Throwback Thursday: The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man Cover

Publisher: Audio Studios (Audiobook – 29 September 2009)

Series: Gray Man – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I check out the debut novel of impressive thriller author Mark Greaney, The Gray Man.

Over the last few years, I have been really enjoying some of the latest novels from the amazing Mark Greaney, one of the leading authors in the spy thriller genre.  Having previously worked with Tom Clancy on his Jack Ryan series, Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  I have managed to check out the last three novels in this great series, which have been some pretty awesome reads, including Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of the best books and audiobooks I have so far read this year).  I also really enjoyed the outstanding military thriller he did with H. Ripley Rawlings, Red Metal, which ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019).  I have long been meaning to go back and check out the earlier books in the Gray Man series, especially as there is a big Netflix adaption coming out soon (directed by the Russo brothers and starting Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans).  I finally got the chance a few days ago to read the first Gray Man novel, which was also Greaney’s debut book, and I am extremely gad that I did as The Gray Man proved to be an exceptional novel with boundless action.

Court Gentry was the very best operative the CIA ever had, and for years he helped take down vital targets the world over.  However, his career in government espionage came to a violent end when Gentry was set up and burnt, becoming one of the most wanted men in the world with a shoot-to-kill order on his head.  With the entire intelligence community gunning for him, Gentry disappeared into the shadows, becoming a private assassin.  Despite his murky profession, Gentry keeps his humanity by only accepting contracts on those people he believes deserve to die.  After years of taking out the very worst gangsters, war criminals and terrorists in impossible situations, Gentry has gained a legendary and is known throughout the business as the Gray Man.

However, after his latest job sees him assassinate a high-ranking member of the Nigerian cabinet, Gentry suddenly finds himself under attack like never before.  The outgoing president of Nigeria now wants the Gray Man dead, and with a powerful French company on the hook for a billion-dollar contract, he has the perfect tool to get his vengeance.  Led by former CIA officer Lloyd, the French company have organised for a team of hitters to take Gentry down for good, but when their first strike fails, they must get inventive.

Taking Gentry’s handler and his family hostage, Lloyd gives Gentry an ultimatum, travel to their compound in Normandy within the next day or he will kill the hostages, including two young girls.  Determined to save his friend’s family, Gentry is forced to traverse the entirety of Europe to get to his target.  However, between him and his destination are 12 elite kill teams from around the world, each of them competing for a massive bounty on his head.  With every eye on the continent watching out for him and no possible backup, Gentry will need to fight his way through more than 100 killers if he is to succeed.  For most men this would an impossible task, however, the Gray Man is anything but ordinary and he is about to show the world why he is the absolute best.

Well damn, now this was an incredible thriller.  I actually managed to power through the audiobook version of The Gray Man in two days especially once I got stuck into the incredible story.  Loaded with a ton of action of spy thriller excitement, this was such a fun and action-packed read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed The Gray Man’s exciting and compelling narrative, which takes the reader on a wild ride through death and destruction.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the book started, as the slaughter of Taliban soldiers in Iraq seemed a tad over-the-top for an introduction scene, it honestly does not take long for the rest of the story to get incredibly addictive and fun.  The moment that the antagonists start targeting Gentry, all bets are off and what follows is an incredible blend of action, adventure and spy tradecraft that is very hard to put down.  I loved the central story concept of Gentry forced to fight his way across Europe, and Greaney did a great job setting this entire scenario up.  This results in an awesome central section of the novel, where Gentry slowly moves through Europe towards his goal, with everyone in the way trying to kill him.  The action and intensity of these scenes are first rate, and I loved the slow, deliberate war of attrition that the antagonists wage against Gentry, with the protagonist forced to contend with a lack of equipment, allies, and later in the book, blood.  This exceptional story eventually leads up to a massive conclusion, with a wounded Gentry storming the castle and facing off the people who have expended a lot of effort into killing him.  The entire story is wrapped up extremely well, and readers are left very satisfied and happy with how everything turns out.  I had a fantastic time getting through this outstanding story, and there was honestly not a single second that I wasn’t amazingly entertained.

Due to its status as the initial novel in the series, The Gray Man has a very self-enclosed narrative, which ensures that all the main storylines are wrapped up by the final page.  While it does serve as a really good introduction to the protagonist and his unique situation, I found The Gray Man works well as a standalone novel, and it does not rely too heavily on details revealed in the later novels.  There are a lot of great features to this book, and I must highlight the incredible action sequences.  The intense violence and powerful fight scenes are beautifully written, and the reader gets a good sense of the characters interactions with his foes.  I also really appreciated the author’s depiction of tradecraft and spy skills, with the characters using all manner of intelligence tricks and assets to try and win.  Greaney makes really good use of multiple character perspectives throughout The Gray Man to highlight the battle of wits between the various players, and I liked how it also increased how impressive and brutal some of the action scenes were.  While I could have probably done without the sections told from the perspective of one of the eight-year-old granddaughters, the rest work extremely well to create a detailed and richer spy thriller.  I loved seeing the opposition put their plan into action to hunt down Gentry, and it was really great to see all the sides of this adventure.  It was particularly fun to see the antagonist’s reactions as Gentry continues to survive against the odds, and the added note of desperation was pretty entertaining.

I also must highlight the great characters featured within The Gray Man, which really helped to enhance this already awesome story.  They are led by impressive action hero Court Gentry (a great name, BTW), who is perfectly built up throughout the novel as a superhuman spy, thanks to his skill, intelligence, and pure stubbornness.  Gentry has a hell of an ordeal in this novel, forced to fight against impossible odds while being hunted by literally everyone in Europe.  Greaney does a good job introducing the key parts of his protagonist’s personality and history throughout the novel, and you really get a good sense of who Gentry is.  I also loved how Greaney showed Gentry slowly getting worn down as the novel progressed, which felt pretty realistic, especially after all the opponents who try to kill him.  These various injuries slow him down and make him sloppy as the narrative progresses, so much so that he is barely standing by the time he gets to the final showdown.  It was fun to see the other characters debating the truth behind Gentry’s previous missions, especially as he has built up a reputation for impossible tasks.  The constant discussion about what he achieved is really entertaining, especially as it causes several antagonists some major apprehensions.  While substantial parts of his history, such as why he was betrayed by the CIA, are not examined here, you still get some great details about him, and I look forward to seeing what else is revealed in the books I haven’t read yet.  In some ways Gentry was a little one-dimensional in The Gray Man and could have used some more depth, especially around his motivations and his feelings about his betrayal from the CIA.  However, this was a great introduction to this ruthless killer with a heart of gold, and readers will enjoy this first great adventure.

In addition to Gentry, Greaney came up with an excellent group of supporting characters who serve as alternate point-of-view characters throughout the novel.  Due to the plot being about Gentry being hunted by everyone in Europe, most of the alternate perspectives are antagonists, and I had fun with the cool group of villains that Greaney featured in this novel.  Each of these antagonistic characters are well utilised and introduced, even if they have a short shelf-life, and I appreciated some of the time put into building them up.  My favourite, or least favourite, of these is central antagonist Lloyd.  Lloyd is a former CIA analyst turned private-sector lawyer who, after stuffing up and forcing his company to work for the Nigerians, sets his company after Gentry.  Greaney went out of his way to make Lloyd as unlikeable as possible, with the character being extremely arrogant, petty, insecure, and vicious, especially as the novel proceeds and he faces setback after setback.  Every scene he is in is a lot of fun, mainly because he is such an annoying figure in them, and this ensures that the reader is constantly barracking for Gentry, hoping that he wins so that he can punch Lloyd in the face.  I had a wonderful time hating Lloyd throughout this book, and I cannot wait to see Chris Evans’s take on him in the upcoming film adaption.

As I mentioned above, I ended up checking out The Gray Man on audiobook, which proved to be an awesome way to enjoy this excellent book.  The Gray Man audiobook has a decent run time of just over 11 hours, and I found myself flying through it in no time at all.  This audiobook format proved to be the perfect way to enjoy this great book, especially as the many intense action sequences come to life extremely well while being narrated.  I absolutely must highlight the book’s amazing narrator, Jay Snyder, who has since narrated all Greaney’s Gray Man novels.  Snyder has an amazing voice for thrillers, and he ensures that the plot of this book moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  I also deeply enjoyed the various voices that he produced, as every character featured within this novel had a very fitting and distinctive voice.  I particularly appreciated the slimy and cocky voice that he gifted to main antagonist Lloyd, which gave the man a cowardly, bureaucratic voice (it honestly reminded me a little of Cyril from Archer), and really helped to make him even more unlikeable.  Snyder also does some fantastic accents for the various international characters featured in the novel, and each of them worked extremely well.  Overall, this was an exceptional way to check out this book, and I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in this novel.

The Gray Man is an incredible and deeply entertaining debut from Greaney and it is one that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This great book had an awesome narrative, loaded up with a ton of action, mayhem and fun characters, and it swiftly turned into an intensely addictive and thrilling read.  Greaney sets up a lot of elements for his future series, and I am really glad that I went back to see where this fantastic series started.  This book comes highly recommend, and if you are a thriller fan, you will love this book.  I am definitely going to have to check out the rest of the Gray Man novels I am missing, and I am looking forward to seeing what over incredible stories that Greaney has in store for me.

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Out of the Shadows Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 27 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The marvels and terrors of the High Republic era of Star Wars history continues with the latest fantastic and exciting young adult tie-in novel, Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland.

The High Republic is an interconnected collection of novels, comics, audio dramas and other pieces of media produced by top Star Wars authors, set hundreds of years before the films.  Starting in January 2021, this compelling multimedia project features several great pieces of fiction, including the awesome introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, the impressive The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, and the entertaining young adult novel Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The latest High Republic novel, Out of the Shadows, is another compelling young adult novel that continues several key storylines from previous High Republic novels.  This was the second Star Wars book from author Justina Ireland, who previously wrote the High Republic junior novel, A Test of Courage.

Death, destruction, pirates, and plant monsters!  The Republic may be at the height of its culture and influence, but it is in some major trouble.  Following the devastation that occurred during the Republic Fair at Valo, the Republic are at war with the marauders known as the Nihil, with the Jedi leading the efforts to hunt them down.  But in the far corners of space, the Nihil are planning something new, something that could change the very fabric of the galaxy.

Sylvestri Yarrow is a young pilot and captain of a dilapidated ship, who is doing the best she can to keep her crew above water after the death of her mother.  However, when her ship is suddenly pulled out of hyperspace in a remote area of space with a boarding party of Nihil raiders waiting for her, she has no choice but to abandon her home.  Determined to get some form of justice, Sylvestri heads to Coruscant to convince someone of the dangers, but no one is willing to listen to a teenage pilot from the frontier until the unscrupulous and ultra-wealthy Xylan Graf appears and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

In exchange for a new ship and a substantial number of credits, Sylvestri will accompany Xylan to the area of space where she lost her ship to help him disprove rumours of a dangerous Nihil weapon and to convince a senator into giving his family access to valuable hyperspace lanes.  Despite her misgivings about the plan, and the trustworthiness of Xylan, Sylvestri agrees to accompany him.  However, the Senator has a caveat: Xylan must take along some unimpeachable observers of her choosing, Jedi.  Now accompanied by young Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Master Cohmac Vitus, his apprentice Reath Silas, and, awkwardly, Sylvestri’s ex-girlfriend Jordanna Sparkburn, the team heads out to the wilds of space.  But the Nihil are always watching and waiting from the shadows, and their plans could spell doom for everyone.  Can Sylvestri and her new Jedi friends survive the dangers ahead of them, or will terrible secrets from her past threaten to overwhelm everyone once they are dragged out of the shadows.

Out of the Shadows proved to be a fun and compelling entry in this great new Star Wars series that I had a fantastic time listening to.  Featuring a great story and some excellent characters, this novel continues several key storylines from the previous High Republic novels and presents a strong and action-packed adventure.

Ireland has come up with a pretty good story for Out of the Shadows, resulting in a very exciting read.  Set around a year after Ireland’s last novel, A Test of Courage, and a short period after the events of the last major High Republic novel The Rising Storm, Out of the Shadows ties together several intriguing story threads set around some compelling characters.  The book starts out quick, with each major characters introduced in short order through a series of separate point-of-view chapters.  These early introductions do a good job of establishing the characters’ histories, personalities and motivations, and sending them on their various story paths.  The first third of the novel moves quickly, with each character getting some compelling moments, such as Sylvestri getting involved with unscrupulous businessman Xylan Graf, while Jedi Vernestra and her friends get a taste of the dangerous frontier life on their way to Coruscant.  This results in a fun mixture of plot inclusions, from some captivating political intrigue in Sylvestri’s storyline to some more action in Vernestra’s story combined with some interesting examinations of the Jedi and the Force.

These storylines combine around halfway through the book, with the key characters (except for one point-of-view antagonist) coming together and working as a team.  While it did have some good moments, I felt the middle part of the novel dragged a little, and there was not a great deal of excitement there.  However, it did set up the conclusion nicely, with Sylvestri and the Jedi coming face to face with the Nihil in less-than-ideal circumstances.  After a short confrontation, the story goes into overdrive, with the characters racing through several events all the way up to the end, including one event that might have some major ramifications for the High Republic storylines.  Strangely enough, while the second act was a little slow, the final part of the novel was way too quick, with a lot happening in a very short amount of time.  Still there were some great moments in these end scenes, including a couple of good twists, and it also sets up some further adventures extremely well.  All the key characters get gratifying conclusions to their various storylines, and readers are left feeling pretty satisfied with how events turned out.  Ireland makes sure to layer her story with some great action sequences, and there are some entertaining moments spread throughout the book.  I had a wonderful time reading this cool story, and it ended up being a rather good Star Wars book.

This latest Star Wars novel is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I felt that it was a particularly good read for teenagers.  Not only does it feature several teenage characters kicking ass, including a girl who became a Jedi Knight at age 15, but it also contains a clever and enjoyable story that does not pander to the younger age group or shy away from violence or controversial topics.  Ireland did a great job diving into the teenage mindset, and I felt that the various teenage characters featured in this novel were well portrayed as competent and complex figures.  I also liked the strong LGBT+ elements that Ireland featured throughout the novel, especially between Sylvestri and Jordanna Sparkburn, and it is cool that it is being shown so prominently in these novels.  Like many young adult Star Wars novels, this book is can be easily enjoyed by older Star Wars fans, who will appreciate the intriguing story and fascinating developments to the wider High Republic universe.  Younger readers will also probably have a good time with this novel, especially as Ireland does not go too over the top with the violence and romance, and as such I felt that this was an accessible novel to fans of all ages.

Out of the Shadows’ narrative is a continuation of several previous High Republic novels, which readers may need a bit of pre-knowledge about to fully enjoy.  Not only does this novel continue to expand the High Republic series and make frequent references to characters and events primarily featured in Light of the Jedi or The Rising Storm; it also serves as a direct continuation of two previous books.  This includes Ireland’s first Star Wars novel, A Test of Courage, as well as earlier 2021 release, Into the Dark, with key characters and storylines continued in Out of the Shadows.  Readers unfamiliar with these previous novels might also have a hard time following what is happening in Out of the Shadows, although I did think Ireland had a good go at making this novel accessible to readers, no matter their knowledge base.  Some key events of previous novels are explored in some detail, and I had no trouble following what was happening or who the characters were, even though I haven’t read A Test of Courage.  Ireland also blended the various existing storylines together extremely well, and this helped to turn Out of the Shadow into a key entry in the overall High Republic series, especially as it continues to show the galactic machinations of the Nihil.  It also looks like several storylines, mainly surrounding Ireland’s primary protagonist Vernestra Rwoh, will be continued in some future novels and I will have to try to read Ireland’s next novel, Mission of Disaster, even though I have avoided the junior High Republic novels in the past.

One of the things that particularly impressed me about Out of the Shadows was the excellent collection of characters that Ireland fit into her narrative.  There is a substantial central cast in this book, including some new additions and some characters who have appeared in previous High Republic novels.  The author does a good job of introducing and exploring these key characters throughout the novel, and you get some interesting and intense character development occurring, which really adds to the narrative.

These characters include Sylvestri Yarrow, a young pilot who finds herself dragged into the middle of this adventure.  Sylvestri is a tough frontier girl with a big independent streak and a massive chip on her shoulder when it comes to both the Nihil and the Jedi, and she goes through a lot in this novel.  Serving as one of the main point-of-view characters, Sylvestri offers a very interesting view on the events occurring and has some deep connections to the Nihil plot without even realising it.  She also forms an intense and fantastic relationship with Jordanna Sparkburn, her ex-girlfriend, who suddenly re-enters her life.  Jordanna is a frontier deputy responsible for defending her planet from Nihil raiders, which has seen her fight in quite a few battles.  Brought into the story after the Jedi help her to defend her home, Jordanna accompanies them to Coruscant and then gets wrapped up the main story.  Mainly introduced as the tough girl still interested in Sylvestri, Jordanna gains a lot of depth as a character as the story progresses, especially as she has experienced a lot of trauma after being forced into multiple battles.  A lot of this comes out when Sylvestri is in trouble, and Jordanna goes on a bit of a killing spree with a unique Nihil weapon she has obtained.  This scene really adds a lot to how the reader sees her, and it proves to be quite fascinating.  I was also a big fan of Jordanna’s giant alien cat, Remy, a dangerous creature who is just a big kitten at heart, especially when she bonds with some of the other characters.

I also enjoyed the great Jedi characters featured in Out of the Shadows.  These include Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and her Padawan Imri Cantaros, who were the main characters of A Test of Courage and are now Ireland’s go-to Star Wars protagonists.  These two Jedi make for a unique pairing, as Vernestra is a brilliant Jedi prodigy, becoming a Knight at a very young age, while Imri is only slightly younger and has a unique ability to perceive emotions.  Vern is a particularly striking character, particularly with her lightwhip (a lightsaber modified to also be used as a whip) and I enjoyed seeing the challenges that a very young Knight would face.  Her unique connection to the force also connects her to another interesting character in the High Republic canon, and it sets her up for some big storylines in the future.  The other major Jedi characters are Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his apprentice Reath Silas.  Cohmac and Reath were previously heavily featured in a previous young adult novel, Into the Dark, and it was great to see them again.  Despite being the apprentice, Reath is the more prominent character, with several point-of-view chapters to himself.  While it was great to see more of Reath and Cohmac, they are a little underutilised, and I would have liked to see more about them, especially with Reath’s unique connection to one of the antagonists.

The other two characters who were a lot of fun in this book are Nan and Xylan Graf, two complex figures who are playing their own games.  Nan is a young Nihil spy and infiltrator who previously encountered Reath while the two were trapped on a space station together.  Serving as one of Marchion Ro’s most loyal soldiers, Nan is entrusted with an important treasure and is subsequently forced to navigate the Nihil’s internal feuding and plotting to survive.  Nan provides a fantastic alternate perspective for much of the events of the novel as she is used to show what is happening in the Nihil camp.  I liked her use in this book, and while I would have enjoyed a much more intense confrontation with Reath when they are inevitably reunited, I did enjoy how Nan’s story arc dramatically changed towards the end of the novel, which should be interesting for future High Republic novels.  The other character is Xylan Graf, the ultimate rich-kid master manipulator.  Xylan is the scion to the exceedingly powerful and rich Graf family, who organises the entire expedition, seemingly to gain rights to a valuable sector of space.  Xylan is an extremely flashy and stylish figure, and it is quite entertaining to see the other characters react to his eccentricities.  He is also quite a sly operator, cooking up plans and spinning tales to keep everyone happy.  He is so slippery that you honestly don’t know what he is planning for most of the novel, and I felt that he was a very compelling and fun addition to the cast.  All of the above characters were really fun and I hope they reappear in some of the future High Republic entries.

I made sure to grab a copy of Out of the Shadows’ audiobook format, which proved to be an interesting experience.  While I tend to really enjoy Star Wars audiobooks due to the cool production inclusions they usually feature, I ended up being a little disappointed with Out of the Shadow’s audiobook.  This was mainly because it lacked the iconic Star Wars musical score or background sound effects that all the other Star Wars audiobooks have, which made for a more subdued listening experience.  While this didn’t make Out of the Shadows impossible to enjoy, it was a very noticeable departure from the typical fun I have with Star Wars audiobooks, and several scenes could have benefited from being enhanced by some emotional music.  Still, I enjoyed the production, mainly because narrator Keylor Leigh does a really good job telling the story.  Leigh, who previously narrated Ireland’s A Test of Courage, has a great voice for teenage characters.  I felt that Leigh gave each of the key protagonists a unique and fitting voice, and she also ensured that the narrative moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  In addition, with a runtime of just under 11 hours, this is a relatively quick listen, which dedicated listeners can power through in no time at all.  As a result, this is a good format to enjoy Out of the Shadows on, although I really do wish that it had featured the usual strong Star Wars production values.

Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland is an awesome and captivating High Republic tie-in novel, which continues to explore this unique period in Star Wars history.  Containing a fun story and some great characters, this novel serves as a key entry in the High Republic series, following several fascinating plot threads from some previous novels.  Readers are in for an excellent time with this novel, and Out of the Shadows proves to be an exciting and compelling experience.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 3 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Stephen King returns with another exceptional read, Billy Summers, an awesome and memorable character driven thriller that has proved to be one of the best books of the year so far.

2021 has been quite an amazing year for Stephen King, who has released two outstanding and impressive novels in a short period of time.  His first book of 2021 was the interesting horror novel, Later, which followed a child who can see and talk to the recently deceased.  While I have not had a lot of experience reading Stephen King novels in the past, I really got into Later due to its likeable characters and thrilling narrative, and it ended up being one of the best audiobooks I listened to in the first part of 2021.  Due to how much I liked Later, I made sure to keep an eye out for any additional Stephen King releases, and I was extremely intrigued to see that he had a second book coming out with a great-sounding plot.  As a result, this second novel, Billy Summers, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of the year, and I was excited when I received my copy, especially as it contained a really cool story.

Billy Summers is an assassin and gun for hire.  A maestro with a sniper rifle and a master of elaborate escapes, there are few killers better than him.  However, for all his skills, Billy has one unusual quirk: he has a conscience and a moral code which limits him to only taking out contracts on targets he considers to be bad guys.  After a lifetime of killing, as both an assassin and a soldier, Billy wants out, and he is willing to take one final job to retire.  Luckily, his employer has a job that fits all his criteria.

Taken to the small city of Red Bluff on the East Coast of America, Billy is hired to kill a notorious gangster and killer who is currently locked up in Los Angeles but due to be extradited back to Red Bluff.  Billy’s boss wants the target dead the moment he arrives to stop him making a deal with the authorities ahead of his murder trial.  With a massive pay cheque on the line, Billy accepts the job, despite some odd stipulations.  As part of their plan to take out their target, Billy will need to take on the identity of an author working in the office complex overlooking the courthouse and maintain his cover for as long as it takes the extradition process to go through.

Despite misgivings about the job, Billy dives into the role as required and soon establishes himself as a regular figure in the office block.  As he waits for his target to arrive, Billy begins to get to know the people around him and takes the opportunity to write a memoir about his life and the decisions that led to him becoming a killer.  However, the closer he gets to the conclusion of the job, the more he suspects that nothing involved with this assassination is on the level, and that his bosses intend from him to die as well.  Making his own plans in case things go sideways, Billy prepares to end his career as an assassin on his own terms.  But then he meets Alice, and everything changes.

Well damn, how the hell does King do it?  After nearly 45 years of writing, you’d think the man would run out of unique and compelling ideas, but that apparently is not the case, as his latest book, Billy Summers, turned out to be quite an exceptional read.  King has produced an impressive and powerful story that follows a complex and well-established protagonist as he experiences life for the first time.  With some outstanding characters, a deeply thrilling storyline and some intriguing insights into the human condition, this was an outstanding read that was easily one of the best books I read in 2021 and which got a full five-star review from me.

Billy Summers contains a pretty addictive and powerful story that I found to be really cool.  The book is primarily told through the eyes of the titular Billy and shows him as he prepares to take on his final job.  King does a great job of introducing the character and the scenario, and you are soon placed into the midst of a very cool storyline as Billy moves into suburbia under an assumed identity to build his cover.  This results in some compelling character interactions, as Billy simultaneously prepares for his assassination mission with his employers while also getting close to some of the people he encounters and starts to see what a normal life feels like.  At the same time, he also builds up a third identity to use after the job is completed, which requires him to assume a different disguise and create some additional personal connections.  He also starts writing a personal memoir which tells a slightly altered version of his life story, including his rough childhood, his military career, and his early contract work.  This mixture of intriguing and fascinating story threads come together extremely well in the first half of the novel, and you get quite a unique and compelling narrative which perfectly blends thriller excitement with personal character growth.

After a big moment halfway through the novel, the entire storyline dramatically changes, especially as Billy is introduced to a key character, Alice.  While there is still a large amount of focus on the job from the first half of the novel and its consequences, the story noticeably morphs at this point, really diving into the relationship that develops between these two characters.  The storyline also moves away from some of the prior relationships that were introduced, and moves into a road trip, with Billy now accompanied by Alice.  There are some really good sequences in this second half of the novel, as well as a continued exploration of Billy’s past.  King does a fantastic job morphing the various story threads and plot ideas into a cohesive and captivating narrative, and I really enjoyed the powerful combinations.  The set pieces are a series of awesome action sequences, which help tie up several of the main story threads and lead up to the book’s epic conclusion.  While King is often criticised for his endings, I felt that Billy Summers had an exceptional and incredible conclusion that I deeply enjoyed.  This great conclusion is both tragic and memorable, and it ties together the entire novel extremely well, helping to turn Billy Summers into one of the best stories I have read all year.

I really enjoyed King’s writing style in this novel, especially as it focused a lot on character development and interactions between unique people.  The entire novel has a very philosophical bent to it, as King and his characters take time to explore the human experience, especially those aspects of life that people on the outside, such as BIlly, miss out on.  While you wouldn’t think that this would pair well with a thriller story about an assassin, it actually works extremely well, especially when combined with Billy’s journaling scenes, and readers are guaranteed to fall in love with this distinctive form of storytelling.  I also liked the author’s great use of various settings which help to show off the uniqueness of America’s landscapes.  King features several different locations, including suburbia, the inner city, the wide open road, the isolated Colorado mountains, and even some more famous locations, like fabulous Las Vegas.  Each location offers the reader and the characters something new to enjoy or appreciate, and King makes sure to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of these various settings.  While King does move away from some of his more extreme murder sprees in this novel, there are some dark moments in this book.  Not only are there some very graphic action sequences, but readers should also be warned about the sexual violence content, especially one scene where Billy enacts some justice.  I’m also slightly concerned that King might end up getting sued by Rupert Murdoch for a certain facsimile character who does some bad things.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed the way King told his latest unique story, and there is something for everyone in it.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have the most experience reading Stephen King novels, with only a few of his more recent reads under my belt.  Despite this, I was easily able to enjoy Billy Summers, especially as it is a standalone thriller with one-shot characters.  As a result, this is a book that any reader can easily pick up and get into, and I really liked how open the author made Billy Summers.  However, fans of King, as well as those people generally aware of his work, will probably have fun seeing the references to some of King’s previous books.  One of his more iconic works is referenced several times, especially as the protagonists end up spending time near a pivotal location.  While this is not particularly essential to the plot, it was a nice callback, and I think that most people will appreciate the fun self-homage.  I also found it interesting that both of King’s novels of 2021 had a compelling focus on writing, which becomes a key part of the plot.  While Later focused more on the publishing side of things, Billy Summers contains a fantastic examination of the difficulties of putting your ideas to paper as a writer, with the protagonist attempting to write his life story in his downtime.  While there are several fantastic advantages to the writing subplot, such as it being a great way to introduce the protagonist’s backstory in a compelling and episodic manner, I also quite enjoyed seeing the depiction of the writing process, and the various difficulties of telling a story.  It very much felt that King was pouring some of his own experiences with writing into these sections of the novel, and it was incredibly fun and insightful to see one of the world’s greatest authors depict the difficulties of writing in one of his novels.

Another area that Billy Summers excelled in is the fantastic central and supporting characters.  King does a remarkable job of introducing a diverse cast of characters, each of whom affect the character in various ways, either by showing him what his missing, or showing him what he is better than.  The most focused character is naturally the titular protagonist, Billy Summers, a brilliant contract killer who only kills bad people.  Billy is a remarkably complex figure, who builds several different personalities and personas around himself for professional reasons and protection.  I really enjoyed the intriguing portrayal of this character, mainly because you got to see at least four different versions of him in the first half of the book.  While the narrator is the calm and collected lover of classic novels who is basically a good guy, despite being an elite professional killer able to see every angle and work out the best way to kill someone and escape, that is a viewpoint that only the readers sees, at least at the start of the novel.  Billy hides this real side of himself from the rest of the world, effecting a less intellectual personality to his criminal associates, which he calls his “dumb self”, to fool them and think he’s less of a threat.

While his dumb self is usually enough to get by, his new assignment requires him to take up the identity of a struggling author who moves into a suburban neighbourhood and a local office block to focus on his upcoming bestseller.  Billy is forced to integrate into these social systems to keep his cover, and he soon makes friends amongst the people he meets, many of whom have an impact on him due to their honesty, innocence, and normality, all of which Billy has long given up.  He also builds up yet another identity to rent an additional house, which he plans to use as a safe house if the job goes wrong, which forces him to deal with additional normal people.  On top of that, he also takes the opportunity to write a memoir of his life, not only to maintain his cover but to satisfy his own curiosity about the writing process.  This proves to be a delicate balancing act, as he attempts to give an honest account of his past while also trying to keep up the charade of being dumb in case his employers read the story he writes.  This results in a unique, multifaceted character, and you get hints at the true nature of Billy, not just from the narration, but from seeing the similarities and differences between the various versions he presents to the world.

Billy’s life changes even further when he meets Alice, a woman who he meets at the very worst time of her life.  Saving her initially to maintain his cover, Billy soon finds himself drawn to protecting Alice, who has no-one and is having trouble getting over her trauma.  Billy soon works in a fantastic and touching relationship with Alice, as the two become close and help each other see the world in other ways.  Not only is Alice a great character in her own right, especially as King presents a very real and moving portrayal of a damaged and lost woman, but she also brings out the best in Billy.  While Alice does imprint on Billy due to her trauma, she also encourages him and gets him to continue writing his book.  This powerful bond they form soon becomes a central part of the book’s plot, and it is extremely fascinating and compelling to see what happens to them.  These exceptional characters and deep personalities really turn Billy Summers into an exceptional read, and I become severely invested in their story, even though I knew it was likely to end badly.

Stephen King has once again shows why he is the premier fiction author in the world today with another intense and exquisite read in Billy Summers.  Featuring a deep and captivating narrative about a complex character, Billy Summers was an absolute treat to read, and comes highly recommended.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with the unique narrative and compelling leading figures, and I guarantee that you will have trouble putting this excellent novel down.  Easily one of the best books of 2021, I cannot praise Billy Summers enough.

Billy Summers Cover 2

Starlight Enclave by R. A. Salvatore

Starlight Enclave Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 3 August 2021)

Series: The Way of the Drow – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The icon of the fantasy world, R. A. Salvatore, returns with a new adventure set in the world of his acclaimed Drizzt Do’Urden novels, with Starlight Enclave, the first book in The Way of the Drow trilogy.

Salvatore is an absolute legend amongst fantasy writers, having been an impressive leading figure for over 30 years with a massive catalogue of more than 60 novels.  I have long been a fan of Salvatore, who has written some of my absolute favourite fantasy novels over the years.  While he has written several great series, the author is still best known for his iconic, long-running Drizzt Do’Urden novels, which are set within the shared Forgotten Realms universe.  Salvatore has had a particularly busy couple of years, simultaneously writing two separate series, including The Coven trilogy (Child of a Mad GodReckoning of a Fallen God and Song of a Risen God), as well as the three books in the Drizzt focused Generations series (TimelessBoundless and Relentless).  All six of these recent novels have been pretty incredible, with Song of a Risen God and Boundless being amongst some of my favourite audiobooks of 2019 and 2020 respectfully.  As a result, I was pretty excited when I saw that Salvatore had another Drizzt Do’Urden novel coming out and I made sure to grab a copy of Starlight Enclave as soon as I could.

Two years after the miraculous end to the Drow siege of Gauntlgrym, peace reigns throughout the Forgotten Realms.  However, while some revel in the hard-won tranquillity, others worry about the future.  Despite having cemented his rule over the pirate city of Luskan, the Drow rogue Jarlaxle is deeply troubled by the difficulties plaguing his people.  Despite the apparent magical miracle that showed her as a false gold, the demonic Spider Queen Loth is still worshiped in the dark Drow city of Menzoberranzan, and civil war appears likely as the powerful Drow houses battle for the city’s soul.

Determined that Loth be thrown down once and for all, Jarlaxle looks for every advantage and weapon he can get his hands on.  One of his more ambitious plans leads him to arm his closest friend, the recently resurrected Zaknafein Do’Urden, with two mighty swords of power, including the notorious blade Khazid’hea, better known as Cutter.  With a sly and dark intelligence of its own, Khazid’hea has corrupted many wielders over the years, and its last master, the half-Drow Doum’wielle, may prove to be the missing piece in Jarlaxle’s latest master plan.  Unfortunately, Doum’wielle was lost years before, thrown through a magical portal to the far north, and to find her Jarlaxle will need to embark on another dangerous quest.

Gathering three mighty companions in Zaknafein, the human priestess Cattie-brie and the former assassin Artemis Entreri, Jarlaxle leads them to the extreme far north, a place few have travelled.  However, they are unprepared for just how dangerous this northern land can be, with new foes and mysterious phenomenon they have no idea about.  But there are far great surprises waiting in store for them, ones that could change the very fabric of the world and alter the course of the upcoming Drow civil war.

Starlight Enclave is another compelling and fun fantasy novel from Salvatore who continues to expand and polish his iconic characters and settings with another great adventure narrative.  This latest book contains a fantastic story that not only takes the series back to its bold adventurous roots, but which also sets up a great new trilogy that will no doubt be some of my favourite books of the next couple of years.

This new book contains a distinctive and powerful narrative that starts off a couple of years after the events of the previous novel, Relentless.  The story starts off by setting the scene for a substantial amount of the plot while also recapping some key events of the previous novels in this very long-running series.  It took me a little while to initially get into this book, but once the story got to a fantastic and intense sea battle around 50 pages in, I was pretty hooked.  From there, the story diverts into two distinctive paths, the first following Jarlaxle and his companions as they venture out into the north, while a second following main series protagonist Drizzt Do’Urden, as he takes his daughter Brie to meet his martial arts master, Grand Master Kane.  While initially pretty evenly split, the Jarlaxle adventure storyline quickly becomes the dominant narrative thread, with Drizzt’s storyline stopping about halfway through.  I personally was fine with this; by this point, I was really enjoying the unique and cool tale being told around the four adventurers as they discover new lands and great dangers in the far north.  This second half of the novel is very intriguing, and Salvatore ensures that there is a great blend of action, character development and world building.  Just like with most of Salvatore’s novels, the fight scenes within Starlight Enclave are a thing of beauty and the author does an amazing job bringing the various fantasy battles to life, so much so the reader feels like they are in the room with them.  The narrative eventually ends a bit of a cliffhanger that places most of the characters in mortal peril and which serves as a pretty cool conclusion to this great tale.  I had a wonderful time getting through this story, and I am very intrigued to see how the narrative continues in the rest of the trilogy.

Due to Starlight Enclave being part of the long running Drizzt Do’Urden series, there is a bit of a question about how easy it is for new readers to enjoy this latest book.  I will admit that there might be some difficulties for those unfamiliar with the series.  Salvatore has built up quite a lot of background lore in the last 30+ years, and large amount of this comes into play throughout the book as there are a substantial number of references to previous adventures and characters.  In addition, new readers might not be familiar with Salvatore’s writing style, which is very similar to how he wrote the original novels back in the 1980s, and as a result, they have a more classic fantasy adventure feel to them.  As someone familiar with the previous adventures (although I could use a refresher) and the author’s style, I managed to get into this novel quite well, although I could potentially see new readers having a bit of a harder time breaking into them.  Salvatore does take the time to explain the relevant bits of lore, and readers that pay attention should be able to follow the story without any substantial problems.  I do think that, at this point, most of Salvatore’s novels are probably best read by his long-term fans, but newer readers will probably find something that they enjoy within them.

Unlike the previous trilogy of novels, which was set in more established settings, Starlight Enclave takes the reader on a big adventure into some brand-new areas of this massive fantasy world.  Most of the story takes place in the far, far in the north of the planet, where very few southerners have ventured.  This is a pretty unforgiving land of ice and snow, which proves a real challenge to survive in.  Salvatore does a really good job bringing this snowy landscape to life, and it proves to be an excellent and treacherous setting for the story, especially as the protagonists soon discover that their magic does not work the same way as it does in the south, severely weakening them.  Salvatore also does some major world-building in this book, as he introduces some big new civilisations and opponents.  While I won’t go into too much detail about them here, I will say that it is a pretty major new inclusion, and it is clearly one that is going to have some significant impacts on the Drizzt Do’Urden series going forward.  Some of the new major locations and races are extremely cool and Salvatore has successfully introduced some great and intriguing new entries into this wider world.  I look forward to seeing how these elements are expanded in the future novels, and I have a feeling they are going to produce a few great surprises down the line.

You can’t talk about one of Salvatore’s novels without mentioning the fun and compelling characters.  Starlight Enclave is a great example of this, as it includes a fantastic range of characters, with both intriguing new characters to beloved long-running figures from the overarching series.  Over the last couple of Drizzt Do’Urden novels, Salvatore has noticeably moved away from some of his classic protagonists and has started to focus on the unique combination of the Drow characters of Jarlaxle and Zaknafein.  I quite like these two great characters, especially the constantly manipulative and canny Jarlaxle, and together they form a fantastic pairing who play off each other’s personalities perfectly.  The inclusion of other main characters, Cattie-brie and Artemis Entreri rounds out the main quartet nicely and presents a great group of veteran adventurers who are each looking for something very different, whether it be hope, redemption or the long-lost joy of adventure.  Long-term fans of Salvatore’s books may be a little disappointed that some major characters, such as Regis and Wulfgar, are overlooked in this novel, but I was personally more than happy with the four main characters Starlight Enclave ended up focusing on.

The other character who got a bit of attention in Starlight Enclave is the overarching series’ main protagonist, Drizzt Do’Urden, who is the focus of the book’s secondary storyline.  Like some of the other major characters, Drizzt has not been as heavily featured in the last few books as Salvatore experiments with different protagonists.  This is still true in Starlight Enclave, with less than a quarter of the book given over to Drizzt’s adventure.  Drizzt still shines as a character, especially as he is going through quite a lot.  Drizzt is facing a bit of a crisis of faith and self-identity, brought on by his unique experiences in the previous trilogy when he ascended to a higher plain of existence to escape a deadly foe.  Brought back by the love of his family, Drizzt still isn’t all there, and it is quite fascinating to see the more distracted and spiritual version of the character.  Due to this development, Drizzt’s scenes tend to be quite philosophical in nature rather than action orientated, and there are several detailed discussions and debates about religion and the morality of the Drow.  While not as exciting, Drizzt’s scenes are pretty interesting and form a great counterpoint to the other storyline.  Salavatore is clearly building to something big here surrounding Drizzt, and I feel like there are going to be some other major changes around him in the coming novels.  Still, it was nice to see a somewhat more peaceful Drizzt in this book, and after all these years, I had a smile to see him as a father rather than a warrior.

To enjoy this cool novel, I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Starlight Enclave, which was narrated by Victor Bevine.  This audiobook has a pretty decent runtime of just under 15 hours, which I was able to get through in around a week.  I really enjoyed this version of the book, and I felt that it helped me get more entrenched in the landscapes and detailed fantasy world that Salvatore produced.  Bevine, who has narrated a substantial number of Salvatore’s previous novels, does another great job here, and it was great to once again here his take on the various characters, especially as there is a bit of continuity from the previous audiobooks I have enjoyed.  Bevine does a good job portraying each of the characters contained within Starlight Enclave, and I like the fun accents he does for the various races, especially the dwarves, who get some fun Scottish tones.  Bevine ensures that this audiobook moves along at a fast and exciting pace, and I always enjoy hearing his narration of these exciting and compelling adventures.

In the amazing Starlight Enclave, the iconic R. A. Salvatore continues to expand his impressive and long-running Drizzt Do’Urden series with another bold adventure novel.  This great novel does an awesome job setting up the cool new The Way of the Drow trilogy with a unique and exciting story and some compelling world-building.  I had a wonderful time getting through Starlight Enclave and it is an excellent read, especially for those established fans of the author who will no doubt love to see another classic fantasy tale.  An overall outstanding book, I am extremely excited to see how the rest of this new series unfolds.

Throwback Thursday – The Death of Superman

Death of Superman Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 32 / DC Animated Movie Universe – Film 11

Directors: Sam Liu and Jake Castorena

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Producers: Sam Liu and Amy McKenna

Length: 81 Minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  This week, after the fun I’ve had recently reviewing Batman: Assault on Arkham and Batman: Under the Red Hood, I continue to check out some awesome DC comic book animated features, with the impressive and powerful The Death of Superman.

Easily one of the most iconic comic book arcs of all time is the 1992/1993 storyline, The Death of Superman, which (spoiler alert) saw Superman die at the hands of new villain Doomsday.  Not only did the act of actually killing off Superman shock the world but the series was a massive financial success, becoming one of the bestselling comics of all time.  Due to its popularity, DC have attempted to adapt the storyline multiple times, with Smallville, the animated Justice League show, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, all using elements of it in one form or another.  There has even been another direct animated attempt at recreating the storyline, with the 2007 release, Superman: Doomsday, the very first film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  However, in my opinion, none of them successfully conveyed the tone or the fantastic story as well as the 2018 animated film, The Death of Superman.

Directed by Sam Liu and Jake Castorena and written by Peter J. Tomasi, The Death of Superman is an incredible and amazing film that really gets to grips with the original comic, while also adding in some unique details to create a memorable and deeply moving experience.  As the 32nd instalment in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, it also sat in the joint DC Animated Movie Universe, and was a major instalment in this series, setting up several storylines that would later be utilised in later entries, such as the final film, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.  Featuring an awesome story, a fantastic voice cast and some exceptional animation, The Death of Superman is easily one of the best films in the entire DC Animated Movie Universe and is one of my all-time favourite animated comic book adaptions.

After saving the world multiple times, both by himself and with the Justice League, Superman reigns as one of the planet’s most popular superheros, inspiring the world with his spirit and determination to do good.  His latest act of heroics saved the mayor of Metropolis from the notorious Intergang, who made use of a large arsenal of advanced weaponry, likely supplied by an apparently incarcerated Lex Luthor.  However, despite his larger-than-life personality, Superman is also Clark Kent, a down-to-earth man from small-town America, trying to make his new relationship with fellow reporter Lois Lane work.  As Clark finally opens himself up to Lois and reveals his biggest secret to her, a brand-new threat arrives on Earth, bringing with it only death and destruction.

A mysterious meteorite has rapidly entered the solar system and crashed down on Earth, landing in the ocean.  When a team sent by Luthor and a group of Atlantean soldiers arrive, they find that the meteorite was a containment pod, and inside is something monstrous.  Killing everyone it encounters, the beast escapes the ocean and makes landfall, heading towards the largest population centre it can find, Metropolis.  With no-one able to slow it down, and even the Justice League powerless against it, it falls to Superman to engage it as Earth’s last standing defender.

Engaging in battle in the heart of Metropolis, Superman and the monster, Doomsday, begin a bloody battle that tears through the streets and levels buildings.  Superman may by the strongest person on the planet, but his new foe is a deranged and unstoppable killing machine, concerned with only death, destruction, and dominance.   Can Superman once again prevail and defeat his foe or has the Man of Steel finally met his match.  Whatever, happens, the world with never be the same again, and everyone who Superman has inspired may suddenly have to deal with the death of their greatest champion.

I must admit that when I first saw that they were doing yet another adaption of The Death of Superman comic, I was a little ambivalent, as I have not been too impressed by some of the other versions out there.  However, I still grabbed a copy as soon as it came out, and I was frankly blown away by how good it was.  This film has everything you could want in a brilliant animated feature, including an exceptional story and some amazing actors, but what this film has in abundance is heart.  Throughout its run time, you swiftly become attached to the great characters contained within, especially Superman and Lois, and then you are forced to watch as they suffer the most tragic moment of their lives.  This results in an extremely moving and powerful film, which became an instant classic in my book, and it is one that I have no problem awarding a full five-star rating.

When writing this film, Peter J. Tomasi had to do a lot with a limited amount of time.  Not only did he have to produce a pretty accurate adaption of the original Death of Superman comic, but he also had to work it into the wider DC Animated Movie Universe, which had already had its own unique history.  He easily succeeded on both fronts, as The Death of Superman contains an excellent and powerful story, that I have an extremely hard time faulting in any way whatsoever.  The story starts off with a shot of Superman saving the city and painting a pretty rosy picture of himself as Metropolis’s favourite son and defender.  After the title card, which contains the grim name of the film, the movie works to quickly introduce all the key characters, relationships, and settings, most of which had only been briefly touched on in the preceding DC Animated Movie Universe films.  This makes for a rather light-hearted start to the film; however, it also works to get you to know the characters and other key aspects of the Superman mythos and backstory, and all the setup is essential for you to get the full emotional and dramatic reactions during the second half of the film.  I also liked the way in which the film is tied into the other films of the universe, mostly using the Justice League, especially Batman and Wonder Woman, and it was great to see more of that version of the League.  All of this serves as a great set-up for the intense and action-packed second act, which is where all the action and mayhem begins.

About halfway through, the film really picks up the action with the Justice League, sans Superman, engaging Doomsday in a small town.  The action here is fast and furious, as the various members of the League get their best shots in and are then taken down in some quite brutal ways.  While this is happening, Clark is on a date with a frustrated Lois, where he finally reveals to her that his is Superman.  This date scene is done really well, and Lois’s reaction to the revelations runs the full range of emotions, especially once Superman, forced to leave to confront the threat reveals his other secret: that he loves her.  This is a great scene, and it is one that helps solidify the relationship and emotional bond between Superman and Lois while also making the viewer care for the characters just a little bit more.  However, the focus is quickly changed back to the fight with Doomsday, who has managed to take out the entire League, with only Wonder Woman hanging in.  As she falls, Superman steps in and begins a massive and brutal fight throughout Metropolis.  The creative team behind The Death of Superman really do not hold back here, as they present a knockdown brawl between the two, with Superman forced to also try and save civilians as they fight.  Their battle is a truly intense and amazing extended sequence, and there are some outstanding scenes featured throughout it.  You get some great reaction shots from the various supporting characters, and Lois and Lex Luthor have some outstanding moments as well, as they get involved for various reasons.  However, despite everything, it soon becomes clear just how indestructible and dangerous Doomsday is, and how even Superman doesn’t stand a chance.

The entire film leads up to the final climatic sequence, where the inevitable finally happens and Superman dies taking down Doomsday.  This entire scene is done perfectly, with a near-defeated Superman spurred on to make one final effort against Doomsday as the monster advances towards a seemingly hopeless Lois, who reveals to a downed Clark that she loves him too.  The blow itself is beautifully rendered with a powerful and lethal shot to Doomsday, but it is the aftermath that really turns this film into a five-star watch, as Superman is fatally impaled on a spike.  Watching a grieving Lois slowly release that the love of her life is dying in her arms is so hard to watch, and the creative team really turn up waterworks with Superman giving some touching last words: “what a lucky man I was”.  The eventual death is extremely moving, with the entire world witnessing his death and Lois’s grief, while standing in absolute shock.  Even the Justice League is moved to tears, with the usually taciturn Batman’s reaction being the most telling.  This entire sequence is deeply enhanced by a brilliant orchestral score that really plays up the emotion of the scene and strikes home every time you hear it.  This is such a powerful and impactful sequence, and it is swiftly followed by a moving funeral, with all the major characters in attendance, and then a final shot of several characters reacting in a post-funeral grief while Superman superfan Bibbo Bibbowski narrates a fitting final prayer for the character.  This entire sequence leaves me breathless, even after several re-watches, and it easily one of the most moving animated sequences I have watched.  The film then does a decent wrap-up, with several concluding sequences and post-credit scenes setting up the events of the sequel film.  However, it is the moving conclusion that will stick with you well past the films end, as it really brought everything about this movie together.

While I would be plenty happy with this film with only the outstanding story and amazing conclusion, The Death of Superman is also backed up with some incredible animation and a fantastic musical score which deeply enhance this fantastic film.  The animation is really great, and I loved the designs for the various characters, most of which hark back to their original comic book appearances.  The most impressive animation is reserved for the excellent and impactful action sequences involving Doomsday.  The animators show no hesitation in showing the blood and gore as Doomsday literally tears through everything in his way.  The initial fight with the Justice League is brilliant, especially as Doomsday brutally counters all their unique abilities and absolutely destroys them.  However, it is the giant fight with Superman which is the true highlight of The Death of Superman.  This fight is pretty extraordinary, and the animators really highlight the desperation and inspiration of the two participants.  Each of them is well and truly battered, and it is really shocking to see all the damage that Superman takes throughout the fight.  There is also some very dramatic damage to the city of Metropolis, with even the Hall of Justice being turned to a pile of rumble as these two duke it out.  I cannot emphasise how awesome this animation is, and it was so cool to see these battles unfold.

I also really need to highlight the fantastic use of music throughout this film, which works well in concert with the animated sequences.  The Death of Superman features an exceptional orchestral score, with the various tunes often harking back to classic Superman music.  This music is used perfectly throughout the various scenes in this film and help to really enhance the drama or emotion of the scene.  There are some great scenes with music throughout the film, although nothing tops the fantastic climatic sequence I mentioned above.  This animation and music are so very awesome, and it was an absolute joy to behold.

This film contains a pretty cool range of different characters, including iconic heroes, major Superman supporting characters and even a few more obscure characters.  This helps to turn The Death of Superman into quite a unique and fun film, and I really loved the range of reactions and character arcs that it contained.

Unsurprisingly, the most highlighted character in the film is Superman, who is voiced by Jerry O’Connell, who voiced the character in most of the DC Animated Movie Universe entries.  Up until this point, I felt that Superman was a bit underutilised.  Most of the previous films have focused on Superman’s relationship with Wonder Woman, while also featuring him as the League’s powerhouse.  However, this is easily Superman’s film, as the writers take substantial time to examine his history, relationships, inner personality and the duality between Superman and his Clark Kent persona.  You really get some intense insights into both versions of the same person, especially when you see his evolving relationship with Lois, and you swiftly grow to care for him in a way that some of the recent live-action films really didn’t make you.  His character really shines through during the battle with Doomsday, as he refuses to stay down, especially when people’s lives are on the line, and even risks himself to save his most hated enemy.  His sheer determination and intensity is really inspirational, and it starts to hurt a little inside to see him get beaten down by his opponent.  I felt that O’Connell does such a great job portraying Superman, and he really brings out the best of the character, showing his true heart and soul, and making him such a likeable character, who, despite his alien heritage, was still so very human.  I was really impressed and shocked by how much I grew to love Superman by the end of this film, which of course, ensures that you are so moved by the final scenes.  Seeing this character die in Lois’s arms in front of the world is just heartbreaking, and you guaranteed to be moved by his portrayal in this film.

While there is a natural focus on Superman, in many ways The Death of Superman is just as much a film about Lois Lane.  Voiced by the talented Rebecca Romijn, this version of Lois is bold and fearless in her career but also a little guarded in her personal life, especially as she senses that Clark is hiding something from her.  This film really builds up Lois extremely well in its short run-time, and you get a great sense of who she is and what she cares about.  I felt that the character had some amazing chemistry with Clark, which really isn’t surprising as Romijn is married to O’Connell in real life, so I’m sure they channelled a lot of that film.  I really was impressed by the way they showed Lois’s growing relationship with Clark as the film progresses, and the revelation about Superman’s true identity at the centre of the film really helps to solidify it, especially once Clark declares his love for her.  The subsequent battle sees Lois go through hell, as she chases the fight throughout Metropolis and has to watch Superman continuously get beaten up.  The scene where she tries to distract Doomsday and then gives up as he turns towards her is so dramatic, especially as she follows it up with her own declaration of love for Clark.  The final grief laden scene with Superman really moves me every time, and I felt that the sheer emotion coming off Lois was just amazing.  This might be one of my all-time favourite portrayals of Lois Lane, especially as Romijn does some exceptional follow ups in later DC Animated Movie Universe films.

The other major character I really want to highlight is Lex Luthor, who was voiced by the always entertaining Rainn Wilson.  Like Superman, Lex had been really underutilised in the DC Animated Movie Universe; his reveal in the Throne of Atlantis post-credit scene really did not pan out in a meaningful way in Justice League vs. Teen Titans.  However, this dramatically changed in The Death of Superman as they go out of their way to build up the showcase and show him as the maniacal yet brilliant businessman and criminal mastermind.  The creative team did a lot with Luthor in a short amount of time, and you get a really good idea of his genius, his various plans, and his unrelenting antagonism with Superman, born out of jealousy.  He proves to be a good secondary antagonist for the film, eventually turning into an erstwhile ally, abet for his own purposes, and he has some great scenes.  I was particularly impressed by Rainn Wilson’s voice work in this film, as he brings all the arrogance he can to the film, while also giving character a bit of a slimy edge.  I think he really captured Luthor’s various nuances, and ensures you see him lose his cool when faced with defeat.  I really liked the scene where Luthor can only watch in horror as Superman, despite being beat to hell, saves his life, and that results in some interesting changes in the later films.  I also liked how they captured a bunch of fun aspects of Luthor’s character from the 1990 comics, such as a nod to the Lex Luthor II persona that appeared in The Death of Superman comic.

I also need to highlight the main antagonist, Doomsday.  Despite not saying anything, Doomsday is a major presence, mainly due to his brutality and capability for destruction.  Doomsday is perfectly introduced and I loved the slow reveal of his true form, as the suit containing him is destroyed after several fights.  I must again really highlight how cool he looks in a fight, and the battles between the Justice League, Wonder Woman and Superman are just so damn impressive and pretty intense.  This was a really good portrayal of the character that perfectly harkens back to its comic origins, and it was a nice palate-cleanser after his cave-troll look in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The Death of Superman also contains a pretty substantial supporting cast of characters, each of whom add a fair bit to the overarching narrative of the film.  Some of the most prominent of these are the various members of the Justice League, with most of the actors from the earlier DC Animated Movie Universe films reprising their roles.  Each of these characters and their actors have been perfectly introduced in the previous films, so they are inserted into The Death of Superman with minimal effort and form a fantastic cohort around Superman.  The leading two characters are probably Batman, voiced by Jason O’Mara, and Wonder Woman, voiced by Rosario Dawson.  Both characters have unique relationships with Superman, particularly Wonder Woman, and his death really impacts them both.  I also liked the combination of Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) and Flash (Christopher Gorham), who form a fun comedic duo, while also having some great action moments.  I had a great laugh during the Justice League meeting scene where Flash does a good imitation of Batman joining the PTA of Damien’s school, and Batman’s glaring reaction is pretty funny.

I also loved the inclusion of a couple of unique Superman supporting characters.  Despite the role he played in the original comic, I was really surprised to see so much of Bibbo Bibbowski, Superman’s biggest fan, in this film.  Bibbo is a bit of a dated character, to be honest, but he slides into this film really well, and I loved the voice work done by Charles Halford.  His comedic interactions with both Superman and Clark Kent in the early parts of the film are pretty fun, and there is something amusing about a big, rough sailor type fanboying about a superhero.  It also proves to be quite heartbreaking to see this fan watch Superman die in front of him, and you can see it really breaks him.  I felt that Bibbo’s Hail Mary prayer at the end, which overscored some great visuals of people in mourning, and the subsequent breakdown on the dock was quite touching.  I also liked Erica Luttrell’s Mercy Graves, especially as she forms a great counterpoint to Luthor, especially as she calls him out on some of his more outrageous plans.  Overall, I think that this film was incredibly well cast, and I loved the fantastic group of characters that they brought together.

The Death of Superman is a truly great and powerful animated film that continues to reign as one of my absolute favourite animated comic book adaptions.  Featuring a near-perfect adaption of one of the most iconic comic stories of all time, The Death of Superman is intense, exciting, and downright heartbreaking, as it shows the greatest hero in his final battle.  I was moved to tears the first time I saw this film, and I have so much love and admiration for the work the creative team did to revitalise the character of Superman in one short film.  A highly recommend film to watch, this is one of the better Superman adaptations (live action or animated) I have ever seen.

Blood Trail by Tony Park

Blood Trail Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 384 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of Australia’s leading thriller authors, Tony Park, presents another clever and intense thriller set in the nature parks of Africa with his latest action-packed novel, Blood Trail.

Tony Park is a talented author who has written several amazing thriller novels over the years, all of which make use of a distinctive African setting with a focus on wildlife parks and poachers.  I have previously enjoyed three of his great books, Scent of Fear, Ghosts of the Past and Last Survivor, and his latest novel, Blood Trail, features another exceptional and exciting tale, which was an extremely fun and captivating read.

Life is always dangerous on the game preserves of South Africa, as poachers and opportunists are constantly looking for a way to make some serious money by harvesting endangered species.  In recent years, the counter-poaching patrols and police have made great strides in defending the critical wildlife, with the poachers aware that entering the reserves means death or imprisonment.  However, with South Africa severely impacted by COVID-19, more desperate locals are turning to poaching to survive, relying on the magic of their traditional medicine to protect them.

At the Lion Plains game reserve, something strange is happening.  While conducting a virtual safari, park guide and ace tracker Mia Greenway witnesses a poacher kill a rhino.  Chasing after him, Mia and her backup find no trace of him as his trail mysteriously disappears, with the killer appearing to have vanished into thin air.  At the same time, police captain Sannie van Rensburg, is called to investigate two missing local girls, who also disappeared in suspicious circumstances.  Sannie soon learns that the local populace fear that the girls have been killed and their bodies used as ingredients by a dark practitioner of traditional medicine.

When a young female tourist is kidnapped within the reserve, once again vanishing with no trail to follow, Mia and Sannie begin to realise that their cases are connected.  With the locals convinced that the poachers are using dark witchcraft to evade the police and the anti-poaching teams, all evidence suggests that the kidnapped girls are going to be killed and harvested.  However, something far more sinister is afoot, with a dark conspiracy working its way through the very heart of the game preserve.  Can Mia and Sannie uncover the truth before it is too late or will the poachers and their dangerous benefactors continue to bring terror and death to the wilds of Africa?

In Blood Trail, Park has included another intense and action-packed story that makes full use of the author’s love of all things Africa.  Set in a game reserve under siege, this multi-perspective story starts off fast, with a poacher on the loose and the trackers, led by the tenacious Mia attempting and failing to find him.  There is also an intriguing criminal case happening concurrently, as police detective Sannie attempts to find two missing girls.  Both central narrative threads are soon drawn together as Mia, Sannie and their colleagues work to solve the connected cases.  Park has come up with a very exciting, character-driven narrative here, and it honestly did not take me long to get really invested.  This book is loaded with some amazing action sequences, and the reader is treated to one electrifying scene after another as the protagonists face extreme opposition.  The overarching mystery surrounding the poachers and the missing girls is very good, and I loved the complex and clever story the author wraps around them, especially as it ties into various aspects of life in Africa and the game reserves.  The author makes sure to include a huge number of twists and reveals, especially towards the end of the novel, and while I was able to predict how a couple would go, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by some of the others, and I really enjoyed seeing how everything came together.  I also liked the huge range of intriguing characters featured throughout this book, and I really got invested in some of their stories, especially the two strong lead female protagonists, Mia and Sannie, who overcome a lot in this novel and go through some excellent development.  Blood Trail is set in the shared universe of Park’s other works, with characters from some of his prior novels and series either featured or mentioned.  Despite this, you really need no prior knowledge of these books, and Blood Trail is a very easy novel to get into.  This is an overall exceptional and thrilling narrative, and I found myself powering through the last half of this book in a day.

Easily the best things about Tony Park’s novels are his exceptional portrayals of the African wilderness and the amazing and insightful discussions about the troubles faced by game preserves.  Park, who has spent a significant amount of time in Africa and the game reserves, is clearly very passionate on the subject, and he injects all his novels with some gritty realism about the parks and the poachers who prey on them.  Blood Trail is a particularly good example of this, as a large amount of the narrative revolves around poaching on the park, the park’s anti-poaching detail and the local police who support them.  It is always incredibly interesting to learn about poaching and anti-poaching techniques and Park includes a lot of detail about both.  I found this to be extremely fascinating, and Blood Trail includes compelling detail about some of the modern techniques some of the parks potentially utilise, such as drones and even WhatsApp.  Park also weaves a particularly good story around poaching, and I loved all the thrilling sequences of poachers versus authorities that this fantastic novel contained.  You also have to love the outstanding and beautiful depictions of the African bush and the communities that serve as a backdrop for the story.  Park clearly puts all his personal experiences into these depictions, and his writing brings in a strong visual element.  I really enjoyed this use of setting, and it really sets Park’s novels apart from other contemporary thrillers.

In addition to the outstanding setting, Park also includes a deeply intriguing and fascinating examination of traditional African medicine and magic in Blood Trail, which becomes a very amazing and key part of the plot.  This traditional medicine, known as umuthi, is utilised by the South African people as protection from a variety of dangers, with the poachers, and even some protagonists, using it in the hope that it will stop bullets or impair their opponents.  This becomes a very interesting part of Blood Trail’s plot, as the characters encounter various unusual phenomenon, such as their targets vanishing without a trace or unexpected illnesses, which some blame on dark magic.  This proves to really fascinating, especially as Park keeps including several mysterious events or occurrences, and the reader is left wondering whether it is just a coincidence, a psychological ploy, or something more spiritual in nature.  I found this inclusion to be extremely intriguing, and I really appreciated the detailed and balanced examination that Park included in this book, as he goes out of his way to respectfully examine all the aspects of this traditional medicine, as well as the perceptions surrounding it.  Various characters of differing backgrounds are shown reacting to the idea of umuthi, including local Africans, foreigners, academics, and white South Africans, each of whom have differing opinions on the validity of the magic behind it.  I loved this fascinating range of views, which seems to accurately reflect the differing opinions you would find throughout South Africa, and there are some truly unique views and beliefs which Park has clearly researched.  The character of Mia proves to be a very intriguing inclusion here, as she is a white South African who was raised by black South African women, and was brought up to believe in umuthi and other traditional beliefs.  This results in some intriguing identity issues, as she and some of the other people who partake of umuthi attempt to work it around their modern perceptions or Christian teachings.  This unique and captivating examination of umuthi and other traditional beliefs was extremely interesting and I am very glad that Park took the time to include this in his latest novel.

Another extension of Blood Trail’s game reserve setting that I enjoyed was the tracking.  Several characters in the novel, particularly Mia, are trackers, who spend their days trailing animals and poachers through the bush.  As such, there are some fascinating scenes where these characters use their tracking skills to chase after the antagonists.  This proves to be extremely interesting, and Park ensures that his book features a lot of details about they various tracking techniques, and the counter techniques that poachers would use to try and avoid the trackers.  Not only is this a very captivating inclusion by Park but it also flows extremely well into the narrative, with the protagonists forced to question their abilities when the villains keep getting away.  The way in which the antagonists manage to avoid the trackers ends up being quite clever, especially as Park also includes some false leads to confuse the eventual reveal.  I deeply enjoyed this awesome look at the work the trackers do in the park, and it produces some really fantastic scenes.

The final inclusion that I found really compelling was Blood Trail’s examination of the impacts of COVID-19 on South Africa, and how it is driving people to poaching.  While I am sure that many people are getting sick of reading about COVID, even in thriller novels, I felt that Park did a really good job featuring it in Blood Trail.  Park paints a pretty grim scene surrounding the impacts that the pandemic is having in South Africa, with many side characters either out of work or negatively impacted by the government’s harsh lockdown rules, such as an alcohol ban.  This becomes quite a key theme of the novel, with the stress and loss of income impacting everyone and driving them to commit crime on the understaffed game reserves.  The author really dives into the unexpected impacts the global pandemic is having on the nature reserves, and it adds some complexity to the dark story.  Other featured aspects of COVID in South Africa are also pretty interesting, such as the increased roaming of certain animals, as well as the advent of virtual safaris, with streaming projects sharing the beauty of the wilds to a world in lockdown.  Overall, this examination of the impacts of COVID was very fascinating and topical, and Park did a fantastic job including it in his story.

The fantastically talented Tony Park once again shows why he is one of the best and most distinctive Australian thriller authors out there.  His latest novel, Blood Trail, contained an intense and compelling story that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling journey through the game reserves of Africa.  Filled with some amazing action and fantastic characters, Park makes full use of his powerful setting to craft a memorable and addictive narrative.  I loved all the unique elements that Blood Trail contained, and you are guaranteed an exceptional time if you check this awesome book out.

Throwback Thursday – Batman: Under the Red Hood

Under the Red Hood Cover

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film Eight

Director: Brandon Vietti

Writer: Judd Winick

Producers: Bruce Timm and Bobbie Page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday, I am going to keep following a recent trend of looking at animated movies and review Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Ever since I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War last year, I have been focusing a little more on one of my favourite forms of entertainment, animated films based on comic books.  Not only did I have a great time listing my favourite comic book based animated films and television shows, but I have also done some cool reviews for Batman: Soul of the Dragon and Batman: Assault on Arkham.  After I got some positive responses to my review for Assault on Arkham last week, I thought I would use this Throwback Thursday to highlight the incredibly awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood, which is probably my absolute favourite DC Comics inspired animated film.

Released in 2010, Under the Red Hood was an early entry in the DC Animated Originals Movies range, and it remains one of the best that they have ever done.  Directed by Brandon Vietti and written by Judd Winick, this film is an adaptation of the iconic Batman comics storyline Under the Hood, which was also written by Winick.  Not only does this film contain an excellent story that does an amazing job capturing the original comic but it also features an all-star voice cast and some excellent animation, resulting in a dark and exciting film that is also rich in emotion and tragedy.

Years ago, Batman suffered the greatest defeat in his entire crime-fighting career when the Joker did the unthinkable by brutally killing his sidekick, Jason Todd, the second Robin.  Despite this terrible loss, Batman left the Joker alive and continued his non-lethal mission for justice, fighting from the shadows to save Gotham City from its criminal element.

In the present, Gotham is controlled by the ruthless crime boss, Black Mask, who has managed to take over the entire criminal underworld.  But a new player in town, the mysterious Red Hood, is making moves to disrupt Black Mask’s interests and take control of the city.  With some incredible skills, brilliant manoeuvring and intense violence, Red Hood soon becomes a major thorn in Black Mask’s side, taking parts of the city from him.  At the same time, Red Hood has placed himself right in the path of Batman and his former sidekick, Nightwing, determined to test his abilities against those of the Dark Knight.

As Batman attempts to stop the latest wave of violence sweeping the city, he notices something disturbingly familiar about the Red Hood.  His skills and training are too familiar, and even more shocking, he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne.  With Black Mask on the warpath, the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul watching from the shadows, and the Joker always a menacing presence in Arkham, Batman gets closer to finding out the terrible truth about who Red Hood truly is.  But is he prepared for the darkness and tragedy he will find under the hood, or will the ghosts of his past finally push Batman over the edge?

Under the Red Hood is a dramatic, exciting, and overall tragic animated feature, which is brought together beautifully to produce an epic and powerful film, anchored by an exceptional narrative.  The film starts in a very dark place, with a malicious and hilarious Joker brutally killing Robin just before Batman can save him.  This perfectly sets the tone for the entire film, as the story advances to modern times and shows a new brutal crime war between the Black Mask and newcomer the Red Hood.  At the same time, Batman becomes embroiled in their war, when he interrupts a ploy by the Red Hood to steal an Amazo superweapon.  This leads to an action-packed middle section of the film, as Batman and Nightwing attempt to capture Red Hood, who is also dealing with assassins sent by Black Mask.  After several impressive fight sequences, Batman learns the shocking truth about Red Hood’s identity (which is as a tad obvious, even for those unfamiliar with the comics), resulting in some extreme drama, as Batman is forced to confront the dangerous ghosts of his past.  As Batman attempts to come to terms with his discovery, Red Hood forces his opponents to make some dramatic moves, which work into his plans.  What follows is a fantastically powerful and intense final act, as Batman confronts Red Hood and finds out the tragic and touching reasons behind his motivations.  What follows is emotional blow after emotional blow, as Batman, Red Hood and the Joker have their final confrontation.  The aftermath of this is absolutely heartbreaking and will leave you breathless and utterly moved: “This doesn’t change anything; this doesn’t change anything at all!”  This is an epic and exceptional narrative that I have so much love for.

Under the Red Hood serves as an exceptional adaptation of the Under the Hood Batman comic storyline, although as the film and the comic share the same writer, that’s pretty understandable.  This film does a great job fitting all the key points of the comic into its 75-minute runtime, and you get the full enjoyable story, as well as some useful backstory, especially around Jason Todd’s death.  This is mostly a pretty straight adaption, although there are a few noticeable changes designed to make the movie flow a little better.  I think these changes work extremely well, and Winick adds several great new scenes into this film that make for a different and, in some ways, better experience than the comic source material.  This is mainly because the Under the Hood comic was set amid several other ongoing Batman storylines, as well as the major crossover event, Infinite Crisis, which impacted Under the Hood’s overall narrative.  As it would have been too confusing to include some of these elements in the film, their removal resulted in a few notable changes.  While this did result in a few fun parts from the comics being removed, such as having the opponents in the Batman/Red Hood team-up fight change from members of the Secret Society of Supervillains, such as Captain Nazi and Count Vertigo, to a group of mechanised martial artists (it’s still a great fight though), some of the other changes worked really well.  I loved the alterations to the Joker’s story, as it was clever to have the Red Hood orchestrate Joker’s release to kidnap him.  It also results in some amazing scenes, including that great cell scene with Black Mask, and the fantastic scene with the truck on the bridge.

One disadvantage that I felt the film version had was that the big reveal over Red Hood’s identity is a lot less impactful.  When the Under the Hood comic first came out, it was a major revelation and there were some great surprise elements to it.  However, by the time the film came out, every comic fan knew who Red Hood really was, so that really cut down on the surprise factor of the reveal.  In addition, even if you were unfamiliar with the Under the Hood comic, the Jason Todd death scene at the start of the film ensured that most viewers would be easily able to figure out this twist as soon as the mysterious Red Hood appeared.  This was kind of unavoidable though, as the rest of the film wouldn’t have made sense without the establishing scene.  I did think that the reason behind Robin’s resurrection was handled a lot better in the film.  The original story, in which he is brought back to life due to Superboy-Prime punching a dimensional barrier, never really worked for me, so having it purely be the result of a Lazarus Pit resurrection was a lot neater and simpler (well, as simple as a magical resurrection pit can be).  Overall, I think that Under the Red Hood proved to be a really good adaption of the original comic, and in many ways I felt that in enhanced the source material while also compensating for the changed canons.

I am always deeply impressed by the fantastic and well-crafted animation of Under the Red Hood.  This entire film features a constant stream of beautiful and amazing sequences that are an absolute joy to behold.  The action is seamless throughout, and the creative team make sure to feature several sequences that show off the various skills of the main characters, while also bringing some iconic scenes from the comics to life.  I really must call out the two excellent extended chase sequences, as Red Hood flees from Batman and Nightwing.  These scenes are full of excitement and major moments, and the fantastic running sequences, equipped with all the players using their various gadgets and tricks, are so cool, and they are just animated perfectly.  However, these chase scenes pale in comparison to some of the epic fight sequences featured throughout the film.  While I do deeply enjoy the Amazo fight sequences at the start of the film, which expertly highlights the way Batman and Nightwing work together as a team, the best ones are the two fights involving Batman and Red Hood.  The first of these, which sees the two former partners team up against the anime-inspired team of assassins, the Fearsome Hand of Four, is so deeply cool, especially as the amazingly drawn martial arts techniques are beautifully paired with the over-the-top gadgets (one guy gets thrown through the air with explosives several times).  The animators save the best for last, with a brutal brawl between Batman and Red Hood near the end of the film.  This impressive and dramatic fight sequence is teased throughout the entire film, and when it goes down it does not disappoint.  The two heroes go to war with each other, each of them bringing lethal fighting abilities and an entire arsenal of toys and gadgets against each other for some incredible action.  The fight goes from the alley where the two first met, to the rooftops, all the way to a dilapidated apartment bathroom, where bodies are brutally thrown through fixtures and walls.  There is so much intensity in this sequence, and the animators outdid themselves bringing this major and spectacular fight to the screen.  You will be so impressed by this terrific animation.

You cannot talk about Under the Red Hood without out mentioning the incredible collection of characters and the outstanding voice cast that perfectly portrayed each of them.  Unsurprisingly for a Batman film, the cast is anchored by the Dark Knight himself, who is voiced by the talented Bruce Greenwood.  This is a great portrayal of Batman and the writer really captured the complexities of the veteran version of this superhero.  This Batman has been fighting crime for a very long time, and has been struck by tragedy after tragedy, especially the death of Jason Todd.  This comes into play throughout the film, and there are some major emotional moments, especially in the final climatic scene with the Red Hood.  Watching this film, it is impossible not to see Batman as a tragic figure, always destined to experience heartbreak and trauma as the result of his relentless crusade.  I did love the amazing animation featured around Batman’s various fight scenes, and it contrasts nicely with some of the other characters, such as Red Hood, with more of a focus on his experience and placing the right move at the right time.  I also really enjoyed Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Batman, who brings a gruff and determined depiction of the character which really works.  Greenwood delivers several great dialogue sequences which show the depth and complexity of this iconic character, and I had a fantastic time following him in this film.

Another major character is the character of Jason Todd/Red Hood (I would add a spoiler alert, but after all these years it’s kind of redundant), voiced by Jensen Ackles.  The Red Hood featured in this film is an amazing and outstanding version of the character, and you run the entire emotional gambit with him.  I loved the fantastic and clever introduction of the character, where he manages to take over a large criminal organisation with just a bag and a machine gun.  This evolves into a very fun game of cat and mouse between Red Hood and Batman, while he also works to take over from Black Mask.  The eventual reveal about Red Hood works extremely well: “You haven’t lost your touch, Bruce,” and I loved the various chase scenes between the two, as well as their joint fight sequence against the Fearsome Hand of Four.  All this perfectly leads up to the great final confrontation with Batman, with a big elaborate fight scene and that extremely dramatic sequence opposite Batman.  Ackles adds some real cockiness to the character, and his various interactions with the supporting characters are pretty funny and really fun.  However, it is his sequences with Batman that are the best, as Ackles adds all the appropriate drama of a murdered child when encountering his former mentor.  The revelation of Red Hood’s motive is deeply captivating, and the entire scene where he, Batman and the Joker are reunited is so very tense and powerful.  You also have to love how the final scene in the film features the younger version of Robin on his first night of crime-fighting, as his innocence and childlike joy at being a hero stands in such contrast to his eventual fate: “This is the best day of my life.”  This is an outstanding portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the DC canon.

I also really must highlight the incredible version of the Joker that is featured in this film, who is voiced by the always entertaining John DiMaggio.  This is a great interpretation of the Joker, and you get to see just how vicious and ruthless he can be.  I love how the writers and actor did a great job capturing his insane mentality when it comes to the Batman, especially as his greatest ambition is to drive Batman insane enough to kill him.  I was honestly surprised at how awesome John DiMaggio was in this role, especially as the purely evil Joker is very different from the comedic characters he is best known for portraying.  However, he brings some very excellent menace to this character, and while there are a lot of humorous undertones to his actions, the sheer insanity and joy he has at other people’s suffering is more than evident.  Joker has some incredible scenes throughout this movie, which DiMaggio really enhances with his unique take on the character.  The opening sequence in which he beats Jason Todd half to death with a crowbar is pretty dark, despite the constant jokes, and his later confrontation with Batman in Arkham really captures his overall insanity.  However, his best sequences occur later in the film.  The first of these is the cell scene with Black Mask, where he accepts a job offer in the most boss way possible (never hand the Joker a cup of any variety).  The follow sequence on the bridge, where he attempts to draw the Red Hood out with a truck, some guys and some gasoline is really great, especially when it is revealed that the Black Mask is also amongst his hostages.  However, DiMaggio shines best in the final sequence where Batman and Red Hood finally have their dramatic showdown with the Joker in the middle.  The Joker revels in all the drama and emotion in the room, especially when Red Hood attempts to force Batman to kill Joker: “This is turning out even better than I hoped!”  The final bit of the confrontation where Joker, realising that Red Hood’s bomb will kill them all, joyfully attempts stop Batman, “This is perfect…. I’m the only one who’s going to get what they want tonight,” really captures the character’s chaotic mentality and is a great conclusion to his story arc.

The other major character in the film is Nightwing, former Robin Dick Grayson, who is portrayed by the legendary Neil Patrick Harris.  Mostly featured in the first half of the film, Nightwing serves as the traditional sidekick role, bringing a lighter comedic role to the dynamic duo and playing off the ultra-serious Batman perfectly.  I loved the fantastic coordination in the action sequences between these two, and the animators do an outstanding job showing how their fighting styles complement each other and they instantly know what the other one is doing.  Harris’s voice work is great, hyping up the characters comedic, banter-laden fight style, and while it didn’t fit as well as some other versions of Nightwing I have seen, this was still a pretty epic bit of casting.

Aside from these above four main characters, I deeply appreciated Jason Issacs and Wade Williams as Ra’s al Ghul and Black Mask respectfully.  Issacs does an outstanding job bringing the enigmatic and ruthless al Ghul to life, and it was great to see the respect and personal code this version of the character has, especially once his actions result in Jason Todd’s death.  Williams’s unhinged version of Black Mask is also incredibly good, and I loved the ultra-anger he brings to the role, especially as he slowly becomes more and more targeted by Red Hood and Batman.  His reactions to the crazy antics of the other characters is pretty fun, and you’ve got to love the look on his face when he sees Red Hood targeting him with a giant rocket launcher.  I also want to call out Kelly Hu as Black Mask’s assistant, Ms Li, a gender-swapped version of the assistant character in the comic.  Ms Li serves a pretty cool counterpart to Black Mask and is a constant calm presence in his chaotic administration, barely batting an eye at any of his angry or violent outbursts.  These great supporting characters compliment the main cast perfectly, and I felt the film’s entire collection of characters and actors helped to turn Under the Red Hood into something incredibly special.

While there have been some incredible DC animated movies out there, none have eclipsed the exceptional and awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood.  Featuring an impressive adaption of an iconic and cool comic story arc, this amazing film contains a fantastic narrative loaded with action, excitement, and intensity, as the characters engage in a dramatic and tragic battle.  With a perfect voice cast and some outstanding animation, Under the Red Hood is a must-watch animated film that I have seen and deeply enjoyed so many times.  An easy five-star watch that is highly recommended; if you love Batman, you need to see this film.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Throwback Thursday: Batman: Assault on Arkham

Assault on Arkham Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 20

Director: Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding

Writer: Heath Corson

Producer: James Tucker

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I go back and check out one of the more intriguing DC animated movies, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

As I mentioned in a recent Top Ten Tuesday, I have been in a DC mood ever since I saw The Suicide Squad on the weekend, which was easily the best film focusing on the titular Suicide Squad.  While people only familiar with the live-action films might think that this is a low bar, those who know about the awesome catalogue of DC Comics animated films will know that there are several awesome and outstanding films that perfectly capture the feel and tone of the supervillain team and are pretty fun to watch.  Therefore, this week I will look at one of these great animated films, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

Assault on Arkham is an amazing and fantastic film that came out in 2014 and is set in the same universe as the Arkham video game franchise (set between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum).  Directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding, written by Heath Corson and produced by James Tucker, this was a memorable and fun DC Universe Animated Original Movie, which contains some of the best comic book based animated films out there.  Despite the name, Assault on Arkham is really a Suicide Squad movie, with Batman strongly featured but acting more as a side character.  This was an excellent and impressive film, which makes use of a darker tone and more adult animation to create a fitting Suicide Squad experience.  Heck, this was a much better Suicide Squad movie than the 2016 live-action film as it embraced the team’s darker side and their propensity for violence, while also featuring an impressive and clever story.

Two years before the Joker took over Arkham Asylum, the Clown Prince of Crime terrorises Gotham City, this time by threatening it with a dirty bomb.  With the Joker locked up in Arkham Asylum and refusing to talk, Batman stalks the streets of Gotham, searching for those who helped him.  His mission leads him to save the Riddler from a black-ops team of soldiers, sent by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller.  With Riddler now locked up in Arkham Asylum, Waller assembles the one force capable of breaching Arkham’s walls to find him and the information she desires, Task Force X.

Task Force X, also known as the Suicide Squad, is made up of some of the most deadly and skilled villains in the world, each of whom have been forcibly drafted onto the team and offered reduced sentences if they complete their mission.  Recruiting a team made up of Floyd Lawton (Deadshot), Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn), George Harkness (Captain Boomerang), Eric Needham (Black Spider), Nanaue (King Shark) and Louise Lincoln (Killer Frost), Waller sends them into Arkham with bombs implanted in their necks.

Forced to work together despite their innate distrust and dislike of each other, the Suicide Squad arrive in Gotham and make their plans to infiltrate the asylum.  However, it doesn’t take long for petty rivalries, massive manipulations, and dangerous outside influences to put all their schemes in disarray.  Working their way through the most dangerous place on the planet, the Squad soon learns a deadly secret that will change everything and set them on a bold new path.  But with Batman wise to their presence, can the Squad achieve their goals and make their escape, or will they find themselves locked up in Arkham instead.  Worse, someone far more dangerous is stalking the halls of the asylum, someone with an insane sense of humour and a desire to claim back what is his.  The Joker is loose, and he wants to play!

This is an awesome film that really does the chaotic and dangerous Suicide Squad justice.  Featuring an excellent story and serving as a clever adaption of the Suicide Squad comics and other pieces of media, this is an extremely fun movie.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast, some great interpretations of iconic characters, and some powerful animated sequences, and you have a great and impressive movie that I have long been a fan of.

At the heart of this great movie is a very compelling and exciting narrative that takes its various characters on a wild and dangerous ride to hell in back.  Assault on Arkham starts off with an excellent scene, which sees Riddler being attacked by Waller’s goons, only to be rescued by Batman in an intense and brutal fight sequence.  This then leads into an entertaining introductory sequence for the various members of the squad, with a fun reel of shots with no dialogue showing each member of the Squad showing off some of their skills before getting captured by various law enforcement groups.  These dark and sometimes gruesome introductory scenes really set the tone for the entire movie, while also providing great summaries of each of the main characters.  What follows is a fun and captivating character-driven tale as the members of the Squad arrive in Gotham and make their play to break into Arkham.  There are some fantastic clashes of personality and deep personal moments in this early part of the film, as the team initially comes together, despite their crazy differences.  This leads to an intriguing central part of the film, where the characters begin their assault on the asylum, performing a reverse prison break.  After some great scenes, the team are at large in the asylum, which leads to even more chaos, destruction, and big fight moments.  All of this leads to an explosive and dangerous final act, as the characters need to escape while being pursued by Batman and the Joker.  Caught between these extremely dangerous forces, the fractured Squad attempts to escape, facing some major defining obstacles which really bring the entire film together.  I loved the fantastic and darker story that this film featured, and the writing team did an excellent job combining brutality, humour, character development and pure craziness into one enthralling tale.  There are so many fun and thrilling moments to this outstanding film, and viewers will found themselves really getting drawn into the cool story.

The animation in Assault on Arkham is very impressive, and the creative team behind it did a great job bringing the various characters to life and placing them in some outstanding action sequences.  The movement and action in this film is pretty damn seamless, and you are in for some very fast-paced scenes that look pretty superb, especially as they feature a great mixture of lighting and multiple unique characters.  Highlights include the opening shadowy encounter between Batman and the special forces soldiers, the massive fight between Batman and the entire Suicide Squad, and the final two confrontations that occur after a big helicopter crash.  I loved the cool character designs of the various characters, especially as they mix some new looks with classic drawings.  I also felt that the creative team combined this cool animation with the excellent musical score well, and the various tunes really helped to set the scene.  There is something very dark, bloody, and adult about the designs in the film, and the end result is definitely not a kid’s cartoon.

Part of the design that I really enjoyed was the way in which the creative team attempted to emulate the style from the fantastic Batman: Arkham video games.  This film serves as a canon entry between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum, and the team did a great job capturing the cool style and themes that the games are famous for.  This is particularly seen in the various scenes featuring Batman, the playable character of the games, and you get to see him whip out the various gadgets and viewscreens that appeared in the games.  I particularly enjoyed the opening scene where Batman takes out a squad of soldiers in much the same way that a player would in the games, from the flips to the use of a batline.  There are also several references to the games throughout the film, from a character trying to hide in a vent, to the layout of Arkham Asylum, where you spend significant time in the first film.  Despite all these references, this film can easily be enjoyed by comic fans who have not played the video games.  Assault on Arkham is very much framed as a standalone film, and no matter your familiarity with Batman or the Arkham games, you will have a fun time watching this movie.

As I have mentioned above, this awesome film contained a really impressive and memorable take on the Suicide Squad, producing a truly great movie.  Part of this is the choice of team, as it features a compelling blend of characters that are inspired by the team first introduced in the New 52 range.  Anchored by team leader Deadshot and wildcard Harley Quinn, it also features long-time Suicide Squad member Captain Boomerang, as well as a fantastic combination of Black Spider, King Shark and Killer Frost.  While the team structure is similar to the team in the first live-action film, Assault on Arkham actually predates this film by a couple of years, and also utilises them a lot better, really showing off some more complex aspects of their personality, mainly thanks to the excellent voice cast.  This animated film also takes itself a lot less seriously than the first live-action film did, and is less afraid to show blood, sex and death.  While some of this is a tad over the top (some of the female characters are way too sexualised), I really wish that the subsequent live-action film had taken some cues from how successful this animated feature was, as that would have resulted in a much better experience.

Easily the best part of this film is the amazing characters and sensational voice cast, which really help to make it stand out.  While it does feature a lot of Batman and Joker, the main characters of this film are the Suicide Squad.  The most prominent is team leader an assassin extraordinaire, Deadshot.  Voiced by the talented Neal McDonough, a man who has voiced quite a few villains in his day, this version of Deadshot is near perfect, and contains a lot of elements from the comics that the live-action version was lacking.  While the overriding love for his daughter is still there, this version of Deadshot is a lot colder and a lot quicker on the trigger, happily massacring everyone who gets in his way.  McDonough really captures the character’s menace, killer instinct, and determination, and this Deadshot serves as the tough and often exasperated leader of the Squad.  I loved that they captured Deadshot’s crazier side (he has a massive death wish in the comics), especially as this leads to one of the best scenes in the entire film: “Mate, you just out-crazied the Joker”.  It was also cool that Deadshot had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire film, ending Assault on Arkham on a very entertaining and memorable note, that showed that the character was a man of his word: “Bang!”

This film also features an amazing version of iconic character Harley Quinn.  Before Margot Robbie and Kaley Cuoco put their spins on the character, veteran voice actor Hynden Walch provided her impressive voice to Harley, resulting in a fantastic and crazed female-lead.  Walch, who is probably best known for voicing Starfire in Teen Titans or Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, does an excellent job going a little darker with this character, producing some excellent scenes of madness and humour as Harley manages to annoy the other characters while cracking up the audience.  I loved the introduction that this character had, biting off an ear in a halfway house with Looney Tunes music playing (it’s weird, but it works).  Harley proves to be quite conflicted in this film as she finds herself stuck between her abusive ex, the Joker, and her new love interest, Deadshot (all I am going to say about the later relationship is “Yahtzee!”).  While this starts off with a very concerted attempt to kill the Joker, Harley is eventually drawn back to him, which is kind of heartbreaking.  There is some of the typical abusive relationship stuff that comes out with Harley, as she blames everyone but Joker for her problems.  This was a great portrayal of this fantastic and complex character, and I was very happy that Walch came back to portray Harley in other films such as Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Other great members of the Squad include Captain Boomerang, voiced by Greg Ellis.  Boomerang acts as the Squad’s comic relief, and I liked the uncaring and selfish attitude that is such a feature of the character in the original Suicide Squad comics.  Ellis really brings out the character’s smarmy and arrogant side, and I loved the amusing rivalry he formed with Deadshot, which results in a brilliant game of darts.  This movie also features the outstanding Gincarlo Esposito in the role of Black Spider, a murderous vigilante who is less than pleased at being lumped in with a group of supervillains.  Esposito brings some real gravitas to the character, and he proves to be a skilled and fun member of the team, and his inclusion results in a pretty major fake-out.  The hilarious John DiMaggio does a great King Shark in this film, and I loved the somewhat more human design of the monster and his funny dim-witted mentality.  Despite being a source of some humour, King Shark is a brutal killer, which is very much shown in his introduction where he emerges from a bathtub full of blood.  Finally, the brilliant Jennifer Hale portrays a fantastic Killer Frost (not surprising, considering she’s voiced the character in nearly every film or animated television appearance).  This version of Frost is pretty cold-blooded and proves to be a murderous addition to the team.  I liked the fun friendship that she forms with King Shark, and they prove to be a great duo.

While the Suicide Squad takes most of the film’s focus, Batman is featured pretty extensively in this film, which is really cool.  I personally was overjoyed that they got the iconic voice of Kevin Conroy for the character, and this amazing actor reprises his role from the various animated series and the Arkham games.  Batman is mostly on the outside of the story for the first half of the film, only becoming involved when the Squad enters the asylum, but once he gets involved, the results are pretty damn awesome.  This version of the character perfectly highlights the various aspects of Batman, as he kicks ass, intimates everyone he meets, outsmarts his foes, and utilises his amazing detective skills to make some big assumptions.  Featuring Batman as a side-character in his own film was an interesting choice, but it is one that really works, and it was great to see him attempt to work out the various ploys of the Squad, Waller, and the Joker.  Conroy’s voice work is of course, perfect, which isn’t surprisingly considering all the times he’s portrayed the character.  Another excellent inclusion of the legendary hero.

While most of the cast of Assault on Arkham are villains, the one that sticks out the most is the master of anarchy, the Joker.  Voiced by Troy Baker, who reprises his role from Arkham Origins, Joker really stands out as a character, which honestly isn’t that surprising.  Joker escapes his cell and starts causing chaos all over the asylum, coming into conflict with both the Squad and Batman.  This version of the Joker is the usual awesome mix of scary insanity and corny humour, and the character has several hilarious scenes throughout the film, including one of the best lines: “Denzel, what have they done to you?”  I also enjoyed the new rivalry he forms with Deadshot, as he shows some uncharacteristic jealousy over the fact that Harley has moved on.  This leads to a brutal brawl in the film’s conclusion, which is a major highlight.  Baker, who would go on to voice the Joker in several other animated features, does a pretty good job in Assault on Arkham, and does well at replicating Mark Hamill’s take on the character.  This results in an excellent villain, and I loved seeing the insane Arkham version of the character once more.

The final character I really want to highlight controls Task Force X, Amanda “the Wall” Waller.  Voiced by the incredible CCH Pounder, the definitive voice actor for the character (she is so good in Justice League Unlimited), this manipulative bureaucrat is in many ways the true villain of Assault on Arkham, turning everyone against each other to get what she wants.   She has an excellent introduction, where she manages to outsmart the Riddler, while also giving a fantastic line about riddles: “I have Google, like the rest of the world!”  From there, she proves to be a consistent badass, dragging the ruthless killers together into her Suicide Squad, bending them to her will, and then unleashing them upon the world.  Despite her plans not going as well as she hoped, Waller still manages to have a great run in Assault on Arkham, and Pounder really dives into the character’s manipulative nature and inner anger: “No one screws the Wall!”  She also has a pretty badass stare-down with Batman, actually managing to win their confrontation.  This character has a pretty amazing final moment in the film, especially as it wraps up her entire arc with Deadshot in one fantastic word.  Overall, Pounder rounds out the awesome central voice cast perfectly, and it was an absolute treat to see their performance come together.

Batman: Assault on Arkham is a fantastic and memorable animated film that is so much fun to watch.  Serving as the definitive and best film about the Suicide Squad for years, Assault on Arkham makes full use of its intense and exciting story, its brilliant design and exceptional cast and characters.  I deeply enjoy this amazing film and I have watched it multiple times ever since it was released.  A highly recommended watch, especially if, like me, you loved the latest Suicide Squad movie and want some more crazy, villain-led chaos and destruction.