Warhammer 40,000: Steel Tread by Andy Clark

Steel Tread Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 5 January 2022)

Series: Astra Militarum – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into the brutal chaos of the far future of the exceptional Warhammer 40,000 universe with the powerful and intense Steel Tread, a fantastic tank novel by Andy Clark.

At this point in its existence, the Warhammer 40,000 canon has advanced far from just a tabletop game and has turned into quite the complex extended universe that features a range of interesting factions, species and unique narratives.  From fantastic stories about crusading genetic Space Marines (check out my review for Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker), to unique underworld stories about warring gangs (Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty and Fire Made Flesh), and narratives about ancient metal aliens (The Twice-Dead King: Ruin), this franchise has it all.  However, to my mind some of the best Warhammer 40,000 books are compelling war stories that pit ordinary human soldiers against the very worst monsters in this distinctive universe.  Examples of this include the awesome Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, (check out my review for First and Only), which is pretty damn awesome.  As such I was very excited to check out the new novel from talented Warhammer author Andy Clark, Steel Tread, which looked to follow a group of tank soldiers in the worst of situations.

Following the fall of Cadia, war reigns across the universe as the forces of Chaos push further and further into Imperial space.  There are many battles occurring in this new warzone, but none are more desperate or destructive than those on the world of Croatoas, where the armies of the Astra Militarum, better known as the Imperial Guard, face off against twisted forces serving the Ruinous Powers of Chaos.

Following a devastating campaign, veteran tank gunner Hadeya Etsul is reassigned and consolidated into a Cadian regiment and placed in command of the ancient Leman Russ Demolisher tank, Steel Tread.  Already haunted by the events that destroyed her last tank and crew, Etsul is forced to adapt to her new command whilst immediately getting thrust into the midst of a new offensive.  However, rather than the well-run team she is used to, Etsul finds herself leading a dysfunctional and aggrieved crew who don’t believe she has earned the right to be either their commander or a member of a Cadian regiment.

As the campaign takes a turn for the worst, the crew of Steel Tread will need to find a way to work together if they are to survive.  The enemy has unleashed vast and terrible horrors against the Imperial forces, from dark sorcery to mutated machines, and only the very best crew will have a chance to hold out and fight back.  Can Etsul gain the respect of her crew in time, or will Steel Tread be yet another victim of the unrelenting forces of Chaos?

Wow, that was awesome!  I knew that I was going to have an amazing time reading Steel Tread, especially as it had a great synopsis, but I was unprepared for just how enjoyable it was.  Clark, who has previously written several Warhammer 40,000 novels, including his Imperial Knights books (which he makes certain homages to here), did a fantastic job with this latest novel, producing a grim and powerful tank novel that proves near impossible to stop reading.

Steel Tread has a powerful and action-packed narrative that sees a dysfunctional tank crew thrust into the middle of a hellish warzone (literally hellish) and forced to come together to face their foes.  Clark does a great job of setting the scene for this novel, introducing the conflict, the main characters, and the Chaos based antagonists, in quick succession and ensuring all the key aspects of the book are well established.  The first part of the narrative is mostly dedicated to setting up the crew dynamics and exposing the major personal conflicts that arise when a new commander appears.  This dysfunctional crew mentality continues as the characters are thrust into their first conflicts, before a major battle occurs that separates them from the rest of their command.  Surrounded by all manner of foes, including magical zombies and a terrifying giant war machine (a corrupted Imperial Knight), the crew are forced to come together, especially after overcoming some losses and major personal conflicts.  This all leads up to the big finale, in which the crew are once again thrust into a do-or-die battle and must overcome immense odds with little hopes of success.  This finale really pays off, as the readers are on the edge of their seats during the entire conclusive sequence and beyond as they wait to see what happens to the crew they’ve come to know and love.  This novel is brilliantly paced out and constantly in motion, ensuring that there are no slow spots to stumble across as they move from one excellent sequence to the next.  I loved the great combination of intense action and character moments, which results in a powerful and impressively thrilling read.

I deeply enjoyed the exquisite writing style that Clark utilised for this great novel, especially as it was written in the style of a tank based military thriller.  Clark is an amazingly detailed writer and he perfectly captures the claustrophobia of a classic tank movie.  It was brilliant to watch the six main characters crammed together inside Steel Tread as they face all manner of hell, often by themselves.  You really get a feel for all the stress, rage and fear that the characters are feeling, especially during the amazing action sequences.  All the battle scenes are written extremely well, and the author ensured that you are placed right in the middle of the action.  I really loved all the epic fights, and I really must highlight the scary and insane enemies they faced, including cultists, zombies and that awesome Chaos Knight.  I deeply appreciated the work that Clark put into describing that Chaos Knight into a fearsome and freaky war machine, especially its spider-like walking style, and it easily stole every scene it was in.  This impressive writing style really helped to enhance an already amazing story and I loved how the author was able to tell such a brutal and complex war story.

This proved to be an exceptional entry in the Warhammer 40,000 canon, and I deeply enjoyed the way in which Clark was able to transplant his impressive tank story into this universe.  While there are a few references to events in Warhammer history that set the scene for the plot, this ended up being one of those tie-in novels that can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the franchise.  Anyone who loves a good science fiction war novel can have a lot of fun with Steel Tread, although there is also a lot that Warhammer fans will really appreciate.  I loved all the references to the fall of Cadia featured throughout the book, especially as the characters are part of a Cadian regiment.  Clark spends a lot of time examining the psyche of a typical Cadian soldier, and there is an interesting focus on members of other regiments being consolidated into the usually insular and elite Cadians.  As such, you get some great insights into the different Imperial Guard regiments, including their unique traditions, and it was fascinating to see several characters, including the main protagonists, try and find acceptance with her new Cadian colleagues and subordinates.  This book does feature a ton of awesome Imperial Guard and Chaos troops, and it was great to see Steel Tread caught in the middle of it, especially as Clark does a great job of describing how the various units move and fight.  I also really loved seeing this story unfold from the common soldier’s perspective, and it was very insightful to see the tank crew when confronted by Chaos sorcery, corruption, mutations and other insanities, especially as half the time they don’t really know what they are.  Clark has produced a great tie-in to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and this is honestly an excellent first novel for any reader interested in exploring this massive franchise.

Another feature of Steel Tread that I enjoyed was the amazing array of characters featured within.  Clark has come up with an interesting and diverse central group of protagonists for the book, with the primary six being the crew members of Steel Tread.  I had a lot of fun with these great characters, and I liked the interesting mix of personalities and backstories.  The author has hit on a few military stereotypes here as you have a new and untrusted officer, a grouchy sergeant, a religious zealot driver, a strong and mostly silent loader with a mysterious past, a young rookie eager to prove himself and a rebellious former street thug turned soldier who constantly tests the new commander.  While some of these character types seem a tad familiar, there is a reason that they work in a military fiction novel such as Steel Tread, as these diverse personalities play off each other extremely well.  There is the requisite hardship and clashes you would typically expect from this sort of crew, but they soon develop into a strong team, especially once their new commander finally gains their trust and respect.  Clark does a great job of setting all six of these main characters up and it was great to see them slowly come together through their joint experiences.  Most of the narration is done by central character Etsul, who is still dealing with the aftermath of her last devastating mission and must overcome her memories and doubts to lead the team.  This intense and compelling narration is perfectly complemented by the second narrator, the young rookie Garret Verro, who offers a slightly more hopeful counterpoint to the rest of the characters in the novel.  I really liked seeing this great group of characters come together and you really come to care for the whole crew by the end of the book.

Aside from the central six characters, there are a few other interesting figures that Clark features throughout the novel.  The main one of these is probably Steel Tread itself, as the author works to give the tank its own personality (which is helped by the fact that machines in the Warhammer 40,000 universe have their own souls, known as machine-spirits).  The old but still deadly tank (an Agamemnor-pattern Leman Russ Demolisher), really feels like a member of the crew, especially with how the other characters interact with it, and you end up feeing just as attached to the tank as you do to its human passengers.  Another great character was Lieutenant Horathio Aswold, a fellow tank commander who is consolidated into the Cadian regiment at the same time as Etsul.  Aswold is a fun and slightly eccentric character who bonds with Etsul over being the newest members of their Cadian regiment.  Aswold proved to be a fun counterpoint to Etsul, and I liked how he was a great soundboard for her concerns and doubts, especially when it comes to their new regiment.  The rest of the Imperial characters in this book are only really featured briefly, and due to most of the action occurring inside the tight confines of Steel Tread, there aren’t a lot of extended interactions between the main cast and supporting characters.  I think this smaller cast worked extremely well in the context of a tank-based novel, and it allowed the readers to get to know the main characters.  The fact that the reader never really sees the main antagonist of the novel was an interesting choice from Clark, but it honestly didn’t detract from how awesome the story was.  While it might have been cool to see a powerful traitor Space Marine attack the tank, I think that keeping him away from the protagonists and letting them face only opposing soldiers, machines and monsters helped to emphasise the fact that the characters were only a small part of a much larger war.  I hope we see more of Steel Tread and its crew in the future.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Steel Tread, which came in at just under 10 hours, which I ended up listening to in a few short days once I got caught up in the impressive narrative.  I felt that the audiobook format was an excellent way to enjoy this book, especially as the amazing narration really highlighted all the impressive action scenes.  The intensity, complexity and brutality of the various combat sequences is really emphasised in this format and I was engrossed in all the elaborate firefights.  Thanks to this great translation of Clark’s detailed writing style, I found myself practically seeing every shot as the book was read out, and it really helped bring me into the narrative.  I need to highlight the fantastic narration of Remmie Milner, who moved the book along at a quick and enjoyable pace.  Milner had an excellent voice for this thrilling science fiction novel and I loved the great voices she provided to each of the characters.  Not only did these amazing voices really help the reader to appreciate the emotions and thoughts of the protagonists but they highlighted the cultural differences that existed amongst the multiple Imperial Guard regiments, with the newcomers having different accents to the established Cadians.  This excellent voice work was also enhanced in a few places by some clever sound effects, such as the enhancement given when a radio was being utilised by a character.  This great voice work and design elements of the audiobook really helped to bring me into the story and I had a brilliant time listening to it.  Easily the best way to enjoy Steel Tread, this audiobook format comes highly recommended.

Overall, Steel Tread by Andy Clark was an exceptional and impressive Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novel that takes the reader on a wild and compelling ride with a great group of characters.  I loved the brilliant combination of the Warhammer universe with a brutal and grim tank-based military story.  Filled with all the awesome action any science fiction fan could want, Steel Tread was an extremely thrilling and very fun novel that is really worth checking out.  One of the best and most enjoyable Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading.

Throwback Thursday – Beastslayer by William King

Beastslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – February 2001)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book 5

Length: 275 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I continue to examine the awesome and exciting Gotrek and Felix series from the Warhammer Fantasy range with the fifth book, Beastslayer by William King.

Readers of my blog will have no doubt noticed my increased consumption of Warhammer novels in the last year as I have really started to get hooked on this cool franchise again.  One of my absolute favourite series has been the epic Gotrek and Felix books, the earlier entries of which are written by talented William King.  This excellent series is set in the Warhammer Fantasy world and follows two compelling protagonists, doomed dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his human companion Felix Jaeger, as they face the monsters, daemons and evil forces of the world in an attempt to find Gotrek a mighty death.  I have had a lot of fun with this series in 2021 and ended up reading the first four Gotrek and Felix books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer and Dragonslayer.  This fifth book was another great entry in the franchise and pits this legendary team against an entire army of evil.

After their harrowing journey to the Chaos Wastes and their epic quest to slay a monstrous dragon, Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his chronicler Felix Jaeger continue their adventures throughout the Old Realm.  Once again determined to journey to the most dangerous place possible, Gotrek and Felix find themselves within the Kislev city of Prague, the great fortress city that serves as a bulwark between the Chaos Wastes and the civilised realms of man.  However, this mighty city is in mortal danger as a massive horde of Chaos descends upon it, led by the fearsome Arek Daemonclaw.

Arek, a ferocious and cunning war leader and sorcerer is determined to destroy Prague and lead his forces throughout Kislev and down into the Empire.  To carry out his goals, Arek has amassed one of the greatest armies of Chaos ever seen, filled with Northern marauders, elite warriors blessed by the dark gods of Chaos, beastmen, mutants, monsters, daemons and two sorcerers of unimaginable power.  Their victory over the people of Kislev seems certain, but Gotrek and Felix are used to fighting such impossible odds.

Accompanied by several powerful friends and allies, Gotrek and Felix are resolute in their determination to save Prague and kill as many followers of Chaos as possible.  However, their opponents are well aware of the threat these two companions represent and are doing everything in their power to destroy them.  Forced to confront both the massive army outside the walls and treacherous cultists from within who are led by a powerful member of the Prague court, can even Gotrek and Felix survive this latest attack from hell?

This was another thrilling and fun entry in the Gotrek and Felix series that I had a fantastic time reading.  Beastslayer has another great, action-packed story, and it was awesome to see the series’ two protagonists embark on another epic adventure.  This fifth novel takes place shortly after the events of Dragonslayer and sees the heroes arriving in the city of Prague just before the invading Chaos army arrives.  The story quickly devolves into a bloody siege novel, with the entire city under threat from the massive army outside.  I have a lot of love for siege stories, and this proved to a pretty good one, especially as some of the battles get quite brutal and over-the-top.  While the focus is naturally on the siege itself, King also mixes things up by installing a cool arc about a traitor within the city who is given the task of eliminating Gotrek and Felix.  This amps up the stakes for the heroes and ensures that they are facing threats from all sides.  While I did think that the identity of the mysterious traitor was a bit obvious (I had them pegged before I even knew there was a traitor), this intriguing arc worked out really well and I had a lot of fun with it.  The real highlight however is the final battle between the protagonists and the invading army.  King produces a truly amazing final battle sequence that sees Gotrek, Felix and their friends in one massive extended battle that really stretches them to their limit.  Although the eventual arrival of various allies seemed a tad predictable, it still ended up being an intense final third of the novel and I could not put the book down the entire time the battle was raging.  Throw in some interesting character development and an entertaining, if slightly disconnected, storyline around recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol, and you have a great Gotrek and Felix novel that is really worth checking out.

I really liked the way that King wrote Beastslayer and I honestly think that it was one of the more consistent and compelling entries in the series so far.  King has moved away from having novels with partially separated storylines (such as the first parts of Daemonslayer and Dragonslayer), and instead presented a strong and very self-contained narrative.  Like most of the entries in this series, readers can easily dive into Beastslayer without having any prior knowledge of the series.  King makes sure to revisit and examine most of the key storylines and character moments from the previous novels, ensuring that new readers can easily follow what is happening here without too many problems.  From a series standpoint this is a key entry, wrapping up storylines from the previous novel in a fun and exciting way.  I loved seeing where some of the long-term story elements went, and by concluding a few of them, King sets up the next novel as a bit of a clean slate for new things.  This ended up being a pretty solid action-adventure novel, and I loved all the brilliant fight sequences that King loaded into the story.  These various action sequences are pretty gritty and brutal, and you get a real sense of the destruction and death being dealt around.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I think it was one of King’s stronger books.

One of the things that I liked about the Gotrek and Felix series is the slightly limited degree to which the plot relies on the overarching universe.  While this is clearly set within the Warhammer Fantasy world and features several iconic factions, locations and foes, enjoyment of this book is not dependent on known anything about them.  Any fantasy fan can easily dive into Beastslayer without being familiar with Warhammer lore and still have fun, and indeed this is a great introductory series for people interested in checking out the franchise.  There is of course a lot that will appeal to people more familiar with Warhammer and it was great to see some of the iconic locations, such as Prague and Hell Pit, especially as King does a wonderful job fleshing them out (especially Hell Pit, which is filled with some crazy Clan Moulder mutations).  There are also some great references to key parts of Warhammer history, such as the previous siege of Prague, and I enjoyed the continued focus on the lands of Kislev, which are often overlooked in Warhammer Fantasy fiction.  This ended up being a fantastic tie-in to the wider universe, especially as King went all out bringing in various monsters and Chaos foes, and I cannot wait to see where this series goes next.

At this point in the series, the central characters have been well established, and not only are the readers very familiar with the two main protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, but also with some of the main supporting characters, such as Max Schreiber, Ulrika Magdova and Snorri Nosebiter.  As such, there isn’t a great deal of character development in Beastslayer as King was mostly concerned with keeping the status quo.  As such, Gotrek and Felix are pretty much portrayed in the same entertaining way they have been throughout the entire series, with Gotrek being a grim, taciturn badass and Felix being a more sensible but dangerous ally.  There are a few interesting developments surrounding them, such as some fascinating peeks into Gotrek’s past which partially reveal the reason he became a Slayer, and Felix’s continued transformation into a hardened warrior and leader.  Max and Ulrika end up with a bit more development than Gotrek or Felix, with Max becoming more a sympathetic figure whose knowledge of magic becomes an important part of the novel.  Ulrika also goes through a few changes in this book, and it was great to see that annoying relationship with Felix mostly come to an end.  King still struggles a bit when it comes to writing female characters, especially since Ulrika is the only female character of note in the entire novel.  Several other fun recurring characters pop up throughout Beastslayer, although readers shouldn’t get too attached to some of them, especially during some of the climatic and deadly war scenes.

Aside from this great group of protagonists King has also included some interesting antagonists in this novel.  The most prominent of these is Arek Daemonclaw, the leader of the Chaos army attacking Prague and a follower of the dark god Tzeentch.  King does a lot with Arek in a very short amount of time, and he is soon built up to be a dangerous enemy and a real threat to Gotrek and Felix.  Aside from Arek there are a couple of other interesting villains, including some sorcerer twins who have their own agenda, and a mysterious cultist hidden within the city with some complex motivations.  King also makes sure to include the entertaining skaven character Grey Seer Thanquol, who has his own storyline throughout Beastslayer.  Thanquol once again serves as an excellent comic relief for most of the book, and it was entertaining to see all the fun intrigue and betrayal of the skaven.  I did think that Thanquol’s storylines were bit disconnected from the rest of the plot, especially as this is one of the last time we see Thanquol before he gets his own novel, but I still had a fantastic time following him.

Overall, William King’s fifth entry in the epic Gotrek and Felix series of Warhammer Fantasy books, Beastslayer, was a fun and exciting fantasy tie-in novel that I deeply enjoyed.  Featuring a ton of intense violence, a compelling siege-based storyline and some amazing Warhammer Fantasy elements, Beastslayer continued the cool storylines and character arcs established in the previous novels and made sure the reader was constantly entertained throughout.  I had an excellent time reading this awesome novel and I plan to grab the next few books in this series as soon as possible.

Beastslayer 2

Star Wars: The High Republic: Tempest Runner written by Cavan Scott and performed by a full cast

Star Wars - Tempest Runner Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 31 August 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Script: Cavan Scott

Cast: Jessica Almasy, Dan Bittner, Orlagh Cassidy, Sullivan Jones, January LaVoy, Kathleen McInerney, Tara Sands, Vikas Adam, Jonathan Davis, Neil Hellegers, Saskia Maarleveld, Soneela Nankani, Marc Thompson and Shannon Tyo

Length: 6 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The epic High Republic era of Star Wars fiction continues in Tempest Runner, the brilliant and captivating full-cast audio drama written by impressive author Cavan Scott.

Ever since its beginnings in early 2021, I have been having a lot of fun with the cool new focus of the Star Wars extended universe known as The High Republic.  Set hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga, The High Republic has featured several impressive novels, comics and other media releases that tell a grim story of destruction and strife in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi.  One of more interesting pieces of this fiction from late 2021 was this fantastic full-cast audio drama, Tempest Runner, which focused on one of this era’s best villains, the Nihil Tempest Runner, Lourna Dee.  This awesome audio drama was authored by the exceedingly talented Cavan Scott, who not only wrote my favourite High Republic book so far, The Rising Storm, but also a great previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.

Synopsis:

The Nihil storm has raged through the galaxy, leaving chaos and grief in its wake. Few of its raiders are as vicious as the Tempest Runner Lourna Dee. She stays one step ahead of the Jedi Order at the helm of a vessel named after one of the deadliest monsters in the galaxy: the Lourna Dee. But no one can outrun the defenders of the High Republic forever.

After the defeat of her crew, Lourna falls into the hands of the Jedi – but not before she hides her identity, becoming just another Nihil convict. Her captors fail to understand the beast they have cornered. Just like every fool she’s ever buried, their first mistake was keeping her alive.

Lourna is determined to make underestimating her their last.

Locked onto a Republic correctional ship, she’s dragged across the galaxy to repair the very damage she and her fellow Tempest Runners inflicted on it. But as Lourna plans her glorious escape, she makes alliances that grow dangerously close to friendships. Outside the Nihil – separated from her infamous ship, her terrifying arsenal, and her feared name – Lourna must carve her own path. But will it lead to redemption? Or will she emerge as a deadlier threat than ever before?

Tempest Runner ended up being an entertaining and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.  Featuring another excellent story from Scott that not only dives into the past of great character Lourna Dee but continues the story set up in several of the past High Republic novels.  Perfectly told using a full cast of narrators, this was an outstanding audio drama that I had a wonderful time listening to.

It was clear that Scott was on quite a roll last year when it came to fantastic storytelling.  Tempest Runner is set after the events of The Rising Storm and continues several interesting storylines from this novel, as well as other pieces of High Republic fiction such as Light of the Jedi and Out of the Shadows.  Starting off with Lourna’s capture by the Jedi, the story shows her successfully hide her identity and get imprisoned aboard a Republic prison ship doing hard labour as punishment.  Trapped with some of the worst criminals in the galaxy, as well as former Nihil members who utilise her identity for her own good, Lourna is forced to survive while also coming to terms with who she is, what drives her and what she wants from the future, especially when she connects with one of the prison guards.  However, an enemy from her past has found out where she is and is determined to kill her no matter what.  This leads to several intense and brutal confrontations as Lourna is forced to once again bring out her inner monster to save herself and defeat her opponents, while also setting her path for future endeavours in the High Republic universe.

Tempest Runner’s narrative ended up being pretty intense, and I loved the cool and intriguing plot, especially as there are several fun twists and reveals, including that great one towards the end.  While this is a mostly self-contained piece of Star Wars fiction, there are multiple intriguing connections to other High Republic novels and comics.  I particularly loved how several of the best villains from the main two novels were used here, and it also sets up Lourna’s storyline for the next book in the series.  Scott employs an interesting and roundabout way of telling Tempest Runner’s story, utilising a series of flashbacks and interludes to continue the main plot which occasionally helps compensate for the lack of descriptive words that is characteristic of the audio drama format.  I really need to highlight the book’s great opening section in which the capture of the protagonist is recounted in compelling detail to the novel’s main antagonist, with the storyteller and his audience providing questions and commentary during the dramatisation of the events being discussed to provide context.  The storyline has a great blend of elements, and I loved the fantastic prison story, the intrigue of the Nihil, the fantastic revenge plot surrounding the antagonist, as well as the massive amount of character development that occurs around the main character.

Scott really went out of his way to explore the character of Lourna Dee in Tempest Runner.  Despite being one of the most distinctive and entertaining villains in the High Republic canon, very little was known about Lourna Dee before now, except that she is an unassailable badass who is even capable of hanging with a Jedi in a fight.  Tempest Runner, however, dives deep into the heart of this cool character, and I liked the complex and intriguing development and history around her.  Most of the story is dedicated to the modern Lourna, who, after being captured, attempts to turn over a new leaf in the prison system to survive.  This provides some interesting insights into her mind and motivations, especially as she is not as mindless a killer as some of the previous books would lead you to believe.  Instead, she is quite a complex and tragic figure, something that is made clear when you see the various flashbacks to her past that Scott comes up with.  These flashbacks tell a captivating tale of betrayal and heartbreak, showcasing what led an innocent girl to a life of hardship and crime.  This backstory is extremely fascinating, with some powerful moments of love, loss, and revenge.  In addition, the story also dives into how she became a member of the Nihil and rose in its ranks.  This interesting background weaved into the main plot extremely well, and I think that Scott showcased the character’s past perfectly, ensuring that it explains her current mentality and motivations.  I am deeply happy that we finally got to see this character’s backstory, and it really did not disappoint.

While most of Tempest Runner’s focus was on Lourna Dee, a couple of other characters really stood out to me.  This included Tasia, the former Nihil member who blackmails Lourna to help her survive in prison.  Tasia is a fun secondary antagonist, and it was very entertaining to see her try and make a power play on Lourna once she was no longer in control.  I also loved seeing more of Pan Eyta, a former Nihil Tempest Runner who was betrayed by Lourna in The Rising Storm.  Pan, who is dying thanks Lourna, goes on a big revenge mission here and ends up being the major antagonist of this novel.  I personally thought this was an amazing conclusion to his compelling character arc established in the previous novels and it was great to see him and Lourna have several aggressive and deeply personal confrontations throughout Tempest Runner.  I also enjoyed seeing a young version of High Republic arch-antagonist Marchion Ro, before he took control of the Nihil, as well as a glimpse of his often-discussed father Asgar Ro.  Several other supporting characters in this novel were also pretty fun, and I had a great time seeing some of their storylines unfold.

While I had to highlight Tempest Runner’s cool narrative and great characters, you can’t talk about this amazing piece of Star Wars fiction without mentioning the awesome audio drama format.  I have a lot of love for Star Wars audiobooks and audio dramas (such as Doctor Aphra), and this was a particularly good one.  The team behind this epic audio drama did an amazing job of combining Scott’s great story with a team of brilliant voice actors, as well as the typical Star Wars sound effects and music.  With a run time of just over six hours, this is a very easy audio drama to quickly power through, and I think I managed it in just over a day myself.  While some people unfamiliar with the format might have some issues regarding the full reliance on descriptive dialogue and sound effects rather than expositional text to describe action, I thought that Tempest Runner was adapted extremely well and I had an absolute blast getting through it.

I must highlight the exceptional cast of voice actors that were featured in this awesome audio drama, as the team behind it pulled together a great group of narrators, including several actors well known for their work bringing Star Wars audiobooks to life.  The most prominent actor in this group is probably Jessica Almasy, who voiced main character Lourna Dee.  Almasy brings a great deal of complexity to the role and I loved the semi-French accent she utilised throughout Tempest Runner, which was reminiscent of how Twi’lek characters speak in shows like Star Wars: Rebels.  I thought that Almasy did a brilliant job of highlighting Lourna’s true feelings and personality in this audio drama, and it was great to see her transform the character in several intense, emotional scenes.  This was some brilliant voice work and it was an amazing highlight of this exceptional production.

I also deeply appreciated the great work that the other actors contributed to Tempest Runner and its characters.  While there were a few new narrators here whose work I enjoyed, the ones that impressed me the most were established narrators from other Star Wars audiobooks.  This includes January LaVoy, who voiced the character of Tasia, providing her with some much-needed depth and spite.  LaVoy, who I loved in works such as Star Wars: Victory’s Price (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021) and Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing, was just great here and I really appreciated the characterisation her voice added to Tasia.  Marc Thompson, who has previously narrated all the main High Republic novels, as well as the Thrawn Ascendancy books (Chaos Rising, Greater Good and Lesser Evil), was another standout narrator, especially as he voiced three characters, including antagonists Pan Eyta and Marchion Ro.  Having this cool continuation from Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm for these great villains helped me enjoy their appearances in Tempest Runner a lot more, especially as Thompson has come up with some extremely sinister and fitting voices for them.  I also had a lot of fun with Jonathan Davis (who previously narrated Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and Maul: Lockdown), who voiced two characters here.  I particularly enjoyed his work on the mysterious Asgar Ro, and the calm and wise tone he utilises for him (which is reminiscent of another major Star Wars character), works perfectly to give him some great depth.  An overall exceptional collection of narrators, I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama.

With a great cast, a brilliant story and a great focus on an incredible central character, Tempest Runner was an outstanding addition to the High Republic range of Star Wars fiction.  The always impressive Cavan Scott came up with an awesome narrative for Tempest Runner and I loved learning more about fun character Lourna Dee.  A must-listen for all fans of The High Republic, you really won’t regret checking out Tempest Runner.

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The writing team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman presents their first awesome joint novel, with the impressive and dark young adult fantasy book, All of Us Villains.

Foody and Herman are both established authors, having previously released cool-sounding novels and series, such as Foody’s bestselling The Shadow Game series and Herman’s The Devouring Gray novels.  While I have not had the opportunity to check out either of these authors’ previous books, I was very interested by All of Us Villains when I first heard about it a few months ago.  I loved the unique and compelling plot synopsis, and I was also intrigued by all the buzz from other reviewers.  I instantly jumped on it once I received my own copy and I was very impressed with its clever and compelling story.

In a world still powered by spells and curses, nothing is more precious than high magick, which can super-charge any spell and provide its wielder with insane amounts of power.  The only reliable source of high magick left in the world can be found in the remote city of Ilvernath, a dour and depressing settlement whose prosperity and fame can be traced to seven ancient families.  The ability to see and manipulate this high magick can only belong to one family at a time, and control ensures their prosperity for an entire generation.  However, to gain this right, each family must make an unbelievable sacrifice.

Every generation, when the Blood Moon starts to rise, a magical tournament is enacted that pits the very best of the families against each other.  However, this is no gentle tournament of magick; it is a brutal, curse-created fight to the death, with each family forced to nominate a young champion to represent them.  Only one champion can survive the tournament, and no-one ever emerges unscathed.

Twenty years after the last competition, a new Blood Moon starts to rise, and the families make ready for the latest battle for supremacy.  However, this tournament will be very different than any before.  Someone from the seven families has published a tell-all book, detailing every aspect of the tournament and informing the world of the hidden atrocities that have been committed in the name of power.  With the world now obsessed with every aspect of the tournament, all attention is now focussed on Ilvernath and the seven champions.

Thrust into the public spotlight, all seven champions must now deal with the intense infamy the tournament produces as they prepare to fight.  Forced to balance their own feelings on death and survival with the intense pressure placed upon them by their families and tradition, none are truly ready for the horrors they will be forced to endure.  However, this tournament also offers its competitors a chance to survive and end the curse that has blighted their families for centuries.  But not all the competitors are willing to give up the chance of ultimate power and are prepared to pay any price to win.  Let the games begin!

Damn, now this was a really great novel.  The brilliant new writing team of Foody and Herman produced an outstanding book in All of Us Villains, and I really got stuck into its story incredibly quickly.  The authors did a wonderful job of utilising a new version of the always popular teenage death tournament to fit into a brilliant and moving narrative.  Filled with complex characters and intense personal moments, All of Us Villains is an awesome and powerful book that I deeply enjoyed.

All of Us Villains has an excellent narrative that is a lot of fun to get into.  Focused on four of the seven participants of the latest death tournament, this is an amazing character driven story that really dives into the protagonists’ psyches as they prepare for the ultimate challenge.  The authors do an awesome job setting the scene for this fantastic story, and the readers are quickly hooked by the four complex main characters and the interesting scenario.  Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the setup before the tournament begins, which I think ensured the perfect balance between development and bloodshed.  You come away from the first half appreciating each of the characters and deeply caring about the outcome of the upcoming battle.  I was particularly impressed with one great early twist that surrounded one main character’s family preparations, and it added some major impact to his storyline.  Once the tournament begins, readers are in for a whirlwind of emotions and excitement as all the characters enact their strategy to win while all bearing a heavy emotional weight or magical handicap.  There are some intense and captivating sequences here and the readers are constantly on the edge of their seat, especially with some unique interactions, alliances and motivations, including one character who attempts to destroy the entire tournament from the inside.  This all leads up to a devastating and powerful conclusion, filled with death, despair, betrayal and complete emotional devastation, as all the characters make their choices and everything crumbles around them.

I really loved this cool narrative and I found myself getting really caught up in the constant heartbreak and bloodshed.  I am a massive fan of the teenage death tournament premise, and the authors do a great job of working this established story elements into their setting extremely well.  While there isn’t as much intense violence in the actual tournament as some readers would probably hope, I think that the authors’ choice to focus on the characters and their intense emotions about being forced into this fight by their families turned All of Us Villains into a better book. The authors’ use of multiple character perspectives works extremely well here, especially as it forces you to choose between your favourite characters as you try and work out who you want to survive, while also ensuring a really in-depth look at the setting and the tournament.  While I did find the final twist of this novel slightly predictable, the rest of the reveals and unpredictable actions were really cool, and I was shocked and surprised multiple times while reading.  This was also a great first entry, with the story ending on a compelling final note that will ensure that I will be coming back for the next book.  This was a deeply accessible and enjoyable read that has a lot of appeal to a vast array of varied readers, especially its intended young adult audience who will really love the complex story, clever setting and fantastic characters.

I had a lot of fun with the captivating and inventive setting and scenario that the authors have come up with for All of Us Villains.  While the world itself is a bit of a familiar alternate world with magic, the town of Ilvernath and the tournament it hosts more than makes up for it.  The authors spend a substantial amount of time establishing the setting, showcasing how the participants live, the vile history surrounding their families, as well as the tournament which plays a major role in their existence.  The people of Ilvernath, especially the seven families, are explored in detail, and it was fascinating to see the various opinions and expectations surrounding them.  This becomes even more apparent as a clever media saturation element is worked into the narrative as the tournament has been exposed to the public and has gained substantial attention, changing the entire nature of the tournament.  Excerpts from the tell-all-book that caused this attention are featured at the start of each chapter, which I deeply enjoyed.  Not only is it fascinating to see an inside perspective on the events, the families, and the tournament history, but it helps to expand the lore of this world in a fun way.  I also quite enjoyed the cool magical system of this novel, which is channelled through spell-laden rings powered.  The authors spend a lot of time exploring this magical system, especially as they show off various aspects of it, including spell/curse crafting and the subsequent casting.  You get a real sense of how this system works in a very short amount of time, and there are some unique and intense spells that get chucked into the mix, resulting in some big story moments.

The highlight of All of Us Villains is the death tournament, which gets a lot of attention and development.  The authors perfectly explain the lore, rules, and quirks of the tournament, and it is fascinating to see it unfold once the characters are thrown into it.  Cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, the participants need to kill each other within a set period or else everyone left alive will die.  There are some fantastic rules and inclusions set into this tournament, including seven artefacts with their own unique benefits and seven strongholds that the champions can hold up in.  These items and strongholds have their own significance and connections to the seven families, and it was interesting to see their impact on the events of the tournament.  The authors’ clever use of excerpts from the tell-all book works extremely well to highlight elements of the tournament, and I loved all this crucial part of the book.  There are also some new elements introduced for this specific tournament, as parts of the curse start to break apart due to the unpredictable actions of the participants.  This opens new opportunities and possibilities that were quite fascinating to see.  I look forward to seeing what happens around this tournament in rest of this series, especially as more bloodshed and destruction is inevitable.

As I mentioned multiple times above, the best thing about this cool book is the fantastically complex and compelling central characters.  The focus of All of Us Villains is on the seven participants of the tournament, with a particular emphasis on the four main characters.  The authors really dive into these four characters, highlighting their personalities, emotions, and their thoughts on the tournament they are about to embark on.  Each character is very well established, and there are some extremely complex and powerful storylines and character arcs set up around them.  It is a testament to the authors’ writing that I tended to enjoy each separate perspective about equally, and there were none that I disliked more than any of the others, which is a real peril in novels with a lot of narrators.  I will say that this intense focus on only four of the main characters does detract a lot of attention and interest away from the rest of the supporting cast, especially the three other family champions, but I think it is worth it for the impressive development put into the central protagonists.

The first of these characters is Alistair Lowe, the powerful scion of the Lowe family.  The Lowes win most of the tournaments and are generally considered the villains of Ilvernath and its history due to their monstrous personalities.  Alistair has been raised his entire life to win the tournament by any means necessary and has fully accepted his role as the monster of the story, even if he isn’t as evil as everyone assumes or wants him to be.  However, an interesting and unexpected romance soon starts to change his mind and he is convinced that changing his ways and saving the others might be a good idea.  However, a particularly vicious twist towards the end of the novel completely alters the entire trajectory of his character arc and will leave you reeling in shock while it loads up the epic feels.  I felt that out of all the characters, Alistair had the most moving and complex storyline as well as the most substantial development, and he swiftly becomes the character you bond with the most.  I am deeply intrigued to see what happens to him in the next book and I have a feeling that there is both great tragedy and great evil in his future.

The next central champion is Isobel Macaslan, a bright and powerful magick user from a highly resented family.  I loved the great work that the authors put into developing her.  At first Isobel appears to be one of the most confident and enthusiastic figures in this book, especially as she is the one leaning into the publicity surrounding the tournament the most.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she was forced to be champion thanks to the machinations of her uncaring family and her former best friend, who threw her to the press.  Isobel has a lot of issues going into the tournament, with the mass attention and the unfair expectations placed upon her forcing her to take some big risks which severely disadvantage her as she enters the tournament.  Isobel ends up developing some unique connections throughout All of Us Villains, and the friendships and relationships she develops form the emotional heart of much of the narrative.  The reader sees Isobel go to some dark places in this book and it is hard to see all the heartbreak and despair she experiences.

I was also a major fan of the underdog Gavin Grieve, who has an amazingly complex and relatable story arc.  Gavin is the champion from the Grieve family, who have never won the tournament and are generally looked down upon by everyone in town.  Gavin is a sad and angry character since everyone underestimates him and his chances, while also showering him with scorn as it was apparently a Grieve who wrote the tell-all expose about the tournament.  This anger leads to him making a dangerous deal that provides him with impressive power at a great price.  This was an amazing story inclusion, especially as it turns Gavin into a bit of a beast due to finally having power and an advantage over the other families.  This leads him to do some reckless and cruel things, and it was fascinating to see the events of the tournament and its bloody legacy slowly corrupt this character before your eyes.

The final point-of-view character was Briony Thorburn, the confident wildcard.  Unlike all the other major characters, Briony wants to compete in the tournament and has spent her entire life getting ready for it, going as far as to dump her boyfriend, one of the other competitors, so she would feel less guilty about killing him.  However, events outside of her control impact her participation and she is forced to take some drastic actions.  This leads to her significantly reconsidering her position and gives her a fantastic arc about trying to save all her fellow participants and try to break the tournament once and for all.  Watching her attempt to make up for all her past mistakes while also convincing the other champions to change hundreds of years of tradition is pretty brilliant, and I found it to be a compelling arc that fleshed out the story perfectly.

In their first collaboration, the brilliant team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have produced one of the best young adult fantasy novels of 2021 with All of Us Villains.  This amazing novel contains an excellent story set around an intense magical teenage death tournament that takes the reader into some incredible directions.  Filled with tragedy, impressive character development, and a ton of impressive twists, All of Us Villains is an exceptional read that comes highly recommended novel.

All of us Villains Cover 2

Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Falls Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Recorded Books (Audiobook – 30 November 2021)

Series: The Expanse – Book Nine

Length: 19 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For my last review of 2021 I check out the epic and highly anticipated final book in the iconic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls.

For the last ten years the science fiction genre has been dominated by the impressive and captivating The Expanse series.  Written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, The Expanse series consists of nine awesome novels that navigate the troubles and wars of future humans in both our solar system, and other systems accessed by ancient alien technology.  This has been a pretty amazing series which has moved from wars between Earth, Mars and the Belt, to intergalactic travel and battles between galactic empires and interdimensional aliens.  I have been really enjoying this series lately, and the last two novels, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath were extremely fun, especially as they utilised the conquering Laconian Empire, which forced the protagonists to form a rebel movement known as the underground.

The plot of Leviathan Falls starts a few months after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath, which saw the underground destroy Laconia’s shipyards and free James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, and Teresa Duarte, the daughter of the Laconian high consul.  Now the Rocinante flies throughout the various settled systems attempting to keep the underground alive and bring down the faltering Laconian Empire.  At the same time, unnatural and destructive alien forces, disturbed by the intergalactic technology used to traverse space, are reaching into our universe and attempting to exterminate all human life.

The best hope for humanity may lie in the hands of the Laconian high consul, Winston Duarte, whose alien enhancements have given him unnatural insight into the universe.  However, Winston Duarte is currently missing, having vanished from his room as he attempts to unleash his ambitious master plan.  To find him, the Laconians unleash their ultimate hunter, Colonel Aliana Tanaka, who focuses on the Rocinante, determined to use Teresa as bait.  At the same time, Dr Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the ancient aliens whose technology has allowed humanity to expand throughout the universe.  But her progress is dependent on the lives of the mysterious half-alien children in her care, whose ability to connect with the past could save the future.

As the situation in the universe becomes even more desperate, the crew of Rocinante are once again thrust into the midst of the battle for humanity’s survival.  Entering a desperate alliance and faced with near certain extinction, the Rocinante and their allies embark on a final battle for the future.  However, not only are they facing the malevolent forces from outside their universe, but also the radical and altered Winston Duarte, whose plan to save the species comes with an impossible price.  Can Holden and his crew stop him before it is too late, or is the final chapter in humanity’s story?

Leviathan Falls was another intense and impressive science fiction read from Corey, who brings this epic series to an end in a big way.  This ninth and final Expanse novel had a captivating and intense narrative filled with amazing and realistic science fiction elements, complex characters, and a fitting and heartbreaking conclusion that wraps everything up extremely well.  This ended up being a fantastic novel and I was glad I had a chance to see how everything finished up.

There is a great narrative for this book that takes the reader on a powerful and compelling ride as the authors seek to wrap everything up.  Leviathan Falls continues several of the storylines set up in the previous novels, especially Tiamat’s Wrath, and takes them towards their inevitable conclusion.  Told through multiple characters, including several minor figures, this is a slow-burn narrative that methodically sets up the various storylines and explores them to their full extent.  The story gets quite complex in places as the protagonists attempt to survive not only the various battles between the Laconians and the underground but also the malevolent entities attempting to take them down from another universe.  The first half of the story focuses on a cat-and-mouse battle between the protagonists on the Rocinante and the Laconian Colonel Tanaka, while there are some interesting examinations of Elvi’s attempts to understand the threat facing humanity.  These storylines lead up to a big event that sets up the intense and exciting second half of the novel and forces the previously disparate characters to come together and face the major threat.  This results in a massive, extended sequence that forces several characters to make some major decisions, and a moving conclusion that is both devastating and a fitting ending to the franchise.

The team behind The Expanse have a really unique writing style that I think fits the epic scope of their series.  Using an intense amount of description, as well as some colourful analogies, the authors paint a brilliant picture of the events occurring around them that perfectly encapsulates the insanities and complexities of the situation.  The Expanse series is known for its realistic approach to science fiction, and this continues through in Leviathan Falls as the reader gets a real sense of the awesome nature of space flight through the various characters’ eyes.  While some of the science fiction elements are obviously invented solely for the narrative, most of the human technology in this book appears to be quite realistic and well thought out.  I also love the cool take on space travel, communication and fights, with many of the events in space taking hours or days to complete due to distance and light delays.  This is particularly impressive during the battle sequences which rely more on calculations and manoeuvres than fast-paced firepower, and it really added to the intensity of multiple scenes throughout the book.

While I enjoyed the narrative and the way that the authors told the story, Leviathan Falls did drag a little in places.  I honestly think they could have streamlined this into a better novel by taking out, say, 50 to 100 pages, and I personally would have cut all the chapters told from the perspective of Kit Kamal, which have no major impact on the overall story.  I also think that the authors went a tad overboard in places trying to make some of the elements and experiences seem a little cleverer than they needed to be, such as certain long-winded interludes.  While I understand that this is their writing style and it usually works, I felt that it made parts of the book a little unwieldy and unnecessarily complex.  Being the grand finale, it was also a very inaccessible novel for new readers, especially as so much of the plot relies on knowledge of some of the preceding books, particularly Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath.  However, the rest of Leviathan Falls story more than compensates for some of the above issues, and this still ended up being an excellent and compelling read.

Fans of this series will no doubt appreciate some of the excellent world building that took place in Leviathan Falls.  The author introduces some interesting and compelling expansions of various elements of lore and technology within this universe, especially when it comes to the two ancient alien races who the protagonists have been encountering throughout the series.  It was rather fascinating to see how certain elements were utilised throughout the plot, and they ended up enhancing the narrative extremely well.  I loved all the use of alien technology, especially as there are some great call-backs to the previous books and the weird molecules and artefacts the protagonists previously encountered.  There was also a good wrap up with the universe that I really appreciated, and it think it ends everything on a compelling and interesting note.

Leviathan Falls features an impressive cast of complex characters, and the multiple perspectives are used to great effect throughout the book to craft a massive and elaborate narrative.  I liked the cool range of characters in this book, especially as it primarily focuses on the well-established cast from the previous novels, as well as one great new antagonist.  The vast array of perspectives proves to be a lot of fun to explore, although I do question the necessity of one or two overutilised point-of-view characters.  I also appreciated some of the development that occurred around the recurring cast of the series.  This included a tangible sense of weariness that multiple characters experienced, especially the series’ long-running protagonists, which helped to reflect how they have aged and evolved over the years, especially in the face of so much adversity.  There are also a couple of interesting inclusions that I quite enjoyed, including one excellent character whose return will come as a pleasant surprise to fans of The Expanse.

There are several extremely awesome characters that I really must highlight in this book, including protagonist James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante and main character of the series.  Holden has gone through a lot throughout The Expanse novels, and it shows in Leviathan Falls.  The character is clearly dealing with some PTSD following his extended imprisonment in the prior novel, and there are some compelling and intense trauma storylines around him.  Holden has a particularly major moment in this novel, and it ended up being an interesting and moving novel for this great central character.  Aside from Holden, you also must love the work put into the surviving crew members of the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, each of whom have their own interesting storylines and serve as great point-of-view characters.  I particularly enjoyed the increased focus on Naomi now that she’s the head of the underground, and it was still fascinating to see her as a confident and capable leader.  Amos’s storyline was also rather interesting, especially after he died and was resurrected by alien technology in the previous novel.  This gives him some unique perspectives throughout the book, although there were only so many times you can hear about the “unnatural pauses” he now has.

In addition to the Rocinante crew members, several other exceptional characters also really stood out to me.  I continued to enjoy the inclusion of Elvi Okoye, the brilliant scientist who was drafted into the Laconian military force as the leading expert on alien technology.  Elvi offers most of the scientific insight into the events occurring in the novel, and it was interesting to see her experiences as she attempts to understand the ancient alien technology and discover a solution to the mysterious attacks plaguing the various human systems.  I also really appreciated Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a Laconian soldier who is sent to track down the missing Winston Duarte by hounding the Rocinante and trying to take back Teresa Duarte.  Despite being a new character, Tanaka has one of the best arcs in the entire novel, as she is forced to contend with not only the boldness of the protagonists but also her own instabilities and issues.  While she initially appears to be a mostly rage filled attack-dog, the author soon expands on her character and backstory turning her into a very complex and somewhat sympathetic figure.  This is particularly true after a major event results in an unwelcome intrusion in her mind, and her inability to cope makes her even wilder and angrier.  These brilliant characters really helped to enhance Leviathan Fall’s plot and it was an absolute pleasure to see all the great character driven story arcs come to an end.

While I did receive a physical copy of Leviathan Falls, I ended up listening to the audiobook version to fit this book into my reading schedule.  This was a pretty good audiobook, and I had a fantastic time getting through it.  Leviathan Falls has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, which did take me a while to get through, especially in some of the spots where my engagement slipped a little.  Despite the length, this was a fantastic audiobook adaptation and I appreciated the impressive narration from Jefferson Mays, who has previously lent his voice to all the previous The Expanse novels.  Mays’ voice seems to fit the massive and epic format of the series extremely well and I found myself appreciating and following some of the heavy scientific elements, battle sequences and intriguing analogies a bit better with his work.  He also provides some excellent voices to the various characters featured in the series which fit their various personalities and helped to showcase their emotions.  I had an awesome time listening to this latest audiobook and it is an impressive way to check this novel out.

After nine epic novels, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey finally comes to end with the fantastic Leviathan Falls.  This final book does an excellent job of tying together the various story threads from the previous novels and giving this impressive series the outstanding conclusion it deserves.  Filled with complex characters, a powerful and rich science fiction setting, and an intriguing central storyline, Leviathan Falls was an awesome read.  An amazing and cool conclusive episode, Leviathan Falls is really worth checking out and I loved its compelling and exciting story.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Dragonslayer by William King

Dragonslayer Cover Combined

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – November 2020)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Four

Length: 271 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another volume in the incredibly entertaining Gotrek and Felix Warhammer Fantasy series, Dragonslayer, by William King.

I have been having fun over the last year checking out several cool Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy tie-in novels, especially as all of them place great stories inside their respective elaborate extended universes.  Some of the most exciting and compelling of these Warhammer books have been part of the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows a doomed dwarven Slayer and his human companion as they face all manner of monsters and evils across the Warhammer Fantasy landscape.  I have so far had a lot of fun reading the first three books in this series, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were some of the best pre-2021 releases I read this year.  I recently grabbed a couple more Gotrek and Felix novels second-hand, and I had a great time quickly reading the next entry in the series over the Christmas break, Dragonslayer, another fun and enjoyable read that has an action-packed narrative to it.

After their daring exploits in the Chaos Wastes, dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his rememberer, Felix Jaeger, return to the lands of Kislev in triumph, having rescued the survivors of a lost dwarven stronghold.  However, their victory is short lived, as danger begins to assail them the moment they return in the form of the skaven forces of their arch-enemy Grey Seer Thanquol.  Worse, their voyage has revealed a giant horde of Chaos warriors advancing towards the lands of Kislev, determined to bring destruction and death to all before them.

To warn the people of Kislev, Gotrek, Felix, and their companions travel by dwarf airship towards the capital.  However, their voyage is disrupted by an unnatural storm and an attack from a legendary dragon determined to rip them asunder.  Barely escaping with their lives, the adventurers find themselves stuck in the World’s Edge Mountains and forced to pull into the Slayer Keep of Karak Kadrin.  There they discover that the dragon that attacked them, Skjalandir, has been terrifying the mountains for months.  Determined to finally meet his mighty doom, Gotrek and his fellow Slayers head out to destroy the beast, accompanied by a reluctant Felix and their Kislev allies.  Beset on all sides by ravening orcs, desperate bandits, and a massive dragon of immense destructive potential, can even the legendary team of Gotrek and Felix survive, or will Gotrek finally find his longed-for death at the hands of the mightiest beast in the realm?

This was another very fun and intense novel from King, who once again provides the reader with an exciting and compelling dive into the Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Dragonslayer was a very good entry in the long-running Gotrek and Felix series, and I deeply enjoyed its cool and fast-paced narrative that sees the protagonists fight all manner of foes and dangers.  Filled with impressive monsters, a hilarious sense of humour and all manner of action, Dragonslayer was a fantastic read that I powered through in a few short days.

Just like all previous Gotrek and Felix novels, Dragonslayer starts off fast and never really slows down, as the various characters are thrust into one dangerous situation after another all the way up to the last page.  The first quarter of the book is firmly focussed on continuing the antagonist-centric storyline from Daemonslayer, with Grey Seer Thanquol’s planned attack from the last book finally coming to fruition.  This opening scene is pretty fun, even if it does feel a little disconnected from the following narrative, and I loved seeing more of enjoyable antagonist Thanquol.  Following this enjoyable first encounter, the protagonists head off on a new quest which is quickly detoured by an encounter with a dragon.  The dragon’s first big appearance is pretty devastating, and I loved how much of a threat this monster is made out to be, especially as the protagonists don’t come out unscathed.  The next section of the book is mostly devoted to character development and world building, as the protagonists prepare for their next adventure and gain some interesting new companions.  At the same time, Thanquol engages in another mostly unconnected storyline that sees him encounter and set up the dangerous Chaos horde that will be the major threat of the next novel.  The final third of the novel is primarily dedicated to the protagonist’s quest towards the dragon’s lair, where they encounter not only the beast but various other foes as well.  This leads up to some amazing battle sequences, the highlights of which include the deadly confrontation with the wounded and mutated dragon, and a fun full-on war scene between two forces determined to kill each other and the protagonists.  The book had an entertaining and exciting conclusion with a fun lead-in to the next novel, and I had a fantastic time getting through this brilliant and excellent read.

King has a great easy-to-read style that I really connect with in the Gotrek and Felix novels, which ensures that all fantasy fans can easily enjoy it, especially with the fast-paced narrative and crazy action scenes.  I like the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and impressive adventure story, and you get some fun alternate viewpoints and storylines as a result.  This is particularly apparent in the action sequences, as you see the various participants of the battle as they encounter the same foes or other narrators, and results in a much fuller and bloodier picture.  The action scenes themselves are great, filled with compelling fights that really get the blood pumping as the protagonists face off against a variety of foes.  While a couple of fights were a little shorter than I would have liked, King more than makes up for it with some of the big encounters, especially against the dragon.  I loved the two major dragon scenes, and King crafts some excellent and hard-hitting fight sequences against it, loaded with character deaths and intense brutality.  I also loved one fun final battle sequence that read like a pitched battle from the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Goblin Fanatics and Doom Diver catapults included.

Like most of the previous Gotrek and Felix books, Dragonslayer is pretty accessible to new readers, and there is no major requirement to check out any of the previous novels first, especially as King’s books tend to repeat certain elements from the preceding entries.  As such, unfamiliar readers can easily jump in here, although the Thanquol attack at the start of the books does come a little out of nowhere if you haven’t read Daemonslayer.  I would say that Dragonslayer did feel like a bit of a bridging novel in places, especially as it continued several plot points from Daemonslayer while also taking the time to set up a potentially bigger evil in the next book, but I still had a lot of fun with it.  I still really believe that the Gotrek and Felix novels are an excellent place for new Warhammer fans to start out, especially as they mostly read like classic fantasy novels rather than intense tie-in reads.  The readers get some great details about the extended Warhammer Fantasy universe here, and King expertly introduces several key locations while also featuring some of the more recognisable factions.  I really appreciate how King makes sure to reintroduce all these races in each of his novels, and it ensures that new readers can appreciate what is going on and why certain factions are acting the way they do.  This ended up being a particularly strong Gotrek and Felix entry, and I cannot wait to see what happens in this universe next.

Dragonslayer has a rather interesting cast headlined by the two central characters, Gotrek and Felix, who have another great adventure here.  Gotrek is his usual gruff self in this novel, and you don’t get a lot of development surrounding him in Dragonslayer, especially as King never shows his perspective, no doubt to highlight his secret past and the aura of unbreakable strength and confidence he gives off.  Felix, on the other hand, gets most of the plot’s attention, and it was fun to see him continue to grow as a character.  While he still has certain understandable apprehensions about the quests he follows Gotrek on, Felix has grown into quite a capable adventurer over the last few books, and it was fun to see him accompany his friend into near-certain death once again.  I enjoyed the intriguing storyline around his magical sword which was quietly introduced in the first book and which reaches its full potential here as a dragon-slaying item.  I also enjoyed the compelling examinations of Felix’s personality and resolve, especially when it comes to the oath he swore to Gotrex, as he is forced to make some big decisions here when faced with an alternate future.

Dragonslayer also features a fun supporting cast, including several intriguing characters from Daemonslayer who get an extended role here.  This includes Felix’s love interest (and the only significant female character), the Kislev noblewoman Ulrika, who ends up accompanying the main protagonists on their latest adventure.  Ulrika is an interesting character who I have mixed feelings about during the book.  While I did like how King featured a strong and complex female character (something lacking from some of his previous novels), I honestly could not stand the terrible romance that she has with Felix.  The two of them continuously bounce from being madly in love to hating each other over petty things, and it ends up getting annoyingly repetitive.  This terrible relationship made me hate Ulrika a little as the book progressed, and I kind of wanted her to get eaten by the dragon (in my defence, it would have made for a good dramatic moment).

Another character who got an expanded role in this book was the human wizard Max Schreiber, who becomes quite an intriguing addition to the plot.  Max becomes a key part of the team in this book, and his insight into magic and the wider events of the Warhammer Fantasy universe are great additions to the plot, helping to expand the reader’s knowledge.  At the same time, Max also comes across as a bit of a creeper due to his unrequited love of Ulrika, which causes him to do some stupid things.  You honestly start to worry that Max is going to do something sinister as the story continues, and I have no doubt that will become a major plot point in the future.

I also must quickly mention the mad dwarf engineer Malakai, who goes on a fun mission of vengeance here in this book to fight the dragon who crashed his beloved airship.  Malakai, who speaks with a Scottish brogue just to make him seem even wilder, is a deeply entertaining figure in this book, combining a Slayer’s death wish with a love of advanced weaponry.  It was so much fun to see this insane character advancing on his foes with explosives and giant guns, and I am still laughing about his cart-loaded gatling gun.

While there is a great focus on recurring characters, King also spend some time introducing several interesting new characters.  The best of these are the four new dwarf Slayer characters, Steg, Bjorni Bjornisson, Ulli Ullisson and Grimme, who accompany the protagonists on their quest to slay the dragon.  All four Slayers have diverse personalities, backgrounds and fun quirks that make them interesting in their own way.  King ends up doing a lot with these four characters in the 100 or so pages that they end up being featured, and there are some great story arcs drawn around them.  I quite enjoyed the compelling narrative around Ulli, a young dwarf forced to become a Slayer for his cowardice, especially as it had a good resolution.  I also must highlight Bjorni’s constant lewd stories and declarations, which add so many laughs to the book, especially as he makes some outrageous claims about his romantic conquests.  I did think he could have done a little more with the intriguing and incredibly taciturn Grimme, but overall these four characters were great additions to the plot and I look forward to seeing some of them again in the future.

The final characters I need to point out are the extremely amusing antagonist team of Grey Seer Thanquol and his minion Lurk Snitchtongue, two skaven characters who serve as secondary antagonists for Dragonslayer.  Thanquol and Lurk are really amusing characters who perfectly encapsulate the snivelling and duplicitous skaven race, with their constant talk of betrayal, self-gain and incompetence.  It is always so much fun seeing the two of them at it, and every one of their scenes is chock full of hilarious statements and continuous thoughts of treachery.  King adds in a very fun change to the dynamic between these two characters in Dragonslayer, with the previously small and deferential Lurk having been mutated into a massive beast, which gives him increased confidence.  This makes him strongly consider killing Thanquol several times throughout the book, and the two are constantly eyeing each other off.  This proves to be a hilarious addition to the plot, and I loved seeing Thanquol on the back foot with his minion after two books of pushing him around.  While they are not the most dangerous of villains at this point, they do make for an intriguing alternate viewpoint, especially as their storylines are mostly separate from that of the protagonists.  While they are a tad detached from the main narrative, their encounters and experiences add to the general tapestry of the series and help to set up the villains of the next Gotrek and Felix book.

With Dragonslayer by William King, the Gotrek and Felix books continue to impress me as one of the all-time best and most enjoyable Warhammer tie-in series.  I had an amazing time getting through this cool book, especially as it features all the best aspects of the series, including tons of fun action, great characters, and major Warhammer Fantasy settings.  Readers are guaranteed to have a blast with this book, and I loved every single second of danger, combat and dragon fighting Dragonslayer contained.  A fun and fantastic read, I look forward to checking out the rest of the books in this series, especially the fifth entry, Beastslayer.

Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Cytonic Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Skyward – Book Three

Length: 14 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today continues his incredible and brilliant Skyward young adult science fiction series, with the third epic instalment, Cytonic.

This was another incredible book from the amazingly talented Brandon Sanderson, who I would say is one of the top authors in the world today.  Debuting back in 2005, Sanderson has written many brilliant and complex fantasy and science fiction novels and was personally selected to finish off Robert Jordan’s iconic The Wheel of Time series.  Sanderson has since written a great collection of books, most of which have been part of his interconnected Cosmere universe.  This includes his groundbreaking The Stormlight Archive series, which started in 2010 with The Way of Kings, as well as his bestselling Mistborn series.  While the extremely prolific Sanderson is constantly adding to his Cosmere novels, he has also been working on several other series, such as his Skyward books.

The Skyward series are an excellent young adult science fiction series that follows the character of Spensa Nightshade, a misfit who rose to become a fighter pilot to defend her planet from alien invaders.  Made up of Skyward and Starsight, this great series has proven to be truly fantastic, and these first two novels were amongst the best books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  The first book detailed Spensa’s training as a pilot, which saw her save her planet and discover that her people were intentionally trapped on their planet in a penal colony.  The second book, Starsight, followed Spensa as she infiltrated the alien capital in disguise to discover what the aliens wanted, and what plans they had for her planet.  However, after being betrayed, Spensa learns that the Superiority government want to use the mysterious interdimensional beings known as the Delvers as weapons against the humans.  This third book in the series, Cytonic, follows on immediately after the events of Starsight and continues Spensa’s adventure, showing what happened to her after she dove into a Superiority interdimensional portal at the end of the second book.  Sanderson also released several novellas around the same time as Cytonic, including Sunreach, Redawn and Evershore, which add context to the universe and focus on some of the side characters from the previous novels.

Following her dive into the mysterious portal in the middle of Starsight to escape the Superiority, Defiant Defence Force pilot and amateur spy, Spensa Nightshade, finds herself in all manner of trouble when she arrives in the realm known as the Nowhere.  The Nowhere is a unnatural and chaotic dimension outside our universe that hosts the Delvers, destructive creatures that are being manipulated by the Superiority into destroying humanity, especially the psychically empowered beings known as Cytonics, such as herself.

Determined to find out more about both the Delvers and her own Cytonic abilities, Spensa remains in the Nowhere to find the clues that will uncover the history behind her own power and that of her enemies.  However, the Nowhere is a weird and mysterious place, made up of floating fragments of multiple planets and filled with all manner of creatures, alien pirates and Superiority forces.  Worse, the very nature of the Nowhere slowly changes the people within it, draining their memories and making them forget everything important to them.

Alone except for her unhinged ship AI, M-Bot, and a forgetful intergalactic explorer, Spensa begins her quest.  As Spensa hunts down fragments from the past, she soon finds herself under attack from the Delvers, who are desperate to destroy her and the threat she poses to their entire race.  With mysterious monsters, dangerous physics and hostile aliens closing in on her, Spensa is thrust into the great adventure she always wanted.  However, the closer she gets to the truth about herself and the delvers, the more she begins to realise just how high the cost of knowledge and power can be.

This was an exceptional and addictive read from Sanderson, who once again takes the reader on a complex and powerful ride.  Cytonic was an excellent continuation of the unique story started in Skyward and then expanded on in Starsight, and I love the powerful journey contained in this novel.  Featuring a brilliant combination of a clever narrative, a unique new setting and some amazingly entertaining characters, this was an exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed this incredible narrative, especially as it continues the cool plot from the previous two novels.  One of the best things about this series is the amazing amount of variance in storylines, with the first book reading like a flight academy story (teenage Top Gun), while the second book was an espionage book set in the heart of alien territory.  This third book turned out to be a wild and epic adventure novel, which places the protagonist in a unique and dangerous new setting and requires her to complete a great quest to save her friends and escape.  This great change of tone really made for a compelling read, and I loved the inventive pivots featured in this book.

Cytonic starts right after the events of Starsight, quickly resolving the cliffhanger from the second book, while also placing Spensa immediately in danger yet again.  Once the new main character, Chet, is introduced, Cytonic’s story quickly sets the protagonist on her mission, travelling to one location after another to learn the past of the universe and her enemies.  There are some brilliant sequences set throughout this part of the book, as Spensa gets to grips with the strange new dimension she has found herself in, while also enjoying the cool adventure she is having.  Around halfway through the book, several key new characters are introduced, as Spensa is forced to join an alien pirate gang to advance any further into the Nowhere.  What follows are some brilliant character moments as Spensa starts to find her place in this dimension, while also worrying about her friends back home.  After some intense and exciting space fighter fights, Spensa and her companions eventually get towards the end run of the book, learning everything they came to while trying to escape the Delvers.  The final major sequence of the book is loaded up with an intense amount of action, drama and major twists, as everything you think you know is changed around, and some big events occur that will rock you right in the feels.  This was a brilliant and extremely fast-paced narrative, with the protagonists never sitting still for long as they encounter danger and adversity around every corner.  Despite the intense pace, Sanderson also works a lot of character development and emotional encounters throughout the book, and you get an extremely well-balanced story that is very easy to get addicted to.

I deeply enjoyed Sanderson’s excellent writing style which helped to make Cytonic particularly accessible and fun to read.  Told exclusively from the perspective of Spensa, the reader gets a detailed and upfront examination of all the events occurring in front of her in addition to her own hilarious observations and reactions.  I find that the Skyward novels have a very different tone from some of Sanderson’s other works, and I appreciate the cool and perfect combination of intense science fiction elements, with compelling character development, impressive action sequences and outrageous and exciting humour that was featured in Cytonic.  The various fighter combat sequences are particularly good, and while they aren’t as plentiful as some of the other Skyward novels, there are still some exciting and elaborately written scenes that pit Spensa against other pilots or entities in high-stakes combat.  I will say that Cytonic does, at times, seem like a bridging novel in the series, setting up events for the big finale and sidelining several supporting characters.  However, I still really liked this great read, and I had an amazing amount of fun with its clever adventure framing.

Before starting Cytonic I was a little worried about how easy it was going to be for me to follow, especially as it had been nearly two years since I read Starsight, and I might have forgotten a lot of detail.  I was also concerned because I did not have a chance to read any of the novellas that Sanderson released around Cytonic, which some readers claimed were vital to the plot.  I personally felt that I was able to read this book without a refresher as Sanderson ensured that certain key details were summarised within the text extremely well, and I was swiftly able to remember anything that might have slipped my mind.  I also found that my enjoyment didn’t suffer from having not read any of the novellas, mainly because it was such a Spensa focused story.  The novellas detailed events that occurred back on Detritus and the Superiority during Spensa’s absence, and they only have minor impacts on the plot.  As such, readers can manage without them, although I think I will read them soon to find out what else has been happening in the wider universe.  One of the other things that I really appreciated about Cytonic is that it is extremely appealing to a wide range of readers.  While it is marketed as a young adult novel to teenagers, I honestly think that readers of most age ranges can really enjoy this book.  Older readers will deeply appreciate the complex characters and intriguing science fiction elements, while younger fans will love the cool action and hilarious humour.  Combined, this makes for an awesome read that I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in a great science fiction read.

I really must rave about the fantastic setting and universe building contained within Cytonic.  Sanderson really went all out expanding the Skyward universe in this latest novel, and the reader gets a ton of information as key elements from the previous novels are finally explained in full, such as Cytonics and the Delvers.  While readers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by all the new inclusions and background information that Sanderson shoved into this novel, I personally found it really fascinating and I appreciated having several questions answered.  There are some great scientific and character elements built into who and what Cytonics, Delvers, and the Nowhere are, and I think they were woven into the exciting plot extremely well.  Established elements from the previous two novels are also reintroduced expertly throughout Cytonic, and it was great to get some updates on the history, disputes and characters that were such a cool feature of the first two novels.  I particularly loved the fun reimagining of key parts of human culture that have been warped by years of retellings and misunderstandings.  Spensa’s love of stories ensures that several of these are featured throughout Cytonic, and it was always amusing to hear distorted version of well-known movies and books, such as Spensa’s epic and hilarious retelling of The Lion King.

I also need to gush about the incredible new setting of the Nowhere, which serves as the primary location for the entire narrative.  The Nowhere is a weird and haunting dimension outside of real space that is filled with all manner of wonder and danger.  Revolving around a faux-star containing Delvers, the rest of the Nowhere contains a ton of floating fragments of land and soil, containing all manner of elements from the planets they originated from.  This makes for a brilliant and shifting landscape which was really fun to explore and even more cool to fly over.  However, the real brilliance of this setting lies in the impact it has on the characters’ minds.  People stuck in the Nowhere, which includes pirates, miners, outcasts and anyone the Superiority wants to get rid of, are slowly having their memories, personality and sense of time sucked away by the weird space, with only certain figments of reality slowing the process down.  This naturally has some substantial impacts on the plot and the characters, with Spensa constantly trying to hold on to what is important to her.  This exceptionally clever and inventive setting is a great backdrop to this amazing narrative, and it was extremely cool to see Spensa and her friends try to navigate and overcome the various elements of the Nowhere.  Sanderson is a true master of creating unique and captivating universes, and I cannot wait to see what happens in this one next.

There is no way that you cannot talk about one of Sanderson’s novels without highlighting the many exceptional and complex characters featured within.  Cytonic, and the Skyward series in general, is a perfect example of this, as the readers are treated to a range of unique and entertaining protagonists, each of whom add an incredible amount to the overall story.  Due to the events of the plot, there is a much more limited range of characters in this novel, although the three main characters more than make up for it with their bold personalities and captivating backstories.

The most prominent of theses is point-of-view character and main protagonist Spensa Nightshade.  Spensa is a great character who has gone through an amazing amount during the trilogy, transforming to loner weirdo child who was reviled as the daughter of a traitor, to a heroic pilot, then to a daring spy.  In this third book, she becomes a wilderness adventurer on a quest to save her people, which plays perfectly to her personality, which has been warped by her youth of listening to wild stories.  As such, Spensa has a great time in this book, and it is deeply entertaining to see her adventure around and become a space pirate.  While there are a lot of fun moments with Spensa, Sanderson also takes the time to once again dive into her personality, showing how much she has grown since the start of the first book, as well as the unique relationships she has formed.  Spensa is faced with some hard choices in this book as she attempts to return home, and there is an impressive examination of her damaged psyche, especially surrounding all the responsibilities that have been thrust upon her.  This makes for a complex and compelling portrayal in this novel, and while you may laugh at Spensa’s antics you know that there is a lot going on within her head.  There are some interesting developments around Spensa in this book, particularly when it comes to her Cytonic powers, and it will be fascinating to see how she further develops in the next novel.

I also deeply enjoyed the character of M-Bot, the silly and distracted artificial intelligence who Spensa discovered in a crashed ship in the first book.  After being disassembled by the Superiority in Starsight, M-Bot now flies around in a tiny cleaning drone and finds himself going through some big changes.  In particular, he has gained full sapiency in this book, and he immediately goes on an emotional bender, trying to understand the complex feelings he is now experiencing, while also dealing with his sense of betrayal after Spensa abandoned him in the previous book.  This dive into sentience adds some really entertaining layers to M-Bot in Cytonic, and he is even more amusing and charming than before, which I didn’t think was possible.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with M-Bot again, and it was so much fun following him around, especially as he continues to develop his unique friendship with Spensa.  M-Bot has some amazing moments and ridiculous dialogue in this book, and you will not be prepared for everything that occurs with him.

The other major character of this book is new protagonist Chet Starfinder, a human Cytonic explorer who lives in the Nowhere and decides to help Spensa achieve her goals and escape back to her universe.  Chet is an eccentric being who combines aspects of all the famous literary explorers into his personality, thanks to his love of stories and his inability to remember life outside of the Nowhere.  Readers will enjoy getting to know Chet, and it was fascinating to see the cool dynamic that grows between him and Spensa as they take on a fun partnership to traverse the Nowhere.  Sanderson opens some big questions surrounding who Chet is at the start of Cytonic, and it was a lot of fun finding out who exactly he was and what his motivations for helping Spensa are.  I deeply enjoyed Chet’s unique and compelling storyline and he proved to be a brilliant addition to the novel.

Aside from these main three characters, Cytonic also features an interesting supporting cast.  Most of these characters are new, with characters from the preceding novels barely featured here (they appear in the accompanying novellas).  These new characters are the trapped inhabitants of the Nowhere who find Spensa and become part of her journey.  These include the Broadsiders, an alien pirate band who Spensa joins and swiftly grows close to thanks to their inclusive nature and love of great pilots.  It was fascinating to see Spensa, who has had to fight for inclusion her entire life, gain some more friends, even though she knows she can’t stay with them.  There are some great figures amongst this bunch, and I loved some of the unique alien features they had.  Sanderson reintroduced one of the best characters from the Starsight in the book, who proves to be quite an entertaining and lovable inclusion, even if they are experiencing some memory issues.  Some of the main series antagonists have minor appearances in this book, plotting from afar and setting some evil plans in motion.  While it would have been interesting to see more about them, especially as they were only introduced in the prior novel, I think keeping them mostly apart from Spensa worked in the context of the unique plot that Sanderson was trying to develop.  I also deeply enjoyed the strange creatures known as the Delvers.  The Delvers are dangerous and powerful interdimensional beings who exist on a whole other form of reality and consciousness.  Sanderson does a fantastic job exploring what exactly these beings are, and you get a real sense of their dangerous emotions and outlook on life.  I really appreciated the author’s clever use of these seemingly less than humourous monsters as the antagonists of this book, and it proved to be a welcome addition to the plot.  Every character in this book is extremely awesome, and readers will have an exceptional time exploring their complex personalities as the plot unfolds.

While I did receive a physical copy of this book, I chose to enjoy the audiobook version of Cytonic instead to fit it into my reading schedule.  This proved to be an extremely wise decision as the audiobook was a fantastic way to check Cytonic out, something I had previously found when listening to Skyward.  There are actually two versions of the Cytonic audiobook available, but I chose to listen to the Sophie Aldred version, as she was the narrator who I listened to previously.  This version of Cytonic had a run time of just under 14 and a half hours, making it a relatively quick audiobook to get through, especially once I got incredibly hooked on the story.  I really enjoyed listening to Cytonic and I found that the audiobook version helped my appreciation of both the new setting of the Nowhere and the various cool space fighter sequences featured throughout.  Aldred is an outstanding narrator, and I had an exceptional time with the various voices she featured throughout Cytonic.  She hits the character of Spensa perfectly, fully capturing her daring and adventurous personality, and enhancing all her many quirks.  I also loved the cool voice she used for M-Bot, including the fun accent, which fully showed of his computer origin, as well as the many unusual behavioural quirks that have developed within him.  This great narration deeply enhanced this already cool novel and I had a wonderful time listening to this incredible audiobook.

With the third entry in the epic Skyward series, Cytonic, acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson continues to shine as one of the absolute best modern fantasy and science fiction writers out there.  Cytonic is another captivating and impressive young adult science fiction read that perfectly continues the outstanding narrative from the previously Skyward novels.  Featuring some incredible characters, an intense and moving narrative, and a bold and inventive new setting, Cytonic is an exceptionally awesome read that you will get addicted to.  I had a fantastic time with this novel and I cannot wait to see how Sanderson wraps up this series in the future.

Cytonic Cover 2

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 16 November 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The undisputed master of Star Wars extended fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, Lesser Evil, which brings this excellent prequel trilogy to a fantastic and dramatic end.

Out of all the awesome authors who have contributed to the Star Wars extended universe over the years, few are more talented or highly regarded than Timothy Zahn.  Zahn, who is one of the key architects of the original extended universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends), is probably best known for his original trilogy of Star Wars novels, which started with Heir to the EmpireHeir to the Empire served as the introduction of several major extended universe characters, such as Mara Jade; however, his most iconic creation is probably the legendary character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an intriguing and complex figure considered the greatest tactician in the entire Star Wars canon.  Serving as a major figure in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn was the brilliant antagonist of Heir to the Empire and other major Star Wars Legends novels.  The subsequent popularity of Thrawn saw him eventually introduced into the Disney canon in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, as well as a future live-action appearance.  This also resulted in Zahn being contracted to write six new Thrawn-centric novels.  The Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), detailed Thrawn’s introduction, rise and career in Imperial Navy and filled in some of the gaps of the show.  Zahn followed this up with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which served as a prequel to the original trilogy.

The Thrawn Ascendancy series is set during the Clone Wars period and takes place in the Chaos, the unexplored area of space outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars series, and focuses on Thrawn’s species, the Chiss.  As such, the series is primarily set in and around the Chiss Ascendancy and focuses on several threats to the Ascendancy that Thrawn attempts to overcome.  This series has so far consisted of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, both of which were extremely cool, filled with detailed battles, fun new characters, and some intense political machinations.  Now this brilliant trilogy comes to an end, with a final chapter telling the full story of Thrawn’s greatest victory and lowest moment.

For thousands of years, the legendary Chiss Ascendancy has been one of the greatest powers within the Chaos, keeping its people safe from the alien races who seek to conquer or destroy them.  Confident in its own power and determined not to interfere in the lives of its neighbours, the Chiss maintain their borders through the Expansionary Defence Fleet.  However, in recent months, the Ascendancy has found itself under attack from a dangerous and manipulative force that seeks to utterly destroy the Chiss.  After defeating a potential external invader and weathering an attempt to drag some of the Ascendancy’s powerful families into conflict, the threat to the Chiss appears to be over.  However, these were merely a precursor to a much more sophisticated and dangerous attack by a new alien race, known as the Grysk.  Led by the dangerous and manipulative Jixtus, the Grysk seek to unleash a deadly, multi-pronged assault against the Chiss to rip the ascendancy apart inside and out.

As Jixtus traverses the planets of the Ascendancy, manipulating the great Chiss families towards civil war, his powerful fleet lies just outside its borders, waiting to attack.  With the Chiss getting closer and closer to a devastating internal and external conflict, the fate of the Ascendancy lies in the hands of Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo (Thrawn), the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet’s most brilliant and unconventional commander.  Having defeated the previous attacks on the Ascendancy, Thrawn is the only person that fully understands the oncoming danger and he is determined to stop Jixtus and permanently end the threat he represents.  However, Thrawn has long worn out the patience of the ruling families, and he now finds himself hamstrung by politics and personal grievances.  To save his people, Thrawn will be forced to break all the rules he has sworn to uphold.  But just how far will Thrawn go to defeat his enemy, and what consequences will his actions have on himself and the future of the Chiss Ascendancy?

Lesser Evil was another brilliant and exceptional read from Zahn that did an amazing job of wrapping the complex Thrawn Ascendancy series to an end.  Containing some awesome and unique Star Wars elements, Lesser Evil fills in all the gaps between this trilogy and the sequel Thrawn trilogy, and I think it ended up being one of Zahn’s strongest recent novels.

This novel contains an amazing narrative that brings together all the elaborate and compelling storylines from the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels and provides a satisfying and fantastic conclusion to the trilogy.  The novel starts off right after the events of Greater Good, with several characters dealing with the aftermath of the near civil war and Thrawn’s latest unofficial mission.  The story quickly introduces the book’s antagonist, the master manipulator Jixtus, as he starts his grand plan to destroy the entire Chiss Ascendancy.  This brings out an impressive amount of intrigue, infighting and dissent, which forces many of the protagonists to attempt to slow it down.  At the same time, Thrawn engages in his own mission to try and identify the enemy’s master plan, which reintroduces several key storylines and settings from the previous novels and helps tie them into the plot of this book.  Zahn also throws in a series of flashback interludes that dive into key parts of Thrawn’s past and give some context to his current mindset and plans.  This all leads up to the big conclusion in which the great adversaries, Thrawn and Jixtus, finally meet in battle.  Lesser Evil proves to be a particularly exciting and intriguing read, and I loved the brilliant combination of world building, political intrigue, character development and fantastic battle sequences.  I had a lot of fun with this story, and it was one of the strongest in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.

I really enjoyed how Zahn told this final entry in the series.  The great use of multiple character perspectives not only allows for a richer story that examines all angles of the conflict but it also presents several impressive character driven storylines that were wonderful to follow.  In addition, Zahn once again lays onto the universe building by expanding the reader’s knowledge of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and their domain outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars universe.  This universe building excellently comes into play as the novel progresses, especially as the antagonist’s plan relies on manipulating the politics and history of the various ruling families.  I really appreciated this cool extended look into this intriguing setting, especially as it ties into some of Zahn’s prior work.  Due to the extensive and elaborate Star Wars lore contained within Lesser Evil, this book is probably best read by experienced fans of the franchise who will appreciate all the inclusions.  It is also highly recommended that readers check out the first two novels in this trilogy first, as the storylines of Lesser Evil are very strongly tied into them.

Lesser Evil contains some intriguing connections to the wider Star Wars universe and canon that long-term fans of the franchise will deeply appreciate.  These connections mainly revolve around Thrawn’s prior appearances and fills in many gaps that were left open from the Thrawn trilogy.  This includes the full reason why the original series began with Thrawn banished from his people and left stranded on an alien planet.  It has been pretty clear since the first Thrawn Ascendancy novel that this entire trilogy has been leading up to this moment, and Zahn did not disappoint, including a moving and complex reason for the banishment that played perfectly into the character’s personality and the events of the previous novels.  Zahn also layers in a ton of intriguing connections to his Star Wars Legends novels that fans will deeply enjoy.  For example, parts of Lesser Evil are deeply connected to Zhan’s previous novel, the now non-canon Outbound Flight, which also focused on a younger Thrawn.  Parts of Outbound Flight’s story and setting have been adapted into the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, such as some elements of Chiss culture and some supporting characters, and it was interesting to see Zahn retrofit his previous works for the new canon.  In addition, key flashbacks within Lesser Evil take place in a version of Outbound Flight’s narrative, and while I did think this was cool, Zahn did not include a lot of context, so readers unfamiliar with his prior book may be left a little confused.  Still, this was a clever homage to the author’s prior works, and I appreciated Zahn’s fascinating references to his now defunct novels.

One of the strongest things about Lesser Evil was the great array of characters featured throughout.  There is a very strong cast in this final book, with most of the key characters having been established in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels or re-introduced from some of Zahn’s Star Wars Legends novels.  All the major characters featured in Lesser Evil have some amazing story arcs and Zahn spends a lot of time fleshing out their personalities, motivations, and histories, which deeply enhances this brilliant narrative.

The most prominent of these characters is Thrawn himself, who has an epic showing in Lesser Evil after being somewhat underutilised in Greater Good. Lesser Evil proves to be a defining novel for Thrawn, especially as he encounters his true enemy, the Grysk, for the first time.  The reader is also given insights into certain previously unseen relationships that Thrawn had, namely with his adopted brother, Thrass.  It also finally reveals the reasons why he was banished from the Chiss and marooned on the deserted alien planet by the start of Thrawn.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character arc surrounding Thrawn in this book, and Zahn does a great job once again highlighting his unique personality and motivations.  Despite being a little less sinister in literary form than in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a harsh edge here, and the reader gets some great insights into his constant motivation of protecting the Chiss Ascendancy.  Throughout the course of the book, it becomes deeply apparent that Thrawn will risk everything to achieve his goal, and I loved how heartless Thrawn can become when dealing with his enemies.  This motivation and background go a long way to exploring Thrawn’s actions while serving the Empire, and fans of this fantastic character will deeply appreciate this compelling story arc.  Zahn also answers several intriguing questions about Thrawn’s past in this book, and it proved incredibly fascinating to see this great character expanded even further.

I must once again highlight the great way in which Zahn displays his central protagonist.  As with his previous appearances in Zahn’s novels, Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective is not shown; instead all his actions and interactions are viewed through the eyes of his friends, allies, and even a couple of enemies.  I have always felt that this was a very clever technique from Zahn as it helps to highlight just how mysterious and distinctly complex his protagonist is.  Readers are only given glimpses into his brilliance, and it allows for increased suspense and surprise throughout the novel as the reader often has no idea what Thrawn is thinking or how he plans to get out of a certain situation.  The use of other observers also really helps to highlight the tactical ploys Thrawn employs, especially as he usually is forced to explain his insights, strategies, and the entire scope of his plans to the less tactically gifted people he is working with.  These elaborate explanations, coupled with the observations of the relevant side character, ensures that the readers get a much more detailed picture of Thrawn’s observations and subsequent tactics.  I have often compared this to how Watson amps up the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes by having Sherlock explain everything to him, and the result is pretty much the same here.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic use of perspective and I love everything that Zahn did with his iconic protagonist throughout Lesser Evil, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series.

If Thrawn was Sherlock Holmes, then I would say that antagonist Jixtus was the Professor Moriarty of the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  A member of the mysterious Grysk species, Jixtus has been a shadowy figure throughout the proceeding novels, influencing events from the shadows and sending out proxies to fight Thrawn and the Chiss.  This comes to an end in Lesser Evil as Jixtus takes a personal hand in attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.  Jixtus proves to be an excellent and brilliant counterpoint to Thrawn and it is fascinating to see the battle of minds between them, especially as both have alternate strengths.  While Thrawn is tactically brilliant, Jixtus is better at personal manipulation and politics, something Thrawn struggles with.  As such, there is a real battle of styles here in Lesser Evil and the result is pretty brilliant.  I also really appreciated how you also never see any part of the book told from Jixtus’ perspective, ensuring that he is just as mysterious and ethereal as Thrawn.  I loved how Zahn portrays Jixtus in this novel; he comes across as an incredibly dangerous and malevolent being, even though you never see his face.

The other new character I wanted to focus on in this book was Thrass (Mitth’ras’safis), Thrawn’s friend and fellow member of the Mitth family.  Thrass is an interesting character, initially introduced in the previous canon as Thrawn’s brother.  There have only been hints of him in the Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and this final book finally features in him to a degree, showing him in a series of flashback interludes set in Thrawn’s past.  Thrass is shown to be a Mitth politician who finds himself befriending and then partnering with Thrawn through a series of adventures.  The two complement each other extremely well, with Thrass serving as a bridge for the more unconventional Thrawn, while also supporting him with his political knowledge.  Thrass’s scenes proved to be a great inclusion to the novel and I felt the author did a great job re-introducing the character, even if only for flashback sequences.  I really appreciated the author’s examination about how this friendship, and later brotherhood, was vital to Thrawn’s growth and current abilities, and I particularly enjoyed the examination about how Thrass helped develop Thrawn’s flair for the dramatic.  Fans of Zahn’s Legend’s work will deeply enjoy the new appearance of this established character in Lesser Evil, and I think it was an interesting and fun choice from the author, that ended up working incredibly well.

I must also highlight how Zahn featured the other recurring characters from the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Pretty much all the major characters from the previous two novels are featured strongly in Lesser Evil, and there are some remarkably good storylines set around them.  Thrawn’s crew aboard the Springhawk get a decent amount of focus throughout this book, particularly Samakro, Thalias and Che’ri, and each of their storylines are nicely concluded.  In addition, I loved the continued use of Ziinda, another Senior Captain, who, after barely averting a civil war in the previous book, finds herself subsequently vilified and forced into a new family.  Ziinda proves to be a vital part of the plot, and it was great to see how much she had developed since the previous novel, especially as Zahn starts her on the path to becoming as determined as Thrawn.  Zahn also makes great use of Roscu, a former member of the Expansionary Defence Fleet who had issues with Thrawn in Chaos Rising. Roscu is initially set up as a secondary antagonist, especially as her mistrust of Thrawn, his friends, and all the rival families, drives her to do some stupid things.  However, Zahn slowly turns her into a surprisingly sympathetic character as the novel progresses and you end up really rooting for her.  I also loved Qilori, a supposedly neutral Pathfinder with a grudge against Thrawn; and Thurfian, the Mitth Patriarch who views Thrawn and his actions as a threat to his family and the Chiss as a whole.  These two serve as interesting secondary antagonists to the story, and it was great to see their outraged reaction to Thrawn’s actions, as well as their own attempts to end him.  These characters, and many more, added so much to this book, and I loved seeing all their arcs conclude with the trilogy.

I cannot talk about a Zahn Star Wars novel without highlighting the amazing and exciting space battles featured within.  No one does a space battle in Star Wars fiction better than Zahn, who devotes an impressive amount of time and detail into making them as impressive, thrilling, and tactically awesome as possible.  The reader gets a detailed mental impression of the space engagements that occur, and you can practically feel every shot, roll, or manoeuvre.  Lesser Evil was a particularly good example of this, featuring several great battle scenes, including one massive and action-packed confrontation towards the end.  Each sequence was beautifully rendered and perfectly portrayed, with the reader getting the full sense of everything that happened.  Throw in the distinctive technology of the Chiss, as well as the tactical abilities of Thrawn, and you have some of the most unique and brilliant battles in all of Star Wars fiction, especially as there is a great focus on larger cruisers and battleships, rather than smaller fighter craft.  I deeply enjoyed every battle sequence in this book, and fans of fights in space are in for a real treat here.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Lesser Evil, rather than reading a psychical copy.  I cannot overemphasise just how amazing the Star Wars audiobooks are, thanks to their usual amazing combinations of impressive voice acting, clever sound effects and moving Star Wars music.  Lesser Evil is a great example of this, and I had a wonderful time getting through this brilliant audiobook, even with its extensive 23+ hours run time (it would rank 17th on the current version of My Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list).  I must once again highlight the cool sound effects that were utilised throughout the audiobook to great effect.  These effects, most of which have been taken from Star Wars films and animated shows, add so much depth and power to the audiobook’s scenes, building up a strong atmosphere around the words.  Sounds like blaster fire or roaring engines really help to bring the listeners into the centre of the book’s climatic scenes, while even smaller scenes get a boost thanks to having crowd noises or computer sounds lightly running in the background.  The audiobook also makes good use of the iconic Star Wars score in various parts.  While not featured as heavily as other Star Wars audiobooks, in several places the amazing orchestral music from the films is utilised to give some major scenes a dramatic punch.  This is particularly true in some of the battle sequences, and the listeners are treated to some of the more exciting or moving tunes, which makes the battles or major moments feel bigger and more important.

In addition to this great use of sound effects and epic Star Wars music, Lesser Evil’s audiobook also benefited immensely from the narration of Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an amazing narrator (one of my personal favourites), who has contributed his voice to a huge range of Star Wars novels, including all of Zahn’s previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and other audiobooks such as Scoundrels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson has such a great range for Star Wars fiction, and he can produce some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters featured within.  Most of these voices are continuations of the ones used in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and I enjoyed the consistency from the previous two books.  I must also really highlight Thompson’s epic Thrawn voice, that perfectly captures the character’s essence, and which is incredibly close to Lars Mikkelsen’s voice from Star Wars: Rebels.  I also loved the voice that Thompson assigned to Jixtus, and the dark and sinister tones perfectly fit this awesome villain.  Thompson also cleverly modulated his voice for certain alien races to capture the unique characteristics Zahn assigned to them in his writing.  You really get a sense about how alien and strange these creatures are, which helped bring me into the zone.  This was another exceptional Star Wars audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this clever and impressive novel.

With the brilliant and captivating Lesser Evil, the legendary Timothy Zahn brings his awesome Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy to an end in a big way.  Loaded up with excellent universe building, an outstanding story, some excellent characters and some truly impressive space battles, Lesser Evil is probably the best entries in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.  I loved how Zahn brought the trilogy’s various storylines together in this final novel, providing an exciting and captivating conclusion that perfectly leads into the original Thrawn trilogy.  Thanks to all of this and more, Lesser Evil gets a full five stars from me and comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  I have had an incredible time reading the various Thrawn novels over the last few years and I really hope that Timothy Zahn continues to explore his iconic protagonist in the future, especially once Thrawn gets his long overdue live action debut.

Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

Mind Bullet 2

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The deliciously twisted mind of bestselling science fiction thriller author Jeremy Robinson returns with another epic and over-the-top adventure, Mind Bullet, a fantastic and captivating read.

Robinson is an outstanding author whose work I first checked out earlier this year.  Known for his Nemesis Saga and Chess Team series, Robinson is currently working on a collection of partially connected standalone novels, all of which are set within the same extended universe and which are leading up to some massive crossover novels.  I was lucky enough to read one of Robinson’s other 2021 releases earlier this year, The Dark, which was a captivating and deeply entertaining read with a bonkers story to it.  I had a wonderful time with The Dark, which got a full five-star rating from me, and it made me an instant fan of this cool writer.  As such, I was extremely intrigued when I saw that he had another novel coming out this year.  This book, Mind Bullet, was another unique and fascinating read from Robinson with a killer plot to it that I just had to pick up and check out.

In the world of high-level international assassination, Jonas is something of a legend.  Raised by two honourable killers, Jonas had set out on his own, taking on the most dangerous and difficult of jobs and succeeding in some extremely flashy ways.  Despite the ostentatious techniques used in some of his kills, Jonas has managed to stay out of the limelight and out of sight from conventional law enforcement due to fact that none of his targets ever shows any signs of violence.  That is because Jonas has a secret: he has telekinesis and can blow a small hole into people’s brains merely by concentrating on them, an unexplained ability he calls Mind Bullet.

However, despite all his success and the accompanying wealth, Jonas is unhappy and depressed.  Alone except for his sarcastic and possibly psychotic AI, Bubbles, Jonas is still grieving the loss of his dead parents, convinced that someone killed them and got away with it.  As his depression and loneliness results in Jonas taking more and more dangerous jobs, Bubbles decides to intervene for his own good.  Playing matchmaker, Bubbles determines that Madee, a local Thai food delivery woman and part-time thief, would be perfect for him.  After an awkward first meeting where Madee attempts to rob him, the two loners start to hit it off.  However, true love is about to get interrupted by the worst kind of gate crasher, the assassin group known as the Shrieking Ninja.

Angered by one of Madee’s burglaries, the Shrieking Ninjas attempt to break into Jonas’s house and kill them both.  Barely escaping from the Shrieking Ninjas’ mysterious and powerful master, Jonas goes on the run with Madee, hoping to find a way to get them off their trail for good.  However, the disastrous and very public encounter at his house has raised unwelcome attention and Jonas is shocked to find that a $10 million bounty has been placed on his head.  A mysterious organisation is determined to capture Jonas by any means necessary, and every elite assassin and hitman in America is willing to collect.  Pursued by a legion of outrageous killers, Jonas, Madee and Bubbles find themselves thrust into the midst of a dark and deadly conspiracy that lies in the heart of Jonas’s past and the secrets behind his lethal abilities.  Can this unusual group survive the onslaught headed their way, or will they be buried by a legion of lethal killers with their own unique abilities?

Wow, just wow, this novel was the absolute definition of fun.  Robinson did another amazing job with Mind Bullet, producing an intense and exciting novel that is wildly addictive and incredibly entertaining.  Featuring a brilliant, fast-paced story, Mind Bullet had me hooked from the very second I started listening to it, and I ended up powering through it in a few short days.  An outstanding and compelling read, this novel also got a five-star rating from me.

Mind Bullet has an awesome and deeply entertaining narrative that is extremely easy to read and even easier to get addicted to.  Robinson starts off strong with an audacious assassination involving an airborne car, an unethical AI, psychic powers and a parachute, which serves as the perfect introduction to Jonas and his assistant, Bubbles.  From there the story quickly evolves, with Jonas meeting the mysterious Madee while being forced to defend her from the outrageous Shrieking Ninjas (that name says it all).  Following that encounter, Jonas and Madee are forced to contend with continued attacks from even more unusual and deadly assassins, each of whom steal the scene they’re in, either by their unique methods or dangerous powers not unlike Jonas’s.  The protagonists are thrust into deadly situation after deadly situation, picking up new friends as progressively more dangerous foes attack with devastating effect.  This amazing and compelling narrative contains the right blend of forward action and intriguing backstory, as the attacks awaken memories from Jonas’s past, which he also seeks to explore.  After a series of interesting reveals after the halfway point of the book, the protagonists are thrust into their most dangerous situation yet when they encounter the book’s big bads, in an epic and twisty confrontation that brings everything together and ensures everything is out on the table.  All this leads up to an explosive conclusion that wraps up the story and the character arcs exceedingly well, while also leaving the door open for appearances in future Robinson books.

This entire story was extremely intense and addictive from the very beginning, and I had an outstanding time getting through it, and loved every single development, explosive encounter, and fantastically weird new character.  Despite its myriad elements, the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the readers are left feeling extremely satisfied, especially as this is a mostly self-contained story.  I felt that Robinson’s use of single first-person perspective to tell the whole story worked extremely well, especially as the point-of-view character was particularly entertaining and enjoyable.  Like most of Robinson’s stories, Mind Bullet’s narrative contained a great combination of humour, action, character growth and sheer insanity, which helps to produce a deeply entertaining and compelling plot that grabs the reader’s attention and holds on tight.  While substantially less dark in tone and character development than Robinson’s prior book, The Dark, Mind Bullet has serious moments which contrast extremely well with the inherent silliness to produce an overall epic read.  I honestly loved every second of this story, and there are some brilliant scenes featured throughout it, from massive and elaborate fight scenes, brutal psychic brawls both in reality and the mental plain, as well as several simpler scenes that deal with the characters and show their growth as people.

It is interesting to note that this book is part of Robinson’s wider Infinite Timeline, a collection of mostly unconnected novels set in the same overarching universe.  Robinson is currently making a play to combine the plots and characters of these standalone novels, and several upcoming novels will feature multiple characters from across the canon.  As such, Mind Bullet contains multiple references to Robinson’s prior works, mainly Tribe and The Dark, which are part of the same loosely connected storyline (the books of which are are going to have their first crossover in 2022’s Khaos).  There is also a surprising appearance from some of the protagonists of Robinson’s other books, which hints at the bigger crossover later in the series in Singularity (this universe’s version of Avengers: Endgame).  While readers can easily enjoy Mind Bullet without any knowledge of Robinson’s prior books, a couple of scenes and references might be a bit weird without context, especially as a few characters are briefly parachuted (or teleported) in.  Still, readers should be able to follow what is going on without too much difficulty, especially as Robinson does provide some explanation or interesting reaction from the protagonist, and hopefully these appearances will encourage them to check out some of the author’s other books.  I personally really enjoyed these inclusions, and it was fun to see how Robinson is getting more and more blatant with the connections between the various novels.  I am really looking forward to seeing how this entire series comes together, and I really need to go back and read some of Robinson’s other books before this happens.

One of the things that Robinson truly excels at as an author is his ability to produce some complex and relatable characters.  This is particularly true in Mind Bullet, which features a fantastic cast of compelling and relatable protagonists and antagonists with intriguing plot threads that the reader will quickly get invested in.

The most prominent character of this novel is the point-of-view protagonist, Jonas, the dangerous assassin with a heart of gold.  In many ways, Jonas was a pretty typical protagonist for Robinson, a confident and fun-loving figure who cracks a ton of jokes and has their own unique style and a liking for obscure pop culture.  I had a lot of fun following the adventure through Jonas’s eyes, especially as his hilarious view of all the outrageous stuff occurring around him and his constant quips kept me in stiches for most of the novel.  Despite this entertaining outer facade, once you dig deeper Jonas proves to be a lot more complex and emotionally damaged.  The character is chronically depressed and bored, especially after the mysterious car crash that killed his parents, and at the start of the book he has a substantial subconscious death wish.  The character evolves for the better as the novel progresses, especially as he starts to make some connections with the various side-characters.  These friendships and deeper relationships really change him for the better, although they also uncover a range of secrets from the past.  I loved the dive into the character’s psychic abilities, especially as he goes through a trial-by-fire against a range of powerful foes, each of whom is deadlier than the last.  It was also cool and intriguing to explore his hidden, traumatic past, which the author does extremely well through several clever flashback sequences.  The eventual reveal of who or what Jonas really is was done very well, and it will be interesting to see how the author expands on that in some of the future books.

My other favourite character in Mind Bullet was probably the sassy and potentially crazy artificial intelligence, Bubbles.  Bubbles, whose origins and capabilities are also unknown, is Jonas’s assistant and best friend, whose personality is growing based on her interactions with Jonas.  Thanks to the unique experiences she has gained living alongside a quipping assassin, Bubbles has developed quite a sarcastic and entertaining personality, and nearly every interaction with Bubbles results in an inappropriate joke or shocking comment which is pretty hilarious.  Like Jonas, Bubbles also develops a bit throughout the novel, and it was fascinating to see the author’s viewpoint about nature vs nurture when it comes to this character’s personality and emotions.  Despite being an AI, Bubbles is quite a caring being, even if she has developed some homicidal tendencies (especially towards ducks), and I appreciated the unique bond she forms first with Jonas, and then with some of the characters in the book.  Bubble’s meddling in Jonas’s life to keep him alive is particularly sweet, even if she tries to cover it with analytics, and it ended up being one of the major character threads of this book.  An outstanding and brilliant AI character who you will fall in love with!

Aside from Jonas and Bubbles, there are some other amazing characters throughout Mind Bullet.  Madee is another sassy and strong-willed female character (most of Robinson’s characters are sassy and sarcastic), whose break-in to Jonas’s house triggers all the events of the book.  Madee is another fun character, and I really loved the entertaining romance that bloomed between her and Jonas, despite their awkward, computer assisted meeting.  Robinson plays it pretty smart with Madee, and I loved some of the great twists surrounding her, even if by the final reveal it is apparent there is more going on with her.  Jonas also bands together with a group of other complex and entertaining characters, most of whom get pulled into his orbit as the world explodes around him.  While I did think the inclusion of several attractive female characters helping Jonas did appear a little harem-like, each of them proves to be a valuable member of the team, and I liked some of the fun character arcs surrounding them.  I also really need to highlight the fun collection of killers that come after the protagonists throughout Mind Bullet, especially as Robinson went out of his way to produce some wild and truly ridiculous figures here, including incompetent Neo Nazis, stereotypical gun-toting Texans, and foul-mouthed murderous nuns.  There are also a group of dangerous psychic killers, each of whom has their own unique history with Jonas, and whose compelling range of powers results in some dramatic action sequences when they try to fight the protagonists.  I had an outstanding time getting to know all these brilliant characters, and the sheer range of captivating figures really helps to make Mind Bullet stand out.

When Mind Bullet came out I absolutely had to grab this book in audiobook format.  This is because Mind Bullet was narrated by the incredibly talented R. C. Bray, who is one of my all-time favourite audiobook narrators (check out his narration of Michael Mammay’s Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside).  Bray, who has narrated most of Robinson’s works, did another incredible job here, lending his fantastic and powerful voice to this wild and entertaining book.  Bray really gets Robinson’s fantastic protagonists and writing style, and he was soon moving this brilliant novel along and an ultra-fast pace, ensuring that listeners power through its 11 hour and 42 minute runtime in a very short order.  Bray really dives into the characters of the book, and I loved how he brought Jonas to life, ensuring that the reader gets the full sense of his humour, unique worldview and deeper inner struggles.  The rest of the character are also portrayed perfectly as well, especially Bubbles, and I loved the cool and amusing voices that he provides to each of them.  Bray obviously has a lot of fun here with this book, and the fantastic voices he uses for some of the more unique moments and characters are extremely entertaining and memorable.  I especially loved the ultra-serious and dramatic voice that he used for the formal name-drooping introduction of each major character’s names or codenames (which appear in the printed version in massive bold print).  I really appreciated this fun and entertaining take on the audiobook narration, and you will fall in love with Bray’s brilliant voice and entertaining style if you check out the audiobook version of this novel.

Overall, Mind Bullet is another epic and incredible read from the exceptional Jeremy Robinson.  Robinson’s latest book is crazy in all the right ways, and readers will deeply enjoy the wild and unpredictable ride that the characters go on.  Featuring an amazing group of characters, some fantastic humour, and some massive memorable scenes, Mind Bullet is an outstanding novel that I had an awesome time getting through.  Highly recommended to anyone looking for something fun, especially in its audiobook format, you need to check this book out!

It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts

It Ends in Fire Cover 2

Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Hardcover – 9 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After wowing the world with his debut trilogy, impressive young adult fantasy author Andrew Shvarts return with a fantastic and entertaining read that cleverly parodies the classic magical school fantasy setting with It Ends in Fire.

Shvarts is a great author whose work I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Shvarts debuted back in 2017 with his Royal Bastards trilogy, which followed a group of illegitimate children as they found themselves caught up in the conspiracies and plots of their dangerous parents.  Made up of Royal Bastards, City of Bastards (which has an extremely explosive ending), and War of the Bastards (one of my favourite books of 2019), this was an awesome trilogy, and it has made me very keen to read more of Shvarts’s books.  As a result, when I heard that Shvarts had a new novel coming out, one set in one of my favourite settings, a magical school, I knew I had to grab it.  I have been waiting for It Ends in Fire for a while, and I was quite excited when I received a copy the other day.

Prepare to visit the Republic, a land of magic, deceit and corrupted power, where the Wizards rule and the non-magical people, the Humbles, are brutally oppressed.  At the heart of the Republic is Blackwater Academy, the most prestigious school of magic in the land, where the elite Wizards are trained and forged into scheming, power-hungry sadists.  Blackwell Academy has survived for centuries and remains a great power in the Republic, but nobody is prepared for the arrival of its latest student.

As a child, Alka Chelrazi watched as her parents were brutally murdered by a powerful Wizard, and she has since sworn vengeance.  Taken in by a rebel group, Alka has grown into their most lethal weapon thanks to her own magical abilities and has spent her life training to do the impossible: infiltrate Blackwell.  Taking the identity of a dead Wizard unknown to anyone, Alka is tasked with entering the school, learning all its secrets, and burning it to the ground from the inside.

Determined to carry out her duty to the very end, Alka attempts to find her bearings and learn everything she can.  However, Blackwell is unlike any other school in the Republic, its lessons are lethal, the rivalries are fierce, and some students will do anything to succeed, even kill their classmates.  To complete her mission, Alka will need to use every skill and trick at her disposal to recruit allies, take out her rivals and help a motley crew of outcasts to win the Academy’s Great Game.  However, with dangerous politics, power-hungry rivals, suspicious professors, and an evil headmaster all arrayed against it, can Alka succeed in bringing down the Academy, or will the fires of her revolution be snuffed out before it can begin?

This was an awesome and compelling new book from Shvarts, who has produced another deeply entertaining and intense read.  It Ends in Fire has a powerful and captivating narrative that not only contains a great story about revenge and finding oneself, but which also parodies certain magical school stories.  I had a great time reading this novel, and I became quite addicted to it as it went along.

It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and exciting narrative that moves at a fast pace and ensures that the reader is never bored.  Shvarts starts the story off with a bang, introducing the protagonists and point-of-view narrator, Alka, and showing her initial steps in infiltrating the academy.  The start quickly showcases some of the lead characters, the stakes of her mission, and the new and somewhat familiar setting of Blackwell Academy, as well as the surrounding Republic.  At the same time, Shvarts includes a series of framing chapters that are set in the protagonist’s past, showcasing her motivations, her many personal tragedies and the training she undertook for her infiltration.  From there the story quickly progresses into a compelling arc around the character’s darker magical school experience, while also building up her personal history.  There are some fun magical lessons, budding rivalries and caste systems woven into the narrative, and it was intriguing to see this ultimate outsider attempt to get into the flow of this elite school.  The crux of the narrative revolves around three magical contents that the various school houses compete in for glory and reputation (as well access to the Republic Senate, which interests Alka).  These competitions are pretty awesome, and serve as the major story highlights, much in the same way as the Quidditch matches and the Triwizard Tournament in the Harry Potter novels.  I particularly enjoyed the first and third one, and it was pretty fun to see the protagonist engage in some heavy cheating to pull it off.

This all leads up to a big and brutal finale, where the protagonist finally gets to unleash her true personality on her foes, and which potentially sets up some interesting directions for any resultant series in the future.  There is a great blend of character development, world building, magical adventure, intrigue and personal betrayal throughout this story, and I ended up getting really stuck into this brilliant narrative.  I pretty much read the last 200 pages in a single day, especially as it contained two of the competitions and a fantastic duel, and I really loved how everything came together.  It Ends in Fire turned out to be fairly self-contained and feels a lot like a standalone read.  That being said, it has some potential to be a larger series, and I would be interested to see where it goes, especially as there are some outstanding storylines to explore.  Like Shvarts’s previous novels, It Ends in Fire is aimed towards a young adult audience with its teenage protagonist and supporting characters.  Due to some more mature elements, this novel is probably best suited towards an older teenage audience, who will no doubt appreciate the author’s realistic take on teenage education.  This novel will also hold a lot of appeal to adult fantasy fans, especially those who grew up on Harry Potter, as this novel acts in many ways like a clever and fun parody of these classic novels.  An overall excellent story with some fun twists and major memorable moments.

I must say that I was also incredibly impressed with the new fantasy setting that Shvarts came up with for It Ends in Fire.  This new fantasy world is a brilliant and complex collection of nations brought together by an oppressive magical regime ruled by powerful Wizards who control the non-magical people, the Humbles.  The author does a great job setting up this cool new world, and I loved the examination of a magical regime and the unique cultural and social circumstances that would evolve in such a regime.  I particularly enjoyed the fun examination of the Republic’s politics, especially when it came to the impacts of the protagonist’s actions within Blackwater Academy.  It was also very compelling to see the clever hierarchies that see even some Wizards oppressed or disenfranchised, ensuring that the situation is even more complex than the protagonist, who was raised by rebellious Humbles who hate all Wizards, initially believed.  This proves fertile ground for the main narrative that follows Alka attempting to take the system down from the inside, and it was a solid background to the narrative.  I also really appreciated the cool new magical system that Shvarts came up with for his new novel.  In It Ends in Fire, Wizards cast spells by entering a time-dilated field known as the Null, where they carve glyphs into the air with Loci (magical wands) to unleash elemental spells.  This is an awesome magical system, which allows for some amazing and complex duals and battles.  The slow-motion aspect of the Null ensures that there is some clever strategy involved, as well as some intense explanation from the protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed some of the fun an epic clashes that occurred.

In addition to the cool magic and fun overarching setting, I also must highlight Blackwater Academy, which serves as a dark mirror to other magical schools that have been featured in fantasy novels and media.  In many ways, Blackwater Academy is a twisted version of Hogwarts; an elite magic school, with houses, elaborate classes and competitions.  Shvarts does an amazing job of working altered versions of these classic magic school elements into his own setting, and pretty much every scene has something reminiscent of these established school settings.  However, all these elements are twisted and converted into something far darker and more adult.  The teachers are crueller, the rich rival kills with impunity, the lessons are more deadly, and the headmaster is essentially Dumbledore (a highly respected wizard who turned down political leadership to be a teacher), except evil and self-serving.  I really liked how Shvarts included these elements in his novels, and it was a lot of fun to not only spot the similarities but also see how the author had twisted them into something different (for example, the protagonist is chucked into the universe’s version of Hufflepuff, and then turns them into a strong team).  This resulted in a fantastic and compelling setting that is both familiar and rather distinct at the same time.

While there are a lot of similarities to Hogwarts and other classic magical schools, Blackwater Academy also has some truly unique features, which also enhance how awesome it is as a primary setting.  The near murderous rivalries between the houses added some excellent conflict to the narrative, and I found the Humble village located next to the school to be a great inclusion, especially as all the inhabitants are absolutely terrified of their Wizard clientele.  I also really loved the unique challenges that the students had to compete in throughout the year into order to win the Great Game.  While the inclusion of a three-event competition is somewhat familiar, the challenges themselves are special, and Shvarts obviously had a lot of fun coming up with something new for the young Wizards to compete in.  This entire clever setting and compelling magical system help to transform It Ends in Fire into an incredible read, and I hope that Shvarts will explore it more in the future.

I also need to quickly highlight the great characters within this novel.  It Ends in Fire features a fantastic and entertaining cast whose unique stories add a lot of depth and drama to this brilliant tale.  The most prominent of these is protagonist and narrator Alka, a rebel and wizard who infiltrates the Blackwater Academy with dreams of destroying it and everyone in it.  Alka is a complex and intriguing figure who must overcome a lot of emotional turmoil in this novel while also encountering conflicts, revelations and disturbing truths about the nature of evil.  Shvarts did an awesome job setting Alka up throughout this novel, and I appreciated the way in which elements of her past life are blended into the primary story.  Alka’s unique history and experience with Wizard culture ensures that she is the perfect narrator, ensuring that the reader learns about many parts of the world’s unique aspects through her constant questioning and research.  I also appreciated the complex romantic relationships that form between her and two other characters, especially as both are sweet and moving in their own ways, while also naturalising Alka’s bisexuality.  The rest of the characters in It Ends in Fire are also set up pretty well, and I liked the cool blend of arrogant rich wizards, bitter Humbles and lower-tiered Wizards who struggle in life nearly as much as the Humbles.  Shvarts utilised a wonderfully eclectic group of supporting characters throughout this novel, and I enjoyed some of the friendships and rivalries that formed, as well as the similarities that some characters have to notable Harry Potter characters.  The author introduces some interesting storylines and character development arcs around them, and you end up getting attached to their survival alongside Alka.  It will be interesting to see if Shvarts will continue to explore them in the future, and I hope he does, as I would love to see what happens to them next.

With his latest novel, It Ends in Fire, Andrew Shvarts continues to dominate the young adult fantasy genre with a complex and powerful read.  It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and entertaining narrative that takes a rebellious soul into the heart of enemy territory, an evil and twisted magical school.  I loved how Shvarts cleverly subverted a classic fantasy setting with his fantastic narrative and world building, and the resulting story is loaded with magical action, amazing character develop, and multiple fun, high-concept sequences.  It Ends in Fire is a highly recommended young adult fantasy novel and you will have a wonderful and amazing time reading it.