The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: The Tide Child – Book One

Length: 17 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the brightest new stars in fantasy fiction, R. J. Barker, comes The Bone Ships, a remarkable and extremely captivating new adventure that can be described as Gaunt’s Ghosts meets Moby Dick in an incredibly inventive new fantasy world.

Barker has been making some serious waves in the fantasy genre over the last couple of years, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with his debut novel, Age of Assassins, which started The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. He quickly followed this up in 2018, when he released the second and third books in this trilogy, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. I absolutely loved all three books in this trilogy, although I haven’t yet reviewed King of Assassins. Spoiler: it does get five out of five stars from me and recently made my Top Ten pre-2019 Books list.

As a result, I was very excited earlier in the year when I found out that Barker was writing a whole new series. The Bone Ships is the first book in The Tide Child series, and it has been pretty high up on my to-read list for a while, as I have featured it on both my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases and my Top Ten Books I Would Like to Read by the End of 2019 lists. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Bone Ships, narrated by Jude Owusu, and what I found was an excellent and inventive fantasy read that might just be one of my favourite books of 2019.

For generations the rival nations of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands have been fighting each other for dominance of the vast oceans that make up their world. In order to fight this bitter conflict, great ships of war were constructed using the bones of the giant sea dragons, the arakeesian, as only these boneships could withstand the rigours of battle and all the horrors the seas contain. However, years of warfare and shipbuilding has taken a terrible toll, as the arakeesian are now all extinct, and both sides’ supplies of dragon bone are nearing their end.

Of all the remaining boneships in the Hundred Isles fleet, none are considered lower than a black ship. Black ships are ships of the dead, where every crewmember aboard has been condemned to die in shame, unless they can redeem themselves through some great act of bravery. However, the crew of the black ship Tide Child have no intention of performing any acts of bravery, and they and their shipwife, Joron Twiner, are content to drink themselves into oblivion—that is, until the arrival of “Lucky” Meas Gillbryn.

Meas is one of the most respected and feared commanders in all the Hundred Isles, but she has recently been disgraced and banished to Tide Child. Quickly taking control of the ship from Joron, Meas works to turn Tide Child and its crew around and make it into an efficient and proud crew of sailors, because they have a dangerous mission to undertake. The first sea dragon in a generation has been spotted, and whichever side hunts it down and claims its bones will gain a distinct advantage in the war. However, Meas has a different plan in mind, and sets out to protect the dragon from all who want it. Facing off against rival ships, raiders, pirates and treachery from within, can the crew of Tide Child survive to become the stuff of legend, or will their death sentence finally be carried out?

Well damn! Now that was a pretty awesome read! This latest offering from Barker was a superb and elaborate tale of redemption, adversity, camaraderie and adventure on the high seas. Not only is it based on an inventive premise and an elaborate new fantasy world but it contains a first-rate and compelling story that I absolutely loved. This is an absolutely fantastic story which is paced out extremely well and, after the necessary introductions, quickly turns into an addictive yarn with a number of clever elements to it. The end result is a powerful and enjoyable tale which is a wonderful self-contained story but which also sets up some intriguing storylines for any future instalments of this new series.

At the heart of The Bone Ships is an excellent story of camaraderie, respect and selfish people coming together to be part of something bigger. The main setting for the book, the boneship Tide Child, is completely crewed by condemned men and women, most of whom have given up on any form of redemption and are more concerned with petty crime and getting drunk. However, when Meas enters the picture, she quickly turns them into an efficient crew and reignites their pride as sailors and soldiers for their nation. This evolves into a really good redemption arc, as the entire crew really starts to come together as a close-knit team and are eventually given a task which could make them all heroes. The vast majority of the crew subsequently rise to the challenge, so much so that their usually hard-as-nails and determined shipwife is at one point willing to sacrifice everything to save them. This is a pretty fun and amazing part of the story, and it helps that Barker spends time introducing a number of key members of the crew and building them up as likeable characters. There are quite a few fantastic and enjoyable characters scattered throughout the story, and their inclusion really helps the reader grow to care about the people on the ship.

The best character relationship in the book can be seen between the two main characters, Joron Twiner and Meas. Joron is book’s point-of-view character and starts the story off as a drunken, apathetic wreck. Upon losing the position of shipwife to Meas, he expects to be placed at the bottom of the ship’s pecking order, but Meas keeps him on as her deckkeeper (first mate), despite her evident low opinion of him. Throughout the course of the book, these two characters grow closer and eventually become something closer to friends, while at the same time they both show considerable growth as characters. Meas spends a lot of time mentoring Joron, and he slowly moves on from his personal despair to become a respected and capable officer on the ship. Moreover, Joron slowly begins to lose the resentment he holds for Meas for taking his position as shipwife, and starts to really respect her, and see why she is a better commander of the ship. At the same time, Joron also starts to better understand what drives Meas, and why she is so determined to succeed in her mission. The two make for a wonderful partnership, and I think that Barker did a particularly fantastic job with the character of Meas, and I loved his portrayal of her as a rough, tough captain with a secret heart of gold.

While all the character elements I mention above are pretty spectacular, to my mind, one of the most striking and enjoyable things about The Bone Ships is the excellent nautical elements that the author was able to work into the story. I have to say that I was very impressed that Barker, whose previous series was set entirely on land, was able to come up with a detailed and exciting story set mostly aboard a ship, especially as he was utilising these elements for the first time in this book. The author installs a huge amount of nautical detail into his story, and the depictions of life and work aboard a ship of war was pretty amazing, so much so that at times, the reader feels like they are actually aboard this ship. I felt that Barker did an amazing job of combining these cool nautical details with the new fantasy elements he introduced in this book to produce a truly unique adventure on the high seas. I also loved all the shipboard action and combat that occurred throughout the course of the book. There were some really elaborate battles set throughout the story, from an attack on the Tide Child from a flotilla of smaller boats, to a wide-ranging battle between opposing groups of larger ships. The utilisation of unique tactics and fantasy elements, such as powerful crossbows, wind magic and the fact that they are fighting above a giant sea dragon, make for some truly thrilling and exciting battle sequences, which were an absolute treat to read. I am so glad that Barker decided to set this story on the open seas, as it made for truly amazing novel.

One of the other things that I liked about The Bone Ships was the excellent new dark fantasy world that Barker created for this new series. Barker has a real talent for this, as seen in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and he did it again for this latest book, where the reader is given a fascinating glimpse into a large, ocean dominated world, with all manner of unique fantasy elements in it. This new world is a harsh and deadly place, filled with a huge number of deadly sea beasts that can kill a man in a number of gruesome ways. Into this, Barker also introduces a fun new ship-based culture, complete with a matriarchal society, an intriguing religion and enslaved wind-controlling bird-people. In addition, the two nations that are showcased in this first book are locked in a massive, generations-old conflict, which has completely consumed their societies. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all the elements of his new world to the reader in a timely and complete manner, and there was never any deficit of knowledge that reduces the reader’s enjoyment of the book. There are so many tiny details that Barker installs in this world, such as the use of paint for good luck, the rarity of metals (island nations, not much room for mines) and the gender bending of ship names and titles (ships are thought of as male, while the captain is called shipwife, no matter their actual gender). All of this, as well as the cool new fantasy elements that Barker comes up with for the story, such as the giant sea-dragons whose bones are used for shipbuilding (what a concept!), make for an exceedingly fascinating background for this fun story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version The Bone Ships, narrated by the talented Jude Owusu. It ran for just over 17 hours in length, which I was able to power through extremely quickly, especially once the story really got going. I have to say that I was really glad that I decided to utilise the audiobook format, as I felt that it helped me visualise all the cool action and excitement that was occurring aboard Tide Child. In addition, I always find that the audiobook format helps me appreciate all the details of a story’s universe, and this was definitely true for The Bone Ships, as I was really able to dive in and fully experience the great new fantasy world in all its glory.

I also have to say how impressed I was with Jude Owusu’s excellent narration of this audiobook. Owusu has a fantastic voice, which I felt really fit into the nautical theme of the entire book. He also comes up with some very distinctive and fitting voices for the various characters that feature within the book, which I felt helped bring out many of these characters personalities. I was particularly impressed with the harsh and commanding voice that he utilised for Meas, and the various sequences where she was barking out orders and threats aboard the ship were a real treat to listen to, as it perfectly encapsulated the shipwife. Other standout characters that Owusu brought to life include Mevans, who the narrator gifted with an exceedingly cheerful voice which fit his personality perfectly, and the mysterious Gullaime, whose narration contained a certain birdy quality to. I also have to commend the real and obvious enthusiasm that Owusu brought to the role. I have always found that enthusiastic narrators can make an audiobook truly come to life, and Owusu was a really good example of this. Not only did his voice contain some noticeable excitement when he narrated the various action sequences throughout the book, but he really got into voicing elements of the story, such as the various shanty-like rhymes that Barker installed throughout the story, or the various nautical response of the crew. The way that he shouted out “Ey” (the sailor’s way of saying yes) multiple times throughout the book was a lot of fun, and I could feel the infectious enthusiasm of the crew while he did this. The sheer passion and vocal skill that Owusu puts into this audiobook is just fantastic, and I cannot recommend this format enough, as it was an amazing way to enjoy this epic book.

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker is an absolutely outstanding read that I cannot recommend enough. Barker is quickly becoming one of the most impressive new fantasy authors out there, and he honestly gets better with every book he writes. The Bone Ships had so many cool elements to it, and any readers who check it out will be quickly hooked by its captivating story and bold adventure. I cannot wait to see where Barker will take this story next, and I would strongly encourage any reader looking for their next amazing fantasy tale, to check out this great new book. Also, how awesome is the cover for this book!!

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars Scoundrels Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 January 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

If you like the sound of a widely entertaining read that combines a clever heist-themed storyline with iconic Star Wars elements, then you need to check out Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn.

Scoundrels is set shortly after the events of A New Hope and follows Han and Chewie after they have temporarily left their friends in the Rebel Alliance to return to their old jobs as smugglers. The two are desperate to make some money in order to repay Han’s debt to Jabba the Hutt and have travelled to the planet of Wukkar to meet a contact. Instead of their contact, Han and Chewie are approached by a local businessman who wishes to recruit the pair to help him break into a local crime lord’s supposedly impenetrable vault to recover a vast fortune in stolen credits.

Lured in by the promise of a rich reward, Han sets about recruiting a team of highly skilled thieves, con artists and specialists, including their old friend Lando Calrissian, to help them pull off the heist. However, as they start to put together a master plan to enter the vault, they make a startling discovery: their target is a high-ranking member of the notorious Black Sun crime syndicate, who is currently hosting one of the organisation’s most powerful leaders. More importantly, in addition to the stolen credits, the vault now contains a collection of Black Sun’s blackmail files, which are a vital and closely guarded part of their operation.

Still determined to pull off the job, Han and his team need to work out a way to break into the unbreakable vault without painting a massive target on their backs. However, they are not the only group interested in the blackmail files, as an ambitious Imperial Intelligence agent is determined to capture them. Caught between two of the most powerful organisations in the entire galaxy, these scoundrels will need every trick up their sleeve to survive and raid the vaults. But when the stakes are this high, can any of them really be trusted?

Scoundrels is a fast-paced and well-written novel that does an outstanding job setting a compelling and entertaining heist story inside the Star Wars universe. This book was written by legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn, who I have mentioned several times before on my blog, especially for his recent Thrawn trilogy (Thrawn, Alliances and Treason). Scoundrels is a standalone novel that was released in 2013 and was the last Star Wars novel Zahn wrote before the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. As a result, Scoundrels technically never happened in the current canon of the franchise and is instead part of the Star Wars Legends range.

At the heart of this novel is a complex and amazing heist storyline that sees the protagonists attempt to steal a vast fortune from a high-security vault. Scoundrels, or Solo’s Eleven, as I started to think of it, features a pretty classic heist set-up, with an impossible job offered and accepted, Solo building up a team of skilled criminals to help him pull off the job, recon, various complications, and then the attempt to break into the vault. I did find in some ways this part of the story was a bit typical and derivative of other examples of the heist genre, although I think a lot of the reason why I was having these thoughts is because I saw Rick and Morty’s excellent take-down of heist movies, One Crew over the Crewcoo’s Morty, immediately before I started reading this book (literally all I could think whenever a new crew member was recruited was “You son of a bitch, I’m in”).

However, this was still an incredibly entertaining novel and Zahn did create a storyline that was unique in a number of ways. In particular, Zahn makes excellent use of the technology (a combination of pre-introduced technology and stuff that Zahn made up himself) and the political turmoil in the Star Wars Legends universe to create a truly captivating piece of crime fiction. The story is loaded with all manner of twists, turns and doublecrosses, and I really enjoyed a number of the big reveals that were featured throughout the book (the character reveal at the very end of the book was pretty cool, for example). The entire plan for breaking into the vault and stealing its contents was also extremely clever and memorable, containing an excellent combination of subtly, manipulation, improvisation and number of massive explosive distractions. Also, the way they actually got out of the heavily armed compound was very cool, and definitely one of the best heist moves I’ve ever seen. All of this results in a first-rate heist thriller storyline which I deeply enjoyed and which has actually put me in the mood for more heist-centric books.

Another great part of Scoundrels is the fantastic group of characters that the story focuses on. Not only does the book showcase the classic partnership of Han and Chewie but we also get to see more of the suavest man in the galaxy, Lando Calrissian. Han is a great leader for the team, able to come up with a cool plan and improvise when they are faced with chaos, while Lando shines as the charismatic front man of the operation, able to charm or swindle everyone he comes in contact with. Quite a bit of time is spent exploring the turbulent relationship between Han and Lando at this point of their friendship, as several prior operations (some of which were featured in other novels and comics in the Star Wars Legends range) have fallen through, resulting in some bad blood between them. While both claim that they have forgiven the other for the sake of this operation, they both have a lot of doubts and are worried that the other is going to screw them over. This adds a whole bunch of extra drama to the story and ends in a rather entertaining and typical manner.

In addition to Han, Chewie and Lando, the rest of the heist crew is made up of some strong and distinctive characters who are a lot of fun. All of these characters bring a lot of team, and at no point did any of them feel unnecessary to the plot. Zahn also goes out of his way to establish each of these characters separate backstories and motivations, which adds a large amount of substance to their inclusion. As these different motivations mean that there is also a constant potential for betrayal and sabotage, which is another layer to the heist aspect of the book. There is also a great look at the Black Sun underboss and his main security chief as they attempt to understand the threat coming their way, while also trying to stay on the right side of the powerful Black Sun overlord, who is staying at the manor and playing mind games with them. There is a growing sense of desperation and irrationality from the two of them as the various manipulations push them closer to the edge, so much so that a deal with Darth Vader actually seems like a tempting offer. I also loved the inclusion of the Imperial Intelligence agent who attempts to utilise the planned heist for his own ends. His ambitious attempts to undermine Black Sun are interesting, and he brings a whole new edge to the overall story. All of these amazing characters add so many different things to the books plot and it was a lot of fun to see how their various character arcs progressed.

As I mentioned above, Scoundrels falls within the now non-canon Star Wars Legends expanded universe. While I have not read a lot of fiction from the Star Wars Legends range recently (with the exception of Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber), I have always been impressed with the wide range of different stories and plot lines that make it up, many of which are being utilised or referenced to in the current canon (the inclusion of Zahn’s character of Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show is a prime example of this). However, there are some significant differences between the two canons, and some of these can be seen in Scoundrels.

One of the most noticeable differences between these two canons is the dominance of the Black Sun crime syndicate. While they only have a few minor appearances in the current canon (and they potentially would not have been included at all if they did not show up in a couple of episodes of The Clone Wars animated show, which remained canon after the buy-out), there were a major part of the original canon as one of the premier criminal organisations the protagonists would go up against. A lot of this comes out of the 1996 novel, Shadows of the Empire (which I actually read a long, long time ago), which showed the Black Sun leader, Prince Xizor, having nearly as much power and influence as the Emperor, and as a result, was a major rival for Darth Vader. Much of the book’s plot that involves the members of Black Sun or the Imperial Intelligence agent revolves around this rivalry, as the agent is hoping to damage Black Sun to gain favour with Vader. The protagonists, knowing this, also attempt to use this conflict to their advantage, and it becomes a major part of the book. The examination of the various criminal organisations available during this period is also pretty darn fascinating, and it serves as a wonderful, larger setting behind the main story.

In addition to this focus on the criminal underbelly that was featured in the old canon, Zahn made sure to fill his book with all manner of references to other books and comics in the Star Wars Legends canon, especially those that featured Han, Chewie and Lando. No specific knowledge of these events is needed to understand these references, as Zahn makes sure to explain the necessary parts, which mostly revolve around Han having terrible luck when it comes to prior jobs. Other examples of the history and unique storylines that existed in the old Star Wars canon are also pretty fascinating, but you do not need to be an expert on any of this to enjoy Scoundrels. Indeed, anyone who has seen the original trilogy will be fully able to appreciate the cool story contained within, although, as always, those Star Wars fans with a bit more background knowledge of the franchise will get a bit more enjoyment out of this book.

Like a great many of the Star Wars books I enjoy, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Scoundrels. Narrated by Marc Thompson, it runs for just under 14 hours, which makes it slightly longer than most Star Wars audiobooks. Scoundrels contains all the fun features of a typical Star Wars audiobook format, with the narration permeated with all manner of iconic Star Wars music and sound effects. I love hearing the amazing Star Wars music as I have the story read to me, and in many places having the music played really enhances the emotion or the significance of a scene. Scoundrels also contains an impressive abundance of various sound effects which are utilised in nearly every scene. Having blaster fire sizzling past your ears in a fire fight or listening to the gentle susurration of the crowd in a big party sequence is just amazing, and it helps bring the story to life as you listen. I was also very impressed with the way that they showed how helmets and comm links could distort a character’s voice, and the use of sound effects for Chewbacca’s communications was a smart choice.

I also have to say how impressed I was with Marc Thompson’s narration of this book. Thompson is one of the premier narrators of the Star Wars audiobook, having lent his vocal talents to a number of novels in both the Star Wars Legends and Disney canons, including for the recently released Resistance Reborn. I have previously listened to Thompson’s narration for the first book in Zahn’s recent Thrawn trilogy, and I loved the work he did on that, especially when it came to the voice he produced for the trilogy’s titular character. He also does an extraordinary job with this format of Scoundrels, producing a huge number of unique and memorable voices for the various characters featured within it. His portrayals of Han and Lando were very accurate, especially Han’s voice, and that really helped me enjoy this novel so much more. Scoundrels was a first-rate audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wishes to enjoy this book.

Star Wars: Scoundrels was an outstanding read, and I cannot praise the clever combination of a heist storyline with Star Wars elements enough. Zahn really is one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction out there, and I was never in any doubt that I would love this novel. He has a new book coming out in a few months, and I am very much looking forward to it. In the meantime, I will have to check out a few more of his earlier books, and I might also look up some other novels in the Star Wars Legends range.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick

ForceCollector-Cover

Publisher: Listening Library (Audiobook – 19 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 8 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

We are less than a week away from the final movie in the main Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, so it is about time that I got around to reviewing the final Star Wars novel of 2019, Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick.

This is a book that I have been looking forward to for some time. Force Collector is a curious Star Wars young adult novel with an intriguing-sounding plot behind it, and it would have ordinarily been on my reading list anyway. However, as it is one of several books being released under the title of Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (other examples of which include Resistance Reborn), it was one I definitely needed to check out before the movie comes out in a few short days.

This book was written by Kevin Shinick, who is probably best known for his work writing and developing television shows such as Robot Chicken, the 2017 Spider-Man animated show, Mad and Disjointed. In addition, Shinick has also written several comics for DC and Marvel, including Avenging Spider-Man, Superior Carnage and Axis: Hobgoblin. Force Collector is actually Shinick’s debut novel and he has produced a great Star Wars book with a rather interesting concept that provides a clever new viewpoint into the events of the Star Wars films.

Set shortly before the events of The Force Awakens, Force Collector revolves around Karr, a teenage boy living on a backwater planet. Karr lives a difficult life; anytime he touches an item that has witnessed an important or traumatic event, he gets a searing headache and blacks out. However, these items also impart onto him a vision of the history associated with it, allowing him to glimpse into the past. While his parents search for a rational explanation for his episodes, Karr’s grandmother knows the real reason for strange visions: he is gifted with the Force.

Attempting to learn how to control his abilities, Karr struggles with his training and hopes to find someone who can teach him in the ways of the Force. However, all the Jedi are long dead, and no-one on his planet knows what happened to them. Determined to learn more, Karr begins to collect historical items which he hopes will allow him to have some vision of the Jedi and learn where to find them. However, the few meagre artefacts he can lay his hands on are unable to provide him with the knowledge he seeks.

When Karr’s grandmother dies and his parents attempt to send him away to a school on the other side of the planet, he finally has enough. Determined to find an actual Jedi to help him, Karr, his droid RZ-7, and his school’s new troublemaker, Maize, steal a First Order ship belonging to Maize’s father and set out on an adventure. Travelling from one planet to the next, Karr and his friends attempt to trace the history of the Jedi. Finding obscure item after obscure item, Karr is eventually able to piece together the events that led to the downfall of the Jedi order and the rise of the Empire. However, the greatest secrets may lay even closer to home than he imagined.

Force Collector is a fun and intriguing novel which provides a unique and clever examination of the events of the Skywalker Saga, and which I am very glad I decided to check out. Featuring a great group of central characters (Karr, Maize and RZ-7) who grow closer as they progress in their adventure, and a rather captivating story, this was an amazing Star Wars read. I particularly liked the idea of a character who could revisit the Star Wars past through the objects he touches, as it allows Shinick to take the reader on a journey through a number of events in the Star Wars canon. Some really interesting bits of Star Wars history are examined through the course of this book, and it features some compelling visits to a number of iconic locations. That being said, this is a rather low-stakes novel, as the protagonists’ great adventure comes across at times like an unusually eventful school excursion (indeed, that is the explanation they give to the people they encounter). As a result, this might not be the best book for people looking for an exciting or action-packed novel (Thrawn: Treason or Master and Apprentice might be a better 2019 Star Wars release for those readers), however, the examination of Star Wars history makes this book an outstanding read for major fans of the franchise.

In order to tell his story, Shinick has filled his novel with all manner of references to the wider Star Wars universe. Not only does the reader get to see a number of visions from the past as part of the protagonists’ quest to find out more about the Jedi, but they also visit a number of familiar locations. These include Jakku (where Rey was living), Utapau (where Obi-Wan killed General Grievous) and even Batuu (the planet where the Galaxy’s Edge theme park area is set, and which has also served as the setting for several books such as the recent release Black Spire), just to name a few. Our protagonists encounter a number of unique individuals or items which witnessed some of the most iconic moments out of the films. For example, at Utapau he discovers the walking stick of the planet’s leader, which reveals the conversation the leader had with Obi-Wan when he landed. On another planet he runs across a pilot who witnessed Obi-Wan cutting the hand off Ponda Baba in the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine. There are some really cool and, in some cases, obscure items that Karr touches throughout the story, and the events they showed were really interesting.

In addition, Shinick also focuses on exploring the Star Wars universe just prior to the events of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Force Collector appears to occur just before the start of The Force Awakens, and there are a number of references to the shape of the universe and the plans of the First Order. Shinick also uses this to allow the protagonists to visit and have some fascinating interactions with a couple of characters who appeared in the movie, such as Unkar Plutt or Maz Kanata. The meeting with Maz Kanata in particular was intriguing, and it was cool to see all these characters just before the events of the film rained down hellfire on their locations. In the end, this book contained all manner of references from across the films, the animated television shows and even some of the other books that make up the current Star Wars canon, making this a perfect read for dedicated fans of the franchise.

One of the most intriguing things that I liked about the story was its examination of how the characters in the wider Star Wars universe during this period perceived the Jedi and the events of the Skywalker Saga. Shinick makes it clear quite early on in the book that, during the period that novel was set, most of the galaxy saw the Jedi as a myth and barely anyone knows that much about them anymore. Even the protagonists, Karr and Maize, both of whom consider themselves somewhat more knowledgeable on the subject that most people, barely have any idea of what they were capable of or why they were destroyed. The various theories and histories of the Jedi that are postulated at the start of the novel are so obviously wrong to anyone who has seen the movies that it is quite a jarring experience. I found it deeply fascinating to see how it only took a generation or so for the legend of the Jedi to be degraded, and it explains why characters like Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens barely knew anything about them. The subsequent search for the truth is also interesting, and I liked how the characters attempted to piece together the events of the film. This search was hampered by the fact that the information they received was a random selection of events that were not in any chronological order. This ensures that they get a confused picture of all the events of the Skywalker saga, which they need to try and piece together to fully understand the lessons of the past. All of this was a really cool and unique take on the events of the films, and it was fun trip down memory lane.

While I really enjoyed all the cool references to the rest of the Star Wars franchise, I struggled to see how this book will actually tie into the events of the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, despite that being one of the major advertised features of the book. While this book did spend a bit of time expanding on the overall universe around the current trilogy of Star Wars films, there was nothing specific about The Rise of Skywalker in it. While this did not massively impact my enjoyment of the novel, I kept waiting for the story to kick off in another direction, perhaps after some of the galaxy-altering events that were shown in The Force Awakens took place, or feature a more major character from the films. It never did, and I very much doubt that the main character in this book is going to show up in the new movie (although I could be mistaken). The main connection I could find in this novel was the confirmation that a certain character is at the heart of all the major events of the Skywalker Saga, so much so that only touching an item of theirs was enough to make Karr understand all of the events of the films completely. This is something I believe that the Star Wars creative team wishes to reinforce, as the trailers and rumours indicate big things are happening to this character in the final movie, which will help signal the fact that the Skywalker Saga is truly over. There is also a mention of Karr holding onto a couple of certain Jedi items in case they will be needed in the future, but again I doubt this is going to feature in The Rise of Skywalker. As a result, while Force Collector serves more as an interesting recap for some of the prior Star Wars events, don’t expect any major revelations about the upcoming film.

Rather than grab a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the Force Collector audiobook, which was narrated by Euan Morton. Running at just over eight hours in length, this is a pretty short audiobook that most people should be able to get through rather quickly. As usual, I had a lot of fun listening to this Star Wars audiobook, as it featured all of the classic Star Wars music and sound effects, which really help to make the franchise’s audiobook formats so unique. Narrator Euan Morton is an old hand at narrating Star Wars audiobooks; I recently enjoyed his narration of Tarkin, for example. He does another fantastic job with the narration in Force Collector, coming up with a number of unique and distinctive voices for the characters who only appear in this novel, while also doing great impressions of characters who previously appeared in the film. I was particularly impressed with the realistically teenage voices he was able to come up with for Karr and Maize, and I also like how he did not really recycle any of the voices he used in the previous Star Wars audiobook of his I heard. All of this results in another outstanding audiobook adaption of a Star Wars novel, and it is easily one of my favourite franchises to check out in this format.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick is a fantastic book that features a captivating and unique story, which is richly layered in references to the prior movies and other pieces of Star Wars fiction. While it does not contain an obvious connection to the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, it is still a really interesting and exciting novel that is worth checking out, especially as it provides a compelling recap of some of the previous films in the franchise. Aimed towards a younger audience, Force Collector will be easily enjoyed by all Star Wars fans, especially those who are familiar with the expanded fiction. However, even those readers who have seen the films will be able to appreciate the story in this book. An overall great read, this book is a lot of fun and is an excellent piece of Star Wars fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Top Ten Favourite Audiobooks of 2019

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 week’s Top Ten Tuesday, readers get a freebie and can choose whatever topic they want. As we are getting towards the end of the year, I thought that this would be a good time to start a series of Top Ten Tuesday posts that look at my favourite books of 2019, and the first of these lists is going to look at my favourite audiobooks that came out this year.

I have long been a major fan of the audiobook format. In my opinion, the audiobook is often the best way to experience a good book, and in many cases this format actually makes a book more enjoyable for me. As a result, I listened to quite a few audiobooks this year, and while many of them are books that had been released before 2019 and which featured in my Throwback Thursday posts, a large majority of them were released this year. There were some absolutely 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 2019 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 Starsight’s audiobook was amazing, but I ended up reading a physical copy 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.

Honourable Mentions:

The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, narrated by Robert Petkoff

Star Trek - The Captain's Oath Cover


The Malta Exchange
by Steve Berry, narrated by Scott Brick

The Malta Exchange Cover


Recursion
by Blake Crouch, narrated by Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden

Recursion Cover

Top Ten List:

1: Rage by Jonathan Maberry, narrated by Ray Porter

Rage Cover

There was no way that I would do a list about my favourite audiobooks of 2019 without mentioning the latest book Joe Ledger book narrated by Ray Porter. Not only is Rage an outstanding novel, but Porter once again brings his incredible vocal talents to the audiobook adaptation, perfectly encapsulating the various characters and providing a voice filled with humour and raw emotion. The Joe Ledger books are one of my favourite series at the moment, and thanks to Porter’s voice work, the audiobook is the best way to enjoy them.

2: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker, narrated by Jude Owusu

The Bone Ships Cover

I am still working on my review for The Bone Ships, but it easily one of the best new books I read this year (it gets a full five stars from me). I really loved listening to The Bone Ships’ audiobook format, and it was a really good way to absorb the excellent story. I was particularly impressed with Jude Owusu’s narration, and his enthusiasm and understanding of the characters really shines through and creates and epic production that is really worth checking out.

3: The Night Fire by Michael Connelly, narrated by Titus Welliver and Christine Lakin

The Night Fire Cover

Not only is The Night Fire an amazing piece of crime fiction, but the use of two separate narrators really adds a lot to the novel’s audiobook adaption. Both narrators do an amazing job with this book, and it’s pretty cool that they get Titus Welliver to voice the character he plays in the Bosch television adaptation.

4: Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lieutenant Colonel Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV (USMC), narrated by Marc Vietor

Red Metal Cover 2

This is an epic and well-crafted military thriller that deals with a potential invasion into Europe and Africa from Russia. This book was pretty exceptional, and the audiobook format helps add a lot to the story, enhancing the various action sequences and bringing some great life to characters.

5: Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio, narrated by Saul Reichlin

Howling Dark Cover

Howling Dark is a massive and exceedingly detailed science fiction novel. Not only was the narration top-notch, but I found that the audiobook format was really effective in helping me absorb all the relevant plot details and appreciate all the world building that Ruocchio came up with.

6: The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown, narrated by William Dufris

The Kremlin Strike Cover

This was an amazingly fun book to listen to, as all the action, dogfights and battles in space against the Russians really came to life in this format.

7: Dark Forge by Miles Cameron, narrated by Mark Meadows

Dark Forge Cover.jpg

Another book I haven’t yet finished my review for. Dark Forge, the sequel to the excellent 2018 novel, Cold Iron, is an exceedingly detailed book, and I find that Meadow’s narration really helped we appreciate everything going on.

8: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray, narrated by Jonathan Davis

Master & Apprentice Cover

Master and Apprentice was one of my favourite Star Wars novels of 2019, and I had an absolute blast listening to its audiobook. Not only are the Star Wars audiobooks filled with all the iconic sound effects and music from the movies, but Davis’s narration was very impressive, and did a great job of impersonating several major movie characters.

9: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey, narrated by Jefferson Mays

Tiamat's Wrath Cover

A great piece of science fiction and a really good audiobook production. Mays comes up with some amazing voices for this novel, and I felt I was able to enjoy the widespread, science fiction story a lot more in this format.

10: Boundless by R. A. Salvatore, narrated by Victor Bevine

Boundless Cover

The final inclusion on this list is the audiobook format of the latest R. A. Salvatore book, Boundless. Bevine did a fantastic job with his narration, coming up with all manner of unique fantasy accents and voices. I quite enjoyed this audiobook production, and it was an amazing way to enjoy this fantasy book.

There is still time for me to listen to a few more great audiobooks this year, and I am planning to check out the audiobook adaption of Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred next. Let me know what your favourite audiobooks of 2019 were in the comments below, if they sound interesting, I might try and check them out.

Rage by Jonathan Maberry

Rage Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 5 November 2019)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book One/Joe Ledger – Book 11

Length: 17 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Well damn, now this was an impressive book.   Prepare for all manner of action, excitement and chaos as bestselling author Jonathan Maberry presents an incredible and outstanding start to a new series that features his long-time protagonist, Joe Ledger, with Rage.

The Joe Ledger books were a series of 10 military thriller and science fiction hybrid novels that ran between 2009 and 2018, which focused on a group of military action heroes as they faced off against a number of advanced, mad science threats. Maberry actually concluded the Joe Ledger series last year, but the stories and adventures of the titular character have been continued in the new Rogue Team International series, of which Rage is the very first book (although it could be considered the 11th Joe Ledger book). This sequel series focuses on some new circumstances for the protagonists while still maintaining the heart and soul of the original books.

People who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Joe Ledger books. Ever since I picked up the 10th and final novel, Deep Silence, last year, I have been really getting into this incredible thriller series and have already gone back and read the first six Joe Ledger books. Each of these books that I have reviewed so far has received a full five out of five stars from me, and it is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. As a result, I have been very keen to get a copy of the first instalment of this sequel series for a while now, and it has been very high on my list of books to read before the end of 2019. However, nothing was able to prepare me for how awesome this book was and for how much I was going to love it.

For years, Joe Ledger was the top field agent for the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a top-secret United States military organisation tasked with protecting America from the most advanced and devastating weapons that mad science can produce. However, the political situation in America has become untenable, with the DMS no longer able to effectively do their job under the current administration. Seeing no future working for the US government, the head of the DMS, Mr Church, has disbanded the department, and has instead formed a new organisation, Rogue Team International. Independently funded and controlled by no government, Rogue Team International is able to deploy anywhere in the world against the worst sort of threats imaginable.

However, their first major mission has some very high stakes. A mysterious group of terrorists have unleashed a new bioweapon on a small, isolated island off the coast of North Korea. This weapon drives those infected by it into a murderous rage, causing them to attack and kill anyone they see in a brutal fashion. Worse, whoever is behind the attack has gone out of their way to frame the United States and South Korea for the crime, creating a dangerous situation which could see these countries dragged into a devastating war with North Korea and China.

Deployed to the island, Ledger and his team attempt to identify who is behind the attacks and what sort of weapon they have unleashed. It soon becomes clear that they are up against a deadly and powerful organisation, that is determined to cause as much chaos as possible. As a second attack is unleashed in South Korea, Ledger must find a way to stop his opponents before it is too late and the world is engulfed in war. However, their new foes are clever and ruthless and bear a powerful grudge against Ledger and Mr Church. Can Rogue Team International save the day, or will the cost be too high to pay?

Rage is an absolutely incredible and outstanding new novel from Maberry, who has done an incredible job introducing the first book in his Rogue Team International series. Rage contains an amazing story that had me firmly addicted right from the very start. The reader is once again presented with a massive and elaborate villainous plot, as two familiar antagonists and their cohorts unleash a devastating and scientifically unique attack for their own nefarious reasons. We then get to follow our protagonists as they investigate and attempt to counter the attacks and plots that they uncover. The entirety of the book is written in Maberry’s signature style, with the story told from a huge range of different points of view and time periods, resulting in a much richer and complex story that allows the reader to see the thoughts of the protagonists, antagonists and innocent bystanders as the various events of the book take place. There are a huge number of twists and turns as the story progresses, and even though we get some insight into the antagonist’s actions and motivations, the entirety of their elaborate plan is left a mystery for most of the book, allowing for some enthralling suspense to build up. All of this ends in an explosive conclusion which not only features a major fake-out but also a massively significant tragedy that is going to be a huge part of the series going forward. This was a truly epic story, and I cannot wait to see where the author takes his new series next.

Despite Rage being part of the new Rogue Team International series, Maberry continues to utilise a number of his distinctive writing elements that made his Joe Ledger novels such a delight to read. This includes the cool multiple viewpoints I mentioned above, as well as the fantastic use of great action sequences, enjoyable characters and the fascinating antagonists. However, there are some exciting changes in this book that I think existing Joe Ledger readers are going to enjoy. For example, the protagonist is part of a whole new organisation, they have a new base (a very over-the-top secret lair in Greece), a new team name and new call signs for all the protagonists (for example, Ledger has gone from Cowboy to Outlaw), all of which is an interesting change of pace for those familiar with the original series. There is also a lot more of a focus on international politics, with only a small amount of the story taking place in the United States. While I quite liked some of the new directions that Maberry was taking with this new series, many of the story elements in Rage have made it clear that the Rogue Team International books are going to be very strongly associated with the original Joe Ledger series. There are a huge number of call-backs to the previous books, including a lot of discussion about preceding cases and the utilisation of many characters, including some of the major antagonists, who have previously appeared. While you would assume that the employment of all these elements might make Rage hard to get into for readers unfamiliar with the other Joe Ledger novels, this is really not the case. Maberry continues his practice of filling his story with some detailed summaries of the various characters and books, so that readers can understand the significance of all the reference to the previous cases. This means that new readers can easily jump into Rage without any prior knowledge of the other Joe Ledger books, although I can guarantee that most people will be keen to go back and get the full account of what has happened before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new international focused formula of this book was that it allowed Maberry to examine the current political situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is quite an interesting analysis of both countries throughout the course of the story, and the various issues surrounding them and their differences are actually covered in a series of short chapters, made to resemble a political chat show, with experts voicing their thoughts on both Koreas, and the influence of countries such as China and the United States. Rage’s story features a fascinating look at what the author thinks would happen if a flashpoint event occurred in the region, and who could potentially benefit. I was very intrigued by Maberry’s analysis of the situation, and I liked how he featured several characters from both North and South Korea in his story. The author’s portrayal of the North Korean characters was particularly captivating, as he showed them as mostly good people who were trapped by political circumstances, and who aren’t seeking a war against the rest of the world. All of this examination of the current political situation in Korea made for a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and I am curious to see what area of the world he will explore in the next Rogue Team International book.

One of Maberry’s main strengths as a writer is his ability to create some truly enjoyable and memorable characters to populate his stories with. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the main protagonist of Rage and its prequel series, Joe Ledger. Ledger is an extremely complex and multilayered action protagonist, who serves as the book’s main character. Thanks to the fact that Ledger narrates all of the chapters told from his point of view (about two thirds of the book; the rest of the chapters are told in the third person), we get a real sense of his character. While he likes to project a cocky, confident and humorous persona to most people he meets, cracking all sorts of jokes to both other characters and the reader, deeper down his is a psychological mess. Due to some past trauma, Ledger has some major issues, and his career as a shooter for the DMS and Rogue Team International has not helped the situation. Ledger’s anger, despair and hopelessness are constantly bubbling towards the surface, adding a fascinating dimension to the character. I have always really liked how Maberry has gone out of his way to show an action protagonist who is actually impacted by the work they do and the lives they have taken, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace. Rage in particular contains some very dark moments for Ledger, and if the conclusion of the book is anything to go by, his character is going to undergo some massive emotional changes in the next few books.

I was also really glad that Maberry continued to utilise so many of the great side characters that have been previously introduced in the Joe Ledger series. Pretty much all of the key DMS characters have moved across into the new book, and I was really glad we could continue to enjoy the fun dynamic that they have established over the course of the previous series. The enigmatic Mr Church continues to remain one of the best spy-master characters I have ever read and is probably one of my favourite people in the Joe Ledger books. While there are no major revelations about his past in this novel (my theory is that he is either an alien or some form of angel), there are some hints to his seemingly superhuman toughness and some of the previous missions he has engaged in. Mr Church also shows off some amazing diplomatic chops in this novel, utilising a network of level-headed members of various countries’ governments to work around blustering and incompetent world leaders. Most of the rest of the supporting characters remain the same, although several of them get some fun moments in this book, such as Bug unexpectedly receiving some fan-girl attention and Doc Holiday’s eccentric personality overwhelming people unfamiliar with her. There are also some great new characters in this book, many of whom appear set to become long-term recurring characters. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog, but I am sure we will see more of him in the future.

In addition to the fantastic protagonists, Maberry has also come up with a couple of conniving and evil antagonists to act as a foil to Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International. The main villains of the book are actually prior antagonists from two of the books in the Joe Ledger series, who have been reutilised to great effect in this new novel. While an exciting original major villain might have worked out well for the first novel in a new series, I think that using some existing antagonists was an excellent choice that really helped create a captivating story. Not only does this help reinforce the connection between the new Rogue Team International series and the Joe Ledger books, but it also allowed for some interesting character and story development. Both of these main two antagonists have been defeated in the past by Joe Ledger and Mr Church, so they each have very deep, personal grudges against them. Their new plan for domination, which is actually very interesting and quite complex, is also filled with elements of revenge, which helps ratchet up the intrigue and adds a whole new element. I loved the various interludes which show how these two bad guys escaped from prison and started their new team-up, and it was really cool to see what happened to them after their respective defeats in the previous books. It was also very interesting to see two antagonists, who previously had nothing to do with each other, had appeared in different novels and had very different motivations for their actions, come together as a cohesive unit with the new goals in mind. This was definitely a great use of two antagonists, and the damage that they caused was very impressive and memorable.

It is impossible to talk about one of the Joe Ledger novels without discussing all the intense action you can expect within. Maberry is a master of writing an electrifying action sequence, and the first book in the Rogue Team International series is absolutely chock full of action, fights and brutal violence. There are so many varied and thrilling battle scenes throughout the book, as the protagonist finds himself fighting in all manner of different situations. Whether the protagonist is engaging in a mass shootout against heavily armed opponents with his team backing him up, fighting by himself against a group of assassins or engaging in knock-out, throwdown fist fight against one of the antagonists, Maberry crafts some excellent and detailed sequences, allowing the reader to appreciate everything that is going on. The standout elements of this book are the victims of the new rage-inducing bioweapon that is this book’s unique science fiction element. Victims under the control of Rage attack anything they see in a frenzy, resulting in some crazy and vicious scenes. This also allows for some unique sequences where the protagonists must find a way to neutralise the victims without killing them, in the hope that they can be cured, all the while trying to avoid getting killed by either the Rage victims or some of the soldiers behind the attacks. All of the action scenes in this book are really impressive to experience, and it is impossible not to get excited as you read through them. However, readers should be warned in advance that the action can get quite brutal in places, and there are numerous examples of gruesome mutilation or torture, which might not be appealing to some people.

One of the main things that I love about the Joe Ledger series are the incredible audiobook versions of the previous novels, all of which feature the outstanding narration of Ray Porter. As I have stated in several of my previous reviews, Porter has some unbelievable vocal talents, and the life he breathes into all the characters in the Joe Ledger audiobooks is just fantastic. In particular, he portrays the voice and personality of the series titular character and protagonist, Joe Ledger, extremely well and he does a remarkable job of conveying all of the characters emotions, charm and humour to the reader. I was so happy when I saw that Porter was going to narrate Rage, and I knew I would have to grab the audiobook format of this book when it came out. I was in no way disappointed with this audiobook, as Porter has once again done a fantastic job of bringing all the characters to life and telling Rage’s amazing story. Porter still has such a fantastic handle on the book’s main character, and his portrayal of the Joe Ledger’s emotions is just superb, especially during some major scenes in the book. With a running time of 17½ hours, Rage is a somewhat substantial read, and dedicated listeners should be able to get through it in a few days. I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Rage to anyone who wants to read this book, and it still remains my favourite and preferred way to get my Joe Ledger fix.

In Rage, Jonathan Maberry has once again outdone himself producing a wildly entertaining and deeply compelling novel that I absolutely loved. In this first instalment of his new Rogue Team International series, Maberry has brought his fantastic characters from the Joe Ledger books into a whole new era, as the story goes in some great new directions, while maintaining the best parts of the original series. Featuring one hell of a story and a pretty memorable conclusion, Rage is Maberry at his best, and I have no choice but to award it a full five stars. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a high-octane read, Rage is an outstanding book guaranteed to pull you in and leave you an emotional wreck.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 9 hour and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an amazing and compelling Star Wars tie-in novel that focuses on a fascinating character from the franchise, with Star Wars: Tarkin, written by veteran tie-in author James Luceno.

Since early 2014, Disney has done an excellent job installing a new and distinctive expanded universe for the Star Wars franchise. This new expanded universe, which supplanted the existing expanded universe (which is now known as Star Wars Legends), has featured some amazing books which I have been really getting into in the last couple of years. I have read a lot of Star Wars books in 2019 and not only have I tried to stay abreast of the latest releases (for example, the latest Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn) but I have also been checking out some of the older novels in the franchise (such as Thrawn and Death Troopers).

Tarkin was released in late 2014 and was one of the first non-movie novelisations or young reader Star Wars novels that were released in this new canon. Tarkin was written by James Luceno, an author with a huge number of Star Wars tie-in novels from the Legends canon already under his belt, such as the intriguing-sounding Darth Plagueis. I had heard good things about this book, and I was curious to see how Luceno would alter the character of Grand Moff Tarkin.

To those familiar with the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin is a legendary figure. A former admiral, adjutant general, planetary governor and war hero of the Clone Wars, Tarkin was one of the Emperor’s most dedicated and capable servants. Determined to enforce the Empire’s authority throughout the galaxy by any means necessary, Tarkin was renowned for his merciless nature and his ability to out-think any opponent on the battlefield or in the political arena. But where did this nature come from: his past as a solider or as a politician, or are there powerful lessons in Tarkin’s upbringing that constantly drive him forward?

Five years after the end of the Clone Wars, Governor Tarkin holds the rank of Imperial Moff and is tasked with overseeing one of the Empire’s most sensitive and covert projects, the construction of a massive mobile battle station which the Emperor believes will become the ultimate symbol of Imperial power in the galaxy. Determined to bring order to the post Clone War chaos, Tarkin finds his plans for the construction of the station stalled when a mysterious ship launches an innovative attack against one of his bases. In the aftermath of this attack, Tarkin is ordered to work with Darth Vader to determine who orchestrated this incursion and deal with them.

Travelling to an isolated planet, Tarkin and Vader begin their investigation into the rebellious activity plaguing that area of the Empire. But when their opponents manage to out-manoeuvre them, Tarkin must call upon all of his experiences, including as a young hunter on his home planet of Eriadu, to stop them. However, even the lessons of his past may not be enough, as his new foes are as smart and determined as Tarkin and Vader and are willing to do anything to achieve their revenge on the Empire.

Tarkin was a smart and exciting Star Wars tie-in novel that did a fantastic job exploring the life of one of the franchise’s most complex characters. I had a great time listening to this book, and it is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have enjoyed this year. I really liked the deep dive into the history and mind of Tarkin, especially as the author wraps a compelling and multi-layered narrative around the character’s story. As a result, the novel gets four and a half stars from me and was a really good read.

This story is an interesting combination of an adventure that occurred five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith (roughly 14 years before the events of A New Hope), and a series of tales from various points in Tarkin’s earlier life. Grand Moff Tarkin has always been a fascinating Star Wars character to me; despite his lack of force abilities, he appeared to wield nearly as much power as the Emperor and was even able to command Darth Vader. This book does a wonderful job of not only showing how he was able to obtain so much power within the Empire but also exploring all of the formulative events of this character’s life that made him into the man capable of achieving so much. I personally think that this was a great combination of character narratives which come together extremely well, and I think that Luceno did a fantastic job getting to the root of Tarkin’s psyche and personality.

Despite it being the shorter part of the book, I personally enjoyed the various chapters that explore various moments of Tarkin’s past the most. In particular, I thought that the author’s examination of his training as a hunter to be a truly fascinating basis for the character’s tactical ability. The various scenes depicting him hunting the large beasts of his home planet are pretty cool, and it was really interesting to see the way that he utilised lessons from hunting creatures in his later careers. For example, he is trained to instil fear into all the beasts he encounters in order to establish dominance above them and to show them the consequences of acting in way he dislikes. A later scene in the book shows him using this training to successfully end a pirate menace in a very harsh and final manner, and it also explains why he considered blowing up a planet to be a viable fear tactic against rebels. In addition to its impact on future Star Wars stories, Tarkin’s early training and hunting background are utilised to great effect throughout the entirety of Tarkin, and it was great to see how it impacts on Tarkin’s thought process and planning. I also really liked how the focus on the hunt comes full circle, as the author works in a fun confrontation back at the Tarkin hunting grounds with the main antagonist of the book that I absolutely loved and which was a fantastic conclusion to the whole story. This hunting aspect was an exceptional addition to this canon’s depiction of Tarkin, and I like how other authors have expanded on it in other pieces of Star Wars expanded fiction. For example, the third volume of Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith features Tarkin using his hunting abilities against Vader in a contest of wills.

In addition to this new origin for Tarkin’s tactical ability and mental acuity, I also enjoyed the various flashbacks to his history before and during the events of the Clone War. Luceno comes up with some great storylines that show off, for example, when Tarkin first gained the attention of the Emperor, or his thoughts on the various events that occurred during the course of the prequel movies. It was fun getting his theories on the causes of the Clone Wars or the formation of the Empire, especially as he is pretty close to the mark every time. I also liked that Luceno worked a confrontation between Tarkin and Count Dooku into one of the flashbacks, which shows why Tarkin remained loyal to the Republic during the course of the Clone Wars. All of these examinations of the character’s past, especially in the context of several key events in Star Wars history, was really fascinating and proved to be a fantastic part of the book.

While I did enjoy the examination of the character’s past, the main story itself is also compelling, as it shows the events that led to Tarkin becoming the very first Grand Moff. These parts of the book are a lot of fun and feature a unique and personal hunt for the protagonist which ties in well with the journeys to his past. I also quite enjoyed the fun team-up between Tarkin and Darth Vader, who assists him to complete his mission. Tarkin and Vader form a very effective team in this book, and it was interesting to examine the relationship between them and the mutual respect that grew between them. It was also cool to find out that Tarkin was one of the few people in the whole Empire who guessed that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person (the only other Imperial character who apparently guessed that was Grand Admiral Thrawn). This section of the book also features some intriguing looks at the early stages of the Empire, and I personally liked the examination of Imperial politics, the intelligence agencies and the ruling style of the Emperor. I also really liked the idealistic opponents that Tarkin faced off against, mainly because their leader becomes more and more aggressive the longer the fight against the Empire goes, until he starts to lack the moral high ground in this conflict.

While I really enjoyed the team-up between Tarkin and Vader, I do wonder if the author perhaps featured Vader and the Emperor a little more than he should have. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely love Darth Vader as a character and I have deeply enjoyed a number of extended universe comics or books that have featured him (such as the Darth Vader and Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, or the Dark Visions limited series). However, I think that a book called Tarkin should have focused a lot more on the exploits of the titular character and shown how he dealt with the unique problems presented in the plot on his own. Instead, he received a fair bit of help from Vader and the Emperor, which kind of undermined the book’s message that he was an unsurpassed strategist and hunter. The author might have been better off only featuring a small amount of the Emperor in this novel, and perhaps introducing Vader in a later Tarkin novel, much like Timothy Zahn did with Thrawn: Alliances. Still, it was a fantastic book, and I am never going to seriously complain about too much Darth Vader.

Tarkin proved to be a really interesting book in the current Star Wars canon, and one that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. That being said, I would say that no real knowledge of the Star Wars extended universe is required to understand the plot of the book. While it does reflect on some of the events of The Clone Wars animated series, particularly the handful of episodes that a young Tarkin appeared in, there is no urgent need to go out and watch these episodes first, as they are more passing references. It is also important to note that this book was released back in 2014, two years before the release of Rogue One. As a result, it lacks the inclusion of Director Krennic as a rival for Tarkin, which is something most of the tie-in media released after 2016 features.

Like many of the Star Wars novels I have enjoyed in the past, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Tarkin rather than read a physical copy. The Tarkin audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and runs for roughly 9½ hours in length. I found myself absolutely breezing through the Tarkin audiobook, and I was able to listen to all of it in a few short days, as I become enthralled in the awesome story. Star Wars audiobooks are always a fun production to check out thanks to their use of the iconic music and sound effects from the movies. Tarkin also makes great use of a number of the classic scores from the movies to enhance the various scenes, most notably The Imperial March, which is used a number of times when members of the Empire are being particularly ruthless or authoritarian. I also really liked the use of the various Star Wars sound effects, such as the sound of blaster fire, spaceship engines and even the iconic sounds of Darth Vader breathing, all of which are used to help set the appropriate atmosphere for the scene. While some of the Star Wars audiobooks greatly overused these sound effects and music scores, I think that the Tarkin audiobook had the just the right amount of these elements. At no point did the music or sounds overwhelm the narration nor distract the reader from the plot; instead they did a wonderful job of helping the reader stay glued to the story.

In addition to the excellent use of Star Wars music and sound effects, Tarkin also featured a fantastic narrator in the form of Euan Morton. Morton does a commendable job of imitating the voice of the titular character and helps bring the stern, intelligent and ruthless character to life with his voice work. In addition, Morton was also able to do good imitations of several other notable Star Wars characters, including the Emperor and Darth Vader. I felt that Morton produced a good replication of their voices, and the listener is instantly able to figure out who is talking. I also liked some of the voices that Morton came up with for the various supporting characters that featured in the book, and I was impressed with the voices he attributed to some of the different alien species that were encountered. I particularly enjoyed his Mon Calamari voice, for example, and felt that he was able to add some distinguishing vocals to each of these different species. Based on this strong narration, as well as the great musical and sound inclusions, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of this Star Wars book, and I know that I intend to check out more of this franchise’s audiobooks.

Tarkin was an outstanding piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that I personally really enjoyed. Not only did it contain a compelling and exciting story in the early days of the Empire but it also did a wonderful job exploring the background of one of the franchises most fascinating characters. I had an amazing time learning more about Grand Moff Tarkin, and I am slightly disappointed that there have not been any more Tarkin-centric novels released since 2014. As a result, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good Star Wars tie-in novel, and I would also recommend the excellent audiobook format.

While the next Star Wars novel I read is going to be Force Collector, I am always considering what older Star Wars book to listen to in the future. I am currently weighing up between this canon’s Lords of the Sith (the Emperor and Darth Vader trapped on a planet being hunted by rebels) or the Star Wars Legends book Scoundrels (a heist novel written by Timothy Zahn). Both sound like a lot of fun, and I will probably end up listening to them both in the very near future.