Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

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

Series: Athenian – Book Two

Length: 397 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Artifact Space Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Ebook – 29 June 2021)

Series: Arcana Imperii – Book One

Length: 568 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After already conquering the world of thrillers, historical fiction and fantasy fiction, bestselling author Miles Cameron presents his very first science fiction epic, the outstanding and brilliant Artifact Space.

Far in the future, humanity has spread out amongst the stars, expanding its influence and bringing trade and technology across multiple planets.  The success of humanity’s current expansion can primarily be attributed to xenoglas, a strong and mysterious material that forms the basis for trade, construction, and the economy.  Xenoglas is obtained from a mysterious alien race known as the Starfish, who can be found at the Trade Point, a massive structure at the edge of human space that only the most sophisticated and powerful ships are capable of reaching.  Humanity has created the greatships, kilometre long ships with massive city-sized cargo holds, capable of transporting all manner of human goods the long distance between the greatest human orbital cities to Trade Point and bring back vast hauls of xenoglas.

Marca Nbaro has always dreamed about venturing into space aboard a greatship and escaping her harsh upbringing in the notorious Orphanage.  However, after getting on the wrong side of the corrupt Dominus, Nbaro is forced to flee with few possessions, scandals dogging her step and an incomplete education.  Pawning everything for some forged records, Nbaro boards the greatship Athens as a junior officer as it prepares to depart on the multi-year journey to Trade Point.

Despite being constantly terrified of her sordid past being discovered, Nbaro is soon able to gain friends and standing aboard the greatship, and for the first time ever her future looks bright.  However, Nbaro’s dreams of mercantile success are soon blown out of the water when news of the destruction of two other greatships reaches the Athens.  It soon becomes apparent that the Athens is also at risk of from whatever mysterious forces have suddenly appeared.  Involuntarily brought into the midst of a dangerous conspiracy, Nbaro is recruited by Athens AI and the greatships’ security office to protect the ship.  As Nbaro works to safeguard her new friends and home, she finds herself facing an insidious and dangerous enemy that is determined to stop the Athens and its crew by any means necessary.  Can Nbaro and her friends protect the Athens as it makes a hurried journey towards the Trade Point, or will her first flight end in ruin and destruction?

Genuine question: is there any genre that Miles Cameron cannot write amazing novels in?  Well, after reading Artifact Space, it looks like Cameron really can do it all, as his latest novel is an exceptional and captivating read.  Cameron, who also writes as Christian Cameron and Gordon Kent (a joint pseudonym shared with his father Kenneth Cameron), is an author who I have been a fan of for a while.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great historical fiction reads he released as Christian Cameron, such as Tyrant and Killer of Men, as well as his more recent release The New Achilles.  I am also a major fan of the awesome fantasy novels he released as part of his Master and Mages series, including Cold Iron and Dark Forge.  Both of these awesome novels were exceptional reads that got five-star reviews from me, with Dark Forge being one of the best books and audiobooks I enjoyed in 2019.

Due to how much I enjoyed his great fantasy and historical fiction novels, I was very intrigued when I saw that Cameron was writing Artifact Space, his debut science fiction novel set in his newly created Arcana Imperii universe.  After featuring Artifact Space in a Waiting on Wednesday article, I was lucky enough to receive an advanced proof from Cameron, which I managed to read last week.  I am a little annoyed with myself for taking so long to get to Artifact Space, as it turned out to be an exceptional and deeply compelling epic that takes its reader of an exciting adventure out into the depths of space.  I had an amazing time reading Artifact Space and it is yet another of Cameron’s incredible novels to get a five-star rating from me.

Artifact Space contains a powerful and engrossing science fiction narrative that follows a complex and damaged protagonist as she engages in a dangerous and thrilling adventure out into the stars.  Cameron starts his novel off without much preamble, with the protagonist engaging in a dangerous race to the Athens to escape her past.  Once aboard, Nbaro becomes enfolded in the day-to-day life aboard the Athens, which swiftly teaches her, and by extension the reader, much about Cameron’s new setting.  The first half of the novel is pretty intriguing, as Cameron not only sets up his fantastic protagonist, great supporting characters and fantastic universe, but he also features some compelling adventures in space as the protagonist finds her feet aboard the ship while also dealing with some lethal personal problems.  While I really enjoyed this cool start to Artifact Space, the novel enters a completely new gear towards the second half of the book, especially after it becomes clear that a shadowy conspiracy has plans to destroy the Athens, with the protagonist stuck right in the middle of the key events.  Following a particularly intense and exciting sequence near the middle of the book, the rest of Artifact Space flows across at an extremely brisk pace, as several key storylines are resolved, and the Athens finds itself under increased attack from a variety of places.  All of this leads up to an impressive and captivating conclusion that sets up the following novel perfectly while keep the reader wanting more.

I really enjoyed the clever and powerful story that Cameron came up for Artifact Space.  There is something deeply compelling about seeing a great character getting an in-depth lesson in something new and fantastic, and I loved all the cool sequences of spaceship life, piloting and control that formed a great part of this book.  I am also a massive fan of how exciting and suspenseful the second half of the book turned out to be, as Cameron installs an excellent and thrilling storyline with plenty of threats, revelations and twists, which constantly leaves the reader on the edge of their seat.  Cameron also features several intense and exciting action sequences both aboard the ship and out in space, all of which are fantastically written and deeply enhance the cool and compelling narrative.  I quite liked how Cameron also adapted his writing style to suit the science fiction genre.  While the author maintains his propensity to feature an immense amount of detail in his story, I found that the writing was a lot more fluid and a little less formal than how he writes his historical fiction and fantasy novels.  I think this worked well for Artifact Space, as not only did it fit the futuristic setting a lot better, but it also ensured that the reader could get through the novel a little quicker.  I had an amazing time getting through this incredible narrative and it honestly did not take me long to become completely engrossed in Artifact Space’s story.  I absolutely flew through the second half of the narrative as I could not wait to see what obstacles the protagonist would experience next, as well as how the novel would end.

I was deeply impressed by the fantastic and impressive science fiction setting that was featured in this novel.  Cameron has come up with a compelling and detailed universe for Artifact Space, and it was one that I had a lot of fun exploring.  The story is set hundreds of years in the future and features a period of human exploration and expansion after a historic dark age which forced people to leave Earth.  Much of humanity’s current economy and progress is due to its xenoglas trade with the Starfish, and much of the book’s plot revolves around this trade, featuring the greatships, the alien Trade Point and the various human planets that lie between the Trade Point and the human population centres.  Each of these locations is very cool, and Cameron expertly brings them to life with his detailed and descriptive writing, which produces some excellent backdrops for the narrative.  Cameron also spends a lot of time describing the fantastic setting that is the greatship itself.  The greatship, an immense vessel filled with a unique collection of crew, cargo, rooms, and technology, all of which are needed to take the assembled characters from one end of the galaxy to the next.  Most of the story is set aboard the greatship Athens, and it proves to be a fantastic setting to explore.  Thanks to the author’s use of a new crewmember as the narrative’s point-of-view character, the reader is given an in-depth view of the ship and everything that makes it tick and it really will not take them long to fall in love with the Athens and all its unique features and quirks.  I think that Cameron did an exceptional job introducing all the elements of this universe throughout Artifact Space, and I never found myself getting lost of confused about what was going on.  There are so many exciting, fascinating, and clever universe details featured throughout this novel and I look forward to seeing how Cameron populates this universe in the future.

I also really enjoyed the great selection of characters.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist and point-of-view character, Marca Nbaro, an orphan from a formerly wealthy family who cons her way aboard the Athens.  Due to her hard early life at the Orphanage, a terrible state-run institution, Nbaro is an extremely damaged character.  Forced to spend most of her life looking over her shoulder and expecting betrayal, Nbaro is unfamiliar with the easy camaraderie and friendship she experiences aboard the Athens and is generally suspicious of everyone she encounters.  She is also terrified that the rest of the crew will find out about her forged grades, which would see her chucked off the ship, while also harbouring a low opinion about her own abilities and skills, believing that she did not really earn her place aboard the ship.  This is a fantastic basis for a character, and I really appreciated the way in which Cameron examined the mentality and deeper concerns of his protagonist, especially as it ensures that you really care for Nbaro and want to see her succeed.  I liked the way in which Nbaro grew as a character throughout the course of the novel, especially as she gains a sense of self-worth thanks to her natural abilities and the connections she forges.  The character soon finds herself in a variety of unique and dangerous situations as she puts everything on the line to save her new friends and home, and it was great to see the character enter hero mode and succeed.  I am really looking forward to seeing how Nbaro continues to develop in the next novel, as well as where her personal story ends up.

Cameron has also filled Artifact Space with a wide range of intriguing and likeable supporting characters who the protagonist engages with during her adventures.  There is a fairly large collection of supporting characters in this book, especially as Nbaro makes friends and collections throughout the entire greatship and beyond.  I had a lot of fun getting to know some of the characters throughout this novel, and I was a particular fan of the weird and brilliant Dorcas, Nbaro’s friendly roommate Thea, and the ship’s clever and sarcastic AI, Morosini.  All these characters, and many more, added a lot to Artifact Space’s story, especially as most of them form a unique relationship or friendship with Nbaro.  While a few interesting supporting characters don’t survive to the end of the novel, the remaining swath of fun characters should help to make the next entry in this series very special.  I enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop alongside the protagonist, and they were great additions to this fantastic novel.

With Artifact Space, outstanding author Miles Cameron has shown the world that he is more than capable of writing science fiction, as he produces a compelling, character-driven epic, set deep in the future with aliens, giant spaceships and galaxy spanning conspiracies.  This was an amazing and captivating read which quickly drags the reader in with its intense and exciting story and exceptional science fiction setting.  I had an absolutely incredible time reading this impressive novel, and Artifact Space comes highly recommended to anyone who wants a great science fiction read.  I cannot wait to see how this series continues in Cameron’s next book, but in the meantime I need to make tracks to finish his Master and Mages series, as I cannot get enough of Cameron’s incredible writing.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary Cover

Publisher: Del Ray (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 476 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to ride off into the unknown with Project Hail Mary, an utterly compelling and powerful science fiction novel from bestselling author Andy Weir.

Andy Weir is a fascinating and highly regarded author who has been a major figure in the science fiction genre after writing a few fantastic novels.  While he has also written books such as Theft of Pride, Artemis and James Moriarty, Consulting Criminal, Weir is best known for his science fiction masterpiece, The Martian, which has been adapted into an epic movie of the same name.  I absolutely loved the film version of The Martian, which made me very curious about some of Weir’s other works.  As a result, I was excited when I received a copy of his latest novel, especially as it sounded like an intriguing read.

Ryland Grace is having a very interesting time in space.  Waking up aboard a ship he does not recognise, Grace has idea who he is or what he is doing there; all he knows is that he has been asleep for a very long time, he is currently millions of miles from home and he is alone except for two corpses.  But as he explores his ship, the Hail Mary, glimpses of his past life slowly come back to him, as well as details of the desperate mission he is a part of.

Grace is the only surviving member of a crack crew of scientists and astronauts who were sent one a one-way trip to a distant star in order to find out how humanity can stop alien microbes, known as Astrophage, draining our sun and cooling the Earth to an apocalyptic level.  Alone, disorientated, and finding himself with a massive and impossible burden upon his shoulders, Grace must find the courage and skill to analyse the problem before him and find a way to save our planet.  When a second ship arrives in the system, Grace finds himself with an unexpected ally.  As he forms a usual friendship and gets lost in his work, Grace will need every bit of knowledge and science at his disposal to find the answer before it is too late.  However, success is no certainty, and Grace will have to overcome his own hidden past if he is to save everyone and everything he cares about.

Wow, just wow.  I suspected that I would be in for an amazing time with Project Hail Mary when I started, especially as there were positive reviews on the cover from the notable trio of George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson and Blake Crouch, three authors who know a lot about epic, outstanding reads.  However, I was blown away by how much I enjoyed this incredible book and I swiftly became engrossed with the awesome narrative contained within Project Hail Mary.  This was a deeply impressive and captivating read which is easily one of the best science fiction novels of 2021 and which gets a full five-star rating from me.

Project Hail Mary contains an epic and deeply addictive narrative of science, adventure and personal growth.  This entire novel begins with a rather interesting hook, with the protagonist coming out of a coma aboard a spaceship with no memory of how he got there and two corpses lying next to him.  Watching this then unnamed character explore and attempt to work out what is happening to him is pretty fascinating and it drags the reader in with its mystery.  As the protagonist regains his memory, Project Hail Mary morphs into more of a science based adventure story with massive stakes, as the character finds himself engaging in a suicide mission to save Earth.  This progresses at a great pace for the first third of the novel, and there is a nice rhythm of the character becoming familiar with the Hail Mary while also regaining his memories of the lead-up to of the mission.  Weir then introduces an intriguing and compelling major story development that completely morphs the structure of the plot and turns Project Hail Mary from the doomed adventure of a lone man to something else entirely.  I loved what the narrative turned into from this point, especially as it featured some captivating camaraderie, a unique relationship and fascinating science fiction elements.  All of this leads up to the novel’s big conclusion, which features several memorable moments and an excellent conclusion that will leave readers extremely satisfied.  This was an outstanding story, and I could not believe how quickly I become obsessed with finding out how the clever and exciting story would end.

A major highlight of Project Hail Mary is the fantastic use of flashbacks throughout the book’s narrative.  These flashbacks represent the protagonist slowly regaining memories of the events that led up to the mission, and which highlights the entirety of the Astrophage arrival near the sun, all the way up to the launch of the Hail Mary.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author utilised these flashbacks, which provided the reader with substantial detail about the character, the purpose of his mission, and the ship that serves as the novel’s setting, all of which comes into play as the story progresses.  The various flashbacks really helped to enhance the plot, especially as the protagonist was forced to battle his own ignorance and lack of memory, as well as only gradually learn about what was happening back on Earth.  It also ensured a smoother flow throughout the book, saving substantial exposition at the start of the novel, and leaving the background plot open for surprises and clever moments.  All these flashbacks lead to an epic and incredibly clever twist near the end of the novel that completely changes everything and shines a completely new light on the protagonist’s actions and everything the reader thought they knew.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed this twist, and it was one of the most memorable literary moments I have experienced in a while.  This cleverly set up and brilliantly utilised format helps to create an exceptional story that readers will deeply enjoy and which will be stuck in their heads for a very long time.

People familiar with Weir’s writings will know that the author loves featuring vast amounts of science talk and terminology in his stories, and Project Hail Mary is no exception.  Weir’s latest novel is absolutely packed full of science, technology and intriguing scenarios, all of which revolve around space travel, alien life, resource management, solar bodies and much, much more.  Nearly every page of this novel contains the protagonist engaging in some scientific adventure, using science to solve a specific problem, or answering some unusual mystery.  While this may seem a little repetitive, I found all the science talk and subsequent solutions to be extremely compelling and I enjoyed seeing what unexpected pieces of science the protagonist would use next.  I felt that the author did an amazing job of explaining all of the underlying scientific principles contained within Project Hail Mary, and despite my own lack of a scientific background I was able to follow everything pretty closely and I always had a good idea of what his protagonist was talking about.  I will admit that I would have no idea about how practical or realistic some of the ideas contained within this novel are, so if Weir has chucked in some incorrect science about space flight, biology or physics, I would not have a clue.  However, everything seemed realistic and well explained to me, so I am choosing to believe that most of what happened is potentially possible.

I quite enjoyed the unique scenarios featured within Project Hail Mary, especially regarding the degradation of our sun.  As shown in the excellent flashback sequences, energy from the sun is being absorbed by the Astrophage microbes, eventually causing a new ice age.  The whole idea of the Astrophage is very intriguing, and I enjoyed seeing the planet’s reaction to this new life form and various nations banding together to save the planet.  The Astrophage turn out to be a clever plot device; while they are dooming the planet, some of their other unique abilities may lead to its survival.  I liked seeing the various ways in which these microbes could be used, and it proved to be a fascinating addition to the plot.  I also quite enjoyed seeing the changes that occurred on Earth as the Hail Mary project came into being, especially as the measures put in place to prolong human life and come up with the necessary power for the mission, resulting in some big planetary changes.  Weir also comes up with some outstanding first-contact scenes throughout the novel, and I really appreciated seeing the protagonist communicate with a previously unknown species.  The author comes up with some great scenes around this, and it was cool to see how and why humans would try talking to and working with another race.  All the science and technology were worked into the novel extremely well, and I felt that it helped to make this amazing story more compelling and realistic.

Another great highlight of Project Hail Mary is the great characters.  The most prominent character is of course Ryland Grace, who serves as primary narrator and point-of-view character for the novel.  Grace is a fantastic leading character as he proves to be both entertaining and relatable.  A former biologist turned school science teacher, Grace is drafted into the mission to save Earth from the Astrophage due to his expertise and unique scientific outlook.  Weir does an amazing job portraying this fantastic character, especially as you see him both aboard his one-way flight aboard Hail Mary and during his time on Earth in the lead up to the mission, which presents a really interesting view of his personality and motivations.  Grace is a very science-orientated person, able to find a solution to any problem that presents to himself.  This “do the science, work the problem” attitude is very reminiscent of The Martian, and readers will no doubt see some similarities between the two.  I really enjoyed Grace as a character, especially as he approaches nearly every event with a clever and irreverent wit, which results in most of the book’s humour.  Grace goes through several major moments throughout Project Hail Mary, and I loved seeing the development that occurred for him between the earlier flashbacks and the end of the novel.  The protagonist really changes for the better throughout Project Hail Mary, and I deeply enjoyed some of the catalysts for this change, which included utterly surprising twists and the heart-warming moments.  This was an awesome protagonist and readers will find themselves growing very attached to him.

Aside from Grace, there is a small selection of supporting characters, the vast majority of whom only appear in the protagonist’s memory flashbacks.  The one exception to this is Rocky, with whom Grace forms a unique and touching friendship with in the main storyline.  While I do not want to spoil too much about this amazing character, I will say that Rocky proves to be an outstanding addition to the narrative and readers will find themselves really invested in his story and his friendship with Grace.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Eva Stratt, the head of the UN task force designed to combat the problems caused by the Astrophage, who recruits Grace for the Hail Mary mission.  Stratt is a bureaucrat given absolute power and authority by every world government to move the mission along as fast as possible without any delays or interference.  Appearing exclusively in Grace’s flashbacks, Stratt is a very no-nonsense character, and it was really entertaining to see her bully her way through every problem, such as when she manages to undermine the authority of a court by showing up to the trial with the US Army.  Stratt serves as a great foil to Grace throughout the flashbacks, and it proved to be quite fun to see Stratt keep Grace on track while also indulging some of his seemingly impossible requests and suggestions.  Stratt is also responsible for one of the best moments in the entire novel, and I love how so much of her story and development built up to this one major moment.  These characters, and some others, added so much to novel, and I had an outstanding time getting to know them as the story progressed.

Project Hail Mary is an outstanding and incredible read that sees the amazing Andy Weir at his very best.  Mixing cool science, clever writing techniques and intriguing characters together into a fun and powerful story, Project Hail Mary was deeply compelling and near impossible to put down.  I had an exceptional time getting through this novel, and this was one of the best novels I have read so far in 2021.  A highly recommended book for all science fiction fans or anyone interested in an intelligent and exciting read, I am very excited to see how the planned film adaption turns out.

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

Throwback Thursday – Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 September 2001)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Three

Length: 11 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 my latest Throwback Thursday article, I continue my dive into the bestselling Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher by looking at the third chilling novel, Grave Peril.

I am really getting into the awesome Dresden Files novels, a major long-running urban fantasy series that follows Harry Dresden, a wizard living in modern-day Chicago, as he investigates supernatural crimes.  Generally considered one of the best urban fantasy series of all time, I started enjoying this series last year when I read the latest novel, Battle Ground.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground (easily one of the best novels and audiobooks of 2020) and I have since decided to go back and check out the earlier entries in the series.  I already enjoyed the very first novel, Storm Front, a couple of months ago, and Fool Moon, which I finished and reviewed last week, was so much fun that I had to immediately go and read another Dresden Files book.  I have just finished off the third entry, Grave Peril, and decided to feature it in this Throwback Thursday article.

Something is stirring in the dark of Chicago and it is bringing all manner of ghosts and spooks with it.  Harry Dresden, professional wizard, is used to facing the supernatural dangers infecting his city, but he has never experienced quite so much chaos as the spirit world has gone crazy.  Powerful ghosts and tortured spirits are popping up all around Chicago, causing the walls between our world and the Nevernever (the spirit world), to weaken and fray.  As Dresden attempts to find out who or what is behind the current upsurge in spiritual activity, he finds himself under attack from a powerful and unseen force that can strike through his nightmares.  Scared, weakened and full of self-doubt, Dresden is near powerless to stop this creature as it begins to target his friends and loved ones.

With a righteous Knight of the Cross at his back and his reporter girlfriend hounding him for a scoop, Dresden looks for the true source of the entity coming after him.  But in order to find the truth, Dresden must place himself in the very heart of Chicago’s supernatural underworld.  With old enemies, bloodthirsty vampires, howling spirits, deadly demons and his twisted fairy godmother coming after him, can Dresden survive this latest attack unscathed, or will his enemies finally succeed in destroying him, mind, body and soul?

Is it even possible for Butcher to write a bad Dresden Files book?  I have yet to see any evidence to suggest this as Grave Peril, the fourth Dresden Files novel I have read and the third book in the series, turned out to be another epic and powerful fantasy read.  Butcher has come up with a fantastic novel in Grave Peril, and I loved the dark and compelling story that sees Dresden face various demons from his past.  Utilising some great new characters and serving as a major entry in the overall series, this was an outstanding read which gets yet another five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex narrative that Butcher came up with for Grave Peril, especially as it takes Dresden and his friends into some sinister and dangerous places.  This book starts quick, with a great extended sequence that sees Dresden and Michael face off against a powerful ghost in the Nevernever.  This amazing opening to the novel is then followed by an intriguing central story which forces Dresden to investigate a new and unusual antagonist, the Nightmare, who is feasting on his dreams and using the power it steals to go after Dresden’s loved ones.  This central story is very intense and compelling, playing to the series’ detective novel inspirations as Butcher sets up a fantastic mystery while also showing a desperate Dresden coming under attack in some unusual ways.  There are some fantastic moments in this part of the book, and I really appreciated the author’s inclusion of multiple supernatural suspects as you try to figure out who is involved and how they are pulling off their plans.  All this leads to the book’s most memorable sequence, a vampire masquerade, which sees Dresden and his closest allies trapped at a ball, surrounded by a dangerous array of enemies and, trying to work out motivations and plans on the fly.  The story is eventually all wrapped up with a dramatic and clever conclusion that is exciting, emotionally rich and a little traumatising to the reader.  I deeply enjoyed Grave Peril’s cool narrative and it honestly did not take me long to get fully engrossed in what was happening.  While this novel is not as action orientated as the previous book, Fool Moon, it has a much darker edge to it with a particular focus on manipulation, emotions and intrigue.  Readers should be warned that some of the scenes can be a bit over-the-top at times (I am pretty sure the protagonist gets raped by a vampire at one point) and are a little hard to read.  However, this is an overall exceptional narrative.

Like most books in the Dresden Files series, Grave Peril can be read as a standalone novel without any knowledge of the previous entries.  Butcher always makes his novels very accessible to new readers, and while there are some references to the character’s previous adventures, most of the relevant details and re-examined and explained throughout this book.  Grave Peril is a fairly major entry in the overall series as Butcher starts to introduce some important storylines, key supporting characters and lasting world-building elements which become quite significant in future novels.  In particular, Butcher introduces lore surrounding vampires, spirits, and fairies, with the protagonist coming into conflict with all three.  Each of these fantasy elements are set up extremely well and have a dark edge that fits into the series’ distinctive tone.  I loved the author’s depiction of the fairy creatures as monstrous and shadowy manipulators, and it was quite cool to see all the lore around vampires.  Grave Peril introduces three major vampire courts, with each court made up a different sub-species of vampire with their own specific powers and weaknesses, from the Dracula-esque Black Court, to the sexually and emotionally powered vampires of the White Court.  Each of these different types of vampires are strongly featured in Grave Peril and are a fantastic part of the story.  The highlight for me was probably the various battles between Dresden and the members of the Red Court, who can be pretty freaky and repulsive, and Butcher sets up an intriguing, long-running storyline with the Red Court here.

It is near impossible to discuss a Dresden Files novel without mentioning the incredible and well-written characters that appear in each book.  Butcher has a real talent for introducing and developing memorable protagonists and antagonists, and Grave Peril is a particularly good example of this.  Not only do several amazing recurring characters reappear in a big way but Butcher also introduces some intriguing new figures who make a big splash.

The key character as always is series protagonist and point of view character, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the sarcastic and amusing maverick wizard who is constantly finding himself in trouble.  I always deeply enjoy following Dresden throughout these novels, mainly because he has a wicked sense of humour, an entertaining attitude and an uncanny ability to annoying and enrage everyone he comes across.  Most of Grave Peril’s humour comes from Dresden’s outrageous actions and observations, including his insane decision to arrive at a vampire’s ball dressed in a cheesy Dracula costume (that raised some eyebrows and lengthened some fangs).  Despite this fun and amusing exterior, Dresden is quite a damaged individual, and you really get to see that on full display in Grave Peril.  Dresden goes through some major traumatic events in this novel, several of which nearly break him as he is forced to encounter or do some very dark deeds.  Butcher really takes his protagonist to the edge in this novel, and there are some very intense scenes, including a glimpse of Dresden’s nightmares and deepest fears.  The author also continues to drip-feed hints of his protagonist’s dark past throughout this novel, especially when Dresden comes into conflict with an old enemy/mentor.  All this hurt and trauma is really touching and compelling, and the entire novel features a heartbreaking ending for Dresden, which really hits home, especially after you find yourself connecting with the character.

Aside from Dresden, there is a great collection of supporting and side characters I had a lot of fun seeing in this novel.  The most prominent of them is newly introduced protagonist, Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross.  Michael is a modern-day holy crusader, wielding a powerful blessed sword and his own unflappable faith to strike down evil.  Michael is a very intriguing character, and I deeply enjoyed the friendship he forms with Dresden.  Michael is a man of intense faith and goodness, who manages to balance family with his responsibilities as a knight, and this serves as a fantastic counterpart to the more flaky and irresponsible Dresden.  Like Dresden, Michael goes through some major traumas in this novel, several of which shake even his faith and resolve.  However, no matter how dark the situation, Michael manages to pull through and he and Dresden work together well as an enjoyable team with Michael serving as a mentor figure and conscience to Dresden.  I felt that Butcher did a great job introducing Michael in this novel, and I am excited to see how this noble knight develops in future Dresden Files’ entries.

Other great side characters in this novel include Dresden’s girlfriend, feisty reporter Susan Rodriguez.  Susan has not been my favourite character in the past, but she has a great story arc in this novel.  Not only does she attempt to do her own research into the case but she also serves as a major figure of emotional turmoil for Dresden as he struggles to prioritise her over his supernatural work.  While I did get a little annoyed at some of Susan’s decisions in this novel, I enjoyed the compelling story arc Butcher weaves around her, especially as it alters her in a big way.  My favourite haunted skull, Bob, returns once again and has several great scenes throughout Grave Peril.  I love Bob’s funny, if slightly pervy, personality, and all his appearances are very amusing.  There are some great new characters featured in this book as well, including Lea (The Leanansidhe), Michael’s fairy godmother.  Lea, who previously made a dark bargain with a desperate teenage Dresden, spends much of this book manipulating and hunting Dresden, attempting to claim him and his power.  I loved the use of this evil, manipulative and sexy fairy godmother through the novel, and she ended up being a pretty impressive secondary antagonist.  Grave Peril also sees the introduction of Thomas Raith, a White Court vampire who finds himself helping Dresden.  Thomas is a cool addition to the plot, and it was intriguing to see his introduction to the Dresden Files, especially as I know some spoilers about him.  All of these characters were pretty awesome and I had an outstanding time seeing their latest dark adventure unfold.

As I have with the previous entries in this series, I ended up listening to Grave Peril’s awesome audiobook format.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are a thing of beauty and I love how fun and exciting listening to these great books turns out to be.  The Grave Peril audiobook has a decent runtime of just under 12 hours, which is longer than the previous two Dresden Files novels, but readers will be too caught up in the amazing narrative to care.  I managed to power through it in only a few short days, mainly because of the outstanding narration from actor James Marsters.  Marsters, best known for his roles in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville and Torchwood, narrates all the Dresden Files books and does an exceptional job bringing each of these novels to life.  I absolutely loved the incredible gravitas and energy he infused in the Grave Peril audiobook.  Marsters really gets into the heart and mind of Dresden, and you get an amazing sense of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling through the narrator’s voice and tone.  I also enjoyed the enthusiasm that Marsters exhibited in several key scenes, as he attempted to highlight certain weird and dangerous story elements.  For example, he does a fantastic enraged and shrieking ghost wail towards the start of the novel that gave me a start, and I loved the dark and dangerous voices he pulls together for some of the more monstrous creatures.  It was also very cool to hear Marsters yell out some of Dresden’s spells in the heat of battle, and it really enhances the excitement of the scene.  All of this and more makes the Grave Peril audiobook the perfect way to enjoy this novel, and I plan to check out the entire Dresden Files in this format.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and incredible fantasy novel that serves as an amazing third entry in the bestselling Dresden Files.  Butcher crafted together a dark and compelling character driven narrative for Grave Peril which proved to be extremely addictive and powerful.  I had an outstanding time getting through this novel, and I loved all the clever introductions and memorable sequences the author loaded into the plot.  A highly recommended read, especially as an audiobook, I cannot wait to see what other madness occurs in the rest of this fantastic series.

Throwback Thursday – Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 9 January 2001

Series: Dresden Files – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In my Throwback Thursday series I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I continue my exploration of one of the most highly regarded urban fantasy series out there, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, with the awesome and deeply captivating second entry in the series, Fool Moon.

The Dresden Files are an outstanding collection of novels that follows professional wizard and private investigator Harry Dresden in modern-day Chicago as he battles magical creatures and practitioners that threaten innocent people.  Generally considered the gold standard of the urban fantasy genre, The Dresden Files have been going for over 20 years and currently consist of 17 novels and a massive collection of short stories and novellas.  While I have been meaning to check this series out for a while, I only started reading them last year when I received a copy of the latest entry in the series, Battle GroundBattle Ground was an epic and extraordinary read that featured a mass-supernatural war in the middle of Chicago.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground and it was easily one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020, while Butcher was one of the best new-to-me authors I read last year.  Because of how incredible I found Battle Ground to be I have decided to go back and start reading the series right from the beginning.  I started with Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel a couple of months ago, Storm Front, which proved to be another impressive read, and I am now extremely hooked on this series.  So when I was in the mood for a fun book to break up my reading schedule, I decided to start listening to Fool Moon, and boy am I glad that I did.

Business has been slow for Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, after his last investigation led to all out chaos and destruction.  However, his life is once again about to get very interesting when he is dragged to a murder scene.  One of the bodyguards of a notorious crime lord Dresden has dealt with in the past has been brutally torn to shreds.  With a full moon in the sky and bloody wolf prints surrounding the victim, Dresden comes to the only conclusion he can: there is a killer werewolf stalking the city.

Diving once more into a supernatural case, Dresden attempts to find the killer before the moon rises again.  However, this may prove more difficult than he initially believes, as Chicago is currently rife with wolf-based magic practitioners, enhanced criminal gangs and monsters, each of whom could be more than capable of committing the crime.  Worse, when an associate of his turns up dead, Dresden finds himself under suspicion for the murders by the police and the FBI.

Now on the run with his reporter girlfriend and a mysterious ethereal shifter, Dresden needs to find out who or what is responsible for the murders and why they have involved him.  But with the most bestial elements of Chicago’s criminal elements coming after him and an uncontrollable and seemingly unkillable monster hunting through the night, can Dresden stop the killers before it is too late, or will the next full moon be his last?

Wow, now this was a pretty awesome second entry in the outstanding Dresden Files series.  Butcher has crafted together something really special in Fool Moon, thanks to its compelling and intense story, amazing characters, great humour and impressive fantasy additions.  I had an absolute blast getting through this book in a few short days and it was so good I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

At the centre of this incredible novel is a complex and exciting narrative that sets the protagonist on a deadly journey filled with murder, mystery and monsters.  Starting with an intriguing investigation into an apparent werewolf serial killer, Fool Moon’s story eventually devolves into a survival story for the protagonist as he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the true killers and several different groups of criminals and werewolves.  This proved to be a really impressive and addictive narrative, and I loved the outstanding blend of a detective story with magic, wizards and wolves.  The mystery angle contained within Fool Moon is particularly good, and while the culprit is revealed about two-thirds the way through for excellent story reasons, it was still a fantastic and twisty case that I enjoyed.  Butcher really invested in several excellent and memorable extended sequences in this novel that were a lot of fun to get through, including a particularly intense brawl between several antagonistic groups with Dresden in the middle, and a fantastic high-stakes final confrontation where no one is safe.  However, my absolute favourite sequence occurred in the middle of the novel and saw Dresden forced to contend with a rampaging monster in the middle of a police station.  The sheer carnage and destruction that occurred in this sequence was really cool, and readers are left on the edge of their seats as the fates of several characters hang in the balance.  I deeply enjoyed this intense scene, and it absolutely cemented Fool Moon’s place in my dark heart.  This was an incredible and powerful story, and readers who check it out are in for a thrilling and captivating treat.

A particular strength of The Dresden Files as a series is the way in which the author makes it very accessible to new readers who can easily slip into any of the books in the series, even some of the later instalments, and easily follow what is going on.  Fool Moon is a great example of this, and I felt that people unfamiliar with the rest of the series should be able to enjoy this book without any problems.  All the recurring characters in the narrative are quickly and effectively reintroduced, often in a similar manner to how they appeared in the first book, and any relevant storylines, magical abilities or prior adventures are also covered in some detail.  As a result, new readers should have no trouble enjoying this great book, and indeed this will probably turn them into a fan of the series and ensure that they check out some of the other books.  However, there are some cool connections to the first novel that dedicated readers will notice, and I liked the underlying story thread of someone plotting and planning behind the scenes to mess with the protagonist.  Overall, this a great book for all fantasy and mystery fans, especially those who like a complex, multi-genre narrative.

I love all the awesome fantasy elements that Butcher slips into his novels, and it is always great to see the weird and magical in the midst of modern-day Chicago.  Fool Moon is no exception, as Butcher has a lot of fun expanding out some of the rules of magic in this book, as well as highlighting a few additional magical denizens and powers.  While this is very cool, the real magical highlight of Fool Moon has to be the werewolves.  Most fantasy authors who feature werewolves in their story would choose just one specific type that they like and leave it at that.  Butcher, however, is not the sort of person to do stuff by half measures (check out the massive fantasy war featured in Battle Ground) and instead features five separate subtypes of werewolves, all of whom are potential suspects for the murders.  I deeply enjoyed this use of multiple werewolves throughout the novel, not only because it really helped to enhance the book’s already fantastic mystery, but because it was awesome and fascinating to see the different creature subtypes.  Each werewolf or wolf-based magic user has their own unique abilities, source of power and personalities which Dresden has to learn about and overcome if he is to survive.  These wolves include shapeshifters, demon talisman powered wolves and humans with wolf-like mentalities that make them act like berserkers.  The standout, however, is the loup-garous, a cursed individual with no control over their actions; essentially a more monstrous version of wolf man from film.  Butcher paints his loup-garous as a particularly dangerous being which is practically invincible to everything and anything it encounters, including the protagonist’s most destructive magic.  This loup-garous causes some real carnage in this book, and watching Dresden attempt to defend himself from it is pretty crazy and makes for some excellent and intense scenes.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed the epic use of werewolves in this novel and Butcher really does the old lore surrounding them justice.

It is impossible to talk about a Dresden Files novel without discussing the incredibly well-developed characters featured within.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard for hire.  Dresden is an exceptionally entertaining and likeable protagonist who provides pretty much all of the book’s great humour thanks to his outrageous personality, disrespect for authority and witty observations about the events going on around him.  As such, he is a fantastic character to follow, and you really appreciate his knowledge and insights into the supernatural and the people around him.  While much of the book shows Dresden as a confident and amusing being, we do get to see more of the character’s darker side as he deals with dark and dangerous magic.  Thanks to the author’s outstanding writing style, the reader is front and centre for all of the protagonist’s slips towards darkness and despair, especially as he encounters tragedy, loss and insane opposition.  I really appreciated this examination of the protagonist’s fragile psyche, and Butcher makes sure to take him to the edge in Fool Moon.  The author also makes some additional intriguing references to Dresden’s past which hint at some traumatic events and betrayals.  Fool Moon also shows of Dresden’s full magical potential, especially as he launches some incredible attacks here, even if they do leave him very drained.  It also shows the character at his most vulnerable, as he is forced to go it alone with only the bare amount of resources and abilities.  All of this makes for an intriguing and powerful character and I really enjoyed seeing more of this awesome protagonist.

In addition to Dresden, Butcher also makes excellent use of several great supporting characters, each of whom add some fun and compelling elements to the plot.  The most prominent supporting character was probably Karrin Murphy, Dresden’s liaison in the Chicago police.  Murphy, a hardnosed professional who is one of the few police officers to believe in the supernatural, has an intriguing character arc in this novel.  This is mostly because of Dresden’s actions in Storm Front, as well as his somewhat chauvinistic determination to protect Murphy from magic, both of which ruined have Murphy’s trust in him and placed her in some hot water with the police brass.  This fractured relationship becomes a key story point in Fool Moon, especially as it leads to Murphy being quick to jump on Dresden as a potential suspect in the crimes.  This adds some compelling difficulties for the protagonist in the story, and I really appreciated the excellent drama that emerged between the two as Murphy and a repentant Dresden attempt to work out their issues.

Aside from Murphy, you have the return of Susan Rodriquez, Dresden’s love interest and a reporter for a tabloid newspaper.  Susan is an interesting counterpoint to Dresden, being an ambitious reporter determined to find out the truth of the arcane no matter what.  She has a fun and fiery relationship with Dresden in this novel, and it was interesting to see her more involved with the story, especially as she sees Dresden at his darkest and most dangerous point.  I also loved seeing more of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the sly and powerful gangster who Dresden has previously gone up against.  Macone is a fantastic villainous character, and I love the antagonistic relationship he has with Dresden, even when the two are on the same side.  You also have to have a laugh at Bob, a guiding spirit who resides inside a skull in Dresden’s basement, as he adds some intriguing exposition and laughs in his scenes.  There were also some intriguing new characters added in this book, although I will not go into too much detail about them as it could spoil some parts of the story.  None the less, they were all really fun additions to the plot, and having so many different new magical or shapeshifting beings ensured the reader was constantly trying to work out who was the actual villain.  All in all, a fantastic group of characters, and I felt that they really helped to turn Fool Moon into an excellent and first-rate read.

One of the reasons I have been enjoying The Dresden Files books is because they have some really awesome audiobook formats.  Each of these audiobooks I have listened to have been extremely amazing, and I love the way in which they portray these fun stories in a concise and exciting manner.  The Fool Moon audiobook has a runtime of just over 10 hours, and listeners will power through this in no time at all, especially as it is really easy to become addicted to the fantastic story.  However, the main thing that I love about these audiobooks is the perfect choice of narrator in actor James Marsters (Spike from Buffy and Angel).  Marsters does an outstanding job with his narration, imbuing the various characters with some fantastic and fitting voices that expertly convey their personality, emotions and actions.  I am particularly impressed by the way in which he portrays the story’s narrator and main protagonist, Harry Dresden, and the tone he uses for him perfectly represents the sarcastic and entertaining rogue wizard.  This is one of the best examples of an audiobook narrator matching their protagonist, and it makes for some fantastic listening.  I also appreciated the way in which Marsters started really getting into his narration of certain key events in this second novel.  While he did an excellent job in Storm Front, I felt that Marsters stepped up his game in Fool Moon, and while it was not quite at the level of enthusiasm and volume that featured in Battle Ground (he was really getting caught up in the action there), it was noticeably more exciting.  This enthusiasm added a lot to the enjoyment I felt while listening to Fool Moon and I strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check this book out.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher ended up being another exceptional and spectacular addition to the author’s legendary Dresden Files series.  I had an outstanding time listening to the clever and exciting narrative that Butcher came up with for his second novel and I think that the author actually stepped up his game a little with Fool Moon.  Featuring some great characters and an addictive and thrilling mystery surrounding werewolves, Fool Moon is an incredible read that I powered through in no time at all.  I can think of no higher praise for this book than to say that the moment I finished it I immediately started the next novel in the series, Grave Peril, as I still had not gotten my fill of Dresden Files goodness.  I am already making some amazing progress with Grave Peril and I am planning to review in the next week or so.  Until then, readers are strongly encouraged to check this awesome second entry in the series out, as you will not regret it.

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2021)

Series: Standalone/sequel to The Things We Cannot Say

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to have your heart broken again and again as Australian author Kelly Rimmer presents a captivating, powerful and dark historical drama, The Warsaw Orphan.

Warsaw, 1942.  The Nazis have a firm control over all of Poland and have moved the entire Jewish population into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.  Vastly overcrowded and with limited supplies, life is extremely hard in the Ghetto, and many have given up all hope.  For Jewish teen Roman Gorka, all he can do is try to survive and earn enough to keep his family alive.  However, when rumours spread through the Ghetto about the Nazi plans to transport them to “work camps” out in the forest, Roman knows that it is time to act.  Knowing that the lives of himself and his parents are already forfeit, Roman attempts to find a way to save his younger siblings.

At the same time, a young woman, Elzbieta Rabinek, has just arrived in the city and appears to be a typical Polish girl living with her family.  However, Elzbieta is hiding a dangerous secret: her real name is Emilia, and she is the younger sister of an executed Jewish sympathiser.  Fleeing her village with her new family, Emilia is kept hidden from any potential pursuers.  But when Emilia discovers the truth about the Ghetto, she becomes determined to help and joins an underground group of women working to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

As Emilia becomes more involved with the secret work of her organisation, she soon encounters Roman.  Working together to save Roman’s younger sister, the two grow close and soon their fates are inevitably tied together.  But when a terrible tragedy strikes, both Roman and Emilia will be thrown into disarray.  As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed with fire and despair, can these two young people survive with hope, or will they be washed away in a flood of righteous anger?

Wow, just wow.  This was an incredibly touching historical drama that has really impressed me thanks to its moving story and striking portrayals of life in World War II Warsaw.  The Warsaw Orphan is the latest novel from Australian author Kelly Rimmer, who has previously produced moving novels such as Truths I Never Told You and Before I Let You GoThe Warsaw Orphan is actually a sequel to Rimmer’s previous book, The Things We Cannot Say, with some of the supporting characters from the previous novel appearing in more prominence in this latest novel.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Warsaw Orphan a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like an intriguing novel, especially as it was from a new-to-me Australian author.  Based on the synopsis for the book, I knew going in that this would be a dark and emotionally rich novel, but I was very surprised with how compelling and poignant the narrative it contained would be.  Using the perspectives of the two narrators, Roman and Emilia, Rimmer paints a grim and powerful picture of the situation in Warsaw which the two protagonists find themselves in at the start of the book.  Both story arcs progress on their own separate way for a while, and it is intriguing to see the different experiences of two people living only a few streets away from each other in Warsaw.  It does not take long for the protagonists to encounter each other, combining the narrative together.  While the initial joining of their character arcs brings some hope to the story, Rimmer makes sure to quickly crush that with despair and heartbreak as both protagonists experiences tragedy after tragedy, as a series of different historical catastrophes engulf Warsaw and its people.  Every time the two central characters appear to be close to some sort of happiness, some new danger or disaster seems to befall them, and the reader is forced to sit back and watch as they endure their latest hardship.  While this novel is emotionally tough to read at times, Rimmer’s excellent storytelling ensures that you keep moving forward, especially as you become really invested in the lives of her two protagonists and the struggles of the various peoples of Warsaw.  While you may be left emotionally ragged and drained by the end of this book, readers will come away from this story extremely satisfied and with a little bit of hope.

I must really highlight the author’s outstanding and powerful depiction of historical events and places throughout The Warsaw Orphan.  Rimmer has clearly done her research on the subject and utilises a lot of fascinating and horrifying historical elements to great effect throughout the narrative.  For example, much of the story surrounding Emilia and the organisation she joins that helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto is based on real life Polish hero Irena Sendler, with various features of Sendler’s work and personality imparted on some supporting characters.  The portrayal of occupied Warsaw is also extremely impressive, and you get a real sense of life in the city.  This is especially true of the Ghetto, as the author spends a significant amount of time exploring what happened within.  Rimmer pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the Ghetto and the brutalities the Nazi regime imparted on the Jewish population.  The various descriptions of the Ghetto are extremely harrowing, but through them the reader gets a sense of what the people within would have experienced.  I particularly appreciated the way in which she tried to capture the uncertainty that many of the characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had about the Nazis’ plans and you get a real sense of the fear and confusion in the lead up to the deportations.  Rimmer ends up covering all the key events that occurred in Warsaw between 1942 and 1947, and readers get some powerful and detailed views of the forced deportations to the camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German retreat and the subsequent Soviet occupation.  The author shows every dark aspect of these historical events as her point-of-view characters find themselves involved in them, often to their great detriment.  All these powerful and remarkable historical events and locations serve as a great backdrop to this dramatic tale, and I found it fascinating to learn more about some of these events.

Rimmer has come up with an incredible pair of young point-of-view characters for this book, Roman and Emilia.  Roman is a Jewish teen living in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family.  Through his eyes you get to see many of the horrors of the Ghetto, starvation, Nazi oppression and the constant fear and death.  Rimmer does an impressive job of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of someone caught up in these terrible events, and I really appreciated the strong sense of survival and desperation you get from him.  This quickly morphs in anger, righteousness and revenge when Roman experiences one tragedy too many, and he becomes in a number of dangerous fights against his oppressors.  Not only does this result in a number of brutal war sequences, but Rimmer paints a picture of a rebellious soul whose anger and moral outrage overwhelm his senses and force him to do darker and more dangerous deeds.  This depiction of anger and rage is quite powerful, and definitely fits an individual who loses everything and does not know what to do.

Emilia, on the other hand, is a somewhat more innocent figure, who, despite not being Jewish, has her own experiences with oppression after witnessing her brother dying in The Things We Cannot Say.  Due to the events of this previous book, she has fled to Warsaw with her adoptive parents, hiding under an assumed name.  Despite the troubles she is running from, Emilia chafes under the rules her guardians put in place, especially once she learns what is happening in the Ghetto.  Despite her fear, uncertainty and loyalty to her guardians’ wishes, Emilia soon becomes involved in the smuggling of children.  I really liked how Rimmer decided to utilise her previous character in this novel, and the author does a great job of revisiting parts of her story so that new readers can appreciate what has happened in her past.  Emilia proves to be a really interesting character throughout the book, and I loved the contrast in views between her views of Warsaw and Roman’s darker experiences.  Watching a non-Jewish citizen experience the horrors of the Ghetto for the first time is pretty moving, and the reader feels a certain kinship to her as they are also witnesses to the various tragedies.  I loved the storyline surrounding Emilia joining the movement to save Jewish children, and the author utilises her to tell this group’s very unique tale extremely well. 

Both Roman and Emilia have some fantastic storylines in The Warsaw Orphan, and I really liked the way their two separate character arcs come together.  These two characters experience an immense amount of grief, regret, violence and despair throughout the book, and their connection is one of the few things to keep them going.  Rimmer sets up both characters extremely well throughout The Warsaw Orphan and readers will quickly become obsessed with their unique tales and harrowing experiences.  I think both character storylines worked extremely well on their own, but together they tell an even more tragic story, as these two fall in love amongst the worst moments of human history.  Seeing the various tragedies and poor decisions that impact their relationship is pretty heartbreaking, and the reader is left in hope that they both survive in the end.  I think that Rimmer did an exceptional job creating and developing these two characters, and it is a mark of her writing ability that I ended up caring so much for them both. 

The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is an exceptional and incredible historical drama that comes highly recommended.  Rimmer has produced a first-rate story that perfectly utilises two tragic protagonists, an extremely dark and atrocious historical period and an addictive, if tragic, story of love, loss and survival.  The Warsaw Orphan is a powerful and compelling book that will stick in your mind long after you finish its final harrowing page.

Star Wars (2020): Volume One: The Destiny Path by Charles Soule and Jesús Saiz

Star Wars (2020) - Volume 1 Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Star Wars (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Jesús Saiz

Colour Artists: Arif Prianto, Jesús Saiz, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dan Brown

Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The next stage of the Star Wars comic universe continues as Charles Soule, Jesús Saiz and their team of talented artists present the first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, The Destiny Path.

Star Wars (2020) #1 Cover

Shortly after the Disney buyout of Star Wars and their subsequent creation of a whole new canon, Marvel Comics started to develop a new range of Star Wars comics.  While there were several great series, limited series and standalone comics set during various periods of Star War history, the main series were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  These key comics, which included the Star Wars (2015), Darth Vader (2015) and Doctor Aphra (2016) series, did a fantastic job of filling in the gaps between these two films and presenting readers with some clever and unique adventures.  All these series came to an end in late 2019, with their plots coinciding with the start of events from The Empire Strikes Back.  In the wake of their cessation, Marvel announced four new Star Wars comic series that would take their place (after suffering some pandemic-related delays), set in the aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back.  While I have already looked at some of these comics, including the first entry of the Darth Vader (2020) series, I think it is time that I explored the flagship series of this new run of comics, the Star Wars (2020) series.

The Star Wars (2020) series will explore what happens to the main cast of protagonists after the events of The Empire Strikes Back and is set in the year or so between that film and Return of the Jedi.  This looks set to be a long-running series that will not only tell its own tale but will tie in to the events of the other current comics, probably resulting in some crossovers.  This first volume, The Destiny Path, contains issues #1-6 of the Star Wars (2020) series and serves as an excellent and compelling introduction to the rest of the series.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover

Following the battle of Hoth, the Rebel Alliance is in disarray.  With their fleet scattered around the galaxy and the might of the Empire reigning supreme, these are the darkest days the Rebellion has ever faced, especially as the Empire appears to have found a way to locate their ships and hiding places.  The hope of the entire Rebel Alliance may lie in the hands of its greatest leaders and heroes, but, after the events on Bespin, even these shining beacons of rebellion have been damaged beyond recognition.

With Han Solo captured by the Empire and handed over to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, those on the Millennium Falcon are dispirited and lost.  However, finding a Rebel cell under attack prompts them into action.  Despite missing the man she loves, Princess Leia is determined to rescue him and revive the Rebel Alliance by any means necessary.  At the same time, reluctant Rebel recruit Lando Calrissian attempts to make himself useful, despite mistrust from everyone around him.  Finally, Luke Skywalker, after losing a hand and finding out the horrible truth of his parentage is in shock.  Worse, his meeting with Vader appears to have damaged his connection to the Force, and neither of his masters will appear to talk to him.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover2

As the Rebel Alliance seeks a way to survive, each of these players, with the help of Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, begin the next stage of their journey.  As Luke seeks a lightsaber, Leia looks to find a way to save Han and Alliance, while Lando looks for redemption in all the wrong places.  All their journeys lead the back to the scene of one of the worst moments of their past, Bespin.  But how far will Luke, Leia and Lando go to achieve their goes, and will they be able to survive the dangerous enemies chasing them?

This is an outstanding and intense Star Wars comic that does a wonderful job of setting up a brand-new series of exciting adventures.  Charles Soule, who has written some of the best Star War comics out there, creates an exceptional and captivating tale that highlights the tragic consequences of The Empire Strikes Back.  Featuring some incredible artwork, amazing big moments, and a perfect portrayal of some of the iconic original trilogy cast, this is an outstanding and awesome comic.

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover

For this cool first volume in the Star Wars (2020) series, the author has come up with an extremely compelling and clever multi-part narrative that I deeply enjoyed.  The Destiny Path has a strongly character-driven story, following Luke, Leia and Lando as they attempt to recover from the traumatic events of The Empire Strikes Back.  The narrative starts right after the heroes escape from the Cloud City at Bespin (technically before the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back) and places the shell-shocked characters right in the middle of a firefight against an intriguing new foe.  The next stage of the story contains an intriguing couple of sequences aboard the Rebel medical frigate, showing off some new angles to the film’s final scenes, while also following Lando and Chewie as they head to Tatooine to scope out Jabba’s palace.  This part of the narrative is very clever and exciting, especially as it paints Lando as a bit of a wildcard, with unclear loyalties.  The next section of the comic takes Luke, Leia and Lando back to Bespin, each for a different reason.  There are some high octane and emotionally rich comic issues here, especially as all three of the characters are forced to face up to their recent mistakes and losses, while also taking on the Imperial garrison stationed there.  All of this leads up to the final part of the book, which is primarily focused on Luke, who journeys to several distant planets following a vision to find a new lightsaber.  There are some really cool sequences here as Luke continues to battle his own personal demons (and a real one, but we’ll get to that later), before eventually coming away with an unexpected prize.  All these disparate storylines work really well on their own, but their real strength lies in the way in which they tie together perfectly throughout The Destiny Path.  You end up getting a fantastic story as you follow one major event to the next, and I liked the unique tales contained within each section.  All of this serves as an awesome and powerful start to the Star Wars (2020) series, and there are plenty of hints of awesomeness to come as the Rebels bounce back while Luke continues to grow as a Jedi.  Epic Star Wars storytelling at its best!

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover2

There is no way that I can talk about The Destiny Path without geeking out about some of the cool and memorable Star Wars elements and references featured within.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed seeing the intriguing and dramatic aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back that Soule envisions here, especially as he took the time to explore the various traumas and consequences of the events at Bespin.  This was a fantastic heart of the entire volume which is going to appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Other cool Star Wars moments that fans will love include the mysterious events occurring around the Skywalker lightsaber.  This lightsaber, which disappears at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and reappears in The Force Awakens, is a major item throughout the Star Wars canon and I liked seeing Luke trying to find it in the bowels of Cloud City, only for it to slip into another mysterious person’s grip.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that in the future, and foresee it being a fascinating narrative thread throughout this entire series.

In addition to these elements from the films, Soule also fits in a lot of other cool references and call-backs to previous Star Wars comics, especially ones that he has had a hand in.  The most obvious of these was the appearance of Verla, who Luke encounters while trying to find a new lightsaber.  Verla is a Force-sensitive woman who first appeared in The Burning Seas volume of Soule’s Dark Lord of the Sith comic series.  It was great to see that Verla survived, and Soule does a good job working her into this story, portraying her as the damaged and cynical former Jedi student who is just trying to survive.  Verla’s inclusion allows Luke to learn more about Vader, both as a Jedi hunter and a Jedi named Anakin, and it was interesting to finally see him learn about the Jedi purges, Order 66, and the Inquisitors.  I also noticed a lot of mentions about the High Republic in this volume.  I really should not be too surprised about this, especially as Soule is one of the leading creative minds behind the High Republic range, having written the first novel in the series, Light of the Jedi.  It looks like Star Wars (2020) is going to rely on several events from the High Republic books, and I am intrigued about how Soule will work them into his cool story.  All of these Star Wars elements are extremely cool, and I think that they will deeply appeal to every fan of this franchise.  While mega fans are obviously going to love some of the more obscure references that Soule fit into this comic, this series is also very easy to enjoy if you have a more basic knowledge of Star Wars.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover

I do have to quickly highlight that one of my favourite parts of this entire comic is one of the final sequences in the volume.  In this sequence, Luke visits an abandoned Jedi temple which is filled with a mound of untouched treasures, including a lightsaber which he desperately needs.  However, it turns out that this entire building is a trap (Luke was warned, to be fair), as he is quickly attacked by the ghost of the Grand Inquisitor.  The Grand Inquisitor is an awesome character who served as the main antagonist of the first season of the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  Soule has previously utilised him in his Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, especially the first two volumes, Imperial Machine and Legacy’s End, but this current comic is set after his death in Rebels.  There are so many cool elements to the Grand Inquisitor’s return in this comic, including a fantastically drawn fight between him and Luke, where Luke encounters a double-bladed lightsaber for the first time, and I loved the Grand Inquisitor’s fiery, spiritual appearance.  However, the best part of this whole unique inclusion was the characters final interaction with Darth Vader.  Here it is revealed that Vader is the one trapping the Inquisitor’s spirit in this world, using him as a tool and a trap.  When the Inquisitor begs Vader for his release, Vader refuses, as the Inquisitor still has use to him.  The forlorn spirit starts to fade, but not before sadly uttering “there are worst things than death”.  This is an outstanding call-back to the character’s final words in Rebels, and it was so cool to see his morbid prediction come to pass.  This whole sequence really pushed The Destiny Path up a level for me, and I love how the creative team worked this into this fantastic and awesome comic.

Easily one of the best parts of this entire comic is the creative team’s portrayal of the iconic Star Wars characters who serve as the main protagonists of this amazing first volume.  Soule has done an incredible job writing a character-driven narrative around these protagonists, and I love his in-depth examination of their psyches and actions following The Empire Strikes Back.  The author pulls together some great storylines around these characters, and I loved seeing what amazing adventures they went on between these two films.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover2

One of the main characters explored during this book is the original Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker.  Now, Luke is going through a lot at this point, having just had his hand chopped off and learned that his father is Darth Vader.  Luke spends most of the first part of the novel absolutely traumatised by these events and ends up doubting himself while also concealing this revelation from his friends.  To compound his issues, Luke finds his connection to the Force somehow damaged or fractured, as neither of his masters, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, are reaching out to him.  This results in a more scattered Luke, and I loved the way that Soule dove into his damaged mindset.  There are some great and powerful moments throughout this comic that show off Luke’s trauma, as well some dramatic moments when he lashes out uncontrollably with the Force.  After receiving some visions and engaging in a hunt for a new lightsaber, Luke starts to come to terms with the events surrounding him, and it is great to see him recover somewhat, including by learning more about his father.  This slight reconciliation with his identity enables Luke to regain his control over the Force, and there are some very cool scenes where he uses his powerful and advanced abilities against the Empire.  Overall, this was a pretty spectacular look at Luke, and I really appreciated the cool story that Soule spun around him.  It will be interesting to see what is going to happen to Luke in the future entries of this comic, especially as he continues along his journey to become a full-fledged Jedi.  It will also be cool to see more of Luke’s new yellow lightsaber, which was an intriguing decision by Soule which I think is going to really pay off.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover

In addition to Luke, a lot of the story focuses on Leia.  Like the rest of the characters, Leia is pretty traumatised, as she discovered her love for Han only to lose him in seconds.  While at times she seems in control, especially as she works to salvage the Rebels fleet, she is clearly still impacted by this loss.  As a result, she desperately attempts to find a way to save him from Boba Fett, even if that means risking herself and her friends.  Her recklessness leads her back to Bespin with the others as she attempts to find more about the carbonite freezing process.  While Leia’s arc is possibly the least interesting (which isn’t a criticism; it’s just the other two main characters have some outstanding stories), she does have some great moments in this comic, and I especially loved the visual of her also trapped in carbonite.  It was also great to see more of badass Rebel leader Leia in this comic as she steps up and takes charge to protect those around her.  I imagine that the creative team have some great ideas for Leia in the future and I cannot wait to see what they are.

The other main character of this volume was the flashy and charismatic rogue, Lando Calrissian, who finds himself stuck with the other protagonists after helping them flee from Bespin.  Despite his attempts to do the right thing at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is still not trusted by anyone, as they blame him for his betrayal and the loss of Han.  As a result, Lando attempts to find some form of redemption with them, although he mostly comes across as a self-centred bastard.  Soule works a really intriguing storyline around Lando, and I loved seeing his meeting with Jabba the Hutt as he makes some initial inquiries into Han’s location.  Lando is able to talk his way out of a meeting with Jabba, although the reader is left wondering whether he plans to sell out the Rebels.  This nicely leads into his storyline on Bespin as he accompanies Luke and Leia back there.  It was great to see Lando returning to his city, especially as he manages to con his way through a range of different Imperial obstacles, and he was fully in his roguish element.  While Lando appears to return to Cloud City for selfish reasons, such as throwing a big middle-finger to the Empire, his jaunt does awaken his inner hero a little, and you get a glimpse of the person we eventually see in Return of the Jedi.  Lando is easily the most entertaining character in the entire comic and most of The Destiny Path’s humour is derived from his interactions with most of the other characters.  He is a very funny character, and it was great to see so much focus on him after barely featuring in the last stage of Star Wars comics.  I look forward to seeing what Soule and the creative team have for him in the future, and I think he is going to be the MVP character of the entire series.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover2

Aside from the three main characters above, The Destiny Path also includes a great range of other characters from various points in Star Wars history.  Like its precursor comic, Star Wars (2020) also follows Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, although I think these three great characters were a little overshadowed by Luke, Leia and Lando in this volume.  Chewie does have a bunch of fun moments throughout the comic, mostly in his interactions with Lando, and it is entertaining to see him be forced to deal with the cocky former friend.  R2-D2 does have a great sidekick time with Luke, and it was always fun to see him save the mighty Jedi’s life again and again.  There is also an interesting focus on a couple of new or lesser-known characters.  For example, it looks like Soule is going to spend a bit of time following Kes Dameron and Shara Bey, the parents of a certain Poe Dameron.  The Destiny Path also introduces an intriguing new antagonist in the form of Commander Zahra, a fanatical Imperial officer placed in charge of eliminating the remnants of the Rebel Alliance.  Zahra is tactical genius who I understand is going to have a major role in some upcoming comics.  This volume proves to be an excellent introduction to this cool new character, especially as it establishes her dangerous intelligence, murderous mentality and the insane grudge she bears against Leia, all while she commands the unique Star Destroyer, Tarkin’s Will, which still bears scars from being hit by wreckage of the original Death Star.  Zahra proves to be an outstanding antagonist, and I cannot wait to see what deviousness and insanity she brings to the rest of the series.

I definitely need to highlight the incredible and eye-catching artwork that was an outstanding and memorable feature of this awesome comic.  The artistic team behind this comic did an amazing job from start to finish, and every page was a visual treat for the eyes.  While all the art in this comic is great, there are a few things that really stood out to me, such as character design.  The artists do such an incredible job capturing the main characters throughout this comic, especially in the first issue where all their post-The Empire Strikes Back pain and emotion is on full display.  It was uncanny how similar these characters looked to their portrayal in the film, and it is a testament to the artists’ amazing ability.  There are also several awesome combat sequences scattered throughout the comic and I loved the way in which the art brought them to life.  A particularly good example of this was the opening space battle between the Empire and a small Rebel fleet.  The artists come up with an incredible background for this fight, which takes place between a sun and a concentrated barrage of green turbolaser bolts, which are being used to fence the Rebels in place.  This was so visually pretty, and it really enhanced the cool story and fighter combat that was taking place in front of it.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which the artists have recreated several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back.  These scenes, which include Luke losing his hand, finding out that Vader is his father and Han giving his iconic “I know” to Leia, are scattered throughout key parts of The Destiny Path.  Not only are these cool visually, but they are also clever from a writing point of view, dragging the readers back to the emotional impact of these events and driving how much they are still sticking in the mind of the protagonists.  I cannot overstate how awesome this art is and I had an absolute blast seeing every explosion, Force burst and clever flashback that they were able to fit in.

Star Wars (2020) #6 Cover

Well, if the above multi-page rant above didn’t give it away, then I’ll say it clearly here: this comic is incredible!  Soule, Saiz and the other talented artists have done an amazing job with this first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, and The Destiny Path is an epic and awesome read.  I loved the in-depth examination of these key characters after The Empire Strikes Back and there are so many cool Star Wars elements worked into the story.  This is one of my favourite Star Wars comics and it gets a full five-star rating from me.  I cannot wait to see what extraordinary stories and powerful artform this fantastic creative team comes up with next and I need to order the next volume in now.