Star Wars: The High Republic: Tempest Runner written by Cavan Scott and performed by a full cast

Star Wars - Tempest Runner Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 31 August 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Script: Cavan Scott

Cast: Jessica Almasy, Dan Bittner, Orlagh Cassidy, Sullivan Jones, January LaVoy, Kathleen McInerney, Tara Sands, Vikas Adam, Jonathan Davis, Neil Hellegers, Saskia Maarleveld, Soneela Nankani, Marc Thompson and Shannon Tyo

Length: 6 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The epic High Republic era of Star Wars fiction continues in Tempest Runner, the brilliant and captivating full-cast audio drama written by impressive author Cavan Scott.

Ever since its beginnings in early 2021, I have been having a lot of fun with the cool new focus of the Star Wars extended universe known as The High Republic.  Set hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga, The High Republic has featured several impressive novels, comics and other media releases that tell a grim story of destruction and strife in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi.  One of more interesting pieces of this fiction from late 2021 was this fantastic full-cast audio drama, Tempest Runner, which focused on one of this era’s best villains, the Nihil Tempest Runner, Lourna Dee.  This awesome audio drama was authored by the exceedingly talented Cavan Scott, who not only wrote my favourite High Republic book so far, The Rising Storm, but also a great previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.

Synopsis:

The Nihil storm has raged through the galaxy, leaving chaos and grief in its wake. Few of its raiders are as vicious as the Tempest Runner Lourna Dee. She stays one step ahead of the Jedi Order at the helm of a vessel named after one of the deadliest monsters in the galaxy: the Lourna Dee. But no one can outrun the defenders of the High Republic forever.

After the defeat of her crew, Lourna falls into the hands of the Jedi – but not before she hides her identity, becoming just another Nihil convict. Her captors fail to understand the beast they have cornered. Just like every fool she’s ever buried, their first mistake was keeping her alive.

Lourna is determined to make underestimating her their last.

Locked onto a Republic correctional ship, she’s dragged across the galaxy to repair the very damage she and her fellow Tempest Runners inflicted on it. But as Lourna plans her glorious escape, she makes alliances that grow dangerously close to friendships. Outside the Nihil – separated from her infamous ship, her terrifying arsenal, and her feared name – Lourna must carve her own path. But will it lead to redemption? Or will she emerge as a deadlier threat than ever before?

Tempest Runner ended up being an entertaining and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.  Featuring another excellent story from Scott that not only dives into the past of great character Lourna Dee but continues the story set up in several of the past High Republic novels.  Perfectly told using a full cast of narrators, this was an outstanding audio drama that I had a wonderful time listening to.

It was clear that Scott was on quite a roll last year when it came to fantastic storytelling.  Tempest Runner is set after the events of The Rising Storm and continues several interesting storylines from this novel, as well as other pieces of High Republic fiction such as Light of the Jedi and Out of the Shadows.  Starting off with Lourna’s capture by the Jedi, the story shows her successfully hide her identity and get imprisoned aboard a Republic prison ship doing hard labour as punishment.  Trapped with some of the worst criminals in the galaxy, as well as former Nihil members who utilise her identity for her own good, Lourna is forced to survive while also coming to terms with who she is, what drives her and what she wants from the future, especially when she connects with one of the prison guards.  However, an enemy from her past has found out where she is and is determined to kill her no matter what.  This leads to several intense and brutal confrontations as Lourna is forced to once again bring out her inner monster to save herself and defeat her opponents, while also setting her path for future endeavours in the High Republic universe.

Tempest Runner’s narrative ended up being pretty intense, and I loved the cool and intriguing plot, especially as there are several fun twists and reveals, including that great one towards the end.  While this is a mostly self-contained piece of Star Wars fiction, there are multiple intriguing connections to other High Republic novels and comics.  I particularly loved how several of the best villains from the main two novels were used here, and it also sets up Lourna’s storyline for the next book in the series.  Scott employs an interesting and roundabout way of telling Tempest Runner’s story, utilising a series of flashbacks and interludes to continue the main plot which occasionally helps compensate for the lack of descriptive words that is characteristic of the audio drama format.  I really need to highlight the book’s great opening section in which the capture of the protagonist is recounted in compelling detail to the novel’s main antagonist, with the storyteller and his audience providing questions and commentary during the dramatisation of the events being discussed to provide context.  The storyline has a great blend of elements, and I loved the fantastic prison story, the intrigue of the Nihil, the fantastic revenge plot surrounding the antagonist, as well as the massive amount of character development that occurs around the main character.

Scott really went out of his way to explore the character of Lourna Dee in Tempest Runner.  Despite being one of the most distinctive and entertaining villains in the High Republic canon, very little was known about Lourna Dee before now, except that she is an unassailable badass who is even capable of hanging with a Jedi in a fight.  Tempest Runner, however, dives deep into the heart of this cool character, and I liked the complex and intriguing development and history around her.  Most of the story is dedicated to the modern Lourna, who, after being captured, attempts to turn over a new leaf in the prison system to survive.  This provides some interesting insights into her mind and motivations, especially as she is not as mindless a killer as some of the previous books would lead you to believe.  Instead, she is quite a complex and tragic figure, something that is made clear when you see the various flashbacks to her past that Scott comes up with.  These flashbacks tell a captivating tale of betrayal and heartbreak, showcasing what led an innocent girl to a life of hardship and crime.  This backstory is extremely fascinating, with some powerful moments of love, loss, and revenge.  In addition, the story also dives into how she became a member of the Nihil and rose in its ranks.  This interesting background weaved into the main plot extremely well, and I think that Scott showcased the character’s past perfectly, ensuring that it explains her current mentality and motivations.  I am deeply happy that we finally got to see this character’s backstory, and it really did not disappoint.

While most of Tempest Runner’s focus was on Lourna Dee, a couple of other characters really stood out to me.  This included Tasia, the former Nihil member who blackmails Lourna to help her survive in prison.  Tasia is a fun secondary antagonist, and it was very entertaining to see her try and make a power play on Lourna once she was no longer in control.  I also loved seeing more of Pan Eyta, a former Nihil Tempest Runner who was betrayed by Lourna in The Rising Storm.  Pan, who is dying thanks Lourna, goes on a big revenge mission here and ends up being the major antagonist of this novel.  I personally thought this was an amazing conclusion to his compelling character arc established in the previous novels and it was great to see him and Lourna have several aggressive and deeply personal confrontations throughout Tempest Runner.  I also enjoyed seeing a young version of High Republic arch-antagonist Marchion Ro, before he took control of the Nihil, as well as a glimpse of his often-discussed father Asgar Ro.  Several other supporting characters in this novel were also pretty fun, and I had a great time seeing some of their storylines unfold.

While I had to highlight Tempest Runner’s cool narrative and great characters, you can’t talk about this amazing piece of Star Wars fiction without mentioning the awesome audio drama format.  I have a lot of love for Star Wars audiobooks and audio dramas (such as Doctor Aphra), and this was a particularly good one.  The team behind this epic audio drama did an amazing job of combining Scott’s great story with a team of brilliant voice actors, as well as the typical Star Wars sound effects and music.  With a run time of just over six hours, this is a very easy audio drama to quickly power through, and I think I managed it in just over a day myself.  While some people unfamiliar with the format might have some issues regarding the full reliance on descriptive dialogue and sound effects rather than expositional text to describe action, I thought that Tempest Runner was adapted extremely well and I had an absolute blast getting through it.

I must highlight the exceptional cast of voice actors that were featured in this awesome audio drama, as the team behind it pulled together a great group of narrators, including several actors well known for their work bringing Star Wars audiobooks to life.  The most prominent actor in this group is probably Jessica Almasy, who voiced main character Lourna Dee.  Almasy brings a great deal of complexity to the role and I loved the semi-French accent she utilised throughout Tempest Runner, which was reminiscent of how Twi’lek characters speak in shows like Star Wars: Rebels.  I thought that Almasy did a brilliant job of highlighting Lourna’s true feelings and personality in this audio drama, and it was great to see her transform the character in several intense, emotional scenes.  This was some brilliant voice work and it was an amazing highlight of this exceptional production.

I also deeply appreciated the great work that the other actors contributed to Tempest Runner and its characters.  While there were a few new narrators here whose work I enjoyed, the ones that impressed me the most were established narrators from other Star Wars audiobooks.  This includes January LaVoy, who voiced the character of Tasia, providing her with some much-needed depth and spite.  LaVoy, who I loved in works such as Star Wars: Victory’s Price (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021) and Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing, was just great here and I really appreciated the characterisation her voice added to Tasia.  Marc Thompson, who has previously narrated all the main High Republic novels, as well as the Thrawn Ascendancy books (Chaos Rising, Greater Good and Lesser Evil), was another standout narrator, especially as he voiced three characters, including antagonists Pan Eyta and Marchion Ro.  Having this cool continuation from Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm for these great villains helped me enjoy their appearances in Tempest Runner a lot more, especially as Thompson has come up with some extremely sinister and fitting voices for them.  I also had a lot of fun with Jonathan Davis (who previously narrated Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and Maul: Lockdown), who voiced two characters here.  I particularly enjoyed his work on the mysterious Asgar Ro, and the calm and wise tone he utilises for him (which is reminiscent of another major Star Wars character), works perfectly to give him some great depth.  An overall exceptional collection of narrators, I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama.

With a great cast, a brilliant story and a great focus on an incredible central character, Tempest Runner was an outstanding addition to the High Republic range of Star Wars fiction.  The always impressive Cavan Scott came up with an awesome narrative for Tempest Runner and I loved learning more about fun character Lourna Dee.  A must-listen for all fans of The High Republic, you really won’t regret checking out Tempest Runner.

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The writing team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman presents their first awesome joint novel, with the impressive and dark young adult fantasy book, All of Us Villains.

Foody and Herman are both established authors, having previously released cool-sounding novels and series, such as Foody’s bestselling The Shadow Game series and Herman’s The Devouring Gray novels.  While I have not had the opportunity to check out either of these authors’ previous books, I was very interested by All of Us Villains when I first heard about it a few months ago.  I loved the unique and compelling plot synopsis, and I was also intrigued by all the buzz from other reviewers.  I instantly jumped on it once I received my own copy and I was very impressed with its clever and compelling story.

In a world still powered by spells and curses, nothing is more precious than high magick, which can super-charge any spell and provide its wielder with insane amounts of power.  The only reliable source of high magick left in the world can be found in the remote city of Ilvernath, a dour and depressing settlement whose prosperity and fame can be traced to seven ancient families.  The ability to see and manipulate this high magick can only belong to one family at a time, and control ensures their prosperity for an entire generation.  However, to gain this right, each family must make an unbelievable sacrifice.

Every generation, when the Blood Moon starts to rise, a magical tournament is enacted that pits the very best of the families against each other.  However, this is no gentle tournament of magick; it is a brutal, curse-created fight to the death, with each family forced to nominate a young champion to represent them.  Only one champion can survive the tournament, and no-one ever emerges unscathed.

Twenty years after the last competition, a new Blood Moon starts to rise, and the families make ready for the latest battle for supremacy.  However, this tournament will be very different than any before.  Someone from the seven families has published a tell-all book, detailing every aspect of the tournament and informing the world of the hidden atrocities that have been committed in the name of power.  With the world now obsessed with every aspect of the tournament, all attention is now focussed on Ilvernath and the seven champions.

Thrust into the public spotlight, all seven champions must now deal with the intense infamy the tournament produces as they prepare to fight.  Forced to balance their own feelings on death and survival with the intense pressure placed upon them by their families and tradition, none are truly ready for the horrors they will be forced to endure.  However, this tournament also offers its competitors a chance to survive and end the curse that has blighted their families for centuries.  But not all the competitors are willing to give up the chance of ultimate power and are prepared to pay any price to win.  Let the games begin!

Damn, now this was a really great novel.  The brilliant new writing team of Foody and Herman produced an outstanding book in All of Us Villains, and I really got stuck into its story incredibly quickly.  The authors did a wonderful job of utilising a new version of the always popular teenage death tournament to fit into a brilliant and moving narrative.  Filled with complex characters and intense personal moments, All of Us Villains is an awesome and powerful book that I deeply enjoyed.

All of Us Villains has an excellent narrative that is a lot of fun to get into.  Focused on four of the seven participants of the latest death tournament, this is an amazing character driven story that really dives into the protagonists’ psyches as they prepare for the ultimate challenge.  The authors do an awesome job setting the scene for this fantastic story, and the readers are quickly hooked by the four complex main characters and the interesting scenario.  Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the setup before the tournament begins, which I think ensured the perfect balance between development and bloodshed.  You come away from the first half appreciating each of the characters and deeply caring about the outcome of the upcoming battle.  I was particularly impressed with one great early twist that surrounded one main character’s family preparations, and it added some major impact to his storyline.  Once the tournament begins, readers are in for a whirlwind of emotions and excitement as all the characters enact their strategy to win while all bearing a heavy emotional weight or magical handicap.  There are some intense and captivating sequences here and the readers are constantly on the edge of their seat, especially with some unique interactions, alliances and motivations, including one character who attempts to destroy the entire tournament from the inside.  This all leads up to a devastating and powerful conclusion, filled with death, despair, betrayal and complete emotional devastation, as all the characters make their choices and everything crumbles around them.

I really loved this cool narrative and I found myself getting really caught up in the constant heartbreak and bloodshed.  I am a massive fan of the teenage death tournament premise, and the authors do a great job of working this established story elements into their setting extremely well.  While there isn’t as much intense violence in the actual tournament as some readers would probably hope, I think that the authors’ choice to focus on the characters and their intense emotions about being forced into this fight by their families turned All of Us Villains into a better book. The authors’ use of multiple character perspectives works extremely well here, especially as it forces you to choose between your favourite characters as you try and work out who you want to survive, while also ensuring a really in-depth look at the setting and the tournament.  While I did find the final twist of this novel slightly predictable, the rest of the reveals and unpredictable actions were really cool, and I was shocked and surprised multiple times while reading.  This was also a great first entry, with the story ending on a compelling final note that will ensure that I will be coming back for the next book.  This was a deeply accessible and enjoyable read that has a lot of appeal to a vast array of varied readers, especially its intended young adult audience who will really love the complex story, clever setting and fantastic characters.

I had a lot of fun with the captivating and inventive setting and scenario that the authors have come up with for All of Us Villains.  While the world itself is a bit of a familiar alternate world with magic, the town of Ilvernath and the tournament it hosts more than makes up for it.  The authors spend a substantial amount of time establishing the setting, showcasing how the participants live, the vile history surrounding their families, as well as the tournament which plays a major role in their existence.  The people of Ilvernath, especially the seven families, are explored in detail, and it was fascinating to see the various opinions and expectations surrounding them.  This becomes even more apparent as a clever media saturation element is worked into the narrative as the tournament has been exposed to the public and has gained substantial attention, changing the entire nature of the tournament.  Excerpts from the tell-all-book that caused this attention are featured at the start of each chapter, which I deeply enjoyed.  Not only is it fascinating to see an inside perspective on the events, the families, and the tournament history, but it helps to expand the lore of this world in a fun way.  I also quite enjoyed the cool magical system of this novel, which is channelled through spell-laden rings powered.  The authors spend a lot of time exploring this magical system, especially as they show off various aspects of it, including spell/curse crafting and the subsequent casting.  You get a real sense of how this system works in a very short amount of time, and there are some unique and intense spells that get chucked into the mix, resulting in some big story moments.

The highlight of All of Us Villains is the death tournament, which gets a lot of attention and development.  The authors perfectly explain the lore, rules, and quirks of the tournament, and it is fascinating to see it unfold once the characters are thrown into it.  Cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, the participants need to kill each other within a set period or else everyone left alive will die.  There are some fantastic rules and inclusions set into this tournament, including seven artefacts with their own unique benefits and seven strongholds that the champions can hold up in.  These items and strongholds have their own significance and connections to the seven families, and it was interesting to see their impact on the events of the tournament.  The authors’ clever use of excerpts from the tell-all book works extremely well to highlight elements of the tournament, and I loved all this crucial part of the book.  There are also some new elements introduced for this specific tournament, as parts of the curse start to break apart due to the unpredictable actions of the participants.  This opens new opportunities and possibilities that were quite fascinating to see.  I look forward to seeing what happens around this tournament in rest of this series, especially as more bloodshed and destruction is inevitable.

As I mentioned multiple times above, the best thing about this cool book is the fantastically complex and compelling central characters.  The focus of All of Us Villains is on the seven participants of the tournament, with a particular emphasis on the four main characters.  The authors really dive into these four characters, highlighting their personalities, emotions, and their thoughts on the tournament they are about to embark on.  Each character is very well established, and there are some extremely complex and powerful storylines and character arcs set up around them.  It is a testament to the authors’ writing that I tended to enjoy each separate perspective about equally, and there were none that I disliked more than any of the others, which is a real peril in novels with a lot of narrators.  I will say that this intense focus on only four of the main characters does detract a lot of attention and interest away from the rest of the supporting cast, especially the three other family champions, but I think it is worth it for the impressive development put into the central protagonists.

The first of these characters is Alistair Lowe, the powerful scion of the Lowe family.  The Lowes win most of the tournaments and are generally considered the villains of Ilvernath and its history due to their monstrous personalities.  Alistair has been raised his entire life to win the tournament by any means necessary and has fully accepted his role as the monster of the story, even if he isn’t as evil as everyone assumes or wants him to be.  However, an interesting and unexpected romance soon starts to change his mind and he is convinced that changing his ways and saving the others might be a good idea.  However, a particularly vicious twist towards the end of the novel completely alters the entire trajectory of his character arc and will leave you reeling in shock while it loads up the epic feels.  I felt that out of all the characters, Alistair had the most moving and complex storyline as well as the most substantial development, and he swiftly becomes the character you bond with the most.  I am deeply intrigued to see what happens to him in the next book and I have a feeling that there is both great tragedy and great evil in his future.

The next central champion is Isobel Macaslan, a bright and powerful magick user from a highly resented family.  I loved the great work that the authors put into developing her.  At first Isobel appears to be one of the most confident and enthusiastic figures in this book, especially as she is the one leaning into the publicity surrounding the tournament the most.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she was forced to be champion thanks to the machinations of her uncaring family and her former best friend, who threw her to the press.  Isobel has a lot of issues going into the tournament, with the mass attention and the unfair expectations placed upon her forcing her to take some big risks which severely disadvantage her as she enters the tournament.  Isobel ends up developing some unique connections throughout All of Us Villains, and the friendships and relationships she develops form the emotional heart of much of the narrative.  The reader sees Isobel go to some dark places in this book and it is hard to see all the heartbreak and despair she experiences.

I was also a major fan of the underdog Gavin Grieve, who has an amazingly complex and relatable story arc.  Gavin is the champion from the Grieve family, who have never won the tournament and are generally looked down upon by everyone in town.  Gavin is a sad and angry character since everyone underestimates him and his chances, while also showering him with scorn as it was apparently a Grieve who wrote the tell-all expose about the tournament.  This anger leads to him making a dangerous deal that provides him with impressive power at a great price.  This was an amazing story inclusion, especially as it turns Gavin into a bit of a beast due to finally having power and an advantage over the other families.  This leads him to do some reckless and cruel things, and it was fascinating to see the events of the tournament and its bloody legacy slowly corrupt this character before your eyes.

The final point-of-view character was Briony Thorburn, the confident wildcard.  Unlike all the other major characters, Briony wants to compete in the tournament and has spent her entire life getting ready for it, going as far as to dump her boyfriend, one of the other competitors, so she would feel less guilty about killing him.  However, events outside of her control impact her participation and she is forced to take some drastic actions.  This leads to her significantly reconsidering her position and gives her a fantastic arc about trying to save all her fellow participants and try to break the tournament once and for all.  Watching her attempt to make up for all her past mistakes while also convincing the other champions to change hundreds of years of tradition is pretty brilliant, and I found it to be a compelling arc that fleshed out the story perfectly.

In their first collaboration, the brilliant team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have produced one of the best young adult fantasy novels of 2021 with All of Us Villains.  This amazing novel contains an excellent story set around an intense magical teenage death tournament that takes the reader into some incredible directions.  Filled with tragedy, impressive character development, and a ton of impressive twists, All of Us Villains is an exceptional read that comes highly recommended novel.

All of us Villains Cover 2

Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Cytonic Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Skyward – Book Three

Length: 14 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today continues his incredible and brilliant Skyward young adult science fiction series, with the third epic instalment, Cytonic.

This was another incredible book from the amazingly talented Brandon Sanderson, who I would say is one of the top authors in the world today.  Debuting back in 2005, Sanderson has written many brilliant and complex fantasy and science fiction novels and was personally selected to finish off Robert Jordan’s iconic The Wheel of Time series.  Sanderson has since written a great collection of books, most of which have been part of his interconnected Cosmere universe.  This includes his groundbreaking The Stormlight Archive series, which started in 2010 with The Way of Kings, as well as his bestselling Mistborn series.  While the extremely prolific Sanderson is constantly adding to his Cosmere novels, he has also been working on several other series, such as his Skyward books.

The Skyward series are an excellent young adult science fiction series that follows the character of Spensa Nightshade, a misfit who rose to become a fighter pilot to defend her planet from alien invaders.  Made up of Skyward and Starsight, this great series has proven to be truly fantastic, and these first two novels were amongst the best books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  The first book detailed Spensa’s training as a pilot, which saw her save her planet and discover that her people were intentionally trapped on their planet in a penal colony.  The second book, Starsight, followed Spensa as she infiltrated the alien capital in disguise to discover what the aliens wanted, and what plans they had for her planet.  However, after being betrayed, Spensa learns that the Superiority government want to use the mysterious interdimensional beings known as the Delvers as weapons against the humans.  This third book in the series, Cytonic, follows on immediately after the events of Starsight and continues Spensa’s adventure, showing what happened to her after she dove into a Superiority interdimensional portal at the end of the second book.  Sanderson also released several novellas around the same time as Cytonic, including Sunreach, Redawn and Evershore, which add context to the universe and focus on some of the side characters from the previous novels.

Following her dive into the mysterious portal in the middle of Starsight to escape the Superiority, Defiant Defence Force pilot and amateur spy, Spensa Nightshade, finds herself in all manner of trouble when she arrives in the realm known as the Nowhere.  The Nowhere is a unnatural and chaotic dimension outside our universe that hosts the Delvers, destructive creatures that are being manipulated by the Superiority into destroying humanity, especially the psychically empowered beings known as Cytonics, such as herself.

Determined to find out more about both the Delvers and her own Cytonic abilities, Spensa remains in the Nowhere to find the clues that will uncover the history behind her own power and that of her enemies.  However, the Nowhere is a weird and mysterious place, made up of floating fragments of multiple planets and filled with all manner of creatures, alien pirates and Superiority forces.  Worse, the very nature of the Nowhere slowly changes the people within it, draining their memories and making them forget everything important to them.

Alone except for her unhinged ship AI, M-Bot, and a forgetful intergalactic explorer, Spensa begins her quest.  As Spensa hunts down fragments from the past, she soon finds herself under attack from the Delvers, who are desperate to destroy her and the threat she poses to their entire race.  With mysterious monsters, dangerous physics and hostile aliens closing in on her, Spensa is thrust into the great adventure she always wanted.  However, the closer she gets to the truth about herself and the delvers, the more she begins to realise just how high the cost of knowledge and power can be.

This was an exceptional and addictive read from Sanderson, who once again takes the reader on a complex and powerful ride.  Cytonic was an excellent continuation of the unique story started in Skyward and then expanded on in Starsight, and I love the powerful journey contained in this novel.  Featuring a brilliant combination of a clever narrative, a unique new setting and some amazingly entertaining characters, this was an exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed this incredible narrative, especially as it continues the cool plot from the previous two novels.  One of the best things about this series is the amazing amount of variance in storylines, with the first book reading like a flight academy story (teenage Top Gun), while the second book was an espionage book set in the heart of alien territory.  This third book turned out to be a wild and epic adventure novel, which places the protagonist in a unique and dangerous new setting and requires her to complete a great quest to save her friends and escape.  This great change of tone really made for a compelling read, and I loved the inventive pivots featured in this book.

Cytonic starts right after the events of Starsight, quickly resolving the cliffhanger from the second book, while also placing Spensa immediately in danger yet again.  Once the new main character, Chet, is introduced, Cytonic’s story quickly sets the protagonist on her mission, travelling to one location after another to learn the past of the universe and her enemies.  There are some brilliant sequences set throughout this part of the book, as Spensa gets to grips with the strange new dimension she has found herself in, while also enjoying the cool adventure she is having.  Around halfway through the book, several key new characters are introduced, as Spensa is forced to join an alien pirate gang to advance any further into the Nowhere.  What follows are some brilliant character moments as Spensa starts to find her place in this dimension, while also worrying about her friends back home.  After some intense and exciting space fighter fights, Spensa and her companions eventually get towards the end run of the book, learning everything they came to while trying to escape the Delvers.  The final major sequence of the book is loaded up with an intense amount of action, drama and major twists, as everything you think you know is changed around, and some big events occur that will rock you right in the feels.  This was a brilliant and extremely fast-paced narrative, with the protagonists never sitting still for long as they encounter danger and adversity around every corner.  Despite the intense pace, Sanderson also works a lot of character development and emotional encounters throughout the book, and you get an extremely well-balanced story that is very easy to get addicted to.

I deeply enjoyed Sanderson’s excellent writing style which helped to make Cytonic particularly accessible and fun to read.  Told exclusively from the perspective of Spensa, the reader gets a detailed and upfront examination of all the events occurring in front of her in addition to her own hilarious observations and reactions.  I find that the Skyward novels have a very different tone from some of Sanderson’s other works, and I appreciate the cool and perfect combination of intense science fiction elements, with compelling character development, impressive action sequences and outrageous and exciting humour that was featured in Cytonic.  The various fighter combat sequences are particularly good, and while they aren’t as plentiful as some of the other Skyward novels, there are still some exciting and elaborately written scenes that pit Spensa against other pilots or entities in high-stakes combat.  I will say that Cytonic does, at times, seem like a bridging novel in the series, setting up events for the big finale and sidelining several supporting characters.  However, I still really liked this great read, and I had an amazing amount of fun with its clever adventure framing.

Before starting Cytonic I was a little worried about how easy it was going to be for me to follow, especially as it had been nearly two years since I read Starsight, and I might have forgotten a lot of detail.  I was also concerned because I did not have a chance to read any of the novellas that Sanderson released around Cytonic, which some readers claimed were vital to the plot.  I personally felt that I was able to read this book without a refresher as Sanderson ensured that certain key details were summarised within the text extremely well, and I was swiftly able to remember anything that might have slipped my mind.  I also found that my enjoyment didn’t suffer from having not read any of the novellas, mainly because it was such a Spensa focused story.  The novellas detailed events that occurred back on Detritus and the Superiority during Spensa’s absence, and they only have minor impacts on the plot.  As such, readers can manage without them, although I think I will read them soon to find out what else has been happening in the wider universe.  One of the other things that I really appreciated about Cytonic is that it is extremely appealing to a wide range of readers.  While it is marketed as a young adult novel to teenagers, I honestly think that readers of most age ranges can really enjoy this book.  Older readers will deeply appreciate the complex characters and intriguing science fiction elements, while younger fans will love the cool action and hilarious humour.  Combined, this makes for an awesome read that I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in a great science fiction read.

I really must rave about the fantastic setting and universe building contained within Cytonic.  Sanderson really went all out expanding the Skyward universe in this latest novel, and the reader gets a ton of information as key elements from the previous novels are finally explained in full, such as Cytonics and the Delvers.  While readers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by all the new inclusions and background information that Sanderson shoved into this novel, I personally found it really fascinating and I appreciated having several questions answered.  There are some great scientific and character elements built into who and what Cytonics, Delvers, and the Nowhere are, and I think they were woven into the exciting plot extremely well.  Established elements from the previous two novels are also reintroduced expertly throughout Cytonic, and it was great to get some updates on the history, disputes and characters that were such a cool feature of the first two novels.  I particularly loved the fun reimagining of key parts of human culture that have been warped by years of retellings and misunderstandings.  Spensa’s love of stories ensures that several of these are featured throughout Cytonic, and it was always amusing to hear distorted version of well-known movies and books, such as Spensa’s epic and hilarious retelling of The Lion King.

I also need to gush about the incredible new setting of the Nowhere, which serves as the primary location for the entire narrative.  The Nowhere is a weird and haunting dimension outside of real space that is filled with all manner of wonder and danger.  Revolving around a faux-star containing Delvers, the rest of the Nowhere contains a ton of floating fragments of land and soil, containing all manner of elements from the planets they originated from.  This makes for a brilliant and shifting landscape which was really fun to explore and even more cool to fly over.  However, the real brilliance of this setting lies in the impact it has on the characters’ minds.  People stuck in the Nowhere, which includes pirates, miners, outcasts and anyone the Superiority wants to get rid of, are slowly having their memories, personality and sense of time sucked away by the weird space, with only certain figments of reality slowing the process down.  This naturally has some substantial impacts on the plot and the characters, with Spensa constantly trying to hold on to what is important to her.  This exceptionally clever and inventive setting is a great backdrop to this amazing narrative, and it was extremely cool to see Spensa and her friends try to navigate and overcome the various elements of the Nowhere.  Sanderson is a true master of creating unique and captivating universes, and I cannot wait to see what happens in this one next.

There is no way that you cannot talk about one of Sanderson’s novels without highlighting the many exceptional and complex characters featured within.  Cytonic, and the Skyward series in general, is a perfect example of this, as the readers are treated to a range of unique and entertaining protagonists, each of whom add an incredible amount to the overall story.  Due to the events of the plot, there is a much more limited range of characters in this novel, although the three main characters more than make up for it with their bold personalities and captivating backstories.

The most prominent of theses is point-of-view character and main protagonist Spensa Nightshade.  Spensa is a great character who has gone through an amazing amount during the trilogy, transforming to loner weirdo child who was reviled as the daughter of a traitor, to a heroic pilot, then to a daring spy.  In this third book, she becomes a wilderness adventurer on a quest to save her people, which plays perfectly to her personality, which has been warped by her youth of listening to wild stories.  As such, Spensa has a great time in this book, and it is deeply entertaining to see her adventure around and become a space pirate.  While there are a lot of fun moments with Spensa, Sanderson also takes the time to once again dive into her personality, showing how much she has grown since the start of the first book, as well as the unique relationships she has formed.  Spensa is faced with some hard choices in this book as she attempts to return home, and there is an impressive examination of her damaged psyche, especially surrounding all the responsibilities that have been thrust upon her.  This makes for a complex and compelling portrayal in this novel, and while you may laugh at Spensa’s antics you know that there is a lot going on within her head.  There are some interesting developments around Spensa in this book, particularly when it comes to her Cytonic powers, and it will be fascinating to see how she further develops in the next novel.

I also deeply enjoyed the character of M-Bot, the silly and distracted artificial intelligence who Spensa discovered in a crashed ship in the first book.  After being disassembled by the Superiority in Starsight, M-Bot now flies around in a tiny cleaning drone and finds himself going through some big changes.  In particular, he has gained full sapiency in this book, and he immediately goes on an emotional bender, trying to understand the complex feelings he is now experiencing, while also dealing with his sense of betrayal after Spensa abandoned him in the previous book.  This dive into sentience adds some really entertaining layers to M-Bot in Cytonic, and he is even more amusing and charming than before, which I didn’t think was possible.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with M-Bot again, and it was so much fun following him around, especially as he continues to develop his unique friendship with Spensa.  M-Bot has some amazing moments and ridiculous dialogue in this book, and you will not be prepared for everything that occurs with him.

The other major character of this book is new protagonist Chet Starfinder, a human Cytonic explorer who lives in the Nowhere and decides to help Spensa achieve her goals and escape back to her universe.  Chet is an eccentric being who combines aspects of all the famous literary explorers into his personality, thanks to his love of stories and his inability to remember life outside of the Nowhere.  Readers will enjoy getting to know Chet, and it was fascinating to see the cool dynamic that grows between him and Spensa as they take on a fun partnership to traverse the Nowhere.  Sanderson opens some big questions surrounding who Chet is at the start of Cytonic, and it was a lot of fun finding out who exactly he was and what his motivations for helping Spensa are.  I deeply enjoyed Chet’s unique and compelling storyline and he proved to be a brilliant addition to the novel.

Aside from these main three characters, Cytonic also features an interesting supporting cast.  Most of these characters are new, with characters from the preceding novels barely featured here (they appear in the accompanying novellas).  These new characters are the trapped inhabitants of the Nowhere who find Spensa and become part of her journey.  These include the Broadsiders, an alien pirate band who Spensa joins and swiftly grows close to thanks to their inclusive nature and love of great pilots.  It was fascinating to see Spensa, who has had to fight for inclusion her entire life, gain some more friends, even though she knows she can’t stay with them.  There are some great figures amongst this bunch, and I loved some of the unique alien features they had.  Sanderson reintroduced one of the best characters from the Starsight in the book, who proves to be quite an entertaining and lovable inclusion, even if they are experiencing some memory issues.  Some of the main series antagonists have minor appearances in this book, plotting from afar and setting some evil plans in motion.  While it would have been interesting to see more about them, especially as they were only introduced in the prior novel, I think keeping them mostly apart from Spensa worked in the context of the unique plot that Sanderson was trying to develop.  I also deeply enjoyed the strange creatures known as the Delvers.  The Delvers are dangerous and powerful interdimensional beings who exist on a whole other form of reality and consciousness.  Sanderson does a fantastic job exploring what exactly these beings are, and you get a real sense of their dangerous emotions and outlook on life.  I really appreciated the author’s clever use of these seemingly less than humourous monsters as the antagonists of this book, and it proved to be a welcome addition to the plot.  Every character in this book is extremely awesome, and readers will have an exceptional time exploring their complex personalities as the plot unfolds.

While I did receive a physical copy of this book, I chose to enjoy the audiobook version of Cytonic instead to fit it into my reading schedule.  This proved to be an extremely wise decision as the audiobook was a fantastic way to check Cytonic out, something I had previously found when listening to Skyward.  There are actually two versions of the Cytonic audiobook available, but I chose to listen to the Sophie Aldred version, as she was the narrator who I listened to previously.  This version of Cytonic had a run time of just under 14 and a half hours, making it a relatively quick audiobook to get through, especially once I got incredibly hooked on the story.  I really enjoyed listening to Cytonic and I found that the audiobook version helped my appreciation of both the new setting of the Nowhere and the various cool space fighter sequences featured throughout.  Aldred is an outstanding narrator, and I had an exceptional time with the various voices she featured throughout Cytonic.  She hits the character of Spensa perfectly, fully capturing her daring and adventurous personality, and enhancing all her many quirks.  I also loved the cool voice she used for M-Bot, including the fun accent, which fully showed of his computer origin, as well as the many unusual behavioural quirks that have developed within him.  This great narration deeply enhanced this already cool novel and I had a wonderful time listening to this incredible audiobook.

With the third entry in the epic Skyward series, Cytonic, acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson continues to shine as one of the absolute best modern fantasy and science fiction writers out there.  Cytonic is another captivating and impressive young adult science fiction read that perfectly continues the outstanding narrative from the previously Skyward novels.  Featuring some incredible characters, an intense and moving narrative, and a bold and inventive new setting, Cytonic is an exceptionally awesome read that you will get addicted to.  I had a fantastic time with this novel and I cannot wait to see how Sanderson wraps up this series in the future.

Cytonic Cover 2

Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

Mind Bullet 2

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The deliciously twisted mind of bestselling science fiction thriller author Jeremy Robinson returns with another epic and over-the-top adventure, Mind Bullet, a fantastic and captivating read.

Robinson is an outstanding author whose work I first checked out earlier this year.  Known for his Nemesis Saga and Chess Team series, Robinson is currently working on a collection of partially connected standalone novels, all of which are set within the same extended universe and which are leading up to some massive crossover novels.  I was lucky enough to read one of Robinson’s other 2021 releases earlier this year, The Dark, which was a captivating and deeply entertaining read with a bonkers story to it.  I had a wonderful time with The Dark, which got a full five-star rating from me, and it made me an instant fan of this cool writer.  As such, I was extremely intrigued when I saw that he had another novel coming out this year.  This book, Mind Bullet, was another unique and fascinating read from Robinson with a killer plot to it that I just had to pick up and check out.

In the world of high-level international assassination, Jonas is something of a legend.  Raised by two honourable killers, Jonas had set out on his own, taking on the most dangerous and difficult of jobs and succeeding in some extremely flashy ways.  Despite the ostentatious techniques used in some of his kills, Jonas has managed to stay out of the limelight and out of sight from conventional law enforcement due to fact that none of his targets ever shows any signs of violence.  That is because Jonas has a secret: he has telekinesis and can blow a small hole into people’s brains merely by concentrating on them, an unexplained ability he calls Mind Bullet.

However, despite all his success and the accompanying wealth, Jonas is unhappy and depressed.  Alone except for his sarcastic and possibly psychotic AI, Bubbles, Jonas is still grieving the loss of his dead parents, convinced that someone killed them and got away with it.  As his depression and loneliness results in Jonas taking more and more dangerous jobs, Bubbles decides to intervene for his own good.  Playing matchmaker, Bubbles determines that Madee, a local Thai food delivery woman and part-time thief, would be perfect for him.  After an awkward first meeting where Madee attempts to rob him, the two loners start to hit it off.  However, true love is about to get interrupted by the worst kind of gate crasher, the assassin group known as the Shrieking Ninja.

Angered by one of Madee’s burglaries, the Shrieking Ninjas attempt to break into Jonas’s house and kill them both.  Barely escaping from the Shrieking Ninjas’ mysterious and powerful master, Jonas goes on the run with Madee, hoping to find a way to get them off their trail for good.  However, the disastrous and very public encounter at his house has raised unwelcome attention and Jonas is shocked to find that a $10 million bounty has been placed on his head.  A mysterious organisation is determined to capture Jonas by any means necessary, and every elite assassin and hitman in America is willing to collect.  Pursued by a legion of outrageous killers, Jonas, Madee and Bubbles find themselves thrust into the midst of a dark and deadly conspiracy that lies in the heart of Jonas’s past and the secrets behind his lethal abilities.  Can this unusual group survive the onslaught headed their way, or will they be buried by a legion of lethal killers with their own unique abilities?

Wow, just wow, this novel was the absolute definition of fun.  Robinson did another amazing job with Mind Bullet, producing an intense and exciting novel that is wildly addictive and incredibly entertaining.  Featuring a brilliant, fast-paced story, Mind Bullet had me hooked from the very second I started listening to it, and I ended up powering through it in a few short days.  An outstanding and compelling read, this novel also got a five-star rating from me.

Mind Bullet has an awesome and deeply entertaining narrative that is extremely easy to read and even easier to get addicted to.  Robinson starts off strong with an audacious assassination involving an airborne car, an unethical AI, psychic powers and a parachute, which serves as the perfect introduction to Jonas and his assistant, Bubbles.  From there the story quickly evolves, with Jonas meeting the mysterious Madee while being forced to defend her from the outrageous Shrieking Ninjas (that name says it all).  Following that encounter, Jonas and Madee are forced to contend with continued attacks from even more unusual and deadly assassins, each of whom steal the scene they’re in, either by their unique methods or dangerous powers not unlike Jonas’s.  The protagonists are thrust into deadly situation after deadly situation, picking up new friends as progressively more dangerous foes attack with devastating effect.  This amazing and compelling narrative contains the right blend of forward action and intriguing backstory, as the attacks awaken memories from Jonas’s past, which he also seeks to explore.  After a series of interesting reveals after the halfway point of the book, the protagonists are thrust into their most dangerous situation yet when they encounter the book’s big bads, in an epic and twisty confrontation that brings everything together and ensures everything is out on the table.  All this leads up to an explosive conclusion that wraps up the story and the character arcs exceedingly well, while also leaving the door open for appearances in future Robinson books.

This entire story was extremely intense and addictive from the very beginning, and I had an outstanding time getting through it, and loved every single development, explosive encounter, and fantastically weird new character.  Despite its myriad elements, the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the readers are left feeling extremely satisfied, especially as this is a mostly self-contained story.  I felt that Robinson’s use of single first-person perspective to tell the whole story worked extremely well, especially as the point-of-view character was particularly entertaining and enjoyable.  Like most of Robinson’s stories, Mind Bullet’s narrative contained a great combination of humour, action, character growth and sheer insanity, which helps to produce a deeply entertaining and compelling plot that grabs the reader’s attention and holds on tight.  While substantially less dark in tone and character development than Robinson’s prior book, The Dark, Mind Bullet has serious moments which contrast extremely well with the inherent silliness to produce an overall epic read.  I honestly loved every second of this story, and there are some brilliant scenes featured throughout it, from massive and elaborate fight scenes, brutal psychic brawls both in reality and the mental plain, as well as several simpler scenes that deal with the characters and show their growth as people.

It is interesting to note that this book is part of Robinson’s wider Infinite Timeline, a collection of mostly unconnected novels set in the same overarching universe.  Robinson is currently making a play to combine the plots and characters of these standalone novels, and several upcoming novels will feature multiple characters from across the canon.  As such, Mind Bullet contains multiple references to Robinson’s prior works, mainly Tribe and The Dark, which are part of the same loosely connected storyline (the books of which are are going to have their first crossover in 2022’s Khaos).  There is also a surprising appearance from some of the protagonists of Robinson’s other books, which hints at the bigger crossover later in the series in Singularity (this universe’s version of Avengers: Endgame).  While readers can easily enjoy Mind Bullet without any knowledge of Robinson’s prior books, a couple of scenes and references might be a bit weird without context, especially as a few characters are briefly parachuted (or teleported) in.  Still, readers should be able to follow what is going on without too much difficulty, especially as Robinson does provide some explanation or interesting reaction from the protagonist, and hopefully these appearances will encourage them to check out some of the author’s other books.  I personally really enjoyed these inclusions, and it was fun to see how Robinson is getting more and more blatant with the connections between the various novels.  I am really looking forward to seeing how this entire series comes together, and I really need to go back and read some of Robinson’s other books before this happens.

One of the things that Robinson truly excels at as an author is his ability to produce some complex and relatable characters.  This is particularly true in Mind Bullet, which features a fantastic cast of compelling and relatable protagonists and antagonists with intriguing plot threads that the reader will quickly get invested in.

The most prominent character of this novel is the point-of-view protagonist, Jonas, the dangerous assassin with a heart of gold.  In many ways, Jonas was a pretty typical protagonist for Robinson, a confident and fun-loving figure who cracks a ton of jokes and has their own unique style and a liking for obscure pop culture.  I had a lot of fun following the adventure through Jonas’s eyes, especially as his hilarious view of all the outrageous stuff occurring around him and his constant quips kept me in stiches for most of the novel.  Despite this entertaining outer facade, once you dig deeper Jonas proves to be a lot more complex and emotionally damaged.  The character is chronically depressed and bored, especially after the mysterious car crash that killed his parents, and at the start of the book he has a substantial subconscious death wish.  The character evolves for the better as the novel progresses, especially as he starts to make some connections with the various side-characters.  These friendships and deeper relationships really change him for the better, although they also uncover a range of secrets from the past.  I loved the dive into the character’s psychic abilities, especially as he goes through a trial-by-fire against a range of powerful foes, each of whom is deadlier than the last.  It was also cool and intriguing to explore his hidden, traumatic past, which the author does extremely well through several clever flashback sequences.  The eventual reveal of who or what Jonas really is was done very well, and it will be interesting to see how the author expands on that in some of the future books.

My other favourite character in Mind Bullet was probably the sassy and potentially crazy artificial intelligence, Bubbles.  Bubbles, whose origins and capabilities are also unknown, is Jonas’s assistant and best friend, whose personality is growing based on her interactions with Jonas.  Thanks to the unique experiences she has gained living alongside a quipping assassin, Bubbles has developed quite a sarcastic and entertaining personality, and nearly every interaction with Bubbles results in an inappropriate joke or shocking comment which is pretty hilarious.  Like Jonas, Bubbles also develops a bit throughout the novel, and it was fascinating to see the author’s viewpoint about nature vs nurture when it comes to this character’s personality and emotions.  Despite being an AI, Bubbles is quite a caring being, even if she has developed some homicidal tendencies (especially towards ducks), and I appreciated the unique bond she forms first with Jonas, and then with some of the characters in the book.  Bubble’s meddling in Jonas’s life to keep him alive is particularly sweet, even if she tries to cover it with analytics, and it ended up being one of the major character threads of this book.  An outstanding and brilliant AI character who you will fall in love with!

Aside from Jonas and Bubbles, there are some other amazing characters throughout Mind Bullet.  Madee is another sassy and strong-willed female character (most of Robinson’s characters are sassy and sarcastic), whose break-in to Jonas’s house triggers all the events of the book.  Madee is another fun character, and I really loved the entertaining romance that bloomed between her and Jonas, despite their awkward, computer assisted meeting.  Robinson plays it pretty smart with Madee, and I loved some of the great twists surrounding her, even if by the final reveal it is apparent there is more going on with her.  Jonas also bands together with a group of other complex and entertaining characters, most of whom get pulled into his orbit as the world explodes around him.  While I did think the inclusion of several attractive female characters helping Jonas did appear a little harem-like, each of them proves to be a valuable member of the team, and I liked some of the fun character arcs surrounding them.  I also really need to highlight the fun collection of killers that come after the protagonists throughout Mind Bullet, especially as Robinson went out of his way to produce some wild and truly ridiculous figures here, including incompetent Neo Nazis, stereotypical gun-toting Texans, and foul-mouthed murderous nuns.  There are also a group of dangerous psychic killers, each of whom has their own unique history with Jonas, and whose compelling range of powers results in some dramatic action sequences when they try to fight the protagonists.  I had an outstanding time getting to know all these brilliant characters, and the sheer range of captivating figures really helps to make Mind Bullet stand out.

When Mind Bullet came out I absolutely had to grab this book in audiobook format.  This is because Mind Bullet was narrated by the incredibly talented R. C. Bray, who is one of my all-time favourite audiobook narrators (check out his narration of Michael Mammay’s Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside).  Bray, who has narrated most of Robinson’s works, did another incredible job here, lending his fantastic and powerful voice to this wild and entertaining book.  Bray really gets Robinson’s fantastic protagonists and writing style, and he was soon moving this brilliant novel along and an ultra-fast pace, ensuring that listeners power through its 11 hour and 42 minute runtime in a very short order.  Bray really dives into the characters of the book, and I loved how he brought Jonas to life, ensuring that the reader gets the full sense of his humour, unique worldview and deeper inner struggles.  The rest of the character are also portrayed perfectly as well, especially Bubbles, and I loved the cool and amusing voices that he provides to each of them.  Bray obviously has a lot of fun here with this book, and the fantastic voices he uses for some of the more unique moments and characters are extremely entertaining and memorable.  I especially loved the ultra-serious and dramatic voice that he used for the formal name-drooping introduction of each major character’s names or codenames (which appear in the printed version in massive bold print).  I really appreciated this fun and entertaining take on the audiobook narration, and you will fall in love with Bray’s brilliant voice and entertaining style if you check out the audiobook version of this novel.

Overall, Mind Bullet is another epic and incredible read from the exceptional Jeremy Robinson.  Robinson’s latest book is crazy in all the right ways, and readers will deeply enjoy the wild and unpredictable ride that the characters go on.  Featuring an amazing group of characters, some fantastic humour, and some massive memorable scenes, Mind Bullet is an outstanding novel that I had an awesome time getting through.  Highly recommended to anyone looking for something fun, especially in its audiobook format, you need to check this book out!

Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn

Among Thieves Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic, betrayal and the ultimate fantasy heist await in Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn, one of the most exciting and compelling debuts of 2021.

Welcome to the city of Carrowwick, where life is cheap and three powerful gangs fight for supremacy and control of its notorious underground.  Out of all the thieves, rogues and assassins found within Carrowwick, no one is more feared than Ryia Cautella.  Better known as ‘the Butcher’, thanks to her uncanny skill with her twin hatchets, Ryia is sworn to notorious gang-leader Callum Clem, and is the chief enforcer and hidden blade of his Saints gang.  But while she seems content to spend her time fighting, drinking, and womanizing, deep down Ryia harbours a dark secret and a hidden past.

Thanks to an incredibly rough childhood, Ryia is in hiding from the most dangerous person in the entire realm, the Guildmaster, the powerful magic user who serves as the de facto ruler of the continent of Thamorr.  The Guildmaster runs a continent-spanning organisation whose operatives locate, capture and bind every child with magical potential in order to sell them to the highest bidder.  Forced to flee from city to city, constantly changing her identity, Ryia has no chance at a future while the Guildmaster is after her, and there is only so long that she can avoid her fate.  However, a chance encounter soon reveals a potential way out of her desperate situation, although it will mean journeying to the most dangerous place in the world, the Guildmaster’s Island, to steal a powerful magical artefact.

Determined to gain her freedom, Ryia prepares to attempt the impossible and infiltrate the Guildmaster’s Island during the annual auction where the bound and brainwashed magic users are sold.  However, not even the mighty Butcher can break into this impenetrable fortress alone.  Reluctantly forced to work with a team, Ryia sets out with a motley crew of rogues and miscreants, including a forger, a conman, a fallen soldier, and a smuggler.  But can this disparate crew pull off their impossible job, or are they all marching towards their deaths?  Worse, who among the crew can really be trusted, as every member has their own reason for being there, and none of them would hesitate to stab the others in the back to achieve their goals.  Let the heist begin!

This was a brilliant and outstandingly entertaining debut from M. J. Kuhn, who has done a remarkable job with her first book.  Among Thieves has a fun and clever story that takes its fantastically motley group of protagonists on an intense and thrilling adventure.  I loved the great blend of enthralling characters, an interesting new fantasy setting and an outstanding narrative, and this ended up being one of the best debut novels I have read in 2021.

Among Thieves has a really awesome narrative that I had an absolute blast getting through.  Frankly, I was very keen to read this novel the moment I saw it was a fantasy heist novel, as I love it when dark magical settings combine with classic crime fiction heist storylines.  Kuhn really did not disappoint as Among Thieves’ narrative is extremely well set out and does a great job bringing together its disparate genre threads.  The world, the various characters, and the dark tone of the book are set out quickly in an entertaining and easy-to-follow manner in the first 100 pages.  The reader gets a great sense of all the key players of this book, especially as the author makes excellent use of a multiple-perspective storytelling device, with all five members of the heist crew narrating several chapters within the book.

Once the scenario and the characters are established, Kuhn quickly moves into the exciting centre of the novel, which sees the protagonists infiltrating the Guildmaster’s island to find the treasure they seek and steal it.  The characters face some major adversity here, from betrayals within and without, as well as the unfortunate attention of rivals, law enforcement and the forces of their target.  This leads to several intense and entertaining scenes as the protagonists attempt to overcome these obstacles while their own personal demons and ambitions come to the surface.  There is a major twist about two-thirds through Among Thieves that is not only fun and a little unexpected but which also sets up the final arc of the novel extremely well.  This final third of the book sees the various characters make their final plays for the prize (if they still want it), while several revelations and twists are brought to the surface.  I deeply enjoyed the way that the story turned out, especially the reveal of the book’s real winner, and Kuhn chucks in some great surprises towards the end.  The entire story is an amazing blend of intrigue, action, thievery and relatable character interactions, which helps to produce a fast-paced and captivating narrative that I had a really hard time setting down.  Kuhn also makes sure to leave a few storylines wide open, which would translate into a sequel extremely well.  I really hope that the author continues this storyline in the future as I cannot wait to see how this awesome narrative finishes up.

Easily one of the best things about this amazing novel was the great mixture of unique and entertaining characters.  As I mentioned above, Among Thieves’ story features five central protagonists, the members of the heist crew, each of whom has their perspective shown at various points of the book.  This includes:

  • Ryia, a hardnosed and incredibly powerful killer who parties hard, flirts mercilessly with every female character and kicks ass in some incredibly violent ways. While Ryia appears to be a fun and entertaining character most of the time, she has a very dark past, filled with regret, betrayal, and the shocking actions of her father.  Thanks to her tendency to use humour and crassness as a distraction to hide deeper pain, Ryia proves to be both an entertaining and tragic figure, and it was deeply compelling to see her storyline unfold.  I loved the focus on her twisted loyalties, especially as she initially plans to betray her crew for her own ends.  However, she goes through some major development as the book continues, and slowly establishes some emotional connections she has been missing throughout most of her life.  A brilliant and fun central character, you will fall in love with this axe-wielding maniac.
  • Tristan, the youngest member of the group and their resident sleight of hand expert, specialising in gambling, cheating and pickpocketing. Tristan is bit of a dandy who was forced into the Saints after incurring a substantial debt, later sticking around due to his unrequited love with Ryia.  Like Ryia, Tristan has a lot of secrets from his past and is also a bit of a fugitive.  Tristan ends up being forced into some very unfortunate positions as the book continues due to various betrayals (his and other peoples), and he ends up being quite a major figure in the story.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great twists surrounding him, and it looks like Kuhn has some intriguing plans for him in the future.
  • Nash, the smuggler, a ship captain of great skill and cunning who transports the gang to the Guildmaster’s Island and helps them pull off their heist. Nash is a fun character who has some interesting storylines surrounding her inconvenient relationship with gang leader Callum Clem.  While I quite liked her as a protagonist, she was one of the least developed characters in the novel, mainly because she is the only one who didn’t have a plan to betray the gang.  Kuhn does add some interesting details to her arc towards the end of Among Thieves, as she is forced to deal with her growing attraction to Ivan, her conflicted loyalty to the insane Callum, and her own ambitions and survival instincts.
  • Ivan, the forger who serves as another entertaining character with a compelling storyline around him. Ivan is ultra-talented master of all sorts of forgery, including documents, tattoos, disguises, and everything in between.  A natural charmer and brilliant actor, Ivan manages to win the hearts of many, including Nash and the reader.  However, he also has a secret past as a freedom fighter, and he sees this job as an opportunity to free his imprisoned brother and re-start his revolution.  I found Ivan to be a funny and charming figure, and like I did with Ryia and Tristan, I deeply appreciated the inclusion of a hidden past which motivates his potential betrayal.  Ivan ends up in an interesting place at the end of the novel, and it will be fascinating to see how his gamble will play out.
  • Evelyn, the former city guard of Carrowwick and Among Thieves’ final point-of-view character. Evelyn is a complex and intense figure, a former honourable officer who is dishonoured and disinherited partially thanks to Ryia’s actions.  After a massive bender, she is convinced to join the heist crew by Callum Clem in exchange for being allowed to capture Ryia, whose imprisonment would restore her honour and position.  Evelyn has one of the best character arcs in the entire novel, especially as she plays a fish-out-of-water character, as the former cop trapped among a group of thieves.  This allows her to serve as an excellent foil to Ryia, and the two have a very adversarial relationship, which naturally develops some romantic overtones as the book progresses.  I liked how Evelyn slowly became more devious and criminally minded as the book progresses, and she was an excellent addition to the story, bring some great humour, drama and integrity (briefly) to the narrative.

Overall, I felt that Kuhn did an amazing job establishing all these main characters, and each of them brings something unique and fun to the story.  There was a pretty good balance between each of these characters, and it was very enjoyable getting to know all five of them.  That being said, having five separate motivations/planned betrayals was a bit much on top of the heist storyline, and it muddied the main plot just a little.  Still, I think that Kuhn made it work and it wasn’t too overwhelming.  All five characters have great chemistry with each other, and their distinctive perspectives helped to highlight the various mad plans and ideas in a very entertaining light.  I had an amazing time following these five rogues, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in any future novels Kuhn writes.  I am also very curious about the side character who was cleverly given a point-of-view chapter at the end of the book, and I am sure it will result in a brilliant and villainous performance in the next book.

In addition to the awesome story and complex characters, I also was quite taken by the intriguing new fantasy world that Kuhn came up with.  Among Thieves is set in the continent of Thamorr, which is made up of five kingdoms who all pay homage to the Guildmaster, who controls the supply and demand of the magically powered supersoldiers each nation relies on.  Kuhn does a great job of introducing and setting up this new fantasy world, and the reader is soon dragged into the great crime-riddled city of Carrowwick, with its warring gangs, and the eventual travel to the Guidmaster’s island, a grim and hopeless magical fortress.  The interplay of the rival gangs, the political upheaval of several kingdoms, and the creation of obedient magical beings are all fantastic and add some great depth and background to the story.  I also loved the cool magical system Kuhn works into the narrative really well, ensuring that the control of people with magical potential becomes a major plot point.  This amazing setting serves as the perfect backdrop to the fast-paced and clever narrative, and it was quite fascinating to see the characters explore every compelling aspect of it.  It looks like this fantasy world will be massively expanded in the future novels, and I cannot wait to what cool new elements Kuhn introduces next.

With her debut novel, Among Thieves, new author M. J. Kuhn has shown herself to be an outstanding and impressive new talent on the fantasy fiction stage.  Among Thieves has an awesome and captivating heist-centric storyline, and I loved the cool combination of intense fantasy and thrilling crime fiction elements.  This all results in a powerful and intense narrative based on five brilliant and complex characters, which proves to be exceedingly addictive and thrilling.  I had an excellent time reading Among Thieves and this was easily one of the best debut novels of 2021.

Throwback Thursday: Green Arrow (2001): Volume 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks

Green Arrow Archer's Quest

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 September 2004)

Series: Green Arrow Vol. 3 – Volume Three

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Phil Hester

Inker: Ande Parks

Colourist: James Sinclair

Letterer: Sean Konot

Length: 175 pages

My Rating: 5 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 week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an all-time favourite comic of mine, the third volume of the epic 2001 Green Arrow relaunch, The Archer’s Quest.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were an outstanding time for DC Comics, who produced an amazing number of epic and fascinating comic series that combined brilliant storytelling with fantastic artwork.  While there are several great series I enjoy from this period (Teen Titans comes to mind), one of my absolute favourites was the awesome 2001 relaunch of Green Arrow.  Also recorded as Green Arrow Vol. 3, this series resurrected the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, some years after his death.  I have an amazing amount of love for this comic; not only was it one of the first series I ever really got into but it still really stands up after all this time.  This is easily one of my all-time favourite comic book series, and the absolute pinnacle of this series was the simple, yet amazingly effective fourth volume, The Archer’s Quest.

While I probably should review some of the proceeding volumes of this series first before talking about The Archer’s Quest (such as the first volume, Quiver by Kevin Smith), I recently re-read this fantastic comic, so it has been on my mind all week.  Containing issues #16-21 of this outstanding series, The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and captivating comic tale that really gets to grips with the protagonist as he embarks on a journey vital to his identity and history.  Featuring the brilliant writing of bestselling author Brad Meltzer (author of several amazing thriller novels, as well as some impressive DC Comics), and the artistic stylings of Phil Hester and Ande Parks, this is an exceptional comic which gets a five-star rating from me.

Green Arrow - #16

Following his unexpected resurrection after his violent death, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, has been returned to Earth, ready to continue the good fight.  However, no man can come back from the grave without a heavy heart, and Oliver Queen has more skeletons in his closet than most of his fellow heroes.  A chance discovery that the villain, Catman, attended his funeral leads Oliver back to his old friend, Shade, the immortal being Green Arrow trusted to round up certain artefacts of Oliver’s superhero career that could reveal his secret identity. 

Discovering that Shade failed to get several of Oliver’s most precious keepsakes, Oliver embarks on a cross-country road-trip to recover them himself.  Accompanied by his former sidekick, Roy Harper, Oliver begins visiting some of the locations most important to himself and his career as a superhero.  From the ruins of the Arrowcave to the Justice League’s orbiting Watchtower and even the Flash Museum in Central City, Oliver and Roy will attempt to find these items from the past in order to safeguard their future.

However, this will be no simple road trip, as the two heroes encounter some unexpected dangers and surprising opposition, including fellow hero the Flash and the angry zombie Solomon Grundy.  Worse, this journey will uncover some dark secrets from the past that Oliver has long hoped to keep quiet.  Can Oliver recover his treasures without his friends and family discovering who he really is, or has the past finally come back to destroy this resurrected hero?

Green Arrow - #17

The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic and powerful Green Arrow comic that takes the protagonist and his former sidekick on a wild and extremely personal adventure.  Before reading this, if you had ever pitched me a comic based around the idea of a recently resurrected superhero going on a road trip, I might have been a little dubious.  Well, it turns out that I would have been dead wrong, as Brad Meltzer produced an intense, captivating and emotionally rich narrative that is not only extremely entertaining but which contains some excellent character work, some brilliant references to the classic Green Arrow comics, and which dives deep into the psyche of a troubled and complex protagonist. 

The narrative of The Archer’s Quest starts extremely strong, with Green Arrow meeting Superman at Oliver Queen’s grave.  This is a fantastic opening scene, especially once Superman hands over a series of photographs of the funeral, and I loved the focus on the harrowing realities following a resurrection.  The sombre mood is broken when Green Arrow notices a stranger in his photo amongst his closest friends.  This leads him to hunt down Catman, which also reveals the hand of Shade and the revelation that certain items from Oliver’s past are still out in the open.  This forces Green Arrow into a road trip, hunting for his artefacts and dealing with friends, enemies and family.  The first chapter packs in some much-needed action, as Green Arrow goes toe-to-toe with Solomon Grundy in an epic and brutal fight, that ends with a surprising, and gruesome, win from the protagonist.  From there, Meltzer and the artists pile up the emotional and the feels by having Oliver encounter several fellow heroes who he has complex relationships with, while also building up the nostalgia factor, with the reveal of classic Green Arrow items, locations and characters.  All this leads to some major moments, from an attempted proposal to a moving and long-awaited conversation between father and son.  However, Meltzer saves the absolute best for last with a startling revelation about the past that shows Oliver’s true character and serves as a powerful end to the entire story.  This was a beautiful, character driven story, and I think Meltzer hit all the right notes.  The pacing is perfect and there is a fantastic blend of action, character development and emotional discovery, which all comes together into one outstanding story.  The Archer’s Quest is addictive and dramatically intense from start to finish, I can read and re-read this comic for years (and I probably will).

Green Arrow - #18

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this amazing comic is the way in which Meltzer and the artists turned it into a homage to the Green Arrow comics.  The creative team spend a substantial amount of time diving back into the history and lore of the character and his comics, working them into the story in very meaningful ways.  So many key aspects of the Green Arrow comics are referenced or alluded to in some way, as the characters journey around some iconic locations, including the Arrowcave, to obtain the artefacts.  Through this dive into the past, the creative team manage to perfectly capture the various eras of Green Arrow, including the classic Golden Age comics, the grittier Silver Age comics, the road trip era with Green Lantern (which this comic really tries to emulate), and The Longbow Hunters period.  This wide range of references makes for a very intriguing and compelling comic, and it helps turn The Archer’s Quest into a must-read for all Green Arrow fans.  I loved the clever range of different artefacts that protagonists are trying to recover, including the diamond-tipped arrow from Green Arrow’s first appearance in Justice League of America, his official invitation to the Justice League, and the truck that he and Green Lantern used in their iconic road trip.  These cool artefacts really help to ramp up the nostalgia while simultaneously including key modern story elements hidden within.  The cool funeral sequence at the start of the comic also allows the creative team to reference and include a vast range of supporting characters and allies from the original comics, with a range of different figures from Oliver’s career appearing to pay their respect.  I deeply appreciated the modern analyses and descriptions of the items, locations, complex relationships, character designs, weaponry (why all the boxing gloves?) and prior adventures included in this comic, and it helps to produce a comprehensive account of these iconic events, while also bringing them up to speed with more modern comic lines.  You can really tell that the creative team behind The Archer’s Quest had a lot of affection for the preceding Green Arrow comics, and this outstanding comic proves to be an amazing and captivating love-letter to the Emerald Archer.

I deeply enjoyed the epic characters that this amazing comic followed, especially as Meltzer uses this story to dive deep into the psyche and relationships of the protagonists, especially Oliver Queen, the titular Green Arrow.  This version of the character is only recently returned from the grave, and this becomes a major part of his identity throughout the comic, driving him to fix some of the mistakes of his past while also ensuring that he never hurts his family again.  Thanks to the entire comic being narrated by Oliver, you get some very intriguing insights into Green Arrow’s mindset during this period, and you really get to know who he is and what his motivations are.  Rather than some of the typical portrayals of him as a liberal, generic arrow slinger, the creative team attempt to show him as a complex veteran hero, still deeply impacted by his resurrection and uncertain about his place in the world.  A lot of The Archer’s Quest’s narrative involves Green Arrow attempting to find pieces of his past that are significant or potentially damaging to him, and as such you get an amazing look into key events of Oliver’s past, as well as his current priorities and concerns.  I really enjoyed the storylines involved with him trying to reconcile or repair relationships with his former friends and allies, as well as an interesting development in his romantic partnership with Black Canary.

Green Arrow - #19

One of the best things about this comic is the way that Meltzer portrays Oliver as a more morally ambiguous figure, willing to make a deal with a supervillain, lie to those closest to him, and initiating undercover actions to protect identities.  There is also some great evidence of the self-destructive tendencies that would be a major defining feature of this series, as well as the complex decisions that affect those closest to him.  As such, he keeps many secrets, even from his former sidekick, such as his main motivation for recovering his old truck is to secure the Green Lantern ring Hal Jordan hid in there years ago.  However, the biggest secret involves the revelation that he always knew that his son, Conner, existed, and that he pretended he did not know who he was when they first met.  This revelation is slowly and cleverly revealed throughout the comic, first with Oliver subtly making the recovery of its hiding place his main priority, and then in the final scenes after he has a heart-to-heart with Conner, when he reveals the secret photo.  The narration during this scene sums up Green Arrow in this series perfectly: “You’re a bastard Oliver Queen.  You knew.  You always knew.  And the worst part is…. it’s still your secret.” and the entire sequence ensures you will never look at this character again in the same way.  I also musty highlight the great inclusion about Green Arrow secretly coming up with plans to protect secret identities if a hero died.  Not only is this vital to the plot of The Archer’s Quest, but it also hints at the great storyline that Meltzer would eventually use in his epic Identity Crisis, which features a proactive team of heroes mind-wiping villains and destroying personalities.  This outstanding and layered portrayal of Green Arrow in this comic is one of the defining characteristics of The Archer’s Quest, and I am blown away with this brilliant character work every time I read this volume.

The other major character of this novel is Roy Harper, his former sidekick (now Arsenal), who Oliver calls in to help him hunt down Catman.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of Roy in this comic, especially as he had been overly featured in this series (he was mostly appearing in Titans).  As such, we had not really gotten a glimpse at the current relationship between former mentor and sidekick, which has always been strained since the infamous heroine incident.  The Archer’s Quest did an amazing job bringing them back together again, and Roy really gets into the swing of the adventure, with the two characters getting back into their adventuring groove.  However, the comic also deals with the inherent mistrust between the two characters, with Roy upset that Oliver trusted Shade more than him to protect his identity after his death.  The two end up working through these issues throughout this comic, and it ended up being a fun and powerful reunion that long-term Green Arrow fans will deeply enjoy.

Green Arrow - #20

Aside from Green Arrow and Roy Harper, this comic also makes great use of several other supporting character who either bring the protagonist back to his past, or help to add some emotional weight to the story.  This includes brilliant inclusions of two fellow superheroes, Kyle Rayner and Wally West, the versions of Green Lantern and the Flash who were active at the time.  Both these younger heroes bear a major legacy that results in some complicated and moving interactions with Oliver.  One of the most important is Kyle Rayner, who has taken over the mantle of Green Lantern following the corruption and eventual death of Green Arrow’s best friend, Hal Jordan.  Since Oliver’s resurrection, their relationship has been strained, with Oliver having trouble accepting him.  This all finally comes to a head with Oliver travels to the Watchtower and encounters the young Lantern, and they have a massive heart-to-heart.  The revelations that Oliver has trouble accepting a new Lantern instead of his best friend, as well as the emotional burden Kyle also bears, especially around his first loss as a superhero (women in refrigerators man, that stuff will mess you up), all comes out, and leads to an amazingly moving scene.

I also loved the great interaction that Oliver had with Wally West outside the Flash Museum, after Wally is warned that Oliver is planning to break into it.  The two characters have a great stare-down, which sees the usually jovial Flash incredibly serious at Oliver’s attempted trespass.  Oliver’s narration about this event is pretty great, especially noting that Wally’s usual short attention span is overridden by his love of Barry Allen’s memory.  These two interactions with Green Lantern and Flash are short but extremely powerful, and it was amazing to see the strain on Oliver at being still alive, while the roles of his friends have been passed on to the next generation.  Despite the serious nature of these scenes, both had an entertaining ending with Oliver managing to outsmart his younger colleagues: “That old, lying son of a b…”.  I also liked the inclusion of Superman at the start of the comic, which was both entertaining, and played into the resurrection storyline perfectly with Superman feeling guilty about not being able to save Oliver when he died, while also being a bit of an expert on coming back to life himself.  I also enjoyed the fantastic conclusion of the Flash arc, especially as the entire break-in was to retrieve a costume-filled ring that the Flash made for Green Arrow years before, and which was a nice nod to the great friendship they used to have.

While this volume of Green Arrow does not have an antagonist per se (except for Solomon Grundy and Oliver’s self-destructive behaviour), it does feature a couple of great supervillains in a supporting role.  The first of these is Shade, the immortal shadow-powered gentleman who, despite being a villain, gained Green Arrow’s trust years ago, and was entrusted by Oliver to fulfil his post-death wishes (always chose an immortal).  Shade is a fantastic inclusion to this comic, especially as his inclusion enhances the implication that Green Arrow is a much more morally grey hero than you would initially believe.  The interactions between Shade, Green Arrow and Roy Harper are really good, and I liked the explanations for why he was unable to fulfil all his duties (I wouldn’t want to annoy Jay Garrick either).  I also really need to highlight the excellent inclusion of Thomas Blake, better known as Catman, in his first appearance in comic form in years.  Catman has always been a bit of a joke character due to his gimmick (which simultaneously rips off Catwoman and Batman at the same time), but in this comic he is shown to be a shell of even his previous ridiculous self, who is looked down on by the entire supervillain community.  Hired by Shade as his agent, Catman is hunted down by Green Arrow after attending his funeral, only to show him as an overweight and unthreatening loser.  This entire comic paints him as quite the pathetic figure and shows the downsides of being a fourth-rate villain who turned on some very powerful people.  While his appearance in this comic was more entertaining than deep, it does beautifully set up his later appearances in such comics as Villains United and Secret Six and serves as his inspiration for becoming the ultra-badass we see there.  These two villains perfectly rounded out the main cast of The Archer’s Quest, and both inclusions were fantastic and intriguing additions to the overall plot.

Green Arrow - #21

This amazing and complex narrative is perfectly backed up by some excellent artwork from the team of Hester and Parks, who really bring this story to life in exquisite detail.  This entire comic is drawn in fantastic detail with some beautiful scenes, fantastic backdrops (including some iconic Green Arrow locations, lovingly brought to life) and entertaining sequences.  This includes some brilliant and powerful action sequences, and the artists pay particular attention to the flight, movement, and destructive potential of the arrows.  I particularly liked the awesome fight scene between Green Arrow and Solomon Grundy, which was filled with some brutal action in the tight confines of the former Arrowcave and featured some great narration from the protagonist.  I loved the character designs featured in the comic, and the classic look of Green Arrow and his companions was great.  The artists do a great job portraying emotion on the face of the characters, especially surrounding Oliver and his multiple examples of anguish and conflict.  I also appreciated the play of emotion on some of the other characters faces, especially Flash when Oliver arrives at the Flash Museum.  Seeing the grim and dark look on Flash’s face as he tries to stop Oliver is really surprising and impactful, and the artists do a fantastic job of showcasing a tense stare-down between the two as the sun starts to rise.  However, in my opinion, the best drawn sequence in the entire comic occurs at the front of the volume, when Oliver contemplates his funeral.  Shown in a series of polaroids, you see the various grieving mourners and it was fantastic to see several obscure figures from Oliver’s past appear to pay their respect.  This beautifully drawn scene is short, but it sets the scene for the rest of the volume extremely well and is an excellent way to start this fantastic comic.  I loved the way the comics in The Archer’s Quest were drawn, and they ensured that the outstanding story reached its full potential.

Overall, I have an insane amount of love for this third volume of this classic Green Arrow series, and it comes highly recommended.  The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and powerful comic arc that perfectly combines a clever and nostalgic story, with some intense character development and a fun and enjoyable art style.  Meltzer’s narrative in this fantastic Green Arrow comic so damn amazing, and I deeply enjoyed his take of this iconic character.  I deeply enjoyed The Archer’s Quest, and it easily one of my favourite comic volumes of all time.  I am hoping to review the rest of this Green Arrow series in some future Throwback Thursday series, and I look forward to highlighting all the amazing storylines that were contained in this incredible run.

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 September 2021)

Series: The Tide Child Trilogy – Book Three

Length: 20 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest rising fantasy authors in the world today, the brilliant and exceedingly talented R. J. Barker, brings The Tide Child trilogy to an end in epic fashion with the exceptional and powerful The Bone Ship’s Wake, one of the best fantasy reads of 2021.

There have been some really impressive fantasy authors producing great reads over the last few years, but in my opinion none have been as consistently amazing and addictive as R. J. Barker.  Barker burst onto the scene in 2017 with Age of Assassins, the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and soon followed it up with two additional outstanding reads, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins.  While I have a lot of love for this brilliant trilogy, especially the final novel King of Assassins, Barker has since eclipsed it with his second series, The Tide Child trilogy.

The Tide Child trilogy is a grim and powerful series that follows a unique set of characters in an exceptional, character driven, adventure tale.  The Tide Child books are set in a dark fantasy world, primarily made up of deadly oceans and seas which have produced a harsh breed of warring humans.  The inhabitants of this world traverse these oceans in ships made of the harvested bones of sea dragons, known as the keyshans, the creation of which led to the mass extinction of these dragons.  The first novel in this series, The Bone Ships, set the scene for this great series and introduced the primary characters as they set out on an epic quest to hunt the last sea dragon aboard the boneship, Tide Child.  This was an exceptional read that ended up being one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Barker followed this up in 2020 with Call of the Bone Ships, a great sequel that saw the crew of Tide Child engage in a rebellion against the established order.  Call of the Bone Ships ended on a pretty massive cliffhanger that set the scene for an exceptional and stunning conclusion.  As such, the final entry in this trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake, was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, and Barker did not disappoint here, as he produced an epic and captivating read.

It has been a year since the climactic battle that saw the boneship Tide Child and the rebel fleet barely escape the wrath of the Hundred Isles after being forced to abandon shipwife Meas Gilbryn.  In that time, loyal deck keeper Joron Twiner has taken on the mantle of leadership for the rebel black ships and turned them into a fleet of marauding pirates.  Now known by all as the feared Black Pirate, Joron constantly raids the Hundred Isles, determined to weaken its fleet and devastate its defences for an invasion from the rival Gaunt Islands, Joron’s only true priority is to discover the location of his lost commander and rescue her.

After a particularly vicious raid nearly sees the destruction of Tide Child, Joron is only more determined to find the shipwife before the entire fleet is lost.  With time running out for Joron thanks to the insidious keyshan’s rot that is slowly eating away at his body, Joron embarks on an ambitious plan to find and rescue Meas by returning to the most dangerous place in the world, the capital city of the Hundred Isles.

Accompanied by a small crew, Joron hopes to infiltrate the city and force Meas’s location from the ruthless rule of the Hundred Isles, Meas’ estranged mother.  However, all Joron will discover is blood and betrayal, as dangerous forces seek to take control of the oceans for their own nefarious ends.  Worse, Joron must continue to struggle with the dangerous legacy of the magical gullaimes, who believe that he is the Caller, the man who can sing up the keyshans and use them to destroy the world.  Will Joron and his crew succeed against impossible odds, or will the final voyage of the Tide Child result only in the death of everyone and everything Joron loves and cares about?

Well damn, now that was an incredibly awesome book.  I have said time and time again that Barker seems to get better with every book he writes, and I honestly believe that The Bone Ship’s Wake is the very best so far.  The Bone Ship’s Wake has an exceptional narrative filled with emotion, tragedy and powerful action on the high seas, which perfectly wraps up this epic series and provides the reader with an emotional and captivating goodbye.  Easily one of the best books of the year, The Bone Ship’s Wake gets a full five-star rating from me.

This final entry in The Tide Child trilogy has an extremely powerful, character-driven narrative to it, which perfectly continues the epic tales told in the preceding novels while also providing an extremely satisfying and moving conclusion to the entire series.  Told nearly exclusively from the perspective of central protagonist Joron Twiner, The Bone Ship’s Wake starts one year after Call of the Bone Ships, with some major changes occurring to the world and the characters during this period.  Told in three parts, this book has a bit of a slower introduction, which Barker uses to full effect to highlight the situation the characters find themselves in, while also reintroducing all the key elements of the fantasy world.  The first part of the novel is primarily used to show how far Joron has come, placing him in command of a ship as he faces off against his enemies.  This outstanding introduction sets up several key storylines while also featuring a tense and detailed chase out on the seas, with deadly and monstrous consequences.  The second part of the novel follows a desperate Joron, after leaving his ship and most of his crew behind, as he embarks on a dangerous all-or-nothing quest to save his shipwife and bring her back to the fleet.  This second part is loaded with some major dramatic moments, intrigue, treachery, and politics, which does an outstanding job expanding the already captivating storylines, while also serving as a great buffer from the nautical heavy start and end of the novel.  The story goes in some amazing directions here, and Barker throws in some captivating and surprising twists that alter everything you thought about how the story would end.

All this leads up to the conclusion of the novel, which sees the surviving primary characters caught in a desperate situation on the high seas.  After some daring actions and clever plans which have some unfortunate costs, all the characters are perfectly set up for their final places the series’ brilliant storyline.  This last part of the novel is deeply thrilling and powerful, and it honestly proves impossible to put it down as you wait to see how everything comes to an end.  Barker really amps up the desperation and hopelessness during this part of The Bone Ship’s Wake, as the crew of Tide Child and its allies are pressed in some destructive naval actions.  It all leads up to one final gambit, with the lives and the hopes of the survivors held in the balance.  This epic conclusion is extremely dramatic and powerful, with some big sacrifices and major character moments that will leave you breathless and deeply moved.  I thought that this amazing conclusion perfectly wrapped up the entire series, with all the key storylines and character arcs coming to a very satisfying and emotional end.  I loved every single second I spent getting through this exceptional story, and every brilliant turn, clever revelation and powerful character moment is still firmly engrained in my mind.

I really need to highlight Barker’s fantastic writing style, which brings this brilliant story to life.  It has been an absolute pleasure to see Barker grow as an author throughout the last few years, especially as he utilises more and more complex techniques with each passing novel.  The Bone Ship’s Wake is a particularly good example of this, as an amazingly well paced novel that slowly builds momentum as the story requires, with the intensity of the book turning on a dime, from the deep slowness of sailing to the fast pace of an epic nautical battle.  This is often accentuated by the author’s great use of repetition, with key sentences throughout the novel repeated multiple times to build up tension or to highlight the rapidity of duty aboard a ship.  This pacing and repetition almost gives The Bone Ship’s Wake a pulse, and you can feel the rhythmic build towards the high points of a novel.

I was once again deeply impressed by Barker’s incredible ability to produce a nautically focused novel.  Nautical novels require an insane amount of detail and dedication to work, and Barker has done that in spades throughout The Tide Child trilogy.  Thanks to Barker’s ultra-detailed writing style, life aboard the boneships is brought to life for the reader, showcasing every single action of the crew or movement of the ship.  The reader gets an amazing sense of what is happening aboard Tide Child, and you feel that you are aboard the ship itself, watching the crew in action.  This works particularly well during some of the intense, high-concept naval battles, where the actions of multiple ships are followed, ensuring that the reader gets a great idea about what is going on.  Barker also works in a lot of ship details that are unique to the series’ fantasy universe, allowing for a much more distinctive and compelling time at sea.  The combination of traditional nautical elements and fantasy features, such as ships crafted from dragon bone, ultra-powerful bolt throwers, wind calling bird men and the various monsters stalking the deeps is particularly striking and really helps this cool trilogy stand out.  This is honestly one of the best series set on a ship you are ever likely to read, and I am still so impressed with how well Barker was able to feature it in his novels.

I also must highlight the cool, dark fantasy world that Barker has created for this series.  Throughout this trilogy Barker has put an amazing amount of work into crafting this complex and deadly fantasy world, containing hostile oceans with only a few small islands, where the inhabitants are forced to fight on ships made from dragon bone.  I have had an outstanding time exploring this complex and compelling landscape, and I have a lot of love for some of the more unique details, including the enslaved gullaime (bird-like windtalkers), crazy monsters, the gender reversed human society which includes subtle changes like ships being consider male by their crews, and the constant naval warring and raiding such a landscape has created.  Barker does some very interesting expansions in this final entry, resulting in some substantial changes and journeys to new locations within the world.  There are some cool new creatures, including a mist-spewing kraken, as well as some fascinating and intense developments amongst the established creatures, including the gullaimes and the keyshans.  I similarly appreciated the way Barker examined the troubles with his female dominated society, especially as the motivations for some of the antagonists are closely tied into it.  Overall, I had a wonderful time with my last exploration of this unique and dangerous setting, and I cannot wait to see what sort of distinctive setting Barker comes up with next, although I already know it will be pretty incredible.

You cannot talk about any novel in The Tide Child series without praising the outstanding character work that Barker has done.  Each of these novels has done an exceptional job of building up all the major characters, from the central point-of-view perspective, to the various supporting characters found upon the central ship setting.  I have deeply enjoyed seeing each of these characters develop into better and well-rounded figures as this series has progressed, and Barker makes sure to give them an impressive send-off in this final entry.  Pretty much all the key surviving characters get some great moments throughout The Bone Ship’s Wake, and most of their associated storylines come to an end, one way or another.  This naturally results in some intense emotional moments throughout the novel, especially as readers of this series will have become deeply attached to a lot of these characters, and you will not be prepared for how some of these characters go out!

Just like in the previous two novels, the central focus of The Bone Ship’s Wake was on Joron Twiner, the deck keeper (first mate) of Tide Child, who has grown from scared drunkard to experienced officer within the course of the series.  Twiner has gone through an incredible amount during the last two books, and when we first see him again in The Bone Ship’s Wake, he is a very different person.  Joron has since lost a leg and is now infected by the keyshan’s rot, an incurable disease that is slowly eating him alive.  Despite this, he has finally taken on command of his vessel and an extended fleet and fashioning himself a new persona, that of the Black Pirate, a notorious killer of ill-repute.  This is a fascinating change for Joron, and it is absolutely amazing to see how the differences between this character and the one we first saw in The Bone Ships.  While this change is substantial, it has been well built up in the last few books, and it was great to finally see Joron take on the command he was always meant to have.  Despite this, Joron still has some uncertainty dogging his steps that proves great to explore, especially as he is hesitant to risk the lives of those under his command on his missions.  Joron is also forced to deal with the insane prophecy and power hanging over his head, as he is forced to contemplate his ability to summon the sea dragons and potentially end the world.  Throw in his unwillingness to take on the role of his mentor, and the extreme guilt he feels for all the lives he has taken in her name since the conclusion of the last book, and you have a quite a conflicted figure, desperate to do anything to redeem himself.  This makes for some amazing character moments, and I really appreciated the sheer amount of development that went into Twiner in this novel.  A lot of Twiner’s storylines come full circle in this novel, and there are some extremely satisfying moments  between him and the other characters in the novel.  I deeply enjoyed this flawed and uncertain protagonist throughout this series, and Baker ensures that he is given a fitting and powerful ending.

The novel also spends a lot of time examining Tide Child’s shipwife, Meas Gilbryn, also known as Lucky Meas.  When we last saw Meas, she was surrendering herself to the Hundred Isles to give her fleet a chance to escape.  In the year that follows, she has been brutally tortured by her captors, who are attempting to gain all her secrets, especially regarding the sea dragons.  Due to her capture, and the primary focus on Joron, we don’t see that much of Meas for the first half of The Bone Ship’s Wake, and when we finally do, she is very different.  Rather than the always confident captain we are used to, we have a broken and brooding figure, unsure of the correct actions to take and unprepared for how much her legend has spread in the year she has been gone.  This makes for a very interesting counterpoint to the growth in Joron, and it is fascinating to see the slight role reversal that occurs between them.  I loved this exceptional character change that occurred around Meas, and Barker uses it to full effect to create some dramatic and emotionally charged moments.  The author also ensures that several lingering questions about Meas are answered, especially as she finally gets some closure with members of her family, such as her mother.  It was also amazing to see the unique relationship she forged with Joron come full circle, as the man she chose to be her second surpasses her.  The outstanding character work surrounding Meas, especially when it comes to her connection to Joron, added so much to the overall quality of this novel, and it was great to see how Barker altered and explored this character in The Bone Ship’s Wake.

I have to highlight the outstanding storylines surrounding the Gullaime, the ship’s windtalker of legendary power, who is destined to destroy the world alongside Joron.  This humanoid bird creature is always an entertaining figure in the novel, due to their unique appearance and outrageous behaviour and Barker does an exceptional job giving unique avian features to it.  However, like the other characters, the Gullaime goes through some big events in this final novel, especially once certain species detail is revealed, as well as the full scope of its powers and prophesised responsibilities.  Out of the all the characters in this series, the Gullaime is probably the easiest to like, and the end of its story cuts deep to the heart.

I also really appreciated Cwell’s storyline in this novel, especially after all the changes that occurred around her in this series.  Cwell initially started as a secondary antagonist who led a mutiny against Joron in the previous novel.  Despite this, Joron spared her life and kept her as his shadow, a silent bodyguard always watching his back.  This final book really explores the extent of this bond forged between them, as Cwell’s loyalty is tested multiple times throughout the course of the novel.  Barker is such a canny writer when it comes to Cwell, and it was fascinating to see some of her final depths in this book, especially as you honestly have no idea what she is going to do and whether she will end up betraying Joron.  It was also great to see more of Farys, the young woman Joron mentored through the series, and who now finds herself as his second.  Farys has a complex and compelling storyline in this novel, and I really appreciated how much time Barker put into enhancing her role in this final novel.  I also want to give callouts to recurring characters Mevans, Solemn Muffaz and Aelerin the courser, who all have some great moments in this novel, and whose roles each had their own emotional weight.  There is also a certain interesting reveal about one side character, right at the end of the novel that was a little surprising to me, but which I really appreciated, especially as Barker set up some great hints about them as the novel progressed.  Overall, all the side characters in this book are extremely awesome, and I am so deeply impressed with the work that Barker put into them, and the outstanding impacts that had on this already epic and captivating tale.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Bone Ship’s Wake, I ended up enjoying this novel in its audiobook format, not only for scheduling reasons but because I knew that I would have an amazing experience with it.  The Bone Ship’s Wake’s audiobook format has a substantial runtime of just under 21 hours, which does require a substantial time investment to enjoy.  I can guarantee that the time spent is well worth it, as the audiobook format perfectly gets the reader into the flow of the story and the detailed fantasy world of the series, and I found myself really absorbing all the many details Barker places into his writing.  I was also deeply impressed with the narration of Jude Owusu, who really threw himself into voicing the various books in The Tide Child trilogy.  Owusu has a brilliant voice that perfectly fit the epic, marine based tale, and which perfectly translated every single action and move to the listener.  Owusu has an excellent range of voices for the various characters featured throughout the novel, and each character ended up with a distinctive voice that perfectly fit their personality and demeanour.  I particularly enjoyed the weird and hyper-excited voices he utilised for the various gullaime characters, fully highlighting their birdlike characteristics in his voicing.  I felt that the narrator did an amazing job of injecting all the relevant emotion into the tale, and you have no doubt what the characters are feeling as they speak.  This brilliant and powerful voice work really helped to bring this epic tale to life, and I loved every single second of this fantastic audiobook.  This format comes very highly recommend, and it was easily one of the best audiobooks I have had the pleasure of listening to in 2021.

With The Bone Ship’s Wake, the final incredible and epic entry in The Tide Child trilogy, the unstoppable R. J. Barker has once again shown the world he is the future of the fantasy genre.  This outstanding and captivating nautical fantasy novel masterfully wrapped up one of the best trilogies I have ever read, ensuring that the reader will be emotionally blasted by this brilliant and clever tale.  The entire story came together perfectly, and fans of this series will be amazed and moved by the fates of so many well-established characters.  Not only was this Barker’s best book to date, but The Bone Ship’s Wake is also one of the most impressive novels I have enjoyed all year.  An exceptional five-star read that comes very highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  Anyone who loves fantasy needs to read this series!

Warhammer 40,000: The Twice-Dead King: Ruin by Nate Crowley

The Twice-Dead King - Ruin Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 9 October 2021)

Series: Twice Dead King – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 22 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author Nate Crowley presents one of the most complex and fascinating Warhammer 40,000 novels I had the pleasure of reading, The Twice-Dead King: Ruin, an epic and thrilling novel that explores one of the most intriguing races in the canon, the Necrons.

I have been having a lot of fun listening to a bunch of awesome Warhammer 40,000 (Warhammer 40K) novels over the last year, with some great examples including Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers, and First and Only by Dan Abnett.  While I have deeply enjoyed all these novels, I felt that it was time to go outside of the novels that typically focus on this universe’s human characters and instead read something with a more unique subject matter.  As such, when I saw that The Twice-Dead King: Ruin had recently been released, I instantly grabbed a copy, and I am really glad that I did.

Ruin is the first novel in The Twice-Dead King series, which looks set to explore the Necrons and their place in the current Warhammer 40K universe.  This was the second Warhammer 40K novel from author Nate Crowley, who previously released the intriguing Ork-centric novel, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!, as well as several short stories/novellas set in the universe.  Crowley makes full use of his talent for getting into the mind of fictional aliens to create an excellent and enjoyable read that I had a wonderful time listening to.

In the chaotic and war-striven future of the 41st millennium, many powerful and dangerous races fight for domination and destruction.  However, no race is more mysterious or feared than the immortal beings known as the Necrons.  The Necrons are an ancient and ruthless race who, thousands of years ago, sacrificed their mortality and humanity to defeat a powerful enemy as well as death itself.  Forced into thousands of years of hibernation after their great victory, the Necrons are now slowly awakening to reclaim their empire by destroying all life in the galaxy.

However, despite their intense belief in themselves, the Necrons are a dying race, gradually being whittled down by time, madness, and the unceasing tide of organic life they are forced to constantly fight against.  None know this better that Oltyx, a bitter and resentful Necron Lord who has been banished to the wretched border world of Sedh.  Once heir to the throne of a mighty and glorious dynasty, he now only has control of a small garrison of degraded warriors who are slowly dwindling under constant attacks from Ork raiders attempting to invade the Necron empire.

As Oltyx dreams about vengeance and reclaiming his birthright, he finds himself facing an immense threat that could spell the doom of his dynasty and the entire Necron race.  The invading Orks are only the precursor of a larger and much more powerful enemy, one his small force has no chance of defeating.  With no other option, Oltyx is forced to return to his dynasty’s crownworld and beg for reinforcements from the court who cast him out.  However, his return uncovers something far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined.  A twisted horror now lies within the heart of Oltyx’s dynasty, bringing only madness and bloodshed with it.  To ensure his people’s survival, Oltyx must face the curse of the Necrons and the pure horror of a twice-dead king.

Ruin is an exceptional and captivating tie-in novel that perfectly combines an intriguing and addictive narrative with large amounts of Warhammer 40K lore and some great character work.  This is a perfectly paced story that does an exceptional job introducing the complex setting and character and placing them into an intense and emotionally rich adventure.  While the initial start of the book is a tad slow due to the necessity of throwing in so much Necron lore, it swiftly picks up speed and excitement within the first few chapters.  I personally became really attached to this novel a couple of chapters in when the protagonist and point-of-view character, Oltyx, attempts to determine the best way to defend his planet against the Ork invaders, while also simultaneously mulling over the failures of his personal history.  There was one amazing extended sequence that saw Oltyx attempting to analyse a vision from his past to come up with a perfect plan, while also watching a massive force of Orks approaching.  This scene perfectly blended a fun Warhammer battle with alien history and a complex character moment, all set to a timer that was counting down to the start of combat.  From there the story gets even more enjoyable, as after getting up close and personal with the real horrors of the Necrons, the protagonist discovers that there is a bigger danger approaching: humans.  From there, Oltxyx is forced to journey back to his home planet to beg for help, but instead finds a secret more terrible and disturbing than he could ever imagine.  After some severe lows, combined with a couple of family reunions of variable enjoyment, the story leads up to an impressive and epic conclusion, loaded with war, destruction and sacrifice.  This satisfying and moving conclusion wraps up this leg of the story extremely well and treats the reader to some outstanding action sequences and some major emotional moments that will define the protagonist for the entire series.  An overall brilliant and deeply memorable narrative, I powered through this cool book and loved every second of it.

Ruin was also a pretty impressive entry in the overall Warhammer 40K canon, especially as it contains an outstanding look at one of the franchises more unique races, the Necrons, who are extremely underrepresented in the extended fiction.  Crowley has done a brilliant job here with Ruin, and I loved the distinctive and compelling Warhammer 40K story it contained.  The author has made sure to load up this book with a ton of detail, information and settings unique to this massive franchise, and fans will no doubt love immersing themselves in this cool lore.  Ruin also contains several massive and well-written battle sequences that will easily remind readers of the table-top games that this franchise is built around and which really increase the epic nature of this novel.  The immense amount of somewhat more obscure lore may turn off readers new to Warhammer 40K fiction.  However, I think that most new readers can probably follow along pretty well here, especially as Crowley has a very descriptive and accessible writing style, and Ruin proves to be an excellent and compelling introduction to the Necrons.

I was deeply impressed by how Crowley featured the Necrons in Ruin, especially as he provides a deep explanation of their history and personalities, while also making this somewhat aloof race extremely sympathetic.  The Necrons are a very interesting race within the Warhammer 40K canon, with a look that can be best summed up as Ancient Egyptian Terminators.  They also have a backstory that is somewhat similar to the Cybermen from Doctor Who, in that they are formally organic beings who were transplanted into metal bodies, with only a few members (mostly the former nobility) maintaining their personalities, memories and emotions.  This makes them a very hard species to get a handle on, and most of their appearances in the expanded fiction feature them as cold antagonists.  However, Crowley really went out of his way to showcase the deep and rich culture, history and personalities contained within this race, and the reader ends up getting an impressive and comprehensive look at them throughout Ruin.

This book contains so many intriguing and compelling details about the Necrons, and the reader gets a real crash-course, including why they gave up their humanity to become metallic monsters.  Crowley attempts to cover every single detail about the Necron way of life in this book, and Ruin is filled with cool discussions about current Necron biology, how their components work, how they communicate, and what the mindset of these immortals truly are.  The readers are left with a vision into the complex and hierarchical minds of this unique race, and you get some compelling insights into who they are and why they do what they do.  In addition, Crowley really attempts to highlight just how tragic the Necrons really are as a race, with a deep and compelling look at what they truly gave up when they become the metal beings we all know.  Crowley paints the Necrons as a dying race, despite the apparent immortality bestowed upon them, as the finite members are slowly being worn down by combat, disrepair, and madness.  There is a particularly fascinating look at how the transition from flesh to metal has deeply impacted the psyche of many of its members, as some have been driven into a deep depression while others are turned into crazed cannibals.  This fascinating and comprehensive examination helps to turn the Necrons into quite a sympathetic race throughout Ruin, and you end up rooting for them as the book progresses, even when they are fighting humans.  While the Necrons have never been my favourite race/faction in the Warhammer 40K canon, I deeply appreciated seeing a novel from their point of view, and Crowley’s excellent writing has helped to alter my opinion about them.  I must admit that it was extremely fun to see their perspective on the events of the Warhammer 40K universe, as well as their opinions about the other races inhabiting it (the protagonist makes a very intriguing comparison between Necrons and Space Marines that really sticks in the mind).  This was a perfect Necron novel, and readers will come away with a whole new appreciate for their backstory and plight.

Another thing that I deeply enjoyed about Ruin was the complicated protagonist, Oltyx, a disgraced Necron noble who has been banished to a desolate and worthless frontier planet for his transgressions.  At the start of Ruin, Oltyx is an angry and arrogant creature, weighed down by his bitterness and resentment, and is not a particularly fun character.  However, as the story progresses, Crowley adds layer upon layer of complexity to him, using a mixture of flashbacks, personal insights, revelations, and alternate perspectives of his memories.  This slowly turns him into a sympathetic and compelling figure, showing him as one of the few nobles to truly care about the future of his people, whole also exploring his concerns about the madness and apathy that could one day claim him.  As the story progresses, and he reencounters the members of his family and has more visions of his past, Oltyx continues to evolve into a much more likable character, especially as he deals with great adversity and tragedy.  This adversity gives him some great appreciation for his race, even the lower tiers, and he soon comes away a well-rounded figure with an interesting future ahead of him.  This was an overall exceptional introduction to this character and Crowley has set up this figure up perfectly for the future entries in this series.

Aside from Oltyx proper, there were a couple of other fun figures I must highlight in this book.  Five of these characters are actually part of Oltyx himself, as the protagonist has installed five subminds into his head in order to help him achieve his mission.  These five subminds each provide different insights to a range of subjects, including doctrine, aliens, combat, strategy, and analytical analysis.  The various subminds each have their own personalities, based on their design, and it is fun to see them interact with Oltyx in his head and with each other.  While some of the subminds are focused on more than others, they prove to be an intriguing inclusion in the story, especially as they also grow and develop alongside Oltyx, especially once he comes to appreciate them more.  The subminds also help compensate for the general lack of other side characters in the novel, which are a result of both isolated planets and the general lack of remaining sentience amongst the Necrons.

The other major side character I want to talk about is Djoseras, Oltyx’s brother, who the protagonist blames for his exile.  Djoseras is an excellent mentor character who was just as deeply impacted by the transition to a metal body as his brother.  Despite Oltyx’s bitter memories about him, nothing about Djoseras is as cut-and-dry and you initially believe.  Once you encounter him in person and see some additional memories for Oltyx, you really grow to appreciate Djoseras more, especially once you see him lead an army in battle.  Oltyx’s multiple encounters with Djoseras add some outstanding emotional elements to the story, and each of his appearances were complex and compelling.  Other side characters are introduced in this book, although most of them were only featured for a short time.  However, they will probably have a bigger role in the future novels in this series, and Ruin serves as a good introduction to them.

I grabbed a copy of Ruin in its audiobook format, which proved to be an outstanding way to enjoy Ruin, especially as it allows listeners to really absorb all the cool and impressive details contained within this compelling read.  This novel has a decent runtime of over 11 hours and features some brilliant voice work from narrator Richard Reed.  Reed is a talented narrator who has been a major fixture of the Warhammer audiobook scene in the last few years, and I really loved the awesome job he did here with Ruin.  Reed has a great voice for this impressive science fiction epic, and he manages to move the story along at a quick and thrilling pace which allowed me to finish off this novel in a few short days.  Each of the major characters are gifted their own distinctive voice throughout Ruin, which fits them perfectly and ensures that the reader always knows who is talking.  I particularly enjoyed the fun voice work set around the protagonist’s five subminds, especially as they are similar, yet slightly different, to that of the protagonist.  I also really appreciated Reed’s voice work during certain big scenes, such as when attempting to emulate a crowd of mad, chanting Necrons, and his great narration really helped to enhance these scenes.  An exceptional and deeply entertaining audiobook outing, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in enjoying this fantastic epic.

With Ruin, the first The Twice-Dead King book, brilliant author Nate Crowley, has provided Warhammer 40K fans with an exceptional and powerful introduction to the mysterious Necron faction.  Featuring a captivating, action-packed narrative, a complex protagonist, and an excellent examination of the complex Necrons, Ruin is a must read for all fans of the franchise.  This is easily one of the best Warhammer 40K tie-in novels I have had the pleasure of reading and I cannot wait to see what Crowley adds to this franchise in the future.  This series is set to continue with the second entry, The Twice-Dead King: Reign, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

2 Sisters Detective Agency by James Patterson and Candice Fox

2 Sisters Detective Agency Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 382 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse crime fiction team of James Patterson and Candice Fox returns for 2 Sisters Detective Agency, an intense and clever novel that sets two unlikely protagonists on a dark, character-driven case.

In recent years crime fiction icon James Patterson, best known for his Alex Cross novels and other bestselling series, has been collaborating with a range of talented authors to produce a vast library of crime fiction, murder mystery and thriller novels.  These range from major series such as The Women’s Murder Club to multiple standalone novels such as Lost (co-written by James O. Born) which I read last year.  These collaborations have allowed Patterson to release multiple books each year; including several in 2021 (examples include The President’s Daughter, which was co-written with Bill Clinton, or The Noise, which was co-written with J. D. Barker).

This latest book was co-written with Australian author Candice Fox, a writer whose crime fiction novels I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Fox is a well-established author who first made her mark with her Archer and Bennett murder mystery series set in Australia.  Since then, Fox has written several other novels, including her Crimson Lake series, and two standalone books, Gathering Dark and The Chase, both of which I had a wonderful time reading.  Fox has also previously collaborated with James Patterson several times to write the intriguing Detective Harriet Blue series, another interesting Australian crime series.  2 Sisters Detective Agency will be the fifth novel written by the team of Patterson and Fox, and it serves as an excellent standalone read with potential to start a great new series.

Rhonda Bird is a criminal defence attorney in Colorado, specialising in helping young offenders and juvenile delinquents being crushed by the criminal justice system.  A strong and independent figure, Rhonda is unprepared for the call informing her that her estranged father has died, especially as his death brings with it certain caveats that will change her life forever.

Travelling to Los Angeles, Rhonda discovers that despite abandoning her years before, her father has decided to leave behind two major surprises.  The first is his shady private detective agency; the second is a teenage half-sister she never knew existed named Baby.  Reeling from these revelations, Rhonda attempts to bond with the rebellious and strong-willed Baby, while also trying to determine what shady actions led to her father concealing a massive stash of cash in his office.  As Rhonda attempts to deal with both these strange circumstances, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a case when a young man walks in, claiming he was abducted.

The young man is a member of a teenage group of self-serving vigilantes, who specialise to bringing their own violent brand of justice to anyone they feel crosses them.  However, when their latest spree of terror goes horribly wrong, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a violent former assassin, determined to get revenge.  As Rhonda and Baby start to investigate, they find themselves caught between a desperate group of violent teens and a skilled killer, neither of whom are going to have any trouble putting a bullet in two interfering sisters.  Worse, the Bird sisters are soon targeted by the Mexican cartel, who are determined to reclaim the money stolen by their father.  Can Rhonda and Baby survive their first case, or will these two sisters end up dead before they even get to know each other?

This was an outstandingly entertaining novel that takes the reader on a wild and addictive ride.  Patterson and Fox have come up with a pretty awesome story in 2 Sisters Detective Agency, and it was one that I had an extremely hard time putting down.  I ended up getting through this cool book in several intensive sessions, and I ended up finishing off the final half in one fun-filled night.  2 Sisters Detective Agency is an interesting and exciting crime fiction read told from multiple character perspectives and containing an entertaining and accessible character driven story.  Written as a standalone novel, this book also serves as a potential opening to a whole new Patterson/Fox series focused around some unique and compelling characters.  I really liked how this book was composed, with a large collection of short chapters.  These short chapters not only ensure that the author keeps the story nice and concise, but it also serves to keep the audience engaged, especially if they know that the next chapter only has a few pages in it.  It also helps that this is a pretty non-stop action novel, as the various characters are constantly in the midst of something very interesting, such as attempted murder, psychotic planning by rich teens, or near-fatal family bonding.

The authors do an amazing job of setting up everything really quickly in this book, with all the major storylines starting out in short order.  This includes the introduction to the Bird sisters, the preparation surrounding the teenage gang known as the Midnight Crew, and the start of the former assassin turned parent, Jacob, as he starts his mission of vengeance.  Once everyone has been introduced, all these storylines start off at the same pace, with the short chapters and multiple perspectives ensuring that readers are constantly updated with what is happening in the various storylines.  Rhonda and Baby’s storyline forms an entertaining and relatable half of the novel, and it was a lot of fun seeing these very mismatched siblings meet for the first time and eventually start to work together.  Their investigation into the other major storyline is only a small part of their initial narrative, with a bigger focus initially placed on their relationship and their attempts to deal with some murderous cartel members.  While I did enjoy the Bird storyline, I ended up having a lot more fun with the Midnight Crew vs assassin storyline.  This is a more intense and exciting narrative thread, and there are some outstanding moments involving this single-minded assassin taking apart the group of entitled teens one at a time.  However, this storyline really does not go as you would expect, especially as one of the teenagers really cannot be considered helpless.

I had a lot of fun with both cool storylines, and I felt that they really complemented each other.  While these two storylines have some crossover throughout the book, they really don’t join up until two-thirds of the way through, especially in the lead-up to a couple of epic showdowns.  I really liked the way in which both storylines ended, although the big and brutal confrontation at the hospital was pretty exceptional.  The story ends up in a rather cool place, and leaves the novel open to a potential sequel, which is something I would be quite eager to see.  I absolutely loved how this awesome story unfolded, and Patterson and Fox really came up with something special here.

One of the best parts of 2 Sisters Detective Agency were the awesome and distinctive group of characters featured throughout it.  Thanks to the excellent use of multiple character perspectives, the reader is given an up-close view to several of the more interesting members of this cast, and you quickly get drawn into their compelling arcs, even though you shouldn’t get too attached to some of them.

The main character is Rhonda Bird, the maverick criminal defence attorney who travels to Los Angeles to sort out her estranged father’s business, but then gets stuck minding a teenage half-sister.  Even though she only appears for around half the novel, Rhonda is set up as the central protagonist of 2 Sisters Detective Agency, especially as her chapters are the only ones told from the first-person perspective.  There are a lot of interesting things about Rhonda, especially as the authors have gone out of their way to make her as unique and memorable as possible.  Rhonda is described as a larger woman, who is obese but also extremely well-muscled, able to bench 350 pounds.  In addition, she has bright pink hair, outrageous clothes (which she wears in court), tattoos, a daring attitude, daddy issues, and destructive combat abilities.  While I would say that so many odd distinctive features might be a bit over the top (if she had any more tawdry quirks, she could open up a tawdry quirk shop), it actually ends up working really well, much to my surprise.  Despite how strong her unique features were layered on, I quite liked this distinctive character and the way she takes care of business and gets involved in any case that could potentially involve children in trouble.  Add in her massive family drama, especially as she nearly meets her match in Baby, and you have quite an interesting character who ended up being the emotional heart of this deeply exciting narrative.

Baby Bird is the wildly independent teenager who, after suffering through the sudden death of her father, is forced into the care of an older sister she never knew.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Baby when the book started, especially as her attitude and demeanour were that of an over-exaggerated and stereotypical disrespectful teen.  However, she did grow on me as the story progressed, thanks to her keen detective insight and slowly developing relationship with her sister, which is what the authors probably intended.  Baby ends up being a lot more complicated than you would imagine, and you swiftly see that she badly messed up by her father’s lax parenting and the sudden loss of the only family she knew, and this makes for some intense and moving dramatic moments.  If this novel continues into a major series, I have a feeling that Baby is going to develop the most, and I would be quite interested in seeing that.

The rest of the characters in this novel are also exceeding distinctive, with several outrageous and over-the-top figures who help to amp up the entertainment factor of this fun novel.  These include the members of the Midnight Crew, a group of violent, rich teenagers who get their thrills breaking into houses and assaulting the residents to settle their petty grudges.  The members of the Midnight Crew are essentially a more psychotic and deranged version of the Bling Ring, and Patterson and Fox really spend time portraying them as exceedingly spoiled rich kids, more concerned with status and thrills than ethics (with one exception).  Out of all the members of the Midnight Crew, easily the best is their leader, Vera.  Vera is the entire driving force behind them, and the authors do a really good job of building her up throughout the novel, especially as she is far more psychotic and murderous than you would expect.  The entire storyline around her is exceptional, and it opens some interesting narrative threads that could be explored in any future entries in this series.  I also really liked the assassin character, Jacob, who gets violently drawn into the Midnight Crew’s obit.  The authors do a great job with Jacob, and I deeply appreciated their portrayal of him as a former killer who is dragged back into his former life and has very few regrets about it.  Finally, I must highlight the fun Dr Perry Tuddy, a world-renowned chemist who keeps getting kidnapped to make drugs. The entire storyline around Tuddy is pretty hilarious, especially as he has developed a weird fetish for getting held captive, the explanation of which makes for one of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the entire book.  I had a lot of fun with all these characters, and they helped turn 2 Sisters Detective Agency into something special.

Overall, 2 Sisters Detective Agency ended up being an amazing and deeply compelling read that I found to be particularly addictive.  The brilliant team of James Patterson and Candice Fox really did a great job with this clever book, and I still cannot believe how much I enjoyed its fantastic story.  I really loved the unique narrative and characters contained within this novel, and I hope that this amazing team will strongly consider providing us with a sequel to this cool and captivating read.