The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following on from his epic crime fiction debut last year, writer and television personality Richard Osman presents the second book in his Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice.

Richard Osman is an awesome comedic talent and personality who I have enjoyed for many years on Pointless, Would I Lie to You and other fun British panel shows.  Known for his clever wit and immense height, Osman has a great sense of humour, and I was pretty excited last year when I saw that he had written a crime fiction novel, The Thursday Murder Club, which followed a group of true crime loving retirees who investigated a nearby murder.  While I knew I was likely to have a great time reading The Thursday Murder Club, I was truly blown away and it ended up being one of the best books, audiobooks and debuts I enjoyed in 2020.  Due to this, and the fact that my review for The Thursday Murder Club received a lot of attention this year, I have been really looking forward to reading the sequel for some time and I was very excited when details about The Man Who Died Twice were finally revealed.  This awesome sequel was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021 and it did not disappoint, presenting another clever and impressive character driven mystery.

Welcome back to Coopers Chase, the sprawling aged-care community near the town of Fairhaven, England, where peace and serenity is guaranteed for all its residents, aside from the thrill-seeking members of the Thursday Murder Club, a small group of friends who spend their Thursdays investigating cold cases and gruesome murders.  Made up of the intrepid Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, the Thursday Murder club has already had great success solving the murder of the previous owner of Coopers Chase, and they are now looking for their next batch of excitement.

Their wish appears to be granted when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she thought was dead, her former colleague and ex-husband, Douglas Middlemiss.  Douglas has recently run afoul of a dangerous English mobster and an international criminal cartel after stealing a bag of valuable diamonds and securing them in a secret hiding place.  Reluctantly put into witness protection by MI5, Douglas is keeping a low profile in Coopers Chase while he plans his escape and new life in retirement.  But when an assassin breaks into his flat and tries to kill him, Douglas turns to Elizabeth for help. 

Rallying the Thursday Murder Club to her side, Elizabeth attempts to figure out which of Douglas’s enemies is trying to take him out and who knew he was hiding at Coopers Chase.  But when tragedy strikes and an unknown enemy appears to have made off with the diamonds, everything seems lost.  But this opponent is unprepared for just how relentless the Thursday Murder Club can be, as Elizabeth and her friends put an ambitious plan in place.  However, this time the Thursday Murder Club aren’t just going after a killer; now they are facing down hardened criminals and assassins with a substantially less compunction about killing senior citizens.  Will the Thursday Murder Club once again solve the unsolvable, or will this be their final case?

Wow, this was amazing novel from Osman that I had an outstanding time getting through.  Featuring another epic and captivating mystery set around a fun group of characters, and featuring Osman’s amazing subtle humour, The Man Who Died Twice was an excellent read that I powered through in a few short days, and which gets another five-star rating from me.

The Man Who Died Twice has an impressive and deeply compelling character driven narrative that follows its various protagonists as they attempt to unravel the compelling case of the twice murdered man and the stolen diamonds.  This second entry in the Thursday Murder Club series can easily be enjoyed as a standalone read, although fans of the first book will no doubt have an amazing time seeing how the various characters continue to progress throughout this second book.  Osman beautifully utilises multiple character perspectives to tell several fantastic stories throughout the book, with the protagonists also involved in several personal battles, as well as attempting to bring down a local crime lord and a vicious young thug.  All of these storylines are chock full of mystery, humour, emotion and personal tragedy, as the protagonists work through the issues and challenges in their own unique ways.  The author balances all the storylines perfectly throughout the novel, eventually producing a clever and very entertaining conclusion.  I loved how the entire narrative came together, and there are some very amusing and compelling moments featured throughout.  Thanks to Osman’s ability to provide a great wrap-up to a story, the readers are left feeling incredibly satisfied and happy, especially after every single twist and bit of character development is revealed.  Combine that with Osman’s subtle sense of humour, mostly relating to the more outrageous situations these unlikely heroes casually wander in and out of, as well as some amusing jokes about being out of touch, and the barrage of references to British pop culture, and you have a very entertaining and addictive story that proves near impossible to put down.

I really enjoyed the central mystery of The Man Who Died Twice as the Thursday Murder Club and their associates are drawn into the case of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, a MI5 agent who has stolen a bunch of diamonds from a crime lord and is now avoiding assassins in the Coopers Chase retirement community.  While the initial hunt is for the location of the hidden diamonds, it soon morphs into another murder when a mysterious killer gets too close to the prize.  This is a very interesting and well-crafted mystery, and I loved how Osman moved away from more traditional murder and into the world of espionage and international crime.  To help solve this crime, the Club are forced to work with MI5 agents and soon find themselves investigating an influential criminal middleman with ties to the Mafia, who are hunting for the diamonds.  However, the nature of the crime also suggests an inside job, and the Club are forced to investigate friends and supposed allies to figure out who is responsible.  I had a great time with this mystery, and I loved the clever misdirection and various suspects that Osman featured throughout the plot.  I was able to pick up one of the twists pretty early in, but the full scope of the conspiracy was a lot more complex than I realised, with some additional unexpected reveals that I didn’t see coming.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and entertaining final plan utilised by the protagonists to entrap their opponents, especially when it ends in such a comical and amusing manner.  An overall compelling and fantastic mystery, I cannot wait to see what intriguing case appears in the next book.

You can’t talk about a Thursday Murder Club novel without mentioning the outstanding and loveable characters the story is formed around.  The Man Who Died Twice follows an intriguing and eclectic mix of characters as they find themselves caught up in the events of the latest mystery.  Osman spent a great deal of time in the previous novel introducing these fantastic characters and ensuring that the reader would fall in love with them.  This enjoyment for the characters continues in The Man Who Died Twice, as each character continues to evolve, with some excellent new details revealed about them.  Osman really does a good job of utilising each of these character perspectives in the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which the tone subtly changes for each of the characters.

The main characters of this book are the two female members of the Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth and Joyce, who have some excellent moments in this latest novel.  The first of these is Elizabeth, the former spy and investigator who is now retired and has formed the Club to keep her mind busy.  Elizabeth gets a lot of attention in this novel as the story focuses on her prior relationship with Douglas, which also examines her career in espionage.  Elizabeth is a great protagonist to follow, mainly because she is bold schemer even now as an old woman.  I always have a fun time seeing her manipulating and outsmarting everyone she comes across, especially now that most of the other characters know her game but still can’t help falling into her webs.  While there is a lot of focus on her abilities and unerring talent for danger and deception, you also get a good look at her somewhat tragic personal life.  Not only is she impacted by the return of Douglas, which raises a lot of memories from her past, but she is also still trying to hold onto her current husband, Stephen, who is suffering from dementia.  I really appreciated the complex storylines around Elizabeth, and I appreciated the way in which Osman did an intriguing dive into her past.

Joyce on the other hand is a pleasant and friendly former nurse who was the last member of the gang to join the Club.  Joyce seems like your typical, well-intentioned older lady, and I am sure that many readers will see a lot of parallels between her and their own parents or grandmothers.  However, Joyce is a brilliant thinker who uses her brain and her friendly personality to make everyone like her and then help her out.  Joyce forms a fantastic partnership with Elizabeth, and the two make an effective double team, with Joyce’s more subtle tactics and insights combining well with Elizabeth’s more direct approach.  It is a lot of fun to see Joyce investigating these brutal crimes, especially as she picks up on just as much, if not more, than the experienced spy Elizabeth.  I also really appreciate the way in which Joyce’s chapters are written, with her point-of-view shown in a series of diary entries.  This different storytelling technique helps Joyce stand out as a protagonist, especially as it highlights her entertaining personality, including the revelations and observations she has about modern technology and younger people (I had so many chuckles at her forays on Instagram).

The male members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron,  who are a little underutilised compared to Elizabeth and Joyce in this novel, but they both get their intriguing storylines which were really well-written and compelling.  This is particularly true for Ibrahim, the group’s shy intellectual, who is forced to deal with a brutal physical attack from a young criminal at the start of the book, a scene which really hit me hard due to how much I got to know this harmless character during the first book.  This attack leaves Ibrahim scarred mentally as well as physically, and he spends the rest of the novel feeling quite afraid and unwilling to leave Coopers Chase.  Osman does some deep and emotional character work on Ibrahim here, and readers end up getting quite invested in his recovery as well as his intense mental journey.  This attack on Ibrahim is also the primary catalyst for Ron’s storyline, which probably gets the least amount of attention out of all the main characters.  Ron, the former union leader, who always puts on a classic tough-guy persona, is deeply impacted by the attack on his best friend and spends the early part of the book constantly by his side.  However, once it becomes clear that Ibrahim is alright, he then leads the charge against his friend’s attacker, and uses Elizabeth’s contacts to bring the thug to justice.  I felt that Osman hit the right notes with Ron in this book, and I appreciated seeing both his emotional side and his vengeful side, and I loved how they both came from the same place of love.

The final characters I want to mention are the associated members of the Thursday Murder Club, younger characters who have been drawn into the orbit of the compelling senior citizens.  These include police officers Donna and Chris, both of whom had an entertaining introduction to the Club in the previous novel and are now firm friends with them.  Donna and Chris spend most of the book attempting to bring down a Fairhaven crime lord while also dealing with their personal issues.  Chris, who was a bit of a sad-sack character in the first novel, has been revitalised by his blooming relationship with Donna’s mother.  While happy and now health conscious, this results in a lot of soul-searching by Chris, who is unsure how to pursue the romance, especially once his girlfriend is threatened by the criminal they are hunting.  Donna, on the other hand, continues her unlucky hunt for love and purpose in this novel, going from one bad date to another while also being suitably horrified by her boss sleeping with her mother.  While Donna does not get as much focus in this novel as she did in The Thursday Murder Club, she still had some great character moments, and I deeply appreciated that touching scene she had with Ibrahim.  I also need to mention Bogdan, who, after being a major suspect in the first novel, has moved on to a supporting role in this book due to his firm friendship with Elizabeth and her husband.  Simply put, Bogdan is the coolest person in Fairhaven and a true friend, helping Elizabeth with her projects by doing all manner of unusual requests, from looking after Stephen to buying a large amount of cocaine.  He has some really good scenes in this book, and Osman sets him up as quite the bright, mysterious action man with a heart of gold.  Throw in some other well-established and explored side characters in addition to the above and you have an exciting and compelling cast with a great story around them.

One of the key things about this series that I really appreciate is the way in which Osman attempts to champion the aging process and show how capable and interesting older members of the community can be.  The Man Who Died Twice is another great example of this, as it contains multiple amazing examples of older protagonists doing impossible things and manipulating people half their age in some elaborate and entertaining ways.  It was a lot of fun once again seeing these older characters taking charge, and Osman has a very unique and entertaining take on the aging process and the mindset of older people.  However, not everything is about the positives of aging, as the author once again presents some sad and dark elements that added some powerful drama to the narrative.  Throughout the course of the story, there are plenty of discussions about illness, living with regrets, and the growing realisation that death is just around the corner.  There was a particular focus on the vulnerability of the elderly, especially with Ibrahim’s storyline, as it shakes both the victim and all his friends.  There is also a compelling look at Stephen’s battle with dementia, which includes Elizabeth’s attempt to keep him in their apartment despite what may be medically best for him, resulting in some touching and emotional scenes, especially once the double meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.  I really appreciated the author’s unique and compelling take on the aging process, and it was great to see more of the novel’s fun senior protagonists.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Man Who Died Twice, I decided in the end to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, which was a fantastic choice.  The Man Who Died Twice has a runtime of 12 and a half hours, although the last 40 minutes or so is an interesting interview.  I found myself getting through this audiobook extremely quickly, not just because of the amazing story but because the audiobook has a great pace to it and some excellent narration by actress Lesley Manville.  Manville, who also narrated The Thursday Murder Club, does another wonderful job in this second novel, and it was great to hear her impressive take on this fantastic story.  Manville has come up with some amazing voices for the various characters, with each person getting their own distinctive and fitting voice, with some great continuation from the first book.  Each of the character’s voices work extremely well, and I really appreciated the way in which Manville can ascribe age, emotion, and personality with her vocal work.  I had an outstanding time listening to Manville tell this cool story, and it was made even better by a fun discussion between Osman and Manville at the end of the book.  This nice and unique talk between author and narrator was an outstanding and fitting way to finish of this audiobook, especially as it offers some cool insights into the book you have just been enjoying.  I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation about why Osman doesn’t narrate his own novel, and I actually agree with his reasoning for it.  Overall, this was another exceptional audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone and everyone keen to check out The Man Who Died Twice.

With his second entry in the spectacular Thursday Murder Club series, Richard Osman continues to showcase he is just as talented at writing crime fiction as he is at comedy.  The Man Who Died Twice is an outstanding and wildly entertaining read that combines an impressive story with a clever mystery, some complex and likeable characters, and a brilliant sense of humour.  This was a spectacular read and I had an incredible time getting through this fantastic sequel, especially in its amazing audiobook format.  The Man Who Died Twice was one of the best books of 2021 and I cannot wait to see where Osman takes this series next.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

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

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Out of the Shadows Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 27 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The marvels and terrors of the High Republic era of Star Wars history continues with the latest fantastic and exciting young adult tie-in novel, Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland.

The High Republic is an interconnected collection of novels, comics, audio dramas and other pieces of media produced by top Star Wars authors, set hundreds of years before the films.  Starting in January 2021, this compelling multimedia project features several great pieces of fiction, including the awesome introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, the impressive The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, and the entertaining young adult novel Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The latest High Republic novel, Out of the Shadows, is another compelling young adult novel that continues several key storylines from previous High Republic novels.  This was the second Star Wars book from author Justina Ireland, who previously wrote the High Republic junior novel, A Test of Courage.

Death, destruction, pirates, and plant monsters!  The Republic may be at the height of its culture and influence, but it is in some major trouble.  Following the devastation that occurred during the Republic Fair at Valo, the Republic are at war with the marauders known as the Nihil, with the Jedi leading the efforts to hunt them down.  But in the far corners of space, the Nihil are planning something new, something that could change the very fabric of the galaxy.

Sylvestri Yarrow is a young pilot and captain of a dilapidated ship, who is doing the best she can to keep her crew above water after the death of her mother.  However, when her ship is suddenly pulled out of hyperspace in a remote area of space with a boarding party of Nihil raiders waiting for her, she has no choice but to abandon her home.  Determined to get some form of justice, Sylvestri heads to Coruscant to convince someone of the dangers, but no one is willing to listen to a teenage pilot from the frontier until the unscrupulous and ultra-wealthy Xylan Graf appears and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

In exchange for a new ship and a substantial number of credits, Sylvestri will accompany Xylan to the area of space where she lost her ship to help him disprove rumours of a dangerous Nihil weapon and to convince a senator into giving his family access to valuable hyperspace lanes.  Despite her misgivings about the plan, and the trustworthiness of Xylan, Sylvestri agrees to accompany him.  However, the Senator has a caveat: Xylan must take along some unimpeachable observers of her choosing, Jedi.  Now accompanied by young Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Master Cohmac Vitus, his apprentice Reath Silas, and, awkwardly, Sylvestri’s ex-girlfriend Jordanna Sparkburn, the team heads out to the wilds of space.  But the Nihil are always watching and waiting from the shadows, and their plans could spell doom for everyone.  Can Sylvestri and her new Jedi friends survive the dangers ahead of them, or will terrible secrets from her past threaten to overwhelm everyone once they are dragged out of the shadows.

Out of the Shadows proved to be a fun and compelling entry in this great new Star Wars series that I had a fantastic time listening to.  Featuring a great story and some excellent characters, this novel continues several key storylines from the previous High Republic novels and presents a strong and action-packed adventure.

Ireland has come up with a pretty good story for Out of the Shadows, resulting in a very exciting read.  Set around a year after Ireland’s last novel, A Test of Courage, and a short period after the events of the last major High Republic novel The Rising Storm, Out of the Shadows ties together several intriguing story threads set around some compelling characters.  The book starts out quick, with each major characters introduced in short order through a series of separate point-of-view chapters.  These early introductions do a good job of establishing the characters’ histories, personalities and motivations, and sending them on their various story paths.  The first third of the novel moves quickly, with each character getting some compelling moments, such as Sylvestri getting involved with unscrupulous businessman Xylan Graf, while Jedi Vernestra and her friends get a taste of the dangerous frontier life on their way to Coruscant.  This results in a fun mixture of plot inclusions, from some captivating political intrigue in Sylvestri’s storyline to some more action in Vernestra’s story combined with some interesting examinations of the Jedi and the Force.

These storylines combine around halfway through the book, with the key characters (except for one point-of-view antagonist) coming together and working as a team.  While it did have some good moments, I felt the middle part of the novel dragged a little, and there was not a great deal of excitement there.  However, it did set up the conclusion nicely, with Sylvestri and the Jedi coming face to face with the Nihil in less-than-ideal circumstances.  After a short confrontation, the story goes into overdrive, with the characters racing through several events all the way up to the end, including one event that might have some major ramifications for the High Republic storylines.  Strangely enough, while the second act was a little slow, the final part of the novel was way too quick, with a lot happening in a very short amount of time.  Still there were some great moments in these end scenes, including a couple of good twists, and it also sets up some further adventures extremely well.  All the key characters get gratifying conclusions to their various storylines, and readers are left feeling pretty satisfied with how events turned out.  Ireland makes sure to layer her story with some great action sequences, and there are some entertaining moments spread throughout the book.  I had a wonderful time reading this cool story, and it ended up being a rather good Star Wars book.

This latest Star Wars novel is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I felt that it was a particularly good read for teenagers.  Not only does it feature several teenage characters kicking ass, including a girl who became a Jedi Knight at age 15, but it also contains a clever and enjoyable story that does not pander to the younger age group or shy away from violence or controversial topics.  Ireland did a great job diving into the teenage mindset, and I felt that the various teenage characters featured in this novel were well portrayed as competent and complex figures.  I also liked the strong LGBT+ elements that Ireland featured throughout the novel, especially between Sylvestri and Jordanna Sparkburn, and it is cool that it is being shown so prominently in these novels.  Like many young adult Star Wars novels, this book is can be easily enjoyed by older Star Wars fans, who will appreciate the intriguing story and fascinating developments to the wider High Republic universe.  Younger readers will also probably have a good time with this novel, especially as Ireland does not go too over the top with the violence and romance, and as such I felt that this was an accessible novel to fans of all ages.

Out of the Shadows’ narrative is a continuation of several previous High Republic novels, which readers may need a bit of pre-knowledge about to fully enjoy.  Not only does this novel continue to expand the High Republic series and make frequent references to characters and events primarily featured in Light of the Jedi or The Rising Storm; it also serves as a direct continuation of two previous books.  This includes Ireland’s first Star Wars novel, A Test of Courage, as well as earlier 2021 release, Into the Dark, with key characters and storylines continued in Out of the Shadows.  Readers unfamiliar with these previous novels might also have a hard time following what is happening in Out of the Shadows, although I did think Ireland had a good go at making this novel accessible to readers, no matter their knowledge base.  Some key events of previous novels are explored in some detail, and I had no trouble following what was happening or who the characters were, even though I haven’t read A Test of Courage.  Ireland also blended the various existing storylines together extremely well, and this helped to turn Out of the Shadow into a key entry in the overall High Republic series, especially as it continues to show the galactic machinations of the Nihil.  It also looks like several storylines, mainly surrounding Ireland’s primary protagonist Vernestra Rwoh, will be continued in some future novels and I will have to try to read Ireland’s next novel, Mission of Disaster, even though I have avoided the junior High Republic novels in the past.

One of the things that particularly impressed me about Out of the Shadows was the excellent collection of characters that Ireland fit into her narrative.  There is a substantial central cast in this book, including some new additions and some characters who have appeared in previous High Republic novels.  The author does a good job of introducing and exploring these key characters throughout the novel, and you get some interesting and intense character development occurring, which really adds to the narrative.

These characters include Sylvestri Yarrow, a young pilot who finds herself dragged into the middle of this adventure.  Sylvestri is a tough frontier girl with a big independent streak and a massive chip on her shoulder when it comes to both the Nihil and the Jedi, and she goes through a lot in this novel.  Serving as one of the main point-of-view characters, Sylvestri offers a very interesting view on the events occurring and has some deep connections to the Nihil plot without even realising it.  She also forms an intense and fantastic relationship with Jordanna Sparkburn, her ex-girlfriend, who suddenly re-enters her life.  Jordanna is a frontier deputy responsible for defending her planet from Nihil raiders, which has seen her fight in quite a few battles.  Brought into the story after the Jedi help her to defend her home, Jordanna accompanies them to Coruscant and then gets wrapped up the main story.  Mainly introduced as the tough girl still interested in Sylvestri, Jordanna gains a lot of depth as a character as the story progresses, especially as she has experienced a lot of trauma after being forced into multiple battles.  A lot of this comes out when Sylvestri is in trouble, and Jordanna goes on a bit of a killing spree with a unique Nihil weapon she has obtained.  This scene really adds a lot to how the reader sees her, and it proves to be quite fascinating.  I was also a big fan of Jordanna’s giant alien cat, Remy, a dangerous creature who is just a big kitten at heart, especially when she bonds with some of the other characters.

I also enjoyed the great Jedi characters featured in Out of the Shadows.  These include Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and her Padawan Imri Cantaros, who were the main characters of A Test of Courage and are now Ireland’s go-to Star Wars protagonists.  These two Jedi make for a unique pairing, as Vernestra is a brilliant Jedi prodigy, becoming a Knight at a very young age, while Imri is only slightly younger and has a unique ability to perceive emotions.  Vern is a particularly striking character, particularly with her lightwhip (a lightsaber modified to also be used as a whip) and I enjoyed seeing the challenges that a very young Knight would face.  Her unique connection to the force also connects her to another interesting character in the High Republic canon, and it sets her up for some big storylines in the future.  The other major Jedi characters are Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his apprentice Reath Silas.  Cohmac and Reath were previously heavily featured in a previous young adult novel, Into the Dark, and it was great to see them again.  Despite being the apprentice, Reath is the more prominent character, with several point-of-view chapters to himself.  While it was great to see more of Reath and Cohmac, they are a little underutilised, and I would have liked to see more about them, especially with Reath’s unique connection to one of the antagonists.

The other two characters who were a lot of fun in this book are Nan and Xylan Graf, two complex figures who are playing their own games.  Nan is a young Nihil spy and infiltrator who previously encountered Reath while the two were trapped on a space station together.  Serving as one of Marchion Ro’s most loyal soldiers, Nan is entrusted with an important treasure and is subsequently forced to navigate the Nihil’s internal feuding and plotting to survive.  Nan provides a fantastic alternate perspective for much of the events of the novel as she is used to show what is happening in the Nihil camp.  I liked her use in this book, and while I would have enjoyed a much more intense confrontation with Reath when they are inevitably reunited, I did enjoy how Nan’s story arc dramatically changed towards the end of the novel, which should be interesting for future High Republic novels.  The other character is Xylan Graf, the ultimate rich-kid master manipulator.  Xylan is the scion to the exceedingly powerful and rich Graf family, who organises the entire expedition, seemingly to gain rights to a valuable sector of space.  Xylan is an extremely flashy and stylish figure, and it is quite entertaining to see the other characters react to his eccentricities.  He is also quite a sly operator, cooking up plans and spinning tales to keep everyone happy.  He is so slippery that you honestly don’t know what he is planning for most of the novel, and I felt that he was a very compelling and fun addition to the cast.  All of the above characters were really fun and I hope they reappear in some of the future High Republic entries.

I made sure to grab a copy of Out of the Shadows’ audiobook format, which proved to be an interesting experience.  While I tend to really enjoy Star Wars audiobooks due to the cool production inclusions they usually feature, I ended up being a little disappointed with Out of the Shadow’s audiobook.  This was mainly because it lacked the iconic Star Wars musical score or background sound effects that all the other Star Wars audiobooks have, which made for a more subdued listening experience.  While this didn’t make Out of the Shadows impossible to enjoy, it was a very noticeable departure from the typical fun I have with Star Wars audiobooks, and several scenes could have benefited from being enhanced by some emotional music.  Still, I enjoyed the production, mainly because narrator Keylor Leigh does a really good job telling the story.  Leigh, who previously narrated Ireland’s A Test of Courage, has a great voice for teenage characters.  I felt that Leigh gave each of the key protagonists a unique and fitting voice, and she also ensured that the narrative moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  In addition, with a runtime of just under 11 hours, this is a relatively quick listen, which dedicated listeners can power through in no time at all.  As a result, this is a good format to enjoy Out of the Shadows on, although I really do wish that it had featured the usual strong Star Wars production values.

Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland is an awesome and captivating High Republic tie-in novel, which continues to explore this unique period in Star Wars history.  Containing a fun story and some great characters, this novel serves as a key entry in the High Republic series, following several fascinating plot threads from some previous novels.  Readers are in for an excellent time with this novel, and Out of the Shadows proves to be an exciting and compelling experience.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Summers Cover 2

Throwback Thursday – The Death of Superman

Death of Superman Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

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

Directors: Sam Liu and Jake Castorena

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi

Producers: Sam Liu and Amy McKenna

Length: 81 Minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: Batman: Assault on Arkham

Assault on Arkham Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 20

Director: Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding

Writer: Heath Corson

Producer: James Tucker

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relentless by Jonathan Maberry

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

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

Length: 18 hours and 29 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

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

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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