Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

Catwoman Soulstealer Cover.jpg

Publishers: Penguin Random House

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

One of DC Comics’ most iconic and badass female antiheroes is re-imagined in this bold new novel from young adult fiction bestseller Sarah J. Maas.

Selina Kyle is a rough street kid growing up in the slums of Gotham City.  She looks after her sister while scraping a living as a gang member and pit fighter.  When her luck finally runs out, her potential is seen by the mysterious Talia al Ghul who saves her and recruited into the League of Assassins.

Two years later, Selina has returned to Gotham City with a plan to turn the city on its head as Catwoman, the master thief and criminal mastermind.  Using the alias of the spoiled socialite Holly Vanderhees, Selina has returned at an ideal time; Batman is not in the city, away on a vital mission, and he has left his protégé Batwing behind to safeguard the city.  Initiating a series of high-profile thefts, Selina soon has the attention of Batwing and GCPD, especially when she starts teaming up with her new BFFs Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to wreak havoc around the city.

While Batwing searches the city for this mysterious new villain, his alter ego, Luke Fox, encounters his mysterious new neighbour, Holly, and the two find themselves drawn to each other as their alter-egos battle in the night.  While Selina is able to outfox Batwing, a far more destructive force is about to be unleased upon Gotham.  Catwoman stole something from the League of Assassins and now a cadre of their most lethal assassins are descending on the city.  Will Selina be able to survive their deadly attentions, what is Catwoman’s plan, and who will be left standing in the aftermath?

This is the third book in the DC Icons series, a series of young adult books that provide re-imagined origin stories for younger versions of DC’s most iconic characters outside of the other established DC universes.  Featuring a range of different authors, the first book in the series, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, focused on Wonder Woman before she left Themyscira to become a hero, while the second book, Batman: Nightwalker, followed a teenage Bruce Wayne as he attempts to stop a series of murders in Gotham City.  A fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, is currently set to be released in March 2019 and will follow a young Clark Kent as he investigates strange happenings in Smallville.

Soulstealer is the first of these DC Icons books that I have read, and I was quite impressed with the new and unique Catwoman story that it contained, as well as the cool new versions of several DC characters, including Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Batwing.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, read by Julia Whelan.  I quite enjoyed having the story narrated to me, especially as it only took around 10 hours to get through.  While I initially had misgivings about whether I would like this series, after reading and loving Soulstealer I will definitely be getting a copy of Dawnbreaker when it is released next year, and Warbringer and Nightwalker will both be appearing future versions of my Throwback Thursdays reviews.

The author of Soulstealer, Sarah J. Maas, is one of the biggest names in modern young adult fiction, having written two best-selling young adult series in the last six years.  Her long-running Throne of Glass series finished earlier this year, and she has also created the A Court of Thorns and Roses series.  Soulstealer is the first Sarah J. Maas book that I have had the pleasure of reading, but after really enjoying the intricate story and fantastic characters within the novel I am keen to see what her fantasy books are like.  As a result, her Throne of Glass series is high on my list of books to check out in the future, especially after seeing just how awesome the artwork is on some of those covers and collected box sets.

Maas has installed a fantastic and clever story into her debut DC novel, and I really enjoyed how she re-imagined the origins of prominent comic book character.  Soulstealer contains a younger version of Catwoman, introducing her as a teenager gang member and focusing on her initial life of crime.  After the introductory paragraph, the story jumps ahead two years to Selina’s return to Gotham and her initial adventures as Catwoman, while also featuring several flashbacks to her training with the League of Assassins.  This main story is then told from two separate point-of-view characters, Selena and Batwing, and shows the characters in both their costumed adventures and as the people behind the masks in their civilian identities.  Soulstealer has a tight and intricate storyline that contains the perfect balance of comic book action, relationships, backstory, references and variations to comic lore, as well as a number of heists and intricate plots.  I loved Catwoman’s overall plan, as she engages in a play to take over Gotham while really nursing an ulterior motive that pits her against the League of Assassins.  I loved the slow reveal of this complex and insane plan, as well as the lengths she goes to bring her plan to pass, including making some dangerous partnerships.

One of the most interesting and significant changes that Maas makes to Catwoman’s origin story in this novel is the fact that she never meets or associates with Batman.  In nearly every previous iteration of Catwoman, her story has always been intertwined with Batman’s, as the two were usually each other’s main love interest, either as Batman and Catwoman or Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  However, in Soulstealer, Catwoman is substantially younger than Batman, who starts his crusade years before she is trained by the League of Assassins.  In addition, Batman is not present in Gotham when she returns to the city and throughout the book the two characters have no interactions at all.  Instead, Catwoman’s main love interest is the Luke Fox version of Batwing, who has been defending Gotham in Batman’s absence.  This results in a similar romance plot to some of the classic Batman and Catwoman storylines, where the two characters meet and start to fall in love with each other in both of their personas, despite their apparently different personalities.  This is a fun little romance that does get serious at times, as the two characters are mirrored by their personal traumas and backstories, such as a Selina’s life on the streets and with the League, versus Luke’s PTSD as a result of his time as a marine.  There are also some great moments when the two characters face off against each other, and some of the book’s best laugh-out-loud moments came when Catwoman messes with either Batwing or Luke, sometimes at the same time.  To my mind, the funniest scene in the book had to be when Batwing, after getting injured and rescued by Catwoman, awakens half-naked in a darkened room, only to find out that he is actually in Commissioner Gordon’s spare bedroom.  The moment Luke walks out to find Gordon and his family staring at them was pretty darn funny, especially when Batwing attempted to play it off nonchalantly while silently cursing Catwoman.

One of the elements of Soulstealer that I really appreciated was the references and re-imagined versions of several DC comics characters that appeared throughout the novel.  A huge range of DC characters, many tied into the Batman comics, appear throughout the book in a number of different capacities.  The characters that appear range from the iconic to the obscure and are enough to delight both hardcore comic fans and those with a more casual knowledge of these comics.  Several major Batman characters appear throughout the story; I will refrain from mentioning the full roster of characters to cut down on spoilers, although there is one appearance that was particularly awesome.  While a number of these characters have key or interesting differences between their mainstream comic book counterparts, it is clear that Maas has a real understanding and appreciation for the lore behind these characters.  It is also incredibly fascinating to see how Maas changes these characters for the purposes of her story, and the subtle tweaks that are made to accommodate this different universe.

Of all these additional characters, two of the best and significant inclusions are fellow supervillains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, who team up with Catwoman to bring a little chaos to Gotham.  In the comic universe, these three supervillains occasionally form a team known as the Gotham City Sirens, and it was great to see them together in this book.  Like Catwoman, both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are quite young and have slightly altered origin stories which somewhat mirror the new origin story of Catwoman.  However, some of the key elements that made these characters so great in their comic book origins remain alive in these book adaptations of the characters and which work extremely well with Maas’s fantastic Soulstealer storyline.  For example, in this story, Harley is still obsessed with the Joker, no matter how much it impacts her relationship with the others, and there are a lot of discussions between Catwoman and Ivy about the roots of her obsession and insanity.  There is also a very clear and acknowledged romantic connection between Ivy and Harley that adds a really interesting element to the story, especially as Harley’s insanity stands in the way of the more serious relationship Ivy desires.  The inclusion of these characters adds in a defining friendship for a main character who has never had the option of friends before, and it’s also a lot of fun seeing these three characters work together, especially as they have such diverse skill sets and range of attitudes.  Overall, I really loved the fact that Maas included Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as key characters in her novel, and it was a lot of fun to see her version of these young villains banding together for the first time and forming an outstanding partnership.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I grabbed the audiobook copy of Soulstealer and listened to that instead.  The audiobook is narrated by Julia Whelan, who does an amazing job capturing the essence of the book’s main character, Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  When focused on Catwoman’s point of view, the listener gets a real sense of the character’s emotions and attitude, and the voices that Whelan assigns to the other main female characters, Ivy, Harley and Talia, are fairly distinctive and fit well with the character.  I thought that the voice that the narrator used for the book’s other point-of-view character, Batwing/Luke Fox, was very serviceable and conveyed the character well enough.  However, I was a tad disappointed that the narrator did not do too much with several of the other iconic Batman characters in the story, such as Alfred, Batman or Commissioner Gordon, especially as these major characters have all been portrayed by amazing actors or voice actors in the past.  Still, the audiobook version is a great way to enjoy this story and it certainly helped me power through this novel quickly without forcing me to skip over any of its important elements.

Catwoman: Soulstealer is an excellent young adult superhero novel from acclaimed author Sarah J. Maas.  This book is a fantastic standalone novel that re-imagines an iconic DC comic book character.  No great previous insight into Catwoman or the DC universe is required, and those with even a glancing knowledge of the comic book characters will be able to enjoy this novel to its full potential.  This serves as a very good young adult novel that will hopefully draw in a younger generation of readers into this established universe, and I appreciated Maas’s casual inclusions of a number of LGBT+ elements.  Soulstealer comes highly recommended and it has certainly sparked my interest in checking out all the other books in the DC Icons range.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Red War by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Red War Cover.png

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

From the minds of two outstanding thriller writers comes Red War, the latest book in the iconic Mitch Rapp spy series.  This newest addition is an exhilarating and action-packed espionage novel that incorporates a captivating look at modern global politics into its exciting and enjoyable narrative.

For years, Russian president Maxim Krupin has ruled his country with an iron fist, and even recent setbacks to his ambitious plans in the Middle East have not lessened his power or influence.  However, Krupin is about to encounter an opponent even he may not be able to overcome: cancer.  With an inoperable brain tumour impacting his actions, the once calculating and selectively destructive strongman begins openly targeting all his enemies and opponents in order to retain his power and to distract attention away from his illness.

The Americans, especially the CIA, are alarmed and surprised by the Russian president’s sudden and unpredictable moves.  Uncertain of the motivations behind them, the CIA assign legendary covert operative Mitch Rapp to investigate and counter Krupin’s more aggressive moves, including the attempted assassination of Krupin’s former problem solver, Grisha Azarov.  When Rapp and the CIA uncover proof about Krupin’s medical condition, they begin to realise just how desperate and dangerous their opponent is.  With Russian troops massing on the border of Europe, it appears Krupin may even be willing to start a war with the West in order to maintain his position.  With World War III just around the corner, Rapp is given an impossible task: infiltrate Russia and assassinate the man many consider to be the most powerful person in the world.  Will Rapp and his allies succeed in this dangerous mission, or will their actions lead the world to the very brink of a nuclear war?

This is the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which began in 1999 with the first book, Transfer of Power, which was written by Vince Flynn as a follow-up to his 1997 debut, Term Limit, which is set in the same universe as the Mitch Rapp books.  Following Flynn’s death in 2013, the series was continued by fellow thriller writer Kyle Mills, who has written 17 books since 1997, including the last three Mitch Rapp novels.  The Mitch Rapp books are a fast-paced and action-packed series that focuses on American espionage, and often features the titular character’s brutal war on Islamic terrorists.  Some who are unfamiliar with the books may have seen the film adaption of Flynn’s 2010 prequel novel, American Assassin, which was released in 2017, featuring Dylan O’Brien of Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner fame, as well as Batman himself, Michael Keaton.

In this latest book, Mills continues the series trend of providing the reader with eventful and compelling adventures.  Red War is chock full of action and combat as the protagonists attempt to counter the Russian president, the president’s personal assassin and the whole Russian army.  Readers will find plenty to keep them entertained, from small tactical skirmishes around the world between American and Russian covert forces, to large-scale battles and wars, with some devastating results.  While the main protagonist, Mitch Rapp, is starting to get a little old, he is still the same killing machine he has always been, and he powers through the vast majority of his opponents.  However, some of the other characters he encounters are the cream of the Russian army and have been enhanced by a combination of extreme training and performance-enhancing drugs.  This results in some very hectic shoot-outs and fight sequences, although there is very little doubt that Rapp will succeed.  A lot of these fights are tactical in nature as Rapp seeks to outsmart larger or more formidable forces he finds himself up against, resulting in some scenes with slower pacing that are used to create a more intense, but equally exciting, action sequence.  In addition, there are some fairly outrageous sequences throughout the book that readers will really enjoy.  For example, in a later part of the book Rapp suddenly finds himself leading an unusual army against his opponents, and a scene earlier in the book he decides to utilise a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in a fight after he starts “getting sick of these drugged-up, thirtysomething terminators whom Krupin was churning out”.

Mills has also made sure to include detailed examinations of the various intelligence-gathering and espionage techniques that his characters employ, as well as several scenes exploring the opposing nations planning and tactical sessions.  It is always fun to read about fictional tactical and intelligence meetings, especially in novels like Red War, when you see both these discussions from both sides of the conflict in order to focus on the various moves and countermoves each opposing side utilises.  In Red War, the motivation behind the Russian president’s actions is revealed to the reader within the first few pages of the book; however, all the American characters, and even some of the Russian characters, have no idea why he has escalated his campaign against his opponents.  It is very captivating to watch the various actions Krupin takes to not only stay in power, but also hide his illness from his own people.  As the book progresses and this becomes harder for him to manage, it is interesting to see the Americans begin to put the pieces together and see how well their theory fits into place.  Both the American and Russian characters do a lot of espionage and counterespionage moves throughout the novel as the Americans attempt to uncover the Russian leader’s unpredictable next move, while Krupin and his agents attempts to take out his various rivals while also frustrating the Americans.  The descriptions of these espionage moves and techniques feel very realistic, and there is enough going on to keep any lover of spy fiction very happy.

One of the most compelling and notable things about Red War is the way that it brushes on current politics and uses many recent real-world events in its story, by either referencing them or attributing them to the book’s fictional characters.  One of the main antagonists, the Russian president Krupin, is an athletic and powerful strongman that is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of Vladimir Putin, with several similar character attributes, including a propensity to use staged hunting propaganda shots out in the snow to promote his rugged, masculine image.  Many of Krupin’s actions and decisions throughout the book match those of Putin, down to the character revealing he utilises social media to influence international politics.  As a result, while the book focuses on a fictional antagonist, the reader is left thinking about what would happen if something similar were to happen to Putin or another world leader, and how other nations would respond.  The American and Russian characters discuss geopolitics throughout the book as they make their plots and plans, and many of the events they discuss have happened in the real world.  This allows the readers, especially those familiar with current world affairs, to enjoy a much more realistic read, especially when the characters look at real world events to justify their actions or responses.  These real-world inclusions help to turn Red War into a much more intriguing read for the readers that does an amazing job capturing its audience’s attention and interest.

Despite being the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, Red War is a very approachable book that is very easy for readers unfamiliar with the series to enjoy.  A perfect read for those who are intrigued by a fun and exciting plot concept, Red War delivers all the action and espionage you could possibly want, with some incredibly fascinating insights and references to modern global politics.  Mills has once again forged an incredible story from Vince Flynn’s original thriller universe, and fans of this series will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

King of Ashes Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Australian Publication Date – 5 April 2018

World Publication Date – 8 May 2018

 

For over 30 years, one of the most reliable cornerstones of fantasy fiction has been the books of Raymond E. Feist.  Starting with the 1982 fantasy classic, Magician, Feist has produced 30 books, all set in the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, as part of his long running Riftwar CycleKing of Ashes is the first book Feist has written since he ended the Riftwar Cycle in 2013.  It is also the start of The Firemane Saga, a new series which is set in a completely different universe to the Riftwar Cycle and introduces the reader to an exciting new story.

The continent of Garn was once home to five kingdoms, the greatest of which was the Kingdom of Ithrace.  Ruled by the red-haired Firemanes, Ithrace was known for its culture and creativity.  However, following a great betrayal, Ithrace was destroyed and its king executed.  In order to avoid any retribution, the power-hungry King of Sandura ordered the deaths of every member of the Ithrace royal family, and not even their legendary affinity for fire could save them.

Now, 17 years later, war is returning to Garn.  Ancient pacts of peace are failing, and the four kingdoms are out of balance.  As the kingdoms and the independent baronies prepare for a new conflict, rumours of a hidden heir to Ithrace’s throne begin to surface.

In the previously peaceful Covenant Lands, Declan, a young and talented blacksmith, is forced to flee slavers raiding his village.  Carrying the rare knowledge of crafting the legendary jewel-steel, Declan flees to the Barony of Marquensas, where he hopes to create a new life for himself.

Meanwhile, in the feared and hidden island nation of Coaltachin, three youths, Donte, Hava and Hatu, are being trained in the way of the Quelli Nascosti assassins, learning how to spy, steal and kill.  All three of the young agents are eager to explore the world outside of their island home, but they quickly find themselves under attack.  The mysterious group of assailants seem to have been trained in a similar way to the assassins of Coaltachin.  Whoever these attackers are, they are unafraid of the young assassins and have a particular interest in capturing Hatu, an orphan with red hair and a fiery temper.  As events transpire, these young people find themselves in the heart of events that will transform Garn forever.

Feist delivers a fantastic and absorbing read that once again illustrates why he is one of the preeminent writers of fantasy fiction in the world today.  His latest book is a classic fantasy tale set within another unique and memorable universe and is one of the most thrilling and addictive releases so far this year.

King of Ashes is the first book in a brand new trilogy that has definite potential to expand out into another long-running series.  As a result, Feist presented this book as a set up for the rest of the series, rather than a stand-alone book.  Substantial time was spent establishing the characters, world and overall story, and introducing elements to be further explored in future instalments of the series.  While some questions are answered towards the end of the book, a number of mysteries still remain.  King of Ashes proved very hard to put down—an impressive feat, considering it was 545 pages long in the hardcover edition.

Feist has done a lot of work building up this new fantasy location, producing some amazing settings and locations.  The characters venture to large cities, small towns, fortified keeps, grasslands, forests and various islands.  There are also several scenes set on the ocean, which allow for some intricate sequences involving ships and naval combat.  It also appears that, despite how far many of the characters travel, they have only just brushed the surface of the continent mapped out in the front of the book.  This area of land appears to be less than half of the entire continent of Garn, which indicates wider adventures in future books.  There were also some brief mentions of other continents existing on this new world, which may be a possible indication of plans to expand this series past its initial trilogy.

While Feist introduces a number of new kingdoms and peoples throughout his story, many readers will really enjoy his inclusion of the Quelli Nascosti assassins on the island nation of Coaltachin.  In the story, the nation of Coaltachin, also known as the Invisible Nation, is ruled by the Quelli Nascosti assassins, who work throughout the continent as assassins, spies and informants.  Feist spends a significant amount of time focusing on this group of assassins, displaying various aspects of their society, operations, influence throughout Garn and varied training techniques.  As a result, they are the most fleshed-out group of characters within King of Ashes and are a definite highlight of the book.  Readers will really enjoy the significant focus Feist puts on this group, as this results in a number of high-intensity scenes with covert activities and exciting action.

Feist tells most of the story through three prominent characters, Declan, Hava and Hatu.  All three of these characters have fascinating and unique accounts to follow, although all of them could be considered to be coming-of-age stories.  Hava and Hatu are both members of the Quelli Nascosti, and it is through their eyes that we see most of the secretive nation and their actions.  Hatu is involved in action throughout the continent, encountering mysterious foes and discovering his hidden destiny, while Hava’s story focuses on more specialised training and a secret side mission.  Declan’s story is a classic fantasy story of a young man trying to find his way in life while overcoming destructive elements.  There are some more classic fight scenes in this storyline, and some very detailed descriptions of blacksmithing.  Each of these storylines is extremely enjoyable to read and provides different insights into this exhilarating new fantasy universe.

King of Ashes is the latest book from fantasy legend Raymond E. Feist and represents an outstanding start to a fantastic new series.  Featuring multiple coming-of-age stories, this is a pure fantasy tale set within an intriguing and detailed new universe.  This is mandatory reading for fans of Feist’s previous work and comes highly recommended for all fans of the fantasy genre.  I cannot wait for the next book in this series.

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor

The Throne of Caesars Cover

Publisher: Constable

Australian Publication Date – 6 March 2018

World Publication Date – 20 February 2018

 

Steven Saylor’s long-running ancient Roman detective series returns as Gordianus the Finder deals with the most infamous murder in Roman history: the assassination of Julius Caesar.

For decades, Gordianus the Finder has been the most respected investigator in all of ancient Rome.  After a lifetime of solving crimes and murders for the city’s rich and powerful, Gordianus is determined to retire from the investigative game and enjoy a life of luxury.  However, one last surprise has been thrust upon him: Gordianus’ adopted son Meto has spent years in the service of Caesar as his trusted aid and ghost-writer, and Caesar now seeks to reward Meto by making his father a senator.  Reluctantly accepting this rise in station, Gordianus’ ascension will take place in five days’ time, on the Ides of March.

Caesar has an ulterior motive for meeting with Gordianus.  Warned by visions and prophets, Caesar believes that his life may be in danger, and that disaster may strike before the conclusion of the Ides.  He requests that Gordianus keep his ears to the ground and quietly question leading members of the Roman nobility to see if there is any basis to his concerns.  While initially sceptical of any attempts on the dictator’s life, Gordianus’ suspicions are aroused when one of Caesar’s old rivals, Senator Cicero, also asks him to watch out for potential conspiracies.  As Gordianus begins his investigation, he finds himself in the middle of dangerous historical events, and even the legendary Finder may be unable to stop what is to come.  The Ides of March are approaching, and Caesar’s life isn’t the only one at risk.

The Throne of Caesar is the 16th book in the Roma Sub Rosa series, a series that also includes three prequel novels and two collections of short stories.  Saylor began in 1991 with Roman Blood, set in 80 B.C. some 36 years before the events of this book, and he has slowly been working towards the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Indeed, the last three instalments of the series were prequels produced while Saylor perfected his account of this famous murder.  It was definitely worth the wait, as Saylor has produced an extremely detailed and well-researched account of the infamous killing.

Gordianus’ investigation and social interactions are used to introduce the reader to many of the key people involved with the plot, as well as to discuss the political atmosphere that lead up to the assassination.  The Ides of March is the centrepiece of the novel.  It is clear that Saylor has consulted the key historical records of the killings, as he has made sure to include several of the lesser-known events that happened on the day.  For example, Saylor includes descriptions of the supposed visions Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had the night before, and Decimus Brutus’ intervention at Caesar’s residence the morning of the Ides.  Saylor also dedicates a good part of the book to examining the aftermath of Caesar’s death, including the political manoeuvrings that immediately followed, as well as the violent funeral.  As a result, the description of the killings and the surrounding circumstances are first rate, and this aspect of the book will appeal to Roman history buffs.

As Saylor discusses in the author’s notes, writing a murder mystery around the assassination of Julius Caesar is particularly hard, as his death is one of the most well-known events in Roman history, with all the conspirators condemned to historical infamy.  Saylor, however uses this to his advantage and manages to create a large amount of suspense by counting down the days until the 15th of March and hinting at the events that are to come.  All the reader can do is keep going through the novel, knowing that Gordianus will be unable to stop the murder, even as he gets closer and closer to the truth.

Saylor also compensates for the lack of mystery around the death of Caesar by including a second murder subplot.  Elements of this additional murder mystery are hidden in the background of most of the book, as the reader’s attention is directed towards the upcoming assassination, and the investigation into the second murder comes to the fore after Caesar’s death.  The actual events of the second murder are unique and will be of particular interest to fans of a certain Shakespearean play.

One of the best features of The Throne of Caesar is the significant incorporation of Greek mythology throughout the book.  Several Greek myths are discussed, and parts of the plot mirror elements of these myths.  Many of these myths are also included as centrepieces of two Roman epic poems written by Gaius Helvius Cinna, a famous historical poet, which are a major part of the plot.  While one of the plays featured is completely fictional and with no historical basis, the other play is Zmyrna, considered by Cinna to be his greatest achievement, the text of which is unfortunately lost to history.  Saylor provides an interesting possible narrative for the lost play, which flows into the plot of his mystery with great effect.  The overall effect of Saylor including these myths and legends is very striking, and it provides the reader another viewpoint into the lives of the ancient Roman characters who put great stock in these old and religious stories.

The latest addition to the Roma Sub Rosa series is a meticulously detailed and well-crafted book that acts as a unique and powerful chronicle of an important historical crime.  A suspenseful and compelling read, The Throne of Caesar serves as a great continuation of the story of Gordianus the Finder, and it will be interesting to see where Saylor takes the series next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker

Blood of Assassins Cover

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 13 February 2018

 

War, murder and magic return with R. J. Barker’s assassins in the sequel to his impressive debut, Age of Assassins.

It has been five years since assassins Girton Club-Foot and his master, Merela Karn, started a bloody civil war in the nation of Maniyadoc.  Since then, they have been in hiding, fighting in the borderlands as soldiers for hire to avoid the price on their heads.  However, when Merela is gravely injured, they have no choice but to return to Maniyadoc and seek shelter there.  Girton finds a far different land to the one he visited five years before.  War has turned much of the kingdom into a brutal hellscape, ruled over by war crazed marauders known as Nonmen, while giant flesh-eating pigs roam the wilds.

Amongst this chaos, three kings fight for power, their armies controlling what small tracts of inhabitable land remain.  Girton knows all three of the opposing kings, having spent time among them five years ago.  Two of them hate Girton and his master, falsely blaming them for the deaths of their relatives, the events which started the war.  However, the other of the warring kings, Rufra, owes Girton his life, and may be the only friend the young assassin has.  Since their last meeting, Rufra has turned into a noble king, weighed down by the responsibility of his office and personal grief.

Pledging his loyalty to Rufra, Girton immediately sets about trying to find a spy hidden among the king’s closest followers, navigating camp politics and the fragile alliances that hold the army together.  At the same time, Girton must also solve the murder of a fanatical religious leader whose dangerous followers demand retribution.  Rufra is the fractured nation’s best option for peace, but far too many people want him dead.  Each day the spy is active hastens Rufra’s defeat, and Girton must use every bit of his wit and skill to save his friend.

But the greatest threat to Rufra’s reign may be Girton himself.  Like all assassins, Girton uses forbidden magic to grant himself subtle advantages to aid him in his kills.  However, Girton’s magic has become far too powerful, and he can no longer control the terrible energies within him.  In a world were all magic is outlawed and feared, any evidence of Girton’s abilities would condemn him and everyone he loves to a bloody end.  The last uncontrolled sorcerer turned the kingdom of Maniyadoc into a barren wasteland, and Girton’s power may soon compel him to do the same.

This is the second book in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series and is the follow-up to last year’s successful and highly compelling debut, Age of AssassinsBlood of Assassins is a great addition to the series which builds up the anticipation for the upcoming King of Assassins, which is set to come out in Australia in August 2018.

The fantasy world that Barker has created is an interesting one with several unique features.  While most of the first book’s story was limited to the goings-on within one specific castle, Barker completely changes the script in this sequel by expanding the narrative to the whole realm of Maniyadoc and the fighting going on around it.  Readers of Age of Assassins will enjoy seeing how the devastation of the civil war has changed the kingdom.  The nation of Maniyadoc, which was already described as a fairly dismal place, is now haunted by a new range of monstrous creatures and humans created by neglect and the brutal fighting.  This noticeable change to the scenery of the story helps to affect the overall mood of the book and also acts as a mirror to Girton’s more depressed and hopeless mental viewpoint in the second book.

I often enjoy authors blending different genre types within fantasy books, and Blood of Assassins is a great example of this, as Barker has incorporated elements of political thrillers and murder mysteries.  The hunt for the murderers and traitors at the heart of Rufra’s camp is a well done and produces a compelling mystery that combines well with the book’s action, politics and magic.

Fans of action and battle will not be disappointed, as Barker makes full use of a range of fight scenes.  Action junkies will enjoy the numerous duels, clashes between assassins, larger pitched battles and one notable siege that sees that protagonist fighting to defend a village from a horde of crazed Nonmen while also attempting to hold his destructive magic at bay.  It is also interesting to see how Barker forgoes the enormous pitched battles that are a usual fantasy staple.  Instead this conflict is fought by small, desperate armies over limited amounts of land, which comes across as more realistic, considering the landscape.

Finally, Barker has also done a great job of showing how his main characters have developed since the last novel, particularly taking the time to illustrate how their relationships move and change throughout the book.  Girton has gone from a young and optimistic boy seeking the approval of his master to a taciturn and depressed man, actively resenting his master for the changes and problems in his life.  At the same time, Rufra has gone from a lowly squire seeking a friend and trying to avoid trouble to a man consumed by his responsibilities and personal grief.  These changes lie at the heart of the book and add emotional depth to the story.  It is also warming to see how the friendship between Girton and Rufra lightens both characters and helps heal their emotional wounds.

As a result, Blood of Assassins is a fantastic character-driven story that weaves together action and mystery in Baker’s excellent fantasy world to create a scintillating and addictive read.  This is a marvellous second outing from a bright new star in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars