Against All Gods by Miles Cameron

Against all Gods Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (E-book – 23 June 2022)

Series: The Age of Bronze – Book One

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive and inventive Miles Cameron returns with another awesome novel, Against All Gods, a compelling epic with a truly divine story.

There are few authors with more of a diverse catalogue of books than the talented Miles Cameron.  The pseudonym of historical fiction author Christian Cameron (who has also released novels with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym Gordon Kent), Cameron has been on a real roll with his fantasy and science fiction novels lately.  Not only did he have great success with his incredible Master and Mages series, which included Cold Iron and Dark Forge (one of my favourite novels and audiobooks of 2019), but he also successful released his first foray into science fiction last year with Artifact Space (one of my favourite books of 2021).  As such, I have been keenly anticipating Cameron’s latest read and I was extremely excited to receive an early copy of his latest fantasy novel, Against All GodsAgainst All Gods is the awesome first entry in his new The Age of Bronze series, which follows a group of desperate mortals as they attempt to overthrow an entire deadly pantheon of gods.

In a damaged world filled with death, despair and injustice, the gods rule with an iron fist.  Secure in their power and glory after destroying or banishing the previous pantheon, the current gods make games of the lives of mortals, controlling them for their own gain and punishing them on a whim.  However, the gods are not as secure as they would hope, and all it will take is one spark to ignite a deadly rebellion against them.

When the daughter of powerful magos and aristocrat, Gamash of Weshwesh, is killed by a malicious god, it sets off a chain of events that will change everything.  Determined to get revenge, Gamash finds himself a willing tool of an older god who exists to stir up chaos and challenge her new masters.  Following the signs laid out before him, Gamash receives weapons that can hurt the corrupt divine beings and embarks on a quest to challenge the gods once and for all.

As Gamash’s quest continues, he is soon joined by an eclectic mixture of mortals, all of whom have their own issues with the current deities and who have been manipulated to fight against them.  Faced with dangers at every turn and soon caught up amid multiple divine conspiracies, these reluctant rebels soon begin to understand the full extent of the danger they find themselves in.  Determined not to be mere pawns in a cosmic game of immortal gods, the rebels will decide to do the impossible: go up against all the gods and win!

Wow, Cameron continues to impress me with his unique and incredible story writing.  Against All Gods is a distinctive and powerful read that takes multiple fantastic characters on an epic adventure through a great new fantasy landscape.  I loved the powerful narrative that Against All Gods contained, and it really did not take me long to become incredible addicted to its twisty and compelling tale.  Complex, utterly enthralling and very fun, Against All Gods was an excellent read and I honestly have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Against All Gods has an outstanding story that I had a wonderfully entertaining time reading.  Essentially a Bronze Age inspired fantasy that sees multiple mortal characters caught up in the multiple machinations of the gods, this is a particularly fun and over-the-top narrative that you cannot help but fall in love with.  Against All Gods’ narrative has an excellent flow to it that individually introduces the substantial main cast and showcases their various pasts and issues they have with the ruling pantheon.  These initially separate storylines come together towards the centre of the book, once all the protagonists are thrust together by their unseen benefactor, and it swiftly evolves into a powerful plot, with the same events beautifully showcased from multiple different narrators.  At the same time, much of the story follows the machinations of the gods as they plot and backstab against each other, while also attempting to counter the actions of the mortal characters.  These scenes set in Heaven are often the most entertaining parts of the book, especially as Cameron produces a ton of twists and facilitates the multiple scheming deities, each of whom has their own plans.  These multiple storylines combine for a massive and awesome conclusion, as the protagonists come face-to-face against the gods in their opening salvo.  There are some truly epic scenes in this final part of the novel, and Cameron ends the book with some fun surprises and reveals that indicate how awesome the rest of The Age of Bronze series is going to be.

I really liked the style of Against All Gods, which is a slight departure from some of Cameron’s previous novels.  Despite the Bronze Age setting, the characters, attitudes and personalities are a bit more modern than some of Cameron’s existing fantasy books, and I think this really fit Against All Gods’ over-the-top narrative extremely well.  This is easily one of Cameron’s more elaborate narratives, and I loved how he started utilising a large range of character perspectives, rather than focusing on a single central protagonist.  Again, this works extremely well for this novel’s plot, and it helps to introduce the various outrageous characters and highlight the completely insane pantheon of gods who are fighting behind the scenes of the main story.  Cameron’s proven ability to craft a complex and highly detailed story is once again on display here, and every scene comes across in a powerful and expansive way, painting a powerful picture.  This works particularly well during the many impressive action sequences, and the reader is really drawn into the intense battles and fights that occur.  The narrative itself has an excellent blend of world building, character development and classic adventure, all of which is bound together by a healthy and entertaining dose of intrigue and deceit.  I was very quickly drawn into the unique story that Cameron was telling here, and I found it very hard to put this book down in places, as I really wanted to see what happened next.

You can’t discuss Against All Gods without mentioning the impressive and highly complex new world that Cameron has come up with.  Cameron has clearly combined two of his literary loves here, producing an intense and dangerous Bronze Age fantasy world clearly inspired by ancient Greece, especially its mythology.  As such, you get some glorious scenes of bronze covered soldiers facing off against each other, elaborate Mediterranean inspired cities, and a ton of awesome depictions of ancient seafaring ships.  However, there are some noticeable differences as this version of the world is ruled over by a corrupt and dangerous pantheon of new gods.  Centuries ago, this pantheon arrived in this world, mostly destroying the previous pantheon, and completely taking over the lands.  Their rule has become an insanely despotic one, where only they and their minions profit, while the people are now forced to worship them and ignore their old gods while powering the petty choices of their new masters.  The subsequent world is a dark and brutal place which serves as an excellent background to the powerful and exciting narrative Cameron has come up with for Against All Gods.  The idea of a Bronze Age society totally dominated by an evil pantheon of invading gods is exceedingly inventive, and Cameron really makes it work, showcasing all the ways that the gods screw over humanity and control them.  There are so many fun details here, with the new hierarchy, the multiple magical eyes that turn the lands into a divine surveillance state, and even the enforced reliance on bronze, as the gods have removed all iron from the world.  Throw in several awesome cultures, some unique creatures (the Dry Ones are pretty awesome), and even a marauding army of murderous savages, and you have a brilliant backdrop to this story that I found to be extremely cool.  I look forward to seeing how this setting evolves in the future and I am sure that Cameron has some more bonkers ideas for it.

One of the other great things about Against All Gods was the impressive and compelling collection of characters that Cameron focuses the story on.  There is a great group of point-of-view figures throughout this novel, and the author generally breaks these up into mortal and divine characters.  Most of the novel focuses on a small band of mortals who are framed as the protagonists of the series, each of whom has their own grudges and reasons to dislike the gods.  I felt that Cameron did an awesome job of presenting all these main characters at the start of Against All Gods, and their extended introductory chapters really allow the reader to get to know them and understand their unique stories and histories.  These characters include Gamash, a powerful magos seeking revenge against the gods after they kill his daughter, and who serves as a tragic figurehead for most of the plot.  He is joined by other impressive characters, like Era, a singer and dancer, whose extreme confidence, impressive sarcasm and tough exterior are at great odds with her warm interior.  Era, who is also an excellently represented lesbian character, serves as a great foil to the rest of the cast.  She really plays off Zos, a Godborn warrior, whose martial prowess and cynical worldview brings him into conflict with the gods, especially after he incurs their wrath.  The major protagonists are well rounded out by Pollon, a former highborn scribe and intellectual, whose cushy life is crushed in a matter of days, which convinces him to go up against the gods.

These four protagonists are backed up by an intriguing and eclectic mixture of supporting characters, each of whom bring something special and fun to the mix.  This includes the crew of the Hakran ship, Untroubled Swan, led by Aanat, another substantial point-of-view figure.  The Hakran are a curious group of characters, serving as one big polygamist family, which makes for some very interesting dynamics in the book.  They are also major pacifists who are manipulated into helping the heroes and who constantly find their wishes and way of life threatened by the actions of their new comrades.  I also had a lot of fun with Daos, a mysterious child adopted by Era, who bears an odd gift that allows him to see the world in different ways, and who helps to guide the protagonists to some interesting directions.  These characters and more (there is a fantastic stuffed bear and donkey combination that works surprisingly well) are a lot of fun to watch, and the constant interactions and intriguing developments help to enhance the plot.  While the plot was a bit bogged down in places with too many characters at once, this was an overall good collection of supporting figures who had some fun storylines between them.

I also really must highlight the fantastic god characters in Against All Gods.  Cameron has gone out of his way to create a truly vicious, conceited and manipulative troop of deities, each of whom is in it for their own benefit or power.  This pantheon is led by the bull-headed thunder god, Enkul-Anu (essentially Zeus), a powerful and stubborn being who conquered the previous gods and installed his kin as the new rulers of this world.  Forced to control a group of idiotic, rebellious or half-insane gods, as well as the always troublesome mortals, Enkul-Anu is an angry and exasperated figure in this novel, constantly at his wits ends with the stupidity and self-serving nature of the other gods.  Even though he’s the brutal main villain, you can’t help but feel a little for Enkul-Anu at times as he must deal with all the issues his followers have created.  He is well matched by an excellent group of other gods, including a fantastically depraved and eternally underestimated god of drunkenness and orgies, Druku; his beauty-obsessed consort, Sypa; his ambitious son and herald, Nisroch; and two troublesome sisters, the Huntress and the Blue Goddess, who constantly seek to destroy him.  All these excellent characters, plus several insane greater gods and their ultra-keen offspring, serve as a brilliant pantheon of villains, and I had so much fun with their manipulative and selfish actions.  The intriguing interactions between these characters are extremely entertaining, and you won’t believe who comes out on top at times.  I can’t wait to see how these gods continue their battles in the future, especially after the results of this book’s crazy conclusion.

With Against All Gods, the first book in his brilliant new fantasy series, Miles Cameron continues to shine as one of the most inventive authors out there.  Featuring an extremely compelling narrative that pits likeable mortal characters against selfish, all-powerful gods in a Bronze Age setting, Against All Gods is a layered and deeply entertaining book that comes highly recommended.  This was a truly awesome read and I look forward to seeing how Cameron continues The Age of Bronze series in the future.  The next book in this series, currently titled Storming Heaven, is set for release in a year’s time, and I personally can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Throwback Thursday: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 14 May 2013, originally published 12 September 2006)

Series: Standalone

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday review I take a look at the zombie horror classic, World War Z by Max Brooks, a truly epic and outstanding read.

One of the biggest novels that I have been meaning to read for ages was the highly regarded zombie novel, World War Z, also known as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Written by Max Brooks as a follow-up to his first book, the non-fictional The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z is a unique novel that fully examines a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives.  I had heard some great things about this novel, and I even enjoyed the movie adaptation when it came out (more on that later).  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it and I kind of figured for a while that it might stay in my to-read pile for a while.  However, it moved much higher up my list of books to check out after I read Brooks’s 2020 novel, Devolution, which was one of my favourite novels of 2020 (as well as one of my favourite all-time horror novels).  I had also heard a lot of praise for World War Z‘s awesome audiobook edition, so when my wife and I needed some entertainment during a recent cross-country road trip, this was our first choice.

Plot Synopsis:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

Holy hell, that was an exceptional book!  I loved the powerful and expansive narrative contained within World War Z as Brooks attempts to fully encapsulate the entire experience of a zombie apocalypse in impressive detail.  Literally all the good things I heard about this book were true, and I loved his unique and very captivating way of capturing the horrors of this sort of experience, both from the zombies and other humans.  An exceptional and impressively inventive read, World War Z gets an easy five-star read from me.

I cannot get over how awesome and distinctive World War Z was as a concept.  Rather than a traditional novel, Brook’s masterpiece is written as an epistolary novel, written as in-universe oral history anthology of a zombie apocalypse.  The book, which was compiled by this universe’s version of Max Brooks, contained multiple testimonials and interviews, as Brooks seeks out and talks to multiple people who experienced the apocalypse and pulls together their various unique stories.  This book contains around 40 individual stories set out across five chapters which look at the various stages of the zombie war, from its origins all the way up to the postwar ‘new normal’.

At this point I need to make a quick note about the version of World War Z that we checked out.  There are a couple of different World War Z audiobooks out there, but for our trip we listened to the World War Z: The Complete Edition, which combines two separate audiobook adaptations of the novel, and contains all the stories from the original book.  I did look over a paperback edition of World War Z before I started this review, and it looks like our audiobook version covered the full stories well, although I did notice that some of the stories were shortened or missing minor parts.  In addition, the audiobook version did not feature any of the paperback’s footnotes, which contained technical details and notes from the author.  However, I don’t think I lost out on too much of the plot from some of these missing gaps.

I really fell in love with the various individual stories contained with World War Z as Brooks went out of his way to produce the most unique and moving tales that he could.  These are mostly standalone tales, although there are a few interesting crossovers as the book continues, with some character’s mentioning events or supporting figures from other stories in their interviews.  However, as you follow the stories within these five chapters (made up of Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and Good-Byes), you get a full sense of the entire war, and it quickly comes apparent how cleverly Brooks was crafting everything here.  I personally deeply enjoyed both the individual shorter tales and the much larger connected story of World War Z, and I was deeply impressed with the excellent writing style behind it.  Brooks is a true master of writing deeply personal, character-driven tales of survival, and you swiftly become attached to the various protagonists as they tell their unique stories.  The action within is gruesome, fast-paced and deeply terrifying, and there are multiple over-the-top descriptions of zombie and human violence that will stick with you forever.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have read in terms of storytelling and action, and everything about this tale is so damn compelling.

As I mentioned, there are roughly 40 separate stories contained within this anthology, each of which contains its own unique protagonist, supporting characters, settings and unique circumstances.  Naturally, with so many stories you have a bit of a range in terms of storytelling, with some being substantially better than others.  However, I felt that Brooks did a very good job of writing each of these stories extremely well, and there were none that particularly dragged the novel down.  There is a real mixture of narratives here, with particularly gruesome horror stories mixed in with more human-focused narrative, political plotlines, military thrillers, stories that balance on the edge of science fiction, and everything in between.  The spread of these stories works pretty well, with Brooks providing an entertaining mixture of storylines throughout the book so readers aren’t constantly bombarded by tales of horror or tragedy.  Instead, there are often fascinating, humorous and humanising stories thrown in amongst the horror.  This works to make the entire novel flow at a fantastic pace.

While pretty much all these stories are fun and tell some outstanding tales of the zombie apocalypse, there are a few that stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.  I had some early fun with the Stanley MacDonald storyline, which showed an amoral illegal surgeon in Brazil unwittingly transfer a zombie heart into a patient, which led to one of the earliest outbreaks in South America.  The Jesika Hendricks plot showed a brilliant, if very dark, take on ordinary citizens trying to flee the zombies only to experience the other dangers of surviving the winter in a desperate community.  There are several amazing and cynical storylines, such as the Breckinridge Scott and Grover Carison testimonies that showcase the capitalist opportunism that surrounded the initial outbreaks.  I also really liked the South African focused storyline around Paul Redeker, which showed a former Apartheid strategist using his stark and brutal plans to save the country from the undead hordes.  I loved the particularly inventive and clever testimony surrounding the character of Arthur Sinclair Junior, which focuses on how America was reorganised after the initial stages of the war, with the country setting its sights towards industry, construction and warfare, which really highlights the author’s impressive insights into the world.

Two other fantastic World War Z storylines set in Japan focus on two unique individuals, one an “otaku” (a computer-obsessed outsider who tried to live entirely online), and a blind “hibakusha” (a person affected by the atomic bombs used in WWII).  Both characters were outsiders in Japan before the zombie war, but the zombie invasion changed their entire lives and led to them becoming renowned warriors and survivors against all the odds.  These two storylines are extremely compelling, and I loved the way that the author utilised unique subsections of Japanese society and tried to imagine how those sorts of people would survive the zombies.  There was also a really intense storyline, told by Admiral Xu Zhicai, that details a Chinese submarine’s attempt to escape the zombies with their families, which turns into a brilliant, powerful and occasionally disturbing tale of survival, loyalty and family.  I also must mention the Terry Knox testimony that details the actions aboard the International Space Station and the Darnell Hackworth story that looks at the US army’s canine units that helped scout and herd zombies (yay for mini dachshunds, the real heroes of this book).  However, out all the testimonies featured within World War Z, my favourite had to be the ones focussing on soldier Todd Wainio.  Todd battled the zombies at multiple stages of the war, and his multiple entries paint a pretty grim picture but are easily some of the best depictions of the horror of the zombies and the challenges faced by the armed forces.  His first testimony about the army’s initial inability to combat the zombies is very chilling, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes to his training and equipment as the military adapted to fight this new and strange enemy.  I am honestly just scratching the surface of these testimonials here, as pretty much all of them were great in their own way.  However, the ones I mentioned here were my personal favourites, and I had a blast listening to them and seeing how they fit into the wider narrative.

For me, one of the main highlights of World War Z was Brooks’s incredible inventiveness and insights when it came to envisioning a potential world-wide zombie apocalypse.  Thanks to his amazing range of stories, Brooks showcases a vast global catastrophe that impacts everyone no matter where they are.  I loved his depiction of how the apocalypse emerged, and rather than a continuous attack that pretty much destroys everything in a single day, Brooks imagines a gradual catastrophe that is initially ignored and mishandled before it spreads uncontrollably.  This is covered in the early chapters of the book with some substantial skill, and you really get to see how and why everything falls apart, with appropriate zombie violence included.  While there is an understandable focus on America, I found it fascinating to see how Brooks imagined different countries would deal with this crisis, with different culturally informed strategies, and there are even some compelling references to real-life figures (the Nelson Mandela facsimile reacts in a very different way than you’d expect).  The author really dives into all the details of a zombie attack and examines all the pros and cons of various strategies humans could utilise, from fleeing, staying in defensible positions, or fighting back.  There are some brilliant testimonies that cover all of them, and Brooks’s dark depictions of unprepared or overconfident humans failing to understand the threats in front of them and paying the price for it are shocking, bleak and captivating.  Brooks also comes up with some truly unique and clever problems or impacts of the zombies, many of which are referenced or experienced by multiple characters, including floating zombies, marine zombies, feral children who survived without their parents, looters, civil wars, and even crazed humans pretending to be zombies.

These intriguing insights from Brooks’s imagination are further expanded on in the later chapters of the novel, where the author explores how the world order changed because of the zombie war.  Again Brooks dives into multiple countries here, and it was fascinating to witness which countries the author imagines will be destroyed by the zombies and which would thrive.  I really enjoyed his examinations of the way that America needed to reorganise itself and its subsequent battleplans, which were perfectly covered by several of the best characters.  Seeing countries likes Russia, China, Japan and more change in drastic ways a result of this apocalypse was really cool and compelling, especially as the author covers it in such a reasonable and logical manner.  Countries like Cuba and the West Indies thriving due to their isolation was pretty fascinating, and they stood as an interesting contrast to more prominent countries that were disadvantaged or never stood a chance thanks to their socioeconomic issues or unsuitable landscapes.  I loved some of the unique issues that some countries experienced, such as the infested Paris catacombs or the mystery around North Korea, and they leave some intriguing afterthoughts as a result.  Brooks also cleverly examines other unique impacts that the zombies are having on the world, such as extinctions (goodbye whales), changes in global relations, and long-term problems, and I was deeply fascinated and enthralled by all this impressive thinking.  All of this compelling insight and imagination really enhances the stories being told by various characters, especially as they all impact humanity’s potential survival, and I really lost myself in the author’s powerful and impressive vision of a zombie apocalypse.

While World War Z is primarily about survival and the wider impacts of a zombie apocalypse, Brooks also takes the time to cover a few interesting themes.  In particular, he uses this novel about zombies to examine humanity.  While there is a certain overlying theme about the indomitable human spirit and our ability to triumph no matter the odds, there are some very noticeable depictions of the worst parts of human nature.  I found his initial depictions of most people ignoring or ridiculing the slow rising zombie threat to be pretty realistic (keep in mind that this was written 14 years before COVID).  There are also some major critiques about corruption and government incompetence in the face of disaster that I also found to be very intriguing and insightful.  Many of the early chapters that talked about military attempts to fight back had some interesting parallels to the wars in the Middle East, and I really appreciated the author’s clever critiques of these conflicts through the medium of a zombie war.  I felt that Todd’s testimony about the first major battle of the zombie war was a great example of this, as he regales the reader with how politically motivated leadership and incompetence led to a massacre.  All of this added a thought-provoking and entertaining edge to many of the storylines in the novel, especially the earlier testimonies, and I felt that Brooks did an amazing job bringing some of his own insights and critiques into his writing.

As I mentioned a few times above, I listened to the extended audiobook adaptation of this novel, which I personally felt was the absolute best way to enjoy this epic read.  Running at just over 12 hours in length, we absolutely powered through the World War Z audiobook during our road trip, and it served as an excellent entertainment for a long drive.  I often find that having a story read out to you really helps you to absorb everything about the story, and this was particularly true with World War Z.  Not only did the narration allow you to focus on all the details of the testimonials, but the horror elements and action felt a lot more intense, especially when you were dragged into some of the more gruesome scenes.  I also feel that the audiobook version of World War Z had a better flow than the paperback novel.  The testimonials with the audiobook are a lot more separated out, treated as a new chapter each time the narrator changes.  This is very different from the paperback version, which throws multiple testimonials in a quick fire manner, with everything crammed together into the five chapters.  As such, I really felt the audiobook helped to highlight the uniqueness of each testimonial and you really got to focus on each story a lot more.

However, easily the best thing about the World War Z audiobook was the truly impressive voice cast that were featured within.  Brooks, a voice actor himself, recruited a crack team of international actors to fill out his cast, including several A-listers, who give some outstanding and amazing performances.  All these actors really dive into their various roles here, conveying the emotion, fear and insights of their protagonists, and their great voice work definitely enhanced the already cool stories of their characters.  I deeply enjoyed all their voice work throughout the audiobook, and I know that I enjoyed several testimonies even more because of the talented actors voicing them.  This cast is led by Brooks himself, who voices the interviewer, asking all the questions and meeting all the various figures the novel is set around.  Brooks does a really good job here, and his calm, collected interviewing style and additional narration helps to set the scene for the entire novel and moves the other character’s stories along at a great pace.

Aside from Brooks, there are a good 40 or so voice actors featured in the World War Z audiobook, and I was pretty impressed with all their performances.  Some standout early performances include a brief appearance from Nathan Fillion as Canadian soldier Stanley MacDonald; Paul Sorvino, who gives a very fun performances as the sketchy doctor Fernado Oliveira; and Martin Scorsese, who gives an unrepentant portrayal of corrupt businessman Breckinridge Scott.  Other great performances include Kal Penn as Sardar Khan, an Indian soldier who serves an excellent witness to an act of heroism; the late, great David Ogden Stiers, who brings Ukrainian solider Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk to life perfectly as he watches a great act of evil from his government; Common as dog trainer Darnell Hackworth; and Rob Reiner as “The Whacko” a radical politician/former Vice President who shares his strong opinions in a very fun outing.  I really need to highlight some intriguing voice performances from Simon Pegg, who does a pretty good Texan accent in the role of Grover Carlson; and Alfred Molina, whose Australian accent was pretty accurate (a rare talent).

The performances of Masi Oka and Frank Kamai really brought to life the two Japanese characters I mentioned above, as does Ric Young for Chinese Admiral Xu Zhicai’s elaborate testimony.  I also really need to highlight the brilliant work of Alan Alda in this book as he voices pivotal administrator Arthur Sinclair Junior.  Alda, whose voice I have loved since M*A*S*H, perfectly inhabits the role of this intriguing figure, and I loved hearing his narration of how America’s economy was changed.  However, out of all the voice actors in World War Z, my favourite was the always impressive and remarkable Mark Hamill, who voiced standout character Todd Wainio.  Hamill was one of the main reasons why Todd was such a great character, and I loved his outstanding performance as a former ground soldier recounting all the horror of the front line of the zombie war.  There is so much weariness, trauma and cynicism in Hamill’s voice as he narrates Todd’s testimony, and you really feel the character’s resentment and anger.  The way that Hamill describes all the gruesome gore and zombie violence was just so great, and his impressive range and tone helped to really enhance the insanity and horror of the moment.  These voice actors, and the rest of the impressive cast, are extremely epic here, and they turned this production into something extremely impressive.

A quick final note about the World War Z film.  Until I read this book, I really did not appreciate how wildly off-book the film adaptation was.  None of the true magic from the original story appears in the film at all, as they turned it into a generic action flick rather than a clever analysis of how a zombie apocalypse would change the world.  While I did enjoy the World War Z movie on its own, it is a terrible adaptation, with only small elements from the book appearing in the film.  While I can appreciate that this is not the easiest book to turn into a film, they didn’t even try.  I really do hope that someone does a proper adaptation of World War Z at some point, as it frankly deserves a lot better than what it got (perhaps a television series with each episode recreating one of the testimonies).

As you can clearly tell from the massive essay above, I deeply enjoyed World War Z by Max Brooks.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have ever read, and it definitely deserves its epic and highly regarded status.  Brooks’s distinctive and brilliant story was just plain amazing and I loved the outstanding combination of smaller testimonies coming together into one connected and thought-provoking tale.  The author cleverly examines every single aspect of a potential zombie apocalypse, and you find yourself not only loving the insane horror elements, but the fascinating political and social impacts that come with such an invasion.  Best enjoyed in the full audiobook format which features so many impressive voice actors, World War Z comes extremely highly recommended and I cannot hype it up enough!

World War Z Cover 2

The Sandman – Act 1 (Audiobook) by Neil Gaiman and performed by a full cast

Sandman Act 1 Cover

Publisher: Audible Original (Audio Drama – 15 July 2020)

Series: The Sandman

Script: Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs (script adapter)

Director: Dirk Maggs

Cast: Neil Gaiman, James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Riz Ahmed, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, Justin Vivian Bond, Arthur Darvill, William Hope, Mathew Horne, Reginald D. Hunter, Sue Johnston, Paterson Joseph, Josie Lawrence, Anton Lesser, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Alexander, Stephen Critchlow, Blake Ritson, Oris Herhuero, Karen Batke, Ray Porter, Michael Roberts, Kerry Shale, Andrew James, Simon Vance, Sandra Dickinson, Ellen Thomas, Cathy Tyson, Sandra-Mae Luyx, Amaka Okafor, Shey Greyson, Laurel Lefkow, Harry Myers, Mack Keith Roach, Laurence Bouvard, Toby Longworth, Daniel Weyman, Samantha Beart, Cliff Chapman, Felicity Duncan, Julia Winwood, Nicholas Boulton, John MacMillan, Tracy Wiles and Adam Thomas Wright.

Length: 11 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Thanks to a lengthy and productive road trip, I have finally breached the realm of dreams and explored the iconic and powerful creation that is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  In this review I check out the first act of its impressive full-cast audiobook adaptation.

Back in 1989, mind-bending author Neil Gaiman unleashed his most iconic comic creation when he introduced the complex and dark The Sandman.  Centred on the mysterious character of Dream, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, The Sandman was a clever and intense hybrid of horror, fantasy and superhero storylines released as part of the Vertigo comic imprint, which was associated with the DC Comics universe.  This series was considered a revolutionary success and its unique and colourful story cemented Gaiman’s legacy in comic circles, as The Sandman and its spinoffs are still very highly regarded.

Now I must make a bit of a confession: I have never actually read The Sandman and it is a bit of a gap in my comic book knowledge.  I just never seemed to be in a position to read these comics despite hearing how good they were.  However, with the upcoming television adaptation of The Sandman set for release later this year, I thought that it was about time that I tried to check it out.  Luckily, the good folks at Audible decided to make this rather easy for me as they recently released a full-cast audiobook adaptation of The Sandman.  Not only was this a great opportunity for me to check out this cool comic in my favourite format, but this adaptation featured a truly remarkable cast of actors, with the production pulled together by the highly acclaimed Dirk Maggs.

There are many strange, unusual and powerful creatures inhabiting the universe, but only seven siblings, known as the Endless, are truly immortal.  The Endless, each a personification of a human concept, have their own realms and powers, with the most mysterious and unique belonging to Dream.  Known by many names, including Morpheus, he is the manifestation of all dreams and stories, and governs the Dreaming, the vast realm made up of creation’s collected dreams.  Unchanging since the dawn of time, Morpheus’s eternal life is about to get more complicated than he ever believed.

Summoned by a mystical cult seeking to capture his sister, Death, Morpheus finds himself trapped and powerless on Earth.  Stripped of his tools of office and placed within a magical cage, Morpheus is kept as a prisoner for over 70 years.  When he eventually escapes from his captors, Morpheus returns to his realm only to find it in tatters, with several of his servants missing and his own powers greatly weakened.  To ensure the continued stability of the Dreaming, Morpheus must endeavour to regain his full strength by recovering his lost tools of power.

However, this is no easy task as all three items have been scattered across the world and are now in the hands of several dangerous foes.  To obtain them, he will have to contend with human magician John Constantine, face down Lucifer and battle the malicious Justice League foe known as Doctor Destiny.  From dangerous demons to rogue dreams and even his own siblings, Morpheus will face great challenges and unique creations on his road back from capture.  But even if Morpheus does succeed, is he prepared for the full chaos his absence has wrought on the world?

I’ve been exceedingly foolish by neglecting The Sandman for so long.  This is such a unique and epic tale that contains powerful looks at revenge, change, human perception and the power of dreams and stories, and so much more, as Gaiman cleverly examines elements of the human psyche through the eyes of an elusive immortal.  The impressive and exceedingly memorable story contained within these early entries of The Sandman, are deeply captivating and I found myself really getting drawn into the amazing narrative and distinctive characters.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast and a brilliant audiobook production, and I honestly have no choice but to give this a full five-star review.

When I first heard about The Sandman audiobook I did wonder if it would provide a more abridged version of the narrative.  However, it appears that this production was a pretty faithful and full adaptation of issues #1-20 of The Sandman comic.  As such you get an intense and fully developed story that is guaranteed to grasp your attention and send your imagination into overdrive, especially by the two major storylines contained within these first 20 issues.  The first of these, the “More than Rubies” storyline, examines Morpheus’s capture by human occultists in the early 20th century, his decades-long imprisonment, his eventual escape, and his subsequent attempts to recover his tools of office to regain his lost power.  This storyline serves as a pretty awesome and captivating start to the entire production and it contains several distinctive and addictive chapters.  The initial chapters that deal with Morpheus’s imprisonment set up a lot of major storylines for the rest of the series, give you some fantastic early impressions of this world, introduce some key concepts and provide readers with their first compelling look at the main character.  From there, the story gets even more exciting as you follow Morpheus as he attempts to recover his items of power from some dangerous individuals.  This sets up some brilliant chapters as he deals with everyone’s favourite magician, John Constantine, in a horrific tale that provides readers with their first glimpse at the true danger of dreams.  From there, Morpheus goes straight to hell as he attempts to retain his helm from an army of demons while also dealing with the nefarious Lucifer in what is possibly one of the most entertaining parts of the entire production.  That is then followed by a particularly dark storyline that sees Morpheus forced to contend with damaged DC comics supervillain Doctor Destiny, who is using Morpheus’s own powers to destroy the world.  This initial main storyline is particularly good, with an amazing and captivating flow to it that is guaranteed to make you a fan of The Sandman.

The other major storyline of this first act of The Sandman sees Morpheus attempt to contend with a new dangerous threat impacting the Dreaming.  This threat turns out to be young woman, Rose Walker, who is a powerful Dream Vortex.  To fully understand her, Morpheus finds himself getting involved in her hunt for her missing brother, and soon finds himself in conflict with several of his missing creations, each of whom has their own agenda in the real world.  At the same time, Morpheus must contend with the machinations of his powerful siblings as they attempt to manipulate him for his own ends.  This second major storyline, The Doll’s House, is an extremely good follow-up to the introductory issues and continues several plot points, with several characters returning in interesting ways.  Indeed, as you traverse through this storyline, it becomes apparent how much the author set up in the initial major storyline, and this helps to make The Doll’s House flow extremely well.  This major storyline itself is pretty damn fun, and I liked how it split between Morpheus and several of the other major players, particularly Rose Walker and The Corinthian.  The entire thing goes in some rather interesting directions, from the traumatised dreaming mind of a young boy also containing several lost superheroes, to a serial killer convention where some of Morpheus’s most dangerous creations have arrived.  This entire storyline is pretty damn twisty and trippy in places, but it comes together extremely well and has some amazing high points to it.  I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting the serial killer convention, which was both entertaining and disturbing in equal measures but which also has an outstanding payoff to it.  The Doll’s House ends the major storylines on an extremely high note and it will ensure that you will come back for the second act desperately wanting more.

Aside from the two main storylines, The Sandman also contains several filler arcs that take place around the main storylines, including all the stories contained in the collected volume Dream Country.  While I would usually be a little disappointed to have a gap occur between some of the main storylines like this, it worked really well.  Not only do these filler chapters serve as a bit of a palate cleanser, breaking up the major storylines, but they also provide a lot of additional context for the wider The Sandman universe by expanding on many of the supporting characters, such as Morpheus’s relatives or some of the strange people he encounters through his travels.  Each of these storylines lasts for a single chapter (an issue from the comic), and are fairly self-contained, coming together and concluding in short order.  Each of these filler stories is quite intriguing in their own right, especially as these stories are a little more metaphysical and often contain a dark, thought-provoking cautionary tale.  There is also an interesting range of settings and time periods for many of these stories, as some occur many years before the events of the major storylines, due to the immortal nature of Morpheus and his siblings.  I honestly enjoyed each of these separate storylines, not only because of the fantastic ways that they expanded The Sandman universe but because of the way that each story hit a different emotional note.  My favourite was probably Men of Good Fortune (issue #13 of the comic), a brilliant story that sees Morpheus and Death encounter a man, Hob Gadling, who is certain of his desire never to die.  Intrigued, Morpheus ensures his immortality and arranges to meet him once every 100 years in the same tavern.  So begins a fantastic story that skips across centuries as you see Hob continue to exist and change through the centuries.  Watching him achieve the highs and lows of an immortal is deeply fascinating, as is his compelling and deeply personal interactions with Morpheus as they discuss his experiences and his desires to stay alive.  The conclusion of this story proves to be particularly moving, and it helps to humanise Morpheus after several issues of him being emotionally distant.  Other interesting filler arcs include Morpheus meeting with Death and following her around in her complex and sad duties, another sees William Shakespeare, who years earlier made a Faustian bargain with Morpheus, debut A Midsummer’s Night Dream to a host of elven nobility in a touching performance.  All these filler arcs, and more, add a certain gravitas to the overall book, and I think that they really helped to enhance the major storylines they were set around.

I was really impressed with all these major and minor storylines, especially as the writing behind them was particularly powerful and brilliant.  Everything flows together extremely well and you can see that Gaiman is setting up a ton of fascinating storylines for the future, while also ensuring that the current plot points stand on their own and are extremely fun.  Everything about this story is interesting, and while the author does occasionally go in some zany, grotesque and unique directions, it generally proves to be entertaining and eventually fits back into the major storylines in a great way.  Gaiman seeks to create a massive and powerful epic that not is not only filled with action and excitement but which causes the reader to stop and think about certain states of being or metaphysical aspects such as dreaming.  This is often achieved, especially in the audiobook format, with distinctive and powerful dialogues that showcase the unique attributes of the characters and the dramatic and dangerous situations they find themselves in.

I personally loved how there were a range of different styles and elements featured throughout the plot as The Sandman didn’t conform to one particular genre.  The story could at any time jump from unique fantasy adventure to a deep character driven narrative or end up being a bleak and deeply disturbing horror tale.  For example, one of the best chapters in this act of The Sandman was a dark, disturbing and somewhat detached horror narrative they fit in right after a chapter involving the Justice League and certain Batman villains.  In this story the deadly Doctor Dee, having stolen Morpheus’s dream stone, holds several people hostage in a diner over the course of a day.  Throughout this day (which is counted down hour by hour for some impressive dramatic impact), Doctor Dee toys with his pets, diving deep into their personal lives and using disturbing elements from their past to manipulate their emotions and their reactions.  This results in several extremely disturbing hours as the bad doctor makes them experience lust, despair, hatred, animalist urges, religious zeal and more to entertain him as he waits, and it turns this chapter into a horrific experience in between some more action packed or fantasy issues.  This frequent change in genre really helps to make this first act stand out, and all the different storylines and elements work well with the overall dark gothic theme of The Sandman.  It also helps to make The Sandman a bit more accessible to different readers as there is something here for all fans of horror, fantasy and comics, although some basic knowledge of DC and Vertigo comics may be somewhat helpful.

This story is greatly helped by the complex and exceedingly memorable characters featured throughout.  The most notable of these characters is the titular Sandman himself, central character Dream/Morpheus, an immortal anthropomorphic personification who lives in creation’s dreams and serves as their lord and master.  I loved how Morpheus is portrayed in this first act as the reader really gets to sink their teeth into the character and find out what makes him tick.  Gaiman ensures you get the most out of Morpheus by immediately showing him at his worst, imprisoned for decades by humans with his powers stolen from him.  While you don’t get a lot of insight into who or what he is at the beginning, once he escapes you find out everything you need about his motivations, responsibilities and personalities.  Gaiman initially paints Morpheus as a callous and detached being, removed from humanity and more concerned with his own needs and realm than the people he interacts with.  While it does make it a little harder to root for him in some of the earlier storylines, I think this coldness helped to stoke some real mystery around the character and you wanted to find out more about him and his past.  Once the first major story arc ends and you get into some of the filler stories, especially the one involving the interaction with his sister Death, you start to understand him a lot better and soon see that his a basically good person, just with some major personality flaws brought on by his immortal existence and purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, at times he is still a pretty hard character to like, especially when details about his love life are revealed, but he is generally a lot more likeable than most of the other immortal or non-human characters you encounter, and you get really invested in his continual struggles.  By the end of his first act you will become extremely addicted to his story arc, and I cannot wait to see how Morpheus’s narrative continues in the future.

Gaiman has come up with an eclectic and distinctive group of characters to support the story, with a fantastic combination of original characters, mythological figures and even a few established DC and Vertigo comic characters.  These great characters are featured to various degrees throughout the story, with some being continuously used, while others only get brief flashes.  All of them are pretty fantastic, and I loved seeing how Gaiman worked them into his brilliant narrative.  There are so many notable characters throughout this first act to talk about, especially as they were portrayed by some outstanding actors (more on that later), and I could honestly spend pages talking about all of them, however, in the interests of saving time I might just limit it to my absolute favourites.  I must highlight Dream’s sister Death; rather than a traditional mournful or skeletal figure, Death is shown as a cheerful young woman who bears great compassion and kindness to those she reaps.  This is a really interesting change to the usual personification of Death you see in fiction, and it works really well, especially as Death here serves as a great positive foil to her dour brother Dream and the other Endless.  As such, she swiftly becomes a favourite character to follow, especially with her many different appearances.  I also must mention Gaiman’s great use of John Constantine, everyone’s favourite drunk English wizard, who has a notable chapter towards the start of the story.   Lucifer himself is also brilliant as a brief secondary antagonist, and Gaiman lays some interesting story seeds here for him.  The comedic duo of Cain and Abel brings some fun to several stories, as does Morpheus’s servant, Matthew the Raven.  Rose Walker serves as an excellent protagonist of the second major storyline, and I enjoyed her very English protector, Gilbert, who has some intriguing scenes.  Finally, I was rather impressed with the great early antagonist Doctor John Dee, better known as the Justice League villain Doctor Destiny.  Gaiman went out of his way to make Doctor Dee as creepy and deranged as possible in this comic and he has some outstanding, if shockingly horrifying, scenes throughout the More than Rubies storyline.  He, and other great villains like The Corinthian, add some intriguing danger and a ton of depravity to the story, and I had an absolute blast getting to know all these great characters.

As I mentioned before, I chose to check out the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman rather than reading the original comics, and this greatly impacted my experiences of how I absorbed this unique story.  However, while I probably missed out on some brilliant artwork, I think that this audio adaptation was the perfect way to enjoy this elaborate and massive story.  As far as I can tell, the audio production faithfully adapts all the comic storylines throughout its run, with the movement and action of the comic page replaced with narration, sound effects and probably altered dialogue where necessary for the benefit of the listener.  While this is probably a little different than the comic, I think that it captured the tone, characters, and intent of The Sandman exceedingly well, and the resulting production is pretty damn impressive.  Not only does it feature some brilliant acting, but the production team makes outstanding use of a ton of cool sound effects and some moving music to create something extremely special.

While this audio production has many great features, without a shadow of a doubt its most defining aspect is the incredibly stacked voice cast who bring the various characters to life.  Someone clearly sold their soul to get the eventual cast for The Sandman, as some exceedingly talented actors are featured here giving some intense and powerful performances.  These great performances deeply enhance the entirety of The Sandman and turn this already outstanding story into something that you will listen to again and again.  This voice cast is led by the insanely talented James McAvoy, who voices main character Morpheus.  McAvoy is extremely good in this production, showcasing all his acting range to bring this complex character to life in all his dark, gothic and detached glory.  Thanks to the way he voices the character, listeners really get a sense of how ethereal and distant Morpheus can be, as well as the intense weight of the events of this story and the relationships he has formed.  You really get the full gambit of Morpheus’s emotions during this first act and McAvoy covers them all perfectly, embodying the character’s rage, sorrow, impatience and intense regret extremely well.  This performance really serves to enhance the character of Morpheus in this production of The Sandman, and McAvoy was the perfect actor to helm this entire series.

The rest of the voice cast is just as impressive, with several major celebrities featured here.  Taron Egerton has a notable time voicing the iconic John Constantine and his pretty damn good here, bringing the distinctive magician to life extremely well.  Edgerton brilliantly brings forth Constantine’s full emotional range throughout The Sandman, and you get a great sense of his cheeky demeanour which overlays his insane amount of guilt and despair.  This was a very good version of Constantine, and indeed after listening to this production, Edgerton would be my choice for Constantine if they chose to do another major movie with him.  In addition, Kat Dennings has a major role in this audiobook as Death.  Dennings is pretty amazing here, and she brings some real life (pun intended) to this major role, showcasing this character’s intense warmth and friendliness, as well as her exasperations when it comes to her brother.  Dennings really made this unique character her own, and I deeply enjoyed her performance.  I also had a lot of fun with Andy Serkis who voices Matthew the Raven, Dream’s messenger and servant.  Matthew is a fairly comedic role which Serkis fills perfectly, giving the raven a sarcastic and everyman feel that fit the lines really well and helped to make him a very distinctive and fun figure.

Other big-name actors include Bebe Neuwirth, who perfectly voices a prophetic cat with aspirations to change the world through dreaming.  Riz Ahmed is pretty terrifying as The Corinthian and you get some major serial killer vibes from his performance.  Arthur Davill has a great couple of appearances as William Shakespeare, while the legendary Joanna Lumley has an unfortunately short appearance as Lady Johanna Constantine, although she gets her time to shine in future productions.  Likewise, Michael Sheen has only a short appearance as Lucifer Morningstar, although he brings some incredible flair to the character, dripping style, venom and power.  Like Joanna Lumley, Sheen will get his time to shine in future instalments of this audio series, so don’t be too disappointed with his limited appearances here.  I loved William Hope as Doctor Dee, as he gives the villain some deep malevolence and insanity.  Michael Roberts and Kerry Shale are fun as Cain and Able respectfully, while Paterson Joseph has a great sequence as The Demon Choronzon.  I was also very happy to see that one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Ray Porter, was featured here, voicing multiple supporting characters.  All of Porter’s portrayals were very fun, although I think he was best as Gilbert, providing some fun British pomp to the character.  Finally, Neil Gaiman himself has a massive role in this production as the Narrator, which is pretty damn appropriate.  Gaiman is great as the narrator, with his distinctive voice perfectly moving the story along, as he describes events, actions and settings, as well as providing a massive dose of exposition.  I was really impressed with Gaiman’s continued performance here, and I honestly don’t know if anyone else could have done such an impactful and meaningful job of it.  I am honestly only just scratching the surface of this cast, as there are a ton of other actors featured throughout The Sandman in some way.  However, all of them are extremely good and their work on this show is just superb.

As you can no doubt tell from the elaborate and long-winded review above, I had an outstanding time with this audio production of The Sandman, and I am so very happy that I got to finally experience Neil Gaiman’s amazing series.  Everything about this audiobook was impressive, with an elaborate and dark narrative, gritty characters, fantastic performances and some incredible world building.  There is truly something for everybody here, as readers unfamiliar with The Sandman can easily jump in and learn everything they want to know about the series (I’m now ready for that upcoming Netflix series), while established fans will no doubt enjoy it performed by such a talented team of actors.  I had such a good time listening to this first act that once I finished, I immediately jumped into listening to the second act, which has an even better and expanded voice cast.  I will hopefully review that in a few weeks, but in the meantime do yourself a favour and listen to this incredible audio production of The Sandman, as you will not regret it.

Warhammer 40,000 – Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by Nate Crowley

Ghazghkull Thraka - Prophet of the Waaagh! Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 15 March 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 7 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to read one of the most amusing and downright entertaining recent additions to the Warhammer 40,000 canon with the hilarious and brilliant Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by outstanding author Nate Crowley.

I have been having an immense amount of fun really diving into the massive wealth of tie-in fiction surrounding the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game this year.  Books like Steel Tread by Andy Clarke, Krieg by Steve Lyons, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill and Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky, have really highlighted just how diverse and intense this extended universe can be.  However, the latest tie-in novel I checked out may prove to be one of my absolute favourites, as I got to learn all about one of the most iconic ork characters in this universe with Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!

Orks are the most notorious and dangerous creatures that roam the galaxy of the 41st millennium.  Billions upon billions of the powerful, war-loving creatures can be found throughout every sector of space, fighting anyone and anything they can find, especially each other.  However, out of all these monsters, none are more feared, respected or hated than the warlord Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka, chosen of the ork gods Gork and Mork and proclaimed prophet of the Waaagh!

Throughout his legendary life, Ghazghkull has done what no other ork has been able to achieve.  Bringing together innumerable warbands into one massive horde of green, Ghazghkull has warred with every faction in the cosmos, while his infamous invasions of the Imperial planet of Armageddon are the stuff of bloody legend.  Everyone knows of his epic and rivalry with his indomitable foe, Commissar Yarrick, which turned Armageddon into a perpetual warzone, but does anyone know the true story of Ghazghkull and the events that made him?

Rogue Lord Inquisitor Tytonida Falx has long attempted to discover what lurks in the minds of the xenos her order faces.  When an opportunity to find out more about Ghazghkull presents itself, she eagerly jumps at the opportunity, bringing a unique prisoner aboard her heretical ship, Ghazghkull’s banner bearer, the grot Makari.  Interrogating him, Inquisitor Falx and her team soon discover that Makari might just be the only being in the universe who knows the full truth about who, or what, Ghazghkull is, and what he plans to do next.  But, as she listens to Makari’s tale, the Inquisitor soon discovers that the shadow of Ghazghkull’s rage and desire for violence far eclipses anything that the Imperium has ever believed.

Wow, now that was a really fun and captivating read.  I knew going into Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! that I was going to have a great time, especially after enjoying author Nate Crowley’s The Twice-Dead King novels, Ruin and Reign, but I was blown away by how awesome Ghazghkull Thraka was.  Featuring a clever and wildly entertaining story, perfectly told through various unique eyes, as well as some deeply enjoyable characters, I quickly became absorbed in the impressive story and powered through it in a couple of days.  Not only was this my favourite book from Crowley but it also probably overtakes Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty as the most amusing Warhammer novel I have ever read.

I had an absolute blast with the incredible story that Crowley whipped up for Ghazghkull Thraka, as it ended up being an inventive and entertaining way to showcase an iconic Warhammer figure.  Due to his prominence within the game and the extended fiction, Ghazghkull is probably one of the most utilised non-human characters in the canon, with many different novels, game books and comics already diving into his life.  As such, Crowley needed to come up with a completely new way to examine this great character that didn’t tread on any prior works.  I think his solution to this problem was exceedingly clever, as he chose to tell the story through the eyes of the most unlikely narrator and chronicler, the grot Makari, whose unique insights and worldview turned this already known backstory into something truly special.

The story starts off in the current timeline of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and shows Inquisitor Falx obtaining Makari and interrogating him about Ghazghkull.  This causes the book to dive back into the early days of Ghazghkull as Makari chronicle his master’s existence as he saw it.  As such, you get a very specific examination of Ghazghkull’s life, with a focus on his early trials, some of his pivotal moments, and more specifically his interactions with Makari.  At the same time, the story keeps jumping back to the present, with the Inquisitor and her followers interrupting to ask specific questions and discussing whether there is any truth in what he says.  The book keeps jumping between these different perspectives, and you end up with two distinctive storylines as Makari’s presence brings some big woes for the Inquisitor in the present day.  The chronicle storyline goes at a brisk pace, especially as Makari’s interrogators get him to skip or shorten specific sections, but there is a clever and impressive logic into what parts of Ghazghkull’s life are featured or ignored.  Not only are the past and present storylines exceedingly intriguing and entertaining in their own rights, but they also come together perfectly as well, with Makari’s insights into Ghazghkull and himself impacting the actions of Falx.  While the ending was slightly too metaphysical, it served as a brilliant and powerful conclusion to this great story, and I loved seeing the entire tale come full circle in some hilarious ways.

I deeply appreciated the way that Crowley put Ghazghkull Thraka’s story together, as its distinctive and clever style really helped to enhance the chronicle contained within.  The plot device of an interrogation of an alien prisoner works extremely well to set up the main narrative, and the constant interruptions, debates and revelations that occur whenever it snaps back to the present adds to the sense of mystery and mysticism surrounding the titular figure.  While Crowley takes the story in some interesting and complex directions at times, the entire novel is paced beautifully, and there is never a single boring or slow moment within the entire thing.  I particularly liked the near constant humour that was injected into the story, a fantastic side-effect of basing the book around the funny ork species, and I laughed out loud several times as I powered through this impressively amusing read.  Like many Warhammer novels, Ghazghkull Thraka can be enjoyed as a standalone read, and the author makes sure that it features a great self-contained narrative that anyone can enjoy, even those unfamiliar with the universe and the canon.  Indeed, this would be a decent introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 canon and associated extended universe, especially as it perfectly presents one of the key factions of the universe.  Most of the unique universe elements and wider history are explained sufficiently for new readers to follow along without any issues, although some could potentially get confused by the deliberate exclusion of events previously covered in other books.  Still, Ghazghkull Thraka should turn out to be an easy and entertaining read for any science fiction fan, and I thought that this Warhammer 40,000 novel was very well written and extremely clever.

One of the things I love the most about Nate Crowley’s Warhammer novels is his brilliant ability to dive into the unique alien races of the universe and then perfectly showcase their culture and mindsets.  This was the case again in Ghazghkull Thraka, where Crowley expertly dives into the heads of the various ork and grot characters.  No matter whose perspective is shown, every scene of this book features some excellent and often highly amusing depiction of greenskin culture, as Makari attempts to explain the ork perspective as well as his place in the society as a grot.  As such, you get some incredibly detailed and compelling insights into this crude and warlike race, including their brutal hierarchy, need for violence, insane technology, and very unique worldview, which generally results in most of the book’s fantastic humour.  However, rather than the dumb, brutal and one-note figures that most authors depict, Crowley really goes out his way to show that there is a lot more to orks than you realise.  Not only do you get some excellent insights into their various clans and organisations but the various ork characters are shown to be complex beings with unique needs and the ability to formulate some very cunning plans.  There is a particularly intriguing look at the ork religion that follows the gods Gork and Mork, and this novel ends up with a spiritual edge, especially as Crowley shows the orks being extremely successful because they choose to strongly believe in themselves.  As such, you see quite a unique and compelling side to the ork race in this book, and I loved how incredibly Crowley portrayed them.

Naturally, a big part of this examination of ork culture comes from the in-depth look at the life of Ghazghkull himself.  As I mentioned before, Ghazghkull is one of the best-known characters in the entire Warhammer 40,000 canon, so most veteran readers would already be quite familiar with him and his actions.  However, Crowley does an excellent job of examining a completely new side to this character, and mostly ignores his wars at Armageddon and his intense rivalry with Commissar Yarrick, both of which have been done to death in other books.  While certain parts of his history are revisited in this novel, Crowley completely changes their implications and causes, instead focusing on Ghazghkull’s unique orkish mindset and his role as the prophet of his gods.  This new take on Ghazghkull proves to be quite unique and very captivating, as he is shown to be an overburdened being, constantly pressured by his own visions and the influence of the gods to succeed and be a uniting force for his people.  While he still retains the casual violence of his race, you really see Ghazghkull as a deep thinker, and it is fascinating to see his inner ork face off against his grand ambitions and desires.  Crowley also adds some compelling supernatural elements to his character, as Ghazghkull, as seen by Makari, bears a direct connection to the gods which he can use to alter his fellows and himself.  While this isn’t too overpowered or strange, it adds a great extra layer of menace to the character, especially for the humans, and I loved seeing the Inquisitors trying to wrap their heads around the strange occurrences.  I had a lot of fun seeing this other side of Ghazghkull, and this novel ended up being a great analysis of who they are and what they represent to their race.

I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Makari as one of the central characters, and his use as the main witness to Ghazghkull’s life worked incredibly well.  While Makari has always been associated with the character of Ghazghkull, accompanying him in his battles and waving his banner as a source of luck, Crowley really changes him in this novel and paints him as an essential part of Ghazghkull’s success and relationship with the gods.  Shown to be there the moment that Ghazghkull became the prophet, Makari follows Ghazghkull through some of his big moments and it is hilarious to see his snide view on the subject, especially as, like most grots, he a massive coward who doesn’t want to be there.  A lot of this novel’s humour is derived from Makari’s observations and responses, and I loved some of the jokes set up around it.  Crowley does an awful lot with this character, and I particularly liked how the story explained certain aspects of his previous portrayals, such as the apparent multiple versions and his surprising luck.  These are worked into the story extremely well, but it’s the relationship with Ghazghkull that becomes the most fascinating.  Just like with Ghazghkull, there is a major spiritual edge to Makari, who appears to be just as chosen and important to the plan as his master.  Makari’s mystical and religious bond enables him to have a far bigger insight into Ghazghkull’s actions than anybody else, and this really enhanced the analysis of the titular character.  However, it is in Makari’s attempts to serve and help his master achieve his destiny that we see the best Makari scenes, especially when faced with Ghazghkull’s apparent depression, the manipulation of his other followers, and his own stubbornness.  While Ghazghkull does have the inherent ork reluctance to rely on a grot, and indeed he is extremely likely to kill Makari if he starts giving advice, the moments where Makari get through to him are powerful, and I really appreciated the character work surrounding them.  There are some rocky moments between them, especially when Ghazghkull becomes dismissive of his lucky grot, and Makari’s subsequent reactions is very funny and incredibly over the top, which was so very cool.  Overall, this ended up being an excellent and surprisingly compelling portrayal of Makari, and I am exceedingly glad that Crowley featured him in this novel the way he did.

Aside from the greenskin characters, a large amount of plot revolves around the team interrogating Makari.  Crowley really went out his way to create a particularly unique group of Imperial agents who bear surprising insights into the mind of the xenos.  This team is led by Inquistor Falx, a rogue Inquisitor who bears a dangerous obsession with the alien creatures.  Falx is desperate to learn everything she can about the aliens attacking the Imperium to help defeat them and finds herself stymied by the Imperium’s controlling and non-progressive government and religion.  As such, she takes some major risks in this book to understand Makari and Ghazghkull and has some unique and dangerous methods for achieving her goals that borders on the insane/heretical.  I quite liked Falx, despite her obsessive qualities, and she proved to be a great central figure for half the novels plot, especially as her frustrations, concerns and thoughts about the evils of the Imperium, are extremely understandable.

Falx also employs a unique team of interrogators to help her with Makari, including Brother Hendriksen, a Space Wolves rune priest assigned to Deathwatch who has also fallen out of favour with the Imperium thanks to his work with Falx.  Hendriksen serves as a beastly and powerful presence on Falx’s team, and he often provides a great counterpoint to the inquisitor in both technique and common sense, often despairing at her more dangerous choices.  Crowley’s diverse cast gets even larger with the truly unique character of Cassia, a female ogryn psyker who has grown as smart as a human.  This was a fantastic and extremely distinctive addition to the cast, and her surprisingly calm demeanour, which contrasts beautifully with her immense ogryn strength, works perfectly against Hendriksen’s impatience and anger.  The final member of the team is probably the most enjoyable, with the ork character, Biter (Bites-Faces-Of-The-Face-Biter-Before-It-Can-Bite).  Biter is a member of a Blood Axes mercenary band who have dealings with Falx and who sell Makari to her, remaining behind to interpret Makari’s testimony to the humans.  Due to being a member of the Blood Axes, a group who idolise human military culture, Biter is a very distinctive figure, wearing an approximation of a military uniform and appreciating complex tactics and strategy.  However, Biter is even more intelligent and cunning than most Blood Axes, and his near human tendencies really stand out, as it is pretty unexpected from an orc.  His fantastic reactions, comedic impressions of human behaviour, and determination to antagonise the Inquisitor really make him stand out, and he was an absolute joy to behold.  These four interrogators play off each other perfectly during the present-day scenes, and their arguments, discussions and interpretations of Makari’s story give it added depth, humour and impact, especially once they start realising just how valuable their prisoner is.  This entire cast was put together extremely well, and I had an incredible time with this unique and enjoyable collection of characters.

Like most Warhammer novels I check out, I chose to grab the audiobook version of Ghazghkull Thraka, which turned out to be such a wonderful and incredible listening experience.  Not only did the story absolutely fly by in this format, allowing me to get through its seven and a half hour runtime extremely quickly, but I found that the narrative and descriptions of ork life really popped when read out.  However, the best part about the Ghazghkull Thraka audiobook is the outstanding use of narrators.  This audiobook has three separate narrators, Kelly Hotten, Paul Putner and Jon Rand, each of whom have some experience narrating other Warhammer audio productions.  Not only are each of these narrators quite talented but the way they were featured in this audiobook is extremely clever, with the voice actor changing depending on who is witnessing or telling the events of the book.  For example, Kelly Hotten serves as the narrator for the various scenes and interludes where Inquisitor Falx is witnessing Makari’s interrogation, and Hotten does a brilliant job capturing the various players of these scenes, including the Inquisitor, her unique companions, and their orkish interpreter.  Paul Putner narrates the various scenes shown directly from Makari’s perspective, and he has a lot of fun in this role, not only capturing the cowardly and sneaky mannerisms of the grot protagonist, but also providing some amusing and deep voices for the ork characters.  Finally, Jon Rand has a memorable sequence voicing Brother Hendriksen when he psychically jumps into Makari’s mind and views some of the events occurring, and he gives the character a notable accent and internal growl that fit him extremely well.  The jumps between the voice actors were done perfectly and I really loved how it changed up depending on the perspective.  All three voice actors did an amazing job with their narration, and their work, plus some fun sound effects here and there, helped to turn this into such an impressive production.  Easily the best way to enjoy Ghazghkull Thraka, you will have an incredible time listening to this audiobook.

Nate Crowley continues to shine with another entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with the unbelievably entertaining Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!  Featuring a unique and deeply amusing story that re-examines on of the canon’s most iconic alien characters, Ghazghkull Thraka has a tight and cleverly written story, loaded with action, great characters and whole mess of outstanding humour.  Not only that, but this is without a doubt one of the best portrayals of the Warhammer 40,000 orks I have seen as Crowley obviously had a ton of fun bringing them to life.  Easily one of the best (and definitely the funniest) Warhammer 40,000 novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, Ghazghkull Thraka comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and is a must read for all fans of this wonderful fandom.

Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Rivers of London – Book Nine

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading lights in the urban fantasy genre, the exceedingly talented Ben Aaronovitch, returns with the latest epic book in his brilliant Rivers of London series, Amongst our Weapons.

For the last 10 years, the fantasy world has been exceedingly impressed by the fantastic writings of Ben Aaronovitch, who came up with a real winner with his Rivers of London series (also known as the Peter Grant series).  Aaronovitch, who already had some major nerd cred as a writer of two Doctor Who serials, debuted the first book in this series, Rivers of London, back in 2011.  This book told the story of Peter Grant, a young Metropolitan Police officer who is assigned to a specialised branch of the Met that deals with magic and supernatural incidents.  This intriguing debut combined magical elements with a classic police procedural format to create an epic and captivating read.  The author has since expanded this series out to several novels, as well as a range of novellas, short stories, and even a graphic novel series, all of which continue the story of Peter Grant and Aaronovitch’s unique magical world.  I have had a lot of fun over the last few years with this series, and I have greatly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s last two entries, Lies Sleeping and False Value.  Aaronovitch is back with another exceptional read in his ninth Rivers of London novel, Amongst our Weapons, which continues the excellent format and presents the reader with an awesome new mystery.

The London Silver Vaults are a renowned underground market for silverware in the heart of London.  They are highly secured and constantly monitored, so getting away with any sort of crime in the vaults is impossible.  So when a crazed would-be robber is brutally killed in the middle of the vaults with no witnesses or cameras catching the act, the Met are forced to call in their secret weapon, Peter Grant and his fellow detectives from the Special Assessment Unit, better known as the Folly.

Specialising in investigating magical incidents, Peter and his team are quickly able to determine that the death and the murder’s subsequent escape were a result of powerful magic.  Taking the lead on the case, Peter hopes to catch the killer quickly, but are quick to discover that their investigation is about to get far too complicated.  Ancient magics and unknown powers are loose around London, and after discovering a second body, the Folly team begin to investigate the members of a mysterious college cult from Manchester that has been inactive for years.  As more attacks occur, it becomes apparent that members of the cult are being hunted down and that their killer appears to be a vengeful, spear-wielding angel.

Determined to get to the bottom of the killings, Peter dives into the history of the cult and the mysterious artefacts they uncovered.  His investigation will lead him all over England, from the colleges of Manchester all the way to the dismal North.  But even as he begins to uncover the truth behind the killings and the being responsible, does even the full might of the Folly have the power to stop an angel and the deadly magic gifted to her?  Worse, another party has involved themselves in the case, someone that Peter knows far too well.  Can Peter solve this case before it is too late, and how will he deal with the greatest challenge of his life, becoming a father to his two magical twins?

Wow, Aaronovitch continues to massively impress me, bringing together another brilliant and unique urban fantasy read.  Once again bringing together an outstanding story that features distinctive fantasy elements with a clever mystery, Amongst our Weapons was a fantastic read that I had an incredible time reading.  This book was pretty damn awesome and gets a full five-star rating from me.

I had an absolute blast with the story contained within Amongst our Weapons as Aaronovitch has once again cleverly combined complex fantasy elements with a compelling murder mystery investigation, resulting in a deeply entertaining and addictive story.  Aaronovitch starts this latest novel off strong, with the protagonist and his team immediately thrust into an investigation of a man with a mysterious magical hole blown into his chest and no witnesses who saw what happened.  This intriguing start quickly becomes even more enticing, as a second murder is soon discovered, as well as other unusual signs and discoveries at the various crime scenes.  However, the excitement does not end there, as Aaronovitch also fits in an early encounter with the powerful murder, who appears to be an exceedingly deadly angel of vengeance, as well as the sudden reappearance of recurring antagonist Lesley May, Peter’s former partner who now acts as a magical mercenary.  Throw in some great character driven storylines about the protagonist’s family, as his river goddess wife is about to give birth, and you have quite an exceptional start to the novel.  Indeed, once all these elements were set up, I was hopelessly hooked on the story, and it proved extremely hard to put this book down at all.

The rest of the narrative flows on from here extremely strongly, as the characters launch an exhaustive and intense investigation not only into the murders but into the origins of certain magical items and the history of the college cult who appear to be targeted.  This takes the protagonist on a bit of a fieldtrip outside London, exploring Manchester and the North, and introducing the characters to some intriguing new magical elements.  While parts of the story here did get a bit bogged down when it came to exploring some of the more complex new fantasy inclusions, I flew through the second part of the book, especially as it is laced with several brilliant and imaginative confrontations between the protagonist and the book’s various antagonists.  Everything comes together extremely well in the lead-up to the conclusion, which results in a fantastic battle that helps resolve everything perfectly.  I did think that it got a little too metaphysical in places, but I still deeply enjoyed this great conclusion, which should really satisfy every reader, while also setting up some interesting storylines for the future.

Aaronovitch has such a distinctive writing style for the Rivers of London series, which is put to great use throughout Amongst our Weapons.  Like most of the Rivers of London novels, Amongst our Weapons can be read as a standalone read, with Aaronovitch doing a great job of rehashing some of the relevant continued storylines when they become relevant to the ongoing story.  This book features the usual awesome blend of magic, crime fiction and character-led storylines, wrapped up with a great sense of fun and humour, which helps to produce quite an entertaining and captivating read.  I particularly loved how the author makes his novels feel like a police procedural with magic, and this is perfectly on display in Amongst our Weapons, as the protagonists engage in elaborate investigation into several unique deaths.  It is so much fun to watch these magic-wielding protagonists do research, official police investigations, paperwork, evidence collecting and various theorising as they examine both the magical and human sides of the case, and I always love how well these elements can be fit into a seemingly typical murder mystery storyline.  Everything flows extremely well through this novel, and while I think there are some minor pacing issues towards the middle, readers will power through this entire book once they get caught up in the mystery and the magic.

I have always been really impressed with the distinctive and captivating fantasy elements contained within the Rivers of London novels, which prove to be intrinsic and outstanding parts of the book.  Rather than use classic fantasy elements, the magic and unique creatures featured within this series are a lot more abstract with a focus on energy manipulation, creatures from alternate universes and godlike beings who get their powers by being embodiments of important locations.  This really gives the novels a great, unique feel that is brilliantly enhanced by the way that the various characters treat magic in an almost scientific way, especially from a policing perspective, as the protagonists are effectively investigating and monitoring it in London.  This fantastic way of examining magic proves to be quite effective in Amongst our Weapons, as you get to see all manner of theorising, analyses and scientific conclusions drawn up as the protagonists attempt to identify and quantify the new forms of magic they are dealing with, especially when they come face to face with an unknown being of immense power.  This cool magic is also quite stunningly described throughout the novel, and I loved seeing its unique and clever use throughout the various magical confrontation sequences, and there is nothing more awesome than reading about a couple of wizards face off against an apparent angel.  I find all the cool magical elements quite fascinating to explore, and I loved seeing some of the world building that occurred throughout Amongst our Weapons, with some new groups of magical users introduced or referenced throughout.  Aaronovitch actually sets up some intriguing new world-building elements throughout Amongst our Weapons, and I look forward to seeing how this expands in some of the future novels.

Finally, I really must highlight the outstanding characters featured within Amongst our Weapons, who really help to turn this awesome story into something truly special.  This cast is headlined by the book’s main protagonist and point-of-view character, Peter Grant, who I really have a lot of fun with.  Grant is a funny and bold protagonist, who has been really growing since the first novel, not only in personality and responsibility but also in magical talent.  He serves as a brilliant protagonist for Amongst our Weapons, and his dogged and clever investigation of the unusual events moved the story along at a swift and enjoyable pace.  While his police work is a major part of the character, this latest novel also focuses again on his personal life, showing his unique marriage to a river (well, the living embodiment of a river), and the upcoming birth of his likely magical children.  This puts some major responsibility on Peter’s head, which he struggles to deal with, still taking risks with his work.  Watching him obsessively chase after the culprit while also trying to balance the upcoming birth of his children was a great part of the novel, and it really helped to make the reader feel attached to him.  However, I personally loved his outstanding sense of humour throughout this novel, as much of the book’s comedic elements are thanks to this protagonist’s funny statements and clever observations about the outrageous events he is witnessing.

Aside from this excellent and relatable protagonist, Amongst our Weapons features a large and diverse cast of figures, including a combination of new people associated with the case and a huge batch of recurring characters who have been perfectly set up before.  Most of the recurring characters are re-introduced extremely well, and even new readers should be able to follow who is who amongst this unique cast of magic users and professional police officers who work together to solve crimes.  My favourite supporting character is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Folly and the last official wizard.  A gentlemanly figure who fought in World War II, Nightingale serves as a great mentor as well as a badass magician able to throw down with the worst creatures or dark magic users.  While not featured as heavily here as in previous novels, Nightingale has some great moments throughout Amongst our Weapons, and it was awesome to see him squaring off against the winged antagonist.  Aaronovitch also sets up some interesting storylines for him in this book, and it sounds like he will have a much more altered role in the future.  The other major character I should highlight is Lesley May, who serves as a secondary antagonist throughout this book.  Lesley, who spends most of the book as a mercenary character attempting to undermine the police’s investigation, is a great addition to the plot and I am extremely glad that Aaronovitch brought her back for this novel.  Not only do you get more of the regret-filled interactions with Peter but she serves as a great foil for the protagonists, and it was really fun to see her get involved and attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage.  All these characters, and many more, are great additions to the fantastic and complex plot of the book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the fantastic and powerful interactions between them.

The Rivers of London series continues to shine as one of the best and impressive urban fantasy series with Amongst our Weapons.  Ben Aaronovitch is such a talented author, and I deeply enjoyed distinctive and captivating stories he crafts, especially with its outstanding blend of unique fantasy and memorable murder mystery elements.  Amongst our Weapons is one of my favourite books from Aaronovitch I have read so far and it is a highly recommended for all fantasy fans.  If you aren’t exploring the Rivers of London, then you are really missing out!

The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.

It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years.  The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome.  Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me.  Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors.  Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.

Rome, 89 AD.  The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period.  Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life.  With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse.  An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place.  Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances.  Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.

Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene.  But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders.  A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them.  Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.

With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases.  Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.

Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading.  Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment.  However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader.  For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel.  The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation.  These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists.  As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline.  Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way.  While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book.  I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book.  Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.

Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together.  Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale.  I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings.  The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit.  This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation.  Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader.  However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra.  Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims.  Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back.  I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline.  This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.

I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this.  The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot.  There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing.  However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot.  Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.

Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders.  This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved.  I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot.  I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out.  I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover.  This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book.  I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel.  Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.

Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout.  As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book.  Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome.  The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her.  As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases.  It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings.  Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents.  I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.

Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book.  Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series.  All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot.  As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places.  Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods.  The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more.  I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book.  Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments.  Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.

With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain.  This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer.  With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read.  This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer

The German Wife Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 450 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best authors, Kelly Rimmer, returns with another beautiful and exceedingly moving historical drama, The German Wife, which takes readers to the edge of despair and back again with its deep and bleak plot.

Kelly Rimmer is an outstanding author who specialises in writing great historical drama novels and who was one of the better authors I was lucky enough to experience for the first time last year when I received a copy of her 2021 novel, The Warsaw OrphanThe Warsaw Orphan was a brilliant and extremely powerful read that showcased multiple sides of the horror and terror experienced in the Warsaw Ghetto while also telling the unique tale of two young people who tried to smuggle young children outside the ghetto walls.  Brutal, extreme and yet filled with hope, this was a deeply moving novel that ended up an incredible read.  Due to how great this novel was, I was extremely keen to check out more stuff from Rimmer and I was extremely happy when I found myself receive a copy of her latest novel, The German Wife.

Berlin, 1930.  Sofie Rhodes can only watch in horror as the Nazi Party starts to take control of her country, slowly morphing it into a nation of hatred and fear.  Already facing financial ruin after World War I and the Depression, Sofie and her husband, Jürgen, find themselves receiving special attention from the Nazis due to Jürgen’s scientific speciality.  When Jürgen is forcibly recruited to Hitler’s top-secret rocket project, Sofie finds herself constantly under surveillance and forced to conform to Nazi ideology, including turning her back on her Jewish best friend, Mayim.

Many years later, in 1950, Sofie and her remaining children emigrate to a small town in Alabama to be with Jürgen, whose past with the Nazis has been pardoned and erased in exchange for his work on the US space program.  Determined to make a new life for herself and her family in America, Sofie soon discovers old and new prejudices both from the hostile Americans and the other German families living in town with them.

Isolated and hated, Sofie finds her path crossing with American housewife Lizzie Miller, who has her own history of loss and despair during the Depression.  Shocked that her husband and government are so eager to be working with former Nazis, Lizzie keeps finding herself in conflict with Sofie, while rumour and gossip about the Rhodes family swirl around town.  When these rumours lead to violence and anger, the new community will be torn apart as the true history of the Rhodes family comes tumbling out.  Can this troubled family finally find redemption in a new land, or will the horrors of the war and Nazi ambition follow them wherever they go?

Damn, this was an intense and captivating read.  Rimmer went all out with the emotional feels here in The German Wife, producing a powerful, moving and tragic tale of love, loss and moral compromise.  Perfectly portraying some fascinating elements of the darkest part of our history, this was an exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I cannot emphasise enough how good the story in The German Wife was as Rimmer produced a deeply dramatic historical tale with an impressive scope that comes together beautifully.  Split between its two point-of-view characters, Sofie Rhodes and Lizzie Miller, The German Wife presents a complex, time-hopping narrative as the reader is shown the protagonists conflict as well as the events that led them to meet for the first time.  Half the book takes place in 1950 Alabama, where both ladies live with their respective families, while the other half of the book goes back and sequentially examines their pasts from 1930 onward.  This provides the reader with an intriguing view of both the Depression in America and the rise of Nazism in Germany, while also providing some intriguing context for the characters’ actions in 1950.  This mixture of perspectives and time periods works extremely well, and Rimmer melds them together perfectly to tell a taught and emotionally rich tale.  The past injustices and emotional traumas that occur in these earlier timelines contrast perfectly with the issues they are having in the 1950s, and it was great to see all the events that built towards the attitudes and emotions they had when they were older.  It also provides three unique storylines (1930s America, 1930s Germany and 1950s America), all three of which contained some intriguing side characters and captivating historical elements, which was extremely compelling.

Out of the three main plot lines that The German Wife contained, I personally thought the examinations of Sofie and Jürgen’s time in Nazi Germany were the best.  These scenes are particularly compelling, as they show the characters thrust into the middle of events they can’t escape from as they are forced to work with the Nazis and accept the changes to the country.  Watching these inherently good characters make compromise after compromise and suffer constant emotional trauma and betrayal is pretty heartbreaking, but it produces some brilliant and memorable scenes that will really hit you in the feels.  This context, and Lizzie’s excellent backstory, are worked into the 1950s storyline extremely well, and the various time periods compliment each other well, especially as Rimmer works to provide several cryptic hints about past events in the future chapters, which really adds to the reader’s apprehension.  All these storylines, including the one in the 1950s, which examines the many issues the Rhodeses face when they emigrate to America, as well as the conflict that occurs between Sofie and Lizzie, are brilliantly written and loaded with emotional moments that hit you hard.  There is also some great character work contained with The German Wife as Rimmer really builds up her central two characters, as well as the excellent supporting cast, providing them with captivating and compelling personal histories, which are fully explored in the flashback scenes.  This great story, combined with the fantastic characters and the historical settings, is a narrative that will sit with me for a long time.

Rimmer also provides a detailed and impressive look at various historical elements that occurred between 1930 and 1950 in both America and Germany.  The author clearly did a ton of research on multiple subjects before writing this book, and it really shows as the story progresses.  These historical elements include a pretty comprehensive look at life in America during the Depression, as one point of view characters journeys around several parts of the deeply impacted South, and there are some great scenes, especially some of the early ones that take place in an extremely dusty climate.  There is also a great examination of both the Nazi and American rocket programs that occurred during this period, as Jürgen serves as a technician for both governments.  I found the examination of the V2 program to be extremely interesting, and Rimmer goes into exquisite detail here, with Jürgen serving as an intriguing stand-in for historical figure Wernher von Braun.  This allows for the reader to see a slightly abridged version of the program (its shown through the eyes of his wife who is getting most of her knowledge second hand), but there is still a lot of great detail here, including the eventual change in objectives, the continued failure, the desire for it to succeed by the Nazis, as well as all the terrible things that resulted from it.  However, a good part of the book is also reserved to examine one of the most fascinating parts of the Nazi rocket program, the subsequent responsive Operation Paperclip by the Americans, which pardoned many of the German scientists and moved them to America with altered pasts to help their fledgling space program.  I loved seeing this movement to another country told through the eyes of both a wife of one of the scientists and an American citizen who finds out about the program, and it produces some brilliant and clever scenes that help showcases this extremely well.

I also really need to highlight Rimmer’s examination of the Nazi takeover of Germany that occurred in all Sofie’s flashback chapters.  Rimmer already has a lot of experience showcasing the evils of the Nazis from her previous books, but The German Wife probably contains one of her best depictions of this as it showed how a normal German citizen’s life was turned upside down in just a few years.  The author really hammers home just how creatively evil the Nazis were in corrupting their own country, as you see the full gradual process take effect.  The author meticulously recounts every change that the Nazis implemented, all of which served to ensure the loyalty of its people and to terrorise those they hated.  You get to see the full range of controls that the Nazis enacted, including threatening job security, disappearances by the secret police, control of the media, turning friends and neighbours against each other, providing a common enemy, and even brainwashing children in the schools.  All of this is pretty damn intense, especially as there are some notable modern parallels, and it is darkly fascinating to see everything that the Nazis did.  However, the true brilliance of the way that Rimmer explores it in The German Wife, is to show how people like the Rhodes reacted to it.  Watching them become horrified by the changes to their country and the people around them is pretty intense, but the real drama occurs when they are forced to make compromises.  Sofia and Jürgen are constantly faced with the choice of helping the Nazis (either directly or indirectly by not opposing them), or to face various consequences for themselves and their families.  Their decisions, despite always appearing to be their best option, eventually drag them deeper into complicity with the Nazis, so much so that Jürgen becomes a reluctant member of the SS and bears some responsibility for utilising slave labour in terrible conditions.  This is such a horrifying thing to witness, especially as the reader is left to wonder what they would have done in a similar situation.  They way the scenarios are written, with the Rhodes punished every time they move away from the party goals really ensure that you have no idea how you would have acted it makes some of the reactions from the 1950s American characters sound extremely naïve as a result.  This was such a powerful and impressive inclusion from Rimmer and I felt that this brilliant portrayal of the Nazi’s techniques for control of their own citizens added so much to book’s outstanding plot.

With The German Wife, Kelly Rimmer continues to shine as one of Australia’s most exceptional authors of historical dramas.  This outstanding contains an extremely moving and heartbreaking tale from some of the darkest moments in 19th century history.  With powerful views of life during both the Depression and the rise of the Nazis, readers will quickly become engrossed with this impressive tale and well-written central characters.  The German Wife was insanely good and will leave readers stunned with how the story comes together.  A deeply memorable and intense read, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai.  Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask).  Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).

Usagi IDW #15b

This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales.  Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming).  I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.

Usagi IDW #16

Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales.  Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series.  All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.

Usagi IDW #16b

The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war.  Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing.  Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.

Usagi IDW #17

These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo.  Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings.  Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger.  A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights.  To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan.  But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?

Usagi IDW #17b

These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past.  The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond.  This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative.  From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes.  This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu.  You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son.  It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques.  The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill.  This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.

Usagi IDW #18

I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this.  This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them.  This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste.  This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages.  These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms.  The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks.  Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain.  These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves.  I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.

Usagi IDW #18b

We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear.  In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards.  Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes.  When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them.  However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain.  Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.

Usagi IDW #19

The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume.  Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus.  Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge.  The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name.  This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords.  The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that).  I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions.  This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.

Usagi IDW #19b

One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work.  Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume.  This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings.  I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue.  Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued.  The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within.  Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences.  I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story.  This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist.  This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.

Usagi IDW #20

The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series.  In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road.  It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master.  Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together.  However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.

Usagi IDW #20b

Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions.  This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school.  From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming).  This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel.  This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen.  The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.

Usagi IDW #20c

While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series.  Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi.  I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well.  His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi.  I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes.  It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes.  Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune.  An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.

Usagi IDW #21

As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes.  I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail.  Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings.  You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories.  Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels.  I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release.  While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully.  All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.

Usagi IDW #21b

Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic.  Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork.  I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.