Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

2022 is proving to be quite the year for Australian crime debuts, with several compelling and thrilling read already out.  However, one of the more impressive recent debuts is probably the amazing release by new Canberran author Shelley Burr, Wake, a gripping and powerful crime thriller that takes the reader on a wild and emotionally charged ride.

Nannine is a small rural town in the harsh heart of New South Wales, punished by drought and slowly declining as the local agriculture industry starts to deteriorate.  However, Nannine will always have one harrowing claim to fame: the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn McCreery.  In 1999, young Evelyn disappeared from her rural house in the dead of night, right from the bedroom that she shared with her twin sister, Mina.

Now, 19 years after Evelyn’s disappearance, Mina lives a reclusive life on the destocked family farm, desperately seeking some shreds of normality.  However, the shadow of the unsolved case and the subsequent massive media storm that bombarded her family still haunts her, especially as many question whether she had a role in the tragic events, while others constantly attempt to claim the massive reward the family posted.  However, despite the time and her attempts to not get involved in the craziness again, Mina finds old wounds reopened when Lane Holland arrives in town.

Lane is a private investigator and failed Federal Police cadet who has made a living out of cracking cold cases involving missing girls.  Interested in claiming the substantial reward, Lane begins his own in-depth investigation of Evelyn’s disappearance, and his determination and insights soon grab Mina’s attention and she finds herself drawn close to Lane.  However, Lane has his own personal reasons for solving the case, and his dark ghosts could end up dragging Mina down with him.

This was an excellent and captivating debut novel from Shelley Burr, which is already gaining some major recognition, including some major Australian awards.  While I knew I was likely to enjoy this amazing novel, I ended powering through Wake in a day as I got really hooked on its compelling and intense outback story.

I deeply enjoyed Wake’s awesome story, especially as Burr makes sure that it contains all the necessary elements to grab your attention.  This novel starts in the modern day, 19 years after the disappearance that rocked Nannine, and sees newcomer Lane Holland arrive to attempt to solve the case.  The introduction of this sleuth character helps to jumpstart the narrative, especially as his new investigation allows the reader to find out all the relevant details about the old case, while also revealing the lasting issues it had on the various protagonists, including the long-running infamy of being involved with such a major case.  Most of the first half of the book revolves around Lane trying to find his feet in the investigation and get close to Mina, while also finding himself involved in a separate case involving another missing girl.  At the same time you get to know Mina from her perspective, and find out just how messed up she is because of the disappearance and media scrutiny.  All the key characters, major story elements, hints and settings are perfectly set up in the first half of Wake, and the captivating mystery and damaged characters really drag you in and ensure that you become deeply invested in seeing how the case unfolds.

After some big reveals about halfway through the novel, the story intensifies even further, especially once you fully understand Lane’s drive and get to know the characters even better.  There are some compelling twists and turns in this second half of the book, with multiple theories and red herrings to cleverly distract the reader, while major personal moments hit all the key characters.  This all perfectly sets up the big finale, as all the plot points, tragic backstories and hidden hints come together extremely well for the major reveal.  I really liked how Wake’s story concluded, and I think both the solution to the mysteries and the resolution of all the character arcs was pretty ingenious, especially with how well it tied together the various character’s secrets, histories and regrets.  Overall, the reader will come away very satisfied with how everything is tied up, and this ended up being a very impressive and compelling narrative that was well-paced and loaded with some great surprises, major moments, and a very intriguing central mystery.

There were many cool elements to Wake that I deeply enjoyed and which I felt helped to enhance the mystery-laden story.  I liked the rural setting of Nannine, a fictional town that captures the heart of feel of many rural Australian communities, especially those that are suffering from many issues such as drought and the slow decline of the agricultural economy.  This decaying agricultural town serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing story, and you really get to see how the small-town vibes and attitudes affect the investigation of the case.  I also appreciated the fantastic dive into the over-the-top press coverage that surrounds famous crime cases.  The disappearance attracted a massive media focus, and Burr spends a lot of time exploring how it initially covered the case, how it morphed over the years, and the lasting impact that growing up as a media sensation had on both Mina and the other supporting characters from Nannine.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of how the case became a favourite of true-crime fanatics, which is primarily shown through a series of posts on the murder forum that appears in front of multiple chapters.  These posts highlight the attitudes, theories, mindsets and more of the true-crime internet community and serves as an intriguing weather vane for the wider Australian community.  I loved these posts, not only because they were entertaining and realistic but because it proved to be a great way to provide the reader with some interesting context while also having some impacts on the main story.  Throw in the great way that Burr utilised several flashback sequences, some hidden clues in character names, some clever insights into missing person cases, and other outstanding elements, and you have a really impressive book that will easily keep your attention.

I also need to highlight Wake’s awesome damaged characters that the plot focuses on.  Burr has come up with some sensational and powerful story arcs for these great characters, and their various histories, connections and life events add some excellent emotional heft to the story that I really enjoyed.  This includes Mina McCreery, who serves as a major point-of-view character for most of the plot.  Mina is the twin of the disappeared Evelyn, and has spent the last 19 years living in her disappeared sister’s shadow.  Not only did she have to deal with the emotional backlash of her sister being either killed or abducted but she also had to experience the intense media scrutiny and other issues associated with the major case, especially as her mother ended up becoming a media sensation to keep the focus on Evelyn’s case.  Due to this, the strained relationship she had with her sorrowful mother, and certain suspicions from some that she had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, Mina now lives a solitary life, avoiding most people and not having many friends.  This makes her rather standoffish, angry and a little paranoid (for good reason) for most of the novel, and she has a hard time connecting to anyone, especially Lane.  The events of this book really shock her in some major ways, as the years of repressed trauma and emotional uncertainty come to the surface again, especially once secrets and long-hidden truths come to the surface.  I felt that the author did an amazing job highlighting all the major issues contained within Mina’s psyche, and the subsequent emotional moments were a fantastic and powerful part of the book.

Aside from Mina, the other major character in Wake that I need to discuss is private investigator Lane Holland, who arrives in Nannine to investigate the case.  Burr created something really impressive in Lane, a former police cadet turned private investigator, as he ends up having one of the more intense and memorable character arcs in the entire novel.  Initially seen as an unwelcome outsider by most of the other characters, apparently interested in only the reward money, Lane is able to prove himself to Mina and other characters and manages to gain their trust.  However, everything you think you know about Lane is blown out the water when you find out his surprising connection to the case, as well as his motivations for investigating it.  Burr sets up the connections extremely well in the early parts of the novel, putting in several clever hints and suggestions, while also doling out useful flashbacks to Lane’s past that explain everything.  These revelations, as well as some insights into Lane’s personal history and motivations, help to both intensifies the story, while also dragging you closer to Lane as a character, hoping that he will succeed for everyone’s goods.  Burr takes Lane’s character arc into some very dark, by captivating, directions, and his entire story comes together in a brilliant and powerful way, especially with some major decisions made towards the end of the book.  These two excellent, intense, and very damaged central characters, really acted as the heart-and-soul of Wake, and I was really drawn into the outstanding narrative Burr wove around them.

With her excellent debut novel, Wake, Shelley Burr has successfully entered the world of Australian crime fiction in a big way.  Featuring a captivating and distinctively dark murder mystery narrative that sees damaged characters bring a notorious cold case into the light, Wake was a gripping and deeply thrilling read that I had a fantastic time reading.  A moving and enthralling novel, Wake was an exceptional Australian crime debut and I am extremely excited to read more stories from Burr in the future.

Wake Cover 2

Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

Throwback Thursday: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 14 May 2013, originally published 12 September 2006)

Series: Standalone

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

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 my latest Throwback Thursday review I take a look at the zombie horror classic, World War Z by Max Brooks, a truly epic and outstanding read.

One of the biggest novels that I have been meaning to read for ages was the highly regarded zombie novel, World War Z, also known as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Written by Max Brooks as a follow-up to his first book, the non-fictional The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z is a unique novel that fully examines a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives.  I had heard some great things about this novel, and I even enjoyed the movie adaptation when it came out (more on that later).  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it and I kind of figured for a while that it might stay in my to-read pile for a while.  However, it moved much higher up my list of books to check out after I read Brooks’s 2020 novel, Devolution, which was one of my favourite novels of 2020 (as well as one of my favourite all-time horror novels).  I had also heard a lot of praise for World War Z‘s awesome audiobook edition, so when my wife and I needed some entertainment during a recent cross-country road trip, this was our first choice.

Plot Synopsis:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

Holy hell, that was an exceptional book!  I loved the powerful and expansive narrative contained within World War Z as Brooks attempts to fully encapsulate the entire experience of a zombie apocalypse in impressive detail.  Literally all the good things I heard about this book were true, and I loved his unique and very captivating way of capturing the horrors of this sort of experience, both from the zombies and other humans.  An exceptional and impressively inventive read, World War Z gets an easy five-star read from me.

I cannot get over how awesome and distinctive World War Z was as a concept.  Rather than a traditional novel, Brook’s masterpiece is written as an epistolary novel, written as in-universe oral history anthology of a zombie apocalypse.  The book, which was compiled by this universe’s version of Max Brooks, contained multiple testimonials and interviews, as Brooks seeks out and talks to multiple people who experienced the apocalypse and pulls together their various unique stories.  This book contains around 40 individual stories set out across five chapters which look at the various stages of the zombie war, from its origins all the way up to the postwar ‘new normal’.

At this point I need to make a quick note about the version of World War Z that we checked out.  There are a couple of different World War Z audiobooks out there, but for our trip we listened to the World War Z: The Complete Edition, which combines two separate audiobook adaptations of the novel, and contains all the stories from the original book.  I did look over a paperback edition of World War Z before I started this review, and it looks like our audiobook version covered the full stories well, although I did notice that some of the stories were shortened or missing minor parts.  In addition, the audiobook version did not feature any of the paperback’s footnotes, which contained technical details and notes from the author.  However, I don’t think I lost out on too much of the plot from some of these missing gaps.

I really fell in love with the various individual stories contained with World War Z as Brooks went out of his way to produce the most unique and moving tales that he could.  These are mostly standalone tales, although there are a few interesting crossovers as the book continues, with some character’s mentioning events or supporting figures from other stories in their interviews.  However, as you follow the stories within these five chapters (made up of Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and Good-Byes), you get a full sense of the entire war, and it quickly comes apparent how cleverly Brooks was crafting everything here.  I personally deeply enjoyed both the individual shorter tales and the much larger connected story of World War Z, and I was deeply impressed with the excellent writing style behind it.  Brooks is a true master of writing deeply personal, character-driven tales of survival, and you swiftly become attached to the various protagonists as they tell their unique stories.  The action within is gruesome, fast-paced and deeply terrifying, and there are multiple over-the-top descriptions of zombie and human violence that will stick with you forever.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have read in terms of storytelling and action, and everything about this tale is so damn compelling.

As I mentioned, there are roughly 40 separate stories contained within this anthology, each of which contains its own unique protagonist, supporting characters, settings and unique circumstances.  Naturally, with so many stories you have a bit of a range in terms of storytelling, with some being substantially better than others.  However, I felt that Brooks did a very good job of writing each of these stories extremely well, and there were none that particularly dragged the novel down.  There is a real mixture of narratives here, with particularly gruesome horror stories mixed in with more human-focused narrative, political plotlines, military thrillers, stories that balance on the edge of science fiction, and everything in between.  The spread of these stories works pretty well, with Brooks providing an entertaining mixture of storylines throughout the book so readers aren’t constantly bombarded by tales of horror or tragedy.  Instead, there are often fascinating, humorous and humanising stories thrown in amongst the horror.  This works to make the entire novel flow at a fantastic pace.

While pretty much all these stories are fun and tell some outstanding tales of the zombie apocalypse, there are a few that stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.  I had some early fun with the Stanley MacDonald storyline, which showed an amoral illegal surgeon in Brazil unwittingly transfer a zombie heart into a patient, which led to one of the earliest outbreaks in South America.  The Jesika Hendricks plot showed a brilliant, if very dark, take on ordinary citizens trying to flee the zombies only to experience the other dangers of surviving the winter in a desperate community.  There are several amazing and cynical storylines, such as the Breckinridge Scott and Grover Carison testimonies that showcase the capitalist opportunism that surrounded the initial outbreaks.  I also really liked the South African focused storyline around Paul Redeker, which showed a former Apartheid strategist using his stark and brutal plans to save the country from the undead hordes.  I loved the particularly inventive and clever testimony surrounding the character of Arthur Sinclair Junior, which focuses on how America was reorganised after the initial stages of the war, with the country setting its sights towards industry, construction and warfare, which really highlights the author’s impressive insights into the world.

Two other fantastic World War Z storylines set in Japan focus on two unique individuals, one an “otaku” (a computer-obsessed outsider who tried to live entirely online), and a blind “hibakusha” (a person affected by the atomic bombs used in WWII).  Both characters were outsiders in Japan before the zombie war, but the zombie invasion changed their entire lives and led to them becoming renowned warriors and survivors against all the odds.  These two storylines are extremely compelling, and I loved the way that the author utilised unique subsections of Japanese society and tried to imagine how those sorts of people would survive the zombies.  There was also a really intense storyline, told by Admiral Xu Zhicai, that details a Chinese submarine’s attempt to escape the zombies with their families, which turns into a brilliant, powerful and occasionally disturbing tale of survival, loyalty and family.  I also must mention the Terry Knox testimony that details the actions aboard the International Space Station and the Darnell Hackworth story that looks at the US army’s canine units that helped scout and herd zombies (yay for mini dachshunds, the real heroes of this book).  However, out all the testimonies featured within World War Z, my favourite had to be the ones focussing on soldier Todd Wainio.  Todd battled the zombies at multiple stages of the war, and his multiple entries paint a pretty grim picture but are easily some of the best depictions of the horror of the zombies and the challenges faced by the armed forces.  His first testimony about the army’s initial inability to combat the zombies is very chilling, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes to his training and equipment as the military adapted to fight this new and strange enemy.  I am honestly just scratching the surface of these testimonials here, as pretty much all of them were great in their own way.  However, the ones I mentioned here were my personal favourites, and I had a blast listening to them and seeing how they fit into the wider narrative.

For me, one of the main highlights of World War Z was Brooks’s incredible inventiveness and insights when it came to envisioning a potential world-wide zombie apocalypse.  Thanks to his amazing range of stories, Brooks showcases a vast global catastrophe that impacts everyone no matter where they are.  I loved his depiction of how the apocalypse emerged, and rather than a continuous attack that pretty much destroys everything in a single day, Brooks imagines a gradual catastrophe that is initially ignored and mishandled before it spreads uncontrollably.  This is covered in the early chapters of the book with some substantial skill, and you really get to see how and why everything falls apart, with appropriate zombie violence included.  While there is an understandable focus on America, I found it fascinating to see how Brooks imagined different countries would deal with this crisis, with different culturally informed strategies, and there are even some compelling references to real-life figures (the Nelson Mandela facsimile reacts in a very different way than you’d expect).  The author really dives into all the details of a zombie attack and examines all the pros and cons of various strategies humans could utilise, from fleeing, staying in defensible positions, or fighting back.  There are some brilliant testimonies that cover all of them, and Brooks’s dark depictions of unprepared or overconfident humans failing to understand the threats in front of them and paying the price for it are shocking, bleak and captivating.  Brooks also comes up with some truly unique and clever problems or impacts of the zombies, many of which are referenced or experienced by multiple characters, including floating zombies, marine zombies, feral children who survived without their parents, looters, civil wars, and even crazed humans pretending to be zombies.

These intriguing insights from Brooks’s imagination are further expanded on in the later chapters of the novel, where the author explores how the world order changed because of the zombie war.  Again Brooks dives into multiple countries here, and it was fascinating to witness which countries the author imagines will be destroyed by the zombies and which would thrive.  I really enjoyed his examinations of the way that America needed to reorganise itself and its subsequent battleplans, which were perfectly covered by several of the best characters.  Seeing countries likes Russia, China, Japan and more change in drastic ways a result of this apocalypse was really cool and compelling, especially as the author covers it in such a reasonable and logical manner.  Countries like Cuba and the West Indies thriving due to their isolation was pretty fascinating, and they stood as an interesting contrast to more prominent countries that were disadvantaged or never stood a chance thanks to their socioeconomic issues or unsuitable landscapes.  I loved some of the unique issues that some countries experienced, such as the infested Paris catacombs or the mystery around North Korea, and they leave some intriguing afterthoughts as a result.  Brooks also cleverly examines other unique impacts that the zombies are having on the world, such as extinctions (goodbye whales), changes in global relations, and long-term problems, and I was deeply fascinated and enthralled by all this impressive thinking.  All of this compelling insight and imagination really enhances the stories being told by various characters, especially as they all impact humanity’s potential survival, and I really lost myself in the author’s powerful and impressive vision of a zombie apocalypse.

While World War Z is primarily about survival and the wider impacts of a zombie apocalypse, Brooks also takes the time to cover a few interesting themes.  In particular, he uses this novel about zombies to examine humanity.  While there is a certain overlying theme about the indomitable human spirit and our ability to triumph no matter the odds, there are some very noticeable depictions of the worst parts of human nature.  I found his initial depictions of most people ignoring or ridiculing the slow rising zombie threat to be pretty realistic (keep in mind that this was written 14 years before COVID).  There are also some major critiques about corruption and government incompetence in the face of disaster that I also found to be very intriguing and insightful.  Many of the early chapters that talked about military attempts to fight back had some interesting parallels to the wars in the Middle East, and I really appreciated the author’s clever critiques of these conflicts through the medium of a zombie war.  I felt that Todd’s testimony about the first major battle of the zombie war was a great example of this, as he regales the reader with how politically motivated leadership and incompetence led to a massacre.  All of this added a thought-provoking and entertaining edge to many of the storylines in the novel, especially the earlier testimonies, and I felt that Brooks did an amazing job bringing some of his own insights and critiques into his writing.

As I mentioned a few times above, I listened to the extended audiobook adaptation of this novel, which I personally felt was the absolute best way to enjoy this epic read.  Running at just over 12 hours in length, we absolutely powered through the World War Z audiobook during our road trip, and it served as an excellent entertainment for a long drive.  I often find that having a story read out to you really helps you to absorb everything about the story, and this was particularly true with World War Z.  Not only did the narration allow you to focus on all the details of the testimonials, but the horror elements and action felt a lot more intense, especially when you were dragged into some of the more gruesome scenes.  I also feel that the audiobook version of World War Z had a better flow than the paperback novel.  The testimonials with the audiobook are a lot more separated out, treated as a new chapter each time the narrator changes.  This is very different from the paperback version, which throws multiple testimonials in a quick fire manner, with everything crammed together into the five chapters.  As such, I really felt the audiobook helped to highlight the uniqueness of each testimonial and you really got to focus on each story a lot more.

However, easily the best thing about the World War Z audiobook was the truly impressive voice cast that were featured within.  Brooks, a voice actor himself, recruited a crack team of international actors to fill out his cast, including several A-listers, who give some outstanding and amazing performances.  All these actors really dive into their various roles here, conveying the emotion, fear and insights of their protagonists, and their great voice work definitely enhanced the already cool stories of their characters.  I deeply enjoyed all their voice work throughout the audiobook, and I know that I enjoyed several testimonies even more because of the talented actors voicing them.  This cast is led by Brooks himself, who voices the interviewer, asking all the questions and meeting all the various figures the novel is set around.  Brooks does a really good job here, and his calm, collected interviewing style and additional narration helps to set the scene for the entire novel and moves the other character’s stories along at a great pace.

Aside from Brooks, there are a good 40 or so voice actors featured in the World War Z audiobook, and I was pretty impressed with all their performances.  Some standout early performances include a brief appearance from Nathan Fillion as Canadian soldier Stanley MacDonald; Paul Sorvino, who gives a very fun performances as the sketchy doctor Fernado Oliveira; and Martin Scorsese, who gives an unrepentant portrayal of corrupt businessman Breckinridge Scott.  Other great performances include Kal Penn as Sardar Khan, an Indian soldier who serves an excellent witness to an act of heroism; the late, great David Ogden Stiers, who brings Ukrainian solider Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk to life perfectly as he watches a great act of evil from his government; Common as dog trainer Darnell Hackworth; and Rob Reiner as “The Whacko” a radical politician/former Vice President who shares his strong opinions in a very fun outing.  I really need to highlight some intriguing voice performances from Simon Pegg, who does a pretty good Texan accent in the role of Grover Carlson; and Alfred Molina, whose Australian accent was pretty accurate (a rare talent).

The performances of Masi Oka and Frank Kamai really brought to life the two Japanese characters I mentioned above, as does Ric Young for Chinese Admiral Xu Zhicai’s elaborate testimony.  I also really need to highlight the brilliant work of Alan Alda in this book as he voices pivotal administrator Arthur Sinclair Junior.  Alda, whose voice I have loved since M*A*S*H, perfectly inhabits the role of this intriguing figure, and I loved hearing his narration of how America’s economy was changed.  However, out of all the voice actors in World War Z, my favourite was the always impressive and remarkable Mark Hamill, who voiced standout character Todd Wainio.  Hamill was one of the main reasons why Todd was such a great character, and I loved his outstanding performance as a former ground soldier recounting all the horror of the front line of the zombie war.  There is so much weariness, trauma and cynicism in Hamill’s voice as he narrates Todd’s testimony, and you really feel the character’s resentment and anger.  The way that Hamill describes all the gruesome gore and zombie violence was just so great, and his impressive range and tone helped to really enhance the insanity and horror of the moment.  These voice actors, and the rest of the impressive cast, are extremely epic here, and they turned this production into something extremely impressive.

A quick final note about the World War Z film.  Until I read this book, I really did not appreciate how wildly off-book the film adaptation was.  None of the true magic from the original story appears in the film at all, as they turned it into a generic action flick rather than a clever analysis of how a zombie apocalypse would change the world.  While I did enjoy the World War Z movie on its own, it is a terrible adaptation, with only small elements from the book appearing in the film.  While I can appreciate that this is not the easiest book to turn into a film, they didn’t even try.  I really do hope that someone does a proper adaptation of World War Z at some point, as it frankly deserves a lot better than what it got (perhaps a television series with each episode recreating one of the testimonies).

As you can clearly tell from the massive essay above, I deeply enjoyed World War Z by Max Brooks.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have ever read, and it definitely deserves its epic and highly regarded status.  Brooks’s distinctive and brilliant story was just plain amazing and I loved the outstanding combination of smaller testimonies coming together into one connected and thought-provoking tale.  The author cleverly examines every single aspect of a potential zombie apocalypse, and you find yourself not only loving the insane horror elements, but the fascinating political and social impacts that come with such an invasion.  Best enjoyed in the full audiobook format which features so many impressive voice actors, World War Z comes extremely highly recommended and I cannot hype it up enough!

World War Z Cover 2

One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

One Foot in the Fade Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Fetch Phillips – Book Three

Length: 439 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s fastest rising fantasy authors, Luke Arnold, returns with the third novel in his Fetch Phillips series, the fantastic and impressive One Foot in the Fade.

Back in 2020, Australian actor turned author Luke Arnold made his fantasy debut with his first Fetch Phillips novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City.  This very clever and intense read, which ended up being one of my favourite debuts of 2020, was set in the unique landscape of Sunder City, a formerly majestic fantasy city facing hard times in a world that has just lost all its magic, causing all the fantasy creatures and beings who lived there to become deformed and dying beings.  The story focused on the character of Fetch Phillips, a human private investigator responsible for the disaster, who tries to redeem himself by helping the disenfranchised former magical beings.  Arnold followed it up later that year with a sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, which was just as impressive and exciting as the first book.  Both these novels were extremely good, and they perfectly set up Arnold’s intriguing and magic-less universe.  I have been rather keen to see how the story continues so I was quite excited when I received a copy of the third book, One Foot in the Fade, a few weeks ago.

A new dawn has risen in the formerly magical Sunder City.  Under the leadership of human business mogul Thurston Niles, the city is entering a technological age, leaving behind its mystical roots and providing everyone, both human and former magical being, with cars, guns and electricity to service their needs.  Most are content with the new way of life, all except man-for-hire Fetch Phillips.  Still ridden with guilt for the role he played in destroying the world, Fetch spends his days taking on odd jobs for former magical beings while also desperately searching for any way to bring back the magic.

After his latest assignment, recovering stolen artefacts still containing traces of their power, ends badly, Fetch’s hopes for bringing back magic are at an all-time low, until a new clue literally and fatally lands at his feet.  An Angel has fallen from the sky at a great height, his formerly decayed wings once again feathered and whole, clearly the result of magic.  But who or what is responsible for reinvigorating the unfortunate Angel’s magic?

Desperate to uncover the roots of this new mystery, Fetch discovers a former Genie, Khay, whose body is slowly losing its hold on reality.  Still apparently capable of granting wishes, including returning a person’s magic to them, Khay may be the best chance for Fetch to redeem himself.  However, in order to make her powerful enough to bring magic back, Khay requires a legendary crown located at the deadly and isolated Wizard city of Incava.  Pulling together a small team, Fetch embarks for Incava to reclaim the crown.  But the further Fetch goes on his quest, the more he begins to realise that not everything is as it seems.  Blinded by his obsession with magic and redemption, Fetch walks a dangerous path that may end up damning him once again.

This was another extremely awesome read from Arnold who continues to showcase his impressive talent as a fantasy author.  One Foot in the Fade did a brilliant job continuing from the previous Fetch Philips novels, and I loved revisiting the deformed and depressed world of Sunder City.  Loaded with complex characters and powerful settings, this latest story was particularly captivating, and I think that One Foot in the Fade is probably Arnold’s best novel yet.

I really appreciated the powerful and intriguing narrative contained with One Foot in the Fade as Arnold has come up with some deeply fascinating and intense storylines that make this novel very hard to put down.  Taking place shortly after Dead Man in a Ditch, One Foot in the Fade’s story places Fetch Phillips right into the action as he attempts to recover some magical artefacts.  Thrown off by his villainous corporate antagonist, Fetch falls into despair, only to immediately find a dead angel whose magic has been returned to them.  This leads him into a hunt for the being responsible for the miracle, quickly finding Khay, who reunites his faith and hope in magic.  Bringing together a new team of comrades, Fetch travels outside of Sunder City on an epic quest to retrieve a legendary magical crown in order to empower Khay’s abilities.  This works as a particularly fun and exciting centre to the entire narrative, and Arnold really pumps up the action and danger in this part of the book, seeing the protagonists deal with all manner of dangers, deadly creatures, former allies with their own agendas, a mysterious secret society, a giant Minotaur, and even some surprising and very dark magic.

I had an absolute blast with the first two-thirds of the novel, especially with all its action, intriguing new characters and world building; however, it is the final third that really turns One Foot in the Fade into something truly special as Arnold adds in some intense and intriguing twists.  Despite Fetch’s best efforts, everything turns pear-shaped on him as some of the supporting characters are revealed to be far darker and more damaged than he ever believed.  Thanks to some big and dramatic tragedies, Fetch is forced to make some hard decisions that will deeply impact him and change the entire course of the story.  These later twists and revelations are pretty well set up throughout the first two-thirds and the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which Arnold brought the entire story together in such a clever and enjoyable way.  While there are a few excessive plot points that slightly distract the main story, One Foot in the Fade’s narrative was pretty tight and never really slows down.  I love the cool blend of dark fantasy, detective noir and urban fantasy elements contained within this impressive read, and Arnold has come up with a pretty bleak, character-driven narrative that really gets to the heart of the protagonist while also exploring the possibilities of redemption.  The reader will find themselves getting quite drawn into this epic story, and I myself powered through most of it in a single night.  Despite the author’s best efforts to recap the necessary background, One Foot in the Fade is a little hard to read by itself and I feel that most readers should read the first two books in this series first, although this is hardly a chore.  I really enjoyed the hopeful end note of this third novel, and I cannot wait to see where the rest of the series goes from here.

While the Fetch Phillips novels all have great narratives to them, their best qualities are the unique and striking settings.  Primarily set in the once majestic and glorious Sunder City on the fantasy continent of Archetellos, the stories generally explore how the city has changed since magic left the world.  The first two books in this series saw Sunder City as a decaying metropolis, filled with depressed and dying magical beings who were trying to adapt to the new world.  However, in the second book, an industrious human company is starting to provide technological alternatives to everything formerly powered by magic.  Since then, the entire feel and tone of the city has changed, with Sunder City transforming into an industrious and factory orientated city, with 1920’s-esque technology like cars, firearms (that everyone carries) and neon signs.  I really appreciated the brilliant and logical way that Arnold keeps changing the feel and look of his great setting every novel, especially as every change seems to match the series’s overarching noir feel.  I had a lot of fun seeing the comparisons between the setting’s current technology and the former magical glory, and watching the protagonist compete against the march of progress.  Arnold doubles down with the world building in One Foot in the Fade, with some interesting new additions that I found really fascinating.  Not only are we introduced to multiple new magical races, all of whom have been impacted by the death of magic in their own unique ways, but a large portion of the novel takes place outside of Sunder City, as the characters head to another former major settlement, the Wizard city of Incava.  The journey to and into Incava showcases multiple new interesting features about the larger continent of Archetellos, and I appreciated how much time Arnold put into expanding it.  Incava itself proves to be a particularly haunting and deadly setting for a good part of the book, and the various dangers within really amp up the action-packed story.  Overall, Arnold remains well on top of the cool settings in this novel, and readers will once again be entranced by the fantastic and distinctive setting of this series.

One Foot in the Fade also boasts a great array of complex and damaged characters whose personal journeys and intense pain really enhance the impressive narrative.  This is particularly apparent in series protagonist and first-person narrator Fetch Phillips, a man with a particularly intense backstory.  Due to bad choices in his past, Fetch is moderately responsible for the death of magic in the world and all the bad things that went with it.  This led him into an extremely dark spiral and he has spent the rest of the books trying to redeem himself.  However, this has not been easy, especially as he was forced to go up against his magical mentor and best friend in the second novel and his guilt is at an all-time high at the start of One Foot in the Fade.  As such he is particularly obsessed with bringing back magic in this novel and embarks on the quest to repower his new Genie friend and redeem himself no matter the cost.  This obsession blinds him (and by extension the reader) to the risks of what he is doing, and he ends up endangering his friends, while also ignoring some troubling signs from other characters that hinted at the books tragic ending.  This is easily the most obsessed we have seen Fetch throughout the entire series, and it really fits into his brilliantly written character arc which sits at the core of the moving narrative.  Watching him continue to try and fail is always very heartbreaking, and you really feel for Fetch throughout this novel, even with all the mistakes he’s made.  As such, he serves as an excellent centre for the story, and I have a great time following his personal tale, especially as Arnold has also imbued him with a good sense of humour.  The author also sets up a few intriguing character developments and changes throughout One Foot in the Fade that I think will lead to some very compelling storylines in the future, so I look forward to seeing where Fetch goes in the future.

Aside from Fetch, Arnold has filled this novel with a substantial collection of excellent supporting characters, each of whom adds their own distinctive flair to the narrative as well as a complex and often damaging relationship with the protagonist.  One Foot in the Fade features a combination of new and existing supporting characters, and it was interesting to see who returned after the events of the last book.  It was great to see more of former Witch and academic Eileen, one of Fetch’s main compatriots, who helps him throughout most of the book.  Eileen serves as Fetch’s sense of reason, and her more measured approach to the tasks at hand balance well with the protagonist’s more impulsive nature.  I also enjoyed seeing more of futurist company leader Thurston Niles, who is serving as something of an overarching series antagonist.  Thurston, who was introduced in the second book, is the human businessman whose company is responsible for the industrialisation of Sunder City and all its new technology.  While his appearances are a little brief in this novel, he serves as an excellent alternative human character to Fetch and I am really enjoying their rivalry.  Despite appearing as the villain due to his desire to replace magic completely with technology, Thurston has more layers and he actually appears to enjoy Fetch’s efforts to bring back magic.  Their various interactions in this novel are pretty entertaining, and I look forward to seeing their conflict continue in the rest of the series.

The author also introduces several great new characters in One Foot in the Fade, and their interesting and often self-contained storylines are pretty impressive.  My favourite was Theodor, a Werewolf adventurer who Fetch and his friends hire to help get to Incava.  Despite being disfigured and partially disabled (Werewolves and other shape-changers were also partially transformed into dark human-animal hybrids without their magic), Theodor is a badass hunter and tracker who quickly becomes one of the more likeable figures in the novel.  Theodor serves as a mentor to many of the characters, especially Fetch, and it was fun to watch him teach the city slickers how to survive out in the wilds.  Due to the way that Theodor’s storyline in One Foot in the Fade ends I am very curious to see if or how he returns in the future, and I am sure that Arnold will come up with some plot points elements for him.  The other impressive new character was Khay, the Genie who serves as the book’s sentient McGuffin.  Arnold paints a tragic picture around Khay as a Genie literally fading away due to the death of magic.  Only able to survive through certain magical objects and granting wishes to people, namely returning their magic, Kay is just as obsessed as Fetch to achieve their objective.  However, there is a powerful and captivating alternate side to Khay, and the consequences of her actions will have some lasting impacts in the entire series.  These outstanding characters, and more, are an impressive and very important part of One Foot in the Fade, and I really appreciate how much effort Arnold put into making them so relatable and memorable.

With One Foot in the Fade, Australian author Luke Arnold continues to showcase his amazing literary talent, bringing together an epic new story with his already distinctive characters and settings.  Thanks to the powerful and intense new narrative, this third Fetch Phillips novel is probably Arnold’s best novel so far and it is really worth checking out.  I cannot wait to see how Arnold impresses me with the next book.

World of Warcraft: Sylvanas by Christie Golden

World of Warcraft - Sylvanas Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 March 2022)

Series: World of Warcraft

Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to find out everything you every wanted to know about one of Warcraft’s most complex characters with the brilliant Sylvanas by the always impressive Christie Golden.

There have been some great tie-in novels coming out this year across multiple franchises.  While I have mostly been sticking to Star Wars and Warhammer novels, I recently decided to dive back into the fiction surrounding a personal favourite franchise of mine, the Warcraft games.  It may surprise some people to know that the Warcraft games, which includes the absolute institution that is World of Warcraft (WOW), has a massive extended universe surrounding it, with multiple novels and comics working to enhance and support the game’s already impressively deep lore.  I have had a lot of fun with some of these over the years, but I was particularly intrigued when I managed to get a copy of the latest tie-in novel, Sylvanas by Christie Golden.  Not only did this book cover the life of one of the best characters in this franchise, Sylvanas Windrunner, but it was also written by the amazingly talented Christie Golden, an absolute master of tie-in fiction.  Golden has written some impressive Warcraft novels, including Before the Storm and the brilliant War Crimes, and she has also written tie-in novels to multiple other franchises, including one of my all-time favourite Star Wars novels, Dark Disciple.  As such, I am always really keen to check out any of Golden’s additions to this complex canon, and this turned out to be a particularly great book.

Few inhabitants of the world of Azeroth have had more of an impact on its recent history and the devastating events that have befallen it than the infamous Sylvanas Windrunner.  The Banshee Queen of the Forsaken, Sylvanas has held many titles, names and positions as she has witnessed and manipulated the entire realm for both her people and herself.  However, Sylvanas has a far deeper goal than power; she also seeks to realign the injustices of life and the meaninglessness of death, finally achieving the peace and happiness that she and the world deserve.  To that end, Sylvanas has aligned herself with the mysterious and otherworldly afterlife entity known as the Jailer.  Bound to his side and now a fugitive from both the Alliance and the Horde, Sylvanas seeks to bring his goals to fruition, no matter the cost.  However, her final task from the Jailer appears to be the most difficult, securing the fealty of imprisoned human king Anduin Wyrnn.

Reluctant to force service upon Anduin against his will, Sylvanas attempts to sway him to their side through subtler means.  To that end, she regales him with the story of her life, believing its lessons will convince Anduin of the necessity of her actions and help bind him to the Jailer’s cause.  With her captive audience listening close, Sylvanas reveals the key events from her life that shaped her, including her childhood and the tragedies of the Windrunner family, her death and damned resurrection at the hands of Arthas, and her eventual ascension to leadership of the Horde as Warchief.

However, amongst these tales of tragedy, triumph and a deep despair, Sylvanas also reveals her history with the Jailer and her first journey to the Maw.  Discovering a dark truth behind the veil of death, Sylvanas hopes to end the injustices and terrible consequences that awaits all souls, including her, by helping the Jailer achieve her goals.  But to achieve victory, Sylvanas was forced to become a force of destruction, bringing war to Azeroth and forcing another conflict between the Alliance and the Horde.  However, her worst actions may be yet to come as the Jailer’s plan for Anduin will require Sylvanas to become what she hates the most.  Daughter, sister, hero, unwitting pawn, rebel queen, Warchief, and monster, the truth of Sylvanas is revealed, and you’ll have to decide whether she is Azeroth’s greatest hero or worst villain.

Golden continues to add more and more depth to the Warcraft canon with this rich and clever novel that serves as the ultimate guide to one of the franchise’s best characters.  I had an absolute blast with this exceptional read that expertly turned the established history of Sylvanas Windrunner into a powerful and moving tale of family, tragedy and the consequences of choices.

Sylvanas contains a brilliant character-driven narrative that I think perfectly tells the tale of Sylvanas Windrunner, expanding out her life and providing details and insights about her that have never been shown in various other parts of the Warcraft fiction.  Starting during the events of the Shadowlands expansion, where Sylvanas is holding Anduin prisoner, the story soon morphs into a chronicle tale as the titular character recounts her entire life story to Anduin.  Starting off during her childhood, the first substantial part of the novel is focused on Sylvanas’s early life, the complex family relationships she had, her surprising rise to the rank of Ranger General, and her first encounter with tragedy.  This initial section of the novel, which covers most of Sylvanas’s life before her appearance in the games, is extremely detailed as Golden firmly establish this part of her life and show how her early relationships and losses would shape the rest of her life.  While this first part of the book is intriguing and vital to the story, it was a tad less exciting than I was hoping and ended up being one of the slowest parts of the novel, although once the first real tragedy occurs, it does speed up to an entertaining pace.

Following this substantial introduction, Sylvanas’s story starts to feature some major time skips, with the narrative jumping to her encounter with Arthas and subsequent death, which is shown a bit more theatrically and briefly than you would expect.  The rest of the story happens at a blistering pace, with many of the key moments of the character’s life briefly shown as the story powers through the events of the various games and expansions.  There are some fascinating moments and scenes in this second half of the book, and I had a great time seeing Sylvanas’s resurrection and enslavement to Arthas, her rebellion against her deathless master, her rise to become a leader of the Forsaken and her early days as a member of the Horde.  The story really skips along extremely quickly here, although it slows down at times to highlight Sylvanas’s interactions with the Jailer and the various things she did as his command.  These scenes are some of the most important parts of the book, as they try to highlight when and how Sylvanas started working with this villain, as well as her motivations for joining him.  These pivotal scenes are extremely interesting, and Golden masterfully works in the novel’s earlier character development into Sylvanas’s reasons for her actions.  The rest of the novel showcases Sylvanas’ more villainous turn, until she completely becomes the antagonist we encounter in Shadowlands and the end of Battle for Azeroth, which brings us full circle to the interludes between Sylvanas and Anduin.  The book ends on a fantastic and compelling note, recreating a scene from the game, and serving as a fitting conclusion to Sylvanas’s story, while also providing the reader with some much needed hope and satisfaction at a potential happy ending in the future.

Golden used some interesting storytelling techniques throughout Sylvanas, and most of them paid off extremely well to create an intense and exciting story.  While many Warcraft novels are more concerned with immediate action and intrigue, Sylvanas works well as a chronicle story which focuses on its protagonist’s complex and damaged psyche, as well as an intense portrayal of family and the difficulties and joys associated with it.  Through her reminiscing, the protagonist highlights her story extremely well, and I liked the clever use of several interludes to take the story back to the present for Sylvanas to debate her actions and choices with Anduin, whose pensive and compassionate insights add to the emotional weight of the narrative.  Both these past events and the storyline set in the present have some great moments, and I loved the novel’s overarching theme of the importance of free-will and choice, especially as the protagonist is a person who often found the events of her life and death, controlled by others.  There is an excellent balance of story elements featured throughout Sylvanas, with Golden featuring a great blend of intense character moments with cool action scenes, fun interactions and attempts to bring the novel into the established events of the wider Warcraft universe.  However, I did have some issues with the pacing of the novel.  While most of the novel flowed well, I really disliked how the author would spend a substantial amount of time going over some periods of the characters life in high detail, before quickly jumping through multiple years of subsequent events in extremely short order.  While I could see the author’s reasons for doing this, it did limit the impact of the narrative and there were multiple interesting events and characters that were only lightly featured.  Still, I had a great time getting through the plot elements that the author included, and they ended up resulting in an excellent and intense character driven story that featured some very powerful moments as the protagonist goes through absolute hell and back.

Sylvanas ended up being a particularly interesting inclusion in the wider Warcraft canon and it is one that I am extremely glad I decided to check out.  Due the multiple appearances and impacts that this titular character has had, the plot of Sylvanas encompasses the events of all the Warcraft games, including the entirety of WOW (at this point).  At the same time, the novel also ties into some of the other books, comics and other pieces of extended Warcraft fiction that are out there, particularly some that were written by Golden.  As a result, there are an awful lot of references, locations and iconic events going on in here, and Golden does an excellent job to bring all of these to life throughout the novel, with a focus on Sylvanas’s role in them.  I loved seeing so many key moments from the games and the other extended fiction re-featured or referenced throughout this novel and it was fascinating to see how they connected with the events of this book.  While Golden does really try to explain the context or importance of all of them, some readers unfamiliar with the games (or who may have stopped playing in recent years), may have difficulty at times following what is happening.  This is partially mitigated by the fact that Golden chooses to avoid or only lightly feature multiple events, especially those covered in the games, other novels and comics (several of Golden’s books are only lightly brushed on).  While I can understand Golden trying to avoid unnecessarily rehashing events that Warcraft fans would have seen before, it was one of the main reasons for the pacing issues, as it ensured that the events of the character’s childhood, which has not really been seen before, got so much focus early on.  It also requires readers to have a bit of an idea of what happened in many of the other novels and comics, especially if you wanted to get the full emotional impact.  Still, attentive readers generally should not have any issues following the book’s plot, and established fans of the franchise will really love the intriguing world building elements and revealed character histories, especially those that help to fill in several of the gaps surrounding the Jailer and their actions.

Unsurprisingly, Sylvanas also proves to be a major character study of its intriguing protagonist Sylvanas Windrunner who serves as the main point of view character as she recounts her life story.  This was one of the main things that drew me to Sylvanas, as I have been a big fan of this character ever since Warcraft III.  Golden does a brilliant job featuring this titular protagonist here, and Sylvanas ends up being both a great recreation of the characters life and an in-depth study of one particularly damaged person’s darkest emotions.  I was really impressed with how much additional depth Golden added to this already well-established character, and there are some fascinating details included here that help to explain so much about her and her actions in the latest expansions.  Thanks to the chronicle style of the novel, you get an intense look at her life, and find out all her pivotal moments and the emotions she experienced throughout them.  Golden provides a particularly impressive focus on the character’s mostly previously unseen childhood and family life, which serves as a good basis for much of the character-driven narrative.  Her earlier tragedies and heartbreaks have a great lasting impact on her and serve as some of her motivation for serving the Jailor.  From there the story covers most of her appearances in the various games, and it is fascinating to get the new Sylvanas-orientated perspectives of these events, which adds substantially to the novel’s drama as you see Sylvanas reacting to the various terrible events, including her murder and subsequent enforced enslavement by Arthas.  Golden does a brilliant job of highlighting the character’s despair, anguish and helplessness during this period, and the change into the life-long hatred that infected her was extremely powerful, and many of these moments tie into the book’s overall them of choice and free will.  However, some of the most fascinating moments occurred after the Lich King’s death (at the end of the second WOW expansion), when Sylvanas, cheated of her revenge, takes some drastic actions never seen in the games.  These actions lead her to first meet the Jailer and her eventual villainous actions, and I think that Golden was extremely successful in finally showcasing the character’s motivations, which were a little clouded in the actual game.  As such, Sylvanas ends up being show as a far more sympathetic character in this novel, which ties into her great redemption arc in the game, and you end up getting very attached to her story.  This novel really was the ultimate Sylvanas Windrunner experience and I loved learning even more about this brilliant character.

Aside from Sylvanas herself, this novel contains a massive cast of supporting characters who have varying degrees of impact on the overall story.  Due to the scope of the book’s plot, this supporting cast ends up encapsulating most of the major characters from the various Warcraft games, which is a bit excessive.  Many of these characters are only included for brief moments or are featured merely as mentions, and it can be a bit overwhelming to be bombarded with character names, especially from some more obscure figures.  However, I liked how the use of all these characters and the various interactions they had with Sylvanas helped to set up her place in the universe, and Golden does ensure that the reader is aware of the reason why the character is there and what role they play in Sylvanas’s life.

While there is a huge cast of supporting characters, several do shine through in the plot, and it was great seeing the various relationships they have with Sylvanas.  For example, all the members of Sylvanas’ family are featured throughout the book, particularly in the first half, and Golden really captures the impact, joys and struggles of family, and showcases how the extreme nature of these can really impact a character’s life.  The inclusion of the least famous Windrunner sibling, Lirath, really adds to the overall story, especially due to the unique relationship they had with Sylvanas.  I have to say that I really enjoyed how much Nathanos Marris (eventually becoming Nathanos Blightcaller) was featured in this novel, and Sylvanas contains an in-depth exploration of the unique relationship they had with the protagonist both in life and in death.  This adds some intriguing depth to the actions of this supporting character, and it was fascinating to see how the loyalties and attachments of this character were formed, as well as the unusual romance they formed which lasted lifetimes.  The brief scenes of iconic villain Arthas were pretty intense, and I appreciated the look at the torment he inflicted upon Sylvanas, especially as it becomes such a big part of her life story.  The use of Alliance leader King Anduin Wyrnn as Sylvanas’s audience for her story was extremely good as well, especially as the kind and hopeful Anduin serves as a great foil to the more cynical Sylvanas.  Watching these two jab at each other in the interludes was an excellent and emotional part of the novel, with Anduin trying to convince her back into the light at the same time she’s trying to bring him towards her side.  These scenes get even more intense and emotional when you realise that the entire reason for these conversations is that Sylvanas is trying to be merciful and give Anduin a choice to serve, something Sylvanas was never given.  All these characters, and more, really help to tell the full story of Sylvanas and are an impactful and powerful inclusion in the overall narrative.

Like most tie-in novels I enjoy, I chose to check out Sylvanas in its audiobook format, which was outstanding.  This was mainly because Sylvanas was narrated by legendary voice actor Patty Mattson, who voices Sylvanas Windrunner in WOW.  There was absolutely no way I was going to turn down listening to a story about Sylvanas that is narrated by the ultimate voice of the character, especially after her epic performances in some of the recent cinematics.  Unsurprisingly, Mattson did an incredible job with this audiobook, and hearing Sylvanas telling her own tale really helps to bring you into the narrative in a big way.  Mattson does some excellent alterations to her voice to portray a younger Sylvanas in some of the earlier scenes, and it was also extremely cool to have Mattson recreate some of the most awesome lines from the games and cinematics throughout the plot.  Thanks to this impressive narration, the Sylvanas audiobook has an amazing flow to it, and you will swiftly find yourself powering through it, even with its 15 hour and 38 minute long runtime.  The ultimate way to enjoy Sylvanas, the audiobook format comes extremely highly recommended as it really enhanced my enjoyment of this novel.

Overall, Sylvanas by Christie Golden is a brilliant and impressive novel that serves as an excellent tie-in to the Warcraft franchise.  Containing a powerful and entertaining character driven narrative, Sylvanas serves as a definitive study of the damaged and brilliant game character, Sylvanas Windrunner, and I had an outstanding time seeing their entire character arc come together here.  A must-read for all Warcraft fans, especially those enjoying the recent expansions, Sylvanas is an amazing read that I had so much fun with.

The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 August 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 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 take another look awesome book from the Star Wars Legends range, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.

As I mentioned last week, I have been going out of my way to read some of the older Star Wars Legends tie-in novels, especially after all the fun I had recently reading and reviewing Darth Plagueis.  Despite no longer being considered canon since the Disney buyout, the Star Wars Legends range contains some cracking reads, including the awesome horror read Death Troopers, the brutal prison novel Maul: Lockdown, and the fun heist novel Scoundrels.  I have been meaning to check out some other great Legends novel for a while, but the one that I have been particularly excited to read is the 2013 novel, Kenobi.

Kenobi, which was one of the last novels released as part of the Legends line, is an intriguing read that follows Obi-Wan Kenobi in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith and follows his early adventures on Tatooine.  Not only does this book have an intriguing plot, but the upcoming release of the new Obi-Wan Kenobi television series has got me more curious about this novel and I really wanted to see what differences occur between it and the show.  I was also drawn to fact that Kenobi was written by the supremely talented tie-in author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is a great author, who has written not only some intriguing Star Wars books but also some fantastic Star Trek novels, including Die Standing, which was particularly awesome.  As such, I was pretty sure I was in for an outstanding time reading Kenobi, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 2

These are dark days for the galaxy.  The Republic and the Jedi have fallen, and the Empire, along with its Sith masters, has risen in its place.  All hope looks lost, except for an orphaned baby boy, now living on Tatooine, and watched over by a solitary protector, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  After failing to save his fallen apprentice, Obi-Wan has retreated to the wilds of Tatooine, determined to hone his abilities, protect his charge, and wait for the day that hope is ready to return to the galaxy.  Sticking to the outskirts of the planet, Obi-Wan has taken on a new persona of Ben, a mysterious bearded and robed stranger, living alone in the desert and hiding from his past.  However, despite all his attempts to blend in, Ben is still a Jedi, and trouble follows him wherever he goes.

A deadly conflict is brewing in the deserts of Tatooine as enterprising moisture farmers clash with desperate Tusken Raiders.  The settlers are terrified of a new and ruthless Tusken war chief who has leading raids against their farmsteads, resulting in series of brutal retaliatory attacks.  When the fight seeks to engulf some of Ben’s new friends, he is again dragged into a war he never asked for.  Discovering a grave injustice as innocents are killed for a matter of greed, Ben will once again call upon the powers of the Force to ensure justice is done.  But can he achieve his goals without revealing to the entire planet that he is a Jedi, or will his greatest secret be uncovered along with the galaxy’s last hope?

Wow, this was a pretty impressive and captivating Star Wars novel from Miller that does a wonderful job showing a unique period in an iconic character’s life.  Featuring a brilliant and surprising story, set in the iconic backdrop of Tatooine, Kenobi is an excellent read that I had an amazing time getting through.

I must admit that I was a little surprised with how this story turned out.  With a name like Kenobi, you would assume that the narrative would be primarily told by Obi-Wan as he tried to settle in and survive on Tatooine.  However, Obi-Wan isn’t even a point-of-view character in this book, instead the story revolves more around some of the local people of Tatooine as they encounter Obi-Wan (or Ben, as he is known to them).  While on paper this might sound weird, it actually works really well and Miller tells a taught, powerful and compelling narrative that perfectly utilises its titular character as a mysterious and somewhat unknown figure.  Focusing on a growing battle between Tatooine settlers and the Tusken Raiders, the story shows the impact of the arriving Ben on these long-standing communities.  Miller does a great job of introducing several excellent and impressive new characters who become connected to this early version of Ben Kenobi.  Their story soon devolves into a fast-paced, character-driven adventure as Ben finds himself caught between the opposing sides.  The growing war between them takes some interesting turns, including monsters, gangsters and hidden Jedi, and introduces a fantastic villain with some clever motivations.  Miller does a great job of working the desolate setting of Tatooine and the excellent characters into this story, and you soon become attached to both as they enhance the overall the story.  Everything comes together into a captivating and moving conclusion that is exciting, emotional, and a little dark in places, bringing everything together in a satisfying way.  This intriguing story proves to be exceeding addictive and I really love the distinctive tale that Miller came up with.

This proved to be a particularly good entry in the Star Wars Legends canon, and Miller does an outstanding job of tying this story into the wider universe.  Set right after the final scene of Revenge of the Sith, you get some intriguing views of the new galaxy under the Empire, as well as Kenobi’s early attempts to settle into obscurity on Tatooine (including the answer to the question: why did he keep the last name Kenobi? The answer may surprise you).  Thanks to Miller’s excellent writing and the close relationship to the third prequel film, Kenobi is an easy novel to get into for anyone who has seen the films, and most readers will really appreciate the cool story it contains.  There are multiple references to all three prequel films and A New Hope in this book, and I know a lot of people will appreciate seeing how several of these events impacted the wider Tatooine community in surprisingly ways.  Miller also makes sure to provide a ton of compelling references to some more obscure Star Wars Legends elements, including multiple characters and events from certain comics, such as Outlander arc of Star Wars: Republic and the Star Wars Legacy series.  Some references are pretty ingrained in certain part of the Tusken Raider character’s backstories and motivations, although readers can probably get away without knowing too much about them as Miller does summarise the most relevant details.  As such, there is a lot here for the hard-core Star Wars and Legends fans to enjoy with this book, and most readers will enjoy seeing how it ties into the former canon.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 3

I have to say that I was quite impressed with how Miller utilises the barren and desolate planet of Tatooine as a setting in Kenobi.  This book serves as a particularly good guide to Tatooine in the Legends canon, and you are soon immersed in the various cultures and landscapes of this deadly planet.  Not only are there multiple breathtaking and powerful depictions of the unforgiving desert landscape that the characters are forced to survive on but there are some fantastic looks at some of the creatures, monsters and threats that exist in the desert, most of which are encountered by the protagonists at some point.  The readers are also treated to an intensive look at some of the main groups of people living on Tatooine, particularly the moisture farmers and the Tusken Raiders.  I loved the depictions of these two different groups, with Miller amping up the resemblance to old West settlers and Native Americans in their cultures, disbursement, and conflict (the phrase “dancing with Tuskens” was used at one point).  I learnt a surprising amount about moisture farming in this novel, which was pretty fun, and it was really interesting to see some of the outcasts and settlers who take up the hard lifestyle.  However, the best depictions involve the Tuskens, who are featured pretty heavily thanks to the use of supporting character A’Yark.  You get some fascinating looks at the tough and often unexplained Tuskens throughout Kenobi and end up coming away with some compelling looks at their culture and lifestyles, as well as some mentions about their most distinctive members in the Legends canon.  I really appreciated the way that Miller portrayed them as a desperate people, thanks to several distinctive events from the films and the comics, and this becomes a major part of their motivations for fighting the settlers and coming into contact with Obi-Wan.  You really get a deep look at this entire setting and its people throughout the course of the story and I am extremely glad Miller featured them so heavily

Unsurprisingly, considering the title of this novel, the reader gets quite an intriguing look at the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This version of Obi-Wan is recently arrived on Tatooine, only just removed from delivering baby Luke to his aunt and uncle, and now trying to find his place in the new, darker universe.  I really enjoyed how Obi-Wan was portrayed in this novel, especially as Miller made the interesting choice not to use him as a point-of-view character.  Instead, you see him purely through the eyes of the rest of the cast as the mysterious and weird hermit, Ben.  This actually works really well on many levels, providing at times a distant view of the protagonist that is reminiscent of Ben’s initial introductions in A New Hope.  I really enjoyed the other character’s impressions of Ben, especially as the character is trying to hide his Jedi abilities, and the fun reactions to his apparently odd actions are quite entertaining at times.

Despite Kenobi not being a point-of-view character, you do get some quite detailed impressions of his current state of mind, and it soon becomes apparent that Obi-Wan is emotionally raw after the events of Revenge of the Sith.  The other characters are quick to notice his apparent sadness, especially through certain noticeable reactions to particular topics, such as his past or the state of the galaxy.  While these other characters may not understand their significance, the reader certainly does, and Miller does a good job of showcasing his deep pain.  This troubled emotional state is also highlighted by several interludes that feature Obi-Wan’s attempted conversations with Qui-Gon Jinn in the Force, which summarise some of the recent events from Ben’s perspective while also examining his state of mind.  As the novel continues, certain events and revelations start to push Kenobi’s buttons, especially the actions of the book’s antagonist.  This eventually leads up to a big emotional outburst from Ben as he talks to one of the other characters about his failings in his past.  Watching him beat himself up for Anakin turning to the Dark Side, as well as the fall of the Jedi and the death of all his friends, is pretty heartbreaking, and it makes for the best scene in the entire novel.  I found it fascinating to see all these emotions unfurl as the plot continue, and the use of other character’s as the primary witnesses and interpreters of this, did a surprisingly good job of exploring the character’s mental state and showcasing just how alone and damaged he truly was.

While Obi-Wan does get a substantial amount of focus throughout Kenobi, the story is primarily told through the eyes of three separate point-of-view characters who Obi-Wan interacts with in different ways.  All three characters are pretty fascinating in their own right, and Miller sets up some brilliant and clever storylines around them.  My favourite of these is probably rancher and businessman Orrin Gault, who has an impressive and captivating character arc in Kenobi.  Initially portrayed as a compassionate, generous and ambitious moisture farmer who has set up the settler militia to oppose the Tusken Raids, Orrin appears to be a decent and noble figure.  However, Orrin has a dark side brought on by hidden motivations and dealings, and it soon becomes clear that many of the issues impacting the other characters are the result of his machinations.  Miller slowly reveals the full extent of Orrin’s misdeeds throughout the course of Kenobi, and he eventually turns into quite a conniving and distinctive antagonist.  The author provides some outstanding and powerful moments for Orrin throughout the book, and there are some interesting similarities between his fall and that of Anakin Skywalker.  I deeply enjoyed the full extent of his powerful arc in Kenobi, especially as Miller comes up with a particularly dark end to his story, and his inclusion really added to overall impact and strength of this book’s narrative.

The other major human character is Kallie Calwell, a store owner who runs the local watering hole and supply shop with her children and who has a close relationship with Orrin Gault.  Kallie ends up becoming one of the leading figures of the book after she and her daughter are the first settlers in the area to encounter the mysterious Ben and are instantly enthralled by his mysterious persona.  Kallie serves as a good narrator for a large portion of the novel and ends up being the central point of view figure for most of the interactions with Ben due to her romantic interest in him.  While I must admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kallie’s character (she was a bit too one-note and her constant family issues got tiring), she did have some intriguing scenes, especially when she interacted with Ben.  She ended up getting the most out of him emotionally, and her connection got him to open up at times to discuss his issues.

The other major point of view character was the deeply fascinating figure of A’Yark, the leader of the Tusken Raiders who have been raiding the local settlements.  Given the title of Plug Eye by the locals due to only having one mysterious red eye, A’Yark stands as a hard and uncompromising figure, determined to save their dying tribe without losing their traditions and sense of honour.  Thanks to A’Yark’s powerfully written scenes, you get a real sense of what it is to be a Tusken Raider, and they serve as captivating figure in comparison to the other characters in the book.  A’Yark has great story arc in this novel, and the intriguing growth, as well as their ability to adapt to certain situations, made them particularly fun to watch.  They also have some interesting connections to Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order, thanks to their former brother-in-law, and this results in some compelling scenes as A’Yark knows what Kenobi is and what he can do.  All these characters, and more, add some fascinating elements to the Kenobi novel, and I really appreciated the powerful and complex story that Miller wove around them.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 4

I doubt anyone would be surprised that I checked out Kenobi’s audiobook format, as I have a great love of the Star Wars audiobook format.  Naturally this worked out very well for me as the Kenobi audiobook was pretty damn awesome.  With a run time of just over 13 and a half hours, this was a relatively easy audiobook to get through and I managed to power through it over the course of several days.  Like most of the Star Wars audiobooks, Kenobi featured a great selection of iconic Star Wars sound effects and music with which the producers use to produce an atmosphere and help listeners visuals all the cool things going on.  Both were really good throughout Kenobi, with the sound effects in particularly being put to great use.  I did think that the use of John William’s epic score was a little more subtle here than in other books, but it still ended up enhancing some key scenes throughout the novel and giving them some extra emotional power.

I was also very impressed by the narration of the Kenobi audiobook, especially as the producers made excellent use of one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Jonathan Davis.  Davis is a brilliant narrator who has lent his epic voice out to multiple Star Wars productions over the years, including Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and the Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama.  He does another exceptional job with Kenobi, perfectly portraying all the characters of this novel with real aplomb.  He does a pretty good job with Obi-Wan, making himself sound as much like Ewan McGregor as possible, and I loved how intense he became during some of his more dramatic scenes.  Davis also provides distinctive voices for all the new characters in the novel, which I felt did a great job portraying their relevant personalities.  I particularly loved the scratchy and coarse voices of the various Tusken Raider characters, such as A’Yark, and you got a real sense of their rage and despair they have at their current situation.  This epic voice work really added to the quality of the Kenobi audiobook, and when combined with the usual awesome Star Wars sound effects and music, ensured that this was an absolute treat to listen to.

Overall, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller is a brilliant and powerful Star Wars novel that did an outstanding job of examining this complex and pivotal figure.  Perfectly examining the early days of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life on Tatooine, this impressive Star Wars Legends novel contains an intriguing, character driven novel that provides an interesting perspective on this hidden Jedi master which I deeply enjoyed.  Making full use of some great new characters and the desolate desert setting, this was a compelling and addictive narrative that is really hard to put down.  Highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, Kenobi is a great entry in the Star Wars Legends range and I look forward to seeing if any elements from it are used in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television show.

Outcast by Louise Carey

Outcast Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Inscape – Book Two

Length: 394

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Impressive rising science fiction author Louise Carey continues her awesome first series with Outcast, a brilliant and powerful cyberpunk thriller read that is incredibly fun and very clever.

Outcast is a sequel to Carey’s debut novel from last year, Inscape, which told a unique and intriguing story about espionage, betrayal and corporate politics in a cyberpunk world.  Set in the distant future after a major calamity, the fractured world is now ruled over by all-powerful and advanced corporations who battle for dominance while they attempt to create the latest in weaponry and bio-tech upgrades.  The protagonist of the series, Tantra, works as an intelligence operative for one of the largest companies, InTech, and investigates a mysterious theft that could have dire consequences for her company.  Filled with dystopian cyberpunk elements, such the built-in communication and information technology known as scapes, this ended up being an excellent and captivating science fiction thriller that was one of my favourite debuts of 2021.  Carey has continued her amazing series in a big way here with Outcast, which serves as an outstanding and impressive sequel to her first solo book.

Following the success of her first mission, Tantra’s life has been turned upside down.  Despite saving her company and uncovering a traitor, Tantra has been sidelined by a jealous supervisor and now works as a lowly security guard.  Worse, Tantra now knows the terrible truth: that the company who gave her everything has long controlled her mind with the invasive Harlow Programming, which she has since been freed from.  With her loyalties tested, Tantra is thrust back into the thick of the action when she discovers a bomb sent to InTech’s headquarters.

InTech soon finds itself thrust into a brutal corporate war with its main competitor, Throughfront.  The bombing of their headquarters is the latest in a series of attacks on InTech assets, and the board are desperate to get them under control.  Determining that she is their best operative to stop the culprits behind the attack, Tantra is assigned to the case.  Teaming up once again with her former partner, Cole, the brilliant scientist with severe gaps in his memory, Tantra attempts to find the culprit before they cripple InTech for good.

But, facing opposition from both deadly internal InTech politics and lethal external forces, their chance of succeeding seems slim, especially when they are banished to a remote InTech facility in the Unaffiliated Zone for the remainder of their investigation.  Barely escaping a deadly assassination attempt, this unconventional team find themselves caught in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy that is determined to bring InTech down for good.  However, when they discover that InTech is planning their own sinister machinations, will Tantra and Cole still be as eager to save their company?

Wow, Carey follows up her excellent solo debut in a big way here with Outcast.  This second book was even better than Inscape, taking the reader on a wild and action-packed adventure through the author’s unique cyberpunk world.  Bringing together some amazing characters with a powerful and thought-provoking narrative about control and the potential evils of technology, this was an exceptional read I powered through in a few short days.

Outcast has an excellent story that perfectly continues the fantastic narrative started in Inscape.  Taking place shortly after the events of the first book, Outcast sees a struggling Tantra and Cole once again placed in the middle of a big investigation with major implications, this time involving the destruction of company drones outside the city, which is impacting the company’s food supply.  At the same time, Tantra finds herself forced to deal with deadly company internal politics, while Cole finds himself involved with a mysterious rebel group who are attempting to stop InTech’s more troublesome activities, including their latest upgrade.  This forces them to venture outside of the city where they encounter unaffiliated mercenaries, enemy agents, dangerous rebels and deep secrets about InTech’s past.  The middle of this novel is filled with an excellent series of great emotional sequences, action scenes, world building, character development and shocking twists, as the protagonists get closer to finding out who is behind the attacks, as well as the true plans of their parent company.  This leads up to a brilliant final sequence where the protagonists are forced to make some very hard decisions in a great no-winners situation.  This leads up to the amazing and powerful conclusion where the protagonists, despite their best efforts, are left devastated by the events that unfolded, and which ensures that all the readers will be back for the third entry in this awesome series.

There are so many cool elements to Outcast which really help to turn it into a first-class read.  I deeply enjoyed the way the impressive story unfolded, and Carey makes great use of a couple of alternate character perspectives to tell a unique and multifaceted tale, such as the entertaining scenes told from the perspective of a smarmy and desperate secondary antagonist.  The author does a great job of combining a thriller storyline with the unique science fiction elements, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed story that takes the time to explore certain technological implications.  There are some brilliant twists loaded throughout the book which are well paced out and ensure that the reader is constantly on their toes.  I liked how, despite the sheer amount of world building featured in the first book, Outcast still came across as an accessible novel, and new readers can probably jump into the series here.  That being said, I think you would be missing out if you didn’t try Inscape first as this sequel does an amazing job building on and expanding some excellent storylines from Carey’s debut.  However, nothing will compete with the awesome ending that this novel has, and the reader is chucked through the emotional wringer as the book’s characters are put into an impossible situation, which produces some very dark results for them.

The excellent cyberpunk science fiction elements of this series once again shine in Outcast as Carey continues to explore the advanced biotech that was such a great feature of the first novel.  Not only is a lot of this technology very cool, especially as it results in some brilliant moments in some of the action sequences, but this mind-connected technology continues to be a key part of the plot.  Multiple storylines examine the ethics behind this technology, especially as the protagonists are now fully aware of the full extent of their parent company’s attempts to program their employees’/residents’ minds using their scapes.  This leads to some intriguing and deep discussions, especially as you get to see corporate greed and a desire for control weighed up against the rights of a person and their desire for independent thought and identity.  This exciting look at the series’ unique technology becomes even more intense and important as Outcast continues, especially when certain new advancements are revealed which could have devastating impacts on all the characters.  I loved how deep and captivating some of the scenes involving this technology get, and it results in some of the best bits of the entire book.  I cannot wait to see what happens with these cool technological aspects later in the series and I imagine it is going to be very fun.

I was also very impressed with the incredible character work featured throughout this book as Carey did a wonderful job expanding on her complex and damaged protagonists.  Like Inscape, Outcast is primarily focused on the characters of Tantra, a young intelligence officer, and Cole a formerly unethical scientist whose memory was completely erased, giving him a very different personality while retaining his brilliant mind.  These two formed a unique and fun pairing in Inscape, where they both experienced a lot of development and trauma, and it was great to see them back together again here.

Both characters had some brilliant moments throughout the novel, especially Tantra, who realised in the first book that her mind and her actions have been subtly controlled by a program her entire life.  Now rid of the Harlow Programming, Tantra is in full control of her mind, but must keep this hidden from InTech, who would kill her or reprogram her if they found out.  Forced to act like the obedient drone they think she is, Tantra chafes against the restrictions and contradictions of her superiors and the company, as she can see many of the injustices or manipulations now that her mind is solely hers.  This also results in are also some excellent ethical and loyalty implications for her as she can finally see how nefarious InTech, the company who raised her, really are, and she must decide whether she is still loyal to them.  It was especially powerful to see how her relationship with Reet, her lifelong romantic partner, has been changed.  Reet is still infected by the Harlow Programming, and Tantra can only watch as she toes the company line and fails to understand Tantra’s many concerns, criticisms or newly awakened point of view.  This puts some real strain on their relationship, and it was heartbreaking to see Tantra suffer even though she is now free.  This was easily the best character work in the entire book, and if the tragedies and hard decisions that occurred towards the end of Outcast are any indication, Tantra is going to be in for a rough ride in the third book.

Cole also had some outstanding moments in Outcast as he continues to struggle with his sense of self and identity following his memory loss and the eventual revelation that his past self was responsible for many of InTech’s evils, including the Harlow Programming.  Now mistreated and mistrusted by InTech, Cole works with a mysterious group outside of InTech to try and bring them down, while also attempting to learn more about his past actions and what led him to do what he did.  He does get some of the answers he wants as the story progresses, especially when he is reunited with an old colleague, but it only leads to tragedy and despair.  Cole’s story gets pretty dark in places, especially when he realises how InTech have repurposed and enhanced his original work, and it was fascinating to learn more about his past mistakes.

Aside from these two, there are several awesome supporting characters who also add a lot to the novel, especially as several of them are utilised as point of view characters.  This includes Douglas Kenway, a senior director at InTech and Tantra’s boss, who is determined to keep his position and power no matter what.  Convinced that Tantra is gunning for his job, he spends most of the novel trying to undermine her, while also inching closer to discovering the truth about her lack of Harlow Programming.  Kenway serves as an excellent secondary antagonist, and his dive into company politics and sabotage of the protagonist adds a fantastic and entertaining edge to the novel that I really enjoyed.  Despite his self-centred nature, Kenway does provide an intriguing alternate perspective on the events of the book, and he gives some corporate context for much of what is going on.  I also really liked how his fears were mostly realised towards the end of the book, although not in the way he expected.  I should also mention new character, Fliss, the leader of a rogue gang out in the Unaffiliated Zone who gets dragged into the conspiracy attacking InTech.  Fliss provides another great alternate perspective, especially as she and her friends have no technological upgrades to their bodies and are naturally human.  I liked the story that surrounded Fliss, especially as she struggles to control her gang when forced to work for a corporation, and she ended up being an excellent addition to the plot.  These characters, and more, help to turn Outcast into a first-rate book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing all these amazing personal stories unfold.

Louise Carey continues to shine as one of the most impressive new authors of cyberpunk fiction out there with her second novel, Outcast.  This outstanding sequel does a brilliant job of continuing the powerful storylines from Inscape, while also introducing new dangers, betrayals, and some great characters.  Filled with action, intense character moments and captivating cyberpunk science fiction elements, Outcast is a fantastic novel that proves to be exceedingly addictive and fun.  I am really starting to get hooked on this outstanding series, and all cyberpunk and science fiction fans need to do themselves a favour and check out Carey’s impressive Inscape series.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai.  Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask).  Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).

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This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales.  Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming).  I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.

Usagi IDW #16

Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales.  Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series.  All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.

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The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war.  Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing.  Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.

Usagi IDW #17

These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo.  Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings.  Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger.  A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights.  To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan.  But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?

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These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past.  The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond.  This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative.  From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes.  This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu.  You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son.  It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques.  The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill.  This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.

Usagi IDW #18

I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this.  This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them.  This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste.  This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages.  These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms.  The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks.  Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain.  These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves.  I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.

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We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear.  In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards.  Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes.  When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them.  However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain.  Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.

Usagi IDW #19

The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume.  Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus.  Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge.  The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name.  This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords.  The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that).  I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions.  This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.

Usagi IDW #19b

One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work.  Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume.  This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings.  I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue.  Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued.  The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within.  Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences.  I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story.  This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist.  This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.

Usagi IDW #20

The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series.  In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road.  It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master.  Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together.  However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.

Usagi IDW #20b

Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions.  This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school.  From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming).  This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel.  This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen.  The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.

Usagi IDW #20c

While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series.  Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi.  I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well.  His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi.  I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes.  It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes.  Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune.  An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.

Usagi IDW #21

As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes.  I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail.  Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings.  You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories.  Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels.  I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release.  While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully.  All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.

Usagi IDW #21b

Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic.  Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork.  I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.

Daughters of Eve by Nina D. Campbell

Daughters of Eve Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australian (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 370 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Nina D. Campbell presents one of the most intense, captivating, and thought-provoking thrillers of 2022 so far, with the outstanding Daughters of Eve.

Detective Emilia Hart is a dedicated New South Wales homicide detective whose gender and experience often sees her regulated the domestic violence murders.  When a prominent defence attorney is expertly shot in front of her, Hart jumps at the opportunity to investigate a high-profile case, despite opposition from her superiors.  However, this proves to be no simple investigation, especially when a second dead man with similar bullet wounds is also found.

As Hart and her colleagues investigate, they struggle to find any connection between the two victims until more men start dying and the killer releases a brazen manifesto to the world.  Claiming to be part of an organisation known as The Daughters of Eve, determined to tip the scales of justice once and for all, the killers reveal that their victims have been abusive men responsible for terrible acts against women.  They also claim that they are only just getting started, and they soon ask the public to identify more violent men for them to hunt down.

As more bodies start to drop, chaos starts to reign across Sydney, especially when a series of copycat murders begin around Australia.  Facing immense pressure from all around, Hart doggedly pursues the case, trying to find a link between the victims and the women they hurt.  However, with angry male protestors storming the city and soldiers deployed on the street, Hart is unprepared for how much her world is about to change, especially as the killer may be closer than she ever realised.

Daughters of Eve was an exceptional and outstanding first novel from Campbell that really sticks out.  Featuring a particularly powerful narrative that combines a terrific and clever mystery with some of the darkest elements of modern society, Daughters of Eve proves to be extremely addictive, and I actually ended up reading it in just one day once I got hooked on its powerful events.

I loved the intense and captivating murder mystery that this book contains, especially as it sets the protagonist down a moving and memorable rabbit hole.  Daughters of Eve has an awesome start, with a sleezy defence attorney shot down by a sniper in the middle of Sydney right in front of the protagonist.  This ensures her a key role in the investigation, and she quickly discovers that there is much more to the case, especially once more bodies drop with each of the victims identified as a potential abuser or rapist.  This initial part of the mystery is very well written, with several key elements set up for later in the book, while the reader is left guessing with the various potential suspects or motivations.  While this early investigation is ongoing, you get to know more about the protagonist, Emilia Hart, and her complex life, including her unique personal relationships and compelling professional life, especially as she works with several terrible people.

The story takes an excellent turn about halfway through when The Daughters of Eve organisation emerges and takes credit for the murders.  The entire city erupts into chaos as angry, scared men attempt to regain control, soldiers are deployed to the street, and multiple murders occur across Australia.  Hart and her colleagues are stuck desperately investigating more obscure potential suspects to discover who is behind the initial murders, while they try not to get overwhelmed by other events.  This middle section of Daughters of Eve goes into some very dark directions, especially when certain revelations and secrets come out.  This eventual leads up to the big reveal about who the killer is, which, while a little predictable, serves as a major and compelling moment in the plot, and was very well handled by the author.  The story continues for a decent while after the killer is arrested, as the events further deteriorate, and the protagonist finds herself extremely involved in everything going on.  It all leads up to the moving and dramatic conclusion, which, while tragic in its own way, leaves the reader on a somewhat hopefully note that think really worked.  This was an incredible and deeply moving story, and I deeply enjoyed the brilliant combination of captivating mystery and dark tone.

Without a doubt, the most memorable part of Daughters of Eve is the strong and powerful look at sexual and domestic violence that exists within the world today, as much of the story focuses on victims-survivors and abusive men.  Campbell paints an appropriately bleak picture of how society can hurt women of all ages, which gives the story a very grim, if realistic, coating that will both shock and move you.  Featuring multiple female characters, each with their own unique story, you get a deep understanding of some of the violence or discrimination out there, and the various issues and societal problems surrounding it, such as the restrictions on policing it.  There are so many dark elements about abusive men and sexual violence throughout this book, and I think Campbell utilised it perfectly throughout Daughters of Eve to create her captivating tale.  I particularly appreciated the way in which Campbell envisions the reaction that would occur if some vigilante women did start to target abusive men in a violent way.  The subsequent counterviolence, male protests, and over-the-top use of authorities and the military is a cynically entertaining inclusion, and the subsequent comparison between this and the existing violence against women makes for a harsh counterpoint.  While parts of the reaction by authorities, politician and men might seem somewhat unrealistic, certain recent events might potentially suggest that Campbell is right, and it is probably exactly how events would occur.  While I do think that Campbell did get a little heavy handed with some of these elements throughout the book, it produced a very emotional and confronting story that expertly enhanced the main mystery narrative.  I would probably suggest that people who are triggered by sexual and domestic violence may want to avoid Daughters of Eve because of these inclusions; this is a very thought-provoking part of the book that will stick with you for a long time.

Naturally, such dark and dramatic elements necessitate several strong and complex central characters, and Campbell uses them to great effect throughout the book.  Daughters of Eve’s main character is point of view protagonist Emilia Hart, who proves to be an excellent central focus for the entire plot.  Hart is a character with a substantial amount of baggage, and her own terrible childhood and long experience as a police officer, especially one who primarily deals with domestic murders, ensures the events of this book deeply impact her.  Watching her try to come to terms with some of the outrages she witnesses, as well as the deep personal stakes that emerge, is pretty inspirational and moving, and you end up feeling really connected to her.  The rest of the characters in this book are fantastic and they all add a great supporting edge to Hart’s story.  This includes Emilia’s adopted daughters, both of whom have their own tragic backstories, her brash but loyal police partner, and her surprisingly understanding love interest from Melbourne.  You get a real sense of some of the terrible sexism and violence experienced by women every day, and each of the characters in Daughters of Eve do a good job exploring this.  I really grew attached to several of the characters in this great cast and found their powerful stories to be brilliant.

Daughters of Eve ended up being an exceptional and distinctive Australian thriller and it is one that I am really glad I got the opportunity to read.  Nina D. Campbell hit her debut out of the park, and I really got addicted to the excellent, dark and moving story that her first book contained.  With some very powerful and insightful elements, Daughters of Eve will stick with you well after you have finished powering through its amazing story.  I cannot wait to see what Campbell produces next, and I look forward to reading more stuff from this exciting new Australian author.