Rage by Jonathan Maberry

Rage Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 5 November 2019)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book One/Joe Ledger – Book 11

Length: 17 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Well damn, now this was an impressive book.   Prepare for all manner of action, excitement and chaos as bestselling author Jonathan Maberry presents an incredible and outstanding start to a new series that features his long-time protagonist, Joe Ledger, with Rage.

The Joe Ledger books were a series of 10 military thriller and science fiction hybrid novels that ran between 2009 and 2018, which focused on a group of military action heroes as they faced off against a number of advanced, mad science threats. Maberry actually concluded the Joe Ledger series last year, but the stories and adventures of the titular character have been continued in the new Rogue Team International series, of which Rage is the very first book (although it could be considered the 11th Joe Ledger book). This sequel series focuses on some new circumstances for the protagonists while still maintaining the heart and soul of the original books.

People who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Joe Ledger books. Ever since I picked up the 10th and final novel, Deep Silence, last year, I have been really getting into this incredible thriller series and have already gone back and read the first six Joe Ledger books. Each of these books that I have reviewed so far has received a full five out of five stars from me, and it is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. As a result, I have been very keen to get a copy of the first instalment of this sequel series for a while now, and it has been very high on my list of books to read before the end of 2019. However, nothing was able to prepare me for how awesome this book was and for how much I was going to love it.

For years, Joe Ledger was the top field agent for the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a top-secret United States military organisation tasked with protecting America from the most advanced and devastating weapons that mad science can produce. However, the political situation in America has become untenable, with the DMS no longer able to effectively do their job under the current administration. Seeing no future working for the US government, the head of the DMS, Mr Church, has disbanded the department, and has instead formed a new organisation, Rogue Team International. Independently funded and controlled by no government, Rogue Team International is able to deploy anywhere in the world against the worst sort of threats imaginable.

However, their first major mission has some very high stakes. A mysterious group of terrorists have unleashed a new bioweapon on a small, isolated island off the coast of North Korea. This weapon drives those infected by it into a murderous rage, causing them to attack and kill anyone they see in a brutal fashion. Worse, whoever is behind the attack has gone out of their way to frame the United States and South Korea for the crime, creating a dangerous situation which could see these countries dragged into a devastating war with North Korea and China.

Deployed to the island, Ledger and his team attempt to identify who is behind the attacks and what sort of weapon they have unleashed. It soon becomes clear that they are up against a deadly and powerful organisation, that is determined to cause as much chaos as possible. As a second attack is unleashed in South Korea, Ledger must find a way to stop his opponents before it is too late and the world is engulfed in war. However, their new foes are clever and ruthless and bear a powerful grudge against Ledger and Mr Church. Can Rogue Team International save the day, or will the cost be too high to pay?

Rage is an absolutely incredible and outstanding new novel from Maberry, who has done an incredible job introducing the first book in his Rogue Team International series. Rage contains an amazing story that had me firmly addicted right from the very start. The reader is once again presented with a massive and elaborate villainous plot, as two familiar antagonists and their cohorts unleash a devastating and scientifically unique attack for their own nefarious reasons. We then get to follow our protagonists as they investigate and attempt to counter the attacks and plots that they uncover. The entirety of the book is written in Maberry’s signature style, with the story told from a huge range of different points of view and time periods, resulting in a much richer and complex story that allows the reader to see the thoughts of the protagonists, antagonists and innocent bystanders as the various events of the book take place. There are a huge number of twists and turns as the story progresses, and even though we get some insight into the antagonist’s actions and motivations, the entirety of their elaborate plan is left a mystery for most of the book, allowing for some enthralling suspense to build up. All of this ends in an explosive conclusion which not only features a major fake-out but also a massively significant tragedy that is going to be a huge part of the series going forward. This was a truly epic story, and I cannot wait to see where the author takes his new series next.

Despite Rage being part of the new Rogue Team International series, Maberry continues to utilise a number of his distinctive writing elements that made his Joe Ledger novels such a delight to read. This includes the cool multiple viewpoints I mentioned above, as well as the fantastic use of great action sequences, enjoyable characters and the fascinating antagonists. However, there are some exciting changes in this book that I think existing Joe Ledger readers are going to enjoy. For example, the protagonist is part of a whole new organisation, they have a new base (a very over-the-top secret lair in Greece), a new team name and new call signs for all the protagonists (for example, Ledger has gone from Cowboy to Outlaw), all of which is an interesting change of pace for those familiar with the original series. There is also a lot more of a focus on international politics, with only a small amount of the story taking place in the United States. While I quite liked some of the new directions that Maberry was taking with this new series, many of the story elements in Rage have made it clear that the Rogue Team International books are going to be very strongly associated with the original Joe Ledger series. There are a huge number of call-backs to the previous books, including a lot of discussion about preceding cases and the utilisation of many characters, including some of the major antagonists, who have previously appeared. While you would assume that the employment of all these elements might make Rage hard to get into for readers unfamiliar with the other Joe Ledger novels, this is really not the case. Maberry continues his practice of filling his story with some detailed summaries of the various characters and books, so that readers can understand the significance of all the reference to the previous cases. This means that new readers can easily jump into Rage without any prior knowledge of the other Joe Ledger books, although I can guarantee that most people will be keen to go back and get the full account of what has happened before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new international focused formula of this book was that it allowed Maberry to examine the current political situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is quite an interesting analysis of both countries throughout the course of the story, and the various issues surrounding them and their differences are actually covered in a series of short chapters, made to resemble a political chat show, with experts voicing their thoughts on both Koreas, and the influence of countries such as China and the United States. Rage’s story features a fascinating look at what the author thinks would happen if a flashpoint event occurred in the region, and who could potentially benefit. I was very intrigued by Maberry’s analysis of the situation, and I liked how he featured several characters from both North and South Korea in his story. The author’s portrayal of the North Korean characters was particularly captivating, as he showed them as mostly good people who were trapped by political circumstances, and who aren’t seeking a war against the rest of the world. All of this examination of the current political situation in Korea made for a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and I am curious to see what area of the world he will explore in the next Rogue Team International book.

One of Maberry’s main strengths as a writer is his ability to create some truly enjoyable and memorable characters to populate his stories with. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the main protagonist of Rage and its prequel series, Joe Ledger. Ledger is an extremely complex and multilayered action protagonist, who serves as the book’s main character. Thanks to the fact that Ledger narrates all of the chapters told from his point of view (about two thirds of the book; the rest of the chapters are told in the third person), we get a real sense of his character. While he likes to project a cocky, confident and humorous persona to most people he meets, cracking all sorts of jokes to both other characters and the reader, deeper down his is a psychological mess. Due to some past trauma, Ledger has some major issues, and his career as a shooter for the DMS and Rogue Team International has not helped the situation. Ledger’s anger, despair and hopelessness are constantly bubbling towards the surface, adding a fascinating dimension to the character. I have always really liked how Maberry has gone out of his way to show an action protagonist who is actually impacted by the work they do and the lives they have taken, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace. Rage in particular contains some very dark moments for Ledger, and if the conclusion of the book is anything to go by, his character is going to undergo some massive emotional changes in the next few books.

I was also really glad that Maberry continued to utilise so many of the great side characters that have been previously introduced in the Joe Ledger series. Pretty much all of the key DMS characters have moved across into the new book, and I was really glad we could continue to enjoy the fun dynamic that they have established over the course of the previous series. The enigmatic Mr Church continues to remain one of the best spy-master characters I have ever read and is probably one of my favourite people in the Joe Ledger books. While there are no major revelations about his past in this novel (my theory is that he is either an alien or some form of angel), there are some hints to his seemingly superhuman toughness and some of the previous missions he has engaged in. Mr Church also shows off some amazing diplomatic chops in this novel, utilising a network of level-headed members of various countries’ governments to work around blustering and incompetent world leaders. Most of the rest of the supporting characters remain the same, although several of them get some fun moments in this book, such as Bug unexpectedly receiving some fan-girl attention and Doc Holiday’s eccentric personality overwhelming people unfamiliar with her. There are also some great new characters in this book, many of whom appear set to become long-term recurring characters. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog, but I am sure we will see more of him in the future.

In addition to the fantastic protagonists, Maberry has also come up with a couple of conniving and evil antagonists to act as a foil to Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International. The main villains of the book are actually prior antagonists from two of the books in the Joe Ledger series, who have been reutilised to great effect in this new novel. While an exciting original major villain might have worked out well for the first novel in a new series, I think that using some existing antagonists was an excellent choice that really helped create a captivating story. Not only does this help reinforce the connection between the new Rogue Team International series and the Joe Ledger books, but it also allowed for some interesting character and story development. Both of these main two antagonists have been defeated in the past by Joe Ledger and Mr Church, so they each have very deep, personal grudges against them. Their new plan for domination, which is actually very interesting and quite complex, is also filled with elements of revenge, which helps ratchet up the intrigue and adds a whole new element. I loved the various interludes which show how these two bad guys escaped from prison and started their new team-up, and it was really cool to see what happened to them after their respective defeats in the previous books. It was also very interesting to see two antagonists, who previously had nothing to do with each other, had appeared in different novels and had very different motivations for their actions, come together as a cohesive unit with the new goals in mind. This was definitely a great use of two antagonists, and the damage that they caused was very impressive and memorable.

It is impossible to talk about one of the Joe Ledger novels without discussing all the intense action you can expect within. Maberry is a master of writing an electrifying action sequence, and the first book in the Rogue Team International series is absolutely chock full of action, fights and brutal violence. There are so many varied and thrilling battle scenes throughout the book, as the protagonist finds himself fighting in all manner of different situations. Whether the protagonist is engaging in a mass shootout against heavily armed opponents with his team backing him up, fighting by himself against a group of assassins or engaging in knock-out, throwdown fist fight against one of the antagonists, Maberry crafts some excellent and detailed sequences, allowing the reader to appreciate everything that is going on. The standout elements of this book are the victims of the new rage-inducing bioweapon that is this book’s unique science fiction element. Victims under the control of Rage attack anything they see in a frenzy, resulting in some crazy and vicious scenes. This also allows for some unique sequences where the protagonists must find a way to neutralise the victims without killing them, in the hope that they can be cured, all the while trying to avoid getting killed by either the Rage victims or some of the soldiers behind the attacks. All of the action scenes in this book are really impressive to experience, and it is impossible not to get excited as you read through them. However, readers should be warned in advance that the action can get quite brutal in places, and there are numerous examples of gruesome mutilation or torture, which might not be appealing to some people.

One of the main things that I love about the Joe Ledger series are the incredible audiobook versions of the previous novels, all of which feature the outstanding narration of Ray Porter. As I have stated in several of my previous reviews, Porter has some unbelievable vocal talents, and the life he breathes into all the characters in the Joe Ledger audiobooks is just fantastic. In particular, he portrays the voice and personality of the series titular character and protagonist, Joe Ledger, extremely well and he does a remarkable job of conveying all of the characters emotions, charm and humour to the reader. I was so happy when I saw that Porter was going to narrate Rage, and I knew I would have to grab the audiobook format of this book when it came out. I was in no way disappointed with this audiobook, as Porter has once again done a fantastic job of bringing all the characters to life and telling Rage’s amazing story. Porter still has such a fantastic handle on the book’s main character, and his portrayal of the Joe Ledger’s emotions is just superb, especially during some major scenes in the book. With a running time of 17½ hours, Rage is a somewhat substantial read, and dedicated listeners should be able to get through it in a few days. I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Rage to anyone who wants to read this book, and it still remains my favourite and preferred way to get my Joe Ledger fix.

In Rage, Jonathan Maberry has once again outdone himself producing a wildly entertaining and deeply compelling novel that I absolutely loved. In this first instalment of his new Rogue Team International series, Maberry has brought his fantastic characters from the Joe Ledger books into a whole new era, as the story goes in some great new directions, while maintaining the best parts of the original series. Featuring one hell of a story and a pretty memorable conclusion, Rage is Maberry at his best, and I have no choice but to award it a full five stars. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a high-octane read, Rage is an outstanding book guaranteed to pull you in and leave you an emotional wreck.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 9 hour and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an amazing and compelling Star Wars tie-in novel that focuses on a fascinating character from the franchise, with Star Wars: Tarkin, written by veteran tie-in author James Luceno.

Since early 2014, Disney has done an excellent job installing a new and distinctive expanded universe for the Star Wars franchise. This new expanded universe, which supplanted the existing expanded universe (which is now known as Star Wars Legends), has featured some amazing books which I have been really getting into in the last couple of years. I have read a lot of Star Wars books in 2019 and not only have I tried to stay abreast of the latest releases (for example, the latest Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn) but I have also been checking out some of the older novels in the franchise (such as Thrawn and Death Troopers).

Tarkin was released in late 2014 and was one of the first non-movie novelisations or young reader Star Wars novels that were released in this new canon. Tarkin was written by James Luceno, an author with a huge number of Star Wars tie-in novels from the Legends canon already under his belt, such as the intriguing-sounding Darth Plagueis. I had heard good things about this book, and I was curious to see how Luceno would alter the character of Grand Moff Tarkin.

To those familiar with the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin is a legendary figure. A former admiral, adjutant general, planetary governor and war hero of the Clone Wars, Tarkin was one of the Emperor’s most dedicated and capable servants. Determined to enforce the Empire’s authority throughout the galaxy by any means necessary, Tarkin was renowned for his merciless nature and his ability to out-think any opponent on the battlefield or in the political arena. But where did this nature come from: his past as a solider or as a politician, or are there powerful lessons in Tarkin’s upbringing that constantly drive him forward?

Five years after the end of the Clone Wars, Governor Tarkin holds the rank of Imperial Moff and is tasked with overseeing one of the Empire’s most sensitive and covert projects, the construction of a massive mobile battle station which the Emperor believes will become the ultimate symbol of Imperial power in the galaxy. Determined to bring order to the post Clone War chaos, Tarkin finds his plans for the construction of the station stalled when a mysterious ship launches an innovative attack against one of his bases. In the aftermath of this attack, Tarkin is ordered to work with Darth Vader to determine who orchestrated this incursion and deal with them.

Travelling to an isolated planet, Tarkin and Vader begin their investigation into the rebellious activity plaguing that area of the Empire. But when their opponents manage to out-manoeuvre them, Tarkin must call upon all of his experiences, including as a young hunter on his home planet of Eriadu, to stop them. However, even the lessons of his past may not be enough, as his new foes are as smart and determined as Tarkin and Vader and are willing to do anything to achieve their revenge on the Empire.

Tarkin was a smart and exciting Star Wars tie-in novel that did a fantastic job exploring the life of one of the franchise’s most complex characters. I had a great time listening to this book, and it is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have enjoyed this year. I really liked the deep dive into the history and mind of Tarkin, especially as the author wraps a compelling and multi-layered narrative around the character’s story. As a result, the novel gets four and a half stars from me and was a really good read.

This story is an interesting combination of an adventure that occurred five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith (roughly 14 years before the events of A New Hope), and a series of tales from various points in Tarkin’s earlier life. Grand Moff Tarkin has always been a fascinating Star Wars character to me; despite his lack of force abilities, he appeared to wield nearly as much power as the Emperor and was even able to command Darth Vader. This book does a wonderful job of not only showing how he was able to obtain so much power within the Empire but also exploring all of the formulative events of this character’s life that made him into the man capable of achieving so much. I personally think that this was a great combination of character narratives which come together extremely well, and I think that Luceno did a fantastic job getting to the root of Tarkin’s psyche and personality.

Despite it being the shorter part of the book, I personally enjoyed the various chapters that explore various moments of Tarkin’s past the most. In particular, I thought that the author’s examination of his training as a hunter to be a truly fascinating basis for the character’s tactical ability. The various scenes depicting him hunting the large beasts of his home planet are pretty cool, and it was really interesting to see the way that he utilised lessons from hunting creatures in his later careers. For example, he is trained to instil fear into all the beasts he encounters in order to establish dominance above them and to show them the consequences of acting in way he dislikes. A later scene in the book shows him using this training to successfully end a pirate menace in a very harsh and final manner, and it also explains why he considered blowing up a planet to be a viable fear tactic against rebels. In addition to its impact on future Star Wars stories, Tarkin’s early training and hunting background are utilised to great effect throughout the entirety of Tarkin, and it was great to see how it impacts on Tarkin’s thought process and planning. I also really liked how the focus on the hunt comes full circle, as the author works in a fun confrontation back at the Tarkin hunting grounds with the main antagonist of the book that I absolutely loved and which was a fantastic conclusion to the whole story. This hunting aspect was an exceptional addition to this canon’s depiction of Tarkin, and I like how other authors have expanded on it in other pieces of Star Wars expanded fiction. For example, the third volume of Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith features Tarkin using his hunting abilities against Vader in a contest of wills.

In addition to this new origin for Tarkin’s tactical ability and mental acuity, I also enjoyed the various flashbacks to his history before and during the events of the Clone War. Luceno comes up with some great storylines that show off, for example, when Tarkin first gained the attention of the Emperor, or his thoughts on the various events that occurred during the course of the prequel movies. It was fun getting his theories on the causes of the Clone Wars or the formation of the Empire, especially as he is pretty close to the mark every time. I also liked that Luceno worked a confrontation between Tarkin and Count Dooku into one of the flashbacks, which shows why Tarkin remained loyal to the Republic during the course of the Clone Wars. All of these examinations of the character’s past, especially in the context of several key events in Star Wars history, was really fascinating and proved to be a fantastic part of the book.

While I did enjoy the examination of the character’s past, the main story itself is also compelling, as it shows the events that led to Tarkin becoming the very first Grand Moff. These parts of the book are a lot of fun and feature a unique and personal hunt for the protagonist which ties in well with the journeys to his past. I also quite enjoyed the fun team-up between Tarkin and Darth Vader, who assists him to complete his mission. Tarkin and Vader form a very effective team in this book, and it was interesting to examine the relationship between them and the mutual respect that grew between them. It was also cool to find out that Tarkin was one of the few people in the whole Empire who guessed that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person (the only other Imperial character who apparently guessed that was Grand Admiral Thrawn). This section of the book also features some intriguing looks at the early stages of the Empire, and I personally liked the examination of Imperial politics, the intelligence agencies and the ruling style of the Emperor. I also really liked the idealistic opponents that Tarkin faced off against, mainly because their leader becomes more and more aggressive the longer the fight against the Empire goes, until he starts to lack the moral high ground in this conflict.

While I really enjoyed the team-up between Tarkin and Vader, I do wonder if the author perhaps featured Vader and the Emperor a little more than he should have. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely love Darth Vader as a character and I have deeply enjoyed a number of extended universe comics or books that have featured him (such as the Darth Vader and Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, or the Dark Visions limited series). However, I think that a book called Tarkin should have focused a lot more on the exploits of the titular character and shown how he dealt with the unique problems presented in the plot on his own. Instead, he received a fair bit of help from Vader and the Emperor, which kind of undermined the book’s message that he was an unsurpassed strategist and hunter. The author might have been better off only featuring a small amount of the Emperor in this novel, and perhaps introducing Vader in a later Tarkin novel, much like Timothy Zahn did with Thrawn: Alliances. Still, it was a fantastic book, and I am never going to seriously complain about too much Darth Vader.

Tarkin proved to be a really interesting book in the current Star Wars canon, and one that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. That being said, I would say that no real knowledge of the Star Wars extended universe is required to understand the plot of the book. While it does reflect on some of the events of The Clone Wars animated series, particularly the handful of episodes that a young Tarkin appeared in, there is no urgent need to go out and watch these episodes first, as they are more passing references. It is also important to note that this book was released back in 2014, two years before the release of Rogue One. As a result, it lacks the inclusion of Director Krennic as a rival for Tarkin, which is something most of the tie-in media released after 2016 features.

Like many of the Star Wars novels I have enjoyed in the past, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Tarkin rather than read a physical copy. The Tarkin audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and runs for roughly 9½ hours in length. I found myself absolutely breezing through the Tarkin audiobook, and I was able to listen to all of it in a few short days, as I become enthralled in the awesome story. Star Wars audiobooks are always a fun production to check out thanks to their use of the iconic music and sound effects from the movies. Tarkin also makes great use of a number of the classic scores from the movies to enhance the various scenes, most notably The Imperial March, which is used a number of times when members of the Empire are being particularly ruthless or authoritarian. I also really liked the use of the various Star Wars sound effects, such as the sound of blaster fire, spaceship engines and even the iconic sounds of Darth Vader breathing, all of which are used to help set the appropriate atmosphere for the scene. While some of the Star Wars audiobooks greatly overused these sound effects and music scores, I think that the Tarkin audiobook had the just the right amount of these elements. At no point did the music or sounds overwhelm the narration nor distract the reader from the plot; instead they did a wonderful job of helping the reader stay glued to the story.

In addition to the excellent use of Star Wars music and sound effects, Tarkin also featured a fantastic narrator in the form of Euan Morton. Morton does a commendable job of imitating the voice of the titular character and helps bring the stern, intelligent and ruthless character to life with his voice work. In addition, Morton was also able to do good imitations of several other notable Star Wars characters, including the Emperor and Darth Vader. I felt that Morton produced a good replication of their voices, and the listener is instantly able to figure out who is talking. I also liked some of the voices that Morton came up with for the various supporting characters that featured in the book, and I was impressed with the voices he attributed to some of the different alien species that were encountered. I particularly enjoyed his Mon Calamari voice, for example, and felt that he was able to add some distinguishing vocals to each of these different species. Based on this strong narration, as well as the great musical and sound inclusions, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of this Star Wars book, and I know that I intend to check out more of this franchise’s audiobooks.

Tarkin was an outstanding piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that I personally really enjoyed. Not only did it contain a compelling and exciting story in the early days of the Empire but it also did a wonderful job exploring the background of one of the franchises most fascinating characters. I had an amazing time learning more about Grand Moff Tarkin, and I am slightly disappointed that there have not been any more Tarkin-centric novels released since 2014. As a result, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good Star Wars tie-in novel, and I would also recommend the excellent audiobook format.

While the next Star Wars novel I read is going to be Force Collector, I am always considering what older Star Wars book to listen to in the future. I am currently weighing up between this canon’s Lords of the Sith (the Emperor and Darth Vader trapped on a planet being hunted by rebels) or the Star Wars Legends book Scoundrels (a heist novel written by Timothy Zahn). Both sound like a lot of fun, and I will probably end up listening to them both in the very near future.

Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Lethal Agent Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 18

Length: 9 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a thriller rife with action, political intrigue and a killer plot with the latest book in the long-running Mitch Rapp series, Lethal Agent.

Lethal Agent is the 18th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which started back in 1999 with Transfer of Power. Initially written by Vince Flynn, since 2015 the series has been written by thriller author Kyle Mills following Flynn’s passing in 2013. I started reading the Mitch Rapp series last year, when I picked up a copy of the 17th book in the series, Red War, mainly because it had a really fascinating plot featuring a dying president of Russia going to war with the rest of the world. I ended up really enjoying Red War and I have gone out of my way to check out more military thrillers since then (this year’s Red Metal and Treason for example). In Lethal Agent, Mills takes the series back to its anti-terrorist thriller roots, as the series’ titular character, Mitch Rapp, goes up against a deadly terrorist while also having to navigate the toxic minefield that is modern American politics.

For years, legendary CIA operative Mitch Rapp has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of America’s enemies, including numerous terrorists, fanatics, criminals and operatives of hostile foreign powers. Among those he believed he killed was the intelligent and dangerous leader of ISIS, Sayid Halabi. However, Halabi secretly managed to escape Rapp’s last attempt to kill him, and has been plotting in the shadows ever since, determined to find a way to strike back at Rapp and America.

Hiding out in Yemen, Halabi is able to capture a brilliant French microbiologist who has been working on a cure for a rare and deadly respiratory disease. Using the microbiologist to make anthrax, Halabi embarks on a campaign of terror, producing slick propaganda videos to create tension and panic within the United States. However, his real plan is to create a deadly bioweapon that will wipe out large swathes of the world’s population.

Rapp is determined to hunt Halabi down and end him once and for all, but he finds himself unable to act thanks to one enemy even he cannot defeat; politics. The upcoming battle for the presidency has become extremely ugly, and the leading candidate, Christine Barnett, is using Amercia’s fear of Halabi to make the current administration and the CIA look incompetent. She also has Rapp and his boss, Irene Kennedy, in her sights, and is determined to make them suffer for defying her. Hamstrung by the political atmosphere and no longer able to make an official move, Rapp is forced to go rogue and infiltrate a dangerous Mexican cartel who have been smuggling Halabi’s anthrax and operatives into the US. However, as Rapp moves closer to finding Halabi’s location and determining the nature of the bioweapon heading towards the states, he must deal with the fallout from Barnett’s political manoeuvring, which could end his life.

This latest book in the Mitch Rapp series is another fantastic and exhilarating read that I had a wonderful time listening to. Lethal Agent contains a thrilling, fast-paced story that goes in some fun directions, such as Rapp’s violent but effective infiltration of a Mexican drug cartel. The author does an excellent job of mixing this compelling story with fast-paced action and some clever and depressingly realistic political intrigue to create an enjoyable read that did a great job of keeping my attention until the very end. While there are some strong connections to a previous novel in this series, Lethal Agent can easily be read as a standalone novel, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an exciting read.

I have to say that I was impressed by Mills’s use of several point-of-view characters to tell the overall narrative of this story. While a large amount of the plot is told from the perspective of protagonist Mitch Rapp, a lot of it is also shown through the eyes of several other characters. Even though the viewpoints of Rapp, Rapp’s allies and some of the minor characters are quite fun or interesting, I personally loved the scenes shown from the perspective of the book’s various antagonists. This includes showcasing the twisted and self-serving political agenda of presidential hopeful Christine Barnett, whose attempts to take the Oval Office through fearmongering and attacks on the country’s intelligence agencies has some interesting impacts on the hunt for Rapp’s terrorist targets. I also enjoyed seeing a few scenes from the perspective of the Cartel boss Rapp is trying to get close to, and there are some great sequences where the usually confident gangster begins to realise how out of his depth he is with an operator like Rapp.

However, I thought that the chapters shown from the perspective of the book’s main antagonist, Sayid Halabi, were some of the best parts of the whole book. Halabi is an enemy of Rapp who was thought to have been killed in Enemy of the State, although the prologue of Lethal Agent shows how he managed to stay alive. Various chapters of this book are shown from Halabi’s point of view as he attempts to find a way to defeat Rapp and America, and they serve as a thrilling counterpart to the protagonist’s subsequent hunt for him. I thought it was fascinating to see the various ways that Halabi was plotting to attack America in these chapters, especially as at times he uses fear and propaganda to scare the country into immobility, rather than launch an actual attack. It was also a little disturbing to see this terrorist mastermind attempt to manipulate America’s political system by deliberately fuelling an incompetent politician’s fear mongering strategy. The use of this split perspective format really helped create a compelling novel, and Mills did a wonderful job coming up with some great antagonists for this book.

While all the espionage and spy thriller aspects of the book are extremely compelling and entertaining, the parts of the book that I found most intriguing were the various sections of political intrigue. Mills does an incredible job imitating the politics of modern-day America in his book and showing off how destructive and noxious the current political system is, especially for those people who want to become president. The focus on a politician being more concerned with their ambitions than the safety of the country, and who is willing to hamper or ignore the concerns of intelligence agencies for their own ends is something that many people can relate to at the moment. The inclusion of fearmongering as a politician’s central political tactic is also something that can be seen in the real world, and I felt that Mills had a really good depiction of it in this book, showcasing how effective it can be, and how it can impact people. While I am sure that readers from both sides of the political spectrum will be able to see politicians they despise in the character of Christine Barnett, I think that Mills was more taking aim at the rot that is infecting the entire political system rather than a particular individual. Palpable weariness seems to come out of the page whenever the book starts to talk about the modern politics in America, and a number of characters are obviously starting to become exhausted with the entire circus. The story also contains a lot of criticism towards the politics that is reducing the effectiveness of America’s intelligence community, and the story examines the potential damage that such politics could have on the country’s safety. All of this makes for an extremely intriguing inclusion into the book, which can be fascinating, aggravating and depressing all at the same time.

As you would expect from a Mitch Rapp thriller novel, Lethal Agent is chock full of enough violence and thrills to keep any action junkie sated. Rapp, a highly feared and skilled killer, tears through a ton of enemies in this book, mostly without receiving a single scratch in return. While the near-invincible action protagonist is a little played out, I did quite enjoy the various ways he showed off his skills and abilities in this book. The sequences where he systematically takes out the cartel forces are really entertaining, and I had a good laugh at a scene where he picks a lock on a cage with the fibula of one of his jailers. There is also a pretty awesome set-piece at the end of the book, which features a mass of vehicular carnage as Rapp tries to stop a terrorist attack. I did think that the sequence when he is forced to knock out coked-up facsimiles of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez was a little weird. I understand showing two exceedingly influential but dysfunctional celebrities go insane in the same scene where the old-school Rapp reflects on the current state of America, but it was still a somewhat odd inclusion. Overall, though, if you are a fan of action-packed thrillers, then you are going to enjoy Lethal Agent.

While I enjoyed reading a physical version of Red War last year, I chose to listen to Lethal Agent on audiobook instead. This format of Lethal Agent runs for around nine hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by legendary audiobook narrator George Guidall. Despite the fact that Guidall has narrated over a thousand audiobooks in his career, this was actually the first piece of his work that I have experienced. Guidall has a fantastic voice which works very well for a high-stakes thriller novel. He also does a great job capturing the emotion of the various politicians, and there is some appropriate weariness in his voice when he describes the American political situation. If I had one criticism, it would be that most of the characters sounded very similar to each other, and it was a little hard to distinguish one person from the next. Still, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and thanks to the intense story and short run-time, it only took me a few days to get through this book.

Lethal Agent is an excellent new addition to the Mitch Rapp series, and I loved some of the cool and intriguing directions that the author took the story. Kyle Mills has been doing a sensational job with the series since he took up the mantle of author, and I am really excited to see what sort of story he comes up with next. This is an excellent book and I would strongly recommend it to any fan of the thriller genre.

Boundless by R. A. Salvatore

Boundless Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 10 September 2019)

Series: Generations – Book 2

Length: 13 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s leading writers of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, comes an exciting and captivating new adventure that focuses on the author’s best-known protagonists, the Drow (dark elf) ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, his father Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle and the Companions of the Hall.

Centuries ago, one Drow warrior was feared and respected above all others in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, the legendary weapon master Zaknafein. Even before the events that would eventually force him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved son Drizzt Do’Urden, Zaknafein was never content with his life in Menzoberranzan. Sickened by the evil matriarchal system that rules the city in the name of the dark goddess Lolth, Zaknafein found himself trapped in the service of the ambitious Matron Malice Do’Urden. His only solace is his friendship with Jarlaxle, the charismatic leader of the mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe, with whom he forms a close bond. However, even this friendship is not immune to strife, as influential forces within Menzoberranzan attempt to turn the ranks of Bregan D’aerthe against Zaknafein.

Years later, Zaknafein has been mysteriously returned to life, finding himself in a strange new world, living within the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym. Despite being reunited with his son, Drizzt, Zaknafein is once again lost; his inherent Drow distain for all non-dark elf life is making it hard for him to fit in with Drizzt’s dwarf, halfling and human friends and family. But as Zaknafein, with the help of Jarlaxle, attempts to find a new path, he is once again beset by dark and powerful opponents.

An ambitious family of human nobles from Waterdeep has combined forces with the ruler of Neverwinter, Lord Neverember, and a minor clan of dwarfs, in an attempt to topple Gauntlgrym’s king, Bruenor, and claim the elemental magical powers the great dwarven kingdom safeguards. While normally such foes would prove little threat to King Bruenor and his allies, these new enemies command a massive and ever-growing army of demons capable of overwhelming even Gauntlgrym’s substantial defences. In addition, their opponents are supported by a noble Drow House from Menzoberranzan whose matron, in a bid to become Lolth’s most favoured servant, is determined to be the Drow who finally captures Zaknafein and Drizzt. As father and son fight for their lives against their new enemies, they soon find themselves pursued by creatures far more sinister and destructive than anything they have seen before. Can the Companions of the Hall prevail, or will evil finally defeat the last bastion of light in the Forgotten Realms?

Boundless is another outstanding and incredibly enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction from one of my all-time favourite authors, the legendary R. A. Salvatore, who is easily one of the top fantasy authors of all time. This is actually the second novel from Salvatore this year, with the second book in his The Coven trilogy, Reckoning of Fallen Gods, having come out in January, and the final book in this trilogy, Song of the Risen God, is set for release in January 2020. In Boundless, Salvatore has once again returned to the iconic Forgotten Realms universe to produce another excellent story set around the character of Drizzt Do’Urden.

The dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden, is easily the most iconic and popular character that Salvatore has ever created. One of the few moral dark elf characters in all of the Forgotten Realms (the large-scale interconnected universe which has been the setting for a huge number of fantasy novels over the years), Drizzt has been one of Salvatore’s main recurring protagonist for over 30 years, ever since Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard. I have long been a fan of Drizzt, mainly because of Salvatore’s amazing second trilogy of books, The Dark Elf trilogy, which told a captivating tale of a young Drizzt Do’Urden. Boundless is the 35th book to follow the adventures of Drizzt and his companions (if you include The Sellswords trilogy) and is the sequel to last year’s exciting fantasy adventure, Timeless. Boundless is also the second book in Salvatore’s current trilogy that focuses on Drizzt, known as the Generations trilogy, which is set to conclude next year in the final book, Relentless (a synopsis of which is already available online).

Boundless was an absolutely fantastic read which takes the reader on an epic thrill-ride through a demon invasion, the dark political underbelly of Menzoberranzan and into the heart and mind of one of Salvatore’s more complex and intriguing characters. Making exceptional use of two separate timelines, Salvatore tells a compelling and intricate story that combines a desperate battle for survival in the present with adventures in the past. Filled with action, adventure, amazing fantasy elements and an epic conclusion, this was a first-rate read that I greatly enjoyed.

This book was essentially impossible to put down from the moment I started listening to it, as Salvatore starts it off with an action packed prologue that sees a large force of halflings, dwarves and Drizzt face off against the horde of demons that were unleashed in Timeless. After this action-packed introduction, the book is then split into four parts, two of which follow the resulting battle for Gauntlgrym and the surrounding lands in the present (the present being Dalereckoning 1488), while the other two parts go back years before the events of the first book in The Dark Elf trilogy, Homeland, and tell a story of a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle in Menzoberranzan.

The parts set in the present offer a pretty exciting range of action and adventure as the story is split between several of the fun characters that Salvatore has introduced in all of his Forgotten Realms books. For example, throughout these parts you get to see the destructive siege of Gauntlgrym from the perspective of Bruenor, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and the Bouldshoulder brothers (who originated in The Cleric Quintet, another one of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series). At the same time as Drizzt is being pursued throughout the land by a powerful magical construct, Wulfgar is caught up in an invasion of Luskan by a powerful fleet of monsters, and Regis teams up with Dahlia and Artemis Enteri to investigate their demonic opponents in Waterdeep. This was a fantastic blend of storylines in the present-day parts of the book, and I really enjoyed seeing the various adventures and perils assailing this great group of protagonists. All of the storylines in this part of the book were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the larger narrative that they were telling. These modern-day storylines end with a major cliff-hanger which is going to make me really want to check out the next book in this trilogy.

While the parts of the book set in Dalereckoning 1488 are pretty awesome, I have to admit that I much preferred the half of the book set back in the past. This part of the book was set over a period of several years and follows a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle as they navigate the highs and lows of their original friendship in the darkness of Menzoberranzan. I really liked this storyline, as it not only contained the politics, backstabbing and casual murder that makes all the stories set in Menzoberranzan so much fun, but it also explores Zaknafein’s psyche and starts to explain why he was a different Drow to the other members of his race when he was first introduced in The Dark Elf trilogy. It was also interesting to see the early days of Jarlaxle’s rise as a mercenary leader, and there is also a number of intriguing scenes that feature other Drow characters, such as Drizzt’s mother, Matron Malice, who have been dead for a while. As a result, these parts of the book serve as an excellent prequel to The Dark Elf trilogy, of which I am a massive fan. In addition, these chronologically earlier parts of the book serve to introduce some of the Drow antagonists who are threatening the characters in the present day, and it really interesting to see how the actions of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle hundreds of years in the past are impacting on the future.

I really loved this combination of the two separate timelines in the book and felt that it helped create a fantastic overall narrative. The earlier storyline of Drow house politics, friendships and small-scale grudges contrasts well with the intense war and near constant peril that makes up the 1488 storyline and helps to create a much more compelling book. I also really enjoyed how story elements, such as the exploration of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle’s friendship, or the examination of the cruel dynamics of Drow society, continued on from one part of the book to the next, and it was interesting to see how relationships and minds can change over time.

If there is one guarantee in life, it is that a Drizzt Do’Urden novel is going to feature some fancy swordplay and a ton of action. Boundless is no exception to this rule, as Salvatore has once again furnished his story with all manner of intense and detailed action and battle sequences, as his protagonists fight a variety of opponents. This makes for an exciting and really enjoyable read, as it always fun to see the various ways the Companions of the Hall engage in battle, especially since they have built up quite an impressive array of magical weapons and abilities after 35 books. In addition, Salvatore has come up with some unique and powerful opponents for this book, including two powerful magical constructs that are all but invincible and require extreme measures to combat. The parts of the book set in Menzoberranzan’s past also feature a wide array of dazzling duels and battles from Zaknafein, as he is forced to prove that he is the best weapons master in the city. The author shows off some truly impressive fight sequences in the parts of the book focusing on Zaknafein’s earlier life and Salvatore does a fantastic job providing the reader with a blow-by-blow account of what is happening. I also really liked how the author included several scenes that showed Zaknafein training for future battles in which he attempts to work out the best way to perform some elaborate or near-impossible combat move, which of course would then be utilised in a later fight. Needless to say, those looking for their next dose of fantasy action should look no further than Boundless, as Salvatore has once again provided one hell of a hit.

While I did read a physically copy of the previous book in the series, Timeless, for Boundless I ended up listening to the audiobook format instead. Boundless’s audiobook is narrated by Victor Bevine and runs for just over 13 hours, which only took me a few days to get through. I ended up having a great time listening to Boundless, especially as listening to a blow-by-blow of the amazing action sequences really helped bring these scenes to life for me. Bevine did a fantastic job of breathing life into the book’s various characters, and I really enjoyed the way that he captured the personalities of several of the characters with his performance. I also appreciated the way that he was able to emulate a number of very different characters and species throughout the course of the audiobook. Not only did he come up with sly and calculating voices for the various Drow characters, but he was also able to affect an impressive brogue for the various dwarven characters in the book. This is a fantastic range, and I quite enjoyed all of the voices that Bevine came up with. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of Boundless to anyone who is interested, and I think that I will try to listen to next book in the trilogy.

Overall, Boundless is an outstanding and incredible new release from Salvatore, and I loved every second that I was reading it. Featuring a ton of action and some really cool plot elements, Salvatore tells a clever and intricate story that sets some high stakes for his beloved characters. Not only am I excited to see where the story goes in the next book, but I also have a very strong urge to go back and check out Salvatore’s The Dark Elf trilogy, where some of the fantastic characters explored in this book were first introduced. With this latest novel, Salvatore continues to show why he is one of the biggest names in fantasy fiction, and it is thanks to books like Boundless that I will continue to grab every new Salvatore release I can get.

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

The Night Fire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 22 October 2019)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book 2

Length: 10 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the masters of modern crime fiction, Michael Connelly, returns with another book in his bestselling interconnected crime universe. In The Night Fire, Connelly once again brings together the outstanding team of Ballard and Bosch for another exceptional murder mystery.

Back when he was a rookie detective, Harry Bosch was mentored by one of the LAPD’s best homicide detectives, John Jack Thompson, who helped stoke his internal fires of justice to ensure that no case ever goes unsolved. Now, years later, Thompson is dead, and at his funeral, the now retired Bosch is given a gift from his widow: a murder book for an unsolved crime. The case revolved around the murder of a young man in a gang-controlled alley nearly 30 years before, and it appeared that Thompson secretly took the book when he retired from the force. What was Thompson’s connection to the case, why was this one murder so important to him and why did he keep the murder book a secret for so long?

Determined to get answers, but already committed to helping his lawyer half-brother Mickey Haller defend his client in a tricky murder case, Bosch takes the book to Detective Renée Ballard for help. Ballard, Hollywood Division’s resident detective on the night shift (known as the Late Show), and Bosch have recently formed an unofficial partnership in order to work on some of Bosch’s old, unsolved cases. Identifying several inconsistencies in the cold case, Ballard decides to start digging deeper, while also investigating a suspicious death by fire that occurred on her beat.

Together Bosch and Ballard are an effective investigative team, and it does not take them long to identify a potential killer. However, the more they dig, the more they begin to realise that Thompson might not have taken the murder book to solve the murder, but to ensure that nobody ever tried to investigate it. Can these two detectives get to the truth, and what happens when their various investigations put them in the line of fire of some very dangerous people?

The Night Fire is the latest book in Connelly’s shared crime universe, which features the various adventures and investigations of several of his iconic protagonists. This new novel is a fantastic piece of crime fiction that once again combines together two of Michael Connelly’s most intriguing characters, Bosch and Ballard, after their outstanding first team-up in 2018’s Dark Sacred Night. This is the 22nd book featuring Bosch, Connelly’s original and most utilised protagonist, while Ballard has so far appeared in two prior novels. This book also briefly sees the return of Mickey Haller, another one of Connelly’s protagonists, who has appeared in several legal thrillers within the universe such as The Lincoln Lawyer (which was adapted into a film of the same name).

Just like in Dark Sacred Night, the plot of the book is shown from both Bosch’s and Ballard’s perspectives, as each of them gets a number of separate point-of-view chapters (about half each) to tell their respective stories. While there is a lot of crossover between the two characters, especially when they are working together on their joint cold case, both of them do their own independent investigations and have several chapters where they deal with their various personal issues without the other character being present. However, they also both appear in a number of chapters together, allowing the reader to not only get an interior view of the character but to see each of them through the other’s eyes.

One of the main things that I love about the Michael Connelly books I have read are the multiple cases that the protagonists investigate simultaneously, many of which may or may not be connected in some way. In The Night Fire for example, the story features one cold case that brings Ballard and Bosch together at the start of the book and which they work together on, while both characters have separate cases to work on. Bosch becomes involved in the legal defence of one of Mickey Haller’s clients who is on trial for murder, and this then evolves into the hunt for the murderer of a judge. Ballard on the other hand does most of the investigative work on the cold case, mainly because she is the one with access to the LAPD’s resources. At the same time, she is also investigating several other crimes that come across her desk during her night shifts at Hollywood Division. These include a homeless man who was burnt alive in their tent, the apparent suicide of a young girl and the discovery of a truckload of illegal immigrants. While some of these cases do not go anywhere or are investigated by a different part of the LAPD, Ballard does find herself fully investigating several different cases and getting some rather interesting results. I really enjoyed this cool combination of varied cases and examples of police work, especially as it combines together a decades-old murder with several recent crimes. There are some really complex and compelling mysteries involved with these cases, and I found myself getting drawn into each of them, as they all featured some clever police work and an intriguing bunch of potential suspects. The cold case in particular was great, as the reader not only needed to figure out who the killer was but also why Bosch’s mentor was so concerned with the murder. While it was a little disappointing not to get some follow-through on a couple of Ballard’s cases, I thought that all of these mysteries come together into an excellent overall narrative that does an outstanding job keeping the reader’s attention. I also loved how two of the cases eventually come together in an unexpected way, resulting in an explosive conclusion, while the results of another murder investigation had a very emotional impact on one of the protagonists.

In addition to the great mysteries and fictional examples of police work, one of The Night Fire’s biggest strengths is its two protagonists, Ballard and Bosch. Both of these protagonists are excellent characters with strong backstories, and I really enjoyed how the two of them played off each other. In this novel, both Ballard and Bosch are outsiders to the LAPD. Ballard has been banished to the night shift for reporting a sexual assault by a superior officer, and now has serious trust issues when it comes to many of her male counterparts. Bosch on the other hand, after a long career with the police, is now retired, and thanks to some of his actions that forced him out the LAPD, many of the police no longer see him as one of them, a point reinforced when Bosch helps Mickey Haller free a murder suspect. This outsider viewpoint makes the team-up between both of them a lot more interesting, as both characters are still learning to trust the other, even after the success of their first case. I really liked how the relationship between the two of them grew throughout this book, and their different viewpoints and experiences turn them into an effective duo. Both characters go through some big moments in this book, including some medical issues with Bosch, Ballard standing up to her attacker and the various emotional impacts of the case, and it was great to see how they helped each other out. This is definitely a team-up I want to see again in the future, and I really hope that Connelly continues more of these adventures with Ballard and Bosch.

Just as I did with Michael Connelly’s previous book, Dark Sacred Night, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Night Fire. This audiobook runs for just over 10 hours, and features the vocal talents of Titus Welliver and Christine Lakin. I quite enjoyed the audiobook version of The Night Fire, as not only did it allow me to power through this book is short order (I think it only took me three days to finish it off) but its use of two separate narrators was done really well. Throughout the course of the book, Welliver is the voice of Bosch (which is a good fit as Welliver actually plays this character in the Bosch television show), while Lakin is the voice of Ballard, and they each narrate the chapters for their respective characters, including most of the dialogue. Welliver and Lakin are exceptional vocal talents, who did an outstanding job of bringing Bosch and Ballard to life. Both of these narrators really get to grips with the characters and are able to capture a lot of their various nuances in their performances.

Another great thing about this audiobook was the amazing way they utilised the two separate narrators. I really liked how the book was split between them, and it ensured that both sets of chapters had a great distinctive feel throughout the book, and the reader was never left in doubt who was narrating the chapter. The only exception to this is any dialogue the other point-of-view character has in that chapter, as that character’s narrator will then speak instead. This means for example, while Welliver is the primary narrator during Bosch’s chapters, whenever Ballard speaks during these chapters you get Lakin’s voice. While it was a tad disconcerting at times to suddenly hear the other narrator’s voice in the middle of a lot of dialogue in the primary vocal talent’s chapter, it did save the reader from getting confused by having to listen to two different versions of the protagonist’s voices. Overall, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Night Fire to anyone interested in checking out this book, and I know that I will be utilising this format again in the future for Connelly’s next book.

In his latest crime fiction masterpiece, Michael Connelly once again knocks it out of the park with this fantastic new addition to his connected crime universe. The Night Fire is an exceptional murder mystery that makes excellent use of its two main protagonists to tell a rich and exciting narrative, filled with a number of intriguing investigations and cases. This is probably my favourite Michael Connelly book that I have read so far, and it gets a full five stars from me. A fantastic new entry from the king of crime fiction, this is a must read for all fans of the genre.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey

Tiamat's Wrath Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 26 May 2019)

Series: The Expanse – Book Eight

Length: 19 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

With 2019 coming to an end, it is about time I got around to writing a review for one of the best science fiction books of the year, Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey, the eighth book in the extremely popular The Expanse series. James S. A. Corey is the collaborative name of co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, but for the purposes of this review it is simpler to treat Corey as an individual.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an outstanding piece of science fiction that I had an amazing time listening to earlier in the year. Despite being extremely keen for this book, I did not get around to reading it until a month or two after it came out, but when I did get a chance to listen to Tiamat’s Wrath, I absolutely loved it and it was one of my favourite books from earlier in the year. However, I completely failed to write a review immediately after finishing it, and it kind of got lost in the pile of books I needed to review as I read more and more stuff.

The Expanse books, which started in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, are an extremely complex and outstandingly well-written science fiction series, which have also been turned into a very popular television show of the same name. It is important to note that while all the books in The Expanse are connected by the same universe, overarching plot and central characters, the story can be broken up into three separate trilogies of novels. After the success of the first eight books, the authors are starting to wrap up the series, with the upcoming ninth book (hopefully coming out sometime in 2020), being the last in the series. Not only is Tiamat’s Wrath the penultimate book in the series; it is also the second book in the last trilogy of the series, which started with 2017’s Persepolis Rising.

Tiamat’s Wrath is set a short time after the events of Persepolis Rising, when the Laconian Empire, under the command of High Consul Winston Duarte, successfully utilised advanced alien technology to take control of the entire gate network and destroy the navies of Earth and Mars. The Laconians now rule the entire galaxy, and the crew of the Rocinante (the central protagonists of The Expanse series), are wanted criminals as they fight a guerrilla war. This was another incredible addition to The Expanse series that not only contains a vast and captivating story in its own right but which sets up a fascinating scenario for the final book in the franchise.

Goodread’s Synopsis:

Thirteen hundred gates have opened to solar systems around the galaxy. But as humanity builds its interstellar empire in the alien ruins, the mysteries and threats grow deeper.

In the dead systems where gates lead to stranger things than alien planets, Elvi Okoye begins a desperate search to discover the nature of a genocide that happened before the first human beings existed, and to find weapons to fight a war against forces at the edge of the imaginable. But the price of that knowledge may be higher than she can pay.

At the heart of the empire, Teresa Duarte prepares to take on the burden of her father’s godlike ambition. The sociopathic scientist Paolo Cortázar and the Mephistophelian prisoner James Holden are only two of the dangers in a palace thick with intrigue, but Teresa has a mind of her own and secrets even her father the emperor doesn’t guess.

And throughout the wide human empire, the scattered crew of the Rocinante fights a brave rear-guard action against Duarte’s authoritarian regime. Memory of the old order falls away, and a future under Laconia’s eternal rule — and with it, a battle that humanity can only lose – seems more and more certain. Because against the terrors that lie between worlds, courage and ambition will not be enough…

For the plot of Tiamat’s Wrath, Corey tells the story from the perspective of several separate point-of-view characters, each of whom has a number of chapters throughout the book. This was a very interesting combination of character perspectives that helped explore various aspects of the galaxy following the rise to power of the Laconians. Three of the main point-of-view characters are former Rocinante crew members Naomi Nagata, Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal, each of whom is involved in the war against the powerful Laconian Empire. Another point-of-view character is returning character Elvi Okoye, who, despite her loyalties to her friends upon the Rocinante, finds herself employed by High Consul Duarte as one of his primary scientists exploring the alien technology, and later finds herself drawn into the Laconian inner circle. The fifth main character is new protagonist Teresa Duarte, daughter of the High Consul, who provides insight into growing up in the Laconian Empire and the political intrigue of the capital. In addition to the five characters mentioned above, the book’s prologue, epilogue and interludes are narrated by former Rocinante captain James Holden, who is being held prisoner on Laconia and who is attempting to manipulate the system from within.

I really enjoyed the author’s use of these multiple viewpoints, especially as it allowed them to tell a complex and widespread story set across several different solar systems. Each of these various viewpoints provides the reader with different information and insight into the both the Laconian Empire and the unknown alien threat that has sprung up. While Elvi and Teresa’s story arcs are pretty fascinating and I quite enjoyed the combination of politics and alien science that filled their chapters, my favourite parts of the book are the chapters told from the perspectives of Naomi, Bobbie and Alex. This is mainly because these chapters focused on their fight against the Laconian Empire, and I really enjoyed the detailed and captivating accounts of a large-scale guerrilla conflict in a massive space location. Each of these three characters shows off a different aspect of this fight, including Naomi acting as the resistance’s master strategist while living in a supply crate, Bobbie’s work as a marine and drill sergeant on the frontline and Alex’s job piloting various combat craft into battle. Thanks to these three characters, you get an amazing idea of how this war is being fought, and the various issues involved with facing a seemingly invincible opponent. I also liked how all the various character arcs came together extremely well as the book progressed, creating a first-rate narrative that proved to be extremely addictive.

I am a man who loves his science fiction action, and I have to say that I had an absolute blast with the action sequences in this book. Corey has absolutely packed this book full of various battle sequences in space, as the protagonists go up against the various Laconian forces in both smaller skirmishes and one massive full-system assault. Not only are the battles pretty spectacular in their own right, but I love how realistic the author has tried to make them, with things like gravity, the lack of sound in space and communication delays across vast distances all taken into account. All this consideration really makes the combat in Tiamat’s Wrath stand out, and it added a lot to my overall enjoyment on this novel.

While this is an excellent piece of science fiction and an amazing read, due to its position as the eighth book in the series, and the middle book in the final trilogy, Tiamat’s Wrath is probably not the best book to start exploring The Expanse with. While Corey does a pretty good job of making this book accessible to new readers, I would strongly suggest that readers at least check out the previous book in the series, Persepolis Rising, first, as it will help readers understand more of the complex science fiction and story elements. There is no doubt in my mind that existing fans of The Expanse will love this fantastic book, especially as it takes the story in some interesting directions and sets up the series for a pretty epic conclusion. That being said, some of the developments that occur during the book are going to make dedicated The Expanse readers very sad, especially if they have grown attached to certain characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Tiamat’s Wrath, narrated by Jefferson Mays. This is a pretty substantial audiobook, running for just over 19 hours (indeed it would have just made the top 20 on my Longest Audiobook list), but I ended up getting through it rather quickly as I had a hard time turning it off. I found the audiobook to be a fantastic way to enjoy this book, and I think I absorbed a lot more of the detailed science fiction plot by listening to it. Mays has a great voice for narration, and I really enjoyed his take on the various characters in the book. All in all, listening to the audiobook version of Tiamat’s Wrath was a great experience, and I will probably end up doing the same for the final The Expanse book when it come out.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an exceptionally powerful novel that is easily one of the best books I have read so far this year. The Expanse’s authors have absolutely outdone themselves with this eighth book, which tells a complex and intriguing science fiction story. Featuring a first-rate story, a great group of core characters, some impressive action and the author’s typical attention to scientific detail, Tiamat’s Wrath comes highly recommended, and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to review this.