Guest Review: Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke

For this entry, my editor and future wife Alex managed to talk me into letting her do a review.  We hope you enjoy this guest review, and Alex may do some more in the future.

Pan's Labyrinth Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2019)

Series: Pan’s Labyrinth

Length: 297 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As the chief editor for The Unseen Library, I read far more book reviews than books, but every now and then the mood strikes just right, and I am fortunate to share a house filled to the brim with books waiting to be enjoyed. I thought I’d commemorate the latest occasion by writing a review of my own:

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language dark fantasy film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Thirteen years after its release, Guillermo del Toro and bestselling author Cornelia Funke have transformed the screenplay of the film into a beautiful work of prose.

Pan’s Labyrinth is part of a modern tradition of fairytales in which children have fantastic adventures whilst the adults are busy with war. In Spain, in 1944, young Ofelia and her mother join the household of Capitan Vidal, who is responsible for hunting down the anti-fascist guerrillas hiding in the mountainous forests nearby. Left to her own devices and enchanted by fairy tales, Ofelia is drawn to the ancient stone labyrinth near their new home. There she meets the Faun, who tells her she is in fact the missing princess of the Underground Kingdom. In order to reclaim her place in the kingdom and escape her terrible new stepfather, she must prove her courage and worthiness by completing three tasks. This is easier said than done; these tasks themselves are life-threateningly perilous, but Ofelia must also try to protect herself and her heavily pregnant and ailing mother from the ruthless Capitan and the rebels at the door.

Guillermo del Toro is renowned for making visually stunning films, and Pan’s Labyrinth was no exception; in fact, it won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup. I am happy to report that the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth faithfully re-imagines the amazing sets, characters and creatures of the film. In the absence of cinematography, visual design and Doug Jones in monster makeup, the authors have relied on using a great deal of descriptive language to bring scenes to life in text. This is also supported by a number of illustrations throughout the book which clearly drew from the art of the film. It had been many years since I last saw the film, but the imagery of the story is so well produced that I was easily able to imagine many long-forgotten scenes according to del Toro’s vision.

There are many advantages of this novelisation. In particular, the book gives a great deal of insight into various characters not afforded by the film. We see Ofelia’s thought processes as she observes the adults around her and as she obeys or defies the Faun’s instructions. We understand the fierce motivation of Mercedes and Dr Ferreira as they desperately try to assist the rebels in the hills without being discovered. Most terrifying of all, we catch a glimpse of the inner mind of Capitan Vidal, the Wolf, whose horrendous acts of violence rival those of the Pale Man. The inner monologues of these characters provided in the book enable us to have a greater appreciation of their perspectives, actions and motivations.

For the most part, the novelisation follows the story of the film faithfully, but it also includes a number of additional chapters. These feature stories of the Underground Kingdom and its magic bleeding into the Upper Kingdom, creating the lore and mythology that surrounds the Spanish landscape in which the story is set. These grim and interconnected fairy tales provide amazing context for the enigmatic Faun and the nature and gravity of the tasks Ofelia must complete, as well as being beautiful and moving stories in their own right.

Fans of the film will know exactly what to expect from the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth and will appreciate the additional fairy tales and insights it provides. Those who haven’t seen the film (and there is always a cohort of cinemagoers that dislikes or struggles with subtitled films) will feel as though they had, as this gruesome and fantastic story has been beautifully transferred onto the page.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback Format – 9 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 350 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, now this was one hell of a book!!!

K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction that keeps the reader enthralled with its excellent story, fantastic self-aware humour and one of the best depictions of a siege that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The end result was an excellent read that I just had to give a full five stars to, and it has to be one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

The Robur Empire is one of the great civilisations in the world, and at its heart lies the City, capital and seat of power of the Emperor, kept safe by its impenetrable walls, powerful armies and unsurpassed navies.  However, that safety is unexpectantly compromised when a massive force of soldiers appears out of nowhere, slaughtering the entire imperial army, crippling the navy and completely surrounded the City.

The only forces left garrisoned in the City are the men of the Empire’s Engineering Corps, led by Colonel-in-Chief Orhan, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the defence of the City.  Orhan is a coward, a glorified bridge builder, a man able to work the complex imperial military system for his own gain and a foreigner despised by most of Robur society, but he is not a great military leader.  He is, however, one of the most devious and underhanded men the army has ever seen, and these might just be the qualities needed to save the City from destruction.  As Orhan works to unite the various factions in the City to his cause and come up with a range of unique defences, he makes a shocking discovery.  A figure from his past is leading the assault against the City, and Orhan quickly realises that he might be on the wrong side of this battle.

I really enjoyed this latest book from Parker, who has created a complex and captivating fantasy tale that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  K. J. Parker is actually a pseudonym of author Tom Holt, who was able to keep the dual identity secret for 17 years before it was revealed in 2015.  Between his two identities, the author has written an amazing number of books since his 1987 debut, mostly focused on the fantasy genre.  This includes over 30 humorous fantasy novels as Tom Holt, five historical fiction novels, the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies as Parker, a number of standalone fantasy books and a huge range of short fiction, some poems, songs and even some non-fiction work.  For those who may be concerned, no reading of any of Parker’s prior work is required to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City as this latest book is a standalone novel.  Still, I will be keeping an eye out for any future books by either Tom Holt or K. J. Parker as I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and fantastic sense of humour.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an intriguing novel that is told from the perspective of its “hero” Orhan, who is narrating the story of his defence of this city within a historical text.  This story is incredibly entertaining, as not only does it feature a first-rate siege within an excellent fantasy location, but it is told by a complex and multi-layered character who paints the entire ordeal of being in charge in a very funny light.

I am a man who loves a good siege storyline, but this has to be one of the best ones that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  At the start of the siege the situation looks grim, as a vast host surrounds the City, whose defenders have all been slaughtered outside the walls, with the exception of Orhan’s engineers, who lack the basic military supplies and machinery to defend the City.  As the enemy start a conventional long-term siege with advanced weaponry and superior forces, Orhan is forced to come up with something to delay their inevitable defeat in the hopes of reinforcements turning up.  Without the required men, equipment or leadership, they cannot rely on the traditional 15 methods of defending a walled city that the books suggest, so he has to rely on the on his own 16th way, which involves bluffing, chaos and mad-cap innovation.  As a result, much of the book features Orhan’s many unconventional methods to defend the City, whether it involves taking symbolic control of the entire empire, legitimising and attempting to control two rival criminal gangs or creating devastating new siege weapons.  The protagonist and his men’s engineering prowess comes in effect quite a bit throughout the book, and I loved seeing the machines and other unique defence methods that he deploys as a result.  All the various deceptions and tactics used to hold the City against this superior force is widely entertaining and I absolutely loved the siege storyline which serves as an amazing centre to this incredible story.

The setting that the author chooses for this book is pretty interesting and adds a lot of great elements to the story.  The Robur Empire is pretty much the Roman Empire, with the City being this universe’s equivalent of Rome.  I thought that the City was a fantastic setting for the vast majority of the story, and the various factions and problems with such a large city really tied into the great siege storyline.  The City’s criminal organisations, the Greens and the Blues, former charioteer supporters (very Roman) turned rival criminal unions, are the cause of a large amount of strife, and I liked how their own battles and self-importance became such a major part of this book.  I also felt that Parker did an amazing job portraying a city that sits at the heart of a massive empire, and the attitudes of the people within felt pretty accurate.

On top of the great setting, Parker has also created an intriguing, extended world for this story.  The Robur Empire is a great overall setting for most of this book, as its setup, design and attitudes are very similar to the ancient Romans.  Parker’s initially subtle use of racial identity in this empire is quite intriguing, and it becomes a major part of the book.  Essentially the empire is made up of the pure-blooded Robur, who are called blueskins due to their darker skin colouration.  Then there are those people with white skin, who are given the derogatory name of milkfaces, who are treated like second-class citizens within the empire, and who came from lands conquered by the Imperials.  Not only does this become an important plot point with the army attacking the City made up completely of milkfaces, but it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, when the pure-blooded Roman citizens looked down upon the paler barbarians from Gaul, Britain or Germany.  I also liked how the author tried to replicate the precision military system of the Romans with the Robur, and it was fun to see how the problems of such a system came into play throughout this book, such as having the military resources of the entire empire being kept in supply depo sites rather than in the capital.  I quite enjoyed these fantastic settings, and I thought that they were an excellent place to set these complex stories.

While the siege storylines and settings are extremely amazing, this book would be nothing without its main character and the person narrating this fictional historical text, Orhan.  Orhan is an amazingly complex character, and the personality that Parker creates for his hero is outstanding.  Orhan is a milkface who has risen to high military command within the Robur Empire due to his abilities as an engineer.  As a result of his hard early life and the constant belittlement and discrimination by the blueskins he serves under, he is an incredibly cynical person with a very jaded outlook on life.  The author does an amazing job transcribing these character traits onto the page, often in a sarcastic and very entertaining manner as he describes the events going on around him, and the reader gets a great sense of the character’s frustrations.  While Orhan is attempting to defend the City, his own narrations reveal him to be an extremely self-serving and selfish person who has been forced by circumstances rather than duty to protect the City.  His motivations become even more complex as he begins to wonder if he is on the wrong side of the conflict, as the invading army is completely made up of milkfaces like himself, and even when he is doing the right thing the blueskins in the city that he is defending still treat him badly.  Even with that doubt, he is a surprisingly (especially to himself) effective commander, whose deceitful and inventive nature, as well as his extensive knowledge of history and engineering, allows him to come up with some outstanding defensive strategies.  My favourite has to involve his unique method for dealing with the enemy’s sappers, which sees him use his knowledge of the City, his craft and his ability to manipulate his opponents to create a fantastic response.  The entire sequence involving this anti-sapper technique is one of the best parts of the book, and I love the doubt and regret he experiences as a result of his actions.  Overall, Orhan is an outstanding narrator, and his depiction of the chaotic event and his part in them really made this story for me.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, and I think I already have a contender for my future top ten books of 2019 list.  This book has to be read to fully appreciate its complexity and cleverness, and I found it to be boundlessly entertaining and widely funny.  K. J. Parker’s latest book comes highly recommended, and it is well worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday – Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving PIcture Cover.jpg

Publishers: Corgi and ISIS Audiobooks (14 November 1991)

Series: Discworld – Book 10

Length: 332 pages or 10 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Because my blog shares the name of a building featured in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, some people might have assumed that I am a fan.  You would be right, so very, very right.  I have loved Discworld since I was a small child, and my appreciation and respect for the complex writings of the late, great genius, Sir Terry Pratchett, has grown with me.  The Discworld series represents one of my ultimate comfort series of books.  It’s the series that I go back to at any time when I want something fun and familiar to enjoy.  I have read all of the adult books set in Discworld multiple times (I have yet to read all of the young adult ones), and it is an unusual year when I do not listen or read some of these books in my spare time.  Pretty much every single book in this series deserves five out of five stars or higher (with one or two exceptions that I may mark down to a 4.75 with a heavy, heavy heart), and you are unlikely to find any real criticisms about this book below.  After nearly a year of running this blog, the continued exclusion of a review of any of Pratchett’s Discworld is a travesty, and one that I seek to rectify in this somewhat late Throwback Thursday with a review of the 10th book in the series, Moving Pictures.

Before I review Moving Pictures, here is some quick context of the Discworld series for those people unfamiliar with these books.  Discworld is the main series of Sir Terry Pratchett, set upon the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.  The Discworld, or the Disc, is a flat world that rests on the backs of four massive elephants, who themselves stand on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming in space, Great A’Tuin.  The Discworld itself features a huge range of different nations and continents that bear striking similarities to real-world locations.  This series is, without a doubt, the best series that utilises a combination of fantasy and satire in the entire world.  The seamless blend of the two elements is just incredible, and both elements do an unbelievable job at enhancing each other.  Before his death, Pratchett wrote 41 books in the Discworld series, six of which are considered young adult books.  While the books can be read in any real order, the series were mostly written in chronological order (with the exception of Small Gods), and events from earlier books in the series are often referenced.  Although most of the Discworld stories are self-contained, a number of the books are linked together by a recurring main character and are subsequently grouped together into subseries.  These include the Rincewind, Witches, City Watch, Death, Tiffany Arching and Moist von Lipwig subseries, in addition to a few standalone books that fall outside of any of the subseries.  Characters often appear in other Discworld books outside of their subseries, and there are a string of side or secondary characters who appear in multiple subseries and standalone books.

The book I am reviewing, Moving Pictures, is a standalone book that does not really fall within any of the main subseries.  It is sometimes considered part of minor subseries, called the Industrial Revolution subseries, with The Truth and Monstrous Regiment, but I am not a big fan of that distinction.  As it is the first Discworld book I am reviewing, you might think that it is my favourite book in the entire series, which is not true; although it does get five out of five stars from me and I have enjoyed it an amazing number of times, it is not my absolute favourite Discworld book, although it is high on the list.  It is, however, an easier one for me to review as there is a lot I can say about it.

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘Holy wood is a different sort of place. People act differently here. Everywhere else the most important things are gods or money or cattle. Here, the most important thing is to be important.’

People might say that reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess weight. Sadly alchemists never really held with such a quaint notion. They think that they can change reality, shape it to their own purpose. Imagine then the damage that could be wrought if they get their hands on the ultimate alchemy: the invention of motion pictures, the greatest making of illusions. It may be a triumph of universe-shaking proportions. It’s either that or they’re about to unlock the dark terrible secret of the Holy Wood hills – by mistake…

The blurb above is a bit vague on the details of what is actually happening in Moving Pictures.  Essentially, the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on the Discworld (and a central location for many of the books), suddenly develop filmmaking, which they call moving pictures, and set up a filming base at the ancient and abandoned Holy Wood.  The moving pictures issue a weird siren call to the inhabitants of the Discworld, dragging all manners of people and creatures from across the lands and infecting them with their magic (not a metaphor).

Among those drawn to Holy Wood are Victor Tugelbend, a former student wizard, and Theda “Ginger” Withel, a small-town girl with big dreams.  Thanks to the magical on-screen chemistry between them, Victor and Ginger quickly become the superstars of the fledgling moving pictures industry, especially when the Discworld’s most infamous salesman, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, comes to town and takes over the studios.

However, reality on the Discworld is always a bit thin, and Lovecraftian monsters (a favourite recurring antagonist of Pratchett’s early Discworld novels) are revealed to be the ones who planted the idea of moving pictures and Holy Wood in the alchemists’ heads.  Using the new sort of magic created by Holy Wood, the creatures start to break through.  With the wizards of Unseen University, the people who are supposed to guard against these sorts of incursions, distracted by the arrival of an unconventional new Archchancellor, it is up to Victor, Ginger and a ragtag band of other Holy Wood characters to save the day.

This book has so many moving parts to it that it’s hard to know where to begin when reviewing it.  While the main story is concerned with the introduction of moving pictures into the Discworld, there are a number of other entertaining storylines going on throughout the book, each one complementing the main story and creating an amazing overall narrative.  The major appeal of this book is its sharp and intelligent satire of the movie business, which also examines the nature of a film industry in a world as crazy as the Discworld.  I also quite like all the amazing characters, either introduced or built up in this book, many of whom appear in later books in the series.

This book is absolutely hilarious and filled with a huge number of clever and outrageous jokes and observations about the film industry, all of which lie on top of Pratchett’s usual humour about day-to-day life in the Discworld and his random observations, many of which are perfectly introduced in the book’s footnotes.  The main storyline is an amazing portrayal of the hectic early days of the film industry, placed in a fantasy setting.  The cameras are powered by miniature demons (who paint the pictures really, really fast), the lighting is done by salamanders, actors of all species make up the cast, the audience eat ‘banged grains’ while watching the ‘clicks’ and the film’s monsters and villains are all trolls in crude costumes.  However, literal movie magic is making people do strange things (strange even for Discworld folk), talking animals are showing up looking for work, Dwarfs are singing “Hihohihohiho” as they work, characters routinely burst into song and dance in the rain, and one producer keeps threatening to turn people into stars, all while the book’s few straight-characters look on in bemusement.  All of this is amazing, and the sheer number of fantasy-assisted jokes throughout the book is pretty unbelievable.

At its heart, Moving Pictures is a satire and a critique about the film industry as a whole.  Quite a large amount of the story is dedicated to parodying the real-life the crazy effect that movies can have on audiences and the people who make them, as the book shows some ridiculous events.  The story also reflects the insubstantial nature of fame and the fragility of dreams surrounding the movie industry.  The fast-moving world of the film industry is also shown, although sped up even more for comedic and story value, as they film creators are constantly searching and finding new advancements in their field.  A great example of this is shown when Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler invents and then continually advances the art of advertisement, so that, within a few short weeks, the film industry goes from ineffective text advertisements to eye-catching posters and explorations of product placement and subliminal messages.  Pratchett handles these critiques very skilfully, and you cannot help but laugh aloud as he skewers the film industry quite cleverly throughout Moving Pictures.

Pratchett also filled Moving Pictures with a ton of references to iconic films and elements of the film industry.  Many of the characters involved with the films are caricatures of famous movie actors, with Victor playing all the typical romantic or manly male heroes of the day, and Ginger is essentially Marilyn Monroe.  Several films are parodied throughout the book, such as Gone With The Wind, which becomes Blown Away, an epic love story set around a famous Ankh-Morpork Civil War.  There is a rather good King Kong parody, in which a gigantic woman kidnaps a poor defenceless Ape (the Librarian) and drags him to the roof of the tallest tower in Ankh-Morpork, all while two wizards on a broomstick shoot at it with a crossbow, with one shouting “If it bleeds, we can kill it!”  That is only scratching the surface of the references featured within this book.  A golden figure with a name starting with O plays a big part in the story, the various studios are all parodies of real-life studios, and there a huge number of funny and subtle references to various famous films.  Examples of these include Wizard of Oz, Lassie, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Looney Tunes, Blues Brothers, Casablanca, Tarzan and Star Trek just to name a few.  Readers can go through this book multiple times and not pick up every detail, which is a testament to the cleverness of Pratchett and his ability to come up with some hilarious references.

I have always found the way that Pratchett utilises or re-uses his characters to be extremely fascinating; while some characters appear in multiple books, a number of his main characters, especially from his earlier books, are only used once. There are several examples of this, including Mort from Mort, Pteppic from Pyramids and Esk from Equal Rites (who did appear in a later young adult novel, but there was a significant time gap between the writing of these two books).  While Pratchett may have simply had only one story in mind for these characters, I have a feeling that he simply did not like how they turned out and decided not to use them again under any circumstances.  Mort is probably the best example of this.  Despite being the protagonist of the first Death subseries book Mort, he never appears in any of the Death subseries books again (aside from one brief flashback), and is instead replaced by his own daughter, Susan.  It is interesting to note that most of the main characters who were never or rarely used again are somewhat similar to each other, being young heroes without too many obvious flaws to them.  On the other hand, the unique main characters Pratchett creates with notable flaws, such as Rincewind, the wizard who has turned cowardice into an art form, or the overly cynical and dangerous alcoholic Sam Vimes, helm multiple books.

If I have to make one criticism about this book, it is the weak and somewhat inconsistent main characters, Victor and Ginger.  Ginger is a generic female character, and while she is a good parody of Marilyn Monroe and other early screen actresses, she is pretty one-dimensional and unlikeable.  Victor starts out with some very interesting character traits, as he is described as an extremely lazy person, whose unique brand of laziness forces him to become a brilliant student wizard in order for him to succeed in his quest to fail every test he ever takes by a certain point margin to ensure he remains a student.  However, these character traits are pretty much thrown out the window a few chapters in and he becomes a typical male hero for the rest of the book.  While this sort of straight-man character was needed for this wacky adventure, it is surprising that the character never again really shows the slightest hint of some of these earlier established character traits.  It is interesting to note that neither Victor or Ginger appear in any of the subsequent Discworld novels, so I think there is a strong possibility that Pratchett might also have disliked how these characters turned out.

While one or two of his earlier main characters were somewhat unimpressive, Pratchett always managed to make up for this by creating a range of memorable and enjoyable side characters.  It was always interesting to see which of these side characters would appear in various later books, as you knew Pratchett had to like them as well.  For example, Granny Weatherwax was a supporting character in Equal Rites, but Pratchett must have liked writing her, as she became a major character in the Discworld series, even getting her own subseries with several other witch characters.  Moving Pictures is perhaps the best example of Pratchett’s love of side characters; while Victor and Ginger never appear in the Discworld again, many of the side characters introduced or developed in this book have major roles later in the series.

For example, I was always impressed with how this book turned two minor characters from Guards! Guards!, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Detritus the troll, and gave them more expanded roles in Moving Pictures.  Dibbler was an opportunistic merchant who got a couple of good, if minor, scenes in Guards! Guards!, but in Moving Pictures, Pratchett transformed him into a ruthless and extremely savvy salesman who gets in the front door of every major new opportunity inflicted on the Discworld, but is often forced by circumstances back to becoming a sausage-in-a-bun merchant.  Dibbler was absolutely fantastic as the stereotypical sleazy film producer, and it is unsurprising why he suddenly became a major recurring character throughout the Discworld books, not only appearing in nearly every book set in Ankh-Morpork but also having clones of him appear in the other nations and cities, all of whom sell disgusting local delicacies.  Detritus is another great example, as he goes from the simple bouncer introduced in previous books to a troll seeking love and a new way of life.  Pratchett comes up with a great personality for Detritus in this book, and it carries through to the City Watch subseries when he joins the Watch in Men at Arms and becomes a major recurring character in this subseries and other books set around Ankh-Morpork.  Other recurring characters, Death and the Librarian, are as awesome as ever, but Dibbler and Detritus are the real standout stars of this book.

Several new characters introduced in this story also make a number of reappearances throughout the rest of the Discworld series.  A good example of this is the talking dog, Gaspode, who is a fantastic and sarcastic character through the book.  He has some great scenes, with the highlight being his friendship with Laddie, a Lassie parody and idiot who Gaspode takes under his wing.  The idea of a clever, underappreciated and sarcastic talking dog side character apparently worked so well that Pratchett found a way to return his magical intelligence and ability to speak a few books later in Men at Arms (the same book Detritus reappeared in) and he then featured in several additional books.

You also have to love the new wizard characters that Pratchett also created for this book.  Before Moving Pictures, the faculty of Unseen University, with the exception of the Librarian and Rincewind, were replaced each book with a new group of senior wizards, thanks to the competitive nature of succession in the university.  However, this 10th book introduces a brand new and more permanent faculty of Unseen University, led by Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.  Ridcully is a fantastic character as he is big, loud and sporty man who is generally the complete opposite to any other wizard previously shown in the Discworld series.  I really enjoyed his storyline and found it to be one of the most entertaining in the entire book.  Pratchett must have agreed, as Ridcully became the only recurring Archchancellor in the Discworld series.  This also allowed for the creation and stabilisation of unique characters to make up the senior faculty of Unseen University, including the Bursar, the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes.  While the other wizards have a fun romp breaking out to go see the moving pictures, the Bursar has a great story, as you get to see the first signs of madness that would afflict him throughout every other book he appears in, as he first encounters the stress associated with working under Ridcully.  I also liked the introduction of a young Ponder Stibbons, whose bad day while trying to escape from the university is pretty humorous, but also the complete departure from his later role as the only serious member of the faculty.  Thanks to their entertaining storylines, the wizards would appear in multiple books in the rest of the Discworld series, and while they never had their own specific subseries, they would get major inclusions in several other subseries, including substantial stories in The Last Continent, Soul Music, Lords and Ladies and The Hogfather, as well as their own novel, Unseen Academics.

While I have physically read most of the books in the Discworld series, including Moving Pictures, these days I tend to only listen to the audiobook formats of these books.  The Discworld audiobooks are pretty awesome, and the two narrators for the series, Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, both do an incredible job.  I find that the humour in the Discworld novels is massively enhanced by the narration, and I love listening to the stories this way.  At 10 hours and 8 minutes, this is not a long audiobook, and I always tend to power through these books really, really quickly.  Planer is a comedy veteran and has an awesome audiobook voice, and it is quite impressive the sheer range of different and distinctive voices he can come up with.  I also like his incredible consistency when it comes the multiple books in the Discworld series; for example, voices he creates for Moving Pictures are generally the same used for that character in later books he narrated.  The audiobook format of Moving Pictures is my preferred way to enjoy this book, and it is really worth trying out.

As you can see from my extremely long rant above, I absolutely love Moving Pictures and the Discworld series.  Pratchett created an incredibly complex and extremely funny novel that laughs right at the heart of the film industry.  The sheer range of references in this book is amazing, and the creation and enhancing of the various side characters featured in this book has massive ramifications for many of the later Discworld novels.  If you have yet to experience the joy of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, get on it as soon as you can.  It is well worth it, and Moving Pictures is a great place to start your Pratchett adventure.  I fully intend to review more books in this series in the future.

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz and Orion Audio (Audiobook format – 15 November 2018)

Series: Rivers of London – Book 7

Length: 10 hours 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive headfirst into one of the best urban fantasy series in the world today, with the seventh book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, Lies Sleeping.

London is a magical place, especially for Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard.  Peter is a member of an elite unit of the London Metropolitan Police, known as the Folly, which is tasked with investigating magical crimes and protecting the city from all sorts of magical threats.  The person at the top of the Folly’s most wanted list is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man, a magical criminal mastermind who is determined to do whatever it takes to gain power.  However, despite the Met and the Folly’s considerable resources, Chorley is always able to stay one step ahead of those chasing him.

During a routine attempt to subtly panic several of Chorley’s known associates, a magical creature attacks a potential witness.  Peter’s investigation soon reveals that the witness had ordered the forging of a large and mysterious bell, which Chorley is desperate to get his hands on.  As Peter and his team dig deeper in the bell’s construction, they quickly begin to realise that Chorley is the final stages of his master plan, a plan tied deeply into the heart of London’s dark and bloody history, and one which could cause untold disaster for the entire city.

As the clock ticks down, Peter needs to work out the connection between London’s past and the mysterious magical events occurring all over the city.  Can Peter and his team once again save the day, or will their adversary finally obtain the power he has always desired?  Moreover, what will Peter do when he comes face to face with the woman who betrayed him to Chorley, his old partner in the Met, Lesley May?

Ben Aaronovitch is a highly regarded author with an interesting writing history to his name.  His writing career began back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he wrote a couple of Doctor Who television serials, including the highly regarded serial Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as three entries in the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who books.  The Virgin New Adventure series chronicled the adventures of the Doctor after the television show’s hiatus in 1989.  Aaronovitch’s three entries in this book series sound incredibly interesting, although they were considered to be somewhat controversial at the time due to their more adult content.  Aaronovitch did not get around to writing his fantasy work until 2011, when he wrote the urban fantasy Rivers of London.  This was the first book in the author’s Rivers of London series of books (alternatively known as the Peter Grant series or the PC Grant series), for which the author is best known for.  The Rivers of London series is very highly regarded, and Aaronovitch has worked hard to expand on the story and universe of this series, writing a number of novellas, short stories and graphic novels on top of the series’ main seven books.

Before Lies Sleeping, I had never got around to reading any of Aaronovitch’s books, despite hearing good things about his main series.  As a result, I was very happy that I finally managed to check out the series earlier this year.  I did receive a trade paperback edition from Hachette Australia, but in the end, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  I have to say that I was extremely impressed with this brilliant book and found that I really enjoyed the excellent and captivating story.  Lies Sleeping easily gets a full five-star rating from me, and I fully intend to go back and check out the other books in this series.  This book is an excellent blend of the fantasy and crime fiction genres, both of which come together perfectly to create an extremely compelling and complex read.

Lies Sleeping will prove to be extremely appealing to huge range of people; not only pre-existing fans of the series but also those readers who have not read any of the Rivers of London books before.  As a first-time Aaronovitch reader, I found that it was incredibly easy to step in and enjoy this series, as the author did a fantastic job making Lies Sleeping accessible to everyone.  While Aaronovitch has created a huge amount of lore around his series, including in his novellas and comics, the reader does not need to have any knowledge of these or the previous six books in the series to fully understand the entirety of Lies Sleeping’s story.  However, those readers who do have experience with this series will love how the story continues to development, as well as the massive and surprising twists that occur throughout the book.

At the core of this book lies a series of intriguing mysteries that take place throughout London.  In order to achieve his villainous goals, the antagonist has embarked on a series of seemingly random and chaotic crimes and ventures, all of which apparently form part of his master plan.  These various mysteries or criminal events were really interesting, and I liked trying to work out how they would all come together.  I particularly liked how various parts of these mysteries were deeply tied into the history of London, and the protagonist needed to gain a historical understanding of some of various myths and legends surrounding London.  Watching the protagonist attempt to unwind the complex plan of the book’s villains was extremely compelling, and I had a great time trying to work out what was happening myself.  One or two threads of these mysteries did go unsolved in this book, and I will be curious to see if they are picked up in any of the future entries in this franchise.

Aaronovitch is clearly a very creative writer, as he utilises a huge range of different and fairly unique fantasy elements throughout this book.  While there are a large number of wizards, spells and elvish beings throughout the book, the main focus is on the titular rivers of the series.  The more common magical beings encountered in this series are the personifications of the various rivers and waterways (current and historical) that flow through and around London.  These beings are similar to gods, although the term genius loci may be more appropriate, and have a huge range of powers.  These are a really intriguing addition to the book, and it was interesting to see the protagonist attempt to deal and interact with the various river characters, including his girlfriend, Beverly Brooke (yes, the main character of this series is dating a river).  There is also a huge range of other genius loci, or similar beings, that are featured within the story, including the mysterious and insane Mr Punch.  The magic that the human characters utilise is complex and slightly less ostentatious than some classic pieces of fantasy, but when the master wizards get to work it can be quite impressive.

One of the things I liked best about this book is how the author could create a realistic British police narrative and ensure magic became part of the procedure.  The Folly may be a special branch of the Metropolitan Police, but it is still part of the police force, and as such the characters are forced to follow standard procedure when investigating magical crimes.  Having these elite magical characters fill out paperwork and other various elements of day-to-day police life was deeply amusing.  I did like seeing how regular law enforcement tactics, anti-crime strategies and police combat techniques could be utilised against magical opponents.  The overall fantasy elements of this book are really enjoyable, but I really liked to see them be blended with a classic British police story.

Aaronovitch has done a fantastic job creating a huge and intriguing group of characters for this series.  The protagonist of Lies Sleeping and the Rivers of London series is Peter Grant, police officer and official wizard’s apprentice.  Peter is the sort of protagonist I really enjoy (sarcastic, funny and determined) so I quite enjoyed having him narrate the story, making a number of great jokes throughout.  The other police characters make up a great supporting and diverse cast, with a range of different abilities and characteristics.  I especially liked the classy and wise Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last officially sanctioned English wizard and Peter’s mentor.  He is an extremely charming and old-fashioned character who has a huge amount of magical power at his fingertips and who can be quite intimidating if he puts his mind to it.  I also quite enjoyed the other magical characters that appeared throughout the book, as Aaronovitch has created a bevy of river gods and associated genius loci characters.  I liked how many of these ancient characters portrayed modern characteristics and ways of speaking, even when talking in a historical context.  Long-time readers of the series will also enjoy the further exploration of several recurring characters, including finally revealing the backstory of the mysterious Mr Punch.

While the protagonists and supporting cast are great characters, I really liked the antagonists in this story.  The main villain of the story is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man.  He is an excellent antagonist who is built up as a master planner, master magician and crazy villain before you even see him in the book.  His master plan was fairly complex, and the character’s overall arc in this book featured some massive twists that I did not see coming.  Lesley May is another really complex character who is a great addition to the series.  Her relationship with Peter is one of the best parts of the book, as even after her betrayals earlier in the series, he is still trying to save her from herself.  The way this works out in the end is quite dramatic, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from there.

While a large part of this book is set out more as a slow and steady police procedural, there are some fantastic action sequences within Lies Sleeping.  These come about when the protagonist attempts to stop the plans of the Faceless Man, and all manner of chaos erupts.  Nothing highlights this better than an extended action sequence which involves Peter chasing after a van on a bicycle, throwing fireballs, while all manner of debris is magically flung at him and several pursuing police vehicles.  The magical duels between some of the participants, mainly Nightingale and Martin Chorley, can be particularly impressive, but I personally liked how many of the confrontations devolved into fist fights as both sides attempt to distract the other and disrupt their castings.  Plus, where else are you likely to see British police with truncheons attempt to fight evil wizards?  These amazing action sequences really added to the story, and it was great to see all this magic in action, rather than being theorised the entire time.

While I would have already been tempted to give Lies Sleeping a five-star review, the thing that definitely clinches it for me is the amazing audiobook adaption of the novel, narrated by actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  At nearly 10 hours and 30 minutes, this is a moderately easy audiobook to get through, and I had an absolute blast listening to it.  Holdbrook-Smith has an amazing voice and his work narrating this audiobook was just incredible.  His voice for protagonist and story narrator Peter perfectly encapsulated the character and got the full force of his witty and enjoyable personality across to the reader.  I really liked all the voices that Holdbrook-Smith created for the various characters featured throughout Lies Sleeping, especially for some of the magical creatures, who had an air of ancient wisdom in their voices.  However, without a doubt my favourite voice was the one for Nightingale.  The voice chosen for Nightingale is full of all sorts of old British class, and I thought it fit the character perfectly and was one of my favourite parts of this whole audiobook.  Aside from the outstanding voice work, I also quite liked the jazzy music that was played at the start of each chapter.  It gave the book a real noir private investigator feel, and I like how it added to the tone of the book as a whole.  The audiobook version of this book also helped me understand the story a bit better as an outsider to the series, and that, combined with Holdbrook-Smith’s brilliant voice work, makes me completely happy to recommend the audiobook format of Lies Sleeping.

Aaronovitch once again delivers a spectacular read that expertly combines amazing fantasy and crime fiction elements into one widely outstanding narrative.  There are so many excellent elements to this book, and I had absolutely loved my first foray into the Rivers of London series.  I strongly recommend listening to the Lies Sleeping audiobook, narrated by the very talented Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, but those readers who prefer to read their books will also find much to enjoy about this fantastic book.  This is one of the best urban fantasy books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  I fully intend to go back and check out all the preceding books in this series, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.  Five stars all the way.

Throwback Thursday – Teen Titans Volume 1: A Kid’s Game

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Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback Edition – 1 April 2004)

Series: Teen Titans (2003)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Writer: Geoff Johns

 Artists:  Mike McKone

                Tom Grummett

                Marlo Alquiza

                Nelson

                Jeromy Cox

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

Ever since I mentioned Geoff Johns’ 2003 Teen Titans series in one of my Top Ten lists last week, I have wanted to revisit the series.  I have always loved this run of Teen Titans the most.  Something about the combination of storylines, characters and this version of the artwork always spoke to me.  It was also one of the first comic series that I read and subsequently went out of my way to get every collected edition.  Even years later I still love dusting this series off, so I figured this would be a good time to go back and have a try at reviewing parts of this series.  That is why for this Throwback Thursday I will be looking at the first collected volume of the series, Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game.

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The Teen Titans are a team of teenaged heroes in the DC universe, usually the sidekicks of the universe’s adult heroes, but also featuring several characters without mentors.  The first formation of the Teen Titans occurred in 1964 and featured the original Kid Flash (Wally West), Robin (Dick Grayson) and Aqualad (Garth).  After a short while the original Wonder Girl (Donna Troy) joined their ranks and the team started calling itself the Teen Titans before it was given its own series.  Teen Titans was DC’s attempt to appeal to the younger generation of comic book fans, and it proved to be an extremely successful series, featuring a number of DC’s younger characters, including Green Arrow’s sidekick, the original Speedy (Roy Harper), who is considered a founding member of the team.  Teen Titans went through a number of different relaunches, with probably their most famous one occurring in 1980 with the launch of the New Teen Titans series, which brought back most of the original Titans, revamped Changeling to Beast Boy and introduced a number of iconic characters, including Cyborg, Starfire and Raven.  It also introduced several of the team’s most famous villains, including Deathstroke and Trigon.  The Teen Titans are one of DC’s most iconic superhero teams and have been featured in a number of media platforms, including the amazing Teen Titans animated show, Teen Titans Go (the less said the better), the dark and surprisingly good live action Titans and a number of key story and character elements have been included in the awesome Young Justice animated show.

Teen Titans went through a number of relaunches throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the one most relevant to the 2003 Teen Titans comic series is the 1999 Titans comic series, which followed the adventures of adult versions of the original Teen Titans, most of whom had new superhero personas.  At the same time, DC launched the Young Justice comic book series (which I have talked about before) incorporating the younger generation of sidekicks (for example a new and younger Robin and Wonder Girl).  Both these series ended after the 2003 crossover limited series, Titans/Young Justice: Graduation DayGraduation Day featured a number of important events, including the sudden death of longstanding Titans member Omen; however, the most significant event was the death of the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy.  The resultant despair and guilt following the death of this significant character led to both the Titans and Young Justice dissolving in what was to be conclusion of both these series.

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However, shortly after this, Geoff Johns started this specific run on Teen Titans, which combined elements of the cancelled Young Justice and Titans series, with the main four characters from Young Justice teaming up with some of the classic Teen Titans.  Another new series of Outsiders started around the same time and was heavily linked to this run of Teen Titans and featured Dick Grayson and Roy Harper.  This specific run of Teen Titans lasted until 2011, when DC initiated their New 52 relaunch (which I may or may not have some issues with).  Geoff Johns was the principle writer of this series until the 2005-06 Infinite Crisis limited series, which was a significant story point for all of DC’s titles at that point.  Due to the fact that Johns was the principle writer of the Infinite Crisis series, several of the younger Teen Titans (Superboy and Wonder Girl in particular) played a key part in this big crossover event, and several storylines from the 2003 Teen Titans turned out to be heavily linked to the crossover event.

Following the tragic events of Graduation Day, the young heroes that made up the superhero team Young Justice are lost.  Tim Drake (Robin), Conner Kent (Superboy) Bart Allen (Impulse) and Cassandra Sandermark (Wonder Girl) dissolved the team in their grief over losing the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, and have been avoiding each other since her funeral.  They may be the sidekicks of the greatest heroes in the world, but they are all missing their friends.  Despite their reluctance to team up again, each of them accepts an invitation from Victor Stone (Cyborg) to form a new version of the Teen Titans.  With a new base in San Francisco and other veteran Titans members Starfire and Beast Boy to help as mentors, Cyborg wants to bring these young heroes together again and forge an effective team.

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However, before Cyborg can attempt to work with the four new Titans and convince them to stay on the team, a massive explosion rips through Alcatraz, endangering tourist lives.  As the Teen Titans mount a rescue, one of them is ambushed by the team’s oldest and most dangerous adversary, the world’s best assassin, Deathstroke the Terminator.  Deathstroke has long had a complicated relationship with the Teen Titans, but this time it looks like he wants to put the team down for good.  Claiming that kids should not wear costumes, he attempts to take out each member of the team, but what is the real reason behind his attack?  Can this new version of the Teen Titans survive the ruthless assassin?  What role will recently reborn Titan Raven play? Moreover, what will happen when the Justice League arrives to shut them down?

As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan in general of this entire run of Teen Titans, but this has to be one of the best instalments in the entire series.  Geoff Johns and his creative team came out of the gate swinging with this one and started the series off with a bang.  Not only does A Kid’s Game feature a fantastic storyline and contain some excellent character work, but it also serves as an outstanding first instalment of what turned out to be one of DC’s most consistent and captivating comic book series between 2003 and 2011.  The A Kids Games collected edition is made up of Teen Titans (2003) #1 – 7 and also features parts from Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files 2003, which can be useful for those readers unfamiliar with the characters, or at least that incarnation of them.

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The storyline contained within A Kid’s Game has a lot of fantastic elements to enjoy within it.  The initial formation of the team is handled very well, as each of them is shown to be lonely or unsatisfied with their lives without their friends, and despite their misgivings decide to join up.  The follow-up battle between the team and Deathstroke is really good, and the team learning how to fight together while uncovering their antagonist’s motivations is very exciting.  Deathstroke has a hell of an entrance in this volume when he kneecaps Impulse at the end of the second issue in what is a pretty shocking and memorable moment.  I personally loved the storyline that occurred right after this in Teen Titans 2003 #6, when the Justice League, including the mentors of each of the younger Teen Titans’ members, show up and try to meddle with how the team is run.  This results in some chaotic action and a huge amount of amazing comic book drama, as the sidekicks fight and vent their well-justified frustrations to their mentors while also coming to terms with the guilt they feel over Donna Troy’s death.  I really cannot speak highly enough about this part of the volume, and I think this was what made me initially fall in love with the series.  The final storyline shows each of the characters during the school week, when it really helps to highlight the issues that being a part of the Teen Titans is helping them face.

One of the things that I really like about this volume is that each issue contains a shocking reveal at the end.  I know that some comics overuse this, but I felt that Johns and his team were pretty justified in doing this, as they were trying to up the stakes during these first comics in their new series.  A lot of significant and surprising things are revealed during each of these issues, many of which would have ground-shaking impacts not just for the Teen Titan, but for the DC universe as a whole (Spoilers ahead).  This happens right in the first issue, with the reveal that half of Superboy’s DNA comes from Lex Luthor.  Other big events occurring at the end of each issue are the kneecapping of Impulse, the revelation that Jericho was still alive inside Deathstroke, Bart’s first appearance as Kid Flash, Wonder Woman showing up to start the brawl between the League and the team and the reveal that Lex Luthor is the person leaking information about Superboy’s genetics to Robin.  Even the quiet, final issue of this volume has a big reveal at the end, with the revelation that Rose Wilson is now working with her father Deathstroke.

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The creative team behind this original run obviously had a great appreciation for some of the preceding Teen Titans series, as they utilise a number of key characters from these earlier series.  I personally thought that the issues contained with A Kid’s Game did a fantastic job of blending these old school Teen Titans storylines and character together with the former Young Justice characters, creating an excellent new dichotomy for the team.  This blend of the old and new helped create an excellent new series and was one of the best features of John’s run, and I also enjoyed the respect he showed towards the old Young Justice series.  I was also really impressed in hindsight with how well Johns and his team set up or hinted at a number of future storylines or character developments in these initial issues.  Many of these storylines (such as Superboy being a mixture of Superman and Lex Luthor’s DNA, Wonder Girl being related to Ares, Rose Wilson joining with Deathstroke, the resurrection of Raven and Jericho and the new Brother Blood) would have impacts for years to come and some are even utilised in comic series, television shows and animated movies to this day.  The creators of A Kid’s Game did an incredible job including them this early in the series, and they were really good introductions.

One of the best things about the entire 2003 run of Teen Titans is the focus on the characters and their development throughout the series.  While other volumes of this series feature some great character moments, nowhere is this more prevalent than within the issues that make up A Kid’s Game.  Most of the focus within this book is on the four characters, Robin, Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl, who are moving over from Young Justice to the Teen Titans.  The creators take a significant look at each of them and really work to develop each of them as substantial characters and develop them deeper than what they were within Young Justice.  With this impressive focus on developing and utilising these characters to their full potential, it is no wonder that they were utilised as such major characters during the Infinite Crisis storyline and beyond.  I also like how the older members of the team had to step up and assume a leadership role that readers had not seen before.  As a result, Cyborg and Starfire attempted to fill these leadership roles, while the slightly younger and less mature Beast Boy acts as the bridge between the two generations.  I thought that these new roles were really clever and added some new dynamics to the team.  I was also really impressed with how the creators focused on the trauma that all of the team members were feeling in the wake of Donna Troy’s death.  Each of them was racked with guilt after they were unable to help stop her death, and the anger and grief that each of them was feeling was extremely evident throughout the volume.

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Another incredible part of this initial volume was the strong look at the relationship between the sidekicks and their mentors.  Despite the high regard each of their mentors holds in the superhero world, each of these sidekicks has issues that stem from how they perceive or are treated by their mentor.  The creative team really go out of their way to highlight these issues, and many are quite clever.  For example, Superboy, who is living as Conner Kent, appears to be frustrated at living a quiet life in Smallville, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is having trouble living up to the legacy of not only Superman but Clark Kent as well.  Robin is stuck wondering what his future holds and it soon becomes clear that he is reluctant to become like Batman, despite the fact that his is more like him than any of the Robins that came before him.  Wonder Girl is extremely angry and rebellious throughout this volume and is beginning to doubt her mentor Wonder Woman.  This is revealed to be a side effect of her trauma at the death of Donna Troy, and it soon becomes clear that she is one most impacted by the former Wonder Girl’s death.  Finally, Bart is sick of being considered not good enough to be part of the Flash legacy, as his own mentor does not think he is responsible enough to bear the Flash name (which is ironic, considering he is the only one of these young heroes whoever takes up their mentor’s mantle).  As a result, he acts like he does not care, while deep down he craves approval and Flash’s respect.  Bart easily shows the most growth within this volume, as he takes the Kid Flash mantle for himself, dedicates himself to learning all he needs to be a hero and vows to leave the Flash in his shadow.  All of these character issues come to a head perfectly when the Justice League arrives unannounced at Titan’s Tower and they try to meddle with their sidekicks lives and there are some amazing and cathartic moments between the younger heroes and their mentors.  His is comic book character work at its very best.

I have to note the great job the artistic team does throughout these first seven issues.  There are some great new character designs, such as Superboy’s iconic new look of jeans and a superman t-shirt, something that is still utilised within the Young Justice television show.  I also liked the way that Bart looked in the Kid Flash outfit.  The artwork on the action sequences is also pretty awesome, and there are a huge number of eyepopping scenes throughout this volume.  That shot of Kid Flash getting kneecapped is very impressive and really sticks with you.  Overall, there is some fantastic artwork, which works really well with the outstanding story and character work to create an excellent first volume.

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Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game is an amazing first volume in the 2003 Teen Titans series.  I cannot speak highly enough about the storylines and the way that the creative team handle the complex young heroes.  A spectacular start to an incredible run one of DC’s most iconic series.  I fully intend to review some other volumes in this Teen Titans in the future so stay tuned for them.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

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I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar Cover.png

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.