The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 16 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading voices in fantasy fiction, the impressive Sarah Beth Durst, returns with another epic standalone fantasy read, The Bone Maker.

Sarah Beth Durst is an amazingly talented author who has been dominating the fantasy market for the last several years.  Initially debuting with several fun young adult and middle grade novels, such as the 2009 release Ice, Durst made the jump to adult novels in 2014 with The Lost, before writing her bestselling Queens of Renthia fantasy series.  I only recently started reading Durst’s work when I checked out her 2020 novel, Race the SandsRace the Sands was a gripping standalone fantasy read that featured a thrilling tale of adventure and redemption set around monster racing in a desert kingdom.  I absolutely loved Race the Sands, and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of last year, and Durst was easily one of the best new-to-me authors I checked out in 2020.  As a result, I have been really keen to see what Durst would write next, and I was excited when I heard about her new book, The Bone MakerThe Bone Maker was one of my most anticipated novels of 2021, and I ended up having a wonderful time reading it.

25 years ago, the nation of Vos was threatened by a terrible foe, the rogue bone maker Eklor, whose nightmarish creations of animal bone and mechanical components sought to overwhelm everything.  In the end, Vos was saved by five heroes who led an army to Eklor’s door to destroy him.  However, their victory came at a steep cost, as one of the heroes died a tragic death, and only four walked away from Eklor’s tower.

In the years that followed, the leader of the heroes, Kreya, has lived a life of exile, determined to resurrect her husband, Jentt, who died to stop the evil assailing their realm.  Using Eklor’s notes, Kreya has succeeded in cracking the spells needed to complete the resurrection, but bringing the dead back to life has a heavy cost.  Not only does Kreya lose a day of her life for every day that Jentt lives, but Kreya also requires human bones to complete the spell,. The bones of the dead are ritualistically burnt throughout Vos specifically to prevent bone workers using them for dark magic, so Kreya is forced to look elsewhere for her materials.  In her desperation, she decides to return to the one place she swore never to go back to: the plains outside Eklor’s tower, where the bones of those fought against Eklor’s monsters still lie.

Making the arduous and forbidden journey to Eklor’s tower, Kreya makes a terrifying discovery that threatens everything she fought for all those years ago.  With the dangers of the past threatening to overwhelm her, Kreya has no choice but to reunite her comrades 25 years after their famous victory.  But will these damaged heroes be enough to face the evil threatening to overwhelm them, or will an evil long thought destroyed arise again to finish off what it started?

Wow, Durst definitely does not disappoint as she has created another impressive and powerful fantasy novel.  I had an absolute blast reading this fantastic new book and I managed to finish it off relatively quickly, especially once I got wrapped up in the outstanding story, clever setting and the lives of her amazing protagonists.  I really enjoyed this awesome standalone fantasy read and I have to give The Bone Maker a full five-star rating.

For her latest amazing fantasy novel, Durst has come up with a very complex and powerful story that dives deep into the hearts of her fantastic characters while also taking them on an epic journey of redemption.  I have to admit when I read some of the early descriptions of The Bone Maker I assumed it was going to be the central protagonist, Kreya, going up against her old companions as they tried to stop her from resurrecting her husband.  Instead, Durst works in a very different narrative that sees Kreya encounter the enemy from her past, which forces her to bring her friends back together herself.  Durst sets up this narrative really well, and the reader gets a sense of the tragedy of Kreya and the lengths she is planning to go to reunite with Jentt.  You also get a fantastic idea of the trauma from the protagonist’s past battles with Eklor and how this has shaped their lives.  There are some great moments in the opening half of this book, including several amazing and magically charged action sequences as the protagonists go up against a range of different foes, as well as some intense drama as the five are gradually reunited and come to terms with their past failures.  I loved how the narrative gradually morphed into a bit of a political thriller in the second half of the book as the protagonist encounters an old foe in a different setting.  The flow from the various sections of the story works extremely well, and Durst weaves together a really comprehensive and powerful standalone story.  I liked the excellent blend of action, fantasy elements and intense emotion exploration, which helped to produce a very comprehensive narrative, and The Bone Maker turns into quite an epic and exceptional read.

Easily the highlights of this book are the complex and damaged central characters that the story follows.  The five main characters are heroes who previously saved Vos from a great evil, and I loved this exploration of renowned fantasy heroes years after they saved the world, the usual climax of a story.  The central character of the story is Kreya, the group’s leader, who disappeared after ensuring their previous victory, mourning her dead husband.  Kreya performs multiple attempts at resurrection at the cost of her own life, and I really appreciated the author’s interpretation of this character’s grief leading her to risk it all.  Kreya has a rough and powerful journey throughout this book as she comes back to lead her team and is forced to deal with the expectations of all those around her.  Despite the immense amount of guilt, grief and regret that Kreya experiences throughout this story, Kreya proves to be a talented leader, directing them through several unique fights, and is the only person that can hold this ragged group of characters together.  The counterpoint to Kreya’s toughness and leadership is her deceased husband, Jentt, who, after his resurrection, proves to be the heart and light of the group.  Despite his more buoyant personality, Jentt has to deal with the consequences of his resurrection, especially when he finds out the cost of his continued life, and this leads him to several harrowing mental places.

The next member of the heroes of Vos is the bone wizard Zera, who specialises in creating the best magical talismans in the world.  Zera is the only member of the group who cashed in on her fame after their victory and has grown rich off her skills and reputation.  Zera is a fantastically sarcastic and entertaining addition to the cast, as she revels in her wealth and privilege, while also providing some of the best lines in the entire novel.  Despite a sense of intense betrayal at Kreya’s abandoning of her all those years ago, Zera agrees to help her with her mission, but finds herself constantly conflicted by her feelings of resentment, her own well-hidden damage, and her changed vision of what Kreya’s relationship with her was.  As a result, she has quite a journey throughout The Bone Maker and I loved her inclusion in this novel.

The other two major protagonists are the bone reader Marso and the warrior Stran, both of whom survived the battles with Eklor in very different ways.  While Stran is reasonably mentally healthy, having chosen to live a simple life with his wife and children, Marso has been broken by both his powers and the events of the past.  These two are a great contrast to one another, and both add some intriguing elements to the overall narrative.  I quite enjoyed seeing Marso slowly rebuild his sanity throughout the book while also coming to terms with a magical power he no longer trusts.  Stran’s apparent normality and stable family life is so amazingly different from the other characters in the book that it really stands out, and I liked seeing how each character was just a little bit different.  Overall, all five of these awesome protagonist really help to make The Bone Maker a powerful and impressive read and I am extremely glad that Durst took the time to build each of these great characters up.

One of the things I really must discuss is the outstanding setting that Durst created for this great book, especially as the author did such an impressive job coming up with yet another unique world.  The land of Vos is an amazing fantasy realm, loaded up with its own blend of troubles, culture and magic, which is living in the shadows of the tragic bone wars 25 years prior.  Durst sets this new landscape up perfectly in the early stages of the novel, and the reader gets a great sense of the people and mentality of this realm, especially when it comes to the trademark bone magic.  As the novel progresses, Durst visits several fantastic and compelling parts of this land.  This includes the gigantic and wealthy capital city where many terrible events take place, the hilly landscape that makes up the majority of Vos, a mist-shrouded valley loaded up with a collection of dangerous, gigantic monsters, and the plains surrounding Eklor’s tower, where deadly secrets lurk.  These landscapes are a lot of fun to explore, and Durst works them into her narrative perfectly.  I really enjoyed all of the major locations that the protagonists visit, although my favourite has to be the valley of monsters, as some intense and action-packed sequences take place there.

In addition to the amazing setting, I also really appreciate the rich and distinctive bone magic that Durst came up with for The Bone Maker.  This type of magic features three distinctive types of bone workers, including bone readers who can use animal bones to read the future, bone wizards who create powerful bone talismans, and bone makers who inscribe bones to animate a range of constructs.  Each of these magical disciplines is explored in great detail by the author and are all strongly utilised in the plot.  I loved seeing these magical elements at work throughout the action sequences in the book, and Durst uses them to great effect, with the characters gaining flight, stealth, strength and speed in every epic fight sequence.  The various examples of bone making are also pretty cool, and you get some great magical constructs.  I liked how there was a fun contrast between the protagonists’ cuter, yet still effective constructs, and the antagonists monstrous figures, and it makes for some great combat scenes, especially when the protagonist goes big towards the end of the book.  All of these magical elements are really exceptional, and I think it is an absolute testament to Durst’s sheer imagination and creativity that she is so effectively able to come up with a brand new style of magic and a new magical realm for every single one of her standalone fantasy reads.

I ended up enjoying The Bone Maker in its audiobook format, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience Durst’s epic story.  The Bone Maker audiobook has a decent run time of 16 hours and 35 minutes, which I ended up getting through rather quickly and is not too much of challenge for dedicated listeners to finish off.  One of the best things about this great audiobook is the amazing narrator, Soneela Nankani.  Nankani is a veteran audiobook narrator, but despite her prevalence as a narrator of fantasy fiction, I have not previously had the pleasure of experiencing Nankani’s vocal talents before, although she has worked on several other fantasy novels that I am keen to check out.  Nankani was an outstanding narrator whose voice really enhanced this already amazing novel.  Not only did Nankani provide a quick and exciting tone for the entire novel, moving the story along at a brisk and enjoyable pace that continuously kept the reader’s attention; she also provided several fantastic voices for the various protagonists.  All the voices that she used were pretty impressive, and I felt that they fit the damaged and dark personalities of each of the main characters very well.  As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in checking out The Bone Maker as it is an amazing way to check out this compelling novel.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst is an exceptional and captivating standalone fantasy novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Durst has produced an epic and elaborate tale of life, death and magic, which follows five damaged and broken heroes years after their supposed great victory.  There are so many awesome elements to this fantastic book, and readers are going to fall in love with The Bone Maker’s addictive narrative, powerful characters and cool magical elements.  While I did enjoy Durst’s previous novel, Race the Sands, a little more, this was still an outstanding read, which comes highly recommended.

Turn a Blind Eye by Jeffrey Archer

Turn a Blind Eye Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 30 March 2021)

Series: William Warwick – Book Three

Length: 330 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

One of the world’s bestselling authors, Jeffery Archer, returns with the third exciting and enjoyable entry in his clever William Warwick series, Turn a Blind Eye.

London, 1987.  After successfully organising a high-profile raid of a notorious drug factory, William Warwick has been promoted to Detective Inspector.  However, with his promotion comes a very different assignment: exposing corruption at the heart of London’s Metropolitan Police Force.  Along with his team of detectives and officers, William begins to investigate an old friend of his from the police academy, Jerry Summers, whose affluent, high-flying lifestyle seems impossible to achieve on a police income.  Utilising several undercover operatives, William attempts to find out the truth behind Summers’s activities.

However, the investigation into Summers’s corruption is only one of William’s concerns, as the trial for drug baron Ahmed Rashidi, whose factory William’s team brought down, begins.  Rashidi’s conviction seems certain, especially with the formidable legal team of William’s father and sister arguing the prosecution’s case.  But Rashidi has hired the services of the slippery and corrupt lawyer, Booth Watson QC, whose contacts and ability to bend the rule of law puts the police’s case in serious jeopardy.  At the same time, William’s arch-nemesis, the criminal genius Miles Faulkner, has escaped from jail and is hiding out in Europe, plotting the next stage of his life of crime.  However, Miles’s sudden death proves to be a boon for his ex-wife, Christina, who uses her windfall to apparently reform and renew her friendship with William’s wife.

As William’s focus is torn between all these different cases, disaster strikes when a young female undercover officer under his command falls for Summers.  As William and his team attempt to discover just how compromised their investigation is, the young Detective Inspector finds himself under attack from all sides as enemies, both old and new, attempt to bring him down.  Can William continue his crusade to bring justice to London’s streets, or will he face the horrible realisation that more of his fellow officers are willing to turn a blind eye than he first suspected?

This was another fantastic novel from Jeffrey Archer, who has done an amazing job continuing the exciting and compelling adventures of William Warwick.  Archer is an intriguing figure who has written a number of amazing crime and historical fiction novels over the last few years, such as his iconic Clifton Chronicles.  I have been rather enjoying several of Archer’s recent novels, including the very clever Sliding Doors-esque novel, Heads You Win.  His latest series, the William Warwick books, follow the adventures of the titular protagonist, who was first introduced as a fictional detective created by one of the characters in the Clifton Chronicles.  The first two novels in this clever crime series, Nothing Ventured and Hidden and Plain Sight, were both awesome reads, and I was quite excited when I received Turn a Blind Eye a few weeks ago.  Turn a Blind Eye ended up being quite an impressive read, and I really enjoyed the compelling and fast-paced story.

Archer has come up with a great story for his latest novel which not only continues some of the amazing storylines from the previous novel but which sets the protagonist up against several new challenges and antagonists.  Archer blends a lot of great elements into Turn a Blind Eye from across the genres.  The most prominent of these is a compelling crime fiction storyline which sees the protagonist go up against several different villains, including corrupt police, art thieves and drug lords, and there are some impressive investigative angles and fun scenes featuring clever police work and investigations.  In addition, the author works in some clever legal thriller elements as the story features several courtroom sequences.  These court scenes are some of the best parts of the entire novel, especially as Archer loads them up with fun legal shenanigans as the antagonist lawyer employs some really evil tricks.  The author also makes great use of the 1980s setting as a backdrop to the main story, and I loved the exploration of this cool period during this fun historical novel.  The entire novel chugs along at a rapid pace, and readers will have a very hard time putting this book down, especially as it features some dramatic twists, clever undercover scenes and very entertaining moments.  Readers of the previous two William Warwick novels will appreciate the fantastic ways in which Archer continues the established storylines set up in the first novels, although the author does ensure that this third book is easily accessible to new readers.  I really enjoyed the fun and intriguing places where Archer took his latest novel and I cannot wait to see how he will continue his compelling story in the future William Warwick entries.

I really enjoyed the great range of characters that Archer fits into this novel, most of whom are recurring characters from the previous two entries in the series.  Archer features a rather large cast of excellent characters throughout Turn a Blind Eye, resulting in a mass of different character perspectives that makes for a compelling and vibrant blend of storylines and character arcs.  At the top of this list is William Warwick, who serves as the central figure for most of the book’s plot.  William is an exceedingly straight arrow, intently concerned with doing the right thing and bringing the villains to justice.  William has another interesting adventure in Turn a Blind Eye, where he is forced to investigate police corruption and finds himself in some strange new circumstances.  I really enjoy the linear storyline that Archer has set up for Warwick, especially as it appears that he will be investigating a whole new crime each novel, and he serves as a particularly good centre to this entire series.

In addition to the main protagonist, Turn a Blind Eye also features several other amazing characters who have some compelling arcs in this latest book.  As always, I have to start with series antagonist Miles Faulkner, the highly intelligent criminal mastermind and art fanatic with whom William has found himself in an intense feud.  Faulkner ended the last book on a high note after engaging in a bold prison escape, and this novel starts off with him fleeing to Europe before circumstances seem to take him right off the board.  This results in an interesting development for the character, although readers of the previous novels will not be surprised by the clever way in which that particular arc unfolds throughout the novel.  I also deeply enjoyed the character of Booth Watson QC, the go-to lawyer for the antagonists of this series.  Watson is a dastardly and conniving figure in this series, and readers will love all the sneaky and entertaining ways he finds to bend the laws and manipulate the legal system.  I particularly liked the way in which he serves as a counterpoint to William’s father, Sir Julian, the highly regarded and undeniably honourable legal prosecutor, and the two have an outstanding repartee with each other during the court sequences.  The other character who has a really good storyline is police officer Nicky Bailey.  Bailey, who is assigned undercover to watch the primary suspect of the corruption storyline, ends up falling in love with her target, resulting in the investigation becoming compromised.  Archer writes an impressive and dramatic arc around this character, and I was particularly moved by its intense conclusion.  All of these characters ended up adding a lot to Turn a Blind Eye’s story and I look forward to seeing some of them reappear in the next William Warwick novel.

Turn a Blind Eye was another awesome novel from Jeffrey Archer which proved to be a rather good and entertaining read.  I loved the way in which Archer has continued his fantastic William Warwick series, and the author has loaded this book with some clever and enjoyable sequences and characters.  A fun and intriguing novel that readers will power through in no time, Turn a Blind Eye is really worth checking out and comes highly recommended.

Turn a Blind Eye Cover 2

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Three

Length: 16 hours and 19 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best Star Wars tie-in series comes to an epic and impressive end, as Alexander Freed presents Star Wars: Victory’s Price, the amazing third and final entry in the awesome Alphabet Squadron trilogy.

Since its inception in 2014, the current Star Wars extended universe has featured an amazing range of novels that tie into the various movies and television series.  One of the best has been the Alphabet Squadron trilogy from acclaimed author Alexander Freed.  Alphabet Squadron is a particularly compelling trilogy that follows a fantastic group of mismatched Rebel and Imperial pilots who continue to fight in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  This series has so far featured two excellent entries: the great introductory novel Alphabet Squadron, and the outstanding second entry, Shadow Fall, both of which I have deeply enjoyed.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series ends and I think that Freed has left the best to last with this epic and powerful read.

The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, and the second Death Star destroyed, but the war is far from over.  Nearly a year after the battle of Endor, conflict still reigns in the galaxy between the forces of the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire.  In nearly every battlefield, the Empire’s forces are in retreat and disarray, apart from the notorious pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, better known as Shadow Wing.  Led by the dangerous Imperial TIE Fighter ace, Colonel Soran Keize, Shadow Wing continue to bring death and destruction to the Empire’s enemies, slipping away when their vile deeds are done.

However, despite their skills and strategies, Shadow Wing is in constant danger as New Republic forces, under the command of General Hera Syndulla, are pursuing them.  Syndulla is determined to end the threat of Shadow Wing utilising the ragtag pilots of the unique unit known as Alphabet Squadron, each of whom has a score to settle with Shadow Wing, to lead the fight against them.  However, the members of Alphabet Squadron, Wyl Lark, Chass na Chadic, Nath Tensent and Kairos, are still recovering from their last traumatic encounter with Shadow Wing on Cerberon, as well as the revelation that their former leader, Yrica Quell, was an active participant of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s genocidal last order to destroy multiple disloyal planets.

As Hera and Alphabet Squadron attempt to find their prey, they begin to discover just how dangerous the cornered Shadow Wing has become, as their opponents begin to enact a new version of Operation Cinder.  Worse, Alphabet Squadron are shocked to discover that Yrica Quell is still alive and has re-joined her old comrades in Shadow Wing.  As the two forces engage in battle again, the loyalties of Alphabet Squadron will be tested like never before while Quell attempts to determine just whose side she is truly on.  The conflict will finally end above the skies of Jakku, as the Imperial and New Republic fleets engage in their final battle.  Can Alphabet Squadron finally put an end to the evils of Shadow Wing, or will Soran Keize’s master plan change the entire galaxy forever?

Now this is what all pieces of Star Wars fiction should be like.  Victory’s Price is an exceptional and impressive novel that had me hooked from the very beginning.  Not only does Freed do an amazing job of wrapping up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy but he also provides the reader with fantastic action sequences and some outstanding characters.  This is easily one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in ages and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

For this final book, Freed has come up with a powerful story set within the iconic Star Wars universe.  Starting right after the events of Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price sees the members of Alphabet Squadron separated and traumatised as their protracted and personal conflict with Shadow Wing begins.  This leads into a series of exciting encounters and battles in space as Alphabet Squadron pursues Shadow Wing during their latest mission, while the leader of Shadow Wing hatches a plan to end the war on his terms.  At the same time, each of the characters attempts to deal with issues or distress raised in the previous novels, whether it be Quell’s conflicted loyalties or Chass’s post-fight trauma.  All of this leads to some epic and impressive final confrontations as the two sides meet for the very last time.  This was an extremely good character-driven read, and I loved the very cool way that Freed finished off this amazing series. 

While it is an amazing Star Wars novel, Freed focuses more on the war part of the book, turning this into a gritty story of survival, loyalty and conflict, which makes for a powerful piece of fiction.  While obviously best enjoyed by those readers familiar with the rest of the series, Victory’s Price is a very accessible novel which new readers can follow without any trouble.  Thanks to the awesome use of multiple character perspectives, Victory’s Price has an excellent flow to it, and the readers are supplied with clever twists, cool action sequences and impressive character moments as the protagonists come to terms with their place in the universe and the constant fighting.  This ended up being quite an intense tale of war and life, which not only perfectly wrapped up the Alphabet Squadron series but which also had me engrossed from the very minute I started reading it.

One of the major things that I liked about this book was the way in which it added to the Star Wars expanded universe.  This series has always done a cool job of exploring what happened after Return of the Jedi, and it is always interesting and somewhat more realistic to see that the war did not end as soon as the Emperor died.  However Freed has painted this period as a particularly dark and deadly part of the war, and I love seeing how he envisioned what happened to members of the New Republic and Empire after Endor.  Victory’s Price focuses on the very end of the civil war, showing another side of the events that lead up to the battle of Jakku and fitting its original characters into this conflict.  This is a cool part of the book, and I loved seeing another version of the epic battle of Jakku, a major conflict that has been featured in several other novels and pieces of fiction.  Freed also takes the time to explore and answer several other intriguing questions, such as the mystery behind the Emperor’s messengers, the creepy red-clad droids who project holograms of the Emperor’s face, which sought out various Imperial commanders after Endor and ordered the various genocides of Operation Cinder.  The solution surrounding the messengers ends up being rather intriguing, and there are even some clever parallels to World War II in there.  Due to the intriguing elements of Star Wars lore featured within, Victory’s Price, like the rest of the Alphabet Squadron series, will probably be enjoyed most by major fans of the franchise, but there are a lot of compelling elements that readers of all knowledge bases will appreciate.  This was truly an exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction and I cannot wait to see what Freed adds to the canon next time.

I really must highlight the outstanding action scenes that Freed came up with for this book.  I am a man who likes his Star War’s action, and I have to say that Victory’s Price has some of the best sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  Due to the novel’s focus on fighter pilots, there are naturally a huge number of amazing combat scenes as the rival pilots engage in complex battles in space.  Freed has saved the best for last in this final Alphabet Squadron novel, as the opposing pilots find themselves fighting in a range of unique situations.  The battle scenes are extremely well crafted, filled with elaborate details and fantastic depictions of complex manoeuvres and clever tactics that are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat with their intense action.  They are also quite emotionally rich, as you witness your favourite characters constantly face near-death experiences in this final entry in the series.  Highlights of these great battle sequences included two fantastic duels between the protagonists and the leader of Shadow Wing, which sees some fancy flying between some of the most skilled pilots in the series in some very distinctive landscapes.  I also really loved the final, elaborate battle set above Jakku, which proved to be a major part of the second half of the book.  Not only do you get the desperate and packed main conflict between the entire New Republic and Imperial fleets, which features destruction and death in every direction, but you also get a more private and quiet final battle between a group of Alphabet Squadron led New Republic fighters and Shadow Wing.  This smaller pitched battle between the two sides fits perfectly into the midst of the wider conflict and is filled with personal turmoil and antagonism as these two rival squadrons meet for a final time.  All these battles come out as being extremely epic and powerful, and I loved every second of the gritty and deadly fights they contained.

While I have a lot of love for Victory’s Price’s epic story, intense action, and clever Star Wars connections, easily the best thing about this book are the complex and well-written characters.  Each of the major characters featured in Victory’s Price have been introduced in the previous Alphabet Squadron novels with some complex and powerful storylines.  In Victory’s Price, all these great arcs reach a climax as the characters meet their final destiny and their stories comes to an end.  I really enjoyed the satisfying conclusions that Freed came up with for his outstanding characters, although in many ways it was sad to see their stories finish.  Still, I really appreciated all the great character arcs contained in this final novel, and Freed ensures they go through the emotional wringer before they go.

At the forefront of these outstanding characters are the five members of Alphabet Squadron who have served as the focal point for the entire series.  The pilots in Alphabet Squadron, so named for their use of a different Rebel Alliance fighter (A-Wing, X-Wing, B-Wing, U-Wing and Y-Wing), are layered and complex individuals, each of whom has experienced their own trauma or betrayal throughout the course of the lengthy war.  All five of these original characters have gone through significant development throughout the course of the previous two novels, and Freed does an exceptional job continuing their journeys in this final book.

The main protagonist of this series is Yrica Quell, a former member of Shadow Wing, who joined Alphabet Squadron in the first novel to help neutralise her former Imperial comrades.  However, it was eventually revealed that Quell, despite claiming she defected from the Empire after refusing to participate in Operation Cinder, aided in the destruction of a planet.  This revelation caused a massive rift in her relationship with the rest of Alphabet Squadron, and she ended up reuniting with Shadow Wing at the end of the second novel.  In this final book, it is revealed that Quell has infiltrated Shadow Wing to bring them down from the inside.  However, upon spending time with her Imperial comrades, she begins to experience doubts about her plan, especially as she sees that the Imperials are just as damaged by the war as she and the New Republic pilots are.  Her plans are further complicated due to her relationship with the leader of Shadow Wing, Soran Keize, her former mentor and the person who initially convinced her to defect to the New Republic.  Quell still has an immense amount of respect for Keize, and strongly believes in several of his plans.  This re-remembered loyalty to Shadow Wing strongly conflicts with her friendships with Alphabet Squadron and the guilt she feels for her role in Operation Cinder, placing Quell in a major quandary for most of the book.  This uncertainty and inner conflict is a really clever part of Quell’s story, and the reader is deeply impacted by her struggle and conflicted loyalties.  This was easily one of the best and most powerful character arcs in Victory’s Price and I really appreciated the outstanding character story that Freed set around Quell.

Victory’s Price also spends a significant amount of time following Quell’s fellow Alphabet Squadron members, Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, both of whom have compelling arcs that highlight different aspects of warring soldiers.  Wyl Lark is the young, optimistic member of the squadron who took over leadership at the end of the second novel.  Lark has developed a significant amount throughout the course of this series, and it is great to see him come into his own as a leader and pilot.  However, despite his apparent ease at the role, Lark is plagued by doubts and concerns about the morality of this fight, especially as it conflicts with some of the teachings of his race.  He spends a great deal of this final book coming to terms with his morals, and even attempts to once again contact the members of Shadow Wing to try and find some common ground or a way to end the conflict.  His actions go a long way to humanising the antagonists of the novel and his hope is a refreshing beacon of light in this darker Star Wars book.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the way in which Lark attempts to change the outcome of the war his way, and it was a fascinating addition to the story. 

Chass, on the other hand, is easily the most damaged character in the entire series.  A music-loving veteran pilot who is more afraid of the end of the war and her inevitable slide into irrelevance and despair than her own death, Chass has always been on edge throughout the series.  However, in Victory’s Price, Chass is even more traumatised, especially after learning of the betrayal of her love interest, Quell (which is an intriguing LGBT+ relationship for a Star Wars novel) and has since turned to the teachings of a cult to gain some clarity.  Despite this, Chass is still driven by her anger and her rage and is constantly lashing out at everyone around her, with her death wish a constant anchor around her neck.  Freed has written a complex and moving story around Chass and her suffering, and I deeply appreciate the portrayal of her as a troubled veteran.  I think that Chass’s story comes to a fantastic end in this final novel, especially as she gets closure with several important people in her life.  Both characters are incredibly well written and are fantastic examples of Freed’s exceptional writing ability.

Next up are the final two Alphabet Squadron pilots, Nath Tensent and Kairos.  While both characters have been somewhat overshadowed throughout the series, Freed has developed some intriguing storylines around them which come full circle perfectly in this final novel.  Nath Tensent, a pilot who served both the Empire and the Rebels during the war, has an enjoyable and likeable personality and is the sort of guy who quickly becomes everyone’s best friend.  However, despite the easygoing façade he projects to the world, even Nath is feeling the effects of the war and the constant worry and responsibility is getting to him.  This is particularly exacerbated in Victory’s Price when he becomes a decorated military hero with greater responsibilities and is forced to balance his own selfish goals with the lives of people who look up to him, as well as his very strong concerns for Wyl Lark.  This results in a particularly clever and enjoyable arc, and it was great to see him finally take some responsibility in this war.  I liked the way in which Freed ended Nath’s storyline, especially as it potentially opens another series in the future. 

The final member of the squadron is the mysterious Kairos, an alien of unknown origin with a strong hatred for the Empire and terrifying combat skills.  Despite her intriguing introduction in Alphabet Squadron, Kairos was somewhat left out of the second book after receiving an injury.  However, this is more than rectified in Victory’s Price, as Kairos is featured more prominently and we finally get to see some of her backstory.  Freed comes up with quite the intriguing, if tragic, story for Kairos, and it was fascinating to see her unique alien beliefs and culture, as well as a powerful story of renewal and redemption that accompanies her.  Kairos becomes quite close to two characters in this book, especially after the closest people in her life died in the previous novel, and it was great to see her finally connect, even if only for a short while.  Freed did a fantastic job setting up Kairos’ story in the previous two novels, and I personally loved finally getting some answers regarding this curious character’s identity.

Aside from the members of Alphabet Squadron, several other characters are also shown in great prominence throughout this book.  The one I liked the most was Hera Syndulla, the New Republic general commanding Alphabet Squadron.  Hera is one of the few characters in this novel who Freed did not come up with, as Hera originated in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and serves as a bridging character to the larger franchise.  Due to how much I love Star Wars: Rebels, I have really enjoyed seeing more of Hera in this series, not only because I am very curious about her post-Rebels life but because she also serves as a great mentor character to the members of Alphabet Squadron.  Hera features a lot more prominently in this final novel and her perspectives are shown nearly as much as the members of Alphabet Squadron.  This extra perspective really added a lot to the story as a whole and I personally really enjoyed seeing Hera take charge and attempt to hunt down Shadow Wing, while also attempting to determine the course of the entire war.  I also really enjoyed the fact that this book shows Hera’s role in the battle of Jakku, which as the largest space battle in the entire civil war, you had to assume she would be a part of.  Hera is naturally a bit of a badass in this battle, as you would expect, and I appreciated that Freed featured more of her in this novel.

The other major character featured within Victory’s Price is Colonel Soran Keize.  Keize is a fantastically complex character who serves as the leader of Shadow Wing and Quell’s Imperial mentor.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of this book, Keize is portrayed as a more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, one who is sick of war and who only has the best concerns of his men at heart.  As a result, Keize is running his own game throughout Victory’s Price and works to get the best result for the members of Shadow Wing.  His convictions, sense of honour and understandable motivations make him a hard character to dislike, and his role in mentoring Quell ensures that she is extremely conflicted when it comes to betraying him.  Keize is also probably the best pilot in this entire series, as he is regarded as the Empire’s ace of aces, and Victory’s Price is where you get to see him soar as he engages in several great battles and duels.  Thanks to this, and his curious character development, Keize is a great character to follow, and I really enjoyed the unique tale Freed told through him. 

Freed also focuses on some of the other pilots on both the New Republic and Imperial sides.  This results in a great combination of complex side or minor characters, each of whom have their own reasons for fighting in the war.  Freed attempts to show that, despite fighting on different sides of the war, these characters really are not that different.  Instead, all of them are soldiers, with several similarities, including their own trauma, PTSD and issues with the war that they are fighting in.  I think it is a testament to Freed’s writing ability that he was able to get me to care about members of the Imperial navy, and it was pretty spectacular the way in which he attempted to show the humanity buried deep within them.  It does mean that the action sequences more emotionally loaded and potentially devastating as you end up not wanting to see some of the pilots dying, but I really appreciated the way in which Freed took the time to explore these compelling side characters.

While I have previously enjoyed the first two Alphabet Squadron novels in their paperback format, circumstances required me to check out Victory’s Price as an audiobook instead, which was pretty damn awesome.  Not only did Victory’s Price feature the usual blend of iconic sound effects and music that makes all Star Wars audiobooks such a treat to enjoy, but I found that the story flowed incredibly well in this format.  With a lengthy runtime of 16 hours and 19 minutes, I absolutely blasted through this book as I became so engrossed in the awesome story and the way in which it was performed as an audiobook.  I also thought that the use of the iconic Star Wars music in the Victory’s Price was particularly impressive, and not only did the music make several of the extended space battle sequences even more epic, but they also really highlighted some of the most emotional scenes in the book and made them strike my soul even more emphatically.  I also really enjoyed the amazing narration from January LaVoy, who has previously provided her voice to the other Alphabet Squadron books.  LaVoy is a particularly skilled narrator whose work on the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Die Standing, I really enjoyed.  Not only does LaVoy present the awesome details of Victory’s Price in a quick and exciting manner, making each of the action scenes sound particularly cool, but she also provides some great voices for the various characters.  Each of the main characters gets a unique voice which fits them perfectly and which really helps the listener get to grips with their personalities and inner thoughts.  While all of the character’s voices were done extremely well, the best voice that LaVoy did was probably Hera Syndulla’s, which sounded extremely close to the character’s voice in the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  All of this helps to make Victory’s Price’s audiobook an immensely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend this format to anyone and everyone.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price is an exceptional and powerful novel from Alexander Freed that is one of the best books I have so far read in 2021.  Featuring a dark and gritty war story set during a fascinating period of Star Wars history, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the impressive Alphabet Squadron trilogy while also providing some cathartic conclusions to outstanding character arcs that Freed has built up during the previous book.  I absolutely loved this final novel (hence the massive review), and I think that this was probably the best entry in the entire series.  A highly recommended read, especially if you have already enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, this was a truly epic Star Wars novel.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - Into the Dark Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

The journey into the new era of Star Wars fiction known as The High Republic continues as acclaimed author Claudia Gray presents the next entry into this sub-series with the young adult novel, Star Wars: Into the Dark.

The High Republic is a fantastic Star Wars multimedia project made up of novels, comics and other pieces of Star Wars expanded universe fiction, set hundreds of years before the events of the films, showing a completely different period of Star Wars history.  This project started in January 2021 with the excellent novel, Light of the Jedi, which served as an impressive introduction to the period and the turmoils facing it.  Into the Dark, which runs somewhat concurrently with the events of Light of the Jedi, is the first young adult High Republic novel and presents an intriguing new adventure with a great group of new characters.  This young adult novel was written by the amazing Claudia Gray, author of the Evernight series, who has been making a real splash with Star Wars fiction in recent years.  Not only did she write the awesome-sounding novels Star Wars: Lost Stars, Star Wars: Bloodline and Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan (all three of which I fully intend to read in the future), but she also wrote the outstanding 2019 novel, Star Wars: Master and Apprentice, which is one of my absolute favourite Star Wars novels of all time.  As a result, I was quite keen to see Gray’s take on The High Republic era and she did not disappoint with a captivating and fascinating novel that was a lot of fun to read.

Jedi Padawan Reath Silas is about to have the adventure of his life, whether he wants it or not.  Apprenticed to the powerful Jedi Master Jora Malii, Reath is happy with his life on Coruscant where he can pursue his academic and scholarly interests.  However, his master has just accepted a dangerous new posting aboard the Starlight Beacon, a gigantic Republic-controlled space station on the frontier of the Outer Rim, far away from everything Reath has ever known. 

However, fate has a funny way of changing even the best laid plans. Reath, leaving Coruscant a few weeks after his master’s departure, finds himself caught up in the disaster sweeping through the galaxy.  Travelling aboard the unusual spaceship known as the Vessel, Reath and three other Jedi, each of whom have their own reasons for leaving the Jedi Temple and journeying into the wilds, encounter a mysterious disturbance out in hyperspace, as the remnants of the ship know as the Legacy Run, splinter out at lightspeed, destroying everything in their path.

To avoid the high-speed fragments, the Vessel makes an urgent jump out of hyperspace and finds itself trapped in an isolated portion of space with several other ships.  Forced to seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned space station, the Jedi and the Vessel’s crew attempt to work with the other ships to find a way to survive until hyperspace can once again be travelled safely.  However, great danger lies in wait aboard this station, as the various crews fight for resources and each of the Jedi are forced to fight their own inner demons.  But there are things far darker and more ancient aboard this station, and Reath and his colleagues will soon be forced to face off against a deadly foe whose reappearance could change the galaxy forever.

Into the Dark is another epic and enjoyable Star Wars novel from Claudia Gray that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting character driven adventure.  I have been really enjoying the new High Republic pieces of Star Wars fiction and Into the Dark ended up being an awesome and compelling young adult feature that not only contains a great story, but which dives into some fascinating subjects through the eyes of its amazing characters.

Gray has come up with an excellent and enjoyable narrative for Into the Dark which not only ties in nicely with the previous entries in the High Republic line but which also sets several fantastic new characters on a captivating and emotionally trying adventure.  The author starts the story off well, introducing all the key characters in quick succession (indeed six main characters get introduced in one extended sequence), providing some hints at their compelling backstories before sending them on their way into space.  It does not take long before they get wrapped up in the chaotic events that featured in the previous High Republic novel, Light of the Jedi, forcing them to explore the main setting of the abandoned space station.  This naturally leads to a lot of exciting and intriguing events as the characters are forced to survive for a time on the station with the crews of several other ships.  During this time, a lot of story threads start to appear, such as mysterious statues, dangers from the other crews, strange writings on the wall that have significance to one key character and a lingering sense of darkness that assaults the Jedi. 

At the same time, the author dives into several of the main characters’ motivations and the events of the past that drive them, including through a series of interesting flashbacks that have some curious connections to modern day events.  The middle of the novel keeps up the excitement where, after a major event, the characters return home, only to continue to be assailed by the mysteries of the station.  There are several good twists at this part of the book, including a significant reveal about a side character that I really should have seen coming.  Eventually, all the characters reunite and return, only to get drawn into a dangerous confrontation on the station as gathered forces finally show their hand.  All of this results in an explosive and impressive conclusion that leaves some interesting story arcs open for the main characters while also ensuring that the reader gets some satisfying closure about the events of the book.  I really enjoyed this great narrative, which is filled with some clever story threads which come together extremely well into a fast-paced and compelling young adult tale that readers will get through extremely quickly.

Into the Dark is an interesting read which I felt had a wide range of appeal to a lot of different audiences.  This latest book has been marketed as a young adult novel and teenage Star Wars fans will enjoy it.  Not only is this a great Star Wars adventure but the book also features a couple of great teenage characters taking charge and attempting to initiate change, for better or worse, as the universe changes around them.  While primarily a Star Wars novel, Gray does try to make it a little more relevant to teenagers, with some discussions about relationships, drugs and sex that you wouldn’t typically see in a Star Wars novel but which fit the tone of the book quite well.  Like many Star Wars young adult novels, Into the Dark is a book that older readers will also enjoy, especially as it is tied into the main events of the High Republic era.  While I think readers unfamiliar with The High Republic could easily enjoy this book, as Gray makes the text extremely accessible, I would say that Into the Dark is probably best enjoyed by those who have read some of the previous entries in the media project, especially the opening novel Light of the JediInto the Dark has a lot of connections to Light of the Jedi, especially as a major event impacting the main protagonist of this book occurs in this preceding novel, and this latest book ties in well with the rest of the franchise while also enhancing it.  In addition, Star Wars fans will really appreciate the author’s attempt to explore deeper elements of the Force, with the Jedi characters engaging in complex rituals to combat the Dark Side energy they encounter.  The author does an amazing job examining some of the roots of the Force, as well as the mentality and abilities of the people who manipulate it, and it is a fascinating addition to the narrative.  As a result, Into the Dark can be enjoyed by a large range of people who are guaranteed to have a lot of fun with it.

Easily one of the best highlights of this book is the amazing group of new unique characters who Gray has populated this story with.  The author has come up with a great group of intriguing point-of-view characters, each of whom plays a major part in the book’s plot and who Gray spends substantial time introducing and providing some compelling development as the book progresses.  The main character of Into the Dark is Padawan Reath Silas, the bookish apprentice of a great Jedi Master.  Reath is a fantastic young adult fiction protagonist, being a teenager who is thrust into a dangerous adventure against his will and who must find his inner strength to survive and thrive.  The author does a great job developing Reath throughout the novel, especially as he experiences substantial loss and trauma that he must overcome and which changes his entire outlook on life.  This character also provides some fascinating insight into the experiences and troubles of a Jedi apprentice, especially when they encounter great uncertainty about their path.  All of this results in some excellent character moments, and it was a lot of fun to see how Reath developed. 

Another major protagonist of this book is Affie Hollow, the young teen co-pilot of the Vessel.  Affie is another great young adult character, although, as she is more worldly (or the outer space equivalent of worldly?) than the somewhat sheltered Reath, she has a bit more common sense and a heck of a lot more sass.  Affie has a pretty intriguing story arc that sees her investigate the mysterious involvement of her shipping guild, which is run by her adoptive mother, with the space station that the Vessel ends up on.  This investigation, and her own stubborn determination, places her in the middle of some dangerous situations, and she ends up having to make some emotional and ethical choices towards the end of the book.

Other major characters in the novel are two of the Jedi who accompany Reath aboard the Vessel, Orla Jareni, a Jedi set on becoming a Wayseeker, a Jedi independent of the Council, and Cohmac Vitus, a noted and hooded scholar, both of whom are leaving for the frontier for different reasons.  Orla and Cohmac are an interesting pair who are bound together by a long history and a shared trauma in their past.  The events of this novel impact both severely, as it reminds them of the first mission they completed together, which is shown to the reader through a series of intriguing flashbacks.  Despite being fully-fledged Jedi, both Orla and Cohmac are filled with doubts about their order and their purpose, although for very different reasons.  This makes them quite a fascinating pair to follow, as they admit their problems to each other and attempt to come to terms with what it is to be a Jedi Knight and the difficulties that all of them face.  There is also Dez Rydan, a younger Jedi knight who has a close connection to Reath due to them sharing the same master.  Dez is a hotshot, adventure-driven Jedi who, while fun to follow, does not get as much focus as the others, mainly due to the events of the book.  However, he goes through a substantial amount of trauma, which results in some intriguing sequences, and I quite enjoyed seeing his story progress.

While the above group of characters are all interesting and well developed, I have to say that my favourite two characters have the be the hilarious and comedic team of Leox Gyasi and Geode, the other two crewmembers of the Vessel.  Leox, the captain of the Vessel, is a space hippy, down to the outfit, speech pattern and mentality.  Described by the author as essentially being 1990s Matthew McConaughey in a spaceship, Leox has a lot of fun as he breezes through the events of Into the Dark with ease, passing out words of wisdom and advice, and generally being a nice and entertaining presence throughout the story.  While mainly the book’s comic relief (a role he fills perfectly), Leox does have a serious side, especially when it comes to protecting his young compatriot, Affie.  I also liked that the author portrays Leox as asexual, which think is great for the wider Star Wars universe, and I felt Gray introduced and handled it extremely well.  The other great character was the Vessel’s navigator, Geode.  As you may be able to guess from the name, Geode is in fact a large sentient alien rock who can apparently communicate and walk around.  If you had asked me before reading Into the Dark whether I would enjoy a character who is a mute rock, I probably would have had some issues with it, but Gray makes it work extremely well and I absolutely loved the inclusion of this character.  Since Geode does not speak out loud through the entire novel, the reader is a little uncertain whether Geode is actually alive or whether this is some elaborate joke from the characters aboard the Vessel.  Watching Affie and Leox apparently have detailed conversations with him, determine his emotional state just by looking at him, and suggesting that the character has a wild and outgoing personality is pretty hilarious, and I ended up really liking this fantastic character, who was a real solid (snigger) addition to the cast. 

Considering that the last Star Wars novel of Gray’s that I read ended up being one of the best audiobooks I read in 2019, it should come as no surprise that I chose to listen to Into the Dark’s audiobook.  Like pretty much every other Star Wars audiobook I have previously listened to, Into the Dark was pretty awesome in this format, thanks to the use of sound effects and music from the films and animated shows.  The Star Wars sound effects (which include the iconic sounds of blasters, lightsabers, star ships and so much more) add so much cool ambience to the narrative and the amazing music increases the emotional impact of a ton of awesome scenes, even though it was used a little more subtlety with this book.  I also quite enjoyed the narration of Dan Bittner, an experienced narrator whose work I have not previously had the pleasure of enjoying.  Bittner does an impressive job with Into the Dark, as he was able to move the story along at a swift pace while easily keeping the listener’s attention with his narration.  I particularly liked the cool voices that he came up with for the various characters featured in this novel, and he was able to produce distinctive voices that fit the characters really well.  I also loved the “hippie” voice that he came up with for Leox, and the good-natured, ethereal tone really stood out for me and made me laugh.  With a run time of 11 hours, this is not a very long Star Wars audiobook, and listeners should be able to power through it in short order while having a good time.  Overall, this was an impressive production, and audiobook remains my favourite way to check out a Star Wars novel.

Star Wars: Into the Dark is an outstanding and compelling young adult tie in novel that takes the reader on another amazing adventure in the Star Wars universe during the High Republic era.  The always awesome Claudia Gray has come up with a fantastic and captivating tale, anchored around several entertaining and wonderfully complex characters.  The result is an excellent Star Wars novel that will have a wide amount of appeal and is really worth checking out.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 February 2020)

Series: Necromunda – Book 11

Length: 14 hours and 43 minutes.

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

After enjoying the exciting novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker last year I once again dive into the intricate Warhammer 40K expanded universe with another fantastic tie-in novel.  This time however, I check out the awesome pulse pounding Necromunda adventure, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, which reintroduces the iconic and entertaining bounty hunter Kal Jerico.

Warhammer 40K fiction is a particularly fascinating franchise built around Games Workshop’s tabletop war game of the same name, which follows armies, heroes and monsters as they fight for supremacy in a gothic far future.  While Warhammer 40K started as models and gaming, it has since evolved into a massive expanded universe, featuring comics, video games, board games, a film, an upcoming television show and a vast collection of tie-in novels written by an impressive group of science fiction authors.  This is a really fantastic universe that I have a great deal of love for as I was a major Warhammer nerd when I was younger (heck, I’ll admit it, I’m still a Warhammer nerd).  Thanks to an incredible amount of lore, history and character bios that have been created to accompany the various iterations of the tabletop game, this universe has so much potential for great fiction and stories that are a lot of fun to explore.

While my last dive into Warhammer 40K fiction focused on the wider wars of Space Marines versus aliens, this time I am looking at something very different as I check out my first Necromunda novel.  Necromunda fiction is based around the spin-off Necromunda game which was launched in the 1990s.  Set in the same universe as the rest of Warhammer 40K, this sub-franchise takes place on the industrial planet of Necromunda, a desolate husk of a world devastated by thousands of years of pollution and expansive industrial ambition.  The stories take place within and under the Hive Cities, vast multi-layered industrial hubs resembling termite mounds that reach both high into the sky and deep underground, and which are home to untold billions of inhabitants.  Broken up with the wealthy on the top spires and the poor on the bottom and below (the Underhive), control and influence of these cities is constantly fought over by powerful clans, families, and gangs, resulting in a huge range of different conflicts, which fuel both the tabletop game and the associated fiction.  With Game Workshop’s recent relaunch of the Necromunda game a couple of years ago, several new Necromunda novels have been published, including this novel which focuses on one of the most intriguing characters ever created as part of this game, Kal Jerico.

Kal Jerico, the self-proclaimed greatest bounty hunter in Necromunda, was introduced back in 1998 in the Kal Jerico comic strip, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Karl Kopinski, which appeared in the Warhammer Monthly magazine.  The Kal Jerico comic ran for 30 comic strips between 1998 and 2004, although the character subsequently appeared in three Kal Jerico novels written by Will McDermott (with Gordon Rennie co-authoring the first novel), Blood Royal, Cardinal Crimson and Lasgun Wedding.  I am a bit of a Kal Jerico fan, as I was lucky enough to receive several Warhammer Monthly magazines when I was a kid and I used to really enjoy all the cool and fantastic comics contained within.  Out of all the comics, the Kal Jerico ones were always my favourite and I absolutely loved seeing the outrageous and daring adventures of this cocky bounty hunter.  My love for this character is the main reason that I decided to check Sinner’s Bounty out, and I was really interested to see a more modern take on the character years after seeing him appear in comic book form.

In the sordid depths of Hive Primus, the biggest hive city on Necromunda, a daring crime has been committed and all hell is about to break loose in the aftermath.  The infamous and manic preacher, Desolation Zoon, led a brazen robbery on a guilder tithe-hall, stealing vast quantities of weaponry, credits, imported goods and other mysterious treasures.  Now, with his band of fanatical followers, Zoon is heading downhive in an armoured mining hauler, modified with an impressive amount of firepower.  However, these zealots are not the only ones heading downhive as they are being followed by every hired gun and killer in Hive Primus, each of whom wants a piece of the massive bounty that has been placed on Zoon’s head.

At the forefront of the rogues, killers and gangers chasing after Zoon is the infamous bounty hunter Kal Jerico.  Travelling with his faithful sidekick, Scabbs, the murderous woman he was forced to marry, Yolanda, and his cyber-mastiff, Wotan, Jerico is determined to catch up to Zoon and claim both the money and the accompanying reputation boost.  To claim their prize, this unconventional team will need to traverse some of the most dangerous locations in the Underhive and face off against giant monsters, dangerous tunnel creatures and mutant cannibals, as well as all their friendly bounty hunter colleagues.

However, as they get closer to capturing Zoon, Jerico and his cohorts will swiftly discover that is far from the simple bounty mission they thought it was.  Many powerful people, both inside and outside of Hive Primus, have a stake in Zoon’s capture, and soon Jerico will face off against some old rivals who are just as likely to settle old grudges as they are to claim Zoon’s bounty.  Worst, something dark and dangerous is rising in the deeps of the Underhive, and Kal is about to find himself in the middle of a massive fight that even his unnatural good luck may be able to save him from.

Now, that was a fun novel!  Sinner’s Bounty is an awesome read that not only successfully reintroduces a fan-favourite character but which also provides a pulse-pumping science fiction adventure for reader in the mood for an exciting and captivating story.  To tell this impressive new Kal Jerico novel, the Black Library has recruited veteran tie-in author Joshua Reynolds to continue the legacy started by authors like Renni and McDermott.  Reynolds is a talented author who is well-established in Warhammer fiction, having written a substantial amount of Warhammer 40K and Warhammer fantasy novels over the years, following a wide range of different characters and storylines.  I ended up really enjoying Reynold’s Kal Jerico novel and I was deeply impressed with the excellent combination of compelling narrative, great characters, and an iconic setting, all wrapped up with a fantastic sense humour, that helped to turn Sinner’s Bounty into such an exceptional read.

Sinner’s Bounty contains an epic tale of greed, adventure and friendship in the twisting tunnels of the Underhive that provides a ton of action and excitement.  Reynolds starts this story off with a bang (well, several bangs, a multitude of bangs if I am going to be honest), setting up first the main plot catalyst in Desolation Zoon and his mission, before introducing Jerico and his partners as they encounter their first obstacle on their hunt.  This entertaining first encounter serves as a fantastic introduction to the main protagonists, and Reynolds swiftly hurries them on their way, ensuring that they encounter more of the deadly elements of life in the Underhive, such as their lethal competitors.  At the same time, Reynolds starts introducing several additional characters who embark on the same mission of catching up with Jerico and Zoon.  These additional side characters introduce some intriguing alternate viewpoints and opinions, especially as each of them have their own agendas and motivations for being there.  These alternate viewpoints work extremely well in conjunction with the main narrative around Jerico, and Reynolds starts adding more and more in as the novel progresses, with nearly every supporting character and plot point coming together towards the end of the book.  Reynolds writes up a big conclusion with every major character in the same location forced to work together to survive in a scenario that was fantastically reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven.  At the same time, every character attempts to betray each other, resulting in some extremely entertaining and fun sequences, with the reader unsure who is going to end up on top and who is going to survive.  All of this is wrapped up perfectly, with a clever and fitting conclusion to the main story, while several open story threads set up some additional stories for the future.  All of this was deeply captivating, and while I personally got hooked on the cool story within the first few pages, there is so much intense action, clever betrayals and compelling plot points, that most readers will find themselves wanting to see how this awesome book ends as quickly as possible.

While many tie-in novels in the Warhammer 40K range have a somewhat limited audience, often requiring pre-knowledge of game lore, I felt that Sinner’s Bounty was extremely accessible and can be easily enjoyed by anyone interested in a fun science fiction adventure.  Reynolds does an exceptional job introducing all the relevant elements of Necromunda throughout the course of Sinner’s Bounty, and the reader is easily able to understand what is happening and why without any issue whatsoever.  Indeed, Reynolds makes this book so accessible that I would recommend Sinner’s Bounty as a fantastic introductory novel to anyone interested in seeing what Warhammer 40K fiction is all about, especially the Necromunda subset.  At the same time, Reynolds also ensures that Sinner’s Bounty caters for established fans, as there are a ton of references to the Necromunda game, previous Kal Jerico adventures and wider Warhammer 40K lore.  Not only do huge amounts of elements from the tabletop game make it into Sinner’s Bounty’s story, but Reynolds skilfully references events that occurred within both the Kal Jerico comics and novels, recapping them for new readers while also making some jokes about the events that occurred.  This great blend of references and detail makes Sinner’s Bounty an excellent Warhammer 40K novel for all readers and you are guaranteed to have a good time no matter how familiar you are with Kal Jerico or this fictional universe.

Without a doubt one of the best highlights of this entire novel was the incredible setting of the Underhive of Necromunda.  Reynolds goes all out throughout the course of this book to bring this grim, cavernous and incredibly deadly expanded setting to life in all its gory glory, and it is spectacular.  The reader gets a real sense of how life in the dark under a massive hive city must be like and the author has included all manner of details about crumbling façade, the unusual life forms and perilous living conditions that its many, many inhabitants must face.  Naturally, this turns out to be an outstanding setting for this action-packed storyline, and I had an amazing time seeing which horror or unique landscape would appear next.  Reynolds also loads up his novel with a huge amount of additional detail about the various gangs, families, and groups that control Hive Primus and inhabit the Underhive, which proves to be deeply fascinating.  The author really goes out of his way to provide a fantastic introduction to several factions that were featured in the tabletop game, allowing readers with limited knowledge of this universe to easily follow who these groups are and how they relate to wider story and world.  All of this proved to be extremely fascinating and readers are guaranteed to want to dive back into the depths to see more outstanding adventures here.

Another impressive part of Sinner’s Bounty was the extremely likeable and distinctive characters whose adventure the readers follow during this multi-perspective narrative.  Many of these characters were originally introduced in the previous comics and novels and Reynolds does an excellent job revitalising them and fitting them into his fantastic story.  The main protagonist of Sinner’s Bounty is the titular Kal Jerico, the Underhive’s most dashing and fashionable bounty hunter.  I really enjoyed the excellent version of Jerico that appeared in this novel, and the author has styled him as a particularly bold, resourceful, vain, and exceedingly lucky figure who moves from place to place bringing chaos and destruction.  Jerico is a very entertaining character, constantly delivering witticisms and fun one-liners to his compatriots, his enemies and himself, and you cannot help but enjoy seeing everything going wrong around him as he manages to annoy or enrage everyone he comes across.  It was particularly fun to see so many other characters get drawn into the events of this book partially out of spite towards Jerico, after being bested by him in previous adventures.  Despite his outer edge of pragmatism, greed and selfishness, Sinner’s Bounty shows that Jerico has a bit of a soul when it comes to some of the other people he encounters.  Not only is he shown to care about both his companions, despite several discussions where he implies he would sell them for his own benefit, but he also has a deeply ingrained sense of honour that drives him to do the right thing, even if it puts him in greater risk.  This makes for a fantastic and enjoyable character and I had a wonderful time seeing him scamper around in the Underhive making enemies and generally pissing everyone off.

In addition to his own vaunted self, Jerico also brought along two of his long-term associates Scabbs and Yolanda, both of whom have been part of the Kal Jerico series since the beginning (Scabbs appeared in Issue #1, while Yolanda was introduced in #2).  Both characters are heavily featured in Sinner’s Bounty and proved to be an excellent addition to the story.  The most significant inclusion is probably Scabbs, Jerico’s long-time friend and sidekick with a serious skin condition (hence the name Scabbs), who often unwillingly follows Jerico into danger.  Scabbs is a fun character who serves as a great counterpoint to Jerico’s insanity, often complaining about the terrible plans and generally looking for a more intelligent way to complete the mission.  Scabbs has a rather significant character arc within Sinner’s Bounty which forces him to examine his half-ratskin (a gang/clan in Necromunda) past, especially when he encounters Amenute, a ratskin mystic who is inexplicably drawn to him.  This forces Scabbs to re-examine his loyalties to Jerico, and it is intriguing to see this character act rashly as he faces off against powerful gangs to save his new acquaintance.

Next we have Yolanda, the dangerous and unpredictable wild woman who is currently Jerico’s wife (see the previous Kal Jerico novel, Lasgun Wedding).  Despite this marital relationship with Jerico, Yolanda is a just as likely to cut her husband’s throat as she is to help him, as she only serves her own best interest or her desires to kill as many people as possible.  Yolanda is another great character, especially as the reader is constantly left waiting for her inevitable betrayal of Jerico and Scabbs (I also had a good chuckle at an early joke about a poet trying to describe Yolanda, which does not go well for the poet!).  While Yolanda is a tad one-dimensional at times, Reynolds does a good job of trying to explore her inner psyche, showcasing some interesting parallels between her and Jerico, as both fled from a cushy life in the Spire to experience the joys of the Underhive, and there are some hints of some genuine feelings for Jerico, even though the two mockingly reference their sham marriage throughout the book.  I had a lot of fun with both these supporting characters and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to Jerico’s antics.

Aside from these three protagonists, Reynolds has also loaded up Sinner’s Bounty with a raft of side characters, each of whom has their own agenda or plan, most of which revolve around killing Jerico (the guy is very popular).  The side characters featured within this book are an intriguing combination of established Necromunda bounty hunters and power brokers (I believe several are playable characters in the tabletop game), and original characters.  As a result, the reader gets to follow a range of religious fanatics, outrageous bounty hunters, scheming gangas, deranged mutants (including an entertainingly grandiose queen) and a whole range of other intriguing figures.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, the reader gets a useful and suitable introduction to each of these characters, ensuring that they can be easily slotted into the narrative when necessary and cause their little bit of havoc.

Out of all these supporting characters, one of my favourites had to be the Adjurator (a fancy bounty hunter) Baertrum Arturos III, who serves as a major point-of-view character and secondary antagonist for this novel.  Baertrum is a slippery and treacherous hunter who is drawn into this chase not just for money but for the opportunity to one-up Jerico, who he has a deadly rivalry with.  Baertrum’s scenes are fun to read, especially as he is usually coming up with a new way to betray the other characters, and the reader has a great time hating him throughout the book.  I also liked the character of Desolation Zoon, the mad preacher whose brazen heist is the cause of all the events of this book.  Reynolds creates a particularly intriguing character in Zoon, showcasing him as a tired old preacher who, after a lifetime of piety and bloodshed, is starting to lose his faith and question his past actions.  However, this old dog still has some holy fire in him, and readers are in for a great time seeing him lay into his enemies with sword and blistering verse in equal measure.  Zoon has some particularly fantastic exchanges with Jerico in the second half of the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing this compelling figure come to life and be utilised throughout the book.  Overall, I thought that each of the characters in this exceptional novel were pretty damn fantastic and I had an exceptional time watching them attempt to survive and betray everyone they encounter.

I chose to grab Sinner’s Bounty on audiobook, which ended up being an amazing way to experience this fantastic and compelling novel.  The Sinner’s Bounty audiobook had a decent run time of just under 15 hours, which I managed to get through in about a week with a few extended listening sessions once I really got hooked on its outrageous tale.  I had a lot of fun listening to this audiobook and I found that the cool action sequences and gloriously gory setting of the Underhive were particularly awesome in this format.  A lot of this is down to the excellent narration of the talented Mark Elstob.  Elstob, who has previously narrated a small but interesting collection of audiobooks, has a lot of fun with Sinner’s Bounty as he comes up with some unique voices for this fantastic science fiction adventure.  All of the characters are gifted with a fitting and fun voice that really captures the depth of their personality, whether they be a scheming bounty hunter, a former aristocrat or a fantastical preacher, while also modulating to match their emotional state at that time.  This makes several of the battle scenes particularly fun, especially when you have characters like Desolation Zoon shouting out religious verse during a fight.  I also really appreciated the more nasal or gravelly voices the narrator came up for the various Abhuman or mutated beings featured within the book, and it was great to have some of the more different characters identified differently (I need to give a particular shoutout to one of characters, a mutant pirate captain, to whom Elstob gives a very enjoyable Scottish accent).  Overall, this was an outstanding way to enjoy Sinner’s Bounty and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this book.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty is an outstanding Warhammer 40K novel that reintroduces the epic Kal Jerico back to his adoring public after a lengthy absence.  The always impressive Joshua Reynolds has produced another outstanding Warhammer novel, containing an exciting and compelling adventure story, equipped with an incredible setting and some fantastic characters.  This results in an addictive and entertaining novel that I had an absolutely awesome time getting through and which made me so very glad that Kal Jerico is back.  Here’s hoping that we’ll get some more Kal Jerico novels in the future, especially if they feature more of Reynolds’s epic writing.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

Film Review – Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman - Soul of the Dragon

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 40

Director: Sam Liu

Producer: Bruce Timm

Writer: Jeremy Adams

Length: 82 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into an intense and addictive DC Comics martial arts adventure with the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, an outstanding and deeply enjoyable film that explores several amazing DC characters in a very unique way.

While The Unseen Library is primarily dedicated to providing book and comic reviews, I have in the last year been experimenting with reviews and articles about another great passion of mine, animated superhero films.  I have always had a lot of fondness for this genre and I started focusing on it more last year when I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and even further when I did an extended Top Ten Tuesday article listing my favourite superhero animated films, which primarily featured DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  DC continues their domination of the animation market with the very awesome Soul of the Dragon film, which serves as the 40th entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  I had an outstanding time watching this latest animated offering and it is definitely a new favourite film of mine.

Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner are four of the best martial artists on the planet, utilising their skills and training to become truly elite fighters.  While each of these renowned warriors are now on their own different paths, they shared a similar start on their journey as students at the secret monastery of Nanda Parbat.  Training under the legendary O-Sensei, these four, along with other notable students, not only learned the martial techniques that allowed them to become the fighters they are today but also became a close-knit family, until one terrible night changed everything for them.

Now their paths are about to cross again when Richard Dragon discovers that a fanatical organisation, the Cult of the Kobra, have stolen an ancient and dangerous artefact that Dragon and his fellow former students are intimately and tragically familiar with.  Travelling to Gotham City, Dragon recruits Bruce Wayne, who now fights criminals as the vigilante Batman, to help him stop Kobra and save the entire world.  Attempting to recover another artefact guarded by Shiva, now a feared Gotham crime boss, they soon discover just how long and deadly Kobra’s reach is.

With Shiva and Ben in tow, the four former disciples of O-Sensei prepare for the battle of their lives as they attempt to infiltrate Kobra’s island base.  However, nothing will prepare them for the dangers they will encounter, nor the horrors unleashed from their past.  Can these four dangerous fighters work together to save the world or will an ancient and deadly force be unleashed?

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent and amazing animated comic book film that proved to be an absolute treat to watch.  This is a standalone film which is directed by Sam Liu, written by Jeremy Adams and featuring Bruce Timm as an executive producer, and together these talented people have produced a fantastic and powerful feature.  Liu and Timm are the genius behind some of the best animated comic films that are out there, including Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and the incredible The Death of Superman, and they have once again done an outstanding job with Soul of the Dragon, creating a unique and entertaining comic book tale.  Making excellent use of an exceptional narrative, a great group of characters and a very distinctive vibe, Soul of the Dragon is an outstanding and wonderful film that is really worth watching.

Soul of the Dragon has a particularly awesome and captivating narrative that follows its four iconic central protagonists on an epic quest to right the wrongs of their collective past.  This movie contains an original tale set in the 1970s that draws heavily from classic DC martial arts comics to create a fantastic film that not only dives into the origins of some amazing DC characters but which also presents an exciting character-driven adventure.  This movie starts off with a captivating bang with Richard Dragon discovering a sinister plot with ties to his time as a student.  The story then quickly starts to reunite the four major characters, with several impressive action set-pieces dominating the early part of this movie, all of which were a real treat to watch.  The story than takes the protagonists to an island fortress where they must face their enemy before he can unleash a terrible force of destruction.

Interspersed with the main story are a series of compelling flashbacks that follow the protagonists’ training under O-Sensei, which provide some excellent context to the main story.  I thought that the flashbacks were a particularly impressive part of the movie and I liked they expertly tied together main narrative with the past, creating a richer overall story.  I also felt that the narrative did an excellent job of introducing each of the characters while also highlighting the differences between their modern appearances and their former lives as students.  I did think that the main story was a little rushed and could have potentially used a little more plot in between the protagonists’ reunion and their arrival at the antagonists’ island.  Still, this did not impact my enjoyment of the movie too much, and the last third of the film is so damn epic and emotionally charged that you forget about this slight misstep of pacing.  All of this wraps up with a memorable and interesting ultimate conclusion, which will leave you wondering about what, if anything, is going to happen next.

Thanks to the standalone nature of this movie, potential viewers do not need to have watched any prior DC animated features to enjoy Soul of the Dragon, and indeed minimal knowledge of the various characters and comic elements is needed to follow along, as the narrative provides a fantastic and detailed introduction to all the relevant parts of the plot.  All of this makes for an epic and just plain awesome story that honours some classic DC characters and comics while also introducing them to a new generation of DC fans with this fantastic adventure.

In addition to the first-rate story, I was also impressed with how well this cool movie was put together.  It contains some outstanding animation, especially when it comes to the impressively exciting action scenes, with a particularly well-put-together car chase halfway through the film being an amazing example.  This proves to be a very action-heavy film, with a huge number of fluid combat sequences that perfectly captures the skill of the combatants and which successfully translates the style of the original martial arts comic.  Parents should be warned that this is not an animated feature for younger children, thanks to some of its over-the-top content, but everyone else is going to love seeing all the exciting fast-paced scenes unfold.  I particularly liked how this animated movie had such a distinctive and entertaining style to it, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  As the story is set in to the 1970s, the creators attempted to replicate the feel and tone of the era in a number of different ways, such as the technology, locations and the animated appearances of the characters.  The creative team also made sure to include a ton of appropriate slang (you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Batman say: “Let’s get it on”) and an excellent instrumental musical score that is not only very 70s in its sound but which perfectly fits the movie’s distinctive narrative and tone.  Soul of the Dragon draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu films, especially those featuring Bruce Lee, and you can really feel the creators’ love of the genre with all the little details they chuck in.  There are also a number of fantastic allusions to classic James Bond films, including several very familiar musical themes, some entertaining lines from certain characters and even a dangerous car chase with a gadget-laden car that ends with a vehicle getting whisked away on an electromagnet attached to a helicopter (a very fun call-back to You Only Live Twice).  I absolutely loved how well this film came together, and all the exceptional animation and clever tonal shifts combine perfectly with the great story to produce an enthralling and memorable viewing experience.

In addition to have an amazing and entertaining narrative, Soul of the Dragon is backed up by a fantastic roster of characters from across the DC Comics canon, voiced by an exceptional and talented collection of actors.  While this movie contains several great supporting characters, the story is mostly set around Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner, each of whom are heavily featured in both the main narrative and the flashbacks.  While all four of these main characters are great in their own right, a lot of their appeal lies in fantastic connection they have with each other and with their master, O-Sensei.  These great protagonists have an excellent rapport, and it proved to be really great to see them interact with each other throughout the film.

The lead of the film is probably Batman, who is voiced by David Giuntoli of Grimm fame, who provides a fantastic take on the character with his voice work.  I liked how there were two versions of Batman: the vigilante who featured in the main story and the younger student in Nanda Parbat.  This proved to be an interesting portrayal of this iconic character, as the writers attempt to explore Bruce’s determination, even as a young man, to do the impossible and fight evil no matter the cost.  It was also great to see him evolve from the student in the flashbacks to the vigilante in the main story, and there are some fun scenes that showcase him becoming a more focused and terrifying fighter when he puts on the mask.

While Soul of the Dragon is nominally a Batman movie, Bruce is somewhat overshadowed by some of the other main protagonists.  This is no fault of the character’s portrayal or characterisation; it is just because the other protagonists are just a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Part of the reason why this is the case is that Batman is the least skilled martial artist in what is essentially a kung fu movie, as it is established that his fellow students are better fighters than him (this is true in both the film and in the comics).  While this does mean that some of the other characters’ action sequences are a little more visually impressive, you instead get to see Batman fight in different ways.  There is a great focus on how Batman utilises trickery and fear to supplement his weaker fighting abilities, and there are some excellent scenes around this, including a key one towards the end of the film where he uses a combination of his gadgets, cunning, and even his own cape to defeat a superior foe.  I did think that the version of the character was a bit blasé about keeping his identity secret with his friends, and he didn’t seemed as opposed to people using lethal force as you would expect, but this was an outstanding take on Batman and I really enjoyed his appearance in this film.

One major character who was a true highlight of this movie was Richard Dragon, an iconic character who is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the DC canon.  Despite his popularity in DC’s martial arts comics, this is the character’s first appearance outside of the comics (the Richard Dragon featured in Arrow is a different character altogether) and he voiced by The Chairman himself, Mark Dacascos.  Depicted as Asian in the film (the comic character is traditionally a red-haired Caucasian), this character looks a lot like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and is portrayed as an international super spy.  Despite this being a Batman film, in many ways Richard is just as much the main character of this movie, with much of the story revolving around him.  Richard grabs focus right from the start, where he engages in some amusing spy antics, which include outwitting a James Bond-esque character in a fancy casino, effortlessly and stylishly fighting off some goons, and parachuting onto a boat filled with beautiful women (a scene very reminiscent of The Living Daylights, Bond music included), before identifying himself as “Dragon, Richard Dragon”.  Each of Dragon’s subsequent scenes are really fantastic, from the fluid and exceptional action sequences to the fun interactions he has with other characters, including an entertaining scene with a pompous bouncer.  Dacascos does an exceptional job voicing this character and he provides Richard with a confident, intelligent and generally calm air that proves to be extremely easy to enjoy, while also including some vulnerability in several amazing scenes.  All of this helps to produce an exceptional character and I am extremely glad that the introduction of Richard Dragon to a wider media went so well.

The next major character in the movie is the dangerous and delightful Shiva, who was voiced by the talented Kelly Hu.  Lady Shiva, as she is better known, is one of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC canon.  I felt the creative team did an outstanding job showcasing Shiva in Soul of the Dragon, as she is portrayed as a merciless killing machine and living weapon able to destroy her opponents with minimal effort and nothing but her bare hands.  The character has some of the most brutal combat sequences, which were not only beautifully animated but which proved to be extremely entertaining to watch.  I felt that Shiva went through some fantastic character development throughout the film as she transforms from a dedicated student to a ruthless crime lord who even Batman is afraid to deal with: “I’m working up to it…”  I also really loved the choice of voice actor for this character as Kelly Hu does a sensational job bringing Shiva to life.  Hu, who is known for her comic book roles in both animation (as Cheshire in Young Justice and Karai in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and live action (as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2 and China White in Arrow), has previously voiced Lady Shiva in the Batman: Arkham Origins video game, and it was great to see her return to this fantastic character.  She gives this version of Shiva a particularly deadly air; you can tell with every sentence just how confident she is in her own ability and lethal potential.  Not only does Shiva have some of the best fight scenes in the movie but she also has some of the best lines, such as when she chooses her opponent in one of the big boss fights: “I’ll take the girl, her look offends me!”  I also absolutely loved one scene which saw the voice of Karai from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against three green-clad ninjas respectfully wielding sai, nunchaku and a bo staff.  The character’s casual comment of “You know how to use those?” followed by her effortlessly taking all three out was just perfect and it has me laughing pretty heavily.  I think that Shiva was probably my favourite character in the entire movie and I am really impressed with how she was written and portrayed.

The final member of the main four characters is Ben Turner, the angry and dangerous African-American fighter better known as Bronze Tiger.  Bronze Tiger is a major martial artist in the DC canon who is probably best known for his run in the Suicide Squad comics.  Bronze Tiger is voiced by Michael Jai White, who recently portrayed the live-action version of the character in Arrow.  I really liked Bronze Tiger throughout Soul of the Dragon, as the film captures a lot of his essence from his original comic appearances and subsequently turn him into a fantastic character in this movie.  Part of the reason why is that he goes through the most development out of all the main characters, especially as several flashbacks bridge the gap between his student days and his current character, showing several pivotal events in his life.  I absolutely loved his look in this movie, as they made the decision to model him on African-American actor and martial artist, Jim Kelly, with some elements of other 70s African-American characters like Shaft and Luke Cage thrown in.  There is a particularly fun joke around this character when Richard misremembers the character’s codename as Black Samurai, a reference to the Jim Kelly movie of the same name, and the subsequent approval of the team at his actual codename of Bronze Tiger was very entertaining.  White does some excellent voice work for Bronze Tiger in this film and he successfully showcases the character’s intense anger at the start of the story before evolving it into a more zen-like persona towards the end.  I would say that Bronze Tiger was a little overshadowed by the three other protagonists, but he was still a great addition to the movie and is a fun character to follow.

Aside from the main four characters, there is a particular focus on the mentor character of O-Sensei, who is voiced in this film by the legendary James Hong.  O-Sensei is a fantastic character with an intriguing history in DC Comics, being a major figure in the lives of Richard Dragon, Shiva and Bronze Tiger.  This is actually O-Sensei’s first named appearance outside of the comics, and he proves to be a fantastic and fun addition to the movie’s narrative.  Hong portrays the character as a wise but humorous kung fu master, offering deep insights and amusing jokes in equal measure to the younger characters, while also forming them into a close family.  O-Sensei proves to be an extremely likeable character, with some deep and powerful moments that ensure that the viewer appreciates and enjoys him.  I particularly loved Hong’s voice work throughout the movie and I felt that he really dived into the character and made him stand out, especially in some later scenes in the movie where there are some intriguing twists around him.  An overall outstanding and exceptional part of the cast, I am extremely glad they got Hong for this movie.

No comic book movie will be complete without some villains, and to my mind this is where Soul of the Dragon falls a little flat.  The antagonists of this film are the members of the Cult of the Kobra (essentially DC’s version of Hydra, both of which were created by Jack Kirby).  Kobra are led by their prophet, Jeffrey Burr (voiced by Josh Keaton), backed up by his henchmen Schlangenfaust (Robin Atkin Downes), Lady Eve (Grey Griffin) and King Snake (Patrick Seitz).  While all of these characters are voiced perfectly and have some cool moments throughout the movie, such as Burr’s creepy introduction, his belief in his prophesised destiny and Schlangenfaust’s hidden abilities, I honestly found each of these villains to be a little underwhelming.  None of them (with the possible exception of Schlangenfaust) really stood out to me and they were all very generic sort of villains to the story.  That being said, Soul of the Dragon did feature two hidden antagonists at different points of film who add some major twists to the tale.  Both of these villains were rather good and moved the story along in some intriguing and entertaining directions.  I particularly loved the appearance of one antagonistic character towards the end of the movie, and while his appearance was slightly predictable, it proved to be a major highlight of the film, resulting in some outstanding scenes.  As a result, it was rather easy for me to forgive some of the downsides of the Kobra villains as the overall antagonists of this film turned out to be extremely good.

Overall, I think that Batman: Soul of the Dragon was an exceptional animated film that was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks to its combination of an epic story, captivating and well-written characters and a tone that is a fun nod to classic and campy kung fu movies, this movie gets a full five stars from me.  This is definitely a movie I will watch multiple times in the future, and it comes highly recommended.  I very much looking forward to seeing the next entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range (there is a Justice Society movie and an adaption of Batman: The Long Halloween coming out later this year), and I will have to have a go at reviewing them when they come out.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.