World of Warcraft: Sylvanas by Christie Golden

World of Warcraft - Sylvanas Cover

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

Series: World of Warcraft

Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover

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

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take another look awesome book from the Star Wars Legends range, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.

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

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

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 2

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 4

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

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

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

Outcast by Louise Carey

Outcast Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Inscape – Book Two

Length: 394

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

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

Usagi IDW #15b

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

Usagi IDW #16

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

Usagi IDW #16b

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

Usagi IDW #17

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

Usagi IDW #17b

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

Usagi IDW #18

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

Usagi IDW #18b

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

Usagi IDW #19

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

Usagi IDW #19b

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

Usagi IDW #20

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

Usagi IDW #20b

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

Usagi IDW #20c

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

Usagi IDW #21

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

Usagi IDW #21b

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

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

Publisher: Hodder Studio (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for shocks, twists and so many sweet surprises as impressive new author Sarah Bonner presents her epic debut thriller, Her Perfect Twin.

Megan Hardcastle has always lived in the shadow of her estranged twin, Leah, who always took everything Megan had, while exploiting their dramatic family past to obtain fame, fortune and the freedom to do anything she wanted.  Despite that, deep down Megan still loves her sister, until she finds explicit photos of her on her husband’s phone.  Rushing to her sister’s house, she is unable to contain her rage, and their argument ends tragically when she kills Leah.

Determined not to get caught, Megan comes up with the desperate plan to become Leah, fooling the world into thinking she is still alive.  Diving deep into Leah’s perfect life, Megan starts to become her sister and soon finds her carefree life intoxicating and irresistible, especially when she falls in love with the new man in Leah’s life.  As life at home with her controlling husband gets even more difficult, Megan decides to give up her entire existence and start living as Leah.  However, just before she can enact her escape, the pandemic lockdown hits.

As the country adjusts to a new normal, Megan struggles to maintain two separate lives under lockdown.  Her problems are only just beginning when it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret and they are willing to use it to take everything from her.  Soon, Megan finds herself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse against a sadistic foe with her life, freedom and identity on the line.  However, not everything is as it seems, and all the dark secrets from these twin’s life are about to come out.

OMG, well that turned out to be exceedingly epic and amazing.  Sarah Bonner has come out of the gates swinging here, and her first book was such an outstanding and epic read.  Her Perfect Twin is easily one of the best psychological thrillers of the year, and I loved the exceptionally clever and wildly entertaining story it contained.  Loaded with complex and deeply flawed characters as well as some impressive examinations of self and identity, Her Perfect Twin is an incredibly addictive novel that gets a five-star rating from me.

Let me just start off here saying that you are going to really fall in love with the intense and captivating narrative contained within Her Perfect Twin.  Bonner has gone out of her way here to create an exceptional read that quickly drags you in and then hits you with clever twist after clever twist, until the only thing you can think about is getting to the end of the story.  Her Perfect Twin starts off strong, introducing the protagonist Megan and showing the events through her eyes as she uncovers her husband’s affair with her twin sister, Leah, who she then kills after they get into an argument.  The reader slowly gets to see Megan enjoying the new freedoms and fun associated with living her sister’s life, while she also plans to escape from her normal life and terrible marriage.  This first part of the book is very good and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist dive into her new identity, especially as she grows as a person under it.  While I liked this part of the story, I thought I could see where the story was going, including the introduction of lockdown part way through.  However, it turns out that I was so very, very wrong, as Bonner had some amazing tricks up her sleeve.

The first real indication you get about how much Her Perfect Twin is going to change happened about halfway through when, after a major and surprising reveal, the narrative suddenly starts getting told from the perspective of an entirely different character.  This honestly altered everything, as not only did it throw you right into the mind of a psychopath but it starts showing some of the previous events of the book in an entirely new context, revealing just how much set up and foreshadowing Bonner included in the first half of the novel.  From there you are forced to watch an incredibly evil villain make their move, manipulating the situation to their advantage while appearing to have total control, which is both infuriating and extremely compelling at the same time.  And then, just when you think you have a handle on the situation, Bonner throws another big twist at you, along with another new point-of-view character, and you honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  At this point, I was honestly reeling with all the revelations as I began to fully understand just how talented Bonner is as an author, but the story isn’t done yet.  There are even more great reveals and twists from there as the third character tells their story, which changes everything that you thought you knew already.  A final major shift occurs for the last part of the book, which seeks to wrap up everything and showcases the full cleverness and feelings off all the previous characters.  While this final part of the book is a tad slower and seems a little disconnected from the main plot, it concludes everything up beautifully and leads to an impressive and well-thought-out ending that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

This was a pretty incredible story, and it is one that I had so much fun getting through.  I honestly read the last 250 pages in a single sitting, and it was physically impossible for me to put down the book after the first big reveal.  I cannot emphasize enough just how clever and brilliant all the twists in Her Perfect Twin were, and Bonner sets all of them up perfectly.  I loved how multiple small details and seemingly throwaway lines came back in a big way as the novel progressed, and there was some brilliant planning here.  Bonner writes a pretty dark psychological tale here, and Her Perfect Twin does an impressive dive into the inner psyches of its various characters, with a particular focus on identity, freedom and the terrible secrets that bind us together.  While a few scenes get a bit disturbing and might be upsetting for some readers, it all works for the greater good of the story, and every brutal scene is incredibly well written and impressively moving.  I did appreciate the way in which Bonner was able to work England’s COVID-19 lockdowns into the story.  While some recent novels tend to shoe-horn lockdowns into their story, Bonner’s examination and use of the lockdowns was particularly clever, expertly tying into the story and becoming one of the better inclusions of it that I have seen in recent years.  An overall incredible and powerful narrative, you will fall in love with Her Perfect Twin’s perfect story.

I must also highlight the incredible characters that Bonner featured throughout Her Perfect Twin, although I might avoid specifics to keep some of the twists hidden.  All the characters in this book are extremely well developed, and Bonner produces some intricate and powerful backstories for them that drive them to do the bad things in this novel.  Megan was extremely well written, and her constant battles with her identity, her devious twin, and the constant fear of obtaining the same memory issues that plague her mother, become important parts of her story.  Watching her develop and attempt to find happiness is pretty satisfying, although she goes through a lot in this novel, especially as the story gets darker and darker.  The rest of the main characters were also really good, and you get some intriguing perspectives as the novel progresses, which help to produce such a rich and striking story.  A particular shoutout must go to the main antagonist of the book, who is quite frankly one of the best/worst villains I have seen in fiction.  This antagonist is a malicious, deceitful and sadistic figure who puts all the other characters through the emotional wringer as they attempt to get their ultimate goal.  I hated this character so much in Her Perfect Twin, especially after finding out the full extent of their plans, and once the book jumps to their arrogant perspective, you will grow to hate them too.  Watching them put their devious designs into motion is pretty horrific, and you will hang in there just to wait and see if they fail.  You will really come to love or hate these characters by the end of Her Perfect Twin, which just goes to show how awesome an author Bonner really is.

I think it is clear from my excitable ramblings up above that I really loved this incredible novel.  Her Perfect Twin was an exceptional debut from Sarah Bonner and I still cannot get over how much I loved its cool and clever story.  Loaded with insane twists and powerful characters, this novel is just so damn good, and you honestly will not be prepared for how crazy the story gets.  A must-read for all fans of the thriller genre; I cannot recommend Her Perfect Twin enough.

Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford

Engines of Empire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: The Age of Uprising – Book One

Length: 22 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author R. S. Ford starts off an intriguing and compelling new epic fantasy series with the powerful Engines of Empire, a great read that I had a wonderful time reading.

Ford is an author who has been writing some interesting books in the last few years.  His big works include the Steelhaven and War of the Archons series, both of which have some very intriguing plots.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his previous work, I have heard some great things about his War of the Archons books, and I might have to go back and check it out at some point.  After reading some early positive reviews of Ford’s latest novel, Engines of Empire, I decided to check it out, grabbing an audiobook version, which proved to be extremely good.  This cool book serves as the first entry in Ford’s new The Age of Uprising series and sets the scene for a captivating and exciting new trilogy.

For generations, the nation of Torwyn has been ruled by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who provide the nation its food, weapons, transportation and invaluable devices that fuse magic with technology.  One of the most prominent Guilds is the Hawkspurs, an ancient and powerful family who have long held the empire together and ensured its position in the world.  However, the current generation of Hawkspurs are about to find that everything they thought they knew is about to change.

As the matriarch of the family, Rosomon Hawkspur, attempts to maintain her family’s status and standing in Torwyn’s capital, the Anvil, her children each head off to find their own destinies.  The oldest son, Conall, departs to the empire’s distant frontier to prove his worth as a military commander.  The rebellious and magical Hawkspur daughter, Tyreta, is sent to an important imperial holding to facilitate her training as the future head of the family business.  The youngest son, Fulren, a talented artificer, finds himself involved in foreign politics when he is tasked with guiding an emissary from a powerful rival nation.

However, forces of chaos, fanaticism and destruction are all around them, and soon all the Hawkspurs are placed in mortal danger.  At the frontier, Conall attempts to prove himself, but only finds rejection and hints at a rising evil.  Tyreta’s reckless actions place her in mortal danger, and her only path to salvation lies in understanding the people her nation has hurt the most.  Back in the Anvil, Fulren is framed for murder and is soon banished to a hostile foreign nation ruled by dark gods.  Rosomon, desperate to save her fractured family, finds herself thrust into the middle treachery and dark revolution, as unseen hands plot against the guilds.  As the entirety of the world changes all around them and dangerous forces reveal themselves, can the Hawkspurs endure, or will they, and the entirety of Torwyn, come to utter ruin?

Engines of Empire was a captivating and entertaining fantasy epic that transports the reader to intricate new world, filled with interesting characters, political intrigue, and intense action, and makes for an excellent and exciting read.

At the centre of Engines of Empire is a massive and complex narrative that fully explores the various main characters while also plunging the intriguing new setting into chaos and anarchy.  Ford utilises a great multiple perspective storytelling device that splits the overall book into some compelling, separate chunks.  The story initially has four distinctive storylines that follow the Hawkspur family members as they go off on their own separate adventures.  This results in an interesting blend of plotlines as you have a more military story with Conall, a survival/adventure storyline with Tyreta, Rosomon’s political intrigue narrative, and Fulren’s life-or-death struggle in a foreign land.  These storylines are mostly unconnected to each other and not only allow the point of view protagonists to grow and develop independently with their own group of supporting characters, but it also ensures that the reader gets to explore various aspects of the new fantasy realm and see the range of different problems affecting it.  These four storylines develop at a reasonable and compelling pace, and the reader soon is drawn into their individual storylines, as well as some of the overlapping conspiracies that are featured throughout.  A fifth point-of-view character is introduced about halfway through the novel, which mainly acts to bolster one of the existing storylines and proves to be an excellent feature filled with action and espionage.  This leads to the final stretch of the novel, where several big events and twists occur that shake the foundation of the novel and take it in an excellent new direction.  Several of the separate plot lines start to come together more closely towards the end, and there are some excellent moments as the characters reunite to face a common foe.  This leads to an exciting and intense conclusion that takes several of the character storylines in interesting direction and sets up the rest of the trilogy extremely well.

I really liked how Engines of Empire came together as Ford wrote an excellent fantasy tale that made sure to cover a vast range of people and places.  The entirety of Engines of Empire has a great combination of story elements that ensures there is something for all sorts of readers here, including massive world building, great action, clever political intrigue, dangerous adventures or interesting characters.  I particularly enjoyed the great use of five character driven storylines centred on different point-of-view protagonists.  Not only did they come together well to produce a great overall narrative but they also provided the reader with several unique adventures with their own appeal.  I particularly enjoyed Fulren’s story, as it featured an excellent blend of interesting world building in a rival nation ruled by dark magic and impressive character moments.  Tyreta’s jungle-based survival mission was also really cool, especially with the intriguing side characters and brutal combat, while the fifth storyline introduced halfway through the book was filled with some amazing sequences and intriguing international espionage.  Unfortunately, the remaining two storylines surrounding Rosomon and Conall were a little slower and I didn’t have as much fun reading them, even with their respective political intrigue and desert action elements.  I struggled a little to get through these specific storylines at times, especially towards the centre of the novel, and it slowed down my overall reading of Engines of Empire.  Still, both storylines end on interesting notes, and I think they might have more potential in the sequel.

Due to the narrative being focused on five specific central characters, Ford spends a lot of time in Engines of Empire exploring and building up some of the characters.  The main protagonists are the four members of the Hawkspur family, Rosomon, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, each of whom have their own skill.  Due to certain tragedies in their past, the family is a bit dysfunctional, and there is a noticeable distance between them.  I liked seeing each of them go on their own distinctive journey throughout the book, and each of them does develop to a degree, especially Fulren and Tyreta.  However, I did find myself getting rather frustrated with some of the protagonists as the book continued, especially as there is a lot of narrative stupidity and inconsistent character work.  This is particularly true for Conall, who comes across as a whiney idiot for most of the novel, while Rosomon, who is supposed to be a brilliant leader and tactician, is soundly outsmarted at every turn and can’t even see the most obvious of traps.  I felt these negative character traits deeply impacted their individual storylines, and it made them harder to care for.  On the other hand, I felt the fifth point-of-view character, Lancelin Jagdor, rounded out the main cast extremely well.  Lancelin is a master swordsman who has a very complicated relationship with the Hawkspurs.  He finds himself getting dragged into their issues about halfway through the book, and I think his interesting outlook and unique experiences help to balance out the less enjoyable protagonists and produce a better story.

Aside from these five main protagonists, Ford has also included a great collection of supporting characters.  These supporting characters are usually unique to one of the main protagonists’ storylines and are primarily shown through their eyes.  Many of these characters prove to be allies or friends of the protagonist, although there are a few good antagonists thrown in there as well.  Some of my favourites include Sted, Conall’s hard-drinking second in command, whose fun, no nonsense personality helps to enhance Conall’s storyline to a degree.  I also had fun with Kosma Khonos, a ruthless Torwyn spy in the kingdom of Nyrakkis, Saranor the Bleeder, an over-the-top barbarian war chief, and Wenis, a foreign witch who becomes both a jailor and love interest to Fulren, which ends up being one of the more interesting relationships in the entire novel.  This huge web of supporting characters really helps to enhance the overall story and I look forward to seeing some of these elaborate and distinctive figures again in the future.

I was deeply impressed with the amazing new fantasy world featured in Engines of Empire, and it appears that Ford spent a significant amount of time developing it.  The main setting for the novel is the fascinating nation of Torwyn, a former religious nation that has been taken over by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who now hold sway over the various industries.  Torwyn is built up beautifully by Ford, and you soon get the full sense of it, including its intriguing industrial aspects, magic-powered technology, dragon-based religion, and ruthless politics.  The arrangement of Torwyn leads to an intense civil war that looks set to shape the future of much of the novel and serves as a brutal and fantastic central setting for several storylines.  While Torwyn proves to be an exceptional area to explore, Ford goes above and beyond and takes the reader to several other intriguing locations within and without it.  Thanks to the adventurous characters, you see some of the more desolate and dangerous locations in the lands, such as the jungle-covered Sundered Isles, the war riven frontier, the snow-covered, barbarian-infested Huntan Reach, and the magical controlled nation of Nyrakkis.  While all these locations were pretty cool, I particularly loved the dive into Nyrakkis, which proved to be a very intricate location filled with intrigue and demonic magic.  The jungles of the Sundered Isles were also extremely awesome, and Ford provides an interesting examination of the tribes who were displaced by the Torwyn settlers, especially as Tyreta spends time amongst them and getting to know their culture.  Throw in an interesting blend of different magical practices and technologies, as well as a few fun creatures (giant war eagles and beast men for the win), and you have an extremely awesome world that I can’t wait to return to in the future books.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Engines of Empire, which ended up being a very enjoyable experience.  With a run time of just over 22 hours, this is a pretty substantial audiobook (it would have come in at number 18 on my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks list), and it did take a fair bit of effort to get through, especially in some of the slower parts of the story.  Despite its length, I think that it is worth the time to get through this audiobook, especially as it proves to be an excellent way to absorb Engines of Empire’s story.  I always find myself really connecting more to new fantasy settings and characters in this format, and this happened again with Engines of Empire, as I really found myself absorbing all the interesting details about this world.  I also loved how the Engines of Empire audiobook had several different narrators including Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve and Stephen Perry.  These narrators provide a rich and powerful audible tapestry, with one narrator assigned to voice all the chapters told from the perspective of a specific point-of-view character.  Not only do the narrators do a good job capturing the personalities of the main characters they are portraying but they also provide some fun voices for the various supporting figures and antagonists.  While it is occasionally odd to hear a narrator start voicing a character who had appeared in other chapters, this ended being a great collection of voices and I loved how well they all brought the characters to life.  An overall excellent audiobook, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Engines of Empire and I had a brilliant time listening to it.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with my first book from R. S. Ford.  Engines of Empire was an excellent read that takes the reader on an epic fantasy adventure.  Making awesome use of a big cast of characters, Ford transports his audience to a brilliant and elaborate fantasy realm filled with adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  I had an amazing time getting throughout Ford’s captivating narrative, and I loved the exception world building that he did.  While I didn’t enjoy all of the characters, Engines of Empire ended up being an outstanding read that does a wonderful job setting up his next The Age of Uprising novel.  A great fantasy novel that is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

Warhammer 40,000: Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Day of Ascension Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 5 hours and 38 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary science fiction and fantasy author Adrian Tchaikovsky has arrived in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the awesome and clever novel, Day of Ascension, a deadly and wildly entertaining read that sets two brilliant factions against each other.

2022 has so far proven to be an amazing year for Warhammer fiction, with several impressive novels already released, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark and The Twice-Dead King: Reign by Nate Crowley.  However, the Warhammer 40,000 novel I have been most excited for is Day of Ascension, an awesome and unique read written by acclaimed author Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky has been wowing science fiction and fantasy audiences for years, producing several impressive novels across various genres.  Not only has he written some fantastic standalone novels but he also produced highly regarded series, such as the Shadows of the Apt and Children of Time books.  I have really liked the sound of his cool novels, but I had not had a chance to read any of them yet.  Once I saw that Tchaikovsky was contributing to the extended Warhammer 40,000 universe, I knew that this would be the year I finally read something from him.  Day of Ascension is Tchaikovsky first full novel in the Warhammer universe (he previously wrote the short story Raised in Darkness), and I was deeply impressed by the brilliant and captivating story he came up with.

On the forge world of Morod, the life and soul of every human belongs to the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Imperial machine cult who provide the armies of mankind with their weaponry and war machines.  However, while the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus live in comfort and prosperity, constantly delving into the secrets of the machine, the common people of Morod have been worn down by millennia of servitude, exploitation and conscription, doomed to either die young in the mines and foundries or be turned into mindless mechanical soldiers.  In their grief and anger, the civilians of Morod have turned to a new faith that offers salvation from the harsh rule of the Mechanicus, although that devotion comes with a dark price.

In the hierarchy of Morod’s Adeptus Mechanicus, Genetor Gammat Triskellian is considered a joke due to his focus on improving the flesh rather than replacing it with machinery.  Constantly overlooked by his superiors and given the most menial of tasks, Triskellian looks to find a way to advance his research and end the corruption he sees holding the order back.  When he uncovers a particularly interesting genetic strain in the populace of Morod, he thinks it could be the answer to all his prayers, one that could enhance his science and revolutionise the advancements of his order.

Digging further, he finds evidence of an unusual and twisted religious congregation operating throughout the planet, preaching rebellion and the destruction of the tech-priests, while awaiting the return of long-gone angels who will turn the planet into a paradise.  Seeking to use this congregation to his own advantage, Triskellian captures young, idealistic infiltrator Davien to find out more about her mutated family.  But as his plans begin to come into effect, Triskellian is about to discover that not everyone is meant to rule, and that the forces he seeks to control are far more dangerous and hungrier than he could possibly know.

What an epic and impressive read!  Tchaikovsky has dived into this franchise with great relish, producing an exceptional and powerful piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction that is not only exciting and action packed, but also extremely thought provoking as the author examines some of this universe’s most complex and intriguing factions.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible story contained within Day of Ascension, as Tchaikovsky takes the reader on an intense and dark journey.  The main premise of this book is a fun one: what if an ambitious Imperial tech-priest attempts to utilise the deadly power of a Genestealer Cult for his own machinations?  The answer: absolute chaos as an entire world implodes in the fires of revolution, destruction and religious zeal.  This was a great story that Tchaikovsky sets up brilliantly in the early stages, quickly introducing the corrupt world of Morod, the choking hierarchy of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the malignant underlying Genestealer Cult attempting to manipulate events from the shadows.  After this great introduction, the remaining story happens at a very fast pace, especially as this overall novel is fairly short (193 pages, or just over five and a half hours on audiobook).  The political and scientific intrigue of point-of-view character Triskellian runs straight into the revolutionary aspirations of the Genestealer Cult’s Davien with the expected destructive results.  I loved the brilliant clash of styles that occur between these two groups, and all the betrayal, manipulation and alien influences melds perfectly with the non-stop action and revolution.  This quickly leads up to a destructive and powerful conclusion that I deeply enjoyed and will leave you reeling in multiple ways.  There were some absolutely amazing twists towards the end, and I loved the resultant terrifying consequences to the wider universe which were really cool and deliciously ironic.  Tchaikovsky ends everything on a captivating and dark note which will leave readers extremely satisfied after getting engrossed in the impressive story.  This is an epic narrative that drags you right into the very heart of the worst parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

I really must commend Tchaikovsky’s first dive into the Warhammer 40,000 universe as the author has a noticeable appreciation for this franchise and canon.  I loved how he expertly focused the story on two particularly sinister factions within this universe, while also making excellent use of an Imperial Forge World as the main setting of this book.  The two main factions of this novel are the tech-priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus and an undercover Genestealer Cult, the dangerous human/alien hybrids who act as infiltrators and forerunners of the Tyranids.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the reader gets an exceptional and detailed look at both factions, and you are soon immersed in their lore, politics, and motivations, which is just so fascinating.  There are so many cool things about this, from the unique interactions of the cybernetic tech-priests and the mechanical soldiers to the slow infiltration and incorporation of the Genestealers who spark revolution throughout the planet.  However, the best thing about this is the way in which Tchaikovsky’s expertly showcases one of the most inescapable facts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: there are no actual good guys here; just self-serving fanatics with their own terrible agendas formed from a universe constantly at war.  This is so brilliantly highlighted in the fact that halfway through the book you find yourself on the side of the alien infiltrators, who are taking advantage of the terrible conditions on Morod to spark a revolution.  However, no matter how beneficial and beatific they may appear, preaching about angels and the better days ahead, there is still an amazing sinister edge to them, especially if you know what horrors they are actually referring to.  I loved how brilliantly these two unique and corrupt Warhammer factions are played off each other, and it proves to be an excellent background to this awesome novel.

Like most Warhammer tie-in novels, Day of Ascension is probably best enjoyed by those fans of the franchise, especially as Tchaikovsky looks at some obscure and unique parts of the canon.  While maybe a little too-lore heavy to serve as the best introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I felt that this is an easy enough book for new fans to get into, especially if they are established science fiction fans.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the various story elements feature the right amount of detail and I the various factions are introduced extremely well especially to new readers.  I do feel that readers who don’t quite understand what the Genestealers and their Tyranid masters are might not get the true horror of this book and its conclusion, and I personally enjoyed the novel more because I knew what the true nature of the Genestealer’s plans were.  However, new readers probably will get the full benefit of this as it is made pretty clear from the context.  As such, I would probably recommend this to both established Warhammer fans and general science fiction readers, especially if they have enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s writings in the past, and I know a lot of people with have a great deal of fun with this.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and over-the-top characters featured throughout Day of Ascension, especially the main two characters, Triskellian and Davien, who act as the point-of-view characters for the novel.  Both are fantastic figures who are fully enveloped in the massive machines of their organisations, whether they like it or not, and who spend much of the book trying to battle what they see as their oppressors.  As such they form a brilliant tandem of opposing views, which perfectly shapes the morally grey nature of the narrative and makes it very unclear which one of these inherently terrible people you should be rooting for.  I particularly liked the character of Triskellian as the author envisions him as a thoroughly underappreciated middle management figure who is ignored and ridiculed by his superiors who fail to understand his work.  This constant mistreatment causes Triskellian to snap in this novel and he starts doing some darker deeds to gain what he believes is rightfully his.  I loved seeing this brilliantly portrayed figure, who will be clearly understood by anyone whose worked under an idiot boss, slowly slip off the deep end and attempt to use an evil alien cult to fulfil his objectives.  This character has some amazing moments, and it was so much fun seeing him try to manipulate events around him, only to be surprised that nothing goes to plan.  I also found his focus on genetics and biology to be quite fascinating, especially for a tech-priest, and his obsession with alterations on the flesh ended up having some intriguing parallels with the objectives of the Genestealer cult.

Davien, on the other hand, is an oppressed member of Morod’s population who acts as an infiltrator and spy for the Genestealer Cult she is a part of.  Frustrated by the slow pace of the promised revolution and the eventual appearance of their “saviours”, Davien has some outstanding scenes throughout Day of Ascension as she tries to save her loved ones from the machinations of the tech-priests.  Her rise in status and closeness to the powers that guide her family occur at the exact same time that she starts to have doubts about her organisations purpose, and the subsequent internal battle is extremely powerful and captivating, especially if you know just how right she is to be worried about the future.  Davien goes through a lot of growth, and it is fascinating to see what happens during her character arc, especially when it comes to her interactions with Triskellian and the influences of the beings guiding the cult.  Day of Ascension also has several great supporting characters who get their moments to shine throughout the book.  While most of them are a bit over-the-top in their appearance and personality, they prove to be very entertaining and I loved the outrageous and mechanically deformed highly ranked tech-priests who so badly enrage the protagonists.  There is a particularly good twist surrounding one of the minor support characters that I thought was extremely brilliant, especially as there is some subtle set up for it earlier on, and it results in an outstanding ending for the entire book.  An overall excellent cast of characters make this shorter Warhammer novel really shine.

Just like most of the Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading, I chose to check out Day of Ascension in its audiobook format, which was an impressive and enjoyable experience.  As I mentioned above, this audiobook has a very short runtime and you can quickly power through it, especially once you get stuck into the intriguing and clever story.  I deeply enjoyed how this format enhanced this great narrative, and it was a lot of fun to hear all the chaos and destruction being read to you.  I must commend the narrator of Day of Ascension, actor Harry Myers, who did an exceptional job here.  I loved Myers’ great voice, which at times strongly reminded me of Stephen Fry, which is a definite plus.  Myers really dives into the various characters here, and I loved the brilliant edges he gives to them, especially the main character Triskellian.  You can really sense Triskellian’s frustration, ambition and internal outrage as the events of the novel proceeds, and this helps you to get into the mind of this entertaining figure.  An extremely cool way to enjoy Day of Ascension, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interesting in checking out this great Warhammer 40,000 novel.

With this clever and exciting novel, Adrian Tchaikovsky has a brilliant debut in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Day of Ascension is an epic and intriguing novel that takes a fascinating look at two exceptional factions from the Warhammer canon and brings them together in a dark and entertaining battle of wills and manipulation.  Containing a tight, addictive story, some great characters, and a deep examination on some of the best parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Day of Ascension is an outstanding read.  I really hope that Tchaikovsky writes more Warhammer fiction in the future as he absolutely killed it here.

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 January 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The awesome new focus of Star Wars fiction, the intriguing High Republic range, continues to shine brightly with the latest epic adult novel, The Fallen Star, a dark and impressive entry by the extremely talented Claudia Gray.

Ever since its start at the beginning of 2020, the High Republic multimedia project has presented some unique Star Wars stories that I have deeply enjoyed.  Set in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi, hundreds of years before the films, The High Republic focuses on a different generation of Jedi facing off against the murderous raiders known as the Nihil.  This series has so far produced some excellent gems across various forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and other cool entries written by some of the best authors of Star Wars fiction.

While there is an interesting spread of fiction in The High Republic, the key storylines are generally contained in the main adult novels such as The Fallen Star, and the previous novels, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which introduced the High Republic era and the Nihil, and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which saw the Nihil launch a bold attack at the very heart of the Republic.  Other cool entries, such as the young adult novels Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, and the audio drama Tempest Runner, added to this tapestry, and it has resulted in a fantastic and compelling overarching narrative and setting.  As such, I have been very excited to see where this franchise goes next, especially as The Fallen Star acts as one of the finales to the current phase of High Republic fiction.  Written by Claudia Gray, who previously authored the incredible Master & Apprentice (one of my favourite Star Wars novels), this was an epic book with a fantastic adventure story.

Following the brutal Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the entire galaxy is hunting for the Nihil, determined to destroy them and their mysterious leader, the Eye, once and for all.  However, the Republic and the Jedi are unaware that the true Eye of the Nihil is the fearsome Marchion Ro, who plans to devastate the Jedi and the Republic headquarters, Starlight Beacon.  A massive space station out in the Outer Rim, Starlight Beacon was intended to bring light and cooperation to the most remote areas of the galaxy.  Staffed by some of the most powerful Jedi, Starlight Beacon stands a symbol of hope and determination, but that is about to change.  Determined to make the Jedi and the Republic pay, Ro sends his cohorts on a deadly mission to destroy Starlight Beacon from the inside, causing a massive explosive that rips through the station, causing chaos and destruction, as Starlight Beacon loses all power.

Determined to save the station and its inhabitants no matter what, the Jedi try to restart the station before it is too late.  However, something else is aboard Starlight Beacon, something ancient, unseen and bearing an insatiable hunger that drives it to hunt and feast on Jedi.  With their abilities to connect with the Force disrupted by the foul beasts stalking them, the Jedi will need the help of everyone on the station, including weird pilots, annoying droids and rogue Nihil, to save the people around them.  But even their combined abilities might not be enough to save Starlight Beacon from its imminent destruction, nor from monsters capable of turning even the most skilled Jedi into dust.

The Fallen Star was an incredible book from Claudia Gray that does an excellent job of continuing the impressive High Republic storylines.  Gray has come up with a very unique Star Wars tale that sees some of this era’s best characters trapped in an impossible and dangerous situation.  Loaded with a ton of action, some major plot moments, interesting storyline continuation and a ton of character development, this was an excellent novel that proves very easy to get drawn into.

Honestly the best way to describe The Fallen Star’s story is as a nautical disaster story, like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, in space.  This novel begins with the initial stages of the disaster as a small team of Nihil saboteurs infiltrate Starlight Beacon and systematically take out the station.  These early parts of the novel have a great sense of tension, as the reader is forced to watch the Nihil continue to succeed while the Jedi remain oblivious.  The story starts to pick up as the Nihil plan goes into effect, not only because of the explosion that knocks Starlight Beacon out of orbit, but because several unseen creatures immediately start to attack the Jedi in brutal mind-bending ways while also disrupting their connection to the Force.  The true disaster narrative takes over from here as the characters attempt to survive the destruction while also trying to save the station.  Gray really dives into character psychology here, as the Jedi are forced to overcome their guilt and the building fear of the creatures attacking, while the other characters try to determine whether to focus on self-preservation or helping those around them.  The last two-thirds of the book is purely devoted to the attempts to survive the station’s slow destruction, and Gray really does not let up the plot intensity.  Every time the protagonists seem to make some progress or success they are immediately hit with obstacles or tragedy that seek to overwhelm them.  This leads to some impressive and confronting moments throughout the book, and you honestly will be surprised and shocked by some of the deaths or twists that occur.  While there are one or two fake-outs designed to ramp up the feels, you will come away from this book being extremely moved and a little emotionally drained.

This was a very well put together novel; it has an amazing flow to it, and once the various disasters start up, the pace and stakes of the novel just keep jumping higher and higher.  The use of multiple character perspectives helps to tell a massive and impressive story, and you really get the full sense of how deadly and disastrous the events of the book are.  I loved how well Gray layered tension and grief into the non-stop action of the plot, and you are honestly left reeling or yelling at the book, wishing to help the characters you have become extremely attached to.  Gray also is also very skilled at detailing some fun and compelling action and disaster sequences, which works extremely well to showcase all the chaos and destruction occurring around.  I did find that there were a few plot gaps here and there throughout the novel, most likely because the full extent of this event will be featured in other High Republic media, such as the main comic series, although this didn’t impact the story too dramatically.  Overall, thanks to its powerful moments, character growth and great action, and you have an outstanding narrative that hits all the right notes at the right time.

In addition to its excellent narrative, The Fallen Star is also a great new entry in the High Republic sub-series.  Gray does an impressive job of continuing the events from the previous pieces of High Republic fiction, and aspects from most of the preceding novels are strongly featured here.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the return of several great characters and the continuation of some interesting story arcs, and Gray brings them together to create an outstanding Star Wars story.  Like most of the High Republic series, The Fallen Star is probably best read by fans of the expanded literary universe, especially as much of the build-up for this period was in the prior novels.  While I would recommend at least reading The Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm first, people with a basic knowledge of Star Wars should be able to follow what is happening here, as Gray does a good job of recapping key events.  While there are a few good reveals here, there is still an aura of mystery around other parts of the book, particularly the character of Marchion Ro and the real motivations of the Nihil.  An epic conclusion to this phase of the High Republic novels, I will be interested to see if any other reveals or revelations occur in the connected comics.

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 3

To support her fantastic narrative, Gray makes use of an excellent collection of great characters, and I loved the mixture of protagonists and antagonists that she chose.  Not only are the protagonists of the previous adult High Republic books heavily featured, but Gray also makes strong use of characters from young adult novels like Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows.  This amazing blend of character perspectives really helped to craft a unique and interesting book, and it was great to see the different protagonists react to the situation.  Readers should be aware that Gray has gone on a bit of a killing spree here, and several fan favourite characters may not survive.  These deaths really help to ratchet up the tension and emotional weight of this novel, and you will really be left reeling.  While I might question the wisdom of killing off as many characters as they did, especially as the High Republic has a greater need of recognisable characters than other Star Wars novels, I think they all worked in the context of the plot and served the overall narrative extremely well.

The most prominent characters of The Fallen Star are the Jedi protagonists of Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm.  These Jedi go through some big moments in The Fallen Star, especially as they face disaster and failure on a scale they have rarely seen before.  Gray works in some very interesting changes in the various Jedi’s characterisation because of the unseen monsters let loose on the station who disrupt the Jedi’s connection to the Force, which messes with their heads.  As a result, for most of the book the Jedi are scared, uncertain and irritable, which is a fun and clever change of pace that I felt added to the high-stakes disaster narrative extremely well.  The most prominent of these characters include Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar, Elzar Mann, who have had some excellent character arcs in the previous novels, and it was great to see them again.

The first of these is Elzar Mann, who has been a standout figure due to his battles with his emotions, his romantic feelings towards fellow Jedi Avar Kriss, and his inadvertent connection to the Dark Side of the Force.  Following this dark moment, Mann has gone into a deep meditation retreat with a unique spiritual guide, who is teaching him to have a different perspective on life.  As a result, when Mann returns to Starlight Beacon just before the first attack, he has mostly cut himself off from the Force.  While this impacts his ability and mentality as a Jedi, his lack of a Force connection ensures that he is one of the only Jedi not incapacitated by the monsters roaming the station, which forces him take on more responsibility during the crisis.  I liked seeing this side of Mann, and it was great to watch him attempt to step up and protect his more responsible friends.  Unfortunately, Mann also experiences some big losses and failures in this novel which really strike him hard.  The final few chapters of The Fallen Star have some major moments for this character, and there was some brilliant development occurring here.  Gray did an incredible job expanding on one of the best and most complex High Republic protagonists here, and I loved Mann’s story in this book.

I also deeply enjoyed the story arc that surrounded apprentice Bell Zettifar.  Bell has gone through a lot in the last two books, especially as his master was killed before him in The Rising Storm.  This has led to some excellent and dark moments for Bell, and Gray does a wonderful job continuing them here as Bell struggles for most of this book, dealing with intense doubt and a sense of failure that gets enhanced by the influence of the strange creatures stalking the station.  I enjoyed seeing Bell slowly regain his confidence as he finds himself in the middle of another crisis and it led to some great and heartfelt moments, even as Bell suffered even more personal tragedies.

I must also highlight the continued story of Stellan Gios, the Jedi Master and rising star of the Order who was such a fantastic figure in The Rising Storm.  Stellan starts this book off as the new Marshal of Starlight Beacon, but he is still impacted by the doubts and trauma of the last Nihil attack at the Republic Fair.  Thanks to this and the influence of the Nihil’s monsters, Stellan shows a very different side to his character in The Fallen Star, being more petty, angry, and dispirited.  This is such a substantial change to what we have previously seen out of Stellan that it really hammers home just how dangerous the Nihil monsters are.  Watching Stellan battle with his emotions is pretty intense, and it proved to be exceptional to see him slowly overcome everything that is happening to him.  Gray writes an amazing couple of moments for Stellan in this book, and you end up with an impressive appreciation of this character by the end of this awesome book.

Aside from these main three figures, The Fallen Star also features an interesting array of supporting Jedi characters.  This includes the friendliest and fluffiest Jedi of all-time, the Wookie Burryaga, who everyone loves due to his kind nature and innate connection to the Force.  Burryaga forms a moving friendship with Bell, and he is easily one of the best supporting characters in the entire novel.  I also liked the reappearance of the Jedi Wayseeker, Orla Jareni, a semi-rogue Jedi who offers her own insights into the Force.  I will say I was surprised that there was barely any Ava Kriss in this novel.  Kriss, who is frequently touted as the main protagonist of the High Republic, has barely appeared in any of the novels since The Light of the Jedi, being more of a feature in the comics.  I feel that she leaves a noticeable absence in the novel, especially as the other character seem to reference how awesome she is in every second sentence.  Still, I think it worked without her, although I hope they use her more in the future.

Aside from the Jedi characters, Gray also makes exceptional use of an interesting collection of other characters trapped aboard the station who offer a great alternate viewpoint to the various Jedi.  What is interesting is that most of these characters are creations of Gray’s who first appeared in her last High Republic book, Into the Dark.  This includes the crew of the Vessel, a unique and unusual ship that transports Mann and Orla Jareni to Starlight Beacon and then gets trapped there.  The Vessel is crewed by a very entertaining trio of characters who balance each other out nicely.  This includes owner Affie Hollow, who plays straight woman to her unusual crew, and is a great central adventurer and emotional base for much of the book.  However, Affie is very much overshadowed by the rest of the crew, including captain Leox Gyasi, who is essentially a space hippy.  Leox is a wildly entertaining figure, with his Zen mindset, pacifistic tendencies, unique way of talking, and outrageous sense of humour, and you will quickly fall in love with him as the book progresses, especially in the few scenes where he gets serious.

The most solid member of the Vessel’s crew is Geode, a Vintian who ends up being the heart and soul of not only the Vessel but all of Gray’s High Republic novels.  Geode is essentially a sentient rock who never talks, rarely moves, and for most of his first appearance in Into the Dark, you were half convinced was some sort of elaborate prank and was really just a rock.  However, Geode ends up being a remarkable figure, capable of great feats of ingenuity and courage, while also being a social genius and a massive flirt.  I cannot emphasise how hilarious it is to see all the outrageous things that the other characters attribute to this silent, giant rock, especially as he just sits there for the entire book.  However, the other characters can apparently all see the “facial” expressions he gives off, and he is apparently quite an emotional and thoughtful character, who ends up being the solution to several problems.  Honestly, having a motionless rock as a major supporting character should not work, but it really does in The Fallen Star, and I loved every second that was spent on him.  I enjoyed seeing all these characters return, and I hope that Gray brings them back in the future, although I do worry the Geode joke might eventually becomes too overused.

Former Nihil members Nan and Chancey Yarrow perfectly rounded out the main cast aboard Starlight Beacon.  Both have had some interesting appearances in the young adult books, and it was great to see them here.  Nan is another character created by Gray and is a young and zealous Nihil member, while Chancey is a brilliant scientist working for the Nihil while also promoting her own agenda.  After leaving the Nihil and starting their own partnership, Nan and Chancey get captured by the Jedi and are being questioned about Starlight Beacon when events kick off.  Freed by the Nihil infiltrators, they spend most of the book on the fence about where their loyalties lie as they try to find their own way to escape.  This results in a fantastic and compelling alternate viewpoint to the book, and I loved seeing these two morally grey characters interact with the more selfless protagonists.  Gray comes up with a great dynamic between Nan and Chancey, which is semi mother-daughter in nature, and there are some interesting moments as Nan struggles to overcome her loyalty to the Nihil.  Their storyline comes to a very interesting and powerful end, and I will be deeply intrigued to see what happens to them next.

I want to make a final mention about the antagonists of The Fallen Star, especially as there is a rather unusual dynamic with this book.  This because, in many ways, the main villain of the story isn’t the Nihil, but is instead time, despair, impossible choices, panic, and human nature.  To a degree, these basic, uncontrollable elements end up causing more damage, and the impossible battle against them results in much of the book’s most dramatic and powerful moments.  There are a few proper villains in this book, such as series antagonist Marchion Ro.  Despite only being in it for a short while, Marchion cuts a distinctive and menacing figure in The Fallen Star, especially as he instigates the next stage of his master plan.  There are some interesting developments around Marchion here, and although they are probably saving any major revelations for his upcoming comic limited series, I felt that he continues to shine as the main villain of The High Republic.  The rest of the Nihil aren’t shown as much in this book, although I did enjoy the examination of the fear and hatred associated with them, especially after all the pain and suffering they caused.  I was very intrigued by the mysterious Nihil controlled monsters that infest Starlight Beacon and mess with the Jedi.  Despite the fact you never see them, they are incredibly intimidating, effortlessly defeating the Jedi and sending them on some dangerous head-trips.  I cannot wait to find out more about them in the future, especially as they are bound to explore their history more, and it should lead to interesting discoveries.  Overall, The Fallen Star had an exceptional group of characters and their intense, compelling and entertaining story arcs really elevated this around exciting novel.

I will come as very little surprise to anyone familiar with this blog that I chose to check out The Fallen Star audiobook.  I have so much love for Star Wars audiobooks, and this ended up being a very good example of how fantastic this format could be as it combines impressive narration with clever sound effect and epic music.  With a run time of 13 and a half hours, this is a somewhat shorter Star Wars audiobook.  I had a wonderful time getting through the story in this format, and I found that the compelling narrative became even more intense when read to me.  This is particularly true in such a trauma and action laden book like The Fallen Star, with the awesome medium of the audiobook helping to enhance the danger and despair of the situation.  The use of sound effects and music was once again superb, and I loved how hearing the distinctive sound of blasters, lightsabers and other pieces of Star Wars technology, helped to bring me into the story and enhance the events being described.  I also cannot overemphasise how awesome it is to hear the incredible and iconic Star Wars music during this plot as well.  Whenever the music is played, especially during some of the more dramatic or action-packed sequences, it really enhances the impact of the moment, drawing the listener in and ensuring that they are perfectly entrapped by the events occurring.

You can’t talk about this audiobook without mentioning the epic voice work of the narrator Marc Thompson.  At this point in his career, Thompson is essentially Star Wars royalty, as he has narrated so many amazing Star Wars audiobooks over the years.  He is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators and I loved his work on previous audiobooks like Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more.  He once again does a great job on The Fallen Star, bringing all the characters to life and moving the story along at a swift pace.  I loved the consistency in voices from all the previous High Republic books he narrated, and he also did a great job voicing characters from other books he hasn’t worked on.  All the characters have very distinctive and fitting voices, which included some very distinctive accents, which helped to highlight the characters and what they did.  I also loved the sheer emotional range that Thompson was able to fit into these great characters, ensuring that all the intense emotions were on full display.  It was pretty intense hearing all the character’s despair, anger and grief as everything they knew and loved was burned around them, and it makes for some incredible sequences.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this cool Star Wars novel, and I would strongly recommend The Fallen Star audiobook to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray is an excellent read that I would strongly recommend.  Featuring a clever, action packed, and emotionally rich, character driven story, The Fallen Star brilliantly continues the outstanding High Republic series, and you will love the dark places this story goes. I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to see what happens in this brilliant sub-series next.  Long live the High Republic!

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 2