Throwback Thursday – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 April 2000)

Series: Dresden Files – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For my latest Throwback Thursday I finally check out the first novel in the epic and highly acclaimed Dresden Files series, Storm Front, by legendary author Jim Butcher, which is an amazing and impressive read.

Jim Butcher is an outstanding author who has been dominating the fantasy market for nearly 20 years.  While he has written a couple of series, including his Codex Alera books, and some standalone novels, such as the tie-in novel Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, Butcher is easily best known for his Dresden Files novels.  These books follow the adventures of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only official wizard, who solves magical crimes and serves as a protector of the innocent against a range of supernatural threats.  This series has been running since 2000 and with 17 current entries (the 18th is on the way) it is generally considered to be the gold-standard of urban fantasy series.  While I have always heard amazing things about these books, I arrived a little late to the party, having only read the 17th book, Battle Ground, last year.  Battle Ground was a pretty epic read, containing an off-the-chain fantasy war in the heart of the city, and it ended up being one of my favourite novels (and audiobooks) of 2020.  Due to how much I enjoyed this latest book, as well as a general desire to explore the rest of the series, I decided to go back and read the first entry in the series, Butcher’s debut novel, Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is a man who leads an interesting life.  As the only openly practicing magic user in Chicago (his name is even in the phonebook under wizard), Harry scrapes a living investigating small and unusual cases, such as finding lost items and performing paranormal investigations while trying to avoid the attentions of the White Council, a governing body of magical practitioners who have placed Harry on a lethal probation.  However, his latest cases are about to make his life very complicated in ways he never expected.

Two people have been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner, with their hearts bursting out of their chests during an act of passion.  Called in by the Chicago P.D., which has him on retainer as a magical consultant, Harry determines that their deaths were caused by the darkest of spells.  Despite being forbidden by the White Council to know anything about the deadly arts, Dresden begins to dive into the case, determined to find out who is responsible and how they did it.  At the same time, Monica Sells, a local housewife, has provided Dresden with a great deal of money to find her missing husband, someone who has apparently had his own recent misadventures with magic.

As Harry investigates both the murder and the disappearance, he finds himself under attack from all sides.  Not only does the most feared gangster in Chicago want him to drop the case, but the White Council views him as the prime suspect in the deaths due to his deadly past.  Worse, a shadowy figure wants him dead and is unleashing dangerous magical creatures upon him.  However, you cannot keep a good wizard down, and Harry plans to use every trick at his disposal to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even if it burns every bridge he has.

Well, that was a pretty awesome read, and one that I wish I had checked out a very long time ago.  Storm Front is an exciting and clever book that combines a compelling story with some great characters, an interesting urban fantasy setting and a fantastic, humour laden tone, all of which come together into an impressive novel.  Storm Front also serves as an excellent first novel in the wider Dresden Files series, and it was extremely interesting to see it after previously reading a more recent entry in the series.  I had an amazing time with this novel and, while it is a tad rough in places, especially compared to Butcher’s later work, I must give Storm Front a full five-star rating.

At the centre of Storm Front lies a particularly good fantasy murder mystery narrative that sees the protagonist take on some challenging cases that result in death and destruction raining down on his life.  The story starts up quickly with Dresden, whose role as a wizard is more like a supernatural PI, being employed to find a missing husband, while also helping the police solve a twisted magical double murder.  This results in a fast-paced narrative that sees Dresden investigate both cases in his own unique way, which results in dangerous complications as people attempt to either discourage him or outright kill him.  I loved how the story read a lot like a hardboiled detective fiction novel, albeit with a lot more quips and amusing jokes, and this style of writing worked extremely well with the magical elements featured throughout the book.  The narrative gets more complex as the book progresses, with additional side characters, greater lore inclusions and more sophisticated dangers, and I felt that the author was able to work all of this into story extremely well, ensuring that the reader becomes enthralled with the intense magical action, entertaining characters, and outlandish threats.  The author also throws in some clever twists, which includes the protagonist becoming the main suspect in the murders, resulting in a lot of tense and dangerous situations as he tries to avoid everyone coming after him.  All of this leads up to an epic and fantastically written conclusion which pulls all the threads of the story together and ensures that the reader is left wanting more.  If I had to make one criticism about the book, it would be that the identity of the main antagonist/murder is extremely obvious right from the outset, and that ruins a lot of the surprises that the author was clearly hoping for.  However, I still really enjoyed Storm Front’s captivating tale, and it is worth hanging around to see the story unfold.  Overall, I felt that this was an exceedingly strong story and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on it.

Easily the top highlight of this book is the outstanding protagonist and narrator, Harry Dresden (full name: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, named after famous stage magicians), the rogue and public wizard.  Dresden is an amazing and entertaining protagonist who the reader quickly becomes attached to thanks to his antics, morality, unpredictable nature and skills as magic user.  I always enjoy smartass characters, and Dresden is one of the better ones I have read.  A lot of the book’s excellent comedic undertones are thanks to Dresden’s dry and timely sense of humour as he provides some excellent quips and commentary, both out loud and in his head.  Despite being a mostly funny character, Butcher ensures that his protagonist has a hard and dark edge to him that helps to make him even more compelling and intriguing to follow.  Not only does the reader get an in-depth and comprehensive look into his troubled psyche, especially when he is experiencing guilt, trauma or despair, but there are some intriguing hints at his dark past, some of which come into play throughout the book.  I also liked how the author set up and explored Dresden’s magical ability, especially as the protagonist is not the most powerful magical user out there, although he makes up for it through trickery, training and intelligence.  I particularly liked the way in which he was able to defeat an antagonist with substantially more raw magical power with some simple tricks or the use of some psychology, and the author did a great job highlighting his protagonist’s analytical thinking as one of his key strengths.  I also have to say that I really enjoyed the fantastic look that Butcher sets up for his character, with the black duster, the staff and the Blue Beetle car, making him a very distinctive figure.  This ended up being an outstanding introduction to the character, and it will be interesting to see how he develops to the powerful badass that later appears in Battle Ground.

In addition to Dresden, the author also features an interesting collection of characters throughout Storm Front who add some additional, exciting layers to the overall story.  Each of the supporting characters in this novel is very well-written and layered, featuring some intriguing histories (although they all have secrets that will be revealed later).  Many of these characters become major figures in the larger Dresden Files series, and this serves as an excellent introduction to them.  Of all the characters a few really stood out to me, including Bob, an air spirit who inhabits a skull in Harry’s lab.  Bob is a fun, if unusual, character who has a somewhat perverted/voyeuristic streak that causes Harry all manner of trouble and leads to some very entertaining moments throughout the book.  I also quite liked the introduction of Karrin Murphy, the hardnosed Chicago detective who utilises Dresden as her magical consultant.  Karrin is a great no-nonsense character who is one of the few people to call Dresden out on his actions and who has a complex relationship with him in this book.  I really must highlight the introduction of “Gentleman” John Marcone, Chicago’s premier crime boss who is antagonistic towards Dresden for much of the book.  Marcone is portrayed is a stone-cold killer with a hidden past, and there are some great hints at what sort of recurring character he becomes in future entries in this series.  I also thought that the overall antagonist of this novel was pretty good and served as a great counterpoint to Dresden throughout the book.  Despite the identity of the antagonist being rather obvious for much of the novel, I felt that Butcher provided them some complex motivations for their actions in Storm Front, and it was intriguing to see how they slid down into using dark magic.  This antagonist has a couple of fantastic scenes in this novel, and I particularly liked the clever way in which their storyline came to an end.  Each of these side characters added so much to the book’s plot, and I had an amazing time getting to know them.

I also really enjoyed the amazing urban fantasy setting that Butcher came up with for Storm Front.  This series is set in a world where magic is semi-hidden from mortals, although there is substantial dangerous magical activity occurring in the underbelly of cities like Chicago.  The author does a great job of setting up the basics of this fantasy reality throughout the first book, and the reader is given an effective rundown of all the unique features and limitations of magic and magical creatures for these books.  Butcher made the smart choice of starting small with this first book, and while there are mentions of the wider magical world, enough to draw the curiosity of the reader, for the most part the magical elements are limited to what is relevant to the story.  I liked that the reader was not overwhelmed with lore right off the bat, especially as this allowed them to enjoy the cool story, but it is clear a lot of what was mentioned will be explored in far greater detail in the future.  The grimy and dangerous magical cityscape also served as an awesome background to the noir style story contained within Storm Front, and it was great to see the character get involved with both the criminal and magical underbelly of the city.  I had a lot of fun with this setting, and I look forward to learning more about the rules and hidden magical lore in the future.

Considering how outstanding my previous experience with a Dresden Files audiobook was, there was no way that I was not going to check out Storm Front’s audiobook format, especially as it was once again narrated by Spike himself, James Marsters (I also loved him in Torchwood and Smallville, but he was at his best in Buffy and Angel).  Unsurprisingly I had an incredible time listening to Storm Front’s audiobook and I ended up knocking it out in a couple of days, especially as it has a relatively short runtime of 8 hours.  This was an incredible audiobook, not only because the great story translated really well into the format, but also because of Marsters’ fantastic narration.  Marsters did an outstanding job narrating this story at a quick pace, drawing listeners into the story while also utilising a voice that perfectly fits Storm Front’s tone.  I also really appreciated the way in which Marsters dove into the role of the central protagonist, Harry Dresden, and he really brings this maverick character to life throughout the production, especially when it comes to encapsulating Dresden’s dry wit, strange sense of humour and enthusiasm.  Marsters did use similar voices for some of the supporting characters, however listeners are able to easily follow the story without getting confused about who is talking.  Overall, this was a pretty good performance from Marsters (this was actually one of the first audiobooks he narrated), and I know that he gets a lot better in later books, with some varied voices and even greater enthusiasm as a narrator.  As a result, I fully intend to check out the rest of the Dresden Files novels in their audiobook format and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this series do the same.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and captivating debut novel that more than lives up to all the hype that has been generated about it in the last 20 years.  Thanks to the cool story, great characters, and fantastic setting, this was an awesome book to read, and I loved seeing this maverick wizard solving supernatural crimes in Chicago.  Storm Front also served as an incredible introduction to the wider Dresden Files novels, and I was glad to see how this entire epic series started.  I fully intend to go back and check out this entire series over the next couple of years and I am very excited to see what over intense and entertaining adventures Butcher has come up with in.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 February 2020)

Series: Necromunda – Book 11

Length: 14 hours and 43 minutes.

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

After enjoying the exciting novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker last year I once again dive into the intricate Warhammer 40K expanded universe with another fantastic tie-in novel.  This time however, I check out the awesome pulse pounding Necromunda adventure, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, which reintroduces the iconic and entertaining bounty hunter Kal Jerico.

Warhammer 40K fiction is a particularly fascinating franchise built around Games Workshop’s tabletop war game of the same name, which follows armies, heroes and monsters as they fight for supremacy in a gothic far future.  While Warhammer 40K started as models and gaming, it has since evolved into a massive expanded universe, featuring comics, video games, board games, a film, an upcoming television show and a vast collection of tie-in novels written by an impressive group of science fiction authors.  This is a really fantastic universe that I have a great deal of love for as I was a major Warhammer nerd when I was younger (heck, I’ll admit it, I’m still a Warhammer nerd).  Thanks to an incredible amount of lore, history and character bios that have been created to accompany the various iterations of the tabletop game, this universe has so much potential for great fiction and stories that are a lot of fun to explore.

While my last dive into Warhammer 40K fiction focused on the wider wars of Space Marines versus aliens, this time I am looking at something very different as I check out my first Necromunda novel.  Necromunda fiction is based around the spin-off Necromunda game which was launched in the 1990s.  Set in the same universe as the rest of Warhammer 40K, this sub-franchise takes place on the industrial planet of Necromunda, a desolate husk of a world devastated by thousands of years of pollution and expansive industrial ambition.  The stories take place within and under the Hive Cities, vast multi-layered industrial hubs resembling termite mounds that reach both high into the sky and deep underground, and which are home to untold billions of inhabitants.  Broken up with the wealthy on the top spires and the poor on the bottom and below (the Underhive), control and influence of these cities is constantly fought over by powerful clans, families, and gangs, resulting in a huge range of different conflicts, which fuel both the tabletop game and the associated fiction.  With Game Workshop’s recent relaunch of the Necromunda game a couple of years ago, several new Necromunda novels have been published, including this novel which focuses on one of the most intriguing characters ever created as part of this game, Kal Jerico.

Kal Jerico, the self-proclaimed greatest bounty hunter in Necromunda, was introduced back in 1998 in the Kal Jerico comic strip, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Karl Kopinski, which appeared in the Warhammer Monthly magazine.  The Kal Jerico comic ran for 30 comic strips between 1998 and 2004, although the character subsequently appeared in three Kal Jerico novels written by Will McDermott (with Gordon Rennie co-authoring the first novel), Blood Royal, Cardinal Crimson and Lasgun Wedding.  I am a bit of a Kal Jerico fan, as I was lucky enough to receive several Warhammer Monthly magazines when I was a kid and I used to really enjoy all the cool and fantastic comics contained within.  Out of all the comics, the Kal Jerico ones were always my favourite and I absolutely loved seeing the outrageous and daring adventures of this cocky bounty hunter.  My love for this character is the main reason that I decided to check Sinner’s Bounty out, and I was really interested to see a more modern take on the character years after seeing him appear in comic book form.

In the sordid depths of Hive Primus, the biggest hive city on Necromunda, a daring crime has been committed and all hell is about to break loose in the aftermath.  The infamous and manic preacher, Desolation Zoon, led a brazen robbery on a guilder tithe-hall, stealing vast quantities of weaponry, credits, imported goods and other mysterious treasures.  Now, with his band of fanatical followers, Zoon is heading downhive in an armoured mining hauler, modified with an impressive amount of firepower.  However, these zealots are not the only ones heading downhive as they are being followed by every hired gun and killer in Hive Primus, each of whom wants a piece of the massive bounty that has been placed on Zoon’s head.

At the forefront of the rogues, killers and gangers chasing after Zoon is the infamous bounty hunter Kal Jerico.  Travelling with his faithful sidekick, Scabbs, the murderous woman he was forced to marry, Yolanda, and his cyber-mastiff, Wotan, Jerico is determined to catch up to Zoon and claim both the money and the accompanying reputation boost.  To claim their prize, this unconventional team will need to traverse some of the most dangerous locations in the Underhive and face off against giant monsters, dangerous tunnel creatures and mutant cannibals, as well as all their friendly bounty hunter colleagues.

However, as they get closer to capturing Zoon, Jerico and his cohorts will swiftly discover that is far from the simple bounty mission they thought it was.  Many powerful people, both inside and outside of Hive Primus, have a stake in Zoon’s capture, and soon Jerico will face off against some old rivals who are just as likely to settle old grudges as they are to claim Zoon’s bounty.  Worst, something dark and dangerous is rising in the deeps of the Underhive, and Kal is about to find himself in the middle of a massive fight that even his unnatural good luck may be able to save him from.

Now, that was a fun novel!  Sinner’s Bounty is an awesome read that not only successfully reintroduces a fan-favourite character but which also provides a pulse-pumping science fiction adventure for reader in the mood for an exciting and captivating story.  To tell this impressive new Kal Jerico novel, the Black Library has recruited veteran tie-in author Joshua Reynolds to continue the legacy started by authors like Renni and McDermott.  Reynolds is a talented author who is well-established in Warhammer fiction, having written a substantial amount of Warhammer 40K and Warhammer fantasy novels over the years, following a wide range of different characters and storylines.  I ended up really enjoying Reynold’s Kal Jerico novel and I was deeply impressed with the excellent combination of compelling narrative, great characters, and an iconic setting, all wrapped up with a fantastic sense humour, that helped to turn Sinner’s Bounty into such an exceptional read.

Sinner’s Bounty contains an epic tale of greed, adventure and friendship in the twisting tunnels of the Underhive that provides a ton of action and excitement.  Reynolds starts this story off with a bang (well, several bangs, a multitude of bangs if I am going to be honest), setting up first the main plot catalyst in Desolation Zoon and his mission, before introducing Jerico and his partners as they encounter their first obstacle on their hunt.  This entertaining first encounter serves as a fantastic introduction to the main protagonists, and Reynolds swiftly hurries them on their way, ensuring that they encounter more of the deadly elements of life in the Underhive, such as their lethal competitors.  At the same time, Reynolds starts introducing several additional characters who embark on the same mission of catching up with Jerico and Zoon.  These additional side characters introduce some intriguing alternate viewpoints and opinions, especially as each of them have their own agendas and motivations for being there.  These alternate viewpoints work extremely well in conjunction with the main narrative around Jerico, and Reynolds starts adding more and more in as the novel progresses, with nearly every supporting character and plot point coming together towards the end of the book.  Reynolds writes up a big conclusion with every major character in the same location forced to work together to survive in a scenario that was fantastically reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven.  At the same time, every character attempts to betray each other, resulting in some extremely entertaining and fun sequences, with the reader unsure who is going to end up on top and who is going to survive.  All of this is wrapped up perfectly, with a clever and fitting conclusion to the main story, while several open story threads set up some additional stories for the future.  All of this was deeply captivating, and while I personally got hooked on the cool story within the first few pages, there is so much intense action, clever betrayals and compelling plot points, that most readers will find themselves wanting to see how this awesome book ends as quickly as possible.

While many tie-in novels in the Warhammer 40K range have a somewhat limited audience, often requiring pre-knowledge of game lore, I felt that Sinner’s Bounty was extremely accessible and can be easily enjoyed by anyone interested in a fun science fiction adventure.  Reynolds does an exceptional job introducing all the relevant elements of Necromunda throughout the course of Sinner’s Bounty, and the reader is easily able to understand what is happening and why without any issue whatsoever.  Indeed, Reynolds makes this book so accessible that I would recommend Sinner’s Bounty as a fantastic introductory novel to anyone interested in seeing what Warhammer 40K fiction is all about, especially the Necromunda subset.  At the same time, Reynolds also ensures that Sinner’s Bounty caters for established fans, as there are a ton of references to the Necromunda game, previous Kal Jerico adventures and wider Warhammer 40K lore.  Not only do huge amounts of elements from the tabletop game make it into Sinner’s Bounty’s story, but Reynolds skilfully references events that occurred within both the Kal Jerico comics and novels, recapping them for new readers while also making some jokes about the events that occurred.  This great blend of references and detail makes Sinner’s Bounty an excellent Warhammer 40K novel for all readers and you are guaranteed to have a good time no matter how familiar you are with Kal Jerico or this fictional universe.

Without a doubt one of the best highlights of this entire novel was the incredible setting of the Underhive of Necromunda.  Reynolds goes all out throughout the course of this book to bring this grim, cavernous and incredibly deadly expanded setting to life in all its gory glory, and it is spectacular.  The reader gets a real sense of how life in the dark under a massive hive city must be like and the author has included all manner of details about crumbling façade, the unusual life forms and perilous living conditions that its many, many inhabitants must face.  Naturally, this turns out to be an outstanding setting for this action-packed storyline, and I had an amazing time seeing which horror or unique landscape would appear next.  Reynolds also loads up his novel with a huge amount of additional detail about the various gangs, families, and groups that control Hive Primus and inhabit the Underhive, which proves to be deeply fascinating.  The author really goes out of his way to provide a fantastic introduction to several factions that were featured in the tabletop game, allowing readers with limited knowledge of this universe to easily follow who these groups are and how they relate to wider story and world.  All of this proved to be extremely fascinating and readers are guaranteed to want to dive back into the depths to see more outstanding adventures here.

Another impressive part of Sinner’s Bounty was the extremely likeable and distinctive characters whose adventure the readers follow during this multi-perspective narrative.  Many of these characters were originally introduced in the previous comics and novels and Reynolds does an excellent job revitalising them and fitting them into his fantastic story.  The main protagonist of Sinner’s Bounty is the titular Kal Jerico, the Underhive’s most dashing and fashionable bounty hunter.  I really enjoyed the excellent version of Jerico that appeared in this novel, and the author has styled him as a particularly bold, resourceful, vain, and exceedingly lucky figure who moves from place to place bringing chaos and destruction.  Jerico is a very entertaining character, constantly delivering witticisms and fun one-liners to his compatriots, his enemies and himself, and you cannot help but enjoy seeing everything going wrong around him as he manages to annoy or enrage everyone he comes across.  It was particularly fun to see so many other characters get drawn into the events of this book partially out of spite towards Jerico, after being bested by him in previous adventures.  Despite his outer edge of pragmatism, greed and selfishness, Sinner’s Bounty shows that Jerico has a bit of a soul when it comes to some of the other people he encounters.  Not only is he shown to care about both his companions, despite several discussions where he implies he would sell them for his own benefit, but he also has a deeply ingrained sense of honour that drives him to do the right thing, even if it puts him in greater risk.  This makes for a fantastic and enjoyable character and I had a wonderful time seeing him scamper around in the Underhive making enemies and generally pissing everyone off.

In addition to his own vaunted self, Jerico also brought along two of his long-term associates Scabbs and Yolanda, both of whom have been part of the Kal Jerico series since the beginning (Scabbs appeared in Issue #1, while Yolanda was introduced in #2).  Both characters are heavily featured in Sinner’s Bounty and proved to be an excellent addition to the story.  The most significant inclusion is probably Scabbs, Jerico’s long-time friend and sidekick with a serious skin condition (hence the name Scabbs), who often unwillingly follows Jerico into danger.  Scabbs is a fun character who serves as a great counterpoint to Jerico’s insanity, often complaining about the terrible plans and generally looking for a more intelligent way to complete the mission.  Scabbs has a rather significant character arc within Sinner’s Bounty which forces him to examine his half-ratskin (a gang/clan in Necromunda) past, especially when he encounters Amenute, a ratskin mystic who is inexplicably drawn to him.  This forces Scabbs to re-examine his loyalties to Jerico, and it is intriguing to see this character act rashly as he faces off against powerful gangs to save his new acquaintance.

Next we have Yolanda, the dangerous and unpredictable wild woman who is currently Jerico’s wife (see the previous Kal Jerico novel, Lasgun Wedding).  Despite this marital relationship with Jerico, Yolanda is a just as likely to cut her husband’s throat as she is to help him, as she only serves her own best interest or her desires to kill as many people as possible.  Yolanda is another great character, especially as the reader is constantly left waiting for her inevitable betrayal of Jerico and Scabbs (I also had a good chuckle at an early joke about a poet trying to describe Yolanda, which does not go well for the poet!).  While Yolanda is a tad one-dimensional at times, Reynolds does a good job of trying to explore her inner psyche, showcasing some interesting parallels between her and Jerico, as both fled from a cushy life in the Spire to experience the joys of the Underhive, and there are some hints of some genuine feelings for Jerico, even though the two mockingly reference their sham marriage throughout the book.  I had a lot of fun with both these supporting characters and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to Jerico’s antics.

Aside from these three protagonists, Reynolds has also loaded up Sinner’s Bounty with a raft of side characters, each of whom has their own agenda or plan, most of which revolve around killing Jerico (the guy is very popular).  The side characters featured within this book are an intriguing combination of established Necromunda bounty hunters and power brokers (I believe several are playable characters in the tabletop game), and original characters.  As a result, the reader gets to follow a range of religious fanatics, outrageous bounty hunters, scheming gangas, deranged mutants (including an entertainingly grandiose queen) and a whole range of other intriguing figures.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, the reader gets a useful and suitable introduction to each of these characters, ensuring that they can be easily slotted into the narrative when necessary and cause their little bit of havoc.

Out of all these supporting characters, one of my favourites had to be the Adjurator (a fancy bounty hunter) Baertrum Arturos III, who serves as a major point-of-view character and secondary antagonist for this novel.  Baertrum is a slippery and treacherous hunter who is drawn into this chase not just for money but for the opportunity to one-up Jerico, who he has a deadly rivalry with.  Baertrum’s scenes are fun to read, especially as he is usually coming up with a new way to betray the other characters, and the reader has a great time hating him throughout the book.  I also liked the character of Desolation Zoon, the mad preacher whose brazen heist is the cause of all the events of this book.  Reynolds creates a particularly intriguing character in Zoon, showcasing him as a tired old preacher who, after a lifetime of piety and bloodshed, is starting to lose his faith and question his past actions.  However, this old dog still has some holy fire in him, and readers are in for a great time seeing him lay into his enemies with sword and blistering verse in equal measure.  Zoon has some particularly fantastic exchanges with Jerico in the second half of the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing this compelling figure come to life and be utilised throughout the book.  Overall, I thought that each of the characters in this exceptional novel were pretty damn fantastic and I had an exceptional time watching them attempt to survive and betray everyone they encounter.

I chose to grab Sinner’s Bounty on audiobook, which ended up being an amazing way to experience this fantastic and compelling novel.  The Sinner’s Bounty audiobook had a decent run time of just under 15 hours, which I managed to get through in about a week with a few extended listening sessions once I really got hooked on its outrageous tale.  I had a lot of fun listening to this audiobook and I found that the cool action sequences and gloriously gory setting of the Underhive were particularly awesome in this format.  A lot of this is down to the excellent narration of the talented Mark Elstob.  Elstob, who has previously narrated a small but interesting collection of audiobooks, has a lot of fun with Sinner’s Bounty as he comes up with some unique voices for this fantastic science fiction adventure.  All of the characters are gifted with a fitting and fun voice that really captures the depth of their personality, whether they be a scheming bounty hunter, a former aristocrat or a fantastical preacher, while also modulating to match their emotional state at that time.  This makes several of the battle scenes particularly fun, especially when you have characters like Desolation Zoon shouting out religious verse during a fight.  I also really appreciated the more nasal or gravelly voices the narrator came up for the various Abhuman or mutated beings featured within the book, and it was great to have some of the more different characters identified differently (I need to give a particular shoutout to one of characters, a mutant pirate captain, to whom Elstob gives a very enjoyable Scottish accent).  Overall, this was an outstanding way to enjoy Sinner’s Bounty and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this book.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty is an outstanding Warhammer 40K novel that reintroduces the epic Kal Jerico back to his adoring public after a lengthy absence.  The always impressive Joshua Reynolds has produced another outstanding Warhammer novel, containing an exciting and compelling adventure story, equipped with an incredible setting and some fantastic characters.  This results in an addictive and entertaining novel that I had an absolutely awesome time getting through and which made me so very glad that Kal Jerico is back.  Here’s hoping that we’ll get some more Kal Jerico novels in the future, especially if they feature more of Reynolds’s epic writing.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

Film Review – Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman - Soul of the Dragon

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 40

Director: Sam Liu

Producer: Bruce Timm

Writer: Jeremy Adams

Length: 82 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into an intense and addictive DC Comics martial arts adventure with the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, an outstanding and deeply enjoyable film that explores several amazing DC characters in a very unique way.

While The Unseen Library is primarily dedicated to providing book and comic reviews, I have in the last year been experimenting with reviews and articles about another great passion of mine, animated superhero films.  I have always had a lot of fondness for this genre and I started focusing on it more last year when I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and even further when I did an extended Top Ten Tuesday article listing my favourite superhero animated films, which primarily featured DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  DC continues their domination of the animation market with the very awesome Soul of the Dragon film, which serves as the 40th entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  I had an outstanding time watching this latest animated offering and it is definitely a new favourite film of mine.

Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner are four of the best martial artists on the planet, utilising their skills and training to become truly elite fighters.  While each of these renowned warriors are now on their own different paths, they shared a similar start on their journey as students at the secret monastery of Nanda Parbat.  Training under the legendary O-Sensei, these four, along with other notable students, not only learned the martial techniques that allowed them to become the fighters they are today but also became a close-knit family, until one terrible night changed everything for them.

Now their paths are about to cross again when Richard Dragon discovers that a fanatical organisation, the Cult of the Kobra, have stolen an ancient and dangerous artefact that Dragon and his fellow former students are intimately and tragically familiar with.  Travelling to Gotham City, Dragon recruits Bruce Wayne, who now fights criminals as the vigilante Batman, to help him stop Kobra and save the entire world.  Attempting to recover another artefact guarded by Shiva, now a feared Gotham crime boss, they soon discover just how long and deadly Kobra’s reach is.

With Shiva and Ben in tow, the four former disciples of O-Sensei prepare for the battle of their lives as they attempt to infiltrate Kobra’s island base.  However, nothing will prepare them for the dangers they will encounter, nor the horrors unleashed from their past.  Can these four dangerous fighters work together to save the world or will an ancient and deadly force be unleashed?

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent and amazing animated comic book film that proved to be an absolute treat to watch.  This is a standalone film which is directed by Sam Liu, written by Jeremy Adams and featuring Bruce Timm as an executive producer, and together these talented people have produced a fantastic and powerful feature.  Liu and Timm are the genius behind some of the best animated comic films that are out there, including Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and the incredible The Death of Superman, and they have once again done an outstanding job with Soul of the Dragon, creating a unique and entertaining comic book tale.  Making excellent use of an exceptional narrative, a great group of characters and a very distinctive vibe, Soul of the Dragon is an outstanding and wonderful film that is really worth watching.

Soul of the Dragon has a particularly awesome and captivating narrative that follows its four iconic central protagonists on an epic quest to right the wrongs of their collective past.  This movie contains an original tale set in the 1970s that draws heavily from classic DC martial arts comics to create a fantastic film that not only dives into the origins of some amazing DC characters but which also presents an exciting character-driven adventure.  This movie starts off with a captivating bang with Richard Dragon discovering a sinister plot with ties to his time as a student.  The story then quickly starts to reunite the four major characters, with several impressive action set-pieces dominating the early part of this movie, all of which were a real treat to watch.  The story than takes the protagonists to an island fortress where they must face their enemy before he can unleash a terrible force of destruction.

Interspersed with the main story are a series of compelling flashbacks that follow the protagonists’ training under O-Sensei, which provide some excellent context to the main story.  I thought that the flashbacks were a particularly impressive part of the movie and I liked they expertly tied together main narrative with the past, creating a richer overall story.  I also felt that the narrative did an excellent job of introducing each of the characters while also highlighting the differences between their modern appearances and their former lives as students.  I did think that the main story was a little rushed and could have potentially used a little more plot in between the protagonists’ reunion and their arrival at the antagonists’ island.  Still, this did not impact my enjoyment of the movie too much, and the last third of the film is so damn epic and emotionally charged that you forget about this slight misstep of pacing.  All of this wraps up with a memorable and interesting ultimate conclusion, which will leave you wondering about what, if anything, is going to happen next.

Thanks to the standalone nature of this movie, potential viewers do not need to have watched any prior DC animated features to enjoy Soul of the Dragon, and indeed minimal knowledge of the various characters and comic elements is needed to follow along, as the narrative provides a fantastic and detailed introduction to all the relevant parts of the plot.  All of this makes for an epic and just plain awesome story that honours some classic DC characters and comics while also introducing them to a new generation of DC fans with this fantastic adventure.

In addition to the first-rate story, I was also impressed with how well this cool movie was put together.  It contains some outstanding animation, especially when it comes to the impressively exciting action scenes, with a particularly well-put-together car chase halfway through the film being an amazing example.  This proves to be a very action-heavy film, with a huge number of fluid combat sequences that perfectly captures the skill of the combatants and which successfully translates the style of the original martial arts comic.  Parents should be warned that this is not an animated feature for younger children, thanks to some of its over-the-top content, but everyone else is going to love seeing all the exciting fast-paced scenes unfold.  I particularly liked how this animated movie had such a distinctive and entertaining style to it, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  As the story is set in to the 1970s, the creators attempted to replicate the feel and tone of the era in a number of different ways, such as the technology, locations and the animated appearances of the characters.  The creative team also made sure to include a ton of appropriate slang (you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Batman say: “Let’s get it on”) and an excellent instrumental musical score that is not only very 70s in its sound but which perfectly fits the movie’s distinctive narrative and tone.  Soul of the Dragon draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu films, especially those featuring Bruce Lee, and you can really feel the creators’ love of the genre with all the little details they chuck in.  There are also a number of fantastic allusions to classic James Bond films, including several very familiar musical themes, some entertaining lines from certain characters and even a dangerous car chase with a gadget-laden car that ends with a vehicle getting whisked away on an electromagnet attached to a helicopter (a very fun call-back to You Only Live Twice).  I absolutely loved how well this film came together, and all the exceptional animation and clever tonal shifts combine perfectly with the great story to produce an enthralling and memorable viewing experience.

In addition to have an amazing and entertaining narrative, Soul of the Dragon is backed up by a fantastic roster of characters from across the DC Comics canon, voiced by an exceptional and talented collection of actors.  While this movie contains several great supporting characters, the story is mostly set around Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner, each of whom are heavily featured in both the main narrative and the flashbacks.  While all four of these main characters are great in their own right, a lot of their appeal lies in fantastic connection they have with each other and with their master, O-Sensei.  These great protagonists have an excellent rapport, and it proved to be really great to see them interact with each other throughout the film.

The lead of the film is probably Batman, who is voiced by David Giuntoli of Grimm fame, who provides a fantastic take on the character with his voice work.  I liked how there were two versions of Batman: the vigilante who featured in the main story and the younger student in Nanda Parbat.  This proved to be an interesting portrayal of this iconic character, as the writers attempt to explore Bruce’s determination, even as a young man, to do the impossible and fight evil no matter the cost.  It was also great to see him evolve from the student in the flashbacks to the vigilante in the main story, and there are some fun scenes that showcase him becoming a more focused and terrifying fighter when he puts on the mask.

While Soul of the Dragon is nominally a Batman movie, Bruce is somewhat overshadowed by some of the other main protagonists.  This is no fault of the character’s portrayal or characterisation; it is just because the other protagonists are just a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Part of the reason why this is the case is that Batman is the least skilled martial artist in what is essentially a kung fu movie, as it is established that his fellow students are better fighters than him (this is true in both the film and in the comics).  While this does mean that some of the other characters’ action sequences are a little more visually impressive, you instead get to see Batman fight in different ways.  There is a great focus on how Batman utilises trickery and fear to supplement his weaker fighting abilities, and there are some excellent scenes around this, including a key one towards the end of the film where he uses a combination of his gadgets, cunning, and even his own cape to defeat a superior foe.  I did think that the version of the character was a bit blasé about keeping his identity secret with his friends, and he didn’t seemed as opposed to people using lethal force as you would expect, but this was an outstanding take on Batman and I really enjoyed his appearance in this film.

One major character who was a true highlight of this movie was Richard Dragon, an iconic character who is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the DC canon.  Despite his popularity in DC’s martial arts comics, this is the character’s first appearance outside of the comics (the Richard Dragon featured in Arrow is a different character altogether) and he voiced by The Chairman himself, Mark Dacascos.  Depicted as Asian in the film (the comic character is traditionally a red-haired Caucasian), this character looks a lot like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and is portrayed as an international super spy.  Despite this being a Batman film, in many ways Richard is just as much the main character of this movie, with much of the story revolving around him.  Richard grabs focus right from the start, where he engages in some amusing spy antics, which include outwitting a James Bond-esque character in a fancy casino, effortlessly and stylishly fighting off some goons, and parachuting onto a boat filled with beautiful women (a scene very reminiscent of The Living Daylights, Bond music included), before identifying himself as “Dragon, Richard Dragon”.  Each of Dragon’s subsequent scenes are really fantastic, from the fluid and exceptional action sequences to the fun interactions he has with other characters, including an entertaining scene with a pompous bouncer.  Dacascos does an exceptional job voicing this character and he provides Richard with a confident, intelligent and generally calm air that proves to be extremely easy to enjoy, while also including some vulnerability in several amazing scenes.  All of this helps to produce an exceptional character and I am extremely glad that the introduction of Richard Dragon to a wider media went so well.

The next major character in the movie is the dangerous and delightful Shiva, who was voiced by the talented Kelly Hu.  Lady Shiva, as she is better known, is one of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC canon.  I felt the creative team did an outstanding job showcasing Shiva in Soul of the Dragon, as she is portrayed as a merciless killing machine and living weapon able to destroy her opponents with minimal effort and nothing but her bare hands.  The character has some of the most brutal combat sequences, which were not only beautifully animated but which proved to be extremely entertaining to watch.  I felt that Shiva went through some fantastic character development throughout the film as she transforms from a dedicated student to a ruthless crime lord who even Batman is afraid to deal with: “I’m working up to it…”  I also really loved the choice of voice actor for this character as Kelly Hu does a sensational job bringing Shiva to life.  Hu, who is known for her comic book roles in both animation (as Cheshire in Young Justice and Karai in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and live action (as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2 and China White in Arrow), has previously voiced Lady Shiva in the Batman: Arkham Origins video game, and it was great to see her return to this fantastic character.  She gives this version of Shiva a particularly deadly air; you can tell with every sentence just how confident she is in her own ability and lethal potential.  Not only does Shiva have some of the best fight scenes in the movie but she also has some of the best lines, such as when she chooses her opponent in one of the big boss fights: “I’ll take the girl, her look offends me!”  I also absolutely loved one scene which saw the voice of Karai from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against three green-clad ninjas respectfully wielding sai, nunchaku and a bo staff.  The character’s casual comment of “You know how to use those?” followed by her effortlessly taking all three out was just perfect and it has me laughing pretty heavily.  I think that Shiva was probably my favourite character in the entire movie and I am really impressed with how she was written and portrayed.

The final member of the main four characters is Ben Turner, the angry and dangerous African-American fighter better known as Bronze Tiger.  Bronze Tiger is a major martial artist in the DC canon who is probably best known for his run in the Suicide Squad comics.  Bronze Tiger is voiced by Michael Jai White, who recently portrayed the live-action version of the character in Arrow.  I really liked Bronze Tiger throughout Soul of the Dragon, as the film captures a lot of his essence from his original comic appearances and subsequently turn him into a fantastic character in this movie.  Part of the reason why is that he goes through the most development out of all the main characters, especially as several flashbacks bridge the gap between his student days and his current character, showing several pivotal events in his life.  I absolutely loved his look in this movie, as they made the decision to model him on African-American actor and martial artist, Jim Kelly, with some elements of other 70s African-American characters like Shaft and Luke Cage thrown in.  There is a particularly fun joke around this character when Richard misremembers the character’s codename as Black Samurai, a reference to the Jim Kelly movie of the same name, and the subsequent approval of the team at his actual codename of Bronze Tiger was very entertaining.  White does some excellent voice work for Bronze Tiger in this film and he successfully showcases the character’s intense anger at the start of the story before evolving it into a more zen-like persona towards the end.  I would say that Bronze Tiger was a little overshadowed by the three other protagonists, but he was still a great addition to the movie and is a fun character to follow.

Aside from the main four characters, there is a particular focus on the mentor character of O-Sensei, who is voiced in this film by the legendary James Hong.  O-Sensei is a fantastic character with an intriguing history in DC Comics, being a major figure in the lives of Richard Dragon, Shiva and Bronze Tiger.  This is actually O-Sensei’s first named appearance outside of the comics, and he proves to be a fantastic and fun addition to the movie’s narrative.  Hong portrays the character as a wise but humorous kung fu master, offering deep insights and amusing jokes in equal measure to the younger characters, while also forming them into a close family.  O-Sensei proves to be an extremely likeable character, with some deep and powerful moments that ensure that the viewer appreciates and enjoys him.  I particularly loved Hong’s voice work throughout the movie and I felt that he really dived into the character and made him stand out, especially in some later scenes in the movie where there are some intriguing twists around him.  An overall outstanding and exceptional part of the cast, I am extremely glad they got Hong for this movie.

No comic book movie will be complete without some villains, and to my mind this is where Soul of the Dragon falls a little flat.  The antagonists of this film are the members of the Cult of the Kobra (essentially DC’s version of Hydra, both of which were created by Jack Kirby).  Kobra are led by their prophet, Jeffrey Burr (voiced by Josh Keaton), backed up by his henchmen Schlangenfaust (Robin Atkin Downes), Lady Eve (Grey Griffin) and King Snake (Patrick Seitz).  While all of these characters are voiced perfectly and have some cool moments throughout the movie, such as Burr’s creepy introduction, his belief in his prophesised destiny and Schlangenfaust’s hidden abilities, I honestly found each of these villains to be a little underwhelming.  None of them (with the possible exception of Schlangenfaust) really stood out to me and they were all very generic sort of villains to the story.  That being said, Soul of the Dragon did feature two hidden antagonists at different points of film who add some major twists to the tale.  Both of these villains were rather good and moved the story along in some intriguing and entertaining directions.  I particularly loved the appearance of one antagonistic character towards the end of the movie, and while his appearance was slightly predictable, it proved to be a major highlight of the film, resulting in some outstanding scenes.  As a result, it was rather easy for me to forgive some of the downsides of the Kobra villains as the overall antagonists of this film turned out to be extremely good.

Overall, I think that Batman: Soul of the Dragon was an exceptional animated film that was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks to its combination of an epic story, captivating and well-written characters and a tone that is a fun nod to classic and campy kung fu movies, this movie gets a full five stars from me.  This is definitely a movie I will watch multiple times in the future, and it comes highly recommended.  I very much looking forward to seeing the next entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range (there is a Justice Society movie and an adaption of Batman: The Long Halloween coming out later this year), and I will have to have a go at reviewing them when they come out.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole

Doctor Who - The Knight, The Fool and The Dead Cover

Publisher: BBC Books (Hardcover – 1 December 2020)

Series: Time Lord Victorious – Book One

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to follow the Tenth Doctor into one of his darkest adventures as he faces death itself in the early days of the universe with the first novel in the Time Lord Victorious multimedia series, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, by bestselling author Steve Cole.

Shortly after the events of the 2009 television special The Waters of Mars, the Tenth Doctor attempts to outrun his guilt and his prophesised death by fleeing deep into the past to the Dark Times.  Near the birth of the universe, life flourishes and death is barely known.  Only a few rare people die, and most beings live for vast quantities of time.  That is until the Kotturuh arrive and turn the peaceful and bountiful planet that the Doctor is visiting into a dead world within seconds.

The Kotturuh are a vile and terrible race who are spreading throughout the cosmos dispensing death and destruction on an unbelievable scale.  Worshiping a mysterious equation, the Kotturuh view themselves as the arbiters of life and death, travelling to planets and dispensing mortality.  With each new species they encounter, they decree what that species’ lifespan will be, whether centuries or moments, and any who have lived beyond their set time are instantly killed.

Determined to stop the Kotturuh’s reign of terror, the Doctor and a small team of companions begin to work on a defensive strategy that will ensure life forms are immune to the Kotturuh’s power.  After travelling to the Kotturuh’s world and witnessing the equation that they follow, the Doctor begins to formulate a plan that will not only stop the Kotturuh for good but may even put an end to the Doctor’s greatest enemy, death.  Determined to change all of time and space so that life will win for all time, the Doctor will become more than just a Time Lord, he will be The Time Lord Victorious.

Now it will probably surprise no-one who is familiar with my blog that I am quite a fan of Doctor Who (just add it to the massive list of fandoms that I follow).  Despite my love of the televisions shows, I have not gotten into the Doctor Who novels, audio dramas or comics, although that may change in the future.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is an intriguing and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting ride with the Tenth Doctor.  Written by Steve Cole, who has written a huge number of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas among other intriguing works, this book is a vital entry in the Time Lord Victorious project.  Time Lord Victorious is a connected series of Doctor Who tie-ins told across multiple forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and various other formats, which sees various incarnations of the Doctor encounter similar foes and each-other in a massive adventure.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is a major part of this expanded tie-in series, introducing one of the main antagonistic species and producing some of the major connected moments.

The Knight, The Fool and The Dead had an intriguing and enjoyable narrative which places the Tenth Doctor in an interesting and deadly conflict.  I had an awesome time reading this amazing story and, in many ways, it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, with the Doctor being confronted by danger, recruiting a unique team of individuals, including an immortal, a mad scientist and a time travelling Ood hitman (a hitood??), before finding an inventive solution to the conflict.  This proved to be a fun and enjoyable adventure, although it does get somewhat dark towards the end, mainly due to the Doctor’s vulnerable mental state and the reckless course of action that he undertakes.  While the book mostly follows the Tenth Doctor and his companions, there are also some flashback scenes to some of previous Doctors, each of which show the Doctor telling one of his companions the same story in different ways.  These flashback scenes are very interesting, especially to fans of the franchise, and they have some clever connections to the main story and to the overarching events of the Time Lord Victorious.  Due to how short the novel is (only 178 pages), The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is extremely fast paced, although Cole does an amazing job setting everything up in a short period and then ensuring that the story that follows is cohesive with a good flow.  I found myself powering through this novel in extremely short order, especially once I got stuck into the excellent story, and I really enjoyed how the entire narrative turned out.  I particularly liked the intriguing and shocking cliff-hanger, which definitely makes me want to check out the next novel in the series.

This latest novel from Cole proved to be quite an enjoyable Doctor Who tie-in novel that really captures the tone and feel of the television show.  Like many pieces of tie-in fiction, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is best read by fans of the Doctor Who franchise, especially those who loved the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor.  Due to it being part of the Time Lord Victorious project, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead has some intriguing connections to the wider universe, with several other significant figures and characters making appearances, resulting in a lot of references for eagle-eyed fans.  While some knowledge of the wider Doctor Who canon would be ideal for readers of this novel, I felt that the story contained within The Knight, The Fool and The Dead was accessible to newcomers who should have fun getting through this interesting science fiction adventure.  While this novel is connected to a huge range of other Doctor Who media releases, I felt that readers did not need to have enjoyed any of the other entries in the Time Lord Victorious series before this book to follow the story.  While The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is a major entry in this connected franchise and is necessary reading for people trying to enjoy the Time Lord Victorious as a whole, this book can easily be enjoyed on its own.  I am rather curious about some of the comics and other novels being created as part of this, and I might have to check them out at some point in the future.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the author’s portrayal of the Doctor.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead features the Tenth Doctor, who was played by David Tennant on television, as the central protagonist of this book, and I felt that Cole did an outstanding job of bringing this iconic character to life.  Cole captures so much of this Doctor’s personality, including the way he speaks and thinks, so much so that while I was reading through this novel my brain automatically read all of the Doctor’s lines to me in Tennant’s voice.  This helped turn The Knight, The Fool and The Dead into such a fun story, especially as Tennant’s Doctor is probably my favourite version of the character.  However, the real highlight of Cole’s portrayal of the Tenth Doctor is how the author brings a much darker and conflicted tone to the character.  This version of the Tenth Doctor is only shortly removed from the climatic events of The Waters of Mars, where the Doctor’s hubris led to the suicide of a woman he was trying to save.  Because of this, and because his own upcoming death has been foretold, the Doctor has fled back in time to try to outrun his problems.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author portrays a much more unpredictable and emotionally ragged Doctor throughout this book, especially one who is still getting flashes about what happened during his last adventure.  This somewhat damaged Doctor ends up making some rather rash and dangerous decisions, especially when an opportunity to end all death comes before him.  The way in which the author works this more damaged version of this fantastic character into the narrative is extremely cool and I really appreciate the way in which he brings the story back to the events of the television series.

Overall, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole is an excellent and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel.  Thanks to its quick narrative and fantastic depiction of the Tenth Doctor, I had an absolute blast getting through this new book, which serves as a key entry in a captivating multi-media series.  This is a great book to check out, especially if you are a major Doctor Who fan, and I will need to get the next novel in this series, All Flesh is Glass, to see how this storyline ends.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!