The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 3 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Stephen King returns with another exceptional read, Billy Summers, an awesome and memorable character driven thriller that has proved to be one of the best books of the year so far.

2021 has been quite an amazing year for Stephen King, who has released two outstanding and impressive novels in a short period of time.  His first book of 2021 was the interesting horror novel, Later, which followed a child who can see and talk to the recently deceased.  While I have not had a lot of experience reading Stephen King novels in the past, I really got into Later due to its likeable characters and thrilling narrative, and it ended up being one of the best audiobooks I listened to in the first part of 2021.  Due to how much I liked Later, I made sure to keep an eye out for any additional Stephen King releases, and I was extremely intrigued to see that he had a second book coming out with a great-sounding plot.  As a result, this second novel, Billy Summers, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of the year, and I was excited when I received my copy, especially as it contained a really cool story.

Billy Summers is an assassin and gun for hire.  A maestro with a sniper rifle and a master of elaborate escapes, there are few killers better than him.  However, for all his skills, Billy has one unusual quirk: he has a conscience and a moral code which limits him to only taking out contracts on targets he considers to be bad guys.  After a lifetime of killing, as both an assassin and a soldier, Billy wants out, and he is willing to take one final job to retire.  Luckily, his employer has a job that fits all his criteria.

Taken to the small city of Red Bluff on the East Coast of America, Billy is hired to kill a notorious gangster and killer who is currently locked up in Los Angeles but due to be extradited back to Red Bluff.  Billy’s boss wants the target dead the moment he arrives to stop him making a deal with the authorities ahead of his murder trial.  With a massive pay cheque on the line, Billy accepts the job, despite some odd stipulations.  As part of their plan to take out their target, Billy will need to take on the identity of an author working in the office complex overlooking the courthouse and maintain his cover for as long as it takes the extradition process to go through.

Despite misgivings about the job, Billy dives into the role as required and soon establishes himself as a regular figure in the office block.  As he waits for his target to arrive, Billy begins to get to know the people around him and takes the opportunity to write a memoir about his life and the decisions that led to him becoming a killer.  However, the closer he gets to the conclusion of the job, the more he suspects that nothing involved with this assassination is on the level, and that his bosses intend from him to die as well.  Making his own plans in case things go sideways, Billy prepares to end his career as an assassin on his own terms.  But then he meets Alice, and everything changes.

Well damn, how the hell does King do it?  After nearly 45 years of writing, you’d think the man would run out of unique and compelling ideas, but that apparently is not the case, as his latest book, Billy Summers, turned out to be quite an exceptional read.  King has produced an impressive and powerful story that follows a complex and well-established protagonist as he experiences life for the first time.  With some outstanding characters, a deeply thrilling storyline and some intriguing insights into the human condition, this was an outstanding read that was easily one of the best books I read in 2021 and which got a full five-star review from me.

Billy Summers contains a pretty addictive and powerful story that I found to be really cool.  The book is primarily told through the eyes of the titular Billy and shows him as he prepares to take on his final job.  King does a great job of introducing the character and the scenario, and you are soon placed into the midst of a very cool storyline as Billy moves into suburbia under an assumed identity to build his cover.  This results in some compelling character interactions, as Billy simultaneously prepares for his assassination mission with his employers while also getting close to some of the people he encounters and starts to see what a normal life feels like.  At the same time, he also builds up a third identity to use after the job is completed, which requires him to assume a different disguise and create some additional personal connections.  He also starts writing a personal memoir which tells a slightly altered version of his life story, including his rough childhood, his military career, and his early contract work.  This mixture of intriguing and fascinating story threads come together extremely well in the first half of the novel, and you get quite a unique and compelling narrative which perfectly blends thriller excitement with personal character growth.

After a big moment halfway through the novel, the entire storyline dramatically changes, especially as Billy is introduced to a key character, Alice.  While there is still a large amount of focus on the job from the first half of the novel and its consequences, the story noticeably morphs at this point, really diving into the relationship that develops between these two characters.  The storyline also moves away from some of the prior relationships that were introduced, and moves into a road trip, with Billy now accompanied by Alice.  There are some really good sequences in this second half of the novel, as well as a continued exploration of Billy’s past.  King does a fantastic job morphing the various story threads and plot ideas into a cohesive and captivating narrative, and I really enjoyed the powerful combinations.  The set pieces are a series of awesome action sequences, which help tie up several of the main story threads and lead up to the book’s epic conclusion.  While King is often criticised for his endings, I felt that Billy Summers had an exceptional and incredible conclusion that I deeply enjoyed.  This great conclusion is both tragic and memorable, and it ties together the entire novel extremely well, helping to turn Billy Summers into one of the best stories I have read all year.

I really enjoyed King’s writing style in this novel, especially as it focused a lot on character development and interactions between unique people.  The entire novel has a very philosophical bent to it, as King and his characters take time to explore the human experience, especially those aspects of life that people on the outside, such as BIlly, miss out on.  While you wouldn’t think that this would pair well with a thriller story about an assassin, it actually works extremely well, especially when combined with Billy’s journaling scenes, and readers are guaranteed to fall in love with this distinctive form of storytelling.  I also liked the author’s great use of various settings which help to show off the uniqueness of America’s landscapes.  King features several different locations, including suburbia, the inner city, the wide open road, the isolated Colorado mountains, and even some more famous locations, like fabulous Las Vegas.  Each location offers the reader and the characters something new to enjoy or appreciate, and King makes sure to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of these various settings.  While King does move away from some of his more extreme murder sprees in this novel, there are some dark moments in this book.  Not only are there some very graphic action sequences, but readers should also be warned about the sexual violence content, especially one scene where Billy enacts some justice.  I’m also slightly concerned that King might end up getting sued by Rupert Murdoch for a certain facsimile character who does some bad things.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed the way King told his latest unique story, and there is something for everyone in it.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have the most experience reading Stephen King novels, with only a few of his more recent reads under my belt.  Despite this, I was easily able to enjoy Billy Summers, especially as it is a standalone thriller with one-shot characters.  As a result, this is a book that any reader can easily pick up and get into, and I really liked how open the author made Billy Summers.  However, fans of King, as well as those people generally aware of his work, will probably have fun seeing the references to some of King’s previous books.  One of his more iconic works is referenced several times, especially as the protagonists end up spending time near a pivotal location.  While this is not particularly essential to the plot, it was a nice callback, and I think that most people will appreciate the fun self-homage.  I also found it interesting that both of King’s novels of 2021 had a compelling focus on writing, which becomes a key part of the plot.  While Later focused more on the publishing side of things, Billy Summers contains a fantastic examination of the difficulties of putting your ideas to paper as a writer, with the protagonist attempting to write his life story in his downtime.  While there are several fantastic advantages to the writing subplot, such as it being a great way to introduce the protagonist’s backstory in a compelling and episodic manner, I also quite enjoyed seeing the depiction of the writing process, and the various difficulties of telling a story.  It very much felt that King was pouring some of his own experiences with writing into these sections of the novel, and it was incredibly fun and insightful to see one of the world’s greatest authors depict the difficulties of writing in one of his novels.

Another area that Billy Summers excelled in is the fantastic central and supporting characters.  King does a remarkable job of introducing a diverse cast of characters, each of whom affect the character in various ways, either by showing him what his missing, or showing him what he is better than.  The most focused character is naturally the titular protagonist, Billy Summers, a brilliant contract killer who only kills bad people.  Billy is a remarkably complex figure, who builds several different personalities and personas around himself for professional reasons and protection.  I really enjoyed the intriguing portrayal of this character, mainly because you got to see at least four different versions of him in the first half of the book.  While the narrator is the calm and collected lover of classic novels who is basically a good guy, despite being an elite professional killer able to see every angle and work out the best way to kill someone and escape, that is a viewpoint that only the readers sees, at least at the start of the novel.  Billy hides this real side of himself from the rest of the world, effecting a less intellectual personality to his criminal associates, which he calls his “dumb self”, to fool them and think he’s less of a threat.

While his dumb self is usually enough to get by, his new assignment requires him to take up the identity of a struggling author who moves into a suburban neighbourhood and a local office block to focus on his upcoming bestseller.  Billy is forced to integrate into these social systems to keep his cover, and he soon makes friends amongst the people he meets, many of whom have an impact on him due to their honesty, innocence, and normality, all of which Billy has long given up.  He also builds up yet another identity to rent an additional house, which he plans to use as a safe house if the job goes wrong, which forces him to deal with additional normal people.  On top of that, he also takes the opportunity to write a memoir of his life, not only to maintain his cover but to satisfy his own curiosity about the writing process.  This proves to be a delicate balancing act, as he attempts to give an honest account of his past while also trying to keep up the charade of being dumb in case his employers read the story he writes.  This results in a unique, multifaceted character, and you get hints at the true nature of Billy, not just from the narration, but from seeing the similarities and differences between the various versions he presents to the world.

Billy’s life changes even further when he meets Alice, a woman who he meets at the very worst time of her life.  Saving her initially to maintain his cover, Billy soon finds himself drawn to protecting Alice, who has no-one and is having trouble getting over her trauma.  Billy soon works in a fantastic and touching relationship with Alice, as the two become close and help each other see the world in other ways.  Not only is Alice a great character in her own right, especially as King presents a very real and moving portrayal of a damaged and lost woman, but she also brings out the best in Billy.  While Alice does imprint on Billy due to her trauma, she also encourages him and gets him to continue writing his book.  This powerful bond they form soon becomes a central part of the book’s plot, and it is extremely fascinating and compelling to see what happens to them.  These exceptional characters and deep personalities really turn Billy Summers into an exceptional read, and I become severely invested in their story, even though I knew it was likely to end badly.

Stephen King has once again shows why he is the premier fiction author in the world today with another intense and exquisite read in Billy Summers.  Featuring a deep and captivating narrative about a complex character, Billy Summers was an absolute treat to read, and comes highly recommended.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with the unique narrative and compelling leading figures, and I guarantee that you will have trouble putting this excellent novel down.  Easily one of the best books of 2021, I cannot praise Billy Summers enough.

Billy Summers Cover 2

Throwback Thursday – The Death of Superman

Death of Superman Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 32 / DC Animated Movie Universe – Film 11

Directors: Sam Liu and Jake Castorena

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Producers: Sam Liu and Amy McKenna

Length: 81 Minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  This week, after the fun I’ve had recently reviewing Batman: Assault on Arkham and Batman: Under the Red Hood, I continue to check out some awesome DC comic book animated features, with the impressive and powerful The Death of Superman.

Easily one of the most iconic comic book arcs of all time is the 1992/1993 storyline, The Death of Superman, which (spoiler alert) saw Superman die at the hands of new villain Doomsday.  Not only did the act of actually killing off Superman shock the world but the series was a massive financial success, becoming one of the bestselling comics of all time.  Due to its popularity, DC have attempted to adapt the storyline multiple times, with Smallville, the animated Justice League show, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, all using elements of it in one form or another.  There has even been another direct animated attempt at recreating the storyline, with the 2007 release, Superman: Doomsday, the very first film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  However, in my opinion, none of them successfully conveyed the tone or the fantastic story as well as the 2018 animated film, The Death of Superman.

Directed by Sam Liu and Jake Castorena and written by Peter J. Tomasi, The Death of Superman is an incredible and amazing film that really gets to grips with the original comic, while also adding in some unique details to create a memorable and deeply moving experience.  As the 32nd instalment in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, it also sat in the joint DC Animated Movie Universe, and was a major instalment in this series, setting up several storylines that would later be utilised in later entries, such as the final film, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.  Featuring an awesome story, a fantastic voice cast and some exceptional animation, The Death of Superman is easily one of the best films in the entire DC Animated Movie Universe and is one of my all-time favourite animated comic book adaptions.

After saving the world multiple times, both by himself and with the Justice League, Superman reigns as one of the planet’s most popular superheros, inspiring the world with his spirit and determination to do good.  His latest act of heroics saved the mayor of Metropolis from the notorious Intergang, who made use of a large arsenal of advanced weaponry, likely supplied by an apparently incarcerated Lex Luthor.  However, despite his larger-than-life personality, Superman is also Clark Kent, a down-to-earth man from small-town America, trying to make his new relationship with fellow reporter Lois Lane work.  As Clark finally opens himself up to Lois and reveals his biggest secret to her, a brand-new threat arrives on Earth, bringing with it only death and destruction.

A mysterious meteorite has rapidly entered the solar system and crashed down on Earth, landing in the ocean.  When a team sent by Luthor and a group of Atlantean soldiers arrive, they find that the meteorite was a containment pod, and inside is something monstrous.  Killing everyone it encounters, the beast escapes the ocean and makes landfall, heading towards the largest population centre it can find, Metropolis.  With no-one able to slow it down, and even the Justice League powerless against it, it falls to Superman to engage it as Earth’s last standing defender.

Engaging in battle in the heart of Metropolis, Superman and the monster, Doomsday, begin a bloody battle that tears through the streets and levels buildings.  Superman may by the strongest person on the planet, but his new foe is a deranged and unstoppable killing machine, concerned with only death, destruction, and dominance.   Can Superman once again prevail and defeat his foe or has the Man of Steel finally met his match.  Whatever, happens, the world with never be the same again, and everyone who Superman has inspired may suddenly have to deal with the death of their greatest champion.

I must admit that when I first saw that they were doing yet another adaption of The Death of Superman comic, I was a little ambivalent, as I have not been too impressed by some of the other versions out there.  However, I still grabbed a copy as soon as it came out, and I was frankly blown away by how good it was.  This film has everything you could want in a brilliant animated feature, including an exceptional story and some amazing actors, but what this film has in abundance is heart.  Throughout its run time, you swiftly become attached to the great characters contained within, especially Superman and Lois, and then you are forced to watch as they suffer the most tragic moment of their lives.  This results in an extremely moving and powerful film, which became an instant classic in my book, and it is one that I have no problem awarding a full five-star rating.

When writing this film, Peter J. Tomasi had to do a lot with a limited amount of time.  Not only did he have to produce a pretty accurate adaption of the original Death of Superman comic, but he also had to work it into the wider DC Animated Movie Universe, which had already had its own unique history.  He easily succeeded on both fronts, as The Death of Superman contains an excellent and powerful story, that I have an extremely hard time faulting in any way whatsoever.  The story starts off with a shot of Superman saving the city and painting a pretty rosy picture of himself as Metropolis’s favourite son and defender.  After the title card, which contains the grim name of the film, the movie works to quickly introduce all the key characters, relationships, and settings, most of which had only been briefly touched on in the preceding DC Animated Movie Universe films.  This makes for a rather light-hearted start to the film; however, it also works to get you to know the characters and other key aspects of the Superman mythos and backstory, and all the setup is essential for you to get the full emotional and dramatic reactions during the second half of the film.  I also liked the way in which the film is tied into the other films of the universe, mostly using the Justice League, especially Batman and Wonder Woman, and it was great to see more of that version of the League.  All of this serves as a great set-up for the intense and action-packed second act, which is where all the action and mayhem begins.

About halfway through, the film really picks up the action with the Justice League, sans Superman, engaging Doomsday in a small town.  The action here is fast and furious, as the various members of the League get their best shots in and are then taken down in some quite brutal ways.  While this is happening, Clark is on a date with a frustrated Lois, where he finally reveals to her that his is Superman.  This date scene is done really well, and Lois’s reaction to the revelations runs the full range of emotions, especially once Superman, forced to leave to confront the threat reveals his other secret: that he loves her.  This is a great scene, and it is one that helps solidify the relationship and emotional bond between Superman and Lois while also making the viewer care for the characters just a little bit more.  However, the focus is quickly changed back to the fight with Doomsday, who has managed to take out the entire League, with only Wonder Woman hanging in.  As she falls, Superman steps in and begins a massive and brutal fight throughout Metropolis.  The creative team behind The Death of Superman really do not hold back here, as they present a knockdown brawl between the two, with Superman forced to also try and save civilians as they fight.  Their battle is a truly intense and amazing extended sequence, and there are some outstanding scenes featured throughout it.  You get some great reaction shots from the various supporting characters, and Lois and Lex Luthor have some outstanding moments as well, as they get involved for various reasons.  However, despite everything, it soon becomes clear just how indestructible and dangerous Doomsday is, and how even Superman doesn’t stand a chance.

The entire film leads up to the final climatic sequence, where the inevitable finally happens and Superman dies taking down Doomsday.  This entire scene is done perfectly, with a near-defeated Superman spurred on to make one final effort against Doomsday as the monster advances towards a seemingly hopeless Lois, who reveals to a downed Clark that she loves him too.  The blow itself is beautifully rendered with a powerful and lethal shot to Doomsday, but it is the aftermath that really turns this film into a five-star watch, as Superman is fatally impaled on a spike.  Watching a grieving Lois slowly release that the love of her life is dying in her arms is so hard to watch, and the creative team really turn up waterworks with Superman giving some touching last words: “what a lucky man I was”.  The eventual death is extremely moving, with the entire world witnessing his death and Lois’s grief, while standing in absolute shock.  Even the Justice League is moved to tears, with the usually taciturn Batman’s reaction being the most telling.  This entire sequence is deeply enhanced by a brilliant orchestral score that really plays up the emotion of the scene and strikes home every time you hear it.  This is such a powerful and impactful sequence, and it is swiftly followed by a moving funeral, with all the major characters in attendance, and then a final shot of several characters reacting in a post-funeral grief while Superman superfan Bibbo Bibbowski narrates a fitting final prayer for the character.  This entire sequence leaves me breathless, even after several re-watches, and it easily one of the most moving animated sequences I have watched.  The film then does a decent wrap-up, with several concluding sequences and post-credit scenes setting up the events of the sequel film.  However, it is the moving conclusion that will stick with you well past the films end, as it really brought everything about this movie together.

While I would be plenty happy with this film with only the outstanding story and amazing conclusion, The Death of Superman is also backed up with some incredible animation and a fantastic musical score which deeply enhance this fantastic film.  The animation is really great, and I loved the designs for the various characters, most of which hark back to their original comic book appearances.  The most impressive animation is reserved for the excellent and impactful action sequences involving Doomsday.  The animators show no hesitation in showing the blood and gore as Doomsday literally tears through everything in his way.  The initial fight with the Justice League is brilliant, especially as Doomsday brutally counters all their unique abilities and absolutely destroys them.  However, it is the giant fight with Superman which is the true highlight of The Death of Superman.  This fight is pretty extraordinary, and the animators really highlight the desperation and inspiration of the two participants.  Each of them is well and truly battered, and it is really shocking to see all the damage that Superman takes throughout the fight.  There is also some very dramatic damage to the city of Metropolis, with even the Hall of Justice being turned to a pile of rumble as these two duke it out.  I cannot emphasise how awesome this animation is, and it was so cool to see these battles unfold.

I also really need to highlight the fantastic use of music throughout this film, which works well in concert with the animated sequences.  The Death of Superman features an exceptional orchestral score, with the various tunes often harking back to classic Superman music.  This music is used perfectly throughout the various scenes in this film and help to really enhance the drama or emotion of the scene.  There are some great scenes with music throughout the film, although nothing tops the fantastic climatic sequence I mentioned above.  This animation and music are so very awesome, and it was an absolute joy to behold.

This film contains a pretty cool range of different characters, including iconic heroes, major Superman supporting characters and even a few more obscure characters.  This helps to turn The Death of Superman into quite a unique and fun film, and I really loved the range of reactions and character arcs that it contained.

Unsurprisingly, the most highlighted character in the film is Superman, who is voiced by Jerry O’Connell, who voiced the character in most of the DC Animated Movie Universe entries.  Up until this point, I felt that Superman was a bit underutilised.  Most of the previous films have focused on Superman’s relationship with Wonder Woman, while also featuring him as the League’s powerhouse.  However, this is easily Superman’s film, as the writers take substantial time to examine his history, relationships, inner personality and the duality between Superman and his Clark Kent persona.  You really get some intense insights into both versions of the same person, especially when you see his evolving relationship with Lois, and you swiftly grow to care for him in a way that some of the recent live-action films really didn’t make you.  His character really shines through during the battle with Doomsday, as he refuses to stay down, especially when people’s lives are on the line, and even risks himself to save his most hated enemy.  His sheer determination and intensity is really inspirational, and it starts to hurt a little inside to see him get beaten down by his opponent.  I felt that O’Connell does such a great job portraying Superman, and he really brings out the best of the character, showing his true heart and soul, and making him such a likeable character, who, despite his alien heritage, was still so very human.  I was really impressed and shocked by how much I grew to love Superman by the end of this film, which of course, ensures that you are so moved by the final scenes.  Seeing this character die in Lois’s arms in front of the world is just heartbreaking, and you guaranteed to be moved by his portrayal in this film.

While there is a natural focus on Superman, in many ways The Death of Superman is just as much a film about Lois Lane.  Voiced by the talented Rebecca Romijn, this version of Lois is bold and fearless in her career but also a little guarded in her personal life, especially as she senses that Clark is hiding something from her.  This film really builds up Lois extremely well in its short run-time, and you get a great sense of who she is and what she cares about.  I felt that the character had some amazing chemistry with Clark, which really isn’t surprising as Romijn is married to O’Connell in real life, so I’m sure they channelled a lot of that film.  I really was impressed by the way they showed Lois’s growing relationship with Clark as the film progresses, and the revelation about Superman’s true identity at the centre of the film really helps to solidify it, especially once Clark declares his love for her.  The subsequent battle sees Lois go through hell, as she chases the fight throughout Metropolis and has to watch Superman continuously get beaten up.  The scene where she tries to distract Doomsday and then gives up as he turns towards her is so dramatic, especially as she follows it up with her own declaration of love for Clark.  The final grief laden scene with Superman really moves me every time, and I felt that the sheer emotion coming off Lois was just amazing.  This might be one of my all-time favourite portrayals of Lois Lane, especially as Romijn does some exceptional follow ups in later DC Animated Movie Universe films.

The other major character I really want to highlight is Lex Luthor, who was voiced by the always entertaining Rainn Wilson.  Like Superman, Lex had been really underutilised in the DC Animated Movie Universe; his reveal in the Throne of Atlantis post-credit scene really did not pan out in a meaningful way in Justice League vs. Teen Titans.  However, this dramatically changed in The Death of Superman as they go out of their way to build up the showcase and show him as the maniacal yet brilliant businessman and criminal mastermind.  The creative team did a lot with Luthor in a short amount of time, and you get a really good idea of his genius, his various plans, and his unrelenting antagonism with Superman, born out of jealousy.  He proves to be a good secondary antagonist for the film, eventually turning into an erstwhile ally, abet for his own purposes, and he has some great scenes.  I was particularly impressed by Rainn Wilson’s voice work in this film, as he brings all the arrogance he can to the film, while also giving character a bit of a slimy edge.  I think he really captured Luthor’s various nuances, and ensures you see him lose his cool when faced with defeat.  I really liked the scene where Luthor can only watch in horror as Superman, despite being beat to hell, saves his life, and that results in some interesting changes in the later films.  I also liked how they captured a bunch of fun aspects of Luthor’s character from the 1990 comics, such as a nod to the Lex Luthor II persona that appeared in The Death of Superman comic.

I also need to highlight the main antagonist, Doomsday.  Despite not saying anything, Doomsday is a major presence, mainly due to his brutality and capability for destruction.  Doomsday is perfectly introduced and I loved the slow reveal of his true form, as the suit containing him is destroyed after several fights.  I must again really highlight how cool he looks in a fight, and the battles between the Justice League, Wonder Woman and Superman are just so damn impressive and pretty intense.  This was a really good portrayal of the character that perfectly harkens back to its comic origins, and it was a nice palate-cleanser after his cave-troll look in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The Death of Superman also contains a pretty substantial supporting cast of characters, each of whom add a fair bit to the overarching narrative of the film.  Some of the most prominent of these are the various members of the Justice League, with most of the actors from the earlier DC Animated Movie Universe films reprising their roles.  Each of these characters and their actors have been perfectly introduced in the previous films, so they are inserted into The Death of Superman with minimal effort and form a fantastic cohort around Superman.  The leading two characters are probably Batman, voiced by Jason O’Mara, and Wonder Woman, voiced by Rosario Dawson.  Both characters have unique relationships with Superman, particularly Wonder Woman, and his death really impacts them both.  I also liked the combination of Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) and Flash (Christopher Gorham), who form a fun comedic duo, while also having some great action moments.  I had a great laugh during the Justice League meeting scene where Flash does a good imitation of Batman joining the PTA of Damien’s school, and Batman’s glaring reaction is pretty funny.

I also loved the inclusion of a couple of unique Superman supporting characters.  Despite the role he played in the original comic, I was really surprised to see so much of Bibbo Bibbowski, Superman’s biggest fan, in this film.  Bibbo is a bit of a dated character, to be honest, but he slides into this film really well, and I loved the voice work done by Charles Halford.  His comedic interactions with both Superman and Clark Kent in the early parts of the film are pretty fun, and there is something amusing about a big, rough sailor type fanboying about a superhero.  It also proves to be quite heartbreaking to see this fan watch Superman die in front of him, and you can see it really breaks him.  I felt that Bibbo’s Hail Mary prayer at the end, which overscored some great visuals of people in mourning, and the subsequent breakdown on the dock was quite touching.  I also liked Erica Luttrell’s Mercy Graves, especially as she forms a great counterpoint to Luthor, especially as she calls him out on some of his more outrageous plans.  Overall, I think that this film was incredibly well cast, and I loved the fantastic group of characters that they brought together.

The Death of Superman is a truly great and powerful animated film that continues to reign as one of my absolute favourite animated comic book adaptions.  Featuring a near-perfect adaption of one of the most iconic comic stories of all time, The Death of Superman is intense, exciting, and downright heartbreaking, as it shows the greatest hero in his final battle.  I was moved to tears the first time I saw this film, and I have so much love and admiration for the work the creative team did to revitalise the character of Superman in one short film.  A highly recommend film to watch, this is one of the better Superman adaptations (live action or animated) I have ever seen.

Throwback Thursday: Batman: Assault on Arkham

Assault on Arkham Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 20

Director: Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding

Writer: Heath Corson

Producer: James Tucker

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I go back and check out one of the more intriguing DC animated movies, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

As I mentioned in a recent Top Ten Tuesday, I have been in a DC mood ever since I saw The Suicide Squad on the weekend, which was easily the best film focusing on the titular Suicide Squad.  While people only familiar with the live-action films might think that this is a low bar, those who know about the awesome catalogue of DC Comics animated films will know that there are several awesome and outstanding films that perfectly capture the feel and tone of the supervillain team and are pretty fun to watch.  Therefore, this week I will look at one of these great animated films, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

Assault on Arkham is an amazing and fantastic film that came out in 2014 and is set in the same universe as the Arkham video game franchise (set between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum).  Directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding, written by Heath Corson and produced by James Tucker, this was a memorable and fun DC Universe Animated Original Movie, which contains some of the best comic book based animated films out there.  Despite the name, Assault on Arkham is really a Suicide Squad movie, with Batman strongly featured but acting more as a side character.  This was an excellent and impressive film, which makes use of a darker tone and more adult animation to create a fitting Suicide Squad experience.  Heck, this was a much better Suicide Squad movie than the 2016 live-action film as it embraced the team’s darker side and their propensity for violence, while also featuring an impressive and clever story.

Two years before the Joker took over Arkham Asylum, the Clown Prince of Crime terrorises Gotham City, this time by threatening it with a dirty bomb.  With the Joker locked up in Arkham Asylum and refusing to talk, Batman stalks the streets of Gotham, searching for those who helped him.  His mission leads him to save the Riddler from a black-ops team of soldiers, sent by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller.  With Riddler now locked up in Arkham Asylum, Waller assembles the one force capable of breaching Arkham’s walls to find him and the information she desires, Task Force X.

Task Force X, also known as the Suicide Squad, is made up of some of the most deadly and skilled villains in the world, each of whom have been forcibly drafted onto the team and offered reduced sentences if they complete their mission.  Recruiting a team made up of Floyd Lawton (Deadshot), Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn), George Harkness (Captain Boomerang), Eric Needham (Black Spider), Nanaue (King Shark) and Louise Lincoln (Killer Frost), Waller sends them into Arkham with bombs implanted in their necks.

Forced to work together despite their innate distrust and dislike of each other, the Suicide Squad arrive in Gotham and make their plans to infiltrate the asylum.  However, it doesn’t take long for petty rivalries, massive manipulations, and dangerous outside influences to put all their schemes in disarray.  Working their way through the most dangerous place on the planet, the Squad soon learns a deadly secret that will change everything and set them on a bold new path.  But with Batman wise to their presence, can the Squad achieve their goals and make their escape, or will they find themselves locked up in Arkham instead.  Worse, someone far more dangerous is stalking the halls of the asylum, someone with an insane sense of humour and a desire to claim back what is his.  The Joker is loose, and he wants to play!

This is an awesome film that really does the chaotic and dangerous Suicide Squad justice.  Featuring an excellent story and serving as a clever adaption of the Suicide Squad comics and other pieces of media, this is an extremely fun movie.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast, some great interpretations of iconic characters, and some powerful animated sequences, and you have a great and impressive movie that I have long been a fan of.

At the heart of this great movie is a very compelling and exciting narrative that takes its various characters on a wild and dangerous ride to hell in back.  Assault on Arkham starts off with an excellent scene, which sees Riddler being attacked by Waller’s goons, only to be rescued by Batman in an intense and brutal fight sequence.  This then leads into an entertaining introductory sequence for the various members of the squad, with a fun reel of shots with no dialogue showing each member of the Squad showing off some of their skills before getting captured by various law enforcement groups.  These dark and sometimes gruesome introductory scenes really set the tone for the entire movie, while also providing great summaries of each of the main characters.  What follows is a fun and captivating character-driven tale as the members of the Squad arrive in Gotham and make their play to break into Arkham.  There are some fantastic clashes of personality and deep personal moments in this early part of the film, as the team initially comes together, despite their crazy differences.  This leads to an intriguing central part of the film, where the characters begin their assault on the asylum, performing a reverse prison break.  After some great scenes, the team are at large in the asylum, which leads to even more chaos, destruction, and big fight moments.  All of this leads to an explosive and dangerous final act, as the characters need to escape while being pursued by Batman and the Joker.  Caught between these extremely dangerous forces, the fractured Squad attempts to escape, facing some major defining obstacles which really bring the entire film together.  I loved the fantastic and darker story that this film featured, and the writing team did an excellent job combining brutality, humour, character development and pure craziness into one enthralling tale.  There are so many fun and thrilling moments to this outstanding film, and viewers will found themselves really getting drawn into the cool story.

The animation in Assault on Arkham is very impressive, and the creative team behind it did a great job bringing the various characters to life and placing them in some outstanding action sequences.  The movement and action in this film is pretty damn seamless, and you are in for some very fast-paced scenes that look pretty superb, especially as they feature a great mixture of lighting and multiple unique characters.  Highlights include the opening shadowy encounter between Batman and the special forces soldiers, the massive fight between Batman and the entire Suicide Squad, and the final two confrontations that occur after a big helicopter crash.  I loved the cool character designs of the various characters, especially as they mix some new looks with classic drawings.  I also felt that the creative team combined this cool animation with the excellent musical score well, and the various tunes really helped to set the scene.  There is something very dark, bloody, and adult about the designs in the film, and the end result is definitely not a kid’s cartoon.

Part of the design that I really enjoyed was the way in which the creative team attempted to emulate the style from the fantastic Batman: Arkham video games.  This film serves as a canon entry between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum, and the team did a great job capturing the cool style and themes that the games are famous for.  This is particularly seen in the various scenes featuring Batman, the playable character of the games, and you get to see him whip out the various gadgets and viewscreens that appeared in the games.  I particularly enjoyed the opening scene where Batman takes out a squad of soldiers in much the same way that a player would in the games, from the flips to the use of a batline.  There are also several references to the games throughout the film, from a character trying to hide in a vent, to the layout of Arkham Asylum, where you spend significant time in the first film.  Despite all these references, this film can easily be enjoyed by comic fans who have not played the video games.  Assault on Arkham is very much framed as a standalone film, and no matter your familiarity with Batman or the Arkham games, you will have a fun time watching this movie.

As I have mentioned above, this awesome film contained a really impressive and memorable take on the Suicide Squad, producing a truly great movie.  Part of this is the choice of team, as it features a compelling blend of characters that are inspired by the team first introduced in the New 52 range.  Anchored by team leader Deadshot and wildcard Harley Quinn, it also features long-time Suicide Squad member Captain Boomerang, as well as a fantastic combination of Black Spider, King Shark and Killer Frost.  While the team structure is similar to the team in the first live-action film, Assault on Arkham actually predates this film by a couple of years, and also utilises them a lot better, really showing off some more complex aspects of their personality, mainly thanks to the excellent voice cast.  This animated film also takes itself a lot less seriously than the first live-action film did, and is less afraid to show blood, sex and death.  While some of this is a tad over the top (some of the female characters are way too sexualised), I really wish that the subsequent live-action film had taken some cues from how successful this animated feature was, as that would have resulted in a much better experience.

Easily the best part of this film is the amazing characters and sensational voice cast, which really help to make it stand out.  While it does feature a lot of Batman and Joker, the main characters of this film are the Suicide Squad.  The most prominent is team leader an assassin extraordinaire, Deadshot.  Voiced by the talented Neal McDonough, a man who has voiced quite a few villains in his day, this version of Deadshot is near perfect, and contains a lot of elements from the comics that the live-action version was lacking.  While the overriding love for his daughter is still there, this version of Deadshot is a lot colder and a lot quicker on the trigger, happily massacring everyone who gets in his way.  McDonough really captures the character’s menace, killer instinct, and determination, and this Deadshot serves as the tough and often exasperated leader of the Squad.  I loved that they captured Deadshot’s crazier side (he has a massive death wish in the comics), especially as this leads to one of the best scenes in the entire film: “Mate, you just out-crazied the Joker”.  It was also cool that Deadshot had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire film, ending Assault on Arkham on a very entertaining and memorable note, that showed that the character was a man of his word: “Bang!”

This film also features an amazing version of iconic character Harley Quinn.  Before Margot Robbie and Kaley Cuoco put their spins on the character, veteran voice actor Hynden Walch provided her impressive voice to Harley, resulting in a fantastic and crazed female-lead.  Walch, who is probably best known for voicing Starfire in Teen Titans or Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, does an excellent job going a little darker with this character, producing some excellent scenes of madness and humour as Harley manages to annoy the other characters while cracking up the audience.  I loved the introduction that this character had, biting off an ear in a halfway house with Looney Tunes music playing (it’s weird, but it works).  Harley proves to be quite conflicted in this film as she finds herself stuck between her abusive ex, the Joker, and her new love interest, Deadshot (all I am going to say about the later relationship is “Yahtzee!”).  While this starts off with a very concerted attempt to kill the Joker, Harley is eventually drawn back to him, which is kind of heartbreaking.  There is some of the typical abusive relationship stuff that comes out with Harley, as she blames everyone but Joker for her problems.  This was a great portrayal of this fantastic and complex character, and I was very happy that Walch came back to portray Harley in other films such as Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Other great members of the Squad include Captain Boomerang, voiced by Greg Ellis.  Boomerang acts as the Squad’s comic relief, and I liked the uncaring and selfish attitude that is such a feature of the character in the original Suicide Squad comics.  Ellis really brings out the character’s smarmy and arrogant side, and I loved the amusing rivalry he formed with Deadshot, which results in a brilliant game of darts.  This movie also features the outstanding Gincarlo Esposito in the role of Black Spider, a murderous vigilante who is less than pleased at being lumped in with a group of supervillains.  Esposito brings some real gravitas to the character, and he proves to be a skilled and fun member of the team, and his inclusion results in a pretty major fake-out.  The hilarious John DiMaggio does a great King Shark in this film, and I loved the somewhat more human design of the monster and his funny dim-witted mentality.  Despite being a source of some humour, King Shark is a brutal killer, which is very much shown in his introduction where he emerges from a bathtub full of blood.  Finally, the brilliant Jennifer Hale portrays a fantastic Killer Frost (not surprising, considering she’s voiced the character in nearly every film or animated television appearance).  This version of Frost is pretty cold-blooded and proves to be a murderous addition to the team.  I liked the fun friendship that she forms with King Shark, and they prove to be a great duo.

While the Suicide Squad takes most of the film’s focus, Batman is featured pretty extensively in this film, which is really cool.  I personally was overjoyed that they got the iconic voice of Kevin Conroy for the character, and this amazing actor reprises his role from the various animated series and the Arkham games.  Batman is mostly on the outside of the story for the first half of the film, only becoming involved when the Squad enters the asylum, but once he gets involved, the results are pretty damn awesome.  This version of the character perfectly highlights the various aspects of Batman, as he kicks ass, intimates everyone he meets, outsmarts his foes, and utilises his amazing detective skills to make some big assumptions.  Featuring Batman as a side-character in his own film was an interesting choice, but it is one that really works, and it was great to see him attempt to work out the various ploys of the Squad, Waller, and the Joker.  Conroy’s voice work is of course, perfect, which isn’t surprisingly considering all the times he’s portrayed the character.  Another excellent inclusion of the legendary hero.

While most of the cast of Assault on Arkham are villains, the one that sticks out the most is the master of anarchy, the Joker.  Voiced by Troy Baker, who reprises his role from Arkham Origins, Joker really stands out as a character, which honestly isn’t that surprising.  Joker escapes his cell and starts causing chaos all over the asylum, coming into conflict with both the Squad and Batman.  This version of the Joker is the usual awesome mix of scary insanity and corny humour, and the character has several hilarious scenes throughout the film, including one of the best lines: “Denzel, what have they done to you?”  I also enjoyed the new rivalry he forms with Deadshot, as he shows some uncharacteristic jealousy over the fact that Harley has moved on.  This leads to a brutal brawl in the film’s conclusion, which is a major highlight.  Baker, who would go on to voice the Joker in several other animated features, does a pretty good job in Assault on Arkham, and does well at replicating Mark Hamill’s take on the character.  This results in an excellent villain, and I loved seeing the insane Arkham version of the character once more.

The final character I really want to highlight controls Task Force X, Amanda “the Wall” Waller.  Voiced by the incredible CCH Pounder, the definitive voice actor for the character (she is so good in Justice League Unlimited), this manipulative bureaucrat is in many ways the true villain of Assault on Arkham, turning everyone against each other to get what she wants.   She has an excellent introduction, where she manages to outsmart the Riddler, while also giving a fantastic line about riddles: “I have Google, like the rest of the world!”  From there, she proves to be a consistent badass, dragging the ruthless killers together into her Suicide Squad, bending them to her will, and then unleashing them upon the world.  Despite her plans not going as well as she hoped, Waller still manages to have a great run in Assault on Arkham, and Pounder really dives into the character’s manipulative nature and inner anger: “No one screws the Wall!”  She also has a pretty badass stare-down with Batman, actually managing to win their confrontation.  This character has a pretty amazing final moment in the film, especially as it wraps up her entire arc with Deadshot in one fantastic word.  Overall, Pounder rounds out the awesome central voice cast perfectly, and it was an absolute treat to see their performance come together.

Batman: Assault on Arkham is a fantastic and memorable animated film that is so much fun to watch.  Serving as the definitive and best film about the Suicide Squad for years, Assault on Arkham makes full use of its intense and exciting story, its brilliant design and exceptional cast and characters.  I deeply enjoy this amazing film and I have watched it multiple times ever since it was released.  A highly recommended watch, especially if, like me, you loved the latest Suicide Squad movie and want some more crazy, villain-led chaos and destruction.

Relentless by Jonathan Maberry

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book Two / Joe Ledger – Book 12

Length: 18 hours and 29 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of my absolute favourite series returns with an absolute bang as Jonathan Maberry produces another incredible, intense and thrilling Joe Ledger novel with Relentless, the second novel in the Rogue Team International series.

Readers of my blog will be well aware of how much I love Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series.  This science fiction thriller series, which follows the titular protagonist and his team of elite soldiers as they fight all manner of crazy scientific and supernatural threats, is so much fun and is one of my favourite series.  After reading one of these fantastic books a few years ago, I sat down and listened to the entire series, from Patient Zero, all the way to the final entry, Deep Silence.  It also led me to some of Maberry’s other novels, including last year’s excellent horror novel, Ink, which was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020.  The author also started the Rogue Team International series in 2019 as a sequel series to the original Joe Ledger books, featuring the same characters and universe.  The first entry in this sequel series, Rage, got a five-star rating from me and was one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Due to Rage’s epic conclusion, as well as how much I enjoy Maberry’s writing, I have been eagerly awaiting Relentless for some time now and I ended up being blown away by how awesome it was.

During Rogue Team International’s (RTI) first mission, Joe Ledger and his team faced off against the dangerous pairing of criminal mastermind Kuga and his fearsome enforcer Rafael Santoro, barely managing to stop their insidious, world-changing plot.  However, their victory came at a terrible price, as Santoro delivered fiery vengeance on his foe by killing every member of Ledger’s family in a revenge attack at Christmas.  Santoro and Kuga hoped that their destructive blow would mentally destroy their hated enemy forever; instead, it unleashed their worst nightmare.

After returning to the field, Ledger leads an RTI team to an advanced laboratory where terrible genetic, biological and cybernetic experiments are being performed.  While the mission begins as a textbook RTI operation, everything changes when Ledger comes across a room full of deformed lab subjects and their cruel tormentors.  With his already fragile psyche pushed to the limit by the death of his family, Ledger finally snaps and lets something dark and dangerous from deep within take control.  With blood and bodies trailing in his wake, Ledger abandons his team and goes truly rogue.

Accompanied only by his loyal combat dog, Ghost, Ledger rampages across Europe, killing and destroying anything related to Kuga’s operation and questioning anyone who knows where he and Santoro are.  Even more concerning for the villains, Ledger is also beginning to get close to their next major operation.  Utilising cutting edge technology, Kuga’s group have developed biologically enhanced super soldiers, equipped with some of the most destructive weapons available.  Their next plan will unleash a devastating attack within America that will change the political and social landscape for generations to come.  However, not even their most advanced troops may be enough to stop the dark thing that Ledger has become, and Kuga is soon forced to make a Faustian deal with someone, or something, whose evil eclipses Ledger’s insanity.  Can Ledger defeat his hated foes and save his own soul at the same time, or will he finally be overwhelmed by his own inner darkness?

Once again Maberry shows why he is one of the most exciting and impressive thriller writers out there as Relentless was another epic and wildly captivating novel.  This latest Rogue Team International novel contains a complex and thrilling narrative that sets its already complex main character into a horrific quest for vengeance and redemption.  Throw in an incredible amount of action, a very clever and well-written story, and some memorable characters, and you have an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

In Relentless, Maberry produces an extremely intense and fast-paced novel that is both character driven and loaded with some of the best action you will ever read.  Following up from the dramatic conclusion of Rage, Relentless is one of the darker and more inventive books in the Joe Ledger franchise, presenting the reader with a brutal revenge story as the protagonist puts the rogue in Rogue Team International to kill anyone associated with his foes.  Maberry once again makes great use of the unique writing style that has been such a hallmark of this series, with the novel made up of shorter chapters told from a vast number of different perspectives, including several interludes set in the past, to produce a more complex and multifaceted tale and showcase the elaborate plans of the antagonists.

However, the author also tries something new in this book, with a noticeable change of focus away from the protagonist for a good portion of the early novel to highlight some major character developments.  This results in a bit less humour during the first part of the book, but this is more than made up for with a darker and more powerful storyline.  The story focus does eventually revert to the series’ usual form about halfway through the novel, just in time for the protagonist to find himself with information about a complex and intriguing evil plot that only he can stop.  This leads to a pretty epic conclusion with some fun twists and several major moments of worry and surprise, especially as you get some massive concurrent scenes as Ledger and his allies battle the enemy in several destructive and dangerous battles.  The action throughout Relentless is typical Maberry, with some very detailed and graphic depictions of the techniques and damage done, and it is near impossible not to get sucked in the combat as the powerful scenes unfold.  Readers should be warned that parts of this novel can get a little dark and gruesome as Maberry pulls no punches, but it is very much worth sticking through the blood and guts to see the captivating narrative unfold.  I quickly became sucked into his awesome story, and I loved every second of it, managing to finish it off in extremely short order.  It looks like Maberry has some intriguing plans for the future of this series, and I for one am extremely excited for that.

Like most of the Joe Ledger/Rogue Team International novels, Maberry has made Relentless extremely accessible to new readers.  While I personally would suggest reading Rage first, due to the tragic ending that plays into the events of this novel, people unfamiliar with the preceding books can jump in here and still have an excellent time reading this book.  Maberry does an amazing job recapping all the key events of the prior novels, including character bios, descriptions of technology and summaries of various cases.  As a result, the reader is never left in the dark about what is happening and who is being talked about, although the certain significance of some characters or revelations might be slightly tempered until the protagonist describes them.  One thing I would note after having read all the Joe Ledger books in the last couple of years is that Maberry tends to reuse the same phrases and terms when it comes to describing certain characters or events.  While this was fine the first few times, by book 12 in the overall series, it is very noticeable and slightly detrimental to the flow of the story.  However, this was an overall incredible novel with more than enough unique features to make it really stand out from the rest of the books in the series.

One of the best parts of any of Maberry’s novels are the complex and likeable characters featured within them.  Over the years Maberry has produced some truly great and memorable characters for the Joe Ledger novels, and it was great to see so many of them return for Relentless, especially as most of them go through some major development.  The most prominent of these is titular protagonist Joe Ledger, who has one of his most significant roles here in Relentless.  Ledger has always been an extremely troubled and damaged protagonist, which has grown more and more apparent as the series progressed as he is forced to deal with additional traumas.  However, this is the book where he truly snaps, as he is dealing with the brutal death of every member of his family.  While Ledger starts the book mostly fine (by his already low standards), it doesn’t take him long to lose the plot.  Fans of this series will understand Ledger’s mind is already broken up into three distinct personalities, the Cop, the Modern Man, and the Killer, which together form his mostly balanced psyche.  However, the events of Rage have resulted in a fourth personality, the Darkness, which subverts Ledger’s mind and leads him to commit acts of terrible violence and destruction while massively freaking everyone out.  The Darkness completely takes over Ledger, ensuring that you don’t see into his head for a good portion of the novel, which is an interesting change considering that Ledger is the only character in the series with a first-person perspective.  While this really changes the tone of this novel, it perfectly highlights just how far-gone Ledger is.  Even when he regains control of his mind and becomes a prominent point-of-view character again, the Darkness is still there, and he has to fight hard to control it.  All this makes for quite a fantastic and deep read, and it was captivating to see the protagonist deal with the traumatic events of a previous novel in such a dramatic and destructive manner.  Maberry really amps up how dangerous Ledger can be in this novel, and there are some truly disturbing and concerning scenes when the Darkness takes over.  It will be really interesting to see how Ledger comes back from the events of this book in the future, and I am extremely curious to see what happens to the character next.

In addition to the outstanding central protagonist, Maberry fills up Relentless with great supporting characters, most of whom have been introduced in previous Joe Ledger novels.  Maberry really likes a wide spread of characters throughout his novels, resulting in an interesting group of perspectives as the various supporting characters and minor inclusions experience the events of the narrative.  It was great to see many long-running side characters return in Relentless, especially as they are severely impacted by Ledger’s walk on the dark side.  While a couple of usually major characters only have a couple of scenes in this book, the usual DMS/RTI mainstays are all there.  Ledger’s squad mates, Top and Bunny, have a particularly intriguing storyline in this novel, which sees them go undercover to infiltrate Kuga’s operation while being conflicted about Ledger’s actions.  It was also great to see more of mysterious RTI leader, Mr Church, the guy who totally isn’t some sort of avenging angel or benevolent god (those are my two top guesses at this point).  While Church doesn’t get as much focus as he has in previous books, he is still a major presence, and there some more hints at his past with one of the antagonists.  There are also a couple of fun new unique characters introduced who Ledger meets up with as he pursues his quest for vengeance.  Several of them are cool, and I look forward to seeing if they show up again.

Out of all the many supporting characters, there are two that I particularly want to focus on as they had some very strong arcs within this book.  The first is Alexander Chismer, better known as Toys, the former villain who is seeking redemption and is now a close friend of Ledger’s partner Junie.  Toys goes back into the field to find Ledger, even though they really dislike each other.  Toys is a pretty smooth operator, and it was fun to see him go back to his criminal roots, even though it was for a good cause.  When he eventually catches up to Ledger, their meeting doesn’t go amazingly well (someone gets shot), but they do end up having a rather fantastic and entertaining heart-to-heart.  The comparison between their respective paths to redemption is rather deep and fascinating, and it was very intriguing to finally see these two characters interact in an extended way.  The other character I absolutely must talk about is Ledger’s dog, Ghost, the bestest boy in all of fiction.  Ghost has a pretty rough time in this novel, as he is Ledger’s only companion during his master’s dark spells and ends up getting into some very violent confrontations.  Maberry is extremely good at writing canine characters, and most readers will find it next to impossible not to fall in love with this savage, sassy cuddle monster.  Due to the many bad circumstances that Ledger and Ghost finds themselves in, I found myself feeling a lot of worry for Ghost, especially as Ledger seemed crazy enough to hurt him at times.  The fact that I felt strongly anxious for a fictional dog should tell you all you need to know about Maberry’s ability to write likeable characters, and readers should be warned that they will be experiencing feels in this novel.

It wouldn’t be a Maberry book without some impressive and complex antagonists, and this novel is chock full of villains with an intriguing master plan.  The main antagonists of Relentless are the same as Rage, with the fun combination of Kuga and Rafael Santoro.  Both Kuga and Santoro are recurring Joe Ledger antagonists (Kuga was the main villain of Kill Switch under a different name, while Santoro was a significant antagonist in The King of Plagues).  As a result, they have an amazing amount of history with Ledger and the RTI, which makes them quite dangerous foes.  Both are a bit more unhinged in this novel, especially once it becomes clear that a deranged Ledger is on their tail, and it was great to see them slowly become a little more desperate.  Despite this, they have a pretty intense and detailed plot to make a large amount of money through the sale of their advanced weapons, technology and enhanced mercenaries.  Their master plan for destruction and manipulation is very clever and takes a while to fully become apparent to the protagonist and the reader.  Maberry lays the groundwork for this plan perfectly throughout his narrative and the eventual reveal of what they are hoping for is pretty cool and leads to several amazing scenes that play off current events really well.

In addition to the antagonists that appeared in Rage, Relentless also features one of Maberry’s most mysterious and sinister villains.  Going by the name of Mr Sunday in this book (which I assume is a fun little nod to Mr Church’s fake name), this antagonist is a very creepy and dangerous being who has had some impressive appearances before (Assassins Code, Predator One and Dogs of War for example).  The moment he appeared in this book, I knew that I was going to be in for a good time, as this character is essentially the devil incarnate (there is a strong chance he is the devil).  Maberry does an incredible job building him up once again in this novel, and he ends up terrifying his potential allies just as much as his enemies.  This character’s appearance has some major implications for Ledger and Mr Church, and it is highly implied that his appearance is causing some of Ledger’s instability.  While he is mostly just coasting off Kuga and Santoro’s plans in this book, he also has his own sinister plans which come into fruition perfectly.  As a result, he is a pretty fantastic addition to the plot, and I loved the entertaining interludes that featured his elaborate sales presentations.  It looks like Maberry has some big plans for this character in the future, and I am very excited to see what chaos he has in stall for the world next.

Aside from the main villains I mentioned above, Maberry also utilises some great supporting antagonists who act as assassins and henchmen.  This includes the deranged Eve, who was introduced in Rage and who lost her partner and lover, Adam, to Ledger.  This loss has driven her even more insane, and there are several crazy chapters shown from her perspective, and she represents the typical sexual degenerate antagonist that Maberry likes.  There is also a new henchman character in Michael Augustus Stafford, a hired gun considered one of the best assassins in the world and is often referred to as the anti-Ledger due to his similar appearance to the protagonist.  Stafford leads Kuga’s hunt for Ledger throughout Europe and America and is a dogged tail for much of the book.  There are some very intense cat-and-mouse scenes occurring between the two as they attempt to get the upper hand on each other.  I really appreciated the way in which the author took the time to building up these less prominent antagonists throughout the novel, and you get a great sense of their personalities and abilities.  I would say that they don’t live up to their full potential at the end of the novel, but it was still fantastic to see their entire storyline unfold.

Another hallmark of a great Maberry book is some of cool technology featured in the story, especially as it results in some excellent and over-the-top fight scenes.  The villains get some impressive and over-the-top toys in this novel, including biological enhancements, advanced body armour that has a lethal kick to it and massive armoured exoskeletons loaded with giant guns.  Maberry has some fun building up the capability of these devices through several of the interludes, and they do not disappoint, causing all manner of chaos and destruction around the world.  That ensures that when the protagonists encounter them they are in for a real fight, as it gives their enemies an edge against RTI agents who usually have the most advanced tech.  It was really cool to see this technology in action, and Maberry dreams up some outstanding scenes around them.  All the fight sequences featuring them in Relentless are ultra-impressive, and readers are in for some great scenes, especially as many of them involve the less destructive and sleeker RTI technology versus the purely destructive Kuga weapons.  I really enjoyed seeing these advanced weapons in use, and it helps to give some of the action scenes a major boost.

Just like I have with every other Jonathan Maberry book I have enjoyed, I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Relentless.  I have a lot of love for the Maberry audiobooks, and in my opinion it is the best way to enjoy these cool novels.  The main reason for this is the amazing recurring narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of nearly every single one of Maberry’s novels.  Porter is one of my absolute favourite narrators, and if he is voicing something, I know I am going to love it.  This narrator always manages to deftly drag the listener in and keep their complete attention throughout the entire production.  He really dives into the various characters, ensuring every one of them has an appropriate voice, with cool accents and relevant speech patterns.  He is also extremely good at portraying emotion, and he always goes out of his way to highlight a character’s feelings in their speech patterns, whether it be excitement, grief, anger, or something darker.  This is particularly noticeable with protagonist Joe Ledger.  I have noted before at how effortlessly Porter inhabits the role of this complex character, ensuring that the reader gets his full range of feelings, including his boundless rage and outrageous sense of humour (he really gets Ledger’s sarcasm).  Porter does another amazing job in Relentless, and it was really cool to hear his take on the more unhinged Ledger, and he really helps to add an extra sense of menace and anger during the scenes where Ledger is out of control.  Each of the voices used in this book are extremely good (I would critique the voice of one Australian character, but it’s a fairly minor role), and it was an absolute joy to once again listen to his narration.  With a run time of just under 18 and a half hours, this is a rather long Joe Ledger novel, although I powered through it in less than a week due to how much fun I was having.  This version of Relentless comes highly recommended, and it is already one of the best audiobooks I have listened to all year.

Well, that was a damn impressive novel.  As you can see from my rather long and happy review above, I had an outstanding time reading Relentless by Jonathan Maberry, and I found it to be an incredible read.  The Rogue Team International series continues to be one of the most thrilling series out there, and I loved the complex damaged characters and intense storyline this latest novel contained.  Easily one of my favourite books of the year, Relentless gets a five-star rating from me and is highly recommended to anyone wanting guaranteed action, fun and comprehensive darkness.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia (Trade Paperback – 22 July 2019)

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest-rising Australian thriller writers, Tim Ayliffe, follows up his impressive debut with an excellent second entry in his John Bailey series, State of Fear.

Tim Ayliffe is a talented author who debuted in 2018 with The Greater Good, the first John Bailey book.  This novel explored political corruption and international interference in Australia and made excellent use of the author’s experiences as a journalist.  I really enjoyed this first book and was rather interested when I received the second novel from Ayliffe, State of Fear, in 2019.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read State of Fear when it first came out, and it has been in my to-read pile for a while, until I received a copy of the third John Bailey novel, The Enemy Within, a few weeks ago.  I rather liked the sound of the third book’s plot, and I really wanted to read and review it.  However, before checking out The Enemy Within I thought it would make more sense to read State of Fear first, and boy am I glad that I did.

Throughout his long career as a journalist and war correspondent, John Bailey has faced many dangers and been in several terrible situations.  However, his worst encounter was with the notorious terrorist mastermind, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, who kidnapped Bailey while he was reporting on the invasion in Afghanistan and relentlessly tortured him mentally and psychically.  Following his release from the terrorist group and a retirement from working in active war zones, Bailey thought that his days of dealing with terrorists was over, but he was wrong.

Speaking at a conference on Islamic terrorism in London, Bailey is horrified when a radicalised terrorist murders a woman in front of the convention centre.  Rattled, Bailey returns home to Sydney, only to find his troubles have followed him there.  The son of his former driver in Bagdad has gone missing, and Bailey has been implored to help.  Investigating, Bailey finds that the son has been in contact with some dangerous men with connections to Islamic terrorist cells.  Worse, it appears that they are planning to launch a massive attack in Sydney.

Desperate to save his friend’s son from making a terrible mistake, Bailey attempts to make sense of the terrible events unfolding in Sydney.  However, the deeper he goes, the clearer it becomes that Mustafa al-Baghdadi is back, and he is targeting Bailey personally.  As Bailey and everyone he loves comes under attack, Bailey is forced to turn to his old friend, CIA agent Ronnie Johnson, to find Mustafa and take him down.  But will they be able to stop Mustafa before it is too late, or will the world’s most dangerous terrorist destroy everything that Bailey holds dear?

State of Fear was an excellent and powerful novel that takes its great protagonist on a rough and dangerous journey through hell and back.  Ayliffe has definitely grown as an author since his first novel, and this second book is a compelling and intense novel with a well-crafted narrative.  Starting off with an intense beginning, the protagonist is swiftly shoved into his latest harrowing adventure, as the terrorist he thought he escaped violently bursts back into his life.  This is a very captivating novel, and despite its longer length I found myself powering through it in a very short amount of time.  The protagonist goes through a real wringer as he is forced to visit the ghosts of his past while trying to stop his foe’s latest plot.  Featuring a sprawling and deadly investigation through the suburbs of Sydney, the story eventually journeys back to London, where the protagonist and his friends engage in a deadly and dramatic fight to stop a deadly attack.  There is so much going on in this story, and the reader will experience outstanding action, powerful drama, and some major tragedy, especially in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.  This is a fantastic book which stands on its own and can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the other John Bailey novels.  I had an exceptional time reading State of Fear and it is really worth checking out.

Ayliffe works a lot of fun elements into this novel that make it quite a unique read.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these is his experience and knowledge as a journalist which helps to produce a very Australian centric view of the events that are being depicted.  For example, Ayliffe includes a very detailed and compelling look at radical Islamic terrorism and how it is occurring both in Australia and in the wider world, particularly England.  Using several real-life Australian cases as basis, Ayliffe manages to expose and explore the heart of the issue, and he paints a fair and captivating picture of how individuals are lured into radical Islam as well as the consequences of their actions.  There are some very intriguing and powerful discussions included within this novel, especially around how the Islamic and migrant community in Australia feels isolated and prejudiced against, and I really appreciated the compelling inclusion in the novel.

Other intriguing elements contained within State of Fear include Ayliffe’s experiences with modern media and how journalist stories are produced and distributed.  There are some fascinating and fun journalistic scenes contained within this novel, and you have to assume that the protagonist’s extremely negative views about the swing to online social media based journalism has to reflect some of the author’s personal feelings.  Another great feature of this novel was the way in which Ayliffe once again used his novel to highlight the city of Sydney.  While a good portion of this novel is set in London (which Ayliffe also does a great job portraying), the scenes set within Sydney are a particular highlight.  The author really dives into showcasing this city, with the protagonist visiting several real-life suburbs and locations throughout the course of the book, distributing local knowledge as he goes.  As a result, this book is filled with some fun references that locals and Sydneysiders will really appreciate, and I enjoyed how Ayliffe spent the time to write a love letter to his city.

In addition to a fantastic story and excellent setting, Ayliffe also ensures that State of Fear is loaded with some complex and memorable characters.  The most prominent of these is series main protagonist and primary point of view character John Bailey.  Bailey is an outstanding veteran reporting character, and Ayliffe portrays him as a broken older news hound who is trying to balance his addictive career with holding onto his family.  This protagonist is the very definition of a damaged character, as he has experienced great trauma, both psychical and emotional, over the years thanks to his work as a war correspondent.  Despite this trauma, Bailey has experienced some major growth since the first book in the series, mainly thanks to the actions of major people in his life, and he is now a much more functional human being, allowing the reader to really connect with his struggles and damage.  Unfortunately, the events of this novel really hit him hard, as he experiences fresh pain while also revisiting his traumatic past through a series of dark flashbacks.  Despite this, Bailey keeps moving forward trying to solve the case, and it was great to see his determination and resolve, even under the worse of circumstances.  The ending of the novel is pretty bad for Bailey, and he goes through some tragic moments that will no doubt rock him for the rest of the series.  All of this makes for an incredible central protagonist, and readers will fall in love with this damaged and compelling character.

Aside from Bailey, State of Fear also contains several great supporting characters, most of whom are holdovers from The Greater Good, and who find themselves in all sorts of trouble in this book.  The most prominent of these is Bailey’s romantic partner, Detective Chief Inspector Sharon Dexter, who serves as a secondary point-of-view protagonist for parts of the book.  Dexter is a tough, no-nonsense cop whose past with Bailey led to a romantic relationship in the first book.  Despite having a very complex and unusual relationship with Bailey, Dexter proves to be an excellent supporting character, acting as the sensible and official support to Bailey who tries to keep him out of trouble.  While she has a bit of a cold exterior, especially when Bailey stuffs up or lies to her, Dexter is another character the reader can easily get attached to, and her involvement in the story is quite essentially the overall powerful narrative.

I also quite liked the inclusion of Bailey’s editor, Gerald Summers, another aging newsman who serves as Bailey’s emotional rock and best friend and who has an amazing run in this book.  Gerald is an outstanding and loveable character, which of course means he is going to suffer a little bit, so prepare yourself for that.  You also have to like Ronnie Johnson, the maverick CIA agent who spends most of his time living on Bailey’s couch, but who proves to be an effective and very dangerous operative when he needs to.  Ronnie has been a favourite character of mine ever since the first book (I mean, he kills an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt style), and he does some cool things in this second novel.  Finally, I felt that Mustafa al-Baghdadi was a pretty good overarching antagonist for State of Fear.  Ayliffe did a good job portraying a manipulative religious zealot with grand plans for vengeance and the advancement of his cause.  Despite being hidden for most of the book, this character contains a great deal of menace, and I really enjoyed the sinister flashback sequences that featured him and Bailey.  I did think that some of his reasons for vengeance on Bailey were a bit weak (I mean, he had to know that the first thing Bailey was going to do when freed was to share what he knew with the Americans), but he was an overall great villain with major impacts on the narrative.  Each of these characters were well written and established, and I felt that their combined narratives really improved this fantastic novel.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe was an outstanding and captivating read that presents a powerful and moving adventure of journalist John Bailey.  Containing an intense narrative about terrorism, some unique elements and amazing characters, State of Fear is an excellent read which swiftly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let them go.  I had an incredible time reading this novel and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to check it out.  I have already read the third entry in the John Bailey series, The Enemy Within, and I am hoping to get a review out for it soon.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.

Throwback Thursday – Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann

Heroes in Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2019)

Writer: Tom King

Artists: Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, Jorge Fornes

Colourists: Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto, Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Length: 234 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday article, I look at an interesting DC Comics crossover event from a couple of years ago, the deep and compelling Heroes in Crisis.

Heroes_in_Crisis_1 (V1)

Now I have to admit that I have been somewhat avoiding a lot of the recent DC crossover events, mainly because I think the universe is getting a bit too complicated, what with the multiple versions of characters and timelines.  However, I recently grabbed the Heroes in Crisis collected edition (containing all nine issues of the limited series), mostly because I had heard some conflicting reports about whether it was any good, and I thought that it would be worth seeing just what sort of comic it really was.  I was also drawn to this comic as I am major fan of Tom King and Clay Mann after the work they recently did on Batman, which featured some really cool and compelling storylines.  Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a rather fun and intriguing comic, especially as King came up with another fascinating narrative.

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After years of fighting and surviving against the very worst evils in the universe, even the greatest heroes will start to crack under the unreal pressures of their chosen lives.  Realising this and determined to help their fellow superheroes, the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed Sanctuary.  Sanctuary is a hidden facility containing a cutting-edge artificial intelligence programmed to provide advanced therapy, support and counselling to any hero that needs it after harsh battles and traumatic events.  However, no sanctuary lasts forever, and after losing contact with the facility, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to find Sanctuary in shambles and several patients brutally killed.  As the world’s superheroes reel from the deaths of friends and colleagues such as Roy Harper, Red Devil, Commander Steel, Poison Ivy and Wally West, their thoughts swiftly turn to justice.  But who is responsible for the killings, and could the culprit be one of their own?

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The answer may lie with the only two survivors of the Sanctuary massacre, the greatest hero you have never heard of, Booster Gold, and the mad clown princess, Harley Quinn.  However, Booster and Harley are both convinced that they saw the other commit the crime, and are now out to stop the other survivor by any means necessary.  As the heroes attempt to uncover the killer lurking amongst them, their world will be further turned upside down when the confessions and therapy sessions recorded at Sanctuary are leaked to the media, casting a new light on them.  Can the killer be caught before they strike again, or will this case irreparably damage the world’s greatest superheroes?  Whatever happens, the DC universe will never be the same again.

This was a very unique and fascinating crossover comic which contains some notable flaws, but is something that I quite enjoyed.  King, Mann, and their artistic team produced a clever comic that really dives into the minds of the collected heroes of the DC universe.  Featuring a great story, some powerful character moments and some impressive artwork, Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a fun and heartfelt comic that I had a wonderful time reading and which has really stuck in my mind.

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Heroes in Crisis has an intense and powerful character driven narrative that presents the reader with an interesting mystery, while also attempting to dive into the minds of some of the most iconic comic book characters out there.  I very much enjoyed the excellent premise that King came up with for this comic, especially as he starts the narrative off by showing several iconic heroes brutally killed around the Sanctuary within the first several pages.  At the same time, two of DC’s most unique and complex characters, Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, are fighting to the death, with both claiming that the other is responsible for the crimes.  This proves to be an excellent start to the comic which really drew me into the book, and which quickly leads into a compelling investigation angle with Booster, Harley and the DC Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) all working towards the same goal while also fighting amongst themselves.  At the same time, a mysterious opponent is manipulating events from the shadows, ensuring that the protagonists are distracted by the public revelations about their mental fragility.  All of this leads up to an interesting and heartfelt conclusion where the killer is finally revealed in an emotional confrontation.

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This was a rather intense and fast-paced narrative and it was clear that King was drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Identity Crisis crossover comic (another controversial comic that split the fan base, although I personally consider it a masterpiece).  However, unlike Identity Crisis, I think that Heroes in Crisis fell a little flat and I can see where a lot of the criticism surrounding it came from.  While this comic has a great start and the author sets up the whole mystery and characters perfectly, I felt that the ending had some major flaws to it.  The reveal of the killer, despite some hints throughout the story, is a bit of a letdown (admittedly, due to internet spoilers, I did know who it was in advance of reading this comic, but this didn’t massively impact my overall reaction).  While I could appreciate some of the motives surrounding the killer’s choices, especially as it ties into the psyche aspects of the comic, it was a bit of a weak choice that undermined an amazing and well-established character.  In addition, many aspects of the conclusion, such as the reveal, the killer’s motivations, and the eventual solution to some established problems, were unnecessarily complicated and required some major logic leaps.  I also did not quite get why King included a certain “bros before heroes” scene, as it proved to be a very odd inclusion for such a serious story.  While I did greatly enjoy the set-up, as well the impressive inclusion of flashbacks and character centric panels throughout the entire comic, this ending was a bit of a letdown that substantially affected how much I enjoyed Heroes in Crisis.

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While the flaws in the story were a little disappointing, I think that King’s excellent character work more than makes up for it.  As he has previously done with his recent run on Batman, King attempts to really dive into the heart of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis, highlighting their complex psyches and personalities to help to draw the reader in.  I also quite liked how this comic focuses on a very unique selection of characters, including several of my personal favourites.  While much of the story follows the Big Three, with some additional inclusions from the Barry Allen Flash, the major focus of the comic is on the fun duo of Booster Gold and Harley Quinn.

Booster Gold, unconventional time traveller and the greatest hero you have never heard of, is a character I have a lot of love for, especially as he is usually shown to be a bungling hero trying to do the right thing.  Booster ends up being an excellent character in Heroes in Crisis as he desperately tries to understand who is responsible for the deaths at Sanctuary, especially as he is a suspect himself.  While much of Booster’s appearance is comical, there is a deeper sadness to him, both before the killings and after them.  King does a masterful job showing off Booster’s inner thoughts in some of his therapy sessions while also presenting him as a damaged person potentially capable of committing the murders.  I loved seeing Booster used so prominently in the comic and I hope we see more of him in the future.  The appearance of Booster also ensures that we get to see some of his robot companion, Skeets, who has a fun relationship with Booster, often pointing out the stupidity of several of his plans, such as telling the Flash that he may be responsible for Wally West’s death and not realising it would get him punched in the face.

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Heroes in Crisis also strongly features Harley Quinn, who DC have been heavily promoting recently.  Harley is her usual fun, chaotic self throughout Heroes in Crisis, although like Booster, deep down she is hurting.  King makes sure to explore the various damages that she still bears from her abusive relationship with the Joker, while also focusing on her current, relatively healthier relationship with Poison Ivy (who has a very lethal idea about therapy).  However, when Ivy is killed, Harley snaps a little and is determined to hunt down the person she thinks is responsible.  King does a great job showing off Harley’s unpredictability, humour and inner turmoil, and I liked how he presents her as a real threat, even to the likes of Superman and Batman.  Harley has a number of great moments throughout this comic, including a dangerous standoff, some great character development and some fantastic lines.  Harley also serves as a great foil to Booster, and when they are not trying to kill each other their conversations highlight their similarities, as both consider themselves failures in one way or another.  I deeply appreciated the use of Booster and Harley as key characters, and they were an outstanding focus of this comic.

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Heroes in Crisis also features a fantastic array of supporting characters, and the creative team takes full advantage of their story to bring back some great underutilised heroes.  I loved how King spent time exploring all the various characters who were massacred at the start of the novel, especially as he examines why they were there seeking help.  While there is an obvious focus on the more prominent heroes like Wally West and Poison Ivy, I had a lot of fun seeing characters like Lagoon Boy, Commander Steel and Gnarrk the Last Cro-Magnon.  King did a lot with these very minor DC characters, using a few short sequences to build them up as sympathetic and likeable characters, ensuring that the impact of their death was a little more significant to the reader.  The inclusion of Wally West was also mostly well done and I appreciated the exploration of all the trauma and pain he has gone through in the last few years (being written out of existence for a few years is a painful experience).  Batgirl and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) also show up as supporting characters for Harley and Booster respectfully, and I quite enjoyed the examination of the unique relationships between these friends.  All of these characters really add a lot to the story and I very glad that King took the opportunity to explore and highlight how complex some of these DC heroes can be.

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While Heroes in Crisis has many good and bad qualities, without a doubt the best thing about it is the examination of traumatised heroes.  A large part of this comic’s narrative revolves around the fact that all the superheros in the DC universe are deeply traumatised or emotionally damaged because of their heroic careers, requiring them to seek treatment at Sanctuary.  While I know that some readers really disliked this portrayal of superheroes being emotionally and psychologically damaged, I personally felt that it was a clever inclusion from King that added a lot of realism to the DC universe.  Of course these heroes are going to be traumatised!  Most of them have been fighting crime or dealing with crazy people for most of their lives, experiencing innumerable tragedies and losses along the way, including dying and coming back to life multiple times.  It is honestly rather refreshing to see this acknowledged within the comics, and I deeply appreciated that King decided to feature it so prominently in Heroes in Crisis.

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One of the reasons that this psychological plotline works so well is because Heroes in Crisis features a ton of panels and scenes highlighting the heroes as they discuss their trauma.  Not only do you get glimpses at several AI assisted therapy sessions, some of which are quite intense (Lagoon Boy’s one hurts to read at times), but there are a ton of “confession” panels, which show the various heroes sitting in a special room discussing their pain to a camera.  These confession scenes are cleverly scattered throughout the comic and are worked into the story extremely well, showing the raw psyche of some of the comic’s major characters or murder suspects and providing possible motivations for their actions.  At the same time, they work to show the reader just how damaged some of your favourite heroes can be.  While there is a focus on characters who were part of the Sanctuary massacre, nearly every DC superhero makes an appearance at some point in Heroes in Crisis, talking about their pain and their sorrow.  King ensures that each of these confessions, even the single-panel ones, are really emotionally rich and moving, and you get some amazing feelings out of all of them.  Highlights for me include a great sequence with Batman lamenting the death of his sidekicks, and another one with Commander Steel, who is pretty damn traumatised by his experiences of dying, being reborn as a zombie, having his corpse mutilated, and then coming back again.  Booster, Harley and Wally West also have some very intense, story driven confessions which both moved the story along and helped to get to the roots of their issues.  I found these scenes of trauma, healing and emotions to be particularly well written and very powerful, and they are one of the main reasons I enjoyed this comic as much as I did.

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Another major highlight of Heroes in Crisis is the exceptional artwork by a massive collection of artists who banded together to produce some iconic and powerful pieces of art.  All of the scenes within this comic are very well drawn, and there is a real sense of movement, purpose and intensity in every panel.  I loved all the cool action sequences, and the artists really did not pull any punches when it came to highlighting the tragic deaths of so many different heroes.  Some of the best artwork, however, lies around the amazing and wonderful background and landscape shots throughout the comic.  There are so many fantastic shots that superimpose the characters in front of some beautiful settings, whether they be fields, sunsets or other pieces of nature.  These shots are not only visually impressive but they really add to the dramatic feel of the entire comic, especially as they remind you of the hope that so many of the damaged characters want to feel, but cannot, either because of the events of this comic or some pre-existing trauma.  The artistic team also has a lot of fun bringing to life a host of heroes from various periods of DC’s history, including some obscure characters we have not seen for a very long time.  While some of them were brought back only to die a painful death, it was great to see them again and the artwork surrounding them turned out to be superb.  I also deeply appreciated the artists’ ability to portray emotion and sorrow on the faces of each of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis.  You get a real sense of the darkness and pain lying behind some of the characters’ eyes, especially in some unguarded moments, and it helps to enhance the emotion of the pages.  Overall, this was some impressive and memorable artwork that did a great job enhancing King’s intriguing tale.

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Heroes in Crisis was a very interesting and memorable comic which I had a great time reading.  While it does have some flaws, I think that the creative team behind it managed to create a very touching character driven narrative that succeeded in highlighting the vulnerabilities of several iconic DC superheroes.  I had an amazing time reading this comic and it is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are interested in exploring the damaged minds of some of your favourite heroes.