Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonyside Cover

Publisher: Harper Audio (Audiobook – 29 December 2020)

Series: Planetside – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive rising stars in science fiction, Michael Mammay, returns with the third entry in his outstanding Planetside series, Colonyside, a captivating science fiction thriller that sees Colonel Carl Butler return for another epic adventure.

After blowing up a second alien planet, former war hero and current “disgrace” Colonel Carl Butler is living a quiet life as a recluse on a remote planet.  While Butler is more than happy to be left alone by everyone, he knows that it is only a matter of time before the government or the military attempt to draft him into another crazy adventure.  This time, a powerful and rich CEO wants the maverick Butler to head up an investigation into the disappearance of his estranged daughter on a newly formed colony.

Knowing the pain of losing a daughter, Butler reluctantly accepts the job and takes the next ship to Eccasis.  Working with old associates Mac and Ganos, as well as a new government-assigned aide, Captain Fader, Butler soon finds himself leading an investigation in a controversial colony where a dangerous and lethal jungle environment lurks just outside the bio-dome.  The missing woman, a talented biologist, disappeared whilst on a routine research mission for her father’s company out in the jungle.  While most people believe that her disappearance can be blamed on the planet’s predatory megafauna, her father believes that there is more to the case.

While everything initially seems on the level, Butler soon becomes convinced that something more is afoot when someone tries to blow him up.  As he begins his investigation in earnest, Butler is forced to contend with corrupt and incompetent local politicians, a hamstrung military presence, a militant environmental organisation and a greedy corporation determined to cover themselves.  Once more caught in the crosshairs of dangerous people with sinister agendas, Butler is forced to bend all the rules to have a chance of surviving.  But has Butler finally found a problem that even he cannot blow his way out of?

Colonyside is the latest awesome science fiction thriller from exciting author Michael Mammay.  I am a major fan of Mammay, having deeply enjoyed his 2018 debut, Planetside, which followed Carl Butler as he attempted to find a missing soldier, only to find himself in the midst of an alien conspiracy.  Planetside was an incredible novel with an impressively shocking and explosive ending, and it was not only one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my favourite debut novels of all time.  Mammay followed this outstanding debut with a fantastic sequel in 2019 with Spaceside, which saw the protagonist get involved in another conspiracy, this one revolving around military contractors, which proved to be another amazing read and one of the best novels of 2019.  Due to how much I enjoyed the first two Planetside novels, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series would continue in the future and I was extremely excited when I saw that the third novel, Colonyside, was coming out (especially as it had the cool cover above).  My strong anticipation for this novel was not in vain, as Colonyside proved to be another exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This outstanding novel contains an epic and addictive narrative that sets its unconventional protagonists on the path to uncover a massive and sinister conspiracy.  Like the previous entries in this series, Mammay brings several genres together in this book, with Colonyside blending science fiction, military fiction and thriller elements into one fantastic story.  This mixture of genres works extremely well together as the protagonist, a former soldier with a penchant for investigation, finds himself attempting to find the final fate of a missing person who disappeared from the jungle of an alien planet.  This awesome premise leads into a clever and compelling narrative as the protagonist attempts to uncover and disrupt a massive conspiracy with galaxy-wide implications while also ensuring his own survival from a range of deadly opponents.  Mammay comes up with a really impressive story here, and I loved all the complex twists and fantastic reveals throughout the novel as the protagonist builds up his case and then deals with the consequences of his discoveries.  While I did find the start of the story a tad slow, it does not take long for the story to heat up and you find yourself getting more and more drawn into the compelling web of lies, intrigue, politics, and the occasional firefight.  I particularly enjoyed the fantastic connections that Colonyside had to the previous entries in the series, as the motivations of the antagonists are directly tied into Butler’s prior actions and their dramatic consequences.  While readers can easily start the Planetside series here with the third book, those readers familiar with Mammay’s prior two novels will really appreciate the way in which the story becomes linked, and I felt that it was a clever bit of storytelling.  All of this leads up to an amazing and exciting conclusion that contains both an incredibly deadly scenario for the protagonists and a series of final reveals, many of which were very well set up and quite enjoyable to uncover.  This makes for an impressive overall narrative that becomes very addictive as you just cannot wait to get to the bottom of the story.

One of the best things about Colonyside was the fact that it once again follows the adventures of the retired maverick solider, Colonel Carl Butler, who serves as the novel’s protagonist and point-of-view character.  Butler is a clever, damaged and calculating military figure who knows that sometimes the only way to get things done is to break the rules and go off book, even if it costs him.  This amazing character has gone through a lot of stuff over the course of the first two entries in the Planetside series, including nuking two separate alien planets.  While he did have good reasons for his actions, Butler is now unsurprisingly an incredibly infamous figure in the galaxy, with a huge number of enemies across the political and social spectrum (it takes skill to be simultaneously hated by both environmentalists and big corporations).  While he has committed some atrocities, Butler is still an incredibly likeable character, mainly because deep down he is a good person who is mainly trying to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.  Butler proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as he as a very smart-assed way to him, producing a number of entertaining moments.  The character is also a competent investigator and a surprisingly effective master manipulator, especially of military personal.  I also quite liked the way in which the character has grown and evolved since the start of the series, and there are several examples throughout the book which show him learning from his mistakes in the earlier novels.  He also has a much greater appreciation for all sorts of people and various forms of life within the universe, particularly after his experiences with sentient alien life forms, and these new insights have helped to turn him into a much more well-rounded protagonist.  As a result, you really want for him to survive and succeed throughout the course of the novel, and your heart breaks a little each time he finds himself in danger or he is forced to compromise his morals for the greater good.

While there are a range of intriguing aspects to Butler’s character and portrayal, easily the most distinctive part of his inclusion in this novel is his unique narration.  Butler provides a first-person narration for the entire novel, which results in the reader being privy to all his thoughts and feelings.  While this may seem like typical first-person narration fare, it is actually pretty distinctive in Colonyside as Butler is constantly analysing everything that he says, does or hears and immediately relaying that back to the reader.  This includes in some cases evaluating each sentence that another character utters, and then thinking hard about how he wants to respond before uttering his next bit of dialogue.  While this way of writing the character’s thoughts and perceptions does take a little getting used to and may seem a little excessive at times, you soon grow to appreciate all the character’s valuable insights and opinions about the people he is dealing with.  Not only is it refreshing to hear a protagonist admit when he is in the wrong or just being an arse (both of which happen frequently), but hearing his thoughts on the other characters and events occurring in front of him gives you additional insights into the complex investigation and makes the overall investigation even more intriguing.  I also loved the way in which the protagonist plans out how he is going to manipulate or outmanoeuvre his various opponents throughout the novel, especially when he is talking to them, and it is entertaining to see his schemes unfold, whether they succeed or fail.  All of this helps to turn Butler into a unique and enjoyable protagonist to follow and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in his next adventure.

Colonyside is also filled with a great range of side characters who add a lot to the story.  The other three main characters are Butler’s team of Mac, Ganos and Captain Fader, all three of whom have some intriguing and enjoyable interactions with the protagonist.  Mac, Butler’s personal bodyguard, who previously appeared in Planetside, is a solid and incredibly likeable non-commissioned soldier who loyally serves Butler and tries to keep him safe, even from his own stupid decisions.  Despite being outranked by Butler, Mac does not take any crap from him, and the two characters have a fantastic and enjoyable bond throughout the book.  The other recurring character is Ganos, the tough, anti-authoritarian hacker who helped Butler in Spaceside.  Ganos starts the novel off having some major issues with Butler, especially after the fallout from their escapades in the second novel.  This requires Butler to try and rebuild her trust in him throughout the novel, and their struggling friendship becomes a dramatic and enjoyable plot point throughout Colonyside.  This team is joined by new member, Captain Fader, a by-the-book officer who has been assigned to Butler as his aid, while also being ordered to report on his actions.  Fader, an extremely efficient, organised and bright individual, becomes a key part of the protagonist’s investigation, and she serves as a useful sounding board for Butler’s various theories about the disappearance and overarching conspiracy.  The clash of styles between the two characters becomes an intriguing part of the novel, as Fader struggles to deal with Butler’s rule breaking.  Nonetheless, Butler and Fader form a great mentor relationship throughout the course of the novel, and it was great to see the various ways in which Butler influenced the younger officer.  Aside from these three excellent written comrades for Butler, Colonyside is also filled with a range of compelling side characters, including some figures from the previous novels, as well as the various inhabitants of the colony.  Mammay does a great job introducing the fantastic range of extra characters featured in the book and many of them become key suspects in the novel’s overarching mystery.  This complex collection of suspects adds some great layers to the main story, and it proved to be quite entertaining to see Butler attempt to interact with them to get his way.

The great story and fantastic characters are backed up by an outstanding and unique science fiction setting that serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing novel.  The settlement of Eccasis is large bio-dome surrounded by a planet of harsh and inhospitable jungle.  The jungle is full of dangers, including dangerous megafauna, poisonous insects and all manner of bacteria that makes going outside without a suit an unbelievably bad idea.  Naturally, the protagonist spends a great deal of time out in this hostile environment and there are some great scenes set out there.  While the jungle is extremely dangerous in its own way, it turns out to be a cakewalk compared to the main setting inside the colony’s dome.  The inhabitable interior of the Eccasis settlement is a political powder keg filled with all manner of competing interests: greedy corporations, a radical environmental group, a corrupt civilian government and an understaffed military attempting to keep the peace despite their lack of equipment and manpower.  This diverse group of competing personalities helps to enhance the intriguing story and it proved to be very compelling to see the protagonist attempt to get to the bottom of their various motivations and agendas.  It was also intriguing to see how Butler’s previous actions have impacted the overarching universe that the series is set in.  After his prior adventures where he nuked two separate planets with the intention of killing aliens, a series of strict environmental laws have been passed, limiting expansion and corporate interest.  This leads to a bunch of clever storylines within the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing some fallout from the events of the earlier books, especially because it has such a major impact on this third book’s plot.  There is also a real anti-corporation theme to this novel, mainly because the protagonist is a lot more suspicious of corporate organisations after the events of Spaceside, and it will be interesting to see if this will be a recurring theme in future books.  I had a lot of fun with this cool science fiction setting and I really enjoyed the way in which the author worked into the plot, helping to create an excellent story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Colonyside, which proved to be an excellent and fantastic treat.  This format of Colonyside has a reasonable run time of just over 10 hours, making it an easy audiobook to get through quickly, especially when you get caught up in its intrigue-laden story.  I found that this epic novel flew by for me in this format and I felt that I absorbed a lot more about the setting and characters while listening to it.  Probably the main reason that I liked this format was the fact that the audiobook is narrated by the very talented R. C. Bray, who previously narrated Planetside and Spaceside.  Bray, who has an impressive selection of science fiction and thriller narrations to his resume, has an awesome, deep voice that perfectly fits the protagonist, Carl Butler.  I really liked the authoritative and confident tone that Bray used for this central character, and the listener ended up with a fantastic sense of who Butler is and what his emotional state is throughout the audiobook.  While I did occasionally find it hard to differentiate between the protagonist’s dialogue and inner thoughts in this format, this was a particularly minor issue and I still had an incredible time listening to this book and I would strongly recommend the audiobook version for anyone interested in checking out Colonyside.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay is an incredible and deeply captivating read that pits an outstanding and enjoyable protagonist on a high-stakes, mysterious adventure.  This latest novel from Mammay is an amazing third entry in one of the best science fiction thriller series out there, and I love the clever and addictive plot contained within this book.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the next entry in this fantastic series turns out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

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Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

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The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

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This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

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Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

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Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 22 September 2020)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 7 May 2020)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Liars Cover 2

Quick Review – Dark Forge by Miles Cameron

Dark Forge Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 January 2019)

Series: Masters & Mages – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

Only fools think war is simple.
Or glorious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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