The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

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

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday – Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving PIcture Cover.jpg

Publishers: Corgi and ISIS Audiobooks (14 November 1991)

Series: Discworld – Book 10

Length: 332 pages or 10 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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.

Because my blog shares the name of a building featured in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, some people might have assumed that I am a fan.  You would be right, so very, very right.  I have loved Discworld since I was a small child, and my appreciation and respect for the complex writings of the late, great genius, Sir Terry Pratchett, has grown with me.  The Discworld series represents one of my ultimate comfort series of books.  It’s the series that I go back to at any time when I want something fun and familiar to enjoy.  I have read all of the adult books set in Discworld multiple times (I have yet to read all of the young adult ones), and it is an unusual year when I do not listen or read some of these books in my spare time.  Pretty much every single book in this series deserves five out of five stars or higher (with one or two exceptions that I may mark down to a 4.75 with a heavy, heavy heart), and you are unlikely to find any real criticisms about this book below.  After nearly a year of running this blog, the continued exclusion of a review of any of Pratchett’s Discworld is a travesty, and one that I seek to rectify in this somewhat late Throwback Thursday with a review of the 10th book in the series, Moving Pictures.

Before I review Moving Pictures, here is some quick context of the Discworld series for those people unfamiliar with these books.  Discworld is the main series of Sir Terry Pratchett, set upon the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.  The Discworld, or the Disc, is a flat world that rests on the backs of four massive elephants, who themselves stand on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming in space, Great A’Tuin.  The Discworld itself features a huge range of different nations and continents that bear striking similarities to real-world locations.  This series is, without a doubt, the best series that utilises a combination of fantasy and satire in the entire world.  The seamless blend of the two elements is just incredible, and both elements do an unbelievable job at enhancing each other.  Before his death, Pratchett wrote 41 books in the Discworld series, six of which are considered young adult books.  While the books can be read in any real order, the series were mostly written in chronological order (with the exception of Small Gods), and events from earlier books in the series are often referenced.  Although most of the Discworld stories are self-contained, a number of the books are linked together by a recurring main character and are subsequently grouped together into subseries.  These include the Rincewind, Witches, City Watch, Death, Tiffany Arching and Moist von Lipwig subseries, in addition to a few standalone books that fall outside of any of the subseries.  Characters often appear in other Discworld books outside of their subseries, and there are a string of side or secondary characters who appear in multiple subseries and standalone books.

The book I am reviewing, Moving Pictures, is a standalone book that does not really fall within any of the main subseries.  It is sometimes considered part of minor subseries, called the Industrial Revolution subseries, with The Truth and Monstrous Regiment, but I am not a big fan of that distinction.  As it is the first Discworld book I am reviewing, you might think that it is my favourite book in the entire series, which is not true; although it does get five out of five stars from me and I have enjoyed it an amazing number of times, it is not my absolute favourite Discworld book, although it is high on the list.  It is, however, an easier one for me to review as there is a lot I can say about it.

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘Holy wood is a different sort of place. People act differently here. Everywhere else the most important things are gods or money or cattle. Here, the most important thing is to be important.’

People might say that reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess weight. Sadly alchemists never really held with such a quaint notion. They think that they can change reality, shape it to their own purpose. Imagine then the damage that could be wrought if they get their hands on the ultimate alchemy: the invention of motion pictures, the greatest making of illusions. It may be a triumph of universe-shaking proportions. It’s either that or they’re about to unlock the dark terrible secret of the Holy Wood hills – by mistake…

The blurb above is a bit vague on the details of what is actually happening in Moving Pictures.  Essentially, the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on the Discworld (and a central location for many of the books), suddenly develop filmmaking, which they call moving pictures, and set up a filming base at the ancient and abandoned Holy Wood.  The moving pictures issue a weird siren call to the inhabitants of the Discworld, dragging all manners of people and creatures from across the lands and infecting them with their magic (not a metaphor).

Among those drawn to Holy Wood are Victor Tugelbend, a former student wizard, and Theda “Ginger” Withel, a small-town girl with big dreams.  Thanks to the magical on-screen chemistry between them, Victor and Ginger quickly become the superstars of the fledgling moving pictures industry, especially when the Discworld’s most infamous salesman, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, comes to town and takes over the studios.

However, reality on the Discworld is always a bit thin, and Lovecraftian monsters (a favourite recurring antagonist of Pratchett’s early Discworld novels) are revealed to be the ones who planted the idea of moving pictures and Holy Wood in the alchemists’ heads.  Using the new sort of magic created by Holy Wood, the creatures start to break through.  With the wizards of Unseen University, the people who are supposed to guard against these sorts of incursions, distracted by the arrival of an unconventional new Archchancellor, it is up to Victor, Ginger and a ragtag band of other Holy Wood characters to save the day.

This book has so many moving parts to it that it’s hard to know where to begin when reviewing it.  While the main story is concerned with the introduction of moving pictures into the Discworld, there are a number of other entertaining storylines going on throughout the book, each one complementing the main story and creating an amazing overall narrative.  The major appeal of this book is its sharp and intelligent satire of the movie business, which also examines the nature of a film industry in a world as crazy as the Discworld.  I also quite like all the amazing characters, either introduced or built up in this book, many of whom appear in later books in the series.

This book is absolutely hilarious and filled with a huge number of clever and outrageous jokes and observations about the film industry, all of which lie on top of Pratchett’s usual humour about day-to-day life in the Discworld and his random observations, many of which are perfectly introduced in the book’s footnotes.  The main storyline is an amazing portrayal of the hectic early days of the film industry, placed in a fantasy setting.  The cameras are powered by miniature demons (who paint the pictures really, really fast), the lighting is done by salamanders, actors of all species make up the cast, the audience eat ‘banged grains’ while watching the ‘clicks’ and the film’s monsters and villains are all trolls in crude costumes.  However, literal movie magic is making people do strange things (strange even for Discworld folk), talking animals are showing up looking for work, Dwarfs are singing “Hihohihohiho” as they work, characters routinely burst into song and dance in the rain, and one producer keeps threatening to turn people into stars, all while the book’s few straight-characters look on in bemusement.  All of this is amazing, and the sheer number of fantasy-assisted jokes throughout the book is pretty unbelievable.

At its heart, Moving Pictures is a satire and a critique about the film industry as a whole.  Quite a large amount of the story is dedicated to parodying the real-life the crazy effect that movies can have on audiences and the people who make them, as the book shows some ridiculous events.  The story also reflects the insubstantial nature of fame and the fragility of dreams surrounding the movie industry.  The fast-moving world of the film industry is also shown, although sped up even more for comedic and story value, as they film creators are constantly searching and finding new advancements in their field.  A great example of this is shown when Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler invents and then continually advances the art of advertisement, so that, within a few short weeks, the film industry goes from ineffective text advertisements to eye-catching posters and explorations of product placement and subliminal messages.  Pratchett handles these critiques very skilfully, and you cannot help but laugh aloud as he skewers the film industry quite cleverly throughout Moving Pictures.

Pratchett also filled Moving Pictures with a ton of references to iconic films and elements of the film industry.  Many of the characters involved with the films are caricatures of famous movie actors, with Victor playing all the typical romantic or manly male heroes of the day, and Ginger is essentially Marilyn Monroe.  Several films are parodied throughout the book, such as Gone With The Wind, which becomes Blown Away, an epic love story set around a famous Ankh-Morpork Civil War.  There is a rather good King Kong parody, in which a gigantic woman kidnaps a poor defenceless Ape (the Librarian) and drags him to the roof of the tallest tower in Ankh-Morpork, all while two wizards on a broomstick shoot at it with a crossbow, with one shouting “If it bleeds, we can kill it!”  That is only scratching the surface of the references featured within this book.  A golden figure with a name starting with O plays a big part in the story, the various studios are all parodies of real-life studios, and there a huge number of funny and subtle references to various famous films.  Examples of these include Wizard of Oz, Lassie, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Looney Tunes, Blues Brothers, Casablanca, Tarzan and Star Trek just to name a few.  Readers can go through this book multiple times and not pick up every detail, which is a testament to the cleverness of Pratchett and his ability to come up with some hilarious references.

I have always found the way that Pratchett utilises or re-uses his characters to be extremely fascinating; while some characters appear in multiple books, a number of his main characters, especially from his earlier books, are only used once. There are several examples of this, including Mort from Mort, Pteppic from Pyramids and Esk from Equal Rites (who did appear in a later young adult novel, but there was a significant time gap between the writing of these two books).  While Pratchett may have simply had only one story in mind for these characters, I have a feeling that he simply did not like how they turned out and decided not to use them again under any circumstances.  Mort is probably the best example of this.  Despite being the protagonist of the first Death subseries book Mort, he never appears in any of the Death subseries books again (aside from one brief flashback), and is instead replaced by his own daughter, Susan.  It is interesting to note that most of the main characters who were never or rarely used again are somewhat similar to each other, being young heroes without too many obvious flaws to them.  On the other hand, the unique main characters Pratchett creates with notable flaws, such as Rincewind, the wizard who has turned cowardice into an art form, or the overly cynical and dangerous alcoholic Sam Vimes, helm multiple books.

If I have to make one criticism about this book, it is the weak and somewhat inconsistent main characters, Victor and Ginger.  Ginger is a generic female character, and while she is a good parody of Marilyn Monroe and other early screen actresses, she is pretty one-dimensional and unlikeable.  Victor starts out with some very interesting character traits, as he is described as an extremely lazy person, whose unique brand of laziness forces him to become a brilliant student wizard in order for him to succeed in his quest to fail every test he ever takes by a certain point margin to ensure he remains a student.  However, these character traits are pretty much thrown out the window a few chapters in and he becomes a typical male hero for the rest of the book.  While this sort of straight-man character was needed for this wacky adventure, it is surprising that the character never again really shows the slightest hint of some of these earlier established character traits.  It is interesting to note that neither Victor or Ginger appear in any of the subsequent Discworld novels, so I think there is a strong possibility that Pratchett might also have disliked how these characters turned out.

While one or two of his earlier main characters were somewhat unimpressive, Pratchett always managed to make up for this by creating a range of memorable and enjoyable side characters.  It was always interesting to see which of these side characters would appear in various later books, as you knew Pratchett had to like them as well.  For example, Granny Weatherwax was a supporting character in Equal Rites, but Pratchett must have liked writing her, as she became a major character in the Discworld series, even getting her own subseries with several other witch characters.  Moving Pictures is perhaps the best example of Pratchett’s love of side characters; while Victor and Ginger never appear in the Discworld again, many of the side characters introduced or developed in this book have major roles later in the series.

For example, I was always impressed with how this book turned two minor characters from Guards! Guards!, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Detritus the troll, and gave them more expanded roles in Moving Pictures.  Dibbler was an opportunistic merchant who got a couple of good, if minor, scenes in Guards! Guards!, but in Moving Pictures, Pratchett transformed him into a ruthless and extremely savvy salesman who gets in the front door of every major new opportunity inflicted on the Discworld, but is often forced by circumstances back to becoming a sausage-in-a-bun merchant.  Dibbler was absolutely fantastic as the stereotypical sleazy film producer, and it is unsurprising why he suddenly became a major recurring character throughout the Discworld books, not only appearing in nearly every book set in Ankh-Morpork but also having clones of him appear in the other nations and cities, all of whom sell disgusting local delicacies.  Detritus is another great example, as he goes from the simple bouncer introduced in previous books to a troll seeking love and a new way of life.  Pratchett comes up with a great personality for Detritus in this book, and it carries through to the City Watch subseries when he joins the Watch in Men at Arms and becomes a major recurring character in this subseries and other books set around Ankh-Morpork.  Other recurring characters, Death and the Librarian, are as awesome as ever, but Dibbler and Detritus are the real standout stars of this book.

Several new characters introduced in this story also make a number of reappearances throughout the rest of the Discworld series.  A good example of this is the talking dog, Gaspode, who is a fantastic and sarcastic character through the book.  He has some great scenes, with the highlight being his friendship with Laddie, a Lassie parody and idiot who Gaspode takes under his wing.  The idea of a clever, underappreciated and sarcastic talking dog side character apparently worked so well that Pratchett found a way to return his magical intelligence and ability to speak a few books later in Men at Arms (the same book Detritus reappeared in) and he then featured in several additional books.

You also have to love the new wizard characters that Pratchett also created for this book.  Before Moving Pictures, the faculty of Unseen University, with the exception of the Librarian and Rincewind, were replaced each book with a new group of senior wizards, thanks to the competitive nature of succession in the university.  However, this 10th book introduces a brand new and more permanent faculty of Unseen University, led by Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.  Ridcully is a fantastic character as he is big, loud and sporty man who is generally the complete opposite to any other wizard previously shown in the Discworld series.  I really enjoyed his storyline and found it to be one of the most entertaining in the entire book.  Pratchett must have agreed, as Ridcully became the only recurring Archchancellor in the Discworld series.  This also allowed for the creation and stabilisation of unique characters to make up the senior faculty of Unseen University, including the Bursar, the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes.  While the other wizards have a fun romp breaking out to go see the moving pictures, the Bursar has a great story, as you get to see the first signs of madness that would afflict him throughout every other book he appears in, as he first encounters the stress associated with working under Ridcully.  I also liked the introduction of a young Ponder Stibbons, whose bad day while trying to escape from the university is pretty humorous, but also the complete departure from his later role as the only serious member of the faculty.  Thanks to their entertaining storylines, the wizards would appear in multiple books in the rest of the Discworld series, and while they never had their own specific subseries, they would get major inclusions in several other subseries, including substantial stories in The Last Continent, Soul Music, Lords and Ladies and The Hogfather, as well as their own novel, Unseen Academics.

While I have physically read most of the books in the Discworld series, including Moving Pictures, these days I tend to only listen to the audiobook formats of these books.  The Discworld audiobooks are pretty awesome, and the two narrators for the series, Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, both do an incredible job.  I find that the humour in the Discworld novels is massively enhanced by the narration, and I love listening to the stories this way.  At 10 hours and 8 minutes, this is not a long audiobook, and I always tend to power through these books really, really quickly.  Planer is a comedy veteran and has an awesome audiobook voice, and it is quite impressive the sheer range of different and distinctive voices he can come up with.  I also like his incredible consistency when it comes the multiple books in the Discworld series; for example, voices he creates for Moving Pictures are generally the same used for that character in later books he narrated.  The audiobook format of Moving Pictures is my preferred way to enjoy this book, and it is really worth trying out.

As you can see from my extremely long rant above, I absolutely love Moving Pictures and the Discworld series.  Pratchett created an incredibly complex and extremely funny novel that laughs right at the heart of the film industry.  The sheer range of references in this book is amazing, and the creation and enhancing of the various side characters featured in this book has massive ramifications for many of the later Discworld novels.  If you have yet to experience the joy of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, get on it as soon as you can.  It is well worth it, and Moving Pictures is a great place to start your Pratchett adventure.  I fully intend to review more books in this series in the future.

Halo: Renegades by Kelly Gay – Audiobook Review

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

Series: Halo

Length: 8 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. This week participants get an Audio Freebie week, so I get to choose any audiobook topic that I want.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I love audiobooks, so I was very keen to participate in this topic.  Because of some recent long books that I have read and listened to, I have gotten very curious about the top ten longest audiobooks I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Therefore, I have decided to go back and list of all the audiobooks I have listened to and their run times to see which ones were the longest.  For consistency’s sake, I will use the run times as stated on either Audible or Amazon, and I will only use the versions and narrators that I listened to.  For example, I have only listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale and not the Stephen Fry versions, which are apparently longer, so I will therefore list the run times for the Jim Dale versions.

I am very curious to see what makes up my Top Ten List.  I have an idea of what will be at the top, but I am expecting quite a few Harry Potter books in the top ten.  Let us have a look:

1. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading – 45 hours and 48 minutes

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2. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, narrated by Nick Podehl – 42 hours and 55 minutes

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3. Magician by Raymond E. Feist, narrated by Peter Joyce – 36 hours and 14 minutes

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Technically two books combined together (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), but as I will always listen to them together, I am counting it as one book.

4. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, narrated by Roy Dotrice – 33 hours and 45 minutes

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5. Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst, narrated by Tania Rodrigues – 32 hours and 1 minutes

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6. Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 31 hours and 29 minutes

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7. Servant of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurst, narrated by Tania Rodrigues – 30 hours and 42 minutes

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8. Brisingr by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 29 hours and 34 minutes

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9. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, narrated by Nick Podehl – 27 hours and 55 minutes

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10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 27 hours and 2 minutes

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This was a very surprising result for me.  While I was expecting books such as The Way of Kings and The Wise Man’s Fear to make the cut, I really did think that Order of the Phoenix would be higher up on the list.  I was also very surprised that two books from Feist and Wurst’s The Empire Trilogy made the list, and I really did not think that Inheritance and Brisingr were that long.  Still, it’s a good result, which I have no doubt will change in the future, especially as some of the books I am keen to listen to, such as The Ember Blade (30 hours and 40 minutes long) would make it onto this list, knocking Order of the Phoenix off.  I am sure that with a different narrator or production company, some of these audiobooks would be longer or shorter; still, it was quite interesting to see.

As a bit of bonus material, and because I already had the run times listed, here are the next top ten books as an Honourable Mention.

Honourable Mentions:

11. Red Seas under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 25 hours and 34 minutes

12. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 23 hours and 43 minutes

13. Eldest by Christopher Paolini, narrated by Gerrard Doyle – 23 hours and 29 minutes

14. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey – 22 hours and 38 minutes

15. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey – 22 hours and 15 minutes

16. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page – 21 hours and 59 minutes

17. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 21 hours and 36 minutes

18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale – 21 hours and 12 minutes

19. Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, narrated by Mark Meadows – 19 hours and 29 minutes

20. Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, narrated by Christian Rodska – 19 hours

So that is where some of the other Harry Potters are.  With all 20 books being fantasy, I think it is obvious that I need to branch out into some longer books from other genres in order to break up this fantasy monopoly.  While I have reviewed some of the books on this list, I am planning to get to the rest at some point in the future.  However, I think most of those require a re-listen before I am able to do proper review of them; now I just have to find the time to fit them into my reading schedule.  I was quite happy with the interesting result of this Top Ten Tuesday, and I will have to revisit this list at some point in the future.  Feel free to comment below about the longest audiobook you have ever listened to.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

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Publishers: Gollancz and Orion Audio (Audiobook format – 15 November 2018)

Series: Rivers of London – Book 7

Length: 10 hours 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive headfirst into one of the best urban fantasy series in the world today, with the seventh book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, Lies Sleeping.

London is a magical place, especially for Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard.  Peter is a member of an elite unit of the London Metropolitan Police, known as the Folly, which is tasked with investigating magical crimes and protecting the city from all sorts of magical threats.  The person at the top of the Folly’s most wanted list is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man, a magical criminal mastermind who is determined to do whatever it takes to gain power.  However, despite the Met and the Folly’s considerable resources, Chorley is always able to stay one step ahead of those chasing him.

During a routine attempt to subtly panic several of Chorley’s known associates, a magical creature attacks a potential witness.  Peter’s investigation soon reveals that the witness had ordered the forging of a large and mysterious bell, which Chorley is desperate to get his hands on.  As Peter and his team dig deeper in the bell’s construction, they quickly begin to realise that Chorley is the final stages of his master plan, a plan tied deeply into the heart of London’s dark and bloody history, and one which could cause untold disaster for the entire city.

As the clock ticks down, Peter needs to work out the connection between London’s past and the mysterious magical events occurring all over the city.  Can Peter and his team once again save the day, or will their adversary finally obtain the power he has always desired?  Moreover, what will Peter do when he comes face to face with the woman who betrayed him to Chorley, his old partner in the Met, Lesley May?

Ben Aaronovitch is a highly regarded author with an interesting writing history to his name.  His writing career began back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he wrote a couple of Doctor Who television serials, including the highly regarded serial Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as three entries in the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who books.  The Virgin New Adventure series chronicled the adventures of the Doctor after the television show’s hiatus in 1989.  Aaronovitch’s three entries in this book series sound incredibly interesting, although they were considered to be somewhat controversial at the time due to their more adult content.  Aaronovitch did not get around to writing his fantasy work until 2011, when he wrote the urban fantasy Rivers of London.  This was the first book in the author’s Rivers of London series of books (alternatively known as the Peter Grant series or the PC Grant series), for which the author is best known for.  The Rivers of London series is very highly regarded, and Aaronovitch has worked hard to expand on the story and universe of this series, writing a number of novellas, short stories and graphic novels on top of the series’ main seven books.

Before Lies Sleeping, I had never got around to reading any of Aaronovitch’s books, despite hearing good things about his main series.  As a result, I was very happy that I finally managed to check out the series earlier this year.  I did receive a trade paperback edition from Hachette Australia, but in the end, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  I have to say that I was extremely impressed with this brilliant book and found that I really enjoyed the excellent and captivating story.  Lies Sleeping easily gets a full five-star rating from me, and I fully intend to go back and check out the other books in this series.  This book is an excellent blend of the fantasy and crime fiction genres, both of which come together perfectly to create an extremely compelling and complex read.

Lies Sleeping will prove to be extremely appealing to huge range of people; not only pre-existing fans of the series but also those readers who have not read any of the Rivers of London books before.  As a first-time Aaronovitch reader, I found that it was incredibly easy to step in and enjoy this series, as the author did a fantastic job making Lies Sleeping accessible to everyone.  While Aaronovitch has created a huge amount of lore around his series, including in his novellas and comics, the reader does not need to have any knowledge of these or the previous six books in the series to fully understand the entirety of Lies Sleeping’s story.  However, those readers who do have experience with this series will love how the story continues to development, as well as the massive and surprising twists that occur throughout the book.

At the core of this book lies a series of intriguing mysteries that take place throughout London.  In order to achieve his villainous goals, the antagonist has embarked on a series of seemingly random and chaotic crimes and ventures, all of which apparently form part of his master plan.  These various mysteries or criminal events were really interesting, and I liked trying to work out how they would all come together.  I particularly liked how various parts of these mysteries were deeply tied into the history of London, and the protagonist needed to gain a historical understanding of some of various myths and legends surrounding London.  Watching the protagonist attempt to unwind the complex plan of the book’s villains was extremely compelling, and I had a great time trying to work out what was happening myself.  One or two threads of these mysteries did go unsolved in this book, and I will be curious to see if they are picked up in any of the future entries in this franchise.

Aaronovitch is clearly a very creative writer, as he utilises a huge range of different and fairly unique fantasy elements throughout this book.  While there are a large number of wizards, spells and elvish beings throughout the book, the main focus is on the titular rivers of the series.  The more common magical beings encountered in this series are the personifications of the various rivers and waterways (current and historical) that flow through and around London.  These beings are similar to gods, although the term genius loci may be more appropriate, and have a huge range of powers.  These are a really intriguing addition to the book, and it was interesting to see the protagonist attempt to deal and interact with the various river characters, including his girlfriend, Beverly Brooke (yes, the main character of this series is dating a river).  There is also a huge range of other genius loci, or similar beings, that are featured within the story, including the mysterious and insane Mr Punch.  The magic that the human characters utilise is complex and slightly less ostentatious than some classic pieces of fantasy, but when the master wizards get to work it can be quite impressive.

One of the things I liked best about this book is how the author could create a realistic British police narrative and ensure magic became part of the procedure.  The Folly may be a special branch of the Metropolitan Police, but it is still part of the police force, and as such the characters are forced to follow standard procedure when investigating magical crimes.  Having these elite magical characters fill out paperwork and other various elements of day-to-day police life was deeply amusing.  I did like seeing how regular law enforcement tactics, anti-crime strategies and police combat techniques could be utilised against magical opponents.  The overall fantasy elements of this book are really enjoyable, but I really liked to see them be blended with a classic British police story.

Aaronovitch has done a fantastic job creating a huge and intriguing group of characters for this series.  The protagonist of Lies Sleeping and the Rivers of London series is Peter Grant, police officer and official wizard’s apprentice.  Peter is the sort of protagonist I really enjoy (sarcastic, funny and determined) so I quite enjoyed having him narrate the story, making a number of great jokes throughout.  The other police characters make up a great supporting and diverse cast, with a range of different abilities and characteristics.  I especially liked the classy and wise Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last officially sanctioned English wizard and Peter’s mentor.  He is an extremely charming and old-fashioned character who has a huge amount of magical power at his fingertips and who can be quite intimidating if he puts his mind to it.  I also quite enjoyed the other magical characters that appeared throughout the book, as Aaronovitch has created a bevy of river gods and associated genius loci characters.  I liked how many of these ancient characters portrayed modern characteristics and ways of speaking, even when talking in a historical context.  Long-time readers of the series will also enjoy the further exploration of several recurring characters, including finally revealing the backstory of the mysterious Mr Punch.

While the protagonists and supporting cast are great characters, I really liked the antagonists in this story.  The main villain of the story is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man.  He is an excellent antagonist who is built up as a master planner, master magician and crazy villain before you even see him in the book.  His master plan was fairly complex, and the character’s overall arc in this book featured some massive twists that I did not see coming.  Lesley May is another really complex character who is a great addition to the series.  Her relationship with Peter is one of the best parts of the book, as even after her betrayals earlier in the series, he is still trying to save her from herself.  The way this works out in the end is quite dramatic, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from there.

While a large part of this book is set out more as a slow and steady police procedural, there are some fantastic action sequences within Lies Sleeping.  These come about when the protagonist attempts to stop the plans of the Faceless Man, and all manner of chaos erupts.  Nothing highlights this better than an extended action sequence which involves Peter chasing after a van on a bicycle, throwing fireballs, while all manner of debris is magically flung at him and several pursuing police vehicles.  The magical duels between some of the participants, mainly Nightingale and Martin Chorley, can be particularly impressive, but I personally liked how many of the confrontations devolved into fist fights as both sides attempt to distract the other and disrupt their castings.  Plus, where else are you likely to see British police with truncheons attempt to fight evil wizards?  These amazing action sequences really added to the story, and it was great to see all this magic in action, rather than being theorised the entire time.

While I would have already been tempted to give Lies Sleeping a five-star review, the thing that definitely clinches it for me is the amazing audiobook adaption of the novel, narrated by actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  At nearly 10 hours and 30 minutes, this is a moderately easy audiobook to get through, and I had an absolute blast listening to it.  Holdbrook-Smith has an amazing voice and his work narrating this audiobook was just incredible.  His voice for protagonist and story narrator Peter perfectly encapsulated the character and got the full force of his witty and enjoyable personality across to the reader.  I really liked all the voices that Holdbrook-Smith created for the various characters featured throughout Lies Sleeping, especially for some of the magical creatures, who had an air of ancient wisdom in their voices.  However, without a doubt my favourite voice was the one for Nightingale.  The voice chosen for Nightingale is full of all sorts of old British class, and I thought it fit the character perfectly and was one of my favourite parts of this whole audiobook.  Aside from the outstanding voice work, I also quite liked the jazzy music that was played at the start of each chapter.  It gave the book a real noir private investigator feel, and I like how it added to the tone of the book as a whole.  The audiobook version of this book also helped me understand the story a bit better as an outsider to the series, and that, combined with Holdbrook-Smith’s brilliant voice work, makes me completely happy to recommend the audiobook format of Lies Sleeping.

Aaronovitch once again delivers a spectacular read that expertly combines amazing fantasy and crime fiction elements into one widely outstanding narrative.  There are so many excellent elements to this book, and I had absolutely loved my first foray into the Rivers of London series.  I strongly recommend listening to the Lies Sleeping audiobook, narrated by the very talented Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, but those readers who prefer to read their books will also find much to enjoy about this fantastic book.  This is one of the best urban fantasy books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  I fully intend to go back and check out all the preceding books in this series, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.  Five stars all the way.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower Cover

Publishers: Orbit and Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 26 February 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 12 hours and 1 Minute

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Stars

The bestselling author of the Imperial Radch series, Ann Leckie, presents her first foray into fantasy fiction with The Raven Tower, an intriguing fantasy read that I have been looking forward to for a while, and which attempts something new and different in its presentation.

The Raven Tower is set in a world filled with gods whose power and abilities can be gifted to humans in exchange for worship and offerings.  For centuries, a powerful god known as the Raven has ruled over the rich kingdom of Iraden, offering protection and prosperity from atop a tower in the city of Vastai.  The human ruler of all of Iraden is known as the Raven’s Lease and has been chosen by the Raven to bear his power and enact the god’s will.  However, this power comes at a price, as each Lease must sacrifice himself to the Raven in order to keep the god strong and Iraden safe.

When Eolo and his lord, Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, return to Vastai, they find the city in chaos.  Mawat’s father, the former Lease, went missing just before he was required to pay the Raven’s price.  In his place, Mawat’s uncle, Hibal, has taken the throne and has been named the new Raven’s Lease.  Determined to find out what happened to the former Lease and reclaim the throne for his master, Eolo attempts to uncover the many secrets of Vastai.  But as Eolo investigates he discovers that something ancient and mysterious is concealed within the Raven’s Tower: a secret from Iraden’s past that the Raven has kept hidden for centuries.  It is clear there will be a reckoning, but is Eolo ready to pay the price?

To be honest, I found that The Raven Tower was a very challenging book to critically examine and assign an overall rating for.  Before I had even started reading it, I saw that a number of other reviewers had noted that had great difficulty with this book, mainly due to the author’s unique way of narrating the story.  As a result, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Raven Tower, narrated by Adjoa Andoh, in the hopes that this would make it easier for me to follow along.  The audiobook version of the book is around 12 hours long, and I managed to get through it in around a week.  While I did also experience some issues with the way the book was set out, I actually began to appreciate this unique format the more that I stuck with the story, and this turned out to be a really enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction.

For this book, Leckie chose to utilise a noticeably different second person limited narration format to tell her story.  The story is told by a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who not only tells the main story in Vastai, specifically focusing on the character Eolo, but who also describes all the events of its own life that led up to this period of time.  This god has a very unique way of speaking that impacts how the Vastai story is told.  In particular, the god constantly describes what Eolo is doing, but, at the same time, it has no idea of what is going on inside Eolo’s head.  As a result, it makes very generic statements and guesses about Eolo’s memories, state of mind or thought process.  Take for example the following line, said as Eolo explores the docks near the tower: “I don’t think you grew up near the sea, and so you likely knew very little about boats or tides.”  Having this being make guesses about the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings is a little unusual, and I was very confused about why the author had written her book this way, and for a large portion of the book I really thought that it would have made more sense to have a more traditional narrator system.  However, as I read deeper into the story, it became a whole lot clearer why Leckie had set her story out in this way, and I was able to really appreciate it use.

As the book progresses, the two halves of the story start to come together.  Taken separately, both parts of the story are fairly interesting.  The storyline focusing on Eolo and the mystery surrounding the Raven’s Lease is fairly intriguing mystery filled with politics, murder, mystery and the fate of an entire nation.  The second storyline, which looks at the backstory of the Strength and Patience of the Hill, helps build up Leckie’s new world while also explaining much about the book’s primary fantasy element, the gods, as well as the Raven’s rise to power.  While both these storylines are quite fascinating in their own right, when they start coming together in the later part of the book, it creates a much more complete and intense story.  The author’s use of the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the book’s primary narrator becomes a lot clearer, and I actually really liked how this unconventional narration was utilised.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic twists that occurred at the end of the book, and the author’s excellent lead-up to these events was really quite clever and subtle.  Overall, this turned into quite an amazing story, and I was very glad that I stuck with it and got all the way through.

One of the main things that I enjoyed about The Raven Tower was the interesting fantasy elements that Leckie utilised throughout her story, mostly shown in the form of the gods that inhabit this world.  The gods in this book are quite an interesting creation from Leckie, who has come up with a number of rules surrounding them, all of which is explored by the narrator.  In this world, the gods have a finite amount of power, which they gain from worship and which they lose by altering the world, either for their own benefit or in order to answer prayers.  The gods’ power is tied to their speech; anything they say as a fact, their power will act to make it so.  For example, if they say that an object will turn, then their powers will act to make it turn.  However, if the action they want to accomplish takes more power than they have access to, then they will die or become extremely weak.  As a result, the gods are forced to speak extremely carefully, lest they inadvertently make a command that will take way too much energy.  The gods, therefore, try to avoid absolutes in their conversations and have to use words such as “I think” or “I heard” to get around this.  Leckie consequently has to have her narrator, the Strength and Patience of the Hill, utilise this language throughout the entire book, as to the god addresses the main character Eolo (even if Eolo does not hear them).  That is why there are so many unusual language choices throughout the book, such as the recurring “Here is a story that I have heard”.  While these language choices did throw me at first, once I understood why it was happening, I got used it and I thought it was extremely creative and commendable that the author stuck with this throughout the entire story.

In addition to this use of language, Leckie spends considerable time exploring the limitations and abilities of the gods throughout her book.  Leckie uses all sorts of different narrative devices to showcase this, from the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s personal memories and experiments, conversations they have with other gods, as well as telling stories about other gods and how they utilise their powers (there is one particularly amusing story about a god-powered spear I liked).  It is clear that the author put a lot of thought into her universe’s gods and the abilities that they have, and the exploration of these ideas were some of my favourite parts of the book.  I was also extremely impressed with how Leckie was able to utilise these fantasy ideas so effectively in her story, and I liked the bearing that they had on both the plot and the way the book was written.

Another interesting aspect of The Raven Tower is the characters that the author has used within the story.  The main protagonist is Eolo, whose attempts to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in Vastai are a large focus in the book.  Eolo is a pretty boss protagonist, able to disguise his intelligence and cunning behind an ignorant peasant facade, while quickly unravelling what has occurred in the city and then playing the politics to get the best result for her master.  Eolo is actually a transgender character, and I was really impressed with how well-written this part of the character’s identity was, and with how it was explored within the book.  In addition to Eolo, there are also several other intriguing characters used throughout the book.  Once you get the hang of its speech pattern, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is a pretty good narrator, and I found the god’s backstory and way of seeing the world to be incredibly intriguing.  I quite liked the character of Tikaz, who serves as one of the main female characters in the book, as well as Eolo’s potential love interest.  Tikaz is fleshed out incredibly well, and I loved the various interactions that she has with Eolo.  The book’s main villain, Hibal, is suitably evil and conniving, and he even has a pair of creepy twins serving as his henchmen.

I need to point out the fantastic job Leckie did coming up with one of the main characters in the book, Mawat.  Mawat is the heir to the Raven’s Lease, who finds his position usurped by his uncle.  However, rather than write him as a noble character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, Mawat immediately has a temper tantrum and spends the rest of the book acting as an unreasonable child, completely ignoring Eolo’s advice and even attacking his loyal servant whenever he hears something he does not like.  While a large amount of this is necessary for the story, I liked the reversal of the noble disenfranchised heir trope that is often utilised in fantasy, and instead we are left with a more complex character.

I quite liked the audiobook format of The Raven Tower and found it to be a really great way to enjoy this book.  I definitely think it helped me follow the plot and navigate the different narrative devices of this book, and I absorbed more information about Leckie’s fantasy elements.  I quite enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration throughout the book and thought their voice was perfect for the mysterious and wise Strength and Patience of the Hill, who narrated most of the text.  I especially liked how Andoh was able convey the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s anger at certain key points of the book and to make the god’s voice quite menacing.  Apart from the Strength and Patience of the Hill, the other character voices throughout The Raven Tower were fairly distinctive and matched the personalities of the characters quite well.  I was especially fond of the fitting accents she assigned to some of the human characters, such as Tikaz or the god known as the Myriad.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook format of The Raven Tower, as it may prove to be an easier way to enjoy this intricate story.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time giving this book an overall rating.  When I first started reading it and I encountered the strange narration style for the first section of the book, I thought I might have to give it a low score.  However, once I started to get more into the story and the lore behind the gods of this world was explained in some detail, I ended up changing my score to something closer to 4 out of 5 stars.  This reflected my appreciation of Leckie’s inventiveness, but also had a few demerits due to the slow start and issues I had getting into the story.  However, I ended up changing this to a 4.25 out of 5 stars in the end, once I appreciated how the two separate storylines came together and that superb ending.  As a result, I would highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy readers, and I encourage people to see past the issues at the start of the book.  Leckie is an outstanding author, and her first foray into fantasy featured some unique elements that turned The Raven Tower into one of the most distinctive and clever reads of 2019.  The Raven Tower works incredibly well as a stand-alone book, but if the author decides to return to this world in the future I would be extremely curious to see where she takes the story next.