Quick Review – Dark Forge by Miles Cameron

Dark Forge Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 January 2019)

Series: Masters & Mages – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

Only fools think war is simple.
Or glorious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – Unleashed by Amy McCulloch

Unleashed Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (ebook format – 22 August 2019)

Series: Jinxed Book 2

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From exciting young adult author Amy McCulloch comes Unleashed, the fun sequel to her clever 2018 release, Jinxed.

Jinxed was an intriguing piece of young adult science fiction that I quite enjoyed last year. McCulloch, who also writes under the name Amy Alward, created a fascinating near-future world where the new tech obsession is bakus, the must-have technological companion. Bakus are essentially a combination of all the smart devices and a robotic pet which can take a variety of animal forms depending on their level of complexity, each with a number of different features. The story focuses on the character of Lacey Chu, a teenage baku fanatic who wants to work for Moncha Corp, the company that creates the baku. In order to secure her dream job, she needs to attend the prestigious Profectus Academy, the Moncha Corp sponsored school for all future employees. While it initially appears that she will not be able to attend due to her lack of a suitably advanced baku, Lacey discovers an abandoned and damaged baku of unknown design, called Jinx. After Jinx is repaired, his advanced systems allow her to get admitted into the academy, where she makes friends, learns all about bakus and participates in the school’s baku battles. However, she also becomes drawn into a vast conspiracy around Jinx, as powerful forces within Moncha Corp attempt to find and capture him in order to use his unique technology for their own ends.

I quite enjoyed Jinxed last year, mainly due to its clever world-building and its great, school-based story of intrigue and friendship (I enjoy stories where a person attends a school or academy to learn their universes special talent or skill). As a result, I ended up grabbing an electronic copy of Unleashed just before I went away on a trip, and it proved to be quite a good read during some travel time that I had. Unleashed is set a short time after the events of Jinxed and continues to follow Lacey as she attempts to unravel the conspiracy surrounding her and Jinx.

Goodreads Synopsis:

When Lacey Chu wakes up in a hospital room with no recollection of how she got there, she knows something is up. But with her customizable smart pet, Jinx, missing in action and Moncha, the company behind the invention of the robot pet, up to something seriously sinister, she’s got a lot of figuring out to do. Lacey must use all her engineering skills if she has a chance of stopping Moncha from carrying out their plans. But can she take on the biggest tech company in North America armed with only a level 1 robot beetle … ?

Unleashed was another great young adult science fiction read, which was also a fantastic follow up to Jinxed. There is a lot of excellent stuff in this second book, which pretty much wraps up the two books series and contains an interesting conclusion to the story established in Jinxed. I liked where the story went in this book, and while I was a little disappointed that they did not really spend any more time at the Profectus Academy, nor where there any more baku battles (which honestly was one of my favourite things about the first book), McCulloch compensates for this by increasing the level of intrigue and conspiracy that the main characters find themselves involved in. The overall plot of the main antagonist is surprisingly wide-reaching, sinister and intricate, and I liked seeing how the protagonists investigated and overcame it. There was also a great amount of teen drama and romance throughout the book, and there were some surprising character developments that made for a fantastic addition to the story.

I also really liked how the author continued to expand on her idea of what a world filled with bakus would be like. Throughout the course of this book, McCulloch comes up with a number of cool features to show how the world has adapted to having such technological creatures. These include showing off the various ways that they have revolutionised social media and day-to-day life, and also feature smaller things, such as baku cafes or add-ons to cars that hold and polish and charge your baku as you drive. All the cool expansion that McCulloch did on her amazing central idea in this novel was a lot of fun and I felt that it added a lot to the book.

Overall, I thought that Unleashed was a fantastic follow-up to Jinxed, and I really enjoyed the cool adventure contained within. Featuring a great story, some enjoyable characters and some excellent creative ideas Unleashed is awesome book for all ages that is worth checking out.

Quick Review – Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orion Publishing (Audiobook Format – 18 October 2018)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, is a complex piece of science fiction that I listened to on audiobook earlier in the year, and which I’ve been needing to review for a while. Rejoice is an enjoyable book which contains quite a fascinating story concept of aliens intervening on Earth to stop humanity’s destruction of the planet as a viable biome.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

From the bestselling author of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen, comes a story of mankind’s first contact and a warning about our future.

An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth’s ecosystem – and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it?

The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can’t even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence?

And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.

I had fun with Rejoice, which is a very high-concept science fiction novel and which dives deep into the heart of current world issues. The main plot focus of this book, the intervention by aliens, is a really interesting idea, which Erikson explores to its full potential. The various ways the aliens intervene in an attempt to make humanity better are really intriguing, ranging from force fields to stop violence and destruction of natural resources to providing humans with advanced technology and ending economics as we know it. It is also really cool to see the various ways Erikson imagines humanity would change if we were no longer able to commit violence or act on our hate. Obviously, there are some political undertones to this story which some readers may not be the biggest fans of, but I thought there were some quite salient points, and it was fascinating to view these current issues from a science fiction perspective.

One of the main reasons the focus on the alien intervention worked so well was because Erikon tells this story from a huge number of different perspectives. While the main character can probably considered to be Samantha August, the woman the aliens choose to be their main contact on Earth due in part to her status as a science fiction author (they are so intelligent, don’t you know), a ton of other perspectives are shown. Not only does the reader get to see the reactions of world leaders but they also get a view of events shown from the eyes of a huge range of other people directly or indirectly impacted by the alien intervention. This includes seeing the events through the eyes of farmers, tech companies, child soldiers in Africa, a family suffering domestic violence, astronauts, fighters in Israel and Palestine, an arms dealer, reporters and conspiracy theorists. In addition, there are facsimiles of several real-world people, including a certain media mogul and a rich pair of brothers, although neither of these portrayals are particularly flattering. There are also good representations of the current regimes in countries such as America, Russia or China, although I did think some of them were a tad less critical then they could have been. Overall, all these different perspectives allowed for an extremely powerful and compelling view of world events, and it was extremely fascinating to see how the author imagines these different sorts of people would react to an alien intervention.

I ended up listening to Rejoice in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Laurence Bouvard and runs for nearly 16 hours. I felt personally that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this novel, as it allowed me to absorb a lot more of the clever science fiction concepts featured in the story. Bouvard’s narration was also really good, especially considering she had to produce a huge number of accents from a range of different nations and peoples.

I found that Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart was an extremely clever and well-thought-out piece of science fiction that offered a unique and intriguing story. While the complex science fiction commentary on modern issues may not be for everyone, I really liked them and would recommend this book to those readers looking for a thought-provoking science fiction story.

Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

Kill the Queen Cover.jpg

Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

Quick Review – Texas Hold ‘Em edited by George R. R. Martin

Texas Hold 'Em Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 6 November 2019)

Series: Wild Cards series – Book 27

              American Triad trilogy – Book 3

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Texas Hold ’Em is the 27th book in the long-running Wild Cards series, which started in 1987. I read this book late last year but did not get a chance to review it until just now, so I’m just going to do a quick one.

The Wild Cards books make up one of the more interesting book series at the moment. Started by George R. R. Martin and his tabletop game friends (all of whom where fantasy and science fiction writers), this series has since expanded into a massive book franchise that has featured an impressive line-up of authors. There are a huge number of books, and the series is even currently being adapted into a couple of television series on Hulu.

Each of the Wild Cards books is made up of several short, interconnected stories written by a different author, with the entire novel edited together by Martin. Texas Hold ’Em, for example, features the talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Walton Simons, William F. Wu and the late Victor Milán. Melinda M. Snodgrass, who has contributed to a huge number of the previous Wild Cards books, also assisted in editing this book.

I came into this franchise fairly late and have only read the books which make up the most recent trilogy, The American Triad. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago, and was looking forward to the third and final book, Texas Hold ’Em.

Blurb:

In the aftermath of World War II, the Earth’s population was devastated by a terrifying alien virus. Those who survived changed forever. Some, known as jokers, were cursed with bizarre mental and physical mutations; others, granted superhuman abilities, became the lucky few known as aces.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the USA’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. But they are also jokers; kids with super abilities and looks that make them stand out. On top of that, well, they are teenagers – prone to mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.

Ace Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But little does she know the true meaning of the saying, ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.

I found Texas Hold ‘Em to be a fun addition to this fantastic series. However, unlike the other two Wild Cards books that I have read, this one seemed to be a bit more like a young adult fiction novel. This is mainly because many of the short stories focus on teenage characters as they encounter the many ups and downs of San Antonio and the jazz competition. The rest of the stories are a pretty interesting mix of mystery, thriller and other action adventure type stories, as the various adult characters encounter a range of situations, mostly associated with protecting or wrangling their young charges. There were some good stories within this book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate the return of several recurring characters who have appeared in some of the previous books.

The stories in this book are told in a different way to the previous Wild Cards books. Rather than having several short stories told to their full extent and then connected by one split short story that overlaps with each of them, Texas Hold ’Em is instead broken up by a period of several days. Each of the days contains multiple parts of the various short stories, featuring the events of that story that happens on that day. This is a much more fragmented way to tell each story, but the chronological consistency is an interesting narrative choice. The combined short stories do make for quite a good overall narrative, although it does seem a little lower stakes than some of the previous books in the series.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the examination of prejudice and hatred that infects each of the stories. In this universe, many of the humans who were unaffected by the Wild Card virus discriminate against Jokers and Aces; Jokers because of their disfigurations and Aces because they are afraid of them. This appears to be particularly enhanced down in San Antonio, mainly due to the appearance of the Purity Baptist Church, this universe’s version of everyone’s favourite hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The various protests and prejudices of the fiction group against those affected by the Wild Card virus do reflect the Westboro Baptist Church, so it was definitely an accurate depiction, and it was cool to see how they would react when confronted with someone with superpowers. That being said, the writers really needed to come up with a better term than “God’s Weenies” to refer to this group, or least stop repeating it to the degree that they did. Many of the characters in the book also encounter other forms of discrimination aside from the protests occurring outside the event, most of which mirrored discrimination real-life minority groups experience every day. This was a pretty good look at discrimination, and I liked how the various authors attempted to examine this problem by putting it in the context of the Wild Cards universe, especially as it led to some curious scenarios and interesting story moments.

Overall, this was a great new addition to the Wild Cards series. If I’m going to be honest, this was probably my least favourite book in the American Triad trilogy, but I still had fun reading it. I am interested to see what the next book in the Wild Cards universe will be like, and I will be curious to see if the show I mentioned above actually comes into being.

Quick Review – OtherEarth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

OtherEarth Cover.jpg

Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the superstar team of comedian Jason Segel and young adult author Kirsten Miller comes the second book in their Last Reality series, OtherEarth.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Simon saved his best friend, Kat, from the clutches of the Company and their high-tech VR gaming experience, Otherworld. But it was at a steep price. Now he, Kat, and their friend Busara are on the run. They know too much. About the Company’s dark secrets. About the real-life consequences of playing Otherworld. And about Kat’s stepfather’s involvement in everything. The group is headed to New Mexico to find Simon’s old roommate, who is a tech genius and possibly the only person who can help them reveal the truth about the Company before it’s too late and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is erased… forever.

Imagine a future in which you can leave reality behind and give in to your greatest desires. That future is now. And the future is terrifying.

Segel and Miller are an interesting team with some history, having previously written the Nightmares series together.  While Segel is best known for his film, television and comedy work, Miller is an established young adult author, having written two additional series.

I read the first book in this series, Otherworld, late last year, and it was one of the first young adult books I actually reviewed, as I had not professionally looked at this genre much before.  After reading and enjoying the first book a lot, I started checking out more young adult books in the last year, resulting in some really fun finds and some truly excellent reads.  As a result, I was very excited to check out the follow-up to this book and I was curious to see if I would enjoy OtherEarth the same way I enjoyed Otherworld.  I have to say that overall I had a lot of fun with this second book in the Last Reality series, and it had a lot of great and memorable elements to it.

OtherEarth follows on straight after the events of Otherworld, with the protagonists on the run from the Company.  During their previous adventure, the protagonists were able to determine that the Company had been experimenting on coma victims, installing them into their high-tech video game Otherworld, and killing anyone who learns about their secrets.  Simon, Kat, Busara and newcomer Elvis are now determined to expose the sinister actions of the Company while also saving the sentient programs that have come to life within the game.

One of the interesting things I liked about OtherEarth was the way that the authors split the story between the characters going on adventures within the Otherworld game and their attempts to evade and manipulate the company in the real world.  In order to solve their real-world problems, the protagonists are forced to venture into Otherworld in order to locate the consciences of people the Company have trapped within the game in order to obtain the information or resources to shut the Company down for good.  The blend between these in-game adventures and the subsequent real-world actions they take while evading and attacking the Company works really well and helps create an intriguing story.  Both parts of these stories have some great moments, and there are some fantastic twists throughout the book that will keep the reader keen to check out the final book in this series.

The focus on video games continues to be a major part of this book, and the authors offer up a bit of a critique of the future of this medium.  In OtherEarth, every player of Otherworld is a certifiable psychopath, as the world’s richest gamers buy up the extremely exclusive access to the game.  Watching the various players use the game to fulfil their violent desires and use the game to act as gods is quite eye opening, as is the protagonist’s growing addiction to the game and the combat mechanisms within it.  The programs within Otherworld who have gained sentience also offer a unique edge to the story and it is fascinating to watch them react against the players and creators they encounter.

There is a certain amount of humour and comedy throughout the book, although it is not as strictly comedic as other works by Jason Segel.  However, there are some pretty fun and amusing sequences throughout the novel.  The one that springs to mind the easiest is one particularly entertaining high-stakes sequence that suddenly devolves into a weird and comedic discussion about Dame Judi Dench in some very unusual contexts.  The combination of OtherEarth’s humour and the mostly serious nature of the story gives the book an unique flavour which comes together in a very enjoyable way.

From a young adult perspective, this book is probably best intended for an older teen audience as it contains some adult content.  While not as bad as the first book in the series, which contained a pretty inappropriate early scene in which the protagonist blackmails a couple of bitchy high school girls with their nudes, the intense action and some sexual content is probably not ideal for younger readers.  However, this book will be perfect for the older teen market, and most adult readers will have a good time reading this book.

Overall, OtherEarth is an excellent follow-up to Segel and Miller’s Otherworld, and continues their fun techno-thriller adventure.  With some great humour, an intriguing story and some interesting examinations of the gaming medium, OtherEarth is another exciting read for the older young adult audience.  This is a brilliant read that is well worth checking out.  I will personally am looking forward to the third book in the Last Reality series, OtherLife, which is coming out in October 2019.

My Rating:

Four stars

Quick Review – Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Death Notice Cover.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

English Edition Translated by Zac Haluza

Publication Date – 14 June 2018

 

This is a book I read earlier in the year, but I did not get a chance to write a review for it until now.  Death Notice is an intricate murder mystery thriller from bestselling Chinese author Zhou Haohui, originally written back in 2014.  The first English translation was released in June of 2018.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An elite police squad hunts a manipulative mastermind out to publically execute criminals the law cannot reach. A wild thriller and deadly game of cat-and-mouse from one of China’s most popular authors. For fans of Jo Nesbo, Se7en, and Hong Kong police cinema.

The brutal murder of respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming sends shockwaves through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s stunning Sichuan Province. He had been obsessed by an unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder case, until an entity calling themselves Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) releases a terrifying manifesto. Is the manifesto a sick joke, or something more sinister? Soon, the public starts ‘nominating’ worthy targets for Eumenides to kill, and two days later, Sergeant Zheng is dead.

Eumenides’ cunning game is only getting started. The police receive a “death notice,” a chilling note announcing the the killer’s next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. The note is both a challenge and a taunt to the police. When the first victim dies in public, under their complete protection, the police are left stunned. More death notices are coming. The chase is on.

Death Notice is an explosive, page-turning thriller filtered through a vibrant cultural lens. Zhou Haohui expertly adds an exhilarating new perspective to the twists and tropes of the genre all fans love, making for a uniquely propulsive and entertaining read.

I found Death Notice to be an extremely enjoyable piece of crime fiction that I was able to power through in a short amount of time.  The overall mystery of this book is quite complex, as the investigative team has to investigate this modern set of killings as well as the original murders which occurred some 18 years previously.  There are a lot of fantastic twists and turns throughout the book as various reveals about the characters in the book are brought to light.  I loved seeing how all the pieces of this mystery came together, and thoroughly enjoyed the overall conclusion about who was behind it, their motivation and their legacy.

While the overall mystery is really clever, I loved the intricate ways in which the antagonist was able to manipulate the police in order to kill the targets they were protecting.  Not only does the killer come up with some elaborate plans to take out his intended victims, he is often able to get the police to do his bidding.  There are some great scenes showcasing this throughout the book, as well as some great reveals about the police characters and why they are able to be manipulated.

The setting of this book is also pretty intriguing, especially as it is not a setting Western crime readers would likely be familiar with.  The book is set in the Chinese city of Chengdu, and I am willing to bet many Western readers have never even heard of that city before.  This provides the reader a unique setting where they do not know the rules or how the police investigate crimes.  The author’s interpretation of Chinese criminal investigation is quite fascinating and readers can enjoy the similarities or differences between this and Western crime fiction.  I also liked how the book was set back in 2002, in the early days of public internet technology.  It was interesting to see how different this recent time period was technology–wise, and it offered some intriguing elements to the story.

Overall, Death Notice is an outstanding piece of crime fiction, with an intricate story and a compelling setting.  This is an easy book for Western audiences to enjoy, and readers should find this piece of Chinese crime fiction quite intriguing.  I hope that we will get more translations of Zhou Haohui’s work in the future, especially ones that continue the captivating story started in this incredible book.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Quick Review – Adrift by Rob Boffard

Adrift Cover

Publishers: Orbit

                       Audible Studios

Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

For this review I will be looking at Adrift by Rob Boffard, a book I listened to a few months ago, but which I did not get a chance to review at the time.  With the end of 2018 fast approaching, I decided to do a quick review for this book in order to clear my review schedule for the new year.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In the far reaches of space, a group of tourists board a small vessel for what will be the trip of a lifetime – in more ways than one…

They are embarking on a tour around Sigma Station – a remote mining facility and luxury hotel with stunning views of the Horsehead Nebula.

During the course of the trip, a mysterious ship with devastating advanced technology attacks the Station. Their pilot’s quick evasive action means that the tour group escape with their lives – but as the dust settles, they realize they may be the only survivors . . .

Adrift in outer space, out of contact with civilization, and on a vastly under-equipped ship, these passengers are out of their depth. Their chances of getting home are close to none, and with the threat of another attack looming they must act soon – or risk perishing in the endless void of space.

What initially drew me to this book was the pretty cool-sounding synopsis above.  I had not read anything from author Rob Boffard before, but a story featuring a group of mismatched passengers attempting to survive out in space with only a small, poorly equipped ship sounded like an intriguing read.  After enjoying Adrift, I think I might check out Boffard’s Outer Earth series in the future.

Adrift turned out to be a pretty compelling read, featuring a great story in space.  While the action was a little lighter than your standard science fiction read, this is more than made up for by some powerful drama as the characters deal with the stresses of their situation.  There are also some thrilling intrigue elements as the protagonists attempt to unwrap the difficult situations inside and outside of the ship, as well as one particularly shocking and unexpected moment in the middle of the book.  There were a few good action sequences as well, including several epic flight scenes, and a memorable spaceflight featuring a little old lady.

This book is primarily a character-driven story, as the story mainly focuses on the passengers aboard the tourist ship.  Each of the various characters gets decent coverage in this book, with a particular focus on the three main point-of-view characters and the two secondary point-of-view characters.  After the first few chapters, my initial impression of all the characters in the ship was, ‘What a bunch of losers and arseholes!’  The passengers of the ship are made up of several abrasive characters who initially seemed to overshadow most of the other characters, including two timid main point-of-view characters.  However, as the book is explored further, the background of all of the characters is explored in some detail, and the reader gets an idea of why some of the characters are the way they are.  The events of the story help develop these characters further, and by the end the surviving characters are all much more likeable.  I was impressed by the emotional range that Boffard was able to write, and the various reactions to the situations about the tourist ship came across as quite realistic.

I ended up listening to Adrift in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Katie Scarfe.  The audiobook runs for a little bit over 15 hours, so readers need to invest a bit of time in getting through this book.  I thought that Scarfe did a good job with her narration, coming up with a number of good voices for her distinctive characters, and moving the story along quickly.  Scarfe had a bit of work to do with the primary cast of characters, as not only did she have to do Russian, Irish and British accents, as well as several random accents the ship’s computer system blurted out through the course of the book, but she also had to do a range of ages across both genders, from a young male child to an elderly lady.  Fortunately, Scarfe was able to produce pretty good accents for each of these characters, and it was possible to get an idea of gender and age with the various narrations.  I also thought she did a good job capturing the range of emotion that flowed from her characters, from despair to anger at their situation.  Overall, the audiobook format is a great way to enjoy Adrift, and I would recommend it for those who prefer to listen to their books.

Adrift by Rob Boffard is a clever and fairly captivating read that makes great use of its character-driven storyline.  This was a good standalone novel, and readers will find a lot to enjoy with this intense science fiction read.

My Rating:

Four stars