Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

Dark Blade by Steve Feasey

Dark Blade Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Whispers of the Gods – Book 1

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For those readers looking for a cool new young adult fantasy series to check out, look no further than Dark Blade, the first book in Steve Feasey’s Whispers of the Gods series.

The gods have abandoned the land, monsters are starting to return, war is afoot and in the darkness of the Void, an ancient evil begins to stir, eager to return to the mortal world.

Into all this, a young boy, Lann, is born. Left as a foundling and with no knowledge of his past, Lann lives a normal life as a farmer’s son until destiny suddenly finds him on the eve of his 14th birthday. Barely surviving an attack from a vicious monster, Lann is left blinded and is taken in by Fleya, a powerful witch with knowledge of his past. While Lann learns to cope with his blindness, dangerous events are unfolding in the land.

In Stromgard, a young and bitter member of the royal family, Kelewulf, has utilised dangerous magic to bind a powerful lich to his body. Together, the young sorcerer and his new undead shadow plan to open a gateway to the void and release a powerful dark god imprisoned there. After murdering the king and framing his son for his death, Kelewulf begins to implement his evil plans unopposed, while the king’s young daughter, Astrid, is forced to take the throne in an attempt to save her brother’s life,

The only hope for the world may be Lann, who awakens one night to find one of the ancient gods in his room. In exchange for the return of his sight, all Lann has to do is take up the Dreadblade, a powerful and ancient blade with a dark history. As the Dreadblade’s wielder, Lann becomes a deadly warrior compelled to hunt down the monsters that roam the land. However, the Dreadblade is a sentient item with its own destructive objectives. Can Lann learn to wield the sword before it is too late, or will an ancient evil once again be let loose?

This is a fantastic new book from established young adult author Steve Feasey. Feasey has been writing for around 10 years, creating two intriguing young adult series. These include the Changeling series, which follows the adventures of a young teen werewolf, and the Mutant City books, which focus on a group of super-powered mutants in a dystopian future. His latest book, Dark Blade, is the first novel in his Whispers of the Gods series, which focuses on a new young protagonist in an original fantasy world.

This was a really fun and enjoyable young adult fantasy book that does a wonderful job setting up a new series with some real potential. Feasey has come up with some really interesting ideas for his fantasy world, populating a Norse-inspired landscape with deadly creatures, fading gods, powerful magic and intense adventures. This book is incredibly fast paced, jumping from intriguing scene to intriguing scene exceedingly fast while maintaining the overall integrity of the story. The story goes in some interesting directions, and Feasey does a good job introducing several enjoyable major characters, including a ruthless villain and a great female protagonist in Astrid. On top of that, there are some amazing action sequences, especially surrounding the main character as he and his magic sword face off against a variety of monsters.

While the overall story is filled with some interesting twists and some creative story developments, the Dark Blade does utilise a number of classical or general adventure tropes. The story of a young orphaned hero who discovers that he has a secret destiny and is gifted a weapon of immense powers (SPOILERS: which used to belong to his father) and who finds a wise mentor to guide him in the first book are all pretty familiar story ideas. However, Feasey uses them to great effect and they help enhance his overall story and help make his book feel more like a young adult version of an old school epic fantasy. The author also makes some amazing changes to the classic storylines, such as granting the sword a malevolent and dominating sentience that attempts to manipulate the protagonist into destroying evil, no matter the cost. Lann’s struggles to control to the sword and stop its attempts to influence him make for some intriguing scenes, and I loved one sequence that sees the Dreadblade go to some extreme lengths to achieve its goals.

Dark Blade is a really fun read that is mostly aimed towards a younger audience. Containing a number of intense battle sequences and scenes of magical devastation, this novel is probably best suited to younger teen or pre-teen readers, who will love the fun adventure contained within this book. This first entry in the Whispers of the Gods series would actually serve as an excellent introduction to the fantasy genre for young readers, who will really enjoy the great combination of action, clever story and interesting fantasy elements.

Overall, this is a compelling and exciting novel that does a wonderful job setting up an intriguing series. Dark Blade has a number of great elements, including an enjoyable, fast-paced story and some inventive modernisation of classic fantasy features, all of which make for a cool read that younger readers in particular will find enjoyable. The Whispers of the Gods series is off to a fine start, and I look forward to seeing how Feasey expands his story in the future.

DEV1AT3 by Jay Kristoff

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Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 17 June 2019)

Series: LIFEL1K3 – Book 2

Length: 423 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the most prolific young adult fiction authors, Jay Kristoff, comes the follow up to his electrifying 2018 smash-hit LIFEL1K3, DEV1AT3.

Over the last few years, Australian author Jay Kristoff has been one of the leading contributors to young adult fiction, writing several bestselling series. His works include The Lotus War series, the highly regarded The Nevernight Chronicles, and The Illuminae Files, which he co-wrote with fellow Australian Amie Kaufman. DEV1AT3 is actually the second of three Kristoff books being released this year, as he has already released the first book in his second collaborative series with Kaufman, Aurora Rising. Darkdawn, the third and final book in The Nevernight Chronicles, is set to be released in early September.

People who keep an eye on my blog may have noticed that I did a short review of DEV1AT3 a few weeks ago in a Canberra Weekly column. I have been meaning to write up an extended review of the book for a while now, as it was quite an enjoyable book with a lot of cool features. DEV1AT3 follows on from the incredibly popular first book, LIFEL1K3. The LIFEL1K3 series follows the adventures of four young friends in the dangerous post-apocalyptic remains of America, now controlled by rival mega-companies and gangs of religious fanatics.

DEV1AT3 is set in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic conclusion of LIFEL1K3, when the protagonist of the first book, Eve, found out the terrible truth of her origin: she is secretly a lifelike, an android who can ignore the Three Laws of Robotics. Worse, she is actually a replica of Ana Monrova, the daughter of the creator of the lifelikes, Nicholas Monrova, whose creations rebelled against him and killed his entire family. With the realisation that everything she has ever known is a lie, Eve begins to plot with the murderous Gabriel and the other lifelikes to find the comatose body of Ana. While Eve simply wants to kill the woman whose life she is imitating; the other lifelikes will use Ana’s body to unlock Monrova’s secrets in order to start a robot revolution.

Out in the post-apocalyptic wastelands surrounding Babel, Eve’s friends, Lemon Fresh, Ezekiel and Cricket, have seen better days. Not only were each of them forced to abandon Eve for different reasons but they must all face their individual consequence of the events that occurred within Babel. When unexpected events force them to separate, each of these friends find themselves in a whole world of trouble.

Lemon Fresh’s status as a deviate, a genetic mutant with the ability to manipulate electricity, has always landed her in trouble, but now she finds herself the ultimate pawn in a war between two of the major corporations that rule the land. Kidnapped by an agent of BioMaas Incorporated, Lemon eventually finds herself falling in with a band of fellow deviate teenagers, each with their own unique abilities, and whose leader, the Major, may hold the secrets to her past.

At the same time, the logika Cricket is stolen and sold to the Brotherhood, a group of religious fanatics determined to destroy every android, deviate and genetically modified being they can find. As the Brotherhood edges closer to a war with the Major’s deviates, Cricket is forced to fight as a robot gladiator while learning the dark secrets at the heart of the cult. Meanwhile, Ezekiel, the one lifelike with any love for humanity, teams up with an old enemy in order to track down Lemon Fresh and Cricket. However, when Ezekiel’s mission leads him into the path of Eve and his other lifelike brothers and sisters, he attempts to find a way to stop their destructive crusade and save his beloved Ana.

This was a fantastic piece of young adult fiction that does a wonderful job of following up the first book in the series. Kristoff tells an exciting story which not only continues the plot lines of the first book but which also takes the characters in some intriguing new directions. However, despite some differences in plot focus, the book continues to feature the cool allusions to other works of fiction that made the first book such a treat to read, and it continues to explore aspects of this intriguing post-apocalyptic setting. Readers who did not get the chance to read the first book, LIFEL1K3, last year will easily be able to start by reading DEV1AT3. Not only is the story quite accessible but it also starts off with an extremely detailed summary of the events and characters from the first book, which allows anyone to fully catch up with where the plot is.

One of the most interesting changes between this book and LIFEL1K3 is that the protagonist of the first book, Eve, is instead cast as an antagonist, and we end up seeing very little of the book’s plot from her point of view. Instead, the plot of DEV1AT3 is mostly split between the three perspectives of Lemon Fresh, Cricket and Ezekiel, who each have their own unique storylines. Each of these storylines is noticeably different, with all three of them making use of some unique features to help create an intriguing and emotionally strong story. The reader gets a real feel for all three of these point-of-view characters throughout the course of their individual plots, and several intriguing new side-characters are introduced. These separate storylines come together to form one amazing overall narrative, which ends with an amazing cliff-hanger for each of the main characters that will ensure readers will have to check out the final book in this series when it comes out.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the LIFEL1K3 series is that each of the books is marketed as a crazy mash-up of several different works of fiction. For example, the first book in the series had a real Alita Battle Angel crossed with Mad Max and Blade Runner vibe to it. Many of the references to the plots of various other media titles that were started in the first book are continued in DEV1AT3. For example, the whole Mad Max vibe of life in the wasteland is actually really enhanced in this book, as the vast majority of the story is spent out in the nuclear wastes and smaller outposts that make up the ruins of America, with a number of crazy car chases in souped-up doomsday vehicles featured throughout. We also get a deeper look at the whole Bladerunner aspect of the story, as Eve comes to terms with actually being a lifelike and attempts to get revenge for her creation.

In this second book, Kristoff’s plot also makes allusions to several other pieces of fiction in the three various storylines. For example, Lemon Fresh’s storyline is an interesting post-apocalyptic take on the X-Men, with the super-powered teen finding kinship with a group of similarly gifted individuals in a world that hates and fears them. The new deviates introduced in this storyline have a pretty cool range of powers, have all been attacked because of their abilities and even have a wise old mentor character in the Major. The various twists associated with this storyline are really clever, and it was interesting to see more deviates aside from Lemon. Ezekiel also has a great storyline within DEV1AT3. While much of his story is still tied up with his feelings for Eve, the lifelike copy of the woman he loves, and all the Bladerunner-esque emotions and thoughts he and his lifelike family experienced in the first book, Kristoff adds a fun new element to his storyline in this book. For much of his storyline, Ezekiel actually teams up with Preacher, the cyborg bounty hunter who was an antagonist of the first book. This is a very fun team-up, and it harkens back to a lot of classic odd-couple crime movies, with the two having a very rocky relationship that kind of improves as the story goes along.

I personally liked Cricket’s storyline the most. Cricket is a logika, a sentient robot who must obey the Three Laws of Robotics. Cricket, who was previously a small assistant robot, had his personality transferred into a massive combat robot in the last book. However, he is kidnapped by members of the Brotherhood, the insidious religious group fighting against Lemon Fresh’s new deviate brethren. Cricket, who has to obey all the orders given to him by the Brotherhood due to the Three Laws of Robotics, is forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial combats. This storyline gives the reader the best insight into the ranks of the Brotherhood, and Cricket uncovers certain secrets while working for them. With the whole Three Laws aspect, this storyline is obviously very reminiscent of the science fiction classic I, Robot; however, Kristoff comes up with some humorous takes on the Three Laws. Thanks to the assistance of the snarky logika Solomon (who I found to be one of the funniest characters in DEV1AT3), Cricket starts to learn how to utilise the loopholes in people’s statements, so he has a degree of freedom and he also makes use of a simple solution to counteract one of the laws, which was pretty funny. All of these references to these established pieces of fiction are great, and I really liked how the author adapted them to fit his compelling young adult story. I especially enjoyed seeing some complex science fiction ideas, such as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, explained to a younger audience, with some cool tweaks to make a more entertaining and modern story.

In addition to fun story and clever references to other works, one of the most interesting things about the LIFEL1K3 series is the cool post-apocalyptic setting that the author has come up with. The nuclear ruins of America always makes for an intriguing setting for a story, and I really enjoyed the cool combination that Kristoff makes in this series with savage nuclear wasteland and high-tech cities. The sheer amount of creativity that Kristoff utilises for the setting is really impressive, as this book alone features wars between rival corporations, desert-dwelling religious nuts, mutants, rebelling androids, bandits and mutated monsters. All of these are utilised extremely well in the story, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects of this broken world become apparent in the next instalment of this series.

DEV1AT3 is another wild ride from Jay Kristoff that I had a lot of fun reading. Featuring an excellent story that makes great use of references to some classic pieces of science fiction and fantasy, DEV1AT3 is a fantastic read that refuses to slow down for everything. This is a highly recommended read for the older young adult market, and it will also appeal to older readers. I am extremely curious to see where Kristoff takes this story next and look forward to another electrifying adventure in this mad-cap world.

Knight of Stars by Tom Lloyd

Knight of Stars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Hardcover – 27 June 2019)

Series: The God Fragments – Book 3

Length: 440 pages 

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lynx, Toil and the rest of the Cards are back for another rip-roaring fantasy adventure, as the “heroes” of Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragment series prepare to bring all manner of violence and chaos to another unsuspecting corner of their fantasy world.

Knight of Stars is the third book in The God Fragments series, which follows the adventures of Anatin’s Mercenary Deck, a band of skilled mercenaries otherwise known as the Cards, whose adventures have caused havoc across the Riven Kingdom. The Cards are so called as each member of the band are given a card number or description based on a fictional deck of cards from this universe, which corresponds to their rank within the band. This is the third series from Lloyd, who has previously written the Twilight Reign and The Empire of a Hundred Houses series. The God Fragments series has so far consisted of Stranger of the Tempest in 2016 and Princess of Blood in 2017, with each of the book titles referring to the rank one of that particular novel’s major or most significant character.

In this third book, the Cards are celebrating after surviving and getting paid for their previous adventures in the Labyrinth under the city of Jarrazir. However, their last adventure had unexpected side effects as several of the band have also been magically marked by the powerful Dugar artefact they discovered in the Labyrinth. Not only have these marks magically bound many of the Cards together but they have also had unexpected effects on the Deck’s mages, who have found their magical abilities greatly increased.

The Deck’s employer, the dangerous relic hunter and intelligence officer Toil, has found them a relatively simple job in the distant Mage Islands to take over the holdings of a defaulting gang for a powerful bank. With the prospect of good food, sun, booze, bar fights and the chance to let loose in combat, the Cards are treating it like a holiday, especially as it moves them out of reach of several powerful enemies they have recently made. While Toil seeks out allies and resources for her patron city, the company’s mages attempt to research the magical consequences of their time in the Labyrinth.

However, no mission for the Cards ever goes as planned, and the Mage Islands are a very dangerous place to visit. Between the rival mage guilds, the various gangs and the thousands of giant serpentine tsyarn that surround the city, any miss-step could lead to disaster, and none of the Cards are known for treading lightly, especially as their number includes an infamous exile from the Mage Islands who has left many enemies behind. Unsurprisingly, the members of the Deck soon find themselves in conflict with many powerful members of the Mage Islands’ hierarchy. However, the real trouble comes when several of the Cards accidently awaken something dangerous that dwells beneath the islands.

I was initially drawn to Knight of Stars by the cool plot synopsis, but I found the first 50 or so pages, which detailed the actual journey to the Mage Islands, to be very slow and a little hard to follow. This may have been partly because this was my first time exploring The God Fragment series; I have not had the pleasure of reading the first two books in the series. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come to grips with the story and the large number of returning characters who were featured in the opening pages of the book. While the summary at the start of the book does a great job of detailing the major points of the adventures that occurred in the previous books in the series, this summary only focuses on a few of the main characters. This means that new readers will not have a good basis for several of the important side characters and may struggle to work out who they are. After getting deeper into the book I was eventually able to come to grips with all of the characters, especially as more details about them were released; however, it was easy to become lost when trying to figure out who was who to begin with. It also didn’t help that the real action and intrigue didn’t really start until the characters got to the Mage Islands, as before that they are mostly stuck talking on a couple of barges. There is a brief fight with some elementals, although what they were and the reason for their presence was a bit unclear in my opinion. While I am glad that I continued past it and enjoyed the rest of story, the first part of the book might not be able to hold some new readers’ interest.

While this is not the most ideal start to the book, those readers who persevere will find that Lloyd has created an excellent and highly entertaining novel. The author has done a wonderful job of taking his band of rogues to a deadly new location within his fantasy universe and the allowing them to run wild, resulting in all manner of chaos. The overall story becomes extremely compelling the deeper you get into it, and the last 150-odd pages are pretty darn epic, featuring some big moments with some significant stakes for the protagonists. All of this results in a very enjoyable story, and I ended up have an absolute blast reading this book.

One of the main things that I liked about this book that was the non-stop fantasy action featured within it. It is obvious that Lloyd has a real talent for writing exciting combat sequences, which he uses to his full advantage by featuring a huge number of electrifying fight scenes throughout the course of his book. Many of these amazing scenes feature elements of the unique magical system that Lloyd has created for The God Fragments series, and I particularly liked the mage-guns that were a major feature of the action. Mage-guns are specialised weapons which all the Cards are armed with that fire various magical rounds of ammo to great effect. This includes electrical blast, ice shots, blasts of flame and devastating earth based shots designed to smash buildings and the ground. The author does an amazing job showcasing these unique weapons and the tactics behind them throughout the book, and they really add a whole new element to the combat sequences. While the combat for the first three quarters of the story is really cool, the fight between the Cards and the major opponents that they encounter in the last part of the book are extremely impressive and very ambitious. I would therefore heartily recommend Knight of Stars to those readers who are looking for a good piece of fantasy action, as it is an amazing feature of this book.

On top of the awesome action, the Cards of the Mercenary Deck are pretty fun. I really liked how Lloyd decided to set a story around a group of rough, fun-loving group of frankly oversexed mercenaries, as it makes for a very amusing tale. The story is told from the perspective of several members of the group, including Lynx, the original protagonist of the series; Toil, the secret agent who is funding the group; and Sitain, one of the group’s three mages. The Cards are a fun group of protagonists, most of whom have seen or done too much violence, so they now see the world through a rather cynical viewpoint. Their love for life is quite infectious, and they make for an entertaining group of narrators, with their rude and crude attitudes often coming to the fore. The Cards also have a very unique way of dealing with problems, and it is always fun to follow a group whose master plan involves starting a particularly violent bar fight. Several of the characters have interesting story arcs within this book, especially Teshen, the titular Knight of Stars, who returns to the Mage Islands to face the demons of his past. There are a couple of major developments for some of the characters in this book, and readers should be careful about some upcoming heartbreak. This is a wonderful group of characters, and I really enjoyed seeing how their story progressed in this book.

The location for this latest book, the Mage Islands, is a really cool setting for this action-packed story. The Mage Islands is a brand-new setting, located some distance away from where any of the previous books were set. The Mage Islands is home to a ramshackle city of canals, slums, lagoons and giant sloths as pack animals, and is a great backdrop for all the action and criminal activity that occurs throughout the book. Lloyd does an excellent job of portraying a hot, tropical location filled with all manner of dangers, criminals and pests. However, rather than the usual vast number of tropical bugs and insects, the city is surrounded by a huge swarm of giant monsters, the tsyarn (the monster on the cover). As you can probably guess from the name, the city is also home to a massive population of mages, and the Cards find themselves drawn into a conflict between some of the rival mage guilds. Overall, this was a fantastic location for this enjoyable story, and I look forward to seeing where the Cards end up next.

Knight of Stars is an exciting and captivating third instalment in Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragments series. While I did initially struggle to get into the story, once I stuck with it, I was able to enjoy its compelling plot, amazing action, great characters and excellent new location. This book is worth checking out, and I look forward to reading Lloyd’s future instalments in this series.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Treason Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 25 July 2019)

Series: Thrawn – Book 3

Length: 333 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars extended universe novels, Timothy Zahn, returns with a third incredible book in his outstanding Thrawn series, Treason, which features the final adventure of his most iconic protagonist, Grand Admiral Thrawn, before his last appearance in Star Wars: Rebels.

While the new Disney Star Wars extended universe has produced some truly exceptional entries in the last couple years, the Thrawn series of books has been a real bright spot amongst them. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the antagonist of Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy back in the 1990s, and quickly became a fan favourite character among the Star Wars fandom. After Thrawn was introduced into the new Star Wars canon as the primary antagonist of Star Wars Rebels in seasons 3 and 4, Zahn was brought back to write a series of novels that provided an updated history for this character.

The Thrawn series has so far consisted of two books, Thrawn and Alliances. In Thrawn, we are introduced to Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, a member of the Chiss Ascendancy, a race of aliens from outside the known galaxy, who was marooned within Imperial Space. Thanks to a secret connection to Anakin Skywalker and a clear demonstration of his tactical ability, the Emperor takes Thrawn into his service and employs him as an officer in the Imperial Navy. Accompanied by a young officer, Eli Vanto, who serves as his translator, aide and student, Thrawn rises through the ranks all the way to Grand Admiral by defeating a series of rebel and pirate forces. Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Thrawn is still in service to the Chiss Ascendancy, and his loyalty to the Empire may be conditional on the Empire not threatening his people. In addition, he has sent Vanto to the Chiss, as he believes that his tactical abilities, honed under Thrawn’s tutorage, may be of benefit to their forces. Alliances, which is set after the events of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, reveals the history between Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker, and has Thrawn work with Darth Vader to investigate mysterious events in the Unknown Regions. There the reader is introduced to the Grysk, a dangerous alien species living in the Unknown Regions who are making aggressive moves against both the Empire and the Chiss Ascendancy. Together, Thrawn and Vader are able to foil the Grysk’s immediate plans, although they remain a dangerous force.

I really enjoyed both of the previous books in the Thrawn series. Thrawn is probably the best expanded Star Wars book I have had the pleasure to read so far, while Alliances did a great job continuing the series and featured a fantastic team-up between two of my favourite Star Wars characters. I personally enjoyed the first book a lot more than the second, although this may be because I did read the series out of order, starting with Alliances and then going back to Thrawn. I have been looking forward to the third book in the series for a while now. Not only did I look at it for one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, but it also featured on my recent Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases list.

In Treason, which is set in the midst of the fourth season of Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn is forced to postpone his campaign against the Rebels on Lothal when Grand Moth Tarkin informs him that funding for his Tie Defender Program is at risk of being reappropriated by Director Krennic’s secret program, Stardust. Placed in the middle of a political battle between Tarkin and Krennic, Thrawn must ensure the security of Stardust’s supply chains in order to retain his funding. What at first appears to be a routine mission against a dangerous form of alien space vermin quickly reveals that the supply lines are actually being targeted pirates who have knowledge about the materials being sent to Project Stardust.

The subsequent arrival of a Chiss ship with his former protégé Eli Vanto serving aboard raises further problems, when they reveal that a force of Grysk ships are active deep within Imperial Space. Now Thrawn must not only find out what the Grysk’s mission is but also foil a large-scale conspiracy from within the Empire. As Thrawn engages his opponents in space, the real danger comes when his loyalty to the Empire is called into question. Can Thrawn continue to serve both the Emperor and the Chiss Ascendancy, or will the Emperor finally tire of his treason?

Treason was another outstanding outing from Zahn, who once again produces an addictive and clever entry in the Star Wars expanded universe that does an exceptional job showing off his iconic protagonist. Treason was a real pleasure to read, and I found myself unable to put it down at times, as I was so engrossed by the excellent story and the fantastic examples of action in the Star Wars universe. The end result was amazing book which wraps up Thrawn’s current storyline and ties it into his appearances in the wider Star Wars universe.

Just like the previous books in the series, my favourite aspect of Treason is the focus on the titular character of Thrawn. Thrawn is one of the most tactically minded and analytical individuals in the entire Star Wars universe and is an unsurpassed military genius, able to defeat superior forces with his tactics and intelligence. Zahn has always done a spectacular job of portraying a character like this in his books, and Treason is no exception. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn comes up with a series of tactical plans and deductions to confound his opponents and defeat their forces totally. The sheer range of different strategies and plans he comes up with are pretty ingenious, as are the ways that he is able to deduce how his opponents think, such as by analysing their artwork or their body language and movements. This results in some pretty amazing sequences throughout the book and included one extremely epic conclusion that sees Thrawn defeat a massively superior force without even being on the command deck of his ship. Instead, he leaves step-by-step instructions with his subordinate to perfectly counter and defeat his opponents. Honestly, I wish I could elaborate more because it was such an epic sequence, but that would require revealing some pretty big spoilers. I really love the focus on Thrawn and hope we get to see some more of his adventures and battles again in the future.

Despite the focus on Thrawn, much of the story is told from the perspective of some of his colleagues and subordinates, although many of these scenes also feature Thrawn’s observations on the other character’s body language and intentions. The use of all these point-of-view characters actually works really well, as it allows the reader to see Thrawn’s various tactical moves through the eyes of a normal character, thus requiring Thrawn or one of his protégés to explain in detail how he was able to come up with his actions, kind of like how Watson was used in the Sherlock Holmes novels. The characters of Eli Vanto and Commodore Faro have both served this purpose in the previous two books in the series, and it was good to see them both at it again in Treason. However, both have pretty major story arcs within this book, and it was interesting to see how their characters have evolved since first meeting Thrawn. This book also features several Chiss characters, such as Admiral Ar’alani, and it was intriguing to see their view on Thrawn’s actions and his role within the Empire. Zahn has also included a new character, Assistant Director Ronan, who has a major point-of-view role within the book. Ronan is a fairly annoying character most of the time, due to his arrogance and blind worship of his superior, Director Krennic. However, he does offer some pretty cool insights into Thrawn and the other character’s actions, and it was fun to see his respect for Thrawn reluctantly grow through the course of the book. These alternate point-of-view characters also allowed for some enjoyable speculation about Thrawn’s actual loyalties, and whether he currently serves the Emperor or the Chiss, and I felt that using all these side characters really added a whole lot to the overall story.

Like all of the other books in the Thrawn series, Zahn includes a huge number of action-packed sequences that are very exciting to read. Due to the focus on characters in the Imperial Navy, the vast majority of these battles are set within space and feature battles between the various spacecraft of the Star Wars universe. These space battle sequences are written extremely well, and they allow the reader to get an excellent idea of the cool fights that are occurring on the pages. Many of these sequences are enhanced by the various protagonists’ reliance on advanced tactics and stratagems, and as a result you get a much more complex and entertaining fight than some of the other space battles that occur in other examples of Star Wars fiction. I really enjoyed all the cool battles in this book, and the ones featured in Treason are a real highlight of the entire series.

Honestly, Treason is probably best explored by hardcore Star Wars fans. Not only does it deal with some quite obscure characters and aspects of the Star Wars universe but it is also the third book in a series with strong connections to Star Wars Rebels. I would therefore strongly recommend that readers check out the first two books in the Thrawn series first, as this will give them a more solid base to the story within Treason and provide them with some useful background into the Star Wars universe. However, for those readers who do not have any prior experience of the Thrawn books or some of the storylines explored in Star Wars Rebels, this is still an extremely accessible book, and Zahn does a good job of exploring key events of the previous stories featuring the character of Thrawn. I think that all readers, even those who only have knowledge of the franchise’s films, will also enjoy the deep dive into Star Wars lore that is featured within this book.

The entire Thrawn series so far has explored a number of aspects of the Empire before the events of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, which I have found to be exceedingly fascinating. This is continued in Treason, where the author continues to examine the running of the Imperial Navy and also looks at the creation of the Death Star, namely the supply lines heading out to the construction zone. This book also features an intriguing look at the rivalries and politics that existed at the highest echelons of the Imperial power structure. In particular, Thrawn finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Grand Moth Tarkin and Director Krenic, which was shown in the Rogue One film. This was a particularly intriguing part of the book, and it is always interesting to see Thrawn engaged in political activities, as it very much outside his wheelhouse, although the results of this political battle were extremely fun. Treason also features more details on the species that inhabit the mysterious Unknown Regions of space, in particular the Chiss Ascendancy and the Grysk. Neither has been explored too much in the current canon, and Thrawn has been the only Chiss featured so far. All these explorations of the Star Wars lore are a really interesting part of the book that I loved reading and found extremely fascinating.

Treason is set in the fourth season of the Star Wars Rebels television show. In particular, the start of the book mirrors a scene in the 10th episode, Jedi Knight, and ends with the set–up of the final two episodes of the series. Unfortunately, this probably means that Treason will be the last Thrawn book for a little while as Star Wars Rebels ended (spoilers! although it’s been over a year since the finale) with Thrawn and the protagonist of Rebels, Ezra Bridger, being transported off into an unknown area of space. While the end of the episode hinted that Ezra was still alive (and therefore Thrawn would be as well), it may be some time before we find out his eventual fate. While there are no current plans for a continuation or sequel to Star Wars Rebels, I could see them trying to do something after the release of the seventh season of the related The Clone Wars show. Zahn has also stated that he is planning to write some additional Thrawn novels, although these are tied up until the ninth Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, is finalised. Whether these Thrawn books will be tied into any future animated versions of Thrawn or be set before the end of Star Wars Rebels remains to be seen, although I personally would love to see what happens to Thrawn and some of the other supporting characters from these series.

Treason by Timothy Zahn is another exceptional entry in the Thrawn series, which once again explores one of the best characters in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is a fantastic character, and Zahn does an exceptional job showing off his tactical prowess through a series of intense and complex battles in space. I really loved seeing how this part of Thrawn’s adventure unfolded, and Zahn has really produced a compelling story that proved exceedingly hard to stop reading. A first-rate Star Wars tie-in novel, Treason is really worth checking out. I honestly can’t think of any character I would love to see more of in the future than Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown – Audiobook Review

The Kremlin Strike Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (7 May 2019)

Series: Patrick McLanahan series – Book 23

Length: 13 hours and 18 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Dale Brown, perhaps one of the best current writers of military thrillers in the world today, returns with another exciting instalment of his Patrick McLanahan series, which takes America’s battle with Russia up into high orbit.

Following the recent defeat of his deadly combat robots in Texas, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov is desperate to strike back against the hated Americans. However, he no longer faces the inept US administration he enjoyed over the last couple of years. Instead, his failed attack on America has resulted in the election of a strong new president, John Dalton Farrell. With Farrell once again backing the innovative and resourceful private companies of former US President Kevin Martindale and former general Patrick McLanahan, Sky Masters and Scion Aviation International, America’s future looks bright. One of Farrell’s first priorities is the immediate resumption of America’s research into space flight and defence, resulting in Iron Wolf Squadron members Brad McLanahan and Nadia Roz being recruited by Sky Masters to head up their revamped space initiative.

However, the Americans are not the only ones with an eye to space. Knowing that Russia’s future world dominance depends on controlling the stars, Gryzlov has ordered the construction of a high-tech space station, Mars 1. Armed with devastating plasma weapons capable of shooting down every US satellite orbiting the planet as well as missile launchers that can rain down fire anywhere on the world, Mars 1 is an absolute game changer that will ensure Gryzlov finally achieves victory over the United States.

America’s only hope once again rests in the hands of the men of Sky Masters and Scion. As the Scion operatives attempt to determine a weakness in Mars 1’s defences, Sky Masters have created a number of advanced space planes and weapons that will allow Brad and Nadia to take the fight to the Russians in space. Will this new equipment be enough, or will Russia’s grip on high orbit propel them to a final, devastating victory?

Brown has been one of the best and most prolific authors of military fiction for over 30 years, having written 29 military thrillers in this period, as well as co-writing 18 books in the Dreamland series with Jim DeFelice. I only recently got into Brown’s books last year, when I read his 2018 release, The Moscow Offensive. After being drawn in by the promise of advanced military robots fighting it out in the American heartland, I fell in love with the awesome plot, intense action and analyses of real-world political strife, and as a result, The Kremlin Strike was one of the military thrillers I was looking forward to the most this year. The Kremlin Strike is the 23rd book in Brown’s Patrick McLanahan series, which follows the titular character and his allies as they attempt to keep America safe from a series of high-tech military threats. This book could also be considered to be sixth book in the Brad McLanahan series, as the overarching plot of the series started to focus more on Patrick’s son, Brad, in Tiger’s Claw, especially after Patrick McLanahan’s supposed death.

I absolutely loved the central concept of The Kremlin Strike, which looks at the potential of Earth’s high orbit to host the next major military conflicts that we see. This is not a new focus for Brown, as some of his previous books in this series, including Executive Intent and Starfire, have looked at the potential of space-born weapons. Before the story even starts, Brown makes it clear that he believes the United States needs to focus more on the possibility of a future war in space, and even includes some real-world news excerpts that look at recent advances in military technology that can be used to fight battles in space or destroy satellites orbiting the planet.

Based on this, Brown is able to come up with an incredibly intriguing military thriller that looks at the battles that could occur in the near future. I found it absolutely fascinating to see the author’s theories about how space warfare could be conducted, and the tactical advantages of having control of Earth’s orbit. While some of the technology in featured in the story, such as the Cybernetic Infantry Devices, are probably more advanced than what Russia or America can currently use (probably), Brown does examine a number of weapons and vehicles that are currently being tested in space. The various laser weapons, plasma launchers (OK, these are slightly less likely), missiles and other cool weapons or technology used in the battle in space make for some interesting reading. There were also some intriguing looks at the various limitations or downsides of the space technologies featured in this book, such as energy issues, fuel consumption or the gravitational backlash some weapons may experience. I especially liked how Brown was able to capture a more accurate view of space combat, with invisible laser beams rather than the colourful blasts you see in most science fiction movies.

All of the focus on combat in space is a superb basis for a story, and Brown backs that up with some first-rate storytelling to make this an outstanding read. The Kremlin Strike was an excellent blend of action, advanced technology and spy fiction that also has some intriguing mirrors to current world politics. The author tells the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a widespread story that works incredibly well. I especially liked seeing the opposing views of the protagonists and antagonists, as it allowed the reader to see multiple sides of the overall conflict. For example, the reader gets to see the Russians plan their moves, and then you get to see the American countermoves. This view of the different sides of the conflict also works because neither the Americans nor the Russians have a solid idea of what the other side is planning. The reader is the only person who knows what is going on in both camps, and it is really fun to see the opponents slowly work out each other’s tactics during the course of the narrative, and then panic when they realise what their enemy is planning.

In addition to the combat in space, Brown also displays his detailed knowledge of modern warfare and military throughout the course of The Kremlin Strike. There are a huge number of scenes where modern military technology, techniques, strategies or standard operating procedures are featured, all topped off with a good helping of military terminology and acronyms. Brown utilises all of these extremely well, and there is nothing too overwhelming for readers who have a low understanding of the relevant jargon. All the action in this book is written incredibly well, and it was just plain thrilling to see some of the battles in the sky or in space take place. There were also some cool espionage sequences thrown in throughout the story as well, emphasising the benefit of human intelligence in current conflicts. All of these various aspects come together into a wonderful military thriller narrative, which proved extremely hard to stop listening to.

Another part of The Kremlin Strike that I enjoyed was the use of the fantastic prime antagonist, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov. Gryzlov has been a key villain in the last few books of the Patrick McLanahan series, and his angry, vindictive nature and his sheer inability to admit his own mistake makes him an amazingly easy character to dislike. I always find that a great antagonist can add so much to a story, and this is especially true in this book, where you can’t help but root for the protagonists and enjoy when the antagonist’s plots come to naught. You also cannot help but feel sorry at times for Gryzlov’s subordinates, who are forced to obey his wild orders, despite knowing that they will be punished when they fail. I really enjoyed a fun story development that occurs around this character in The Kremlin Strike, which I thought that Brown planned out very well, and which was one of my favourite highlights of this book.

While I absolutely loved The Kremlin Strike, the author has included a few right-wing political issues that might not be appealing to every reader. Right at the start of the book, Brown is very supportive about recent decision by the current US administration to form a specific armed force for space warfare, and this book examines the necessity of such a force. In addition, if you read between the lines a little, the US president in The Kremlin Strike, Farrell, could be a partial stand in for the current real-life United States president, while the previous incompetent president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, could be seen to represent this president’s real-life opponent at the 2016 election. Farrell is a political outsider, disliked by the media, whose tough talk and determination to cut through the bureaucracy of Washington (drain the swamp, if you will), won the support of the American people. The book’s apparent support of the current US president and some of his controversial decisions may be off-putting to some readers, although I do not believe that it harmed the entertainment value of the story. I personally found it interesting that in this scenario Brown once again painted Russia as America’s greatest enemy, which is something the current US president appears extremely reluctant to do, although perhaps I am reading into this too much.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike, which is narrated by William Dufris. The audiobook version of this book runs for a moderate 13 hours and 18 minutes, and I found it to be a great way to enjoy this exciting and detailed military thriller. Having only read Brown’s work before, I felt that having the audiobook book version playing in my ear helped ramp up the action sequences as well as increase the sense of urgency of the events occurring in the book. Dufris is also an excellent narrator, coming up with a huge number of great voices for the various characters that make up the cast of this book. The voices he attributed to these characters were really good and captured their personalities extremely well, such as, for example, the anger, ruthlessness and paranoia exhibited by Gryzlov. Dufris also did a good job with the character accents, continuing utilising a number of Russian accents throughout the book, as well as accents from other Eastern European countries such as Poland. I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike and I think I will check out this format for any future books in the Patrick McLanahan series.

In this latest book in his long running Patrick McLanahan series, Dale Brown has once again created a first-class military thriller that is an absolute treat to read. The author’s focus on the future conflicts that may occur in our planet’s orbit were extremely fascinating, and the story created around it was a captivating and electrifying read. Easily accessible to those readers who have not previously had the pleasure of reading the Patrick McLanahan series before, The Kremlin Strike was a deeply enjoyable book, and a must for all fans of both the science fiction and military thriller genres.