Warhammer 40,000: Assassinorum: Kingmaker by Robert Rath

Assassinorum Kingmaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 2 April 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 12 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 hours

The most lethal assassins in the Warhammer 40,000 universe go face to face with a gigantic foe in the impressive and deeply thrilling Assassinorum: Kingmaker by amazing author Robert Rath.

I know I’ve said this before, but 2022 is turning out to be a fantastic year for Warhammer fiction.  Thanks to my recent obsession with this franchise, I have been deeply enjoying all the new tie-in novels associated with this table-top game, as a bevy of talented authors seek to expand on the already massive lore.  I have already had a lot of fun with books like Steel Tread, The Bookkeeper’s Skull, Day of Ascension, Kreig, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waagh!, Reign and The Vincula Insurgency, but I may have just finished one of the most purely entertaining and awesome new entries, Assassinorum: Kingmaker.  Written by Robert Rath, who previously wrote the intriguing Necron focused book, The Infinite and The Divine, Assassinorum: Kingmaker had a very appealing story that instantly grabbed my attention and which ended up being an outstanding read.

In the 41st millennium, a new generation of war has engulfed the Imperium of Man, as the forces of Chaos press mankind from all sides and the recently resurrected Roboute Guilliman leads his forces on a new crusade.  Enemies attack the Imperium from all corners, often hidden in the shadows, and all the Emperor’s agents must work to find and eliminate them.  The most deadly, effective and feared of these agents are the members of the Officio Assassinorum, elite modified assassins who kill all of the Emperor’s enemies without mercy or fear, and who many believe are merely myth.

When the mechanical warriors of the Knight World of Dominion fail in their duty, the Imperial overlords task Vindicare assassin, Absolom Raithe, to travel to the planet and kill Dominion’s High Monarch, Lucien Yavarius-Khau, and managed the succession of a suitable replacement.  However, this will be no easy kill as the High Monarch has long ago bonded himself to his massive war machine, remaining permanently within its heavily armoured cockpit.  To kill this near-invulnerable king, Raithe is forced to recruit a kill-team with variable talents, featuring the Callidus assassin Sycorax and the Vanus assassin Avaaris Koln.

Infiltrating the planet using returning Knight, Sir Linoleus Rakkan, who has been co-opted into their plans, the assassins arrive to find a world in turmoil.  The planet’s two rival ruling houses are in constant battle with each other, and in the ensuing chaos, anti-Imperial sentiment is high, and the already invincible High Monarch is under heavy guard.  Seeking to infiltrate the court of Dominion, the kill team begin to manoeuvre themselves into position, while manipulating the feuding knights around them.  However, the assassins soon begin to realise that not everything is as it seems, and a dark secret lies at the heart of this noble planet.  Can Raithe’s team achieve their goals, or are they destined to die at the hands of a dangerous foe with malicious plans for the entire Imperium?

Damn! Damn! Damn! What an over-the-top and extremely cool Warhammer 40,000 novel that I deeply, deeply loved.  Robert Rath really went out of his way to make Kingmaker as awesome as possible, and the result is an extremely thrilling, electrifying and epic read, loaded with so many cool elements.  This was honestly one of the best Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading and I have very little choice but to give it a full-five star read.

I really, really loved the cool story in this book, which essentially boiled down to ultra-elite assassins attempting to kill the king of a planet of mecha, which is such an awesome idea.  Despite this being a heavy concept to achieve, Rath managed to achieve it in spades, providing readers a fantastic and clever narrative that instantly grabs your attention.  This book starts off extremely well, introducing the world of Dominion, the unique mission, and the four central characters of the three assassins, and their Knight patsy, and generally setting up all the key elements of Kingmaker to ensure some outstanding moments later.  From there, the story turns into a bit of an espionage thriller, as the three assassins begin their infiltration of the court, impersonating the knight Rakkan, and coming to grips with the unique world they have arrived at.  Rath provides an excellent balance of story elements in this first half of the novel, and the reader gets a fantastic mixture of character development, massive universe building, political intrigue, spy elements and some early mecha-action, all of which is a ton of fun and ensures that the reader is firmly addicted with this novel.

While I deeply enjoyed the excellent story elements contained with this first half of Kingmaker, it’s the second half that made me a major fan of this book, as Rath amps up the action, excitement and thrills in a massive way.  Following a major, action-packed moment around the halfway mark that sees all the characters in their element, the protagonists soon have a new objective.  This leads to several great sequences of entertaining mayhem and death as the protagonists attempt to manipulate local politics to their advantage.  However, the fun doesn’t last much longer, as the book enters its final phase and big conclusion.  While it initially appears that everything is going to plan, you just know it will end badly as there is still a lot of book left to go.  However, you do not appreciate just how bad things have gotten for the protagonists until they are suddenly hit from every direction and hell reigns down all around them.

The story essentially devolves into all-out war for its last quarter, as the protagonists find themselves facing enemies all around, and all four main characters are forced go in some amazing directions at this point as they attempt to stymie the damage before them, with varying degrees of success.  Rath really pulls out all the stops here, and the reader is dragged into non-stop action on every front, from a mass of deadly mecha fights, close combat against abominations in the bowels of an ancient castle, and an intense gun fight against overwhelming numbers.  At the same time, there are a ton of big revelations occurring here as a lot of the storylines Rath has been patiently setting up throughout the rest of Kingmaker finally come to fruition.  I honestly did not notice some of the clues that Rath set out in the earlier stages of the novel, but once you realise what he has done, it really becomes apparent how much detail and planning the author put into the story.  Everything comes together extremely well at the very end, and Rath wraps up most of the storylines perfectly, leaving the reader very, very satisfied, with all their action needs firmly quenched.  However, he also leaves a couple of storylines opened, which could potentially lead to some form of sequel in the future, which I would be very excited for.  An, epic story with so much going for it!

Rath has a great and exciting writing style which I deeply enjoyed and which I found to really enhance the cool story.  The author was able to successfully blend multiple key elements together into a very cohesive narrative which delivered the right combination of action, intrigue, character moments, world building, a little humour and more.  This was a very fast-paced and exciting story, especially during some of the key moments at the centre and towards the end, and there was honestly not a single slow moment that made me even considering turning this book off.  With the use of multiple character perspectives, particularly of the four main characters, the reader is gifted a massive overarching view of the key events occurring throughout the novel, and they are always right in the centre of the story.  I particularly need to highlight the very impressive action sequences, as Rath had a real talent when it came to displaying violence and death, whether it be by the hands of the assassins, or via the multiple Knights featured throughout the book.  There is a wonderful interchange between perspectives during some of the more impressive action sequences, with the reader is shown multiple angles of key events, which really helped to enhance how epic they were.  I was really drawn to one sequence where you see a group of characters “talking” before it flashes over to another character quickly and efficiently killing everyone nearby.  Elements like this really drew me into Kingmaker’s story and were a lot of fun to see in action.

Kingmaker proves to be a very impressive addition to the Warhammer 40,000 canon, especially as Rath ensures that the reader leaves with a healthy amount of knowledge about the universe, and several major factions within it.  Ostensibly a standalone read (although there is room to expand out into an extended series), this is a book that will appeal to a wide range of Warhammer fans, especially as it focuses on two particularly unique and brilliant Imperial sub-factions, the dual use of which clash together perfectly to create an awesome narrative.  As such, a little bit of pre-knowledge about the Warhammer 40,000 universe, its recent history and the various major groups are useful to help you enjoy this story fully.  However, Rath did a great job of explaining a lot of these key universe elements throughout his story, and general science fiction fans should be able to pick up on the context easily enough.  As such, Kingmaker has a pretty broad appeal, and I loved seeing the great ways he expanded and explored some crazy groups.

The first faction that Rath deeply explored in Kingmaker is the Officio Assassinorum, the Imperium’s elite, hidden network of ruthless trained killers, who most people believe are a myth.  Trained, conditioned and modified to become the deadliest killers in the galaxy, the Officio Assassinorum are a pretty badass part of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and there are only a few novels currently about them.  However, Rath really goes to town exploring them, and as they come together as a Kill Team to take facilitate the plot’s main mission.  Kingmaker features three different types of Imperial assassins from Officio Assassinorum temples, each of whom has their own unique skills, methods and technology.  As such, you are given a great insight into three additional sub-factions, with the Vindicare, Callidus and Vanus temples all featured here.  Rath really does a great job showcasing these different assassins throughout Kingmaker, and you come away with some major insights into how these assassins operate, what their skills are, and how they work or don’t work together.  There is also a deep and intriguing examination of the inner minds of these assassins, and you get a good idea of their opinions on the events unfolding, as well as their general thoughts on being deadly killers in service to the Emperor.  I really enjoyed the unique and compelling team-up of assassins featured in Kingmaker, and their technologically focussed attacks and elaborate methods worked well in contrast to the other major faction in this book, the Imperial Knights.

Imperial Knights are another great human sub-faction from the Warhammer 40,000 game, and one that I really didn’t know too much about before this novel.  However, that changed really quickly as, despite Kingmaker being labelled as an Assassinorum novel, Rath spent just as much time, if not more, examining members of a Knight World.  Knight Worlds in the Warhammer 40,000 universe are unique planets that have evolved into a feudal system equivalent to Earth’s medieval period, with peasants and other servants serving the noble houses who field Knights for war.  I always love seeing the cool range of different societies, cultures and technology levels throughout the Warhammer universe, and the Knight Worlds are especially fun, as they have gone out of their way to stay as a feudal society, rather than become standard Imperial worlds.  The contrast between the spoiled nobility and the poorer peasants in this futuristic context is just great, and I loved seeing so many Medieval elements being altered to fit into a degree of advanced technology, while still retaining a lot of traditional elements (e.g. footmen with laser rifles).  However, rather than riding to battle on a horse, these knights are mounted in the Imperial Knight war machines, massive mecha that, while not as large as the god-sized Titans, are still impressive walking weapons.  Rath has a lot of fun showcasing these Knights throughout Kingmaker, and you end up getting a good look at the unique machines, which are bounded to their pilot, and which contain the spirts of all their previous riders.  The impressive Knight-on-Knight battles throughout the book are extremely good, no matter their context, and I particularly enjoyed the focused look at the war machines’ apparent sentience, as the riders are bombarded with the thoughts and voices of the previous riders.

Dominion also proves to be a great and complex setting for Kingmaker, and I loved all the unique politics and elaborate back stabbings it created.  Featuring two rival houses, Stryder and Rau, as they battle for supremacy, Rath explores its rather elaborate and distinctive rulership and court as the assassin characters search for a weak spot.  Dominion’s status as a somewhat independent planet in the Imperium was also pretty intriguing, and it was fascinating to see members of the planet arguing over whether they should serve themselves or help the Emperor.  An overall deeply impressive examination of the Imperial Knights and their worlds, I deeply enjoyed how well Rath was able to work this faction into his complex narrative and it really highlighted his attention to detail and his love for the lore.

I also need to highlight the great characters featured within Kingmaker as Rath has created an excellent collection of enticing figures whose unique personal stories deeply enhanced the overall tale.  This was a fantastic group of deep and complex characters, and their statuses within this universe ensured that they all had some unique experiences.  Most of Kingmaker’s narrative is spread amongst the three members of the Assassinorum who represent a different Assassinorum Temple, and as such have very different viewpoints on the universe and the best way to operate as killers.  This provides some compelling initial conflict amongst them as they try to work together, something none of them are really good at.  However, they soon start to come together as a team as the novel continues, and they ended up playing off each other’s strengths and personalities to create an excellent, core group of protagonists.

The Assassinorum characters in Kingmaker are headlined by Absolom Raithe, the Vindicare assassin who has been appointed team leader.  An infamous sniper, tactician, and resolute loner, Raithe struggles the most with working as a team, and his initial attempts at leadership aren’t that successful.  The author adds in some additional issues for Raithe as the story continues, especially as he is forced to deal with an injury and taking on roles that are outside his comfort zone, producing some dangerous risks for the team.  However, Raithe ends up growing a lot as a leader as the book continues, while his multiple sniper scenes contain some of the best action in the entire novels.

Apart from Raithe, there is also a lot of focus on Sycorax, a Callidus assassin who specialises in infiltration and whose enhanced abilities allow her to morph her shape.  Due to her role impersonating Rakkan for most of the novel, Sycorax is one of the most significant characters in the book, and she ends up with some thrilling and intrigue laden sequences.  Watching her take on multiple personalities throughout the novel is really cool, and it was captivating to watch her more elaborate methods strongly clash with Raithe’s more direct attempts throughout the book.  Sycorax also provides the reader with some of the best and most intense insights into being an Imperial Knight pilot, as she is required to bond with Rakkan’s Knight Jester for much of the book.  Seeing an outsider character interact with Jester’s mind, which contains the spirits of its previous riders, was extremely fascinating, and you get a good sense of the difficulties and insanities involved with piloting such a machine.  In addition, the experiences and memories she obtained from the link impacted on Sycorax’s psyche and ensure that she gets some fantastic interactions with Rakkan, while also gaining a better understanding of the people and machines she is trying to manipulate.

The final assassin character in Kingmaker is Koln, a Vanus assassin with a skill in technology, data manipulation and analysis.  Even though Koln tended to get the least focus of the assassin characters, I really grew to like this tech-focused assassin, especially after her awesome introduction at the start of the book.  Koln proved to be an excellent third member of the Assassinorum team, balancing out the impulsive Raith and manipulative Sycorax well.  Her ability to kill just by manipulating some data, providing an elaborate forgery, or by hacking into a device was really fun, and I really appreciated the examination of the lesser utilised Vanus assassins.  Koln had some interesting story moments in Kingmaker, particularly towards the end of the novel, and it sounds like the author has some intriguing plans for her in the future.

I also need to highlight the character of Sir Linoleus Rakkan, a noble of Dominion who is co-opted into the plans to kill the high monarch and becomes a member of the assassin team.  At the start of the book, he is introduced as an ambitious pilot attempting to raise his fortunes.  However, after nearly being killed, he becomes a mercenary Freeblade, fighting against the forces of Chaos, before being kidnapped by the assassins.  Initially a depressed prisoner who relies heavily on drink to mask his emotional pain and the issues surrounding his disabled legs, the assassins manage to convince him to help Sycorax impersonate him on Dominion and use his return to gain access to the court.  Due to being a son of both the rival Stryder and Rau houses, Rakkan provides some great insights into both houses and the royal court, as well providing instruction on how to pilot a Knight.  It was a lot of fun to see Rakkan’s reactions to many of the early events of the book, especially as he is forced to watch himself being impersonated, providing information to help them pull off the charade.  While Rath could have left Rakkan as a useful, one-note character, he instead spent a good portion of the novel evolving Rakkan and ensuring that he ended up being a key part of the plot.  Not only does he mature greatly after witnessing some of the key moments of the mission and Sycorax’s impersonation of him, but Rath also dives into his past and the connection he has to his father, a Dominion hero whose glorious death Rakkan continually witnesses due to his connection to Jester, which his father died in.  This obsession with his family and the past eventually leads him to some big revelations in the present, and he ends up having some major and exciting moments in the last half of the novel.  Rakkan ended up being one of the most complex and entertaining characters in Kingmaker, and I really appreciate the excellent way in which the author developed him.

Aside from these four main characters, Kingmaker is loaded with an excellent group of supporting characters, most of whom are members of the Dominion nobility.  As I mentioned above, I had an amazing time seeing the diverse and contentious Knights of Dominion, especially as most of them are engaged in a brutal blood feud between the two ruling families.  Several of these noble characters have some intriguing storylines throughout Kingmaker, with an interesting focus on the members of the Court, the king’s inner circle who are hiding some major and disturbing secrets.  Of the rest of the noble characters, the best is probably Rakkan’s mother, the leader of the Stryder family, Baroness Hawthorn Astair-Rakkan, a domineering and ambitious woman who spends most of the novel trying to manipulate Rakkan for her own gain.  Baroness Hawthorn had some excellent moments throughout the novel, and I especially loved her collection of hounds, each of whom are humorously named after famous Imperial commanders, just to show off her arrogance and disrespect to the Imperial Guards.  Hawthorn’s story arc really changes towards the end of the book, and it will be interesting to see if we get some extra appearances from her in the future.  The other major supporting character of Kingmaker is Gwynne, Rakkan’s loyal Sacristan (Jester’s mechanic, a low-level Tech Priest with some additional cultural restrictions).  Gwynne serves as another ally to the main characters, and her knowledge of the Knights and their inner workings proves invaluable, as does her inquiring mind.  The author weaves some subtle, but important, storylines around Gwynne in Kingmaker, and she ends up serving a key and impressive role.  Overall, this was an excellent collection of characters, and I deeply enjoyed how well Rath used them throughout Kingmaker’s narrative.

Like many of the newer Warhammer novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I chose to check out Kingmaker on audiobook, which I found to be an awesome way to enjoy this book.  Coming in with a run time of just over 11 hours, this was a decently long Warhammer novel, but I honestly flew through it in just a few days, especially once I got fully addicted to its impressive story.  The audiobook format really helped me dive into the highly detailed setting and narrative, and I deeply appreciated how much more epic it made the action sequences.  Having the intense and over-the-top fighting between the various mechanical Knights was an outstanding experience, and you got the full impact of every powerful strike.  I also really enjoyed the excellent narration of veteran audiobook voice actor Gareth Armstrong, who has done a ton of other narration for the Warhammer franchise.  Armstrong’s work in Kingmaker was very good, and I loved the great array of voices he features for the various characters, capturing the ethereal and strange nature of the assassin characters and the more robust, proud and arrogant nobles of Dominion.  There was a great contrast between these two groups, and I loved how Armstrong succeeded in making every single character stand out on their own.  An overall exceptional way to enjoy this wonderful Warhammer book, the Kingmaker audiobook is without a doubt the best way to enjoy this novel, and I deeply enjoyed every single second I spent listening to it.

I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Assassinorum: Kingmaker.  Robert Rath crafted together a brilliant and exceptionally entertaining Warhammer 40,000 novel that was loaded with action, fun and great characters.  Featuring lethal assassins facing down massive Imperial Knights, Kingmaker has a little bit of everything, including political intrigue, impressive use of Warhammer elements, and some fantastic war sequences towards the end.  Easily one of the most impressive and captivating Warhammer novels of 2022, Kingmaker is a must-read for all fans of the franchise, and you are guaranteed to have an incredible time with this epic book.

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Three Assassins Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 14 April 2022)

English Translation: Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 254 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary Japanese author Kotaro Isaka brings us another fast-paced, intriguing and unique thriller with the English release of Three Assassins.

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the first English translation of Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beatle), which was released in the Western world as Bullet Train ahead of a movie adaptation of the same name.  I had a lot of fun with this impressive novel which set several distinctive and crazy assassins against each other aboard a speeding bullet train.  Now, with the Bullet Train film only a couple of months away, an English version of another of Isaka’s novels, the 2004 novel Gurasuhoppā (Grasshopper) has just been released.  This novel, translated by Sam Malissa and released under the title Three Assassins, presents another intense and clever thriller read that was incredibly fun to read.

Suzuki is a former schoolteacher who has joined the notorious Tokyo criminal gang, Fräulein, to get revenge for his dead wife by killing the murderous son of the gang’s leader.  However, his revenge mission goes downhill when, moments before his flimsy cover is blown, his target falls onto the road and is run over by a van.  With the shocked gang watching on, Suzuki is sent to chase after someone he sees fleeing the scene, who the gang believes killed the leader’s son.

Convinced the man responsible is the elusive assassin known as the Pusher, Suzuki’s Fräulein contact demands that he reveal the location of the person he followed.  However, Suzuki is uncertain about whether the man is actually responsible or just a random passer-by, especially when he meets the man’s young family.  But with the gang determined for revenge, Suzuki must decide whether to pass on the information or attempt to flee for his life.  Worse, his actions have attracted the attention of other notorious assassins, each of whom have their own reasons for hunting down the Pusher.

The Whale is deadly and forlorn soul who can convince anyone to kill themselves just by talking to them, while Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert.  The Whale wants revenge on the Pusher for his part in a prior death, while Cicada is determined to make his own rep by killing this notorious assassin.  Both are determined to find Suzuki and have him lead them to the Pusher by any means necessary.  Can Suzuki survive the barrage of killers, gangsters and monsters being unleased upon him, or will he be forced to compromise his principles and morals to survive?

This was an awesome and exciting novel from Isaka that proved to be extremely fun to read.  Written in Isaka’s distinctive style, and featuring some unique twists, turns and characters, Three Assassins is an entertaining read that I powered through in a day and which is really worth checking out.

Three Assassins has a brilliant fast-paced story to it that readers will swiftly become addicted to.  Written in a distinctive style that emphasises odd character traits and relies heavily on intriguing anecdotes, you are quickly introduced to three captivating point of view characters: Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada.  All three have unique and compelling storylines: Suzuki is thrust into survival mode as he hunts for the elusive Pusher, the Whale is involved in political assassinations before being forced to turn on his employer, while the wildcard Cicada balances his killing desires with frustrations with his overbearing boss.  These storylines soon start to come together when the Whale and Cicada learn about Suzuki’s situation and his apparent connection with the infamous Pusher, and both try to get their hands on Suzuki before the gang does.  However, nothing is as it seems, and all three must battle with their own demons (literally in the case of the Whale), while also trying to outsmart each other and some of the other unique people populating the streets of this version of Tokyo.

All three separate character-driven storylines come together perfectly as the story progresses, and you will love seeing these amazing characters interact as each reaches their own unique destiny.  There are several fantastic and impressive confrontations towards the later part of the book, as well as some great twists, the best of which will leave you reeling and completely change how you viewed the first three quarters of the novel.  While I saw a couple of twists coming, I was pleasantly surprised by several of the reveals, revelations and story turns that occurred, and there are some fantastic moments scattered throughout this book.  I loved how fast-paced Three Assassins turned out to be and there is honestly not a single slow moment to be found as you get through it.  That, combined with its shorter length, will encourage readers to power through it in a very short amount of time, and you will not be disappointed when you see what happens with this entertaining and amusing story.

Like Bullet Train, Three Assassins is a standalone novel that requires no familiarity with any of Isaka’s previous novels to appreciate the clever story or intense action.  It does however have some interesting connections to Bullet Train that fans will really appreciate.  Three Assassins is noticeably written in a similar style to Bullet Train, with a familiar plot focused on multiple unusual Tokyo assassins, as well as certain unique types of characterisations, interactions and writing flow.  These similarities are intentional as the original Japanese version of Three Assassins, Grasshopper came out several years before Maria Beetle.  This means that Three Assassins is actually a precursor to Bullet Train, hence the stylistic similarities.  As such, Three Assassins features a couple of characters who would end up having minor roles in Bullet Train, such as the Pusher, who has a few short point-of-view chapters as the character Morning Glory in Bullet Train, and the assassin duo known as the Hornet.  I have to admit that when I read Bullet Train, I did wonder about why these characters were featured, as some relevant context appeared to be missing.  However, after reading Three Assassins I see that they were there as a reference to this preceding novel and you actually get to understand their role in Bullet Train a little better after reading this book.  I really liked the cool connections this novel had to Bullet Train, and it is really worthwhile checking Three Assassins out alongside it.  While I do think that I preferred Bullet Train a little more than Three Assassins, as its story was stronger and the characters a little more entertaining, Three Assassins really stands on its own and proves to be an excellent read.

Isaka clearly had a lot of fun with the awesome characters contained within Three Assassins, as this book features an eclectic mix of unusual and entertaining figures who make Tokyo’s underworld seem like a weird and deadly place to explore.  This novel is primarily anchored by its three main point-of-view characters, each of whom is a particularly complex and unique being that will quickly drag the reader in with their intriguing stories or antics.  This includes central character Suzuki, the former teacher turned attempted gangster, who is initially involved with this plot for revenge, and who has done some dark things in order to get there.  However, when the target of his revenge is killed and Suzuki seems to find the life of the Pusher and his family in his hands, he starts to have a real crisis of conscience and must determine what he really wants to do.  Watching him attempt to weigh up the lives of the family he encounters versus some hostages Fräulein potentially has is extremely intense and results in some major examinations of his conscience.  Suzuki also serves the role of the unenlightened character for most of the book as he is mostly ignorant of the various assassins and outrageous characters running around out there.  As such, he serves as a good introductory character for many of these unique world elements, and it was very entertaining to see him interact with some of the other characters for the first time without a clue about who or what they are.

The Whale and Cicada are both complex and weird figures for very different reasons.  The Whale is a highly unusual assassin who specialises in arranging deaths to look like suicides.  A large man with an unnatural aura, the Whale is “blessed” with a near supernatural ability to talk people into killing themselves.  This is a pretty unique and cool character trait which Isaka does a wonderful job portraying throughout Three Assassins.  Watching this character slowly and calmly talk various characters into killing themselves results in some naturally dark scenes, but they are a great part of the book and really add something to the distinctive feel of the book.  At the same time, Isaka tries to humanise the Whale to a degree by showing him to be haunted by the ghosts of everyone he has killed.  These ghosts routinely appear before him, airing their grievances with him while also blotting out his ability to see other people or things.  This serves to be an intriguing handicap for this otherwise unstoppable figure, and it proved fascinating to see this merciless killer face some substantial reservations about his work and slowly start to rethink his life and choices.  The Whale easily has some of the most complicated and intriguing scenes in the entire novel and it proves extremely fascinating to see his entire arc unfold.

Cicada, on the other hand, is a somewhat less complex figure who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A skilled knifeman who lacks empathy, Cicada has earned a reputation as a man who can take on the unpleasant jobs and is often hired to kill women and children.  However, Cicada finds himself in a very hostile working relationship with his boss and handler, Iwanishi, who treats him poorly.  This toxic relationship becomes the imperative for Cicada to engage in the hunt for the Pusher, as a form of finding his own independence, although nothing goes to plan.  Cicada is an excellent and enjoyable character, and you will quickly find yourself getting attached to the quick-talking killer, even when he does some terrible things.  The most physically gifted of all the characters, Cicada is often dragged into some of the book’s best fight scenes, and it was exciting to see his knife skills in action.  Thanks to his unique humour and continual banter, Cicada proves to be a great counterpoint to the book’s darker or more emotionally distressed characters like Suzuki and the Whale, and I think that his inclusion really helped to balance out the tone of the book.  All three characters and their chapters play off each other extremely well, and they help to form a captivating and amusing overall story.

Three Assassins was another awesome read from Kotaro Isaka that takes readers on a wild and exciting journey to Japan’s outrageous underworld of assassins.  Filled with quirky characters, surprising turns and intense action, this is a fantastic novel and you will swiftly get addicted to its entertaining and captivating story.  A must read for fans of this legendary Japanese author, especially in advance of the upcoming Bullet Train film, Three Assassins comes highly recommended and is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

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Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

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The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

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Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Orphan X – Book Seven

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top spy thriller authors in the world today, Gregg Hurwitz, returns with the latest book in his exciting and captivating Orphan X series, Dark Horse.

Over the last few years, I have been having an absolute blast checking out the epic Orphan X series by Hurwitz, which has featured some amazing and extremely fun reads.  The series started back in 2016 with Orphan X, which introduced the former government assassin turned vigilante known as Orphan X.  Since then, the Orphan X series has expanded to seven great books, each of which pushed the protagonist against some dangerous and ruthless foes.  I have deeply enjoyed the last few books, including Out of the Dark, which set Orphan X against the corrupt President of the United States; Into the Fire, which was one of the top audiobooks of 2020; and Prodigal Son, a fantastic and exciting dive into the world of advanced military technology.  All these novels have been really good and I was quite excited to see what Hurwitz had planned for his latest book, Dark Horse.

After barely surviving a deadly explosion in his sanctuary, Evan Smoak, the former government assassin known as Orphan X, has returned to his mostly usual life.  Once again taking up his persona as the elite vigilante, the Nowhere Man, Evan attempts to balance his dangerous activities with the unusual romantic and familial bonds he has formed.  However, his latest case will push him like none before as he finds himself thrust into a deadly and conflict between two notorious criminal organisations.

Aragon Urrea is a lifelong criminal who has established himself in south Texas as a major underworld figure.  Operating a subtle and profitable undercover drug smuggling operation, Aragon has set himself as the patron of his local area, supplying employment, help and justice to those who need it, while ensuring the love and loyalty of everyone surrounding him.  However, despite all his power and influence, Aragon has one weak spot, his teenage daughter, Anjelina, who is kidnapped by one of the most vicious and notorious drug cartels.  Now held captive in the cartel’s impregnable stronghold, Aragon has no way to rescue her, and in desperation he turns to a man even more dangerous than him, the Nowhere Man.

Despite his misgivings about working for a drug kingpin, Evan soon finds himself drawn to Aragon’s side to save Anjelina, and discovers his new client is an honourable man worthy of his help.  Forced to contend with dangerous murderers, drug dealers and psychopaths, Evan starts his attempt to infiltrate the cartel’s ranks and enter their fortress.  However, what he discovers inside the fortress will change the entire mission and force Evan to attempt an impossible rescue.  But can even the Nowhere Man defeat an entire drug cartel by himself, or has this legendary spy finally met his match?

This was another great novel from Hurwitz that combines an intense and action-soaked story with deep character moments and powerful self-examinations, all of which comes together into one heck of a novel.  I had a brilliant time with Dark Horse, and it was an awesome continuation of the Orphan X series.

Dark Horse has an excellent narrative that I found to be extremely captivating and fun, especially as it pits the protagonist against a brutal drug cartel.  The story has an interesting start, introducing the client and his kidnapped daughter, before resetting the story towards Evan and showing how he survived the cliff-hanger conclusion of the last novel.  From there, Evan is slowly drawn into Aragon Urrea’s life as the drug lord convinces him to save his daughter, which eventually leads to the Nowhere Man attempting to infiltrate the rival cartel.  This leads to some impressive and dark scenes as Evan draws the attention of the cartel and starts to gain the trust of their deranged leader.  This central part of the book is very powerful, especially as the protagonist finds out several complications to his plans and witnesses the true evil of his target.  At the same time, Evan is dealing with multiple personal problems, as issues with his friends, family and love interest all impact upon his mind, resulting in a richer narrative.  This all leads up to the epic and destructive final major sequence where Orphan X is unleashed and takes out his opponents in some very clever and brutal ways.  The book ends on a satisfying conclusion which touches on many of the brilliant character moments built up throughout the novel, while certain hints at the events of future novels will ensure that you come back for me.

I love how Hurwitz told the cool story in Dark Horse.  Like the rest of the novels in the series, Dark Horse can be read as a bit of a standalone read, although Orphan X fans will really enjoy seeing the continuation of certain storylines, especially those raised in the last couple of books.  Readers are in for the suspense, intense and highly detailed action, and intriguing dives into the complex character that have been such a distinctive feature of this series, and I loved how they improved the cool new story Hurwitz came up with.  The scenes set down in Mexico are particularly dark, and I found myself inevitable drawn to the over-the-top depictions of cartel country and the dangerous people living there.  I also need to highlight a particularly gruesome scene inside a drug house in San Bernardino, which will leave you shocked and reeling, especially with Hurwitz’s descriptive writing.  There was a very interesting focus on ethics, morality and personal emotion throughout Dark Horse, with two very different drug organisations shown.  Evan’s attempts to decide whether the person he is trying to help is a good person become a key part of the story, and I enjoyed the captivating comparisons between the protagonist and the various people he interacts with throughout the novel.  I do think that Hurwitz could have perhaps sacrificed a little of this philosophical introspection and replaced it with some more action or suspense in a few of the slower parts of the novel, but overall this was an impressive and highly enjoyable read.

Hurwitz has once again loaded his novel with some complex and intriguing characters who add a substantial amount to the story.  The most prominent of these is main protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X.  Evan is a particularly complicated figure who Hurwitz has been carefully building over the entire series.  Raised since childhood to be an assassin, Evan lacks many of the appropriate social skills people are supposed to have.  This, combined with his intense OCD and lack of emotional awareness, ensures he has difficulties adjusting to everyday life now that he is mostly retired from his assassin work.  His many issues cause multiple strains on his relationships in Dark Horse and it is very compelling to see him continue to adapt and improve as a person.  Evan also experiences many revelations in this novel, especially when it comes to the complex people and families he encounters.  Seeing people who strive to be good like him while also supporting evil or illegal actions really impacts him, and it proves to be very intriguing to see him attempt comprehend what sort of person he is and the people he is dealing with.

In addition to Evan, Dark Horse contains an interesting collection of supporting character who round out the story and ensure that the main character’s life is even more complex and meaningful.  Dark Horse makes use of a good combination of recurring characters from the previous novel and several new figures, including several over-the-top and menacing antagonists.  A large amount of focus is placed on new character, Aragon Urrea, who in many ways is a similar figure to Evan, as he is a genuinely good person, but he does bad things to achieve his goals.  There is also the character of Anjelina, who finds herself as a secondary point-of-view character in parts of Dark Horse.  A young, scared teenager, Anjelina makes some dangerous decisions in this novel and Hurwitz throws in some great surprises about her actual motivations and mindset.  I also really enjoyed seeing more of some of the recurring characters from the previous novels.  Evan’s main love interest, Mia, goes through some dark moments in this book, which adds to the emotional weight on the protagonist’s shoulders.  It was also cool to see more of Joey and Peter, Evan’s substitute children, whose interactions with the protagonist go to show how unprepared and damaged he truly is.  Throw in the residence of Evan’s building, who have some entertaining and frustrating interactions with Evan, and you have a fantastic cast for this novel that proves to be extremely fascinating to follow.

While I did receive a physical copy of this novel, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Horse, which was a fun and enjoyable experience.  Dark Horse’s audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, and proves to be easy enough to power through, especially when you get caught up in the cool story.  I loved having this cool action-packed story read to me, and I found it helped me to really envision the great fight scenes, as well as context with the multitude of compelling characters.  This great audiobook also features the impressive voice work of Scott Brick, a veteran narrator of thriller audiobooks, including the previous Orphan X books, as well as entries in the Cotton Malone series by Steve Berry (The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web).  Brick has an excellent voice that really lends itself to the spy thriller genre.  I felt that he perfectly captured many of the great characters in this novel, and he ensured that their full range of emotions and reactions were on full display.  This amazing voice work helped to turn the Dark Horse audiobook into a real treat, and I am very glad that I decided to enjoy it in this format.

With the awesome and impressive Dark Horse, Gregg Hurwitz presents an excellent continuation to his outstanding Orphan X series.  Containing an epic story filled with cool action, entertaining sequences and impressive characters, Dark Horse is a captivating and addictive read that is really worth checking out.

Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

Mind Bullet 2

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Sisters Detective Agency by James Patterson and Candice Fox

2 Sisters Detective Agency Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 382 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse crime fiction team of James Patterson and Candice Fox returns for 2 Sisters Detective Agency, an intense and clever novel that sets two unlikely protagonists on a dark, character-driven case.

In recent years crime fiction icon James Patterson, best known for his Alex Cross novels and other bestselling series, has been collaborating with a range of talented authors to produce a vast library of crime fiction, murder mystery and thriller novels.  These range from major series such as The Women’s Murder Club to multiple standalone novels such as Lost (co-written by James O. Born) which I read last year.  These collaborations have allowed Patterson to release multiple books each year; including several in 2021 (examples include The President’s Daughter, which was co-written with Bill Clinton, or The Noise, which was co-written with J. D. Barker).

This latest book was co-written with Australian author Candice Fox, a writer whose crime fiction novels I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Fox is a well-established author who first made her mark with her Archer and Bennett murder mystery series set in Australia.  Since then, Fox has written several other novels, including her Crimson Lake series, and two standalone books, Gathering Dark and The Chase, both of which I had a wonderful time reading.  Fox has also previously collaborated with James Patterson several times to write the intriguing Detective Harriet Blue series, another interesting Australian crime series.  2 Sisters Detective Agency will be the fifth novel written by the team of Patterson and Fox, and it serves as an excellent standalone read with potential to start a great new series.

Rhonda Bird is a criminal defence attorney in Colorado, specialising in helping young offenders and juvenile delinquents being crushed by the criminal justice system.  A strong and independent figure, Rhonda is unprepared for the call informing her that her estranged father has died, especially as his death brings with it certain caveats that will change her life forever.

Travelling to Los Angeles, Rhonda discovers that despite abandoning her years before, her father has decided to leave behind two major surprises.  The first is his shady private detective agency; the second is a teenage half-sister she never knew existed named Baby.  Reeling from these revelations, Rhonda attempts to bond with the rebellious and strong-willed Baby, while also trying to determine what shady actions led to her father concealing a massive stash of cash in his office.  As Rhonda attempts to deal with both these strange circumstances, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a case when a young man walks in, claiming he was abducted.

The young man is a member of a teenage group of self-serving vigilantes, who specialise to bringing their own violent brand of justice to anyone they feel crosses them.  However, when their latest spree of terror goes horribly wrong, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a violent former assassin, determined to get revenge.  As Rhonda and Baby start to investigate, they find themselves caught between a desperate group of violent teens and a skilled killer, neither of whom are going to have any trouble putting a bullet in two interfering sisters.  Worse, the Bird sisters are soon targeted by the Mexican cartel, who are determined to reclaim the money stolen by their father.  Can Rhonda and Baby survive their first case, or will these two sisters end up dead before they even get to know each other?

This was an outstandingly entertaining novel that takes the reader on a wild and addictive ride.  Patterson and Fox have come up with a pretty awesome story in 2 Sisters Detective Agency, and it was one that I had an extremely hard time putting down.  I ended up getting through this cool book in several intensive sessions, and I ended up finishing off the final half in one fun-filled night.  2 Sisters Detective Agency is an interesting and exciting crime fiction read told from multiple character perspectives and containing an entertaining and accessible character driven story.  Written as a standalone novel, this book also serves as a potential opening to a whole new Patterson/Fox series focused around some unique and compelling characters.  I really liked how this book was composed, with a large collection of short chapters.  These short chapters not only ensure that the author keeps the story nice and concise, but it also serves to keep the audience engaged, especially if they know that the next chapter only has a few pages in it.  It also helps that this is a pretty non-stop action novel, as the various characters are constantly in the midst of something very interesting, such as attempted murder, psychotic planning by rich teens, or near-fatal family bonding.

The authors do an amazing job of setting up everything really quickly in this book, with all the major storylines starting out in short order.  This includes the introduction to the Bird sisters, the preparation surrounding the teenage gang known as the Midnight Crew, and the start of the former assassin turned parent, Jacob, as he starts his mission of vengeance.  Once everyone has been introduced, all these storylines start off at the same pace, with the short chapters and multiple perspectives ensuring that readers are constantly updated with what is happening in the various storylines.  Rhonda and Baby’s storyline forms an entertaining and relatable half of the novel, and it was a lot of fun seeing these very mismatched siblings meet for the first time and eventually start to work together.  Their investigation into the other major storyline is only a small part of their initial narrative, with a bigger focus initially placed on their relationship and their attempts to deal with some murderous cartel members.  While I did enjoy the Bird storyline, I ended up having a lot more fun with the Midnight Crew vs assassin storyline.  This is a more intense and exciting narrative thread, and there are some outstanding moments involving this single-minded assassin taking apart the group of entitled teens one at a time.  However, this storyline really does not go as you would expect, especially as one of the teenagers really cannot be considered helpless.

I had a lot of fun with both cool storylines, and I felt that they really complemented each other.  While these two storylines have some crossover throughout the book, they really don’t join up until two-thirds of the way through, especially in the lead-up to a couple of epic showdowns.  I really liked the way in which both storylines ended, although the big and brutal confrontation at the hospital was pretty exceptional.  The story ends up in a rather cool place, and leaves the novel open to a potential sequel, which is something I would be quite eager to see.  I absolutely loved how this awesome story unfolded, and Patterson and Fox really came up with something special here.

One of the best parts of 2 Sisters Detective Agency were the awesome and distinctive group of characters featured throughout it.  Thanks to the excellent use of multiple character perspectives, the reader is given an up-close view to several of the more interesting members of this cast, and you quickly get drawn into their compelling arcs, even though you shouldn’t get too attached to some of them.

The main character is Rhonda Bird, the maverick criminal defence attorney who travels to Los Angeles to sort out her estranged father’s business, but then gets stuck minding a teenage half-sister.  Even though she only appears for around half the novel, Rhonda is set up as the central protagonist of 2 Sisters Detective Agency, especially as her chapters are the only ones told from the first-person perspective.  There are a lot of interesting things about Rhonda, especially as the authors have gone out of their way to make her as unique and memorable as possible.  Rhonda is described as a larger woman, who is obese but also extremely well-muscled, able to bench 350 pounds.  In addition, she has bright pink hair, outrageous clothes (which she wears in court), tattoos, a daring attitude, daddy issues, and destructive combat abilities.  While I would say that so many odd distinctive features might be a bit over the top (if she had any more tawdry quirks, she could open up a tawdry quirk shop), it actually ends up working really well, much to my surprise.  Despite how strong her unique features were layered on, I quite liked this distinctive character and the way she takes care of business and gets involved in any case that could potentially involve children in trouble.  Add in her massive family drama, especially as she nearly meets her match in Baby, and you have quite an interesting character who ended up being the emotional heart of this deeply exciting narrative.

Baby Bird is the wildly independent teenager who, after suffering through the sudden death of her father, is forced into the care of an older sister she never knew.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Baby when the book started, especially as her attitude and demeanour were that of an over-exaggerated and stereotypical disrespectful teen.  However, she did grow on me as the story progressed, thanks to her keen detective insight and slowly developing relationship with her sister, which is what the authors probably intended.  Baby ends up being a lot more complicated than you would imagine, and you swiftly see that she badly messed up by her father’s lax parenting and the sudden loss of the only family she knew, and this makes for some intense and moving dramatic moments.  If this novel continues into a major series, I have a feeling that Baby is going to develop the most, and I would be quite interested in seeing that.

The rest of the characters in this novel are also exceeding distinctive, with several outrageous and over-the-top figures who help to amp up the entertainment factor of this fun novel.  These include the members of the Midnight Crew, a group of violent, rich teenagers who get their thrills breaking into houses and assaulting the residents to settle their petty grudges.  The members of the Midnight Crew are essentially a more psychotic and deranged version of the Bling Ring, and Patterson and Fox really spend time portraying them as exceedingly spoiled rich kids, more concerned with status and thrills than ethics (with one exception).  Out of all the members of the Midnight Crew, easily the best is their leader, Vera.  Vera is the entire driving force behind them, and the authors do a really good job of building her up throughout the novel, especially as she is far more psychotic and murderous than you would expect.  The entire storyline around her is exceptional, and it opens some interesting narrative threads that could be explored in any future entries in this series.  I also really liked the assassin character, Jacob, who gets violently drawn into the Midnight Crew’s obit.  The authors do a great job with Jacob, and I deeply appreciated their portrayal of him as a former killer who is dragged back into his former life and has very few regrets about it.  Finally, I must highlight the fun Dr Perry Tuddy, a world-renowned chemist who keeps getting kidnapped to make drugs. The entire storyline around Tuddy is pretty hilarious, especially as he has developed a weird fetish for getting held captive, the explanation of which makes for one of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the entire book.  I had a lot of fun with all these characters, and they helped turn 2 Sisters Detective Agency into something special.

Overall, 2 Sisters Detective Agency ended up being an amazing and deeply compelling read that I found to be particularly addictive.  The brilliant team of James Patterson and Candice Fox really did a great job with this clever book, and I still cannot believe how much I enjoyed its fantastic story.  I really loved the unique narrative and characters contained within this novel, and I hope that this amazing team will strongly consider providing us with a sequel to this cool and captivating read.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.

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.

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

Throwback Thursday – Skavenslayer by William King

Skavenslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – December 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 30 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  The adventures of my two favourite Warhammer Fantasy protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, continues, with the second incredible and extremely fun entry in their series, Skavenslayer.

After their previous escapades throughout the Empire and beyond, wandering adventurer, outlaw, and writer Felix Jaeger is still reluctantly following the Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson on his quest to find a glorious death.  After travelling to the Imperial city of Nuln, the two heroes attempt to make some money to support their travels.  However, danger is always around the corner, as the heroes find themselves thrust into the middle of a vast conspiracy when they take on a menial job.  The chittering and evil hordes of the Skaven are amassing beneath Nuln, determined to conquer the city by any means necessary.  Led by a dangerous and ambitious leader, the rat-men have several sinister plots to kill all the humans above and appropriate their city and technology for their own glorious purposes.  The only chance the city has to survive this chaos appears to be Gotrek and Felix, who are constantly dragged into the middle of the Skavens’ plots, thanks to fate, Skaven pettiness or terrible bad luck (both Felix’s and the Skaven’s).  Can the two heroes save Nuln from the Skaven hordes, or will Gotrek finally find the death he always seeks?

Wow, this is such a fun and entertaining series.  Skavenslayer is the second entry in the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows the two titular heroes as they journey throughout the Warhammer Fantasy world, battling all manner of monsters, demons and creatures.  After enjoying some of the excellent Warhammer 40,000 fiction out there (Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), I recently dove into the first Gotrek and Felix novel, Trollslayer, which contained several exciting and compelling short stories.  I loved the fantastic mixture of action, world-building and fun characters featured within Trollslayer, and within a couple of weeks I had started listening to SkavenslayerSkavenslayer proved to be another excellent novel, and I honestly think it was a slightly stronger novel than Trollslayer, thanks to its much more connected plot.  This was an outstanding read that has many amazing elements to it.

Skavenslayer contains an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that follows Gotrek and Felix as they attempt to stop the Skaven plot to destroy the city of Nuln.  Skavenslayer is made up of several short stories linked together by Felix’s journal entries.  Unlike the previous novel, all six stories and the epilogue are linked, forming one continuous narrative and resulting in a tighter and more comprehensive read.

Skavenslayer’s first short story is Skaven’s Claw, which sees Gotrek and Felix employed as sewerjacks, guards who patrol the vast catacombs underneath Nuln.  On patrol, they chance upon a clandestine meeting between a Skaven and a human noble, placing Gotrek and Felix in the middle of a conspiracy involving the head of Nuln’s secret police.  Skaven’s Claw is an excellent first story that does a wonderful job establishing most of Skavenslayer’s plot details and introducing several key characters, including recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol.  I loved the combination of action, world building and intrigue that was contained within Skaven’s Claw, and it results in an awesome, fast-paced story.  The Nuln sewers prove to be a claustrophobic and memorable setting for most of the battles.  I also enjoyed the use of secondary antagonist Fritz von Halstadt, a fanatical human who has been manipulated by the Skaven, as his story arc was very well established and quite compelling.  This is an awesome entry that gets Skavenslayer off to an impressive start.

Next up we have Gutter Runners, which sees the Clan Eshin assassin, Chang Squik, lead a group of Skaven Gutter Runners on a mission to kill Gotrek and Felix at the inn where they are working as bouncers.  This was a quick and action-packed story which proved to be a lot of compelling fun.  The action is swift and deadly, as the protagonists are attacked on multiple fronts, and there are several great battle scenes throughout.  This is a fun story that you can easily power through in one short sitting, and I felt that it did a great job keeping the reader’s attention after the fantastic introductory story.

The third entry is the fantastic and funny Night Raid, which focuses on the members of Clan Skyre, the insane Skaven engineers and weapon designers.  The leader of the Clan Skyre contingent, Heskit One-Eye, plans a raid on the Nuln College of Engineering to appropriate the latest human weapons and technology and obtain glory.  However, the jealous Grey Seer Thanquol organises a significant roadblock in the form of Gotrek and Felix.  This is another outstanding entry in the novel, and I consider it to be the most comedic and entertaining of the bunch.  Not only do you get to see amazing examples of Skaven backstabbing and betrayal but you also have an extremely funny and exciting sequence at the college, where all hell breaks loose when a Skaven gets stuck in a Steam Tank.  This story also serves as an excellent introduction to the various Skaven side-characters, and a lot of elements from Night Raid have major impacts on the rest of Skavenslayer’s story.

Up next, we have the disgusting and captivating story, Plague Monks of Pestilens.  In this story, a brewing plague strikes quick with deadly consequences.  However, this is no ordinary plague; it is a deadly concoction dreamt up by the demented plague monks of Clan Pestilens, led by the terrible Vilebroth Null.  Warned again by Thanquol, Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the plague monks before it is too late.  Plague Monks of Pestilens is an amazing middle story that is pretty memorable.  Rather than the pure hack-and-slash narrative of the previous story, King works in an interesting mystery element, as Felix tries to work out where the plague monks are attacking from.  Once battle is joined, you are in for a dangerous and gruesome fight, especially as the author goes into full horror mode when describing the grotesque plague monks and their malformed, diseased bodies.  This is an extremely intense and disturbing story which really enhances Skavenslayer’s overall narrative and gives it the more serious edge it needed.

The penultimate story of Skavenslayer is Beasts of Moulder, which sees Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the master mutators of Clan Moulder, led by Izak Grottle, try to unleash their latest creation.  This was a decent addition, although if I am being honest, it was probably the weakest entry in the entire book.  Not only are the stakes a little lower, but it repeats the pattern of the previous two entries.  I did quite enjoy the scene where Felix visits the palace, especially as everyone there assumes he is some sort of master monster hunter, but the rest of the story fell a little flat, especially the Elissa subplot.  Still, it fits into Skavenslayer’s narrative well and does a good job setting up the final story.

The last entry in Skavenslayer is the major concluding storyline, The Battle of Nuln.  In this story, both the citizens of Nuln and the Skaven army hiding beneath the streets have been afflicted by plague and famine.  In order to achieve victory, Thanquol leads a daring raid on the Countess’s palace during a ball, while the rest of the Skaven army attacks the city.  With Gotrek and Felix stuck in the middle of several Skaven plots, can they save the city before it is overwhelmed by rats, disease and vile Skaven magic?  The Battle of Nuln is an incredible and captivating entry that serves as the action-packed conclusion to the entire book.  King brings together all his fantastic storylines, and the readers are rewarded with an intense and extended war sequence, as the full wrath of the Skaven force is unleashed.  I deeply enjoyed this final story, and it did an outstanding job of providing satisfying, if occasionally lethal, conclusions to all the character arcs and storylines.  There is so much action going on in The Battle of Nuln, and I loved seeing the consequences of all the previous short stories finally come to the fore for both sides in the war.  An excellent and exciting conclusion that will put you in the mood for even more Gotrek and Felix.

I had an outstanding time getting through each of the short stories above, and not only are they fantastic reads on their own but together they form an impressive and intense overarching narrative.  King did a wonderful job crafting together all six stories, and I felt that the use of a single location and overarching antagonists worked extremely well, especially once you are introduced to the four iconic Skaven clans.  While some of the middle stories do suffer from plot repetition, this is still a great book which is extremely fun to read.  King ensures each story has a great combination of action, character development and humour, and each of the stories can easily be read on their own without a lot of context from the others.  This is also a very good Warhammer Fantasy novel, and readers only need minimal prior knowledge of the franchise, especially as King provides a great amount of detail and self-contained lore.  I felt that it came together perfectly, and readers are in for an exceptional time when they check this novel out.

One of the more entertaining and fun parts of this novel was King’s use of the Skaven as the villains of the story.  The giant rat-men known as Skaven are chaotic beings who, thanks to their spiteful nature, massive ambitions and weird array of abilities, weapons, magic and fighting techniques, are one of the most entertaining and recognisable races in the Warhammer Fantasy canon.  I think that King did a particularly good job bringing the Skaven to life in Skavenslayer, and they proved to be a very intriguing and memorable group of antagonists.  Not only does the author showcase several unique Skaven clans (each of them is covered in a short story), but he also captures the Skavens’ treacherous nature, speech pattern and insane pettiness.  While the Skaven have an elaborate plan, their own paranoia and self-serving mindset gets in the way of its success, and it is wonderful to see the various backstabbing, betrayals and plots that occur throughout the course of the book.  Despite this, they still prove to be a dangerous group of enemies, and they manage to hit the protagonists and the rest of the humans in Nuln in a big way.  I really enjoyed the way that King utilised the Skaven throughout this novel, especially as their duplicitous or cowardly actions are the catalyst for most of the book’s humour, and Skavenslayer is a fantastic and detailed introduction to this impressive Warhammer Fantasy faction.  That being said, there are only so many times you can hear a scared Skaven getting ready to “squirt the musk of fear”, and some different wording might have been better.

Another highlight of this book is its complex characters.  The most notable and prominent of these are titular protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, and it is still incredibly fun to see the unusual partnership of a doomed Dwarf Slayer and a former wealthy poet turned notorious adventurer.  Due to his position as the book’s main point of view character, much of Skavenslayer’s focus lies on Felix.  While there are still hints at his somewhat cowardly past, especially as he seems apprehensive before every single fight, Felix has become a much more fearless and dangerous being in this book, and he leads the way in several battles throughout Skavenslayer, proving himself a fantastic hero.  There are some interesting character moments for Felix throughout this book, especially as he encounters his brother, Otto, the first member of his family to reach out to him since his banishment.  There are some great comparisons between the wealthy Otto and the more adventurous Felix in Skavenslayer, and it was intriguing to see what Felix might have turned into if he was not bound to Gotrek.  I also liked how Felix developed more into his role as the sane straight man to Gotrek, and his dry humour really adds a lot of comedy to the books.  Overall, Skavenslayer is quite a strong outing for Felix, and he proves to be an outstanding central character.

Aside from Felix, the other main character is Gotrek, the mad, death-hungry Dwarf Slayer, who is constantly denied his desired doom in glorious combat due to his own unnatural skill.  Gotrek is his usual crude and disrespectful self throughout Skavenslayer, and it is an absolute joy to see him in battle, even if his portrayed as way too overpowered.  While he is a great character, Gotrek was underutilised in Skavenslayer, and he was mainly just a supporting player in the Felix-based stories, only appearing when there is a need for fighting.  Still, it was great to see him, and he does get a lot more attention in the next novel.

While Gotrek was a bit overlooked, King does a wonderful compromise by introducing an exceptional primary antagonist in the form of Grey Seer Thanquol, a powerful Skaven sorcerer who goes on to be a major recurring figure within the Gotrek and Felix novels and the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Thanquol is an impressively entertaining character who represents the absolute best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of Skaven society.  He is insanely ambitious, arrogant, power-hungry and dangerous, and rose to power thanks to an unfortunate “accident” involving his predecessor, a loaded crossbow and an exploding donkey.  Due to his ambition and an unwillingness to share any glory, Thanquol spends just as much time plotting against his equally aspiring subordinates as he does attempting to conquer Nuln or kill Gotrek and Felix.  Indeed, several conflicts with the Skaven are due to Thanquol himself informing the protagonists about his rival’s plots, often through some hilarious letters which are clearly written by a Skaven (despite Thanquol’s own belief that they are masterful forgeries).  The sheer overconfidence, deluded self-belief and inability to take responsibility for his failings make Thanquol a particularly nasty antagonist, however, it is just so entertaining to see him strive and then fail, that you end up wanting him to live and succeed against his Skaven opponents.  Thanquol proves to be an excellent antagonist, and I really enjoyed seeing his alternative point-of-view which highlights the Skaven plans.  King really outdid himself coming up with this villainous rat-man, and he is one of the best things about Skavenslayer and the overall Gotrek and Felix series.

King has also filled Skavenslayer with an interesting collection of side characters who add a lot to the plot.  The author does a good job of introducing these major side characters throughout the various stories, and he manages to build them up and flesh out their personalities in a short amount of time.  There are great human supporting characters, such as Heinz and Doctor Drexler, and several fun and amusing Skaven.  The majority of these Skaven characters are leading members of the main clans who not only serve as secondary antagonists for the novel, but who are also cast as rivals to Thanquol’s rise to power.  I had a fantastic time seeing each of these Skaven characters in all their treacherous, self-serving glory, although my favourite had to be the aptly named Lurk Snitchtongue, who is a very fun and cowardly character.

If I had to make one major criticism, it would be about the complete lack of any decent female supporting characters.  While you can forgive some older fantasy books for their lack of gender diversity, it is a painfully obvious problem in Skavenslayer.  There are literally only two female characters of note within the novel, and both are badly written.  The first is Felix’s romantic partner, Elissa, who quickly becomes a major burden to the story by forming conflicts with Felix.  Their romance is thankfully over before the end of the book, and you cannot feel anything but relief as she leaves.  The other character is the ruler of Nuln, Countess Emmanuelle, who gets only a couple of lines at the end of the novel.  While her one scene does shine her in a good light, the rest of the novel hints that she is a vapid, lustful and incompetent ruler.  The underuse of female characters is probably going to be a major feature of Gotrek and Felix series in the future (for example, Daemonslayer only has one female character), however, I really hope that any who feature are written a lot better than the ones featured in Skavenslayer.

Just like I did with Trollslayer before it, I chose to listen to Skavenslayer on audiobook rather than grab a physical copy of the book.  I have a lot of love for the Warhammer Fantasy audiobooks, especially as they always perfectly capture the excitement, grim horror and elaborate fantasy of this franchise.  Skavenslayer was another great example of this, and I had a wonderful and thrilling time listening to this amazing novel in this format.  Much of the reason for this was the excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble, a brilliant narrator who has lent his voice to most of the Gotrek and Felix novels.  Keeble has an outstanding voice for dark fantasy stories such as this, and I loved the grim tone he gives to several of the characters, particularly Gotrek, as well as the sheer excitement that infects his tone whenever there is a fight sequence or dangerous scene.  Keeble also a lot of fun voicing the various Skaven characters, and he expertly mimics their high-pitched, whiney tones, which helps highlight their fickle and cowardly nature.  This excellent voice work helps turn the Skavenslayer audiobook into an absolute treat to listen to, and with a runtime of only 10 and a half hours, listeners will power through this in no time at all.

William King’s second Gotrek and Felix novel, Skavenslayer, was another outstanding and wildly enjoyable novel that I had an incredible time listening to.  Featuring a compelling connected narrative filled with intense action and fun villains, this is an amazing fantasy tale that is perfect for all Warhammer Fantasy fans.  I can think of no higher compliment for this book than to reveal that the moment I finished Skavenslayer, I immediately grabbed the next novel in the series, Daemonslayer, which proved to be just as much fun.

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