The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton and MacMillan Audio (5 March 2019)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of international thriller sensation Steve Berry comes the 14th book in his acclaimed Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange.

When the pope unexpectedly dies, opportunity and chaos grips the Vatican.  As the world’s cardinals arrive in Rome in preparation for the conclave to elect a new pope, one cardinal, the controversial Kastor Gallo, suddenly leaves for an impromptu visit to Malta.  He has been summoned for a clandestine meeting, the results of which could hand him the papacy.  The only witness to this meeting is United States Justice Department operative Luke Daniels, whose covert observations of the meeting is quickly compromised, forcing him to fight for his life.

While Daniels attempts to uncover what is happening in Malta, his former colleague, Cotton Malone, is in Italy working for British intelligence.  An Italian collector claims to have letters between Churchill and Mussolini that could prove extremely damaging to Churchill’s legacy, and MI6 is eager to recover them.  What is meant to be a quick mission for Malone is complicated when armed men kill the collector and steal the letters.  Malone is able to trace his assailants to the legendary Knights of Malta, and his chase to recover the letters leads him into a hunt from a mysterious document from the reign of Emperor Constantine.

This document, revered by the Knights of Malta and feared by the church, has been lost for hundreds of years.  Hunted by some of history’s greatest tyrants, including Napoleon and Mussolini, this secret document not only has the potential to influence the current concave if revealed, but it could also tear the church down completely.  As a secret society within the modern incarnation of the Knights of Malta and elements of the Entity, the church’s intelligence organisation, both attempt to claim the document, Malone and Daniels once again team up to recover the document and destroy the conspiracy threatening to envelope them and the entire Catholic world.

Steve Berry is a veteran author of thrillers that focus on complex conspiracies, having written a number of exciting books since his 2003 debut.  While Berry has written four standalone novels, including The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy and The Third Secret, he is probably best known for his long-running Cotton Malone series of books.  The Cotton Malone series, which began in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, is made up of 14 books, each of which features the series titular character, retired U.S. Justice Department operative Cotton Malone as he is forced to investigate a series of elaborate conspiracies or secrets with origins in history.

The Malta Exchange features several characters from the previous books in the series.  While this is the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange can easily be read as a standalone book, as no prior knowledge of the Cotton Malone series is required to enjoy this story.  While there are some mentions of previous adventures in the series, none of these brief references are really relevant to this book’s story.  Likewise, the series’ recurring characters are re-introduced in some detail, and no pre-existing knowledge of them is needed.  Those readers who are already familiar with this series will enjoy another amazing thriller from Berry, although there may be some repetition, as the protagonists once again dive into another elaborate conspiracy centred with a secret order associated with the Catholic Church.  As one of my reviewer colleagues who is somewhat more familiar with this series than me stated, “How many conspiracies can one man wander into?”  Still, for those people who have enjoyed Berry’s stories before, The Malta Exchange is another exceptional read with a thrilling mystery that is a lot of fun to unravel.

While I received a physical copy of this book to read, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Malta Exchange narrated by Scott Brick.  This book was an absolutely fantastic piece of thriller fiction as the reader is thrown into an extremely intriguing and wide-reaching conspiracy involving hidden documents, major historical figures and deep dives into the history and background of several fictional and real-life organisations.

This is an excellent book for thriller fans, as The Malta Exchange contains a number of intense and complex conspiracies and plots overlayed across each other to create an addictive and enjoyable read.  The main plot focuses on the search for a long-lost document that originated during the reign of Emperor Constantine, which has the potential to damage or destroy the Catholic Church.  As a big fan of the historical fiction genre, I loved how this central mystery cleverly utilised a number of massive historical events and figures in its overall conspiracy.  For example, this central conspiracy has ties to Emperor Constantine, the founding of the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Mussolini, the Crusades and important events in World War II.  It even features a number of cool flashbacks to Mussolini and Napoleon’s life, showing how they were embroiled in this conspiracy.  This results in a treasure hunt so large, mysterious and potentially world-changing you cannot help but be intrigued and eager to see how it ends.  On top of that, a number of secret organisations with conflicting agendas and plots are duking it out around the hunt for this document and the reader is uncertain of their true motivations until later in the story.  All these story threads come together incredibly well at the end of the story, resulting in an intense, intelligent and entertaining thriller storyline that I could not wait to fully uncover.

Except for a couple of chapters featuring flashbacks to historical figures like Mussolini or Napoleon, The Malta Exchange is told from the point of view of four main characters: Cotton Malone, Luke Daniels, Cardinal Kastor Gallo and a mysterious ‘knight’ who remains unnamed for most of the book.  Malone and Daniels serve as good central protagonists, and I liked the contrast in their styles and personalities.  While Malone is the older, wiser and occasionally more careful protagonist who puts together the various clues around the hidden location of ancient document, Daniels is the younger, more action orientated character who does a number of crazy stunts throughout the book while also hiding his intelligence and cunning behind a convincing “good ol’ boy” routine.  The unnamed knight is The Malta Exchange’s main antagonist, whose identity remains hidden for much of the book.  This knight is an interesting character, and it is always fun to see the antagonist’s point of view as they attempt to outwit the protagonists.  While the reveal of this character’s secret identity is somewhat obvious due to there only being a few significant secondary characters, the antagonist’s overall plan was quite ingenious and devious.  Kastor Gallo is another interesting character; a self-serving Cardinal who wants to become Pope, he skirts the line between protagonist and villain in this story.  While the character considers himself an honest and pious priest, he is not particularly likeable due to his extremely conservative religious views and unbridled arrogance.  Still it was fun watching him try to manipulate the other characters, as well as his plot to try and gain the papacy.  There are several other fantastic side characters whom I will not discuss in any detail lest I hint at the identity of the unnamed knight above, but they really add a lot to this story.

One of the things that really impressed me about this book was the way that Berry dived into several organisations and locations in extreme and intriguing detail, particularly when it comes to two specific organisations.  The first of these organisations is the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Throughout this book, Berry spends a significant amount of time exploring this order, from their origins as the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades, to their current existence as a massive charitable organisation.  Berry examines a large amount of their history, how they are organised, where they are located, what they do, their political status and how they have evolved over the years, and this amazing examination is further extended out into the incredible history of the nation of Malta.  Even the order’s leadership crisis between 2016 and 2018 is somewhat represented in the book, as the author describes a similar crisis affecting the organisation featured within The Malta Exchange.  All of this is deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed the author’s examination of this organisation and how he was able to utilise the Knights of Malta’s actual history to the degree he did, with only a few alterations to fit his story.

The second organisation that Berry dives into is the Catholic Church, as a number of key aspects of the church and the Vatican come into play throughout the plot.  Like with his deep dive into the Knights of Malta, the author included a number of detailed examinations about church history, organisation and key events, like the selection of a new pope, that I quite enjoyed learning more about, and which fit incredibly well into the story.  The part of the examination into the church that I enjoyed the most was the look at the church’s supposed intelligence organisation, the Entity.  While the church has never confirmed they have an official intelligence organisation, several historical books have discussed its potential activities, and a number of thriller writers have utilised such an organisation, often known as the Entity, to great effect.  Perhaps because thrillers are not a genre that I read an awful lot of, this was the first book I have read that featured a church intelligence agency.  I really liked the idea of a secret intelligence organisation working for the Vatican, and Berry really utilises them well throughout his book, making them out as one of the most elite and effective intelligence organisations on the planet, who people really should not mess with.  I absolutely loved all the Catholic Church inclusions that the author featured and that, combined with the captivating examination of the Knights of Malta, helped turn this into an amazing overall story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, which was narrated by Scott Brick.  This was not a massively long audiobook, only clocking in at around 13 and a half hours, and I was able to power through this really quickly, especially as I become more and more enthralled with the book’s compelling story.  I was quite glad that I chose to listen to this book rather than read it.  While you do lose out on some of the book’s visual elements, like some of the diagrams of anagrams or secret codes that feature throughout the physical copy, I found that listening to The Malta Exchange really helped me absorb the massive conspiracy storyline, as well as the history and organisation examinations, a hell of a lot more.  Brick has an amazing voice for thrillers, and I quite enjoyed listening him narrate this fantastic novel.  The voices he creates for the various characters in this book are quite good, and I liked some of the accents that he came up with.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, although readers will still be able to get a huge amount out of the physical copy of the book.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is an incredible and addictive ancient conspiracy thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Once you get sucked into the book’s various conspiracies and mysteries it is hard to pull yourself out until each and every one of them is untangled.  What I enjoyed most about the main conspiracy was the author’s ability to explore fascinating history and famous organisations in outstanding detail, and then use these events to really enhance his story.  The end result is an awesome novel that comes highly recommend from me.  Appealing and accessible to established fans of the Cotton Malone series, as well as other fans of the thriller genre, I was really glad I decided to check this book out and I am curious to see what historical conspiracy Malone uncovers next.

Halo: Renegades by Kelly Gay – Audiobook Review

Halo Renegades Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster Audio (19 February 2019)

Series: Halo

Length: 8 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In this review, I dive into the expanded media universe surrounding the popular Halo video game franchise, as I review one of their latest tie-in books, Renegades by Kelly Gay.

I remember way back in 2001 when we first got the X-Box, the original Halo (or Halo: Combat Evolved) was one of the first games we got on the system, and it was definitely one of the best games we had at the beginning of the platform.  The graphics on Halo were just incredible for the time, and it represented a fantastic evolution in the first-person shooter genre.  The Halo series has since expanded out in a number of addition games, including the five main games (Halo to Halo 5), two additional first-person shooters (ODST and Reach) and two real-time strategy games (Halo Wars 1 and 2).  I have ended up playing most of the games in this series and have quite enjoyed the fun action and excitement that come with the series.

Like many other video game franchises, writers have taken advantage of the Halo series’ popularity to create a range of tie-in novels, comics, animation and other media items.  There has even been talk of a live-action Halo movie for some time, although we are probably a long way off from that.  Halo is one of those games where the creators actually invested in a complex backstory and extended history, much of which is revealed within the game’s impressive cut scenes.  While I quite enjoyed the extended Halo backstory revealed in the games, I never got too into the media tie-ins associated with the franchise.  The only other book in this franchise I have read is Halo: Contact Harvest, which I bought in Philippines to supplement my reading material on an extended trip.  While I did actually really enjoy Contact Harvest, which focused on one of the most entertaining side characters in the original game trilogy, I did not have a chance to read any of the other books written about the games until now.  Since starting my blog, I am always keen to expand my range and decided to listen to the audiobook version of this book for something different.  I did have to choose between Renegades and the recently released young adult Halo book, Battle Born, but ended up going with Renegades in the end.  I may yet check out Battle Born at a later date.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the games are set in the 26th century, after humanity has journeyed away from Earth and formed an interstellar civilisation.  Some years before the events of the first game, humanity comes into contact with an advanced alliance of alien races, collectively known as the Covenant, who engage in a brutal war against humanity.  As part of this war, a human ship fleeing the Covenant lands on an artificial ring planet, known as Halo.  The Halo rings were created millennia ago by a now extinct race of beings, the Forerunners, to stop the creatures destroying their civilisation, the parasitic race known as the Flood.  However, the only way to defeat the Flood was to wipe out all life in the galaxy to starve the Flood, and then reseed life, including humanity, back into the galaxy.  Throughout the course of the first three games, the protagonist attempts to save humanity from the Covenant and the Flood, eventually forming an alliance with elements of the Covenant and bringing the war to an end.  Halo 4 and 5 are set a few years after the original trilogy, and feature the protagonist dealing with surviving members of the Forerunners and a whole set of other threats.

Renegades is set in the year 2557, approximately around the same times as Halo 4, and follows the adventures of the human salvage ship Ace of Spades.  After the events of the book Halo: Shadow and Smoke, the crew of the Ace of Spades are still reeling from the losses they experienced and are eager to get revenge of the Sangheili (Elite) Covenant commander Gek’Lhar.  Captain Rion Forge is also determined to use the information they recovered in their last adventure to locate and rescue her father’s missing ship, the Spirit of Fire.

However, Gek’Lhar is not the only enemy they have made.  The United Nations Space Command’s (UNSC) Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) works to collect or control all valuable or dangerous pieces off Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and the crew of the Ace of Spades are the only people aside from Gek’Lhar who have knowledge of a massive debris field filled with valuable Forerunner technology.  In the middle of a daring heist to steal information from Gek’Lhar, Forge and her crew find themselves captured by ONI operatives, who confiscate the coordinates to the debris field, as well as all the crew’s assets and salvaged technology.

Left with nothing but their ship, the Ace of Spades crew need to find the next big score, and information Forge secretly obtained from ONI during their arrest may provide them with what they need.  ONI are on route to secure a remote and desolate planet, which contains the remains of one of their ships, which apparently crashed with classified technology aboard.  The contents of the ship may be the crew’s best option to reclaim their stolen possessions, so they set out to get there first.  Beating ONI to the planet, the Ace of Spades crew make a surprising discovery of an advanced robot calling itself 313 Guilty Spark.

Halo: Renegades is a terrific novel from author Kelly Gay, who creates an exciting and compelling story with a huge number of connections to the Halo universe.  Gay is a well-established author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, best known for her Charlie Madigan series, and who also writes under the pen name of Kelly Keaton.  Renegades is the direct sequel to Gay’s 2016 novella Smoke and Shadows, but it also continues stories started in the games and introduced in The Forerunner Saga of books.

The first thing I have to talk about when it comes to Halo: Renegades is the sheer range of Halo references and backstory from across the Halo games and extended media utilised in this book.  Not only is the story set in the post-Halo 3 universe but the book takes place around the time of the events of Halo 4, with several of the events from the fourth game commented on and having some impact on the story.  In addition, one of the main protagonists of the book, Rion Forge, is the daughter of one of the main characters from the first Halo Wars, Sergeant John Forge, and Rion Forge spends a good part of this book trying to find her father and the ship from Halo Wars 1 and 2, the Spirit of FireRenegades also features 313 Guilty Spark, one of the main antagonists from the original trilogy, as a major point-of-view character in the book, and characters from the Spartan Ops additional content of Halo 4 appear in various minor roles throughout the book.  That is on top of all the information contained in the previous books in the Halo extended universe.  Renegades takes place directly after the events of Gay’s preceding Halo novella, Smoke and Shadows, and all the events that occur in that book are incredibly relevant.  In addition, the events and characters explored in The Forerunner Saga, a trilogy that dove deeply into several key Forerunner characters from the various games, also play a significant role throughout Renegades.

Now, with all these references to various games and books, how easy is the plot of Renegades to follow, especially for those with limited or only basic knowledge of the Halo universe?  I would say that Renegades is a perfect book for hardcore fans of the Halo series who have enjoyed some of the books mentioned above and who will appreciate all the references and discussion that occurs within.  People with slightly less knowledge of the franchise may struggle during certain parts of the plot and have a hard time understanding the relevance of what is happening.  Having played all the games and having done some background reading, I thought that I would be able to follow everything that was going on, but I actually struggled with some aspects of the plot, especially with the extensive discussion about ancient Forerunner characters.  While I did struggle a little, I found that as I stuck with the book, all the relevant parts were eventually explored in some additional detail, helping to fill in the picture.  I do think that the author took the reader’s knowledge of the events of all the video games a little for granted, and there were some gaps in the story that, while I was able to fill them in, people less familiar with the games might have trouble with.  That being said, Gay did a fantastic job of making the story accessible to those people who had not read her direct prequel story, Smoke and Shadows, and readers were quickly able to get a good understanding of Gay’s earlier entry into the Halo universe.  In the end, if you have very little knowledge of the Halo games, this probably is not the book for you, and while you might be able to enjoy the adventure within, you are extremely likely to get lost a number of times throughout the complex plot.

Aside from the intensive amount of inclusions from the various Halo games and media tie-ins, I felt that Renegades was an overall awesome book that was a lot of fun to listen to.  Gay presents an entertaining character based novel that has a good amount of new, original story content while also utilising the main aspects of the Halo universe.  The author presents the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a richer and fuller story for the reader to enjoy.  There is a little less action than you would expect from a Halo tie-in novel, but there are still a number of action sequences throughout the book to keep fans of combat and firefights interested.  I quite liked where the story went, and I was extremely glad that I decided to read this book.

I thought that the camaraderie of the crew of the Ace of Spades served as a good emotional heart to this story, and I liked the time that Gay spent exploring the familiar relationship that had formed among the members of the crew, and the strain that recent events had placed upon them.  I also enjoyed how the story focused on a gang of salvagers, and it was interesting to see how they fit into the wider Halo universe.  It also meant the story featured a few heists-like sequences, as the team uses intelligence rather than brute-strength to defeat their opponents.

One of the more interesting characters utilised in Renegades was the character of 313 Guilty Spark.  Spark was a Forerunner Monitor; an intelligence left behind to maintain the Halo rings and help activate them in case of another Flood infestation.  Spark appeared in all three of the original Halo games, including Halo: Combat Evolved as the main antagonist, and Halo 3, in which he was apparently killed.  However, The Forerunner Saga of books revealed he had survived the events of Halo 3 and was actually a former ancient human who had been transformed into a monitor long ago by the Forerunners.  Spark had quite a good redemption arc within this book, as well as good a redemption arc, as someone who killed off Sergeant Major Johnson deserves.  While Spark has his own agenda for most of the book, his time among the crew starts to rekindle his lost humanity and slowly turns him into a somewhat likeable character.  I did enjoy the duality that Gay portrayed within Spark, as the character tries to figure out who exactly he is: the ancient human, the Forerunner monitor or something entirely different.  His subsequent quest to find out who he is becomes a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see how it tied into the larger Halo universe, especially in relation to the Forerunners.  I was slightly disappointed that his role in the original three Halo games was not really mentioned or explored, but it was still a compelling character arc that I found to be most intriguing.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, narrated by Justine Eyre.  Like many tie-in novels, this is a relatively short audiobook, only going for 8 hours and 37 minutes, making it fairly easy to get through this book quickly.  I quite enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it, as it allowed me to absorb the deep dive into the Halo lore a little easier.  I also found that the audiobook format helped enhance some of the action sequences, such as the awesome spaceship fight sequences in the centre of the book.  Justine Eyre did a fantastic job of narrating this story, and the voice she provides for the base narration and the book’s central character, Rion Forge, is perfect, encapsulating the strong and determined nature of Forge that Gay sets forth in the book.  I quite liked the voices that Eyre utilises for the other human members of the Ace of Spades crew, and she does some decent and varied voices for the book’s alien characters.  I had a little trouble liking Eyre’s voice for Guilty Spark, mainly because Tim Dadabo did such an incredible job with the character in the games; however, this did not really negatively impact my experience with Renegades.  As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of this tie-in novel, as I found it to be an awesome way to enjoy this amazing story.

Kelly Gay did an excellent job following up her 2016 Halo novella, Smoke and Shadow, and I had an absolute blast listening to Halo: Renegades.  The book contains an outstanding story that goes deep into the lore of the Halo franchise and successfully pulls in elements from several games and novels to create a fantastic overall read.  While some readers may have trouble following some parts of the story, I had a great time reading it, and I know that established fans of this particular franchise will really love Gay’s new book.  I really hope that Gay continues the story of Rion Forge, 313 Guilty Spark and the rest of the crew of the Ace of Spades in the future, and I would be quite interested to see them try to navigate the post-Halo 5 universe.  This is definitely a series that I will be keeping an eye on.

Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Magnificent Nine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover Format – 19 March 2019)

Series: Firefly – Book 2

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Fresh off writing the fantastic first book in this new series of Firefly tie-in novels, author James Lovegrove has crafted another amazing Firefly book that focuses on one of the more entertaining members of the Serenity crew, the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne.

As I mentioned when I reviewed the first book in this new series of Firefly novels, Big Damn Hero, and in one of my subsequent Waiting on Wednesday entries, I am a massive fan of the Firefly franchise and was particularly eager to read the second book in this new series, The Magnificent Nine, which sounded liked it had an amazing plot.  As a result, I made sure to order this copy online well in advance and was extremely happy when it came last week so close to the worldwide release date.  I managed to read through it in about a day, and once again had the amazing feeling of being transported back into Firefly universe.

Out in the darkness of the verse, the crew of the Firefly class ship Serenity is up to its old tricks, searching for smuggling jobs that will keep them flying, while at the same time staying off the Alliance’s radar.  While Captain Malcolm Reynolds is used to anticipating the needs and wants of the inhabitants of his ship, he is completely thrown when a request for an unpaid mercy mission comes from one of the most unlikely members of his crew.  Serenity’s resident disgruntled mercenary, Jayne Cobb, suddenly asks that the ship be diverted to the backwater world of Thetis.  An old flame of Jayne’s, Temperance McCloud, has reached out requesting aid.  A vicious bandit, Elias Vandal, is threatening her small town of Coogan’s Bluff with a horde of trigger-happy thieves and murderers.  Mal initially does not take the request seriously, but then Jayne does the unthinkable and offers up his most prized possession, his beloved gun, Vera, as payment for the crew’s help.

Arriving at Thetis, the crew find that not only are the inhabitants of Coogan’s Bluff reluctant to get involved in any sort of fight, but a well-armed force of killers is waiting for them and spoiling for a fight.  However, the most shocking discovery is the fact that Temperance is raising a teenage daughter, born less than a year after Temperance and Jayne parted ways and named Jane McCloud.

This was a pretty epic read and one I had a lot of fun with.  Lovegrove once again hits it out of the park with this amazing novel that featured a great story, excellent coverage of the Firefly crew and some new interesting characters and events.  The Magnificent Nine is set between the events of the television series and the film Serenity, before Inara and Shepherd Book leave the ship.  Once again, I liked how this new entry into the Firefly book series felt exactly like a new episode of the television show, although it uses some of the show’s existing episodes, like Jaynestown or Heart of Gold, as inspiration.  I also quite liked how the story emulated some classic westerns such as The Magnificent Seven, which obviously inspired this book’s name, while also utilising science fiction elements.  I actually enjoyed this book a bit more than the preceding Firefly novel, Big Damn Heroes.  I felt that the story was more fast paced, significantly more action packed, and less widely spread out that the first book.  I also quite enjoyed the author’s use of the existing characters from the show as well as the intriguing new side characters that are introduced in this book.  The main story contains some interesting twists and turns, some of which are easy to see coming, but one or two of which come out of nowhere and are quite surprising.  The end result is a thrilling and character driven story which is enhanced by its association with the Firefly television show.

One of my favourite things about this book is the focus on the character of Jayne, especially as we get to see his underutilised noble side come out once again.  Throughout the run of the television show and most of the follow-up movie, Jayne is a selfish mercenary more concerned with his own self-interest and personal gain than the lives of his fellow crewmembers.  Jayne is not above sacrificing or betraying members of his own crew, namely the Tam siblings, if it will benefit him in some way.  His joining the crew of Serenity even involved him betraying and shooting his former captain when Mal offered him a better paying job and his own room on the ship.  That being said, there are a few instances where Jayne will do the right thing and act the hero, resulting in some memorable moments for the character.  The most notable of these occurred in the episode Jaynestown, where Jayne’s core beliefs are rocked by an entire community who venerate them as a great hero of the masses.  In The Magnificent Nine, Jayne’s noble side once again comes out when he receives a request for help from his former lover and her daughter.  As a result, he makes a series of impulsive and foolish actions throughout the book in order to try to do what he sees as the right thing, and these often result in some excellent sequences throughout the book.

Seeing this more noble version of Jayne emerge once again is fantastic and will be greatly appreciated by a huge number of Firefly fans.  Jayne is always a widely entertaining character in the Firefly franchise, and I felt that Lovegrove did a great job of portraying the character in this story.  I really enjoyed seeing another Jayne-centric storyline, and I liked how the author makes sure to utilise a number of classic Jayne elements throughout The Magnificent Nine, including the return of his iconic bobble hat and his favourite gun, Vera.  However, there are some interesting new Jayne moments as well, as Lovegrove goes back and explores some elements from his past, including how he met Temperance, and how she helped turn him into the man he is today.  This is an outstanding novel for those fans who love the character of Jayne, and I had a lot of fun watching him get another personal adventure.

As The Magnificent Nine mostly focuses on Jayne, the rest of the crew do take a bit of a backseat in this book.  That being said, all of them get one or two scenes focused on them, in one way or another.  Lovegrove once again does a great job of capturing the characters from the show, and rehashing their various quirks, relationships and the other minutiae of their personalities, even with these limited scenes.  While some of the characters do not get too much action in this book, I thought that Mal and River in particular were showcased well.  In this book, Mal plays the long-suffering captain who finds himself dragged into all manner of trouble by his crew, which forces him to act as the ship’s annoyed father figure.  River, the psychotic psychic, also gets a pretty good run in this book.  While Lovegrove does not explore her mind to any great degree, she gets some fun scenes, including one where she takes out intruders in Serenity, and another where she steals Vera and uses it in a firefight.

The side characters introduced in this book are pretty memorable, and the storylines revolving around them were very interesting.  Jayne’s former love interest, Temperance McCloud, is a pretty badass woman, and it’s fun to see the sort of woman Jayne would fall in love with.  There are also a number of secrets from Temperance’s past that come into play and add some emotional depth to hers and Jayne’s story.  The villain of this story, Elias Vandal, is a fairly dark antagonist, acting as a sort of Charles Manson-like character, forming a cult of personality that draws in the planets outcasts and loners while also claiming to be a former Reaver.  I quite liked Vandal as the story’s villain.  I thought he was well written out, and the various layers to his past and the way he controls his gang are quite intriguing.  Young Jane McCloud is another great side character, and I liked her interactions with River and Jayne.  She forms a great friendship with River, and the two get up to all sorts of fun antics.  I also liked the unconventional father-daughter relationship that occurred between Jayne and Jane, especially when they were forced to work together.

As mentioned above, The Magnificent Nine contains a large amount of action, with a huge number of firefights and other battles throughout the book.  I liked the way that many of the battles had a western theme, with the skilled gunfighting heroes fighting large swathes of bandits and goons.  However, the utilisation of science fiction elements really helped enhance them and, in some cases, increase the humour value.  I liked the Mad Max-like chase scene that featured not only horses but also dune buggies, motorbikes and Firefly’s mule.  There is also a spaceship assisted lassoing that was quite fun, and I liked seeing a classic trope like a lasso assisted by science fiction elements.

I absolutely loved Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, which turned out to be another ultra-fun romp back into one of my favourite television shows.  Lovegrove has a real skill for bringing these characters to life, and I really enjoyed the thrilling story he wrote for The Magnificent Nine.  The author’s portrayal of Jayne Cobb really shines through in this book, and it was great to see another story based around this awesome and funny character.  This book is best appreciated by fans of the franchise, although I feel there is a lot in this book for new fans to enjoy.  While this book was an amazing amount of fun to read, I now have to wait another six months for my next taste of the Firefly verse; how will I survive?

Master of Sorrows by Justin Call

Master of Sorrows Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback format – 21 February 2019)

Series: The Silent Gods – Book 1

Length: 576 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I have been looking forward to reading and reviewing Master of Sorrows for a while now.  I previously mentioned this book in one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, which got a fair amount of attention, which I took as a sign of some interest from the general fantasy fandom.  The intriguing-sounding plot also made me extremely eager to check this book out, so I was very happy when I received a copy of it from Hachette Australia.  In the end I found Master of Sorrows to be a terrific piece of fantasy fiction and an outstanding debut from first-time author Justin Call.

The world of Luquatra has known much chaos and turmoil throughout its long history as three elder gods and their followers have battled for supremacy.  But now with the dark god Keos banished from the land, the greatest concern for many is the presence of magic.  The ancient and hidden Academy of Chaenbalu has long been a bastion against all things magic and will go to extreme lengths to achieve its primary objective of finding and containing the vast number of magical artefacts scattered throughout Luquatra.  No artefact, no matter its strength or intended purpose, can be allowed to remain outside the control of the Academy, as even those artefacts created for good can be used for great evil.

In order to fulfil this sacred work, the Academy trains all the children of Chaenbula in the arts of combat and magical detection.  Only the best students will become Avatars, warrior thieves capable of infiltrating any location and making away with the hidden artefacts.  Most importantly, an Avatar is trained to resist the lure of magic and the corruption of Keos.

Annev de Breth has always dreamed of becoming an Avatar and is determined to pass the Academy’s tests.  However, Annev is different from every other student at the Academy; trained by the town’s mysterious priest, Annev has an affinity for magic and hides a secret disfigurement that would see him immediately put to death.  Caught between the warring ideologies of the man who raised him and the head of the Academy, Annev needs to decide what kind of man he wants to be while navigating the complex politics of Chaenbalu.  But ancient powers are rising from the past, and it soon becomes apparent that Annev might not be the hero of this story; instead, he may be the man destined to unleash Keos once more upon Luquatra.

As I mentioned above, Master of Sorrows is author Justin Call’s debut novel.  It is also the first book in his The Silent Gods series, which is going to be made up of four books.  Call has already announced that each of the three upcoming books will be released in late February of each year for the next three years, with this series set to wrap up in February 2022.  This first book is an ambitious introduction to series that does a fantastic job of setting up the main story, as well as introducing the reader to an intriguing new fantasy universe.

I really enjoyed the story contained within Master of Sorrows, as it is well paced out and contains some fantastic moments.  The first part of the book features Annev attempting to pass the Academy’s tests in order to become an Avatar.  I love a good magical school storyline, and this one is pretty fantastic, featuring some unique, complex and entertaining testing sequences, as well as an introduction to the complex and restrictive life within the Academy.  The rest of the book is extremely exciting and eventful as the protagonist learns more about the threats and complex world outside of Chaenbalu, and even embarks on a dangerous mission where he encounters a series of mysterious threats.  This all leads up to the book’s spectacular conclusion, which not only sets the scene for all manner of adventures in the future but also results in some interesting character development while also setting up several dangerous new antagonists with personal grudges against the main character.

One of my favourite things about the plot is the general intrigue and hypocrisy surrounding the Academy of Chaenbalu.  The Academy is framed as some ultimate bastion of good in the world, opposing the evils of magic and Keos.  However, as the book progresses, the reader, through the protagonist’s eyes, begins to see that everything about the Academy is more complex and morally ambiguous than it first appears, resulting in a number of powerful story developments.  For example, in this universe, any disfigurement or disability is viewed as a mark of the dark god Keos’s favour, and people who bear them, especially those born with some sort of disfigurement, are shunned or killed.  These rules are especially enforced within the Academy, and Annev is forced to hide his disability to stay alive.  Watching a basically good character be vilified for something outside of his control makes the reader lose trust in most of the characters associated with the Academy.  It is also very thrilling to see the lengths the protagonist will go to in order to hide his disfigurement and try to live a normal life within Chaenbalu, knowing that his secret could be discovered at any turn.  The reader is also left questioning the Academy’s many archaic rules, as these rules and blind obedience are particularly frustrating to the protagonist, who chafes at the restrictions and is constantly questioning everything.  There are also a huge number of different plots and schemes occurring within the Academy, with many of the characters having secret allegiances and plans, many of which come to the surface by the end of the book.  All of these elements are fantastic, and they really add a keen edge of intrigue and thoughtfulness to an already captivating story.

Within Master of Sorrows, Call introduces his readers to a deep and enjoyable new fantasy universe that serves as an excellent basis for his story.  While the author does make an effort to set up a much larger world, the vast majority of the story is set in and around the village of Chaenbalu, which houses the Academy.  As I have mentioned before, I loved the Academy as a setting, but some of the other locations are also intriguing, such as the massive magical forest that surrounds the town.  I really loved the overall setting of the gods and magic within this world, especially when it comes to people’s perceptions about them, as they have some fantastic impacts on the story.  Call spends a bit of time expanding on the mythology of this world’s main gods, telling their stories and explaining the impacts that they had on the world.  These are quite interesting, especially as the stories they tell reveal that the conflicts of the gods were just as complex as the issues occurring within the Academy.  The author has also come up with some fun and dangerous new fantasy creatures, mostly as servants of the god Keos.  These creatures have some great scenes, especially towards the end of the book, and I look forward to seeing more of them and this intriguing new world throughout the rest of The Silent Gods series.

I really need to the hype up some of the incredible action sequences featured within Master of Sorrows.  Call has created several exceptional extended action scenes within this book, including two intricate tests within the Academy, where the students must overcome not only each other but also the various obstacles set up against them.  These testing scenes are extremely elaborate and feature some interesting rules and opposition.  I loved reading these scenes, and it was great watching the protagonist try to complete them his way.  In addition to these testing scenes, there is also a great magic based combat sequence featured later in the book, where the protagonist and his companions must overcome all manner of magical traps and attacks in order to complete their objective.  This scene is massive in terms of destruction and brutality featured and was an excellent addition to the book.  As a result, readers who love a good amount of thrilling action in their fantasy stories should definitely check this book out as Call demonstrates a real skill for creating unique and captivating fantasy action sequences.

Master of Sorrows is an amazing debut from new author Justin Call, who has done a wonderful job setting up a fresh and intriguing new fantasy series.  This first book in the planned The Silent Gods series has some awesome and memorable plot points and features a thrilling and captivating action-packed adventure.  Call has certainly set himself up as a fantasy author to watch, and I am extremely eager to see where this story goes next.  I cannot wait to check out the second book in The Silent Gods series.

Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R. A. Salvatore

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Publishers: Tor Books and Audible Studios (Audiobook Format – 29 January 2019)

Series: The Coven – Book 2

Length: 14 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to Corona, the world of The DemonWars Saga, for Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the latest book from master fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and the second book in his outstanding new The Coven series.

In the world of Corona, no lands are as harsh or unforgiving as those surrounding the massive Loch Beag.  All manner of dangerous creatures live in and around the loch, including one massive and unseen lake monster that lurks right below the surface.  But for those who live in the fishing villages that eke out a living around the shore of Loch Beag, the biggest danger is more human in origin.  Living at the top of the massive mountain, Fireach Speur, is a barbaric tribe, the Uscar, who constantly raid the fishing villages below.  Enhanced in battle by the crystal magic of their witches, the Uscar are ferocious warriors who consider themselves vastly superior to the inhabitants of the villages they raid.

This cycle of violence and death existed for hundreds of years until a powerful young Uscar witch, Aoelyn, attempted to change her tribe’s ways by destroying the fossa, a demonic creature that haunted the mountain at night.  However, her decision will have terrible consequences, as ambitious members of her tribe turn against her.  As Aoelyn endures the wrath of her tribe, her friend, the slave Bahdlahn, attempts to escape from the Uscar with help from an unexpected ally.  Down at the shore of Loch Beag, the trader Talmadge, who Aoelyn saved from her tribe’s brutality the night she ended the fossa, attempts to find some sort of peace among the fishing villages who have accepted him as a friend.  However, the appearance of a mysterious stranger will bring significant changes to his life.

But while those living around Loch Beag fight among themselves, they are unaware of a much bigger threat growing in the East.  A lost empire of goblinoids, the Xoconai, are on the march, driven by the return of their fallen god.  The Xoconai are determined to conquer all the lands of man, and the first obstacle they must overcome is the people of Fireach Speur and Loch Beag.

R. A. Salvatore is one of the best and most prolific authors of fantasy fiction in the world today, having a written over 60 fantasy books in his career. He is perhaps best known for his work in the established Forgotten Realms universe and the incredibly popular character of Drizzt Do’Urden. However, Salvatore has also written a series of novel set within his own unique fantasy world of Corona.

Salvatore introduced audiences to this new fantasy world in his 1997 release, The Demon Awakens, the first book in his epic The DemonWars Saga, which spanned seven books between 1997 and 2003.  This universe was expanded out in 2004 with The Highwayman, the first book in his Saga of the First King series.  After the Saga of the First King series ended in 2010, Salvatore left the world of Corona untouched for eight years while primarily focusing on his Forgotten Realms series.  However, he returned to Corona in 2018 with Child of a Mad God, the first book in his new The Coven series.  The Coven series is primarily set in a previously unexplored area of Corona, in the lands around the massive Loch Beag, with the first book focusing on a whole new group of characters.

I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s work, having read nearly all the books featuring Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions (click here for my review of the latest Drizzt Do’Urden book Timeless).  However, before last year’s Child of a Mad God, I had not really gotten into his work set in Corona, having only really read The Highwayman back when it was first released in 2004.  While Child of a Mad God was not my favourite of Salvatore’s books, it did a great job introducing this new area of Corona, while also creating an excellent starting point for the series’ overall plotline.

I found that I enjoyed Reckoning of Fallen Gods a lot more than the first book in the series, possibly because the author was able to dive right in and continue several of the more intriguing plot threads from the first book.  I quite enjoyed how the story progressed; all of the storylines contained within were very well paced and entertaining, coming together extremely well towards the book’s conclusion.  I really liked the over-the-top way that the story ended, as it sets up the next book in the series with some massive stakes and makes full use of the intriguing new fantasy elements that were included within this book.  A bit of a warning about this series: is it substantially darker than some of Salvatore’s other works.  This was particularly true of the first book of The Coven series, Child of a Mad God, which contained a fair amount of torture and sexual violence.  While there is a little less sexual violence in this book, several character development elements are based around these original events and are discussed in some detail.  There is also some fairly dark and gruesome action and torture, which might not be enjoyable for some readers.  Overall, though, this is a great follow-up to Child of a Mad God that once again highlights Salvatore’s skill as a master fantasy storyteller.

Some readers may be wary about checking this book out because it is the second book in The Coven series and the 13th overall book set in the world of Corona.  However, I found that this book to be easily accessible to new readers, with the author ensuring that relevant details from the previous book and series were easy to understand and follow nearly right away.  In addition, there are also a lot of elements for established fans of this universe to enjoy, especially as Salvatore includes a substantial character from one of his previous Corona based series in this book.  The inclusion of this character is an excellent way to tie this new series with the author’s existing works in this fantasy universe, which also highlights the importance of this story to the rest of the world of Corona.  The ending of Reckoning of Fallen Gods also hints that characters and locations from the previous series may come into play in the next book in The Coven series.

I loved all the fantasy elements in this book.  The world of Corona is a fantastic setting for the great story that is taking shape within The Coven series.  The main location for most of this book’s plot, the lands around Loch Beag and Fireach Speur, is a substantially dark and rugged area with a large number of natural and unnatural threats.  In Reckoning of Fallen Gods, there are a number of significant developments around several of these locations and creatures, some of which are pretty insane.  Just like in the first book in this series, Child of a Mad God, Salvatore continues to expand on the intriguing gem-based magic that is a feature of the books set in Corona.  The gem magic that was featured in Child of Mad God was somewhat different from the already established gem magic used in some of previous Corona books, such as The DemonWar Saga, and is based around the magic found atop Fireach Speur.  This expansion of the gem magic continues in Reckoning of Fallen Gods with the main character, Aoelyn, developing additional magical abilities.  Many of these abilities are quite spectacular, and Salvatore’s enthralling writing highlights how impressive these abilities are when Aoelyn utilises them in fights or other magical engagements.  At the same time, another character utilises some of the more traditional gemstone powers they had in one of the previous series, and it is interesting to see the differences and similarities this has with the Uscar magic.

One of the more unique and enjoyable fantasy inclusions within Reckoning of a Fallen God is the new antagonist race, the Xocanai.  The Xocanai are a new race of goblinoid creatures that exist in a realm on the other side of the mountains surrounding Fireach Speur.  The Xocanai are somewhat Aztecan in culture and their empire has been rather cut off from the rest of the world for some time.  However, recent actions have allowed them to come together to invade the human lands, and some of the events of Child of a Mad God may be to blame.  I felt that Salvatore did an excellent job of introducing them in the current book, and he was able to build them up as a substantial antagonist in quite short order.  I liked how the reader is able to get a good view of this new race’s culture and religion in only a few short chapters, while in-universe texts present at the start of each section of the book help to establish a historical past for these creatures.  In the end, they are a fantastic new inclusion to the series and the universe and serve as excellent new antagonists.

Salvatore has created some great new characters for this series, and many of the key characters who were introduced in the first book go through some significant and compelling character development throughout Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  The main character development occurs with Aoelyn, who, after the fallout of the events in the first book, develops a stronger sense of independence and rejects the established male hierarchy imposed upon her and all the female members of her tribe.  Her friend Bahdlahn gains the courage to finally flee the Uscar and is finally able to come to terms with his feelings for Aoelyn.  At the same time, the trader Talmadge comes to terms with the tragedies in his life and is finally able to find some semblance of peace with the people living around Loch Beag.  Even the established character from the previous series (who I am still not mentioning for spoiler reasons) has developed somewhat in this book, as he ruminates on the mistakes from his past that were covered in the previous series.

I have to give credit to Salvatore for creating some truly villainous antagonists for this series, especially among the Uscar characters.  The main antagonists are quite despicable, especially in the way that they deal with Aoelyn and Bahdlahn, and the reader is hoping for all sorts of comeuppance for these characters.  Even the Uscar characters that come across as more compassionate members of the tribe can still be quite dislikeable.  For example, there is one character who appears to change his ways in Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  However, he has a sudden and quite unjustified change of heart back to the Uscar ways towards the end of the book, and his complaining about the event that drove him to betray his friends really does not endear him to the reader.  These great antagonists serve as spectacular foils to the protagonists and really add a lot to the overall story.

I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Reckoning of Fallen Gods, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  This was an interesting change of pace for me, as I had read the physical copy of the first book in The Coven series, so it was cool to hear these characters come to life in the audiobook format.  At 14 hours and 37 minutes, this was not the longest audiobook I have listened to recently, but it still required a little bit of time to get through.  Reynolds is a spectacular narrator, and I really enjoyed listening to him tell this story.  His base narration voice for this book was really good, and I found I was able to absorb a lot of the story through his great narration.  The character voices he came up with were also excellent, and I loved how the distinctive cultural/species groups within Reckoning of Fallen Gods got their own accents.  For example, he ensured that the Uscar characters had a form of Scottish accent, while the other groups that feature in the book, such as the Xocani have a noticeably different way of speaking.  Because of this excellent voice work, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and I will make sure to get the audiobook versions of this series in the future.

Fantasy icon R. A. Salvatore is in high form once again with Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the second book in his new The Coven series.  Salvatore does an outstanding job continuing the intriguing story he started in the first book of the series, Child of a Mad God, and effortlessly inserts a number of original and familiar elements to create an exciting and epic read.  With some great characters and some inventive new ideas, this is a spectacular new addition to this darker fantasy adventure series.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Kremlin Strike and Red Metal

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

In this week’s instalment of Waiting on Wednesday, get ready to fight the Ruskies in the Third World War with two upcoming novels that sound like they will be action-packed thrill rides which I am very much looking forward to.  Now, usually military thrillers are not within my usual wheel house, unless there is some historical, fantasy or science fiction element to them.  However, in the last year, I have gone out of my way to read a few of these books, such as Red War by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn) and The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown, both of which had outrageous plots that deeply appealed to me.  These books turned out to be really awesome, and I had a real blast reading and reviewing them.  I loved the extreme action, the intriguing considerations these authors had put into planning out conflict between modern day countries as well as the interesting use of Russia as America’s main antagonist once again.  While they are somewhat over the top, these books were awfully fun, and I am now very keen to check out some more military thrillers as I know I will really enjoy them.

As luck would have it, two extremely entertaining-sounding military thrillers are coming out in the next couple of months, and I am really looking forward to both of them.  The first of these books is The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown.  It will be the 23rd book in the author’s Patrick McLanahan series and is set to be released in May 2019 (although it will probably have a later release date in Australia).

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In this exciting, visionary, and all-too-plausible next chapter in the legendary Dale Brown’s New York Times bestselling techno-warfare series, Brad McLanahan and the Iron Wolf Squadron must fight the Russians on a dangerous, untested battlefield: outer space.

The previous administration’s ineffective response to the growing Russian threat has left America vulnerable. Setting a bold course for America’s defense, the decisive and strong new president, John Dalton Farrell, intends to challenge Russian aggression head on. Brad and Patrick McLanahan and the formidable Iron Wolf Squadron—including the recently injured Nadia Roz, rested and back to fighting form thanks to a pair of state-of-the-art prosthetic legs—are ready and eager to join the battle.

But even with their combined forces, the Russian menace may prove too great for the Americans to overcome. Done with provocative skirmishes and playing for small stakes, the Russian president has set his sights on the ultimate prize: controlling the entire world. Expanding beyond earth’s bounds, the Russians have built a new high-tech space station and armed it with weaponry capable of destroying US satellites as well as powerful missiles pointed at strategic targets across earth.

Devising a cunning plan of attack, Brad, Nadia, and the Iron Wolf warriors will take to the skies in their advanced space planes to destroy the space station, check the Russians’ plan for dominance, and save the world. But is it already too late?

As I mentioned above, I had a lot of fun reading the previous book in the Patrick McLanahan series, especially as it featured America and Russia going to war with advanced piloted robots.  Honestly, I found The Moscow Offensive to be one of the most entertaining books of 2018 and I have high hopes for this next book.  I am especially excited as it sounds like The Kremlin Strike will be just as fun, as the author once again takes the battle into space.  A war in space has a lot of entertainment potential and I am curious to see how Brown will utilise this unique environment in his story.

The second book that I am looking forward to in this article is Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lt. Col Hunter Ripley Rawlings (USMC), set to be released in July 2019.

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A desperate Kremlin takes advantage of a military crisis in Asia to simultaneously strike into Western Europe and invade east Africa in a bid to occupy three Rare Earth mineral mines that will give Russia unprecedented control for generations over the world’s hi-tech sector.

Pitted against the Russians are a Marine lieutenant colonel pulled out of a cushy job at the Pentagon and thrown into the fray in Africa, a French Special Forces captain and his intelligence operative father, a young Polish female partisan fighter, an A-10 Warthog pilot, and the captain of an American tank platoon who, along with a German sergeant, fight from behind enemy lines in Germany all the way into Russia.

From a daring MiG attack on American satellites, through land and air battles in all theatres, naval battles in the Arabian sea, and small unit fighting down to the hand-to-hand level in the jungle, Russia’s forces battle to either take the mines or detonate a nuclear device to prevent the West from exploiting them.

I only came across Greaney’s thriller work quite recently, when I read and reviewed the latest book in his Gray Man series, Mission Critical.  I quite enjoyed his spy thriller work and I am extremely intrigued to see how he will go with this different thriller subgenre, although his experience writing Tom Clancy novels will no doubt prove invaluable.  I am also very curious to see how Greaney will go writing with his new co-author, especially as Rawlings brings some significant real-life military knowledge and experience to the table.

From the details above, Red Metal appears to be a standalone novel (although I imagine sequels will follow if this one is successful) that will follow the events of a future World War III in a large-scale story that goes for just over 600 pages.  I am really looking forward to reading a novel that completely chronicles a total war occurring around the globe, and I am very eager to see how it will turn out, especially because I am sure all sorts of cool technology or massive battles will come into play.  I am very excited about the range of characters described in the plot summary, as it looks like the authors will split the story between the various theatres of war that occur throughout the book.  I also like that many of the characters are European in origin; it will be very interesting to see how all these different nations come together and fight this war.  The example battles that are listed at the end of the plot synopsis also sound particularly thrilling, and the sheer range of different action sequences that could result out of these have so much potential.

Both of these upcoming military thrillers sound like they will be extremely exciting, and I am already very confident that I will have one hell of a good time reading them.  Onwards to war!

Mission Critical by Mark Greaney

Mission Critical Cover

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback Edition – 26 February 2019)

Series: Gray Man – Book 8

Length: 513 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Mark Greaney returns with another entertaining and fast-paced instalment in his enjoyable Gray Man spy thriller series.

Court Gentry used to be a ruthless covert assassin known as the Gray Man, a highly skilled killer considered a legend in the clandestine circles.  However, times change, and Gentry now finds gainful employment as a CIA hitter, one of three elite agents that make up the Agency’s super-secret Poison Apple program.  Going under a new codename, Violator, Gentry is redirected aboard a CIA flight in Europe.  Tensions rise when the plane’s other passengers, a team of heavily armed agents, attempt to remove Gentry from the flight in order to protect their prize, a hooded man who may have knowledge that could identify a mole within the CIA.

Allowed to remain on the plane, Gentry finds himself thrust into the middle of a firefight when the plane lands in England.  A team of mercenaries ambush the plane, overcoming the CIA and MI6 agents waiting to meet the flight and taking the kidnapped man for themselves.  Gentry gives chase to the surviving mercenaries to regain the kidnapped man and soon finds himself investigating the case by himself.

As Gentry attempts to uncover what is going on in England, one of Poison Apple’s other operatives, the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, finds herself under attack in her CIA safe house.  With Zoya going off the radar, Gentry’s handlers are convinced that a mole within the CIA is tipping of a dangerous opponent.  Gentry and his team are soon the only agents who can stop a devastating attack that could bring the West to its knees.

Mark Greaney is a highly regarded spy thriller writer who has some substantial works to his name.  He was Tom Clancy’s co-author for legendary espionage author’s final three books, Locked On, Threat Vector and Command Authority.  Following Clancy’s death in 2013, Greaney continued to write an additional four novels in Clancy’s Jack Ryan Universe.  Aside from the books he wrote with Clancy, Greaney has his own series, the bestselling Gray Man series, which started in 2009 with the author’s debut book, The Gray ManMission Critical is the eighth book in the Gray Man series.

This was an incredibly thrilling story which contains hell of a lot of action and espionage.  I really liked the sound of Mission Critical’s plot synopsis and was glad that I picked up a copy of this book, as the action and intrigue did not stop the entire time.  At over 500 pages long, I was worried that this might drag in some places, but I found myself fairly absorbed by the awesome plot and sufficiently pumped up by the huge number of firefights, close combat sequences and high-speed chases.

I loved the spy thriller storyline that was a prominent part of Mission Critical.  Greaney weaves together a number of plotlines to create a fantastic overall spy thriller narrative.  Because Mission Critical is told from a number of perspectives, including those of the protagonists and antagonists, the reader gets a great idea of all the action, spycraft and dirty tricks that both sides employ to complete their respective missions.  Greaney obviously has a large amount of knowledge about the espionage world, and I loved all his depictions about the inner workings of spy agencies, rogue operatives and the various tricks and techniques that agents employ.  I also liked Greaney’s depiction of the inner politics of the CIA and how that might impact on missions and the distribution of resources, as well as a look at the CIA’s relationship with other countries’ intelligence agencies.

I really liked some of the characters featured within this book.  The protagonist, Court Gentry (and I have to point out how much I love that name), is a solid and dependable badass agent to anchor this series.  He’s your typical thriller protagonist, with some badass skills and a reputation to match.  I loved his anti-authoritarian vibe, and I also quite enjoyed how he actually got his ass handed to him multiple times throughout the book, rather than being unbeatable in every encounter.  I was also impressed that Greaney kept showing him being slowed down by his injuries, rather than having him at 100% for every encounter like some other authors do.  Zoya is also a good protagonist for this story; let’s face it, a sexy Russian agent never goes amiss in a spy thriller.  The author dives into this character’s background quite a bit in Mission Critical, and her connections to the plot and the antagonists were explored in an intriguing manner.  The third Poison Apple operative, Zack Hightower, aka Romantic, was used a little less than his comrades, but he was a fun addition to the team, adding some humour to the story, especially when it came to his codename, as well as some complex history and camaraderie with Gentry.  The Poison Apple program handler, Suzanne Brewer, also adds some great things to the story.  A career-orientated CIA administrator, she has to try and play straight-woman to the three anti-authority, disrespectful operatives that are under her command.  The fact that she does not want to be working with these people and is at times actively sabotaging them to try and get a different posting adds some really intriguing elements to the story, and I liked watching her work against her agents for her own selfish ends.

Mission Critical is the eighth book in Greaney’s Gray Man series.  While this latest entry does feature a number of characters from the previous books in the series, readers are not required to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this story.  I felt that Greaney did an excellent job of explaining any elements from the previous entries in the series that become relevant throughout Mission Critical.  Fans of the Gray Man series will probably really enjoy the deeper examination of Zoya’s history and backstory, as well as her inclusion in the other Poison Apple agent’s operations.

Overall, Mission Critical was a deeply entertaining espionage novel that is bound to keep readers absorbed with its excellent action and thriller elements.  It is easily enjoyable for both existing fans of the franchise and new readers alike.  I had a lot of fun reading this book and I powered through all 500+ pages in fairly short order.  I am planning to keep an eye out for Greaney’s next book, Red Metal, a really cool-sounding war thriller that is coming out in July this year.