well, allowing for some subsequent changes in relationships and the simmering of old grudges.  The author also spends a substantial amount of time wrapping up some of the storylines and character arcs from the previous novels in the series, which really helped to give the novel a sense of completeness while also resulting in some big moments for the various characters.  I also really must highlight the dark, foreboding setting in which the characters find themselves in.  Not only has Barker created a great location for treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed, but he installed an extremely dark and oppressive atmosphere into it that the reader can taste as they read/listen to the book.  The sense of dread and despair that washes over the reader as they have the castle and its people described to them really enhances the story and ensures that they are eagerly waiting for the protagonists to prevail and rid the world of darkness.  All in all, this was an extremely well-written and utterly compelling narrative, and readers will quickly find themselves enthralled within it.

Among the main things I liked about King of Assassins were the impressive characters, most of whom have appeared in some of the previous novels in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  Barker has done an awesome job of developing each of these characters throughout the course of the series, and in this final book they all reach the conclusion of their individual or joint arcs.  While this does result in a bit of heartbreak and betrayal for some characters, one or two are quite nice, and I think those readers who have read the earlier entries in the series will be quite satisfied by where each character ends up.  The focus of the book is naturally on the point-of-view character Girton, who has gone through a lot throughout the course of the series.  Girton continues to battle his demons in this book, including his hidden and dangerous magical ability, and he must come to terms with several betrayals and old wounds from the previous books.  A major focus of the series has been the friendship between Girton and Rufra, as their lives have become inexorably bound together.  While their friendship had some ups in downs in the past, by the start of this book relationship has become a lot more strained due to differences in opinions about certain events.  Despite this the two constantly attempt to reconcile throughout the course of the novel, often unsuccessfully, but the power and complexity of their friendship is a key cornerstone of the book’s plot.  However, their joint character arc has a major twist into it near the end of the book, and the devastated feelings that result make for quite an epic and heartfelt conclusion to their narrative.  I also quite liked how the character of Aydor was featured in this book.  Aydor was one of the main antagonists of the first novel who eventually morphed into a reluctant ally in the second book.  However, in King of Assassins, after the time-skip he has become one of Girton’s closest friends and confidants.  I loved this gradual and excellent change in personality for Aydor, especially as he becomes one the nicest and warmest people in the entire novel and it was fantastic to see his relationship with Girton change throughout the series.  I ended up really loving all the amazing character arcs that concluded in King of Assassins and each of them added a strong, emotionally rich pillar to the overall narrative.

I ended up listening to King of Assassins on audiobook, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out this excellent fantasy novel.  The King of Assassins audiobook is narrated by the talented Joe Jameson and has a run time of 17 hours and 17 minutes.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, not only because the format helped me dive into the narrative but because of Jameson’s impressive narration.  Jameson did a fantastic job bringing the various characters to life in this book and his voice works extremely well for the first-person narration that Barker uses for his novels.  I personally found that Jameson’s narration helped to enhance the dark atmosphere that the author created with his writing and this made for an outstanding listen.  At just over 17 hours in length, this is a somewhat more substantial audiobook listen, but I found myself getting through it in an extremely short amount of time as it proved very hard to turn off.  This is an overall awesome audiobook and an excellent way to enjoy this great novel.

King of Assassins by R. J. Barker is an exceptional and captivating novel which takes the reader on an exciting and addictive ride.  This is an extremely well-written and impressive book that serves as an excellent conclusion to the fantastic The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  This was honestly one of the better fantasy novels of 2018 and this review is a long-time coming.  King of Assassins is an outstanding book, and I am looking forward to checking out Barker’s latest novel, Call of the Bone Ships, in the next week or so.