The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

The Trouble with Peace Cover

Publisher: Orion Audio (Audiobook – 15 September 2020)

Series: The Age of Madness – Book Two

Length: 21 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The master of dark fantasy fiction, Joe Abercrombie, returns with another masterful and incredible novel, The Trouble with Peace, the second entry in The Age of Madness trilogy, which is easily one of the best novels of 2020.

Abercrombie is an extremely talented author who has written several impressive dark fantasy novels over the years.  His most distinctive works are the books in The First Law universe, which started back in 2006 with the author’s debut novel, The Blade ItselfThe First Law trilogy (which I really need to review) was an amazing and captivating series that followed a motley collection of broken characters and bastards as they found themselves caught up in the chaos of a dark and brutal fantasy universe.  The author has revisited this universe several times, first with three standalone novels set after the events of The First Law trilogy, and then with The Age of Madness trilogy, of which this latest book is a part.  The Age of Madness novels serve as a sequel series to The First Law trilogy, and follow several of the children of the original protagonists (as well as some other new characters), as they engage in a whole new level of chaos and destruction.  The first entry in this trilogy, last year’s A Little Hatred, was an exceptional novel that not only got a full five-star rating from me but which was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019.  As a result, I was extremely excited when I got my copy of The Trouble with Peace, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

The age of madness rolls on!  Following the death of his father, Crown Prince Orso has taken the throne of the Union and is now king, a role he never wanted.  What he inherits is a nation riven with discord and disharmony, with enemies within and without waiting to cut him down and take power for themselves.  Forced to deal with the machinations of the lords of the Open Council, the revolutionary Breakers, the anarchist Burners and the rival Kingdom of Styrians attempting to take his kingdom from him piece by piece, Orso soon begins to learn that even as king, he is just as powerless as always.

As chaos begins to descend on the Union and the North, the great and the powerful attempt to find their place in the new world order.  For Savine dan Glokta, formerly Adua’s most powerful investor, she finds herself in a vulnerable position with her judgement and reputation ruined.  However, her ambition remains unchecked and an unlikely alliance may help to secure the future she has always desired.  In the North, peace temporarily reigns and the governor of Angland, Leo dan Brock, chafes at the lack of action and finds himself drawn into the political turmoil surrounding the rulership of The Union.  As a famous war hero, he now wields great influence in the Open Council and many seek to use him for their own ends.  This chaos leads to him making deals he never expected, including with his former enemy, the new King of the Northmen, Stour Nightfall.  At the same time, the Dogman’s daughter, Rikke, attempts to control her dangerous gift of prophecy and heads along a new path of blood and violence.

As order and peace unravel across the Union, discord and rebellion raise their ugly heads.  With the old leaders of the world dead and the new generation taking their place, war seems inevitable.  Those who remain must decide who they are loyal to and who they can trust.  However, no alliances, no peace and no friendships last forever, and when the dust settles the Union will be changed forever!

Well damn, that was a good read!!  The Trouble with Peace is another exceptional and captivating novel that takes the reader on a dark thrill ride that proves impossible to escape.  The author once again comes up with an impressive and clever story of war and betrayal, which is anchored by a series of complex point-of-view characters, each of whom is damaged in some unique and compelling manner.  This results in a truly incredible book that was an absolute joy to read and which I flew through in a relatively short period of time.  I absolutely loved this latest book from Abercrombie, and The Trouble with Peace gets an easy five-star rating from me as a result.

At the centre of this awesome novel is an extraordinary and fast-paced narrative that sees various diverse characters and factions attempt to manipulate and outwit each other in order to gain ultimate power in the world.  The plot of The Trouble with Peace continues immediately after the shocking conclusion of A Little Hatred and sees each of the characters introduced in the previous book continue along their established storylines.  Of course, as this is a The First Law novel, it really does not take long for events to take a downward turn and soon the characters find themselves on opposite sides of a growing, major conflict.  There is a real focus on political intrigue, personal relationships and revolution in this novel, all of which proves to be deeply captivating and a lot of fun to read.  On top of that, Abercrombie throws in his usual blend of high-adrenaline action, extreme humour and wild personalities, resulting in an impressive and addictive story that readers will lap up and try to finish off as soon as possible.  Abercrombie does a great job of making this story accessible to new readers and those people unfamiliar with the universe could easily jump in here and have a great time.  However, this is definitely a novel for those readers familiar with the other entries in The First Law series, especially the preceding novel, A Little Hatred, and fans of the series will love the clever directions Abercrombie goes in The Trouble with Peace.  This is a first-class story, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Abercrombie backs up this amazing narrative with a powerful and distinct writing style that helps to turn The Trouble with Peace into a first-class read.  Like all the novels in The First Law series, The Trouble with Peace is told from some different and unique perspectives, as several captivating characters show the events of the novel occurring in front of them.  This results in an impressive and far-reaching story as the reader gets to see a bunch of different points of the same story.  This allows you to witness the various political, tactical and personal manoeuvrings on each side of the conflict, enhancing the overall narrative and driving certain key plot points home.  Abercrombie uses these multiple perspectives to great effect throughout the novel and some of the best sequences in the book are the result of some quick changes of perspective.  This includes an amazing succession of scenes in which two rival characters are disguised in a casino and have subsequent meetings with the same person in quick succession.  It proved remarkably entertaining to see the different approaches both characters took to the same situation, and served to highlight the similarities and differences between them.  Other scenes showed how the major point-of-view characters deal with each other when they meet, and it was fun to see the various mental gambits from both sides of the conflict, especially as Abercrombie ensures that all these characters are competing to be the most manipulative person in the room.  There are also two extended sequences where a single event is witnessed not only by a main character but also by a series of side characters and minor one-off characters to really showcase the chaotic nature of some scenes and the wide range of people they impact.  The use of various perspectives also really helps to set the brutal and dark tone for the entire novel, as the characters they follow are usually right in the centre of a series of different messes that they are either the cause of or they are trying to avoid.  I also really enjoyed the unique outlooks of each character as their fun reactions to the outrageous events occurring around them provide a great deal of the book’s impressive and entertaining humour.

As with all of Abercrombie’s books, the true highlight of The Trouble with Peace is easily the fantastic selection of damaged and deranged characters that make up the main cast of the series.  Like the first entry in The Age of Madness trilogy, The Trouble with Peace is primarily told throughout the eyes of seven separate point-of-view characters, each of whom has their own unique and captivating character through the novel.  These characters include:

  • King Orso – son of King Jezal, who has taken the throne after the sudden death of his father. Orso has inherited a fractured kingdom, essentially made up of people who all hate him.  Orso has a lot of growing up to do in this novel as he soon discovers all the troubles that relate to being king and the limited power he truly has.  I really liked Orso’s storyline in this book, mainly because he comes into his own and starts to demonstrate some backbone and leadership abilities.  His unique way of dealing with problems, many of which relate to his background as a wastrel and a coward, are surprisingly effective and often very entertaining.  Orso proves to be a very enjoyable protagonist throughout this book, and I personally found myself really getting behind him and hoping that he comes out on top.
  • Savine dan Glokta – the adoptive daughter of Arch Lector Glokta and the foremost businesswomen in the Union. Savine has gone through some substantial changes since the last book.  Rather than the confident and crafty women we were introduced to, this Savine is a mess, still reeling from the horrors she experienced in Valbeck and the revelation that her former lover, Orso, is her half-brother.  However, Savine soon manages to find a way back on top, thanks to a profitable marriage, and sets her sights on a particularly tempting target.  Savine is a rather despicable character in this book, and the readers are going to have a hard time feeling too sympathetic for her.  Still, Abercrombie does an amazing job exploring her trauma damaged psyche and she ends up being a very compelling character to follow.
  • Leo dan Brock – the new governor of Angland and the son of two of the protagonists of the standalone novel, The Heroes. After securing the North and bringing Stour Nightfall to heel, Leo has gained much influence and celebrity in the Union.  However, even after the events of the first book, Leo is still as hot-headed as ever and finds himself easily led into a number of conflicts.  Despite his apparent heroism and charisma, Leo is a very hard character to like, mainly due to how stupid he is.  Essentially anyone with half a brain can manipulate him in some way, and it becomes quite tiring to see him do something stupid and destructive merely because he has been told it is the noble thing to do.  Despite this, Leo forms a very fascinating counter point to his rival, Orso, as Leo has many of the things that Orso desires, such as heroism, martial prowess and the love of the people.  I also quite enjoyed the author’s exploration of Leo’s sexuality and love interests, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses in future books.
  • Rikke – a Northern girl and the daughter of The First Law trilogy point-of-view character the Dogman. Rikke is a troubled waif who is regretting her decision to force open her Long Eye in order to increase her prophetic abilities.  Rikke has to make some hard choices in this novel, but her eventual storyline sees her take up a leadership role in the North that sees her face off against the vicious new king of the Northmen, Stour Nightfall.  Rikke is another character that really comes into her own in this book, as she is forced to grow up quick and do hard things to survive.  There are some interesting story elements involved with this character, especially thanks to her magical Long Eye, which allows her to see into the future, and which also results in some very trippy chapters shown from her perspective.  I really enjoyed Rikke’s storyline and character arc through this book, and there are some excellent scenes that show just how devious she has become.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union inquisitor who works for Arch Lector Glokta and is loyal only to him. Vic spends a good part of the book working throughout the Union and attempting to identify the King’s enemies, as well as trying to find out who is behind the Breakers and the Burners.  Vick is a really interesting character and I like how much of her storyline seems to mimic Glokta’s from the original trilogy.  For example, in The Trouble with Peace, she is sent to a far-off Union city and must find a way to hold it against a rival kingdom.  However, she soon starts to discover the truth about who really runs the Union and the extent of their power.  Vick is a great character to follow, especially as her chapters tend to focus on the hidden political intrigue and manipulation that infests the Union.  Abercrombie also spends a bit of time continuing to explore the traumatic childhood of Vick, and it was interesting to see how her damaged and dangerous personality came to be.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier with a perchance for extreme violence. After the events of Valbeck, Gunnar, a former breaker, now finds himself in the employ of Savine, and works as her brutal enforcer.  Gunnar is another fascinating character, who attempts to escape from the violence that he has known his entire life.  However, this is easier said than done, and his chapters feature some fantastic examination of self and philosophical thoughts on personality and the events of the past.
  • Jonas Clover – an old and experienced Northern warrior who works as an advisor for Stour Nightfall. Clover, who remains my absolute favourite character in this new trilogy, is an exceedingly entertaining person, thanks to his unique sense of humour and jaded personality.  Clover really stands out as a character, mainly because he is so different to the other Northern characters in the book.  While most of the people he surrounds himself with are eager for combat or glory, Clover is the only one extolling the virtues of patience and self-restraint, much to the other character’s annoyance.  However, he is usually right, and he has developed a habit of surviving as a result.  I really love this character, especially because he has some of the best lines and insults in the entire book.  It was really entertaining to see him work under the brash and arrogant Stour Nightfall, as Clover is constantly forced to try and reign in his new king, with little effect.  Despite not being used as much as I would have liked, Clover is still a standout character in this novel, and he has some very memorable moments as a result.

I really enjoyed all these excellent character arcs, and I thought that each of them was incredible and enjoyable in their own rights.  However, thanks to how the narrative progressed, many of these character arcs crossed over a lot more than in the previous novel, and you get to see the various storylines proceed side-by-side as a result.  Because of how they were connected, Orso, Savine and Leo tended to get the most focus throughout the book, and some of the other point-of-view characters (Vic, Broad and Clover in particular), did not get as many chapters told from their perspective.  While I would have loved more scenes from some of the other characters (more Clover would have been awesome), I felt that this was a good character balance and I liked how the various arcs progressed.  All the character arcs worked together exceedingly well, and I really liked how together they formed an exceptional and addictive plot.  The protagonists of The Trouble with Peace go through a lot in this book, and I enjoyed seeing how each of them progressed through their latest trials and dangers.  I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final book of the trilogy and I imagine some dark things are in store for most of them.

In addition to all the outstanding and complex main characters, Abercrombie also has a great swathe of supporting characters throughout the novel and are extremely entertaining or memorable in their own right (I was a particular fan of the wild hillwomen, Isern-i-Phail).  Abercrombie does an excellent job building these characters up through the course of the book, and there are some amazing and entertaining personalities featured as a result.  However, readers should be extremely cautious about getting too attached to some of these characters, as their life expectancy is a little less certain than the main cast.  The Trouble with Peace also saw the return of several characters featured in the original The First Law books, including a couple of former point-of-view characters.  It was great to see how their stories continued years after the heydays of their adventures, and it adds an interesting aspect to the novel.  Fans of the original trilogy will no doubt enjoy seeing these characters return but should prepare to have their hearts broken.  I really liked the various storylines associated with these characters, and I was also impressed by several twists Abercrombie threw in around them, including one particularly good twist about who the ultimate antagonist of this latest trilogy really is.  Several of the scenes that utilise a ton of separate perspectives to show a single event are often briefly shown from the perspective of some of these side characters, as well as a few additional minor characters who only appear for that scene.  The author really makes the most of these scenes, introducing the character and setting up their personality and history in short order, and then showing how that event affects them (usually in a terribly negative way).

The awesome and exciting action sequences really helped to enhance The Trouble with Peace.  Abercrombie’s books have always featured some brutal and graphic fights and examples of combat, and this latest book is no exception.  There are some very impressive fight sequences in The Trouble with Peace, and the reader is always guaranteed of some action just around the corner.  I really do have to highlight one particularly massive and well-done war sequence that occurs in the latter half of the book.  This battle is the culmination of much of the novel’s plot and has a lot of build up as a result.  Luckily, it did not disappoint in any way, as the reader is treated to a series of powerful sequences that really drag them into the midst of the fight.  Thanks to Abercrombie’s excellent writing, the reader gets an incredible sense of the chaos, the fear and the claustrophobic horrors of a battle.  I really got sucked into this major fight, especially as the author makes good use of multiple perspectives to showcase just how bad it could be in the midst of the fighting, and how destruction, death and despair can infect anyone on the battlefield.  These action scenes are exceptionally written and extremely memorable, and all I can really say is thank goodness pikes are no longer used in war.

In addition to the outstanding story, characters and action sequences, I was also quite impressed with the new elements introduced into the series’ dark fantasy world.  While part of The Trouble with Peace is set in the brutal North, most of the plot takes place in the Union, which has gone through some dark times recently.  This version of the Union is extremely different to the setting that was featured in The First Law trilogy, with a recent industrial revolution bringing both progress and problems, as the land moves away from agriculture to factories.  I really appreciate how Abercrombie has altered his primary fantasy nation since the last trilogy, and his portrayal of an early industrial nation which is on the brink of various revolutions proves to be an awesome setting for this brutal and creative novel.  The author really explores the essence and heart of the Union in this book, and there is a particular deep dive into the politics and social economics of the nation as a result.  I had a lot of fun seeing how the Union falls into war, and a lot of the elements are set up extremely well during this book and the preceding novel.  The resulting conflict has a real English Civil War feel to it at times, with the parliament-like Open Council facing off against the forces of the Crown.  All of this works extremely well as a setting, and I had an amazing time once again visiting this chaotic and dangerous fantasy world.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Trouble with Peace, I ended up listening to the excellent audiobook version which was narrated by Steven Pacey.  Pacey is a talented audiobook narrator who has lent his voice to all the previous The First Law novels.  Pacey does an outstanding job narrating this audiobook and the amazing story clips along at a substantial pace thanks to him.  The narrator also has an impressive repertoire of cool voices for the various characters featured in this book and he even utilises some of the voices of the returning characters from the original novels.  Each of these voices is distinctive and fits its respective character perfectly, which in turn enhances the book’s writing and helps to showcase the character’s personality.  All of this results in an enjoyable and deeply addictive listen and I can already tell you that The Trouble with Peace is going to be one of my top audiobooks for 2020.  Listeners should be aware that this is a substantial audiobook, which has a run time of just under 22 hours (it just cracks my top 20 longest audiobooks list).  However, I would say that it is worth the time investment to check this amazing book out in this format and listeners are guaranteed a superb listen.

Joe Abercrombie continues to cement his position as one of the best modern fantasy authors in the world today with the awesome second novel in his Age of Madness trilogy, The Trouble with Peace.  Serving as the latest instalment in the overarching The First Law series, The Trouble with Peace is a captivating and impressive novel, containing an outstanding plot, memorable multi-layered characters and intense action, all set in one of the best dark fantasy worlds in modern fiction.  The Trouble with Peace is one of the best novels of 2020 and I am so glad that I got the opportunity to read it.  Abercrombie has really knocked it out of the park again and I cannot wait to check out the final book in the trilogy next year (currently titled The Wisdom of Crowds).  You will love this book!

The Trouble with Peace Cover 2

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Audiobook – 3 October 2019)

Series: Articles of Faith – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to join the roughest, toughest and most maladjusted mercenary band in the land with The Black Hawks by David Wragg, and excellent fantasy debut that was a lot of fun to read.

Vedren Chel is a minor noble struggling to adjust to his life as a knight and glorified servant to his lazy step-uncle.  Hoping to escape the meaningless existence that has been forced upon him, Chel suddenly finds himself thrust into a great adventure when a mysterious enemy force invades the city he is stuck in, causing panic and confusion all around.  Managing to flee from the chaos, Chel finds himself the inadvertent travelling companion to the useless and cowardly Prince Tarfel, the King’s son and second in line to the throne.

Accompanying Tarfel to safety, Chel hopes to be rewarded with his freedom and the chance to forge a new life.  Instead he finds himself swept up in the dangerous politics of the realm when he is chosen to become Tarfel’s protector and loyal servant.  Forced to accompany the prince back to the very city they just fled, Chel has very little hope for their survival.  His fears prove justified when a force of disguised men attempt to kill them the night they arrive.  Their lives are only saved when a mysterious band of warriors arrive, killing their attackers and then promptly kidnapping them.

Awakening, Chel and Tarfel find themselves under the dubious protection of the Black Hawk Company, a small group of elite mercenaries who have been hired to escort Tarfel to a mysterious destination.  Despite their unconventional tactics and makeup, the Black Hawks are a dangerous and clever collection of killers, which proves useful when several bands of assassins and fanatics associated with the kingdoms corrupt and all powerful church; converge upon the group, determined to kill Tarfel.  Deciding that their kidnappers are the only group with their best interests in minds, Chel and Tarfel accompany the Black Hawks off into the unknown.  Their journey will take them through dangers, both seen and unseen, and lead them into the very heart of the kingdom as they try to remove the corruption from within.  But dark secrets lie in store for all of them at the end of their journey and no one will be prepared for the dangers and betrayals in front of them.

The Black Hawks is an exciting and captivating dark fantasy novel that I had an absolute blast reading.  This debut novel from David Wragg was originally released about this time last year and it serves as the first entry in his planned Articles of Faith series.  I didn’t get a chance to read The Black Hawks last year, but I have been eyeing this novel off for several months now as I loved how fun its synopsis sounded.  I finally got the opportunity to read this book a couple of weeks ago and I am extremely glad that I did, as The Black Hawks proved to be an impressive and entertaining read that I ended up powering through in relatively short order.  Wragg has come up with an excellent novel that combines a compelling and slick story with some memorable characters and a dark fantasy landscape loaded with perils and betrayals.  These, combined with the book’s many intense action sequences, fun humour and several dark scenes, help to create an addictive and amazing read that I quickly fell in love with.

Wragg utilises a fun, fast-paced and compelling narrative to serve as the centre of this great book.  The entirety of The Black Hawks’ plot is told from the perspective of Chel, who is constantly falling into the midst of some world-changing events.  The plot starts off quickly, with Chel quickly finding himself in the company of Prince Tarfel and from there into the middle of a number of conspiracies and plot aimed at eliminating or manipulating the prince.  This ensures that the reader is quickly enveloped in a complex and entertaining plot which sees the protagonists surrounded on all sides by betrayals, conflicting agendas, mortal perils and all manner of conspiracies.  It was really fun and captivating to see how the various storylines turned out, and the author comes up with a number of intriguing surprises and twists to ensure that the story stays quite interesting and fresh.  There was one very major twist revealed at the end of the novel that I was particularly impressed with.  Wragg sets this twist up perfectly, with a number of hints towards it scattered throughout the book.  While I was able predict some of what was going to happen in advance, I was pleasantly surprised with some of the other revelations that came to light, and this beautifully cultivated twist was one of the high spots of the book.  I was also expecting a completely different ending to the novel, perhaps something a tad more light-hearted, but I liked the direction that Wragg took it instead, especially as it means that I will be grabbing the eventual sequel to this novel as soon as possible to see what happens next.  Overall, The Black Hawks contains a really enjoyable and smartly written narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting through it.

One of the best parts of The Black Hawks is the enjoyable and distinctive characters that Wragg has come up with.  The book’s main protagonist is Vedren Chel, who serves as the story’s point-of-view character.  Chel starts off as a fairly typical fantasy character: a young, bored minor noble who finds himself suddenly involved with events outside of his understanding.  However, as the story progresses, he shows himself to be a much more complex character, mainly thanks to his dedication to Prince Tarfel, who he becomes sworn to.  Tarfel is a spectacularly naive and incompetent royal, who is usually completely unaware of the danger that he finds himself in, or the full scope of the conspiracies playing out around him.  Despite recognising how useless Tarfel is, Chel takes his oath seriously and does all he can to protect him, even though that essentially means he gets the crap kicked out of him every second chapter or so.  This dogged loyalty and determination to do the right thing makes him quite an appealing protagonist, and he proves to be a rather resourceful individual who starts to fit in with the members of the Black Hawk company who kidnap him.  This camaraderie with the Black Hawks, something that he has been missing for most of his life, results in several great scenes, especially as he finds himself conflicted in his loyalty to them and to Tarfel.  Overall, his character arc goes in some interesting directions, and it was great to see him grow as a person through the course of the book.  Tarfel also grows a little during the course of the novel, becoming slightly less boorish and a little more capable.  Some of the reveals at the end of the novel have some rather large impacts of Tarfel’s personality, as he completely re-evaluates his entire life, and it will be rather interesting to see what happens to him in the future novels.

While Chel and Tarfel are both great characters to anchor the main plot around, the most entertaining and memorable characters are easily the members of the titular Black Hawk company.  The Black Hawks are a small group of dangerous mercenaries who have banded together after failing to fit in with all the other companies.  Wragg has gone out of his way to create a distinctive band of mismatched rogues to fill the ranks of the Black Hawk company, and there are a number of fun characters introduced as a result.  These members include a grim and taciturn leader with a notorious hidden past seeking redemption, a shadowy archer who has had her tongue cut out, a beautiful but lethal swordswoman, the group’s dangerous and self-serving assassin who is probably going to betray everyone, and a philosophical giant.  While there are a few stereotypical fantasy roles in there, such as with the Black Hawk leader, this turned out to be a particularly fun group of characters.  My personal favourite was Lemon, a short, red-haired human woman with a crude personality, amazing sense of humour and a fascination with her arsenal of axes (essentially a classic fantasy dwarf character).  Lemon is a great entry in the book, especially as she serves as the story’s main comic relief and is generally the most likeable and entertaining character in the novel, especially when she regales the protagonist with her blunt and tasteless jokes.  I really liked the excellent group dynamic that Wragg came up with for the members of the Black Hawks, and while they work together and are friends, there is a real sense of how mismatched the group is as all of its members are more individualistic than a team player.  All of these characters are great and Wragg does an excellent job introducing each of them and ensuring that all of them get their moment to shine throughout the course of the story.  However, he makes sure to keep most of their backgrounds hidden from the protagonist and the reader, ensuring there is a certain amount of mystery and mystique around them.  While certain hints about their past are revealed, for the most part the reader is left in the dark about who these people are and what brought them to the Black Hawks.  I imagine that Wragg plans to reveal each of these character’s full backstories throughout the course of the series and now that I am somewhat invested in them, I look forward to finding out more about their pasts.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, The Black Hawks features an excellent new dark fantasy world that serves as an awesome setting to this book.  Wragg’s novel features a somewhat desolate fantasy kingdom, ruined by years of constant warfare and ruled over by a corrupted and militant religious order that is desperately clinging to power.  This proved to be a really cool and enjoyable setting for the novel, and readers quickly become intrigued by the chaotic events occurring throughout the landscape.  While Wragg does drop the reader into this setting with any preamble and gets the story going rather quickly, the reader is never really lost about what is going on in this setting, and the author provides the relevant details about the fantasy world when necessary.  This proved to be an excellent overall setting, and I really liked seeing how all the politics and religious strife worked out.  This world also has a lot of potential for expansion, with a number of different nations and regions mentioned throughout the course of The Black Hawks’ story.  I imagine that the series will eventually visit many of these locations in the future, which should result in some interesting and enjoyable storylines, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out.

I ended up listening to The Black Hawks through its audiobook format, which runs for just over 12 hours and is narrated by Colin Mace.  This proved to be an excellent way to enjoy The Black Hawks, and I was able to power through it in only a few days as it was a really easy novel to listen to.  Thanks to Mace’s enjoyable narration, readers will be able to fly through this exciting and fast-paced story without losing focus for a second.  Mace also does a number of excellent voices for the various characters in the novels, capturing the diverse personalities and over-the-top characters really well.  As a result, I felt that this format was an awesome way to enjoy The Black Hawks and the audiobook comes highly recommended.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg was a cool and impressive dark fantasy adventure that I am really glad I checked out.  Thanks to his captivating and action-packed story, distinctive characters and dark fantasy setting, Wragg knocked his debut out of the park, creating an awesome overall read.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic book and I am looking forward to seeing how the story continues in the second Articles of Faith novel.

Throwback Thursday: Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry

Dogs of War Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 April 2017)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Nine

Length: 17 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry, the 9th novel in the action-packed, over-the-top Joe Ledger series.

People familiar with my blog will be aware that over the last year or so I have been making my way through Maberry’s Joe Ledger science fiction thriller novels.  I have been a little obsessed with these books ever since I first checked out the 10th novel in the series, Deep Silence, and then went all the way back to book one, Patient Zero, to see how the series started.  Ever since then I have worked my way through the rest of the Joe Ledger novels, each of which has proven to be a pretty top notch read.  I absolutely love the clever writing style, unique stories and distinctive characters that Maberry features in these novels, and I usually power through them in extremely short order.  Dogs of War is no exception, as I was able to get through this in less than a week and it did not take long for me to get addicted to its intriguing and exciting plot.

Following the disastrous events of Kill Switch, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a secret American counterterrorist unit that focuses on dangerous and unusual technology and science, is damaged and discredited.  However, they are still determined to do good throughout the world, and their main field agent, the legendary Joe Ledger, is always keen for a new case.  So when his brother calls him out of the blue with an unusual mystery, Ledger does not hesitate to head back to Baltimore in order to investigate.

Arriving in his former hometown, Ledger discovers a curious set of circumstances.  A young street worker went on a rampage, killing several people before dying herself.  The cause of her madness appears to be a new strain of rabies, which was apparently triggered by nanobots in her brain.  Attempting to investigate more into the case, Ledger finds himself and his family targeted by ruthless killers with advanced technology, determined to ward him off the case.  It soon becomes apparent that the death of the young girl in Baltimore is just the tip of the iceberg, as other mysterious events and attacks occur across America, many of them targeting members of the DMS.  A new enemy has risen from the ashes of the DMS’s old foes, and she is determined to bring about a new world order.  Worse, the DMS’s most dangerous enemy has returned, ready to rain chaos and destruction down on the entire world.  Can Ledger and his team defeat this ruthless team of villains before it is too late, or will Ledger face the greatest tragedy of his life?

So, after reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels (as well as the spinoff novel, Rage), I have come to the conclusion that is actually impossible for Maberry to write a bad Joe Ledger novel.  I was once again blown away while reading this ninth book as Dogs of War contained an epic and addictive story that I could not stop listening to.  Maberry continues to utilise his distinctive writing style in this book, setting up a captivating and clever story that is loaded with intense action, likeable characters, memorable antagonists and a devious plot to end the world.  This results in a very captivating read and Dogs of War gets an easy five stars from me.  This is actually one of my favourite novels in the series and is probably the best one I have read this year (by a very small margin; Predator One and Kill Switch are both really good).  Also he briefly mentions my Alma mater, ANU, so yay for that!

Dogs of War contains an absolutely fantastic story that sees the fun and complicated protagonist, Joe Ledger, face off against another world ending threat.  Just like in the rest of the series, Dogs of War’s narrative is cleverly constructed with about half the novel is told from the point of view of Ledger, as he encounters the antagonist’s plot in real time.  However, the rest of the novel features a large array of alternate perspectives and preceding time periods that expands the range of the story and helps to create a complex and captivating narrative which really grabs the reader’s attention and interest.  Maberry backs up this great storytelling with a thrilling and action-packed narrative that is fast-paced and delightfully over-the-top.  I really love the unique science fiction thriller storylines that Maberry features within Dogs of War and I appreciated all the cool connections that it has to previous novels in the series.  This cool story will appeal to a wide range of different readers and it is extremely accessible to people who are unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger series as Maberry goes to great lengths to explain all the various story elements and characters featured within the book.  That being said, I really need to emphasise just how truly over-the-top this story could be, as there are a number of scenes that some readers may find uncomfortable or hard to read.  This includes some very graphic fight sequences and some rather disturbing sexual content, some of which, if I am being honest, is way too excessive (one flashback scene features the underage antagonist getting deflowered by a literal demon right after her mother’s funeral, which happened to coincide with 9/11).  Still I have a lot of love for the way in which Maberry constructs a Joe Ledger story, and Dogs of War is a truly fun and thrilling story as a result.

Just like with the previous novels in this series, Maberry has anchored his amazing story on a fantastic collection of characters who really help to enhance the narrative and turn this into a first-class read.  The main character is the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Ledger is an extremely complex character due to his fractured personalities and intense emotional range, and it is always incredible to see the story through his eyes, whether he is feeling each and every emotional blow that comes as way as a result of the case, or he is dishing out severe and brutal vengeance to those who have wronged him.  Ledger is also the cause of most of the book’s enjoyable humour, as he has an extremely flippant outer personality, including a hilarious and sarcastic inner monologue, which becomes especially funny when he encounters the various strange and over-the-top elements that this series is known for.

In addition to Ledger, Maberry also does an amazing job reintroducing and utilising the various recurring characters who have been featured in the previous entries in the series.  All of the side characters have their own distinctive and enjoyable personalities, and fans of the series will really appreciate seeing many of these characters return and continue their various individual storylines.  This includes the two surviving members of Ledger’s personal strike team, Top and Bunny, who serve as a great backup throughout the novel and get into some dangerous scrapes of their own.  I particularly appreciated the way in which the author examined and showcased the emotional damage that these two characters have been dealing with since the traumatic events of Kill Switch, and it added an amazing sense of realism to the story.  I also absolutely loved seeing more of Ledger’s attack dog, Ghost, the best and most lovable canine killing machine in all of fiction.  It is an absolute testament to Maberry’s writing ability that he is able to install such a fun and memorable personality into a fictional dog, and you can’t help but love it when Ghost is on the page doing his thing.  That being said, one of the best characters in the novel has to be the mysterious head of the DMS, Mr Church.  Church is a calm and measured figure throughout the novel, grounding the various main characters and providing stable leadership to them.  However, the main appeal of Church lies around his enigmatic nature and past.  Maberry has built up such an amazing amount of mystique around this character that anytime a little hint or mention of his past is presented the reader absolutely laps it up as they try to figure out who or what he is (is he an alien, an angel, some form of immortal hero from history? You just don’t know).  Dogs of War features several more tantalising hints and clues about this, and you get some very interesting glances into his past, although there is still so much mystery.  I really loved seeing all these great characters again, and it was fantastic to see how the story unwinds around them.

No Joe Ledger novel would be complete with a sensationally evil villain with a complicated past and an elaborate master plan, and Dogs of War features both in spades.  The main antagonist of this novel, Zephyr Bane, is a rather intriguing character with a unique view on the world and a range of connection to some of the villains previously featured in the series.  Maberry does an outstanding job building up this antagonist throughout the course of Dogs of War, including through a series of interludes that show key moments in Zephyr’s life, such as how she came up with her plans and how she was tutored in the art of villainy.  While Zephyr is a great antagonist, Maberry doubles down on the villainy in the novel by introducing another sinister opponent for the DMS to face.  This second antagonist is someone who has appeared in several of the past Joe Ledger novels, although his identity is hidden for a good part of the book (although fans of the series will work out who they are rather quickly).  This character is another particularly mysterious being, who spends most of the book manipulating events from the shadows, giving the reader hints at who they are and what they are capable of.  A major highlight of this novel is this villain’s long-awaited showdown with a major Joe Ledger character, and this fated interaction does not disappoint, even if it leaves the readers with more questions than answers.  Overall, these are some fantastic antagonists, and I absolutely love seeing the outrageously evil opponents that Maberry comes up with for these books.

I also have to highlight the extremely complex and intricate evil plot that these antagonists came up with for Dogs of War.  This was a great, high-stakes plan that contained a lot of different elements that are slowly revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book.  Not only does Maberry make great use of flashbacks and interludes to show how this plan came to pass and the various planning stages but he also spends time examining how the antagonists attempt to counter the inevitable interference from the DMS.  Both of the main antagonists have had interactions with the DMS before, and they know that any plan they implement will gain the attention of the DMS at some point.  As a result, they come up with a number of counters and tactics designed to directly target key elements of the DMS in order to take them off the board.  This was a really clever part of the story, as not only does it add an extra level of drama to the narrative, especially when Ledger is emotionally targeted, but it also represents a clever bit of continuity with the rest of the series.  A lot of the weaknesses that the antagonists attempt to exploit were previously introduced or discussed in some of the previous Joe Ledger novels.  The antagonists subsequently try to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors when they utilise these weaknesses, resulting in a lot of tension as some of the characters you are invested in are personally targeted.  I think this was one of the more inventive master plots that Maberry has come up with for the Joe Ledger series.

One of the most fascinating parts of Dogs of War was the author’s examination of certain real-world technologies.  Throughout the course of the book, the author examines all manner of technological marvels in great detail, including nanobots, advanced robots, drones, computer technology and artificial intelligence.  This results in a number of intriguing discussions as the various characters consider all the applications and impacts that such technology has on the world, these technologies are then cleverly worked into the plot of the book as the antagonists utilise them for their evil plans.  Not only is this immensely interesting and highlights the research that the author has obviously done, but all this technology adds a certain amount of real-world menace to the book.  As Maberry takes pains to explain at the very front of the book, all of the technologies that he features within Dogs of War is either in development, currently being tested or already exist in the real world.  As a result, the reader gets a little bit of dread at the thought that a lot of the terrible things that Maberry features within Dogs of War could happen in real life.  This of course helps to ratchet up the tension and suspense within the novel, and I really appreciated how the author used this to make the story even better.  Also, you get to see the protagonist go up against a bunch of robotic dogs, which is just awesome on so many levels.

In order to enjoy Dogs of War I checked out the audiobook format of the novel, which has a decent run time just short of 18 hours.  I absolutely love the Joe Ledger audiobooks and they are by far my preferred way to enjoy these fantastic novels.  The main reason for this is the awesome narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his talent to every novel in the Joe Ledger series, including Dogs of War, and whose voice really enhances these books.  Porter, who is probably my favourite audiobook narrator at the moment, does an amazing job bringing the characters and the story to life, thanks to his memorable voices and the impressive way that he loads each word with so much emotion and personality.  You always get an incredible sense of the character’s emotions, as the anger, rage, fear or grief that they go through always comes through so clearly.  I particularly love the way that Porter brings the series’ main character, Joe Ledger, to life, as he perfectly captures Ledger’s diverse emotive range, including his boundless anger and his outrageous and sarcastic humour.  I also love the incredible voices he utilises for some other characters, such as the mysterious Mr Church, and his depiction of him contains all the necessary gravitas and power to match the character described in the text.  I also liked the way in which Porter loads one of the antagonist’s voices up with such pure menace and hatred, turning them into a very threatening figure in this format.  All of this made listening to Dogs of War an absolute treat, and I cannot recommend the Joe Ledger audiobooks enough.

Dogs of War was another excellent and addictive entry in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, and I had an amazing time listening to it.  Featuring an outstanding story, awesome characters and so many other fantastic elements, this was an incredible read and I am extremely glad that I checked it out.  I have to admit that I am actually a little sad to have finished off Dogs of War, as that was the last Joe Ledger novel that I had to read.  I have really enjoyed going back and checking out all of the wonderful novels in this superb series, and I will have to get my science fiction thriller fix somewhere else in the future.  Luckily, Maberry actually references several other great series in Dogs of War that could be worth checking out, including the Sigma Force, Seal Team 666 and Chess Team thriller novels, all of which apparently exist in a shared universe with the Joe Ledger books.  I will have to have a think about look at some of these in the future, especially as I wait for Maberry to write another entry in his spin-off Rogue Team International series.  In the meantime, Dogs of War is really worth reading and it comes very highly recommended from me.

Throwback Thursday – Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts Cover

Publisher: Audible Frontiers (Audiobook – 5 June 2012)

Series: Standalone

Length: 7 hours and 41 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

Prepare to dive into one of the most meta and entertaining novels you will ever read with Redshirts by John Scalzi, a fun and clever Star Trek parody that explores what it must be like to be a background character in a science fiction series.

John Scalzi is a well-established and highly regarded science fiction author responsible for a number of impressive and expansive series.  Some of his best-known works include his Old Man’s War series, his Lock In novels and his The Interdependency series, the last of which I have been eying off for a couple of years now and have been meaning to check out.  Each of these series sounds really exciting and have received a lot of positive praise from readers and reviewers.  In addition, Scalzi has also written three standalone novels, each of which has a very fun concept behind it, including the focus of this review, Redshirts.  While I am extremely interested in some of Scalzi’s other works, the moment I found out that he had written a Star Trek parody novel told from the perspective of a redshirt, I grabbed myself a copy of its audiobook format and I have been looking for a chance to listen to it.  Last weekend I had a long car trip with my wife/editor Alex, and we decided that listening to Redshirts would be the perfect entertainment for the drive.

Redshirts takes place in humanity’s far future, aboard the flagship of the Universal Union, the starship Intrepid.  The Intrepid is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and exploration, containing only the most talented crew and scientists that humanity has to offer.  In all respects it seems like the perfect posting for newly commissioned Ensign Andrew Dahl, but it does not take long for Dahl to suspect that there is something seriously wrong aboard the Intrepid.  Not only does the lab that Dahl is assigned to have a magical box which solves every major problem that the ship runs into (with only seconds to spare, without fail), but the entire crew is terrified of the captain and his senior officers, actively trying to avoid them and the near constant away missions.  The crew has come to realise that the away missions are guaranteed to be lethal, with any crew member who joins likely to die while the senior officers constantly walk away without a scratch (with the exception of the unlucky Lieutenant Kerensky).  Now a great deal of energy is place into avoiding an away mission at all cost, with new transfers to the ship kept in the dark until it is too late.

As Dahl and his friends begin to realise the full extent of the terror that has engulfed the ship they attempt to find some sort of answers for what is going on.  However, the more deadly adventures that they go on the more obvious it becomes that some mysterious force is controlling their actions and causing their deaths.  With the lives of every crewmember aboard the Intrepid at stake, Dahl and his friends are left with only one crazy plan, to hunt down the beings controlling them and convince them to stop no matter the cost.  However, what happens when these expendable redshirts end up meeting their own creators?

I am going to say right of the bat that both Alex and I absolutely loved this book and we had an incredible time listening to it.  A good indication of how much we enjoyed it can be seen in the fact that we easily and eagerly powered through it during the two halves of our car trip without any breaks, laughing our asses off the entire time.  Redshirts is an extremely funny and clever novel that acts as both a parody of and a love letter to the Star Trek television show.  Scalzi has come up with a truly awesome and enjoyable novel that combines an amazing amount of humour and parody with a clever and heartfelt story.  This results in a memorable and addictive tale which you cannot help but enjoy, especially if you are a major fan of Star Trek.

For this great novel, Scalzi has come up with a very compelling and enjoyable story that acts in many ways like a unique combination of Galaxy Quest, The Cabin in the Woods and The French Mistake episode of Supernatural.  The story focuses on Ensign Dahl and his friends as they begin to work out the issues aboard the Intrepid.  This is a very fast-paced narrative and the reader is soon introduced to all the mysterious events occurring on the ship, from the terrified crew, the weird science, the exceedingly dangerous and improbable away missions and the strange characters who seem to have the answers.  All of this is shown to the reader in a very clever way, and while you are expecting many of these events occur, especially if you are familiar with Star Trek, seeing these characters react to the various odd occurrences with realistic shock and scepticism is a great source of entertainment.  Following the initial introduction, you get several chapters of the protagonists humorously traversing a chaotic ship full of self-aware redshirts desperately trying to avoid their fates.  The various attempts by the characters to understand what is going on and change their fates are amazing, if a little tragic in places, and this is a very comedic part of the book loaded with some of the best jokes at Star Trek’s expense.  The story then takes a very interesting change of direction as the protagonists undertake a desperate plan (inspired by a classic Star Trek film) to save the ship and prevent their upcoming deaths.  This third part of the book is exceedingly meta, and fans of both Star Trek and surreal, self-referential fiction will love where the story goes and various clever character interactions that occur.  These distinctive parts of the book come together extremely well and form an intricate and captivating overall narrative that fits a lot of story elements into a relatively short novel.  I had an amazing time listening to this complex story, as not only did it make me laugh, but it also made me care about the various characters who are introduced throughout the course of the book (something which the author is aware of and sadistically exploits at times, especially with that last joke at the end of the main story).

In addition to the main story, Scalzi also features three substantial codas at the end of the novel.  These codas are essentially short stories that follow side characters the protagonist meets during the course of the main narrative.  While I would normally be a little concerned about some concluding material taking up so much space from an already shortish novel, these codas are extremely well written and contribute a great deal to the book.  Titled Coda 1, 2 and 3, the codas are told in the first, second and third person narrative respectively, and contain some truly impressive and touching character-driven narratives.  These extremely clever codas really dive down into the psyches and emotions of their respective characters, showing their own complex histories and how their encounter with the protagonist had such a major impact on them.  Of the three, my favourite is probably Coda 1, which is easily the funniest, containing a very humorous series of blog posts, although Codas 2 and 3 are both emotionally rich and heart-warming.  While some readers may be tempted to skip these codas after the main story is finished, I would very strongly recommend checking each of these out as you are guaranteed to come away being extremely attached to each of these great side characters and also feeling a lot better after hearing each coda’s happy ending.

While Redshirts also has its own unique and captivating story at its heart it is an extremely funny parody of the iconic Star Trek television show.  Scalzi is clearly a fan of the series as he expertly works all manner of fun jokes and references to the show into the novel.  The Intrepid and its bridge crew are clear parodies of the Enterprise and the main characters of The Original Series, and Scalzi does an amazing job working his narrative around them, emphasising all their iconic character traits and showing just how ridiculous they and their actions are to the eyes of a normal person.  This includes the captain’s dramatic tone and way of over exaggerating events, and the poor junior officer with a Russian accent who gets the crap kicked out of him every single episode and yet is fully recovered by the next adventure without a hint of injury or PTSD.  Redshirts contains all manner of references or parodies to the over-the-top, badly written or ridiculous elements of the show, and Scalzi lovingly features and critiques them in an amazingly funny way; everything from the evolutionarily questionable alien monsters, the repetitive space battles (those poor people on decks six to twelve!) and the high death toll of the normal crew.  The highlight of the book has to be the terrified and disbelieving reactions that each member of the crew has to the events going on around them, and the fun and exaggerated attempts to survive them.  I also really loved the comedic metafiction elements of the book, which allowed Scalzi to take some humorous shots at the writers and creators of shows like Star Trek.  While this humour is obviously geared towards Star Trek fans, you really do not need to have a lot of in-depth knowledge of the series to appreciate the humour.  Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Star Trek and its tropes will find this book deeply amusing and hilarious and you are guaranteed to have a fun time getting through it.

While I absolutely loved Redshirts’ story, I did find that the dialogue was a little clunky in places.  While most of the conversation is quite fun and snappy, the overabundance of dialogue tags and the extreme overuse of the word “said” gets repetitive and distracting, especially in scenes where the conversations fly thick and fast.  In some heavy dialogue scenes, “character 1 said”, “character 2 said”, “character 3 said” repeats about 20 times in a minute, which is really distracting.  If Scalzi had used more variety in indicating which character said what, this book would have been pretty damn perfect.  But the story and the comedy were strong enough to overcome most of these issues, and I chose to focus on them instead.  However, I can easily see other readers getting a little frustrated with this, which would be a real shame as this is a very fun book.

The audiobook format of Redshirts ran for 7 hours and 41 minutes, although it is a closer to six hours if you decide to skip the codas at the end of the book.  This was an extremely easy audiobook to listen to quickly and we absolutely flew through it.  One of the main reasons that we were so interested in this book is because the audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton.  Now, there is obviously a lot of appeal to Wil Wheaton, or any cast member of a Star Trek television show, getting involved in a parody like this, but Wheaton did a pretty good job narrating this audiobook.  Wheaton had a great voice for this novel, and he was able to keep the audience’s attention through the entirety of the story.  While he did not really change his voice from character to character, the listener was generally able to tell when someone new was talking (ironically thanks to the author’s overuse of “said”).  Wheaton was, however, extremely adept at expressing the relevant emotions of the characters through his voice, and the fear, anger, frustration and sheer disbelief of the protagonist and the people he encounters really shines through.  I also really enjoyed his portrayal of the Intrepid’s senior crewmembers, each of whom is a parody of the main characters from Star Trek: The Original Series.  I particularly had a lot of love for the Captain’s “dramatic voice” that Wheaton did, which really captured the over-the-top tone Kirk had when he was excited or animated.  Overall, the audiobook format is a fantastic way to enjoy Redshirts and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in checking this novel out.

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a masterful and hilarious novel that presents the reader with a wonderful and clever parody to the classic Star Trek television series.  While there are some style issues associated with the dialogue, the story is loaded to the brim with all manner of great jokes, interesting characters, compelling plot elements and a whole lot of meta comedy.  An absolutely fantastic read that will appeal to all manner of Star Trek fans or people in need of a good laugh, Redshirts comes highly recommended and I can guarantee that Wil Wheaton’s audiobook format will serve as a great form of entertainment for a long road trip.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

The Bear Pit Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Damien Seeker – Book Four

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Destroying Angel, the third book in S. G. MacLean’s Damien Seeker series of historical murder mysteries.  I had an amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I ended up giving a full five-star rating, and I was excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out in 2019.  This sequel, The Bear Pit, had an intriguing premise and sounded like it was going to be quite an awesome read.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read it last year when it first came out, which I have been regretting for some time now.  Luckily, I recently found myself with a little bit of spare reading time, so I finally managed to check this book out.  I am really glad that I did, as The Bear Pit contained a captivating and clever story that sets MacLean’s intense protagonist on the trial of some dedicated killers.

London, 1656.  Oliver Cromwell rules England as the Lord Protector, but not everyone is happy with his reign.  Many believe that his death will end the Puritan state and lead to a return of the monarchy in exile.  In order to bring this about, three men loyal to the crown are currently plotting to kill him.  However, Cromwell is not without his protectors, and his most ardent investigator, the legendary Captain Damien Seeker, is on the case.

Seeker has only recently returned to London after a harrowing investigation in Yorkshire and he is determined to catch the potential assassins before it is too late.  However, Seeker soon finds himself on another case when he discovers the mutilated body of man while conducting a raid on a gaming house.  The victim appears to have been brutally savaged by a bear, yet all the bears in London were shot after bear baiting was declared illegal by Cromwell.  Where did the bear come from and why was it used to commit a murder?

While he continues his hunt for the assassins, Seeker employs his reluctant agent, Thomas Faithly, a former Royalist turned informer, to infiltrate the underground fighting pits in an attempt to find out if any bears remain in the city.  However, as both investigations progress it soon becomes clear that they are connected and that the murder is tied into the assassins hunting Cromwell.  As Seeker attempts to stop them before it is too late, he finds himself facing off against a talented and intelligent foe with great reason to hate Cromwell and everything Seeker stands for.  Can Seeker stop the assassins before it is too late, or has he finally come up against someone even he cannot outthink?

MacLean has come up with another fantastic and compelling historical murder mystery with The Bear Pit.  This book contains an amazing multi-character narrative that combines an intriguing murder mystery storyline with real-life political intrigue and plots, enjoyable characters and a fascinating historical backdrop, all of which comes together into an impressive overall narrative.  Despite being the fourth Damien Seeker book, The Bear Pit is very accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series, and people who are interested in a good historical murder mystery can easy dive into this book without any issues.

At the heart of this novel is an enthralling mystery and intrigue laden storyline that sees Seeker and his companions not only investigating a murder apparently done by a bear, but also trying to unravel a plot to assassinate Cromwell.  This turned into quite an enjoyable and exciting tale that was filled with all manner of twists, surprises, reveals, action-packed fights, disguised antagonists and confused loyalties.  Naturally, the murder and the assassination plot are connected, and the investigations of the protagonist and his compatriots combine together as they attempt to find out who is behind the various crimes and why they were committed.  This proved to be a very captivating storyline, and I really loved the way in which MacLean blended an inventive murder mystery with realistic political intrigue and plots.  There are several clever clues and plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, and the end result of the mystery was rather clever and somewhat hard to predict.  I really liked how these intriguing storylines turned out, and they helped to make this story particularly addictive and hard to put down.

Another distinctive and enjoyable part of this book is the great characters contained within it.  The main character of The Bear Pit is the series’ titular protagonist Damien Seeker, the moody and serious investigator and loyal solider of Oliver Cromwell.  Seeker is a particularly hardnosed protagonist who inspires all manner of fear and worry in the various people he meets, and it proves to be rather enjoyable to watch him go about his business.  While Seeker is the main character, this novel also follows a substantial cast of characters who end up narrating substantial parts of this book.  Most of these additional point-of-view characters have appeared in previous entries in the series, and it was great to see MacLean reuse them so effectively while also successfully reintroducing them in the context of this book.  Two of the main characters who assist Seeker with his investigation are Thomas Faithly and Lawrence Ingolby, both of whom were introduced in the previous novel, Destroying Angel.  Both characters are rather interesting additions to the novel’s investigative plot, and they serve as a great counterpoint to Seeker due to their youth, their inexperience, and their own way of investigating the crimes.  While Ingolby was a great younger character who looks set to be a major protagonist in the next book in the series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Faithly and his conflicted loyalties.  Faithly is a former exile with strong ties to the royal family, but his desire to return to England sees him make a deal with Seeker to serve Cromwell as a spy.  Despite his desire to remain in England, Faithly finds himself torn between his existing friendships and his new loyalty to Seeker, and this ends up becoming a rather dramatic and compelling part of the book.  Extra drama is introduced thanks to the reappearance of Maria Ellingworth, Seeker’s former love interest.  Both Seeker and Ellingworth have a lot of unresolved feelings with each other, which only become even more confused throughout the course of The Bear Pit when they find themselves in a love triangle with another major character.  This romantic angle, as well as the continued use of his secret daughter, really helps to humanise Seeker, and I enjoyed getting a closer look under Seeker’s usual tough mask.

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, one of the best aspects of The Bear Pit, and indeed the entire Damien Seeker series, is the author’s fascinating look at life in Cromwell’s England.  This is particularly interesting part of England’s history, which saw the implementation of Puritan law across the country, while secret Royalists lay hidden across the country.  This book in particular took a look at what was going on within London, and it was fascinating to see the various aspects of life during the period, from the politics, the hidden loyalties, the impact of day-to-day activities and the removal of previously iconic parts of London life, such as the bear baiting and other blood sports.  MacLean does a really good job of examining these various aspects of life during the Cromwell era and working them into her novels, making them a vital part of the plot as well as a fascinating setting.

One of the most fascinating and impressive historical aspects that MacLean includes in The Bear Pit was the focus on the 1656 plot to kill Oliver Cromwell.  This was a real historical conspiracy that took place throughout London, as three conspirators attempted to kill Cromwell through various means.  The author really dives into the details of the plot throughout this book, and the reader gets a glimpse into the various attempts that were made on Cromwell during this period, as well as the identity and motivations of the three killers.  MacLean even shows several chapters from these killers’ viewpoints, showing all the various preparations they put into each attempt, and then presenting how and why they failed.  I really liked how the author worked these assassination attempts into the main plot of the book, utilising Seeker as a major reason why several of the attempts failed and ensuring that the antagonists were aware of him and considered him the mostly likely person to stop them.  This was a very clever story aspect as a result, and I liked the blend of creative storytelling with historical fact to create an epic and impressive storyline that really stood out.  I also liked MacLean’s compelling inclusion of a major historical Royalist figure as the mastermind of the plot and the main antagonist of the book.  This character has such a distinctive and infamous reputation, and I liked how the author hinted at their arrival and then sprung the surprise towards the end of the book.  This was such a great part of the plot and I look forward to seeing what major historical events MacLean features in the next book in the series.

Overall, The Bear Pit was an outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery that really highlighted S. G. MacLean’s writing ability and creativity.  I really enjoyed the excellent blend of murder and intrigue, set during a fascinating period of England’s history, and the author’s use of great characters and the inclusion of a particularly notable historical occurrence proved to be extremely impressive and resulted in an outstanding read.  As a result, The Bear Pit comes highly recommended by me and I really do regret taking this long to read it.  Luckily, this should ensure that the overall plot of the series is fresh in my mind when I get my hands on the next and final book in the Damien Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, which is out in a couple of weeks.  I have already put in my order for a copy of this upcoming book and I am looking forward to seeing how MacLean finishes off this series, especially after I had such an awesome time reading The Bear Pit.

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Demon in White Cover 1

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2020)

Series: Sun Eater Sequence – Book Three

Length: 776 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive new science fiction authors on the block, Christopher Ruocchio, returns with the third incredible novel in his epic Sun Eater series, Demon in White.

Far in the future, most of humanity is part of the Sollan Empire, which controls vast systems of space and countless people within them.  The Sollan Empire has long reigned supreme and unopposed in the galaxy, but now it faces its greatest threat, a protracted war against the vicious alien race known as the Cielcin.  While the Cielcins typically engage in random raids and attacks at the leisure of their various chieftains, now a series of coordinated strikes are crippling the borders of the Empire.  The mastermind of these attacks is a powerful new Cielcin ruler, Syriani Dorayaica, who has managed to forge together a mighty alliance with one purpose, the complete destruction of the Empire and every human within it.

As the Empire struggles to combat this threat, all eyes turn to an unlikely hero, the rogue nobleman, adventurer and former gladiator, Hadrian Marlowe.  Following his infamous exploits across the galaxy, Hadrian has been made a knight in service of the Emperor and now finds himself stationed on the Empire’s capital, Forum.  Thanks to a series of successful campaigns against the Cielcin, Hadrian’s popularity and fame has spread across the Empire and many view him as the best hope to defeat the alien menace.  In addition, rumours of his unnatural survival of a lethal wound from a Cielcin prince and his prophetic visions of the future have created a cult-like following around him, heralding him as a divine saviour of humanity.

However, fame and popularity have a price, and Hadrian must now contend with threatened and jealous lords, politicians, and members of the royal family as they plot to undermine and disgrace him.  After several attempts on his life, Hadrian leaves to pursue his true agenda, research into the mysterious celestial being known as the Quiet, who has been manipulating Hadrian’s life while showing him terrifying glimpses of the future.  Hadrian’s mission will take him to some new and dangerous places throughout the universe, until finally he comes face to face with Syriani Dorayaica, who is determined to destroy Hadrian no matter the cost.  Hadrian’s road to the future seems set, but will he truly become the man who commits the greatest act of slaughter in the galaxy, or does a darker fate lie in store for him?

Now that was one heck of an awesome and expansive piece of science fiction.  Ruocchio has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years ever since he burst onto the scene in 2018 with his debut novel and the first book in his Sun Eater series, Empire of Silence.  I loved this incredible debut and I was especially impressed when he managed to follow it up with an amazing sequel, Howling Dark.  I have had a blast reading Ruocchio’s prior novels, and both of them have been amongst my favourite books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to Demon in White, and Ruocchio certainly did not disappoint as he has produced an outstanding and intensely captivating third entry in this series.

Demon in White is the third act in an expansive and compelling space opera that chronicles the life of Hadrian Marlowe, a man destined to destroy a sun, which will make him both humanity’s greatest hero and its most reviled monster.  The story is told in chronicle form from the perspective of an older Hadrian as he writes the account of his life after the events of this book.  Just like with Howling Dark, the story within Demon in White is set many years after the events of the previous book and details the next major stage of Hadrian’s life.  Ruocchio does an amazing job of reintroducing the readers to his universe and also examining the events that occurred during the gap between the two books (some of which occurred during the 2019 novella, Demons of Arae).  Despite the year-long gap between reading the second and third novels and the substantial amount of detail and information that they contained, I was able to pick up and continue the story without too many issues, quickly remembering who the characters where and what events they had experienced with the protagonist.  I do think that reading the prior two novels in the series first is a must, as I could easily see readers unfamiliar with the Sun Eater books having hard time following the expansive plot of Demon in White at this late stage of the overall story.  Still, this book’s ambitious and exciting narrative might prove enough to keep them going, especially if they make use of the substantial index and character list contained in the rear of the novel.

I really can not speak highly enough of the intense and clever story of Demon in White, as Ruocchio produced an epic and addictive narrative that drew me in and refused to let go.  The author does a fantastic job of bringing together a ton of great elements, including the tale of a doomed protagonist, a galaxy-spanning war, a deep dive into the history of the universe and so much more, into one impressive narrative that I had an absolute blast reading.  One of the things I liked the most about the book was the fact that the first half of the novel is primarily set on the capital planet of the Sollan Empire, essentially a science fiction version of Rome, which results in the protagonist getting involved in all manner of plots and political intrigue.  Due to the protagonist’s popularity with the people, and the rumours that he is unkillable, Hadrian is targeted by politicians, lords, members of the Royal Family, military administrators and the Empires powerful religious organisation, and he has to deal with a number of tricky situations.  I really liked this more intrigue and politics laden part of the story, and it was an interesting change from some of the previous novels.  Ruocchio also dives into some more cosmic and action based inclusions as well and there are some explorations of the universe, examinations of the unknown and a several major and enjoyable battle sequences.  All of this comes together extremely well, and I found myself powering through this 700+ page book to find out how it ended.

Another fantastic part of Demon in White’s story that I really enjoyed was the continued examination of the fascinating and compelling protagonist, Hadrian.  Hadrian is a fantastic and intriguing protagonist for the series, since the reader knows far in advance his story is going to end in fire and death.  The chronicling of his life story that is contained within these novels is always quite enjoyable, especially as the older Hadrian compiling these tales adds in his own spin to the story, ensuring that the novel is filled with his regrets and revelations made in hindsight.  The protagonist also goes through some interesting character development throughout the course of the book.  Not only is he introduced to a number of key figures who will have substantial impacts on his future life but he also starts to come to grips with his eventual destiny.  The younger Hadrian is given some tantalising and terrifying glimpses into the future and he struggles to comprehend his potential fate as a result.

The Hadrian in this book is also a very different character than in the prior novels.  Rather than the idealistic dreamer who hopes to one day make peace with the alien Cielcin, Hadrian is far more mature and battle hardened, especially after the traumatic events at the end of Howling Dark.  This version of Hadrian is convinced that there is no hope of peace with his foe, and he has become more ruthless and determined as a result.  However, despite these revelations, there are still fragments of the old Hadrian scattered throughout the novel, which contrasted well with his newer persona.  The sense of wonder he got at seeing a group of alien auxiliaries was very reminiscent of the Hadrian we saw in the first book, especially as this wonder ended up getting him in trouble.  I also liked the scenes that showed Hadrian trying to come to terms with his own legend, as his deeds and adventures have given rise to a cult-like following, with many people convinced that he is some form of divine champion or immortal being.  This proved to be a fantastic aspect of Hadrian’s character throughout Demon in White, as he does not want this attention or praise, not only because it will result in conflict with the various factions in the Empire but also because he does not want to be anyone’s worshipped hero.  However, many of the events that are focus of this cults worship, such as surviving being beheaded or his visions of the future, are actually true (in a sense), and he ends up having to rely on these abilities to survive the events of this novel, which is going to result in some interesting consequences.

There are also some major and fantastic emotional moments for the protagonist scattered throughout the book, such as when a long-running side character leaves him, or when he encounters a major figure from his past again.  I also enjoyed seeing more of his relationship with his main love interest, Valka, and their unconventional romance has flourished over the centuries that this series has been set.  Valka serves as a fantastic grounding force for Hadrian, and it is quite nice seeing them together, although the reader’s joy at seeing them together is somewhat tempered by the narrator’s hints that something tragic is bound to happen between them.  All of this makes for a very intriguing protagonist, and I have enjoyed seeing him flourish and grow over the course of the first three books, moving towards his eventual destiny.  I look forward to seeing how his story continues in the next novel, especially after the major events that occurred at the end of Demon in White.

I have always been impressed with the detailed and massive science fiction universe in which Ruochhio has set his series, and each of the Sun Eater books have added some new depth and unique features to this overarching setting.  Unlike the prior book, Howling Dark, which was set out in the wilds of space and alien planets, Demon in White returns to the confines of the Sollan Empire, a repressive, technophobic and tradition bound galactic kingdom that is stylistically based on ancient Rome.  I really enjoyed this creative science fiction setting, as it is a very dark and gothic location which clashes well with the mostly good-natured protagonist and narrator.  Demon in White adds a huge amount of detail to this universe, especially as the first two thirds are primarily set on new Imperial worlds, including the capital planet Forum.  As a result, there are a ton of intriguing new details and discussions about the politics, history and administration of the Sollan Empire, as well as the introduction of many significant characters, including the Emperor who Hadrian is destined to kill.  The later part of the book also contains some terrific new detail, and we get a really intriguing view about how this dark Empire was founded, including more details about the war against the machines created by the precursor empire, the Mericannii (Americans).  I really liked some of these dives into the past, especially as Ruocchio does a fantastic job of portraying a historical timeline that has been altered or hidden by war, destruction and political or religious censorship.  As a result, the protagonists believe in a very different version of history, and wildly incorrect discussions about historical events are often quite amusing, especially their ideas about American history.  Ruocchio also provides the clearest view of the origins and nature of the cosmic entity, the Quiet, who has been an overarching influence over the prior two books.  This was a rather intriguing, and at times metaphysical, examination of this being, and some of the revelations in this book, including about the connection the Quiet has with Hadrian, the Sollan Empire and the Cieclin, are rather major, and will have significant impacts in the next few books.  All of this proves to be exceedingly fascinating and I cannot wait to see how the author will expand on this setting in his future novels.

I also really have to highlight some of the incredible action sequences that occurred throughout Demon in White.  While a substantial amount of the plot is dedicated to the political intrigue that the protagonist finds himself involved with, there are some great action sequences in this book, including a major war sequence against the Cieclin in the last quarter of the book.  Ruocchio has done an amazing job building the Cieclin up as a major threat and the various bloody battle sequences against them help to reinforce this.  I particularly enjoyed the great scenes where the protagonist faces off against his foe in tight and confined spaces, such as on a ship or in the depths of a city, and the author ensures that the reader gets to enjoy them in all their claustrophobic glory.  Ruocchio adds to the horror by introducing a new form of antagonists in the form of giant Cieclin warriors who are cyborg hybrids enhanced with Extrasolarian (rogue human scientist) technology.  These terrifying hybrids act as very dangerous opponents for Hadrian and his allies, resulting in some dramatic and high-stakes battles.  Hadrian also gets some new combat abilities in this book, which add some intriguing new elements to the fight scenes and are generally quite fun to check out.  Overall, those readers who are interested in seeing some intense science fiction action will not be disappointed with this book as Demon in White delivers some impressive and memorable fight sequences that really help to get the heart pumping.

In this latest novel, Christopher Ruocchio has delivered another extraordinary and captivating science fiction epic that does a terrific job expanding on his fantastic Sun Eater series.  Demon in White contains an incredible and exciting story that sends its complex protagonist on a series of intriguing adventures throughout this rich and unique science fiction universe.  I had an awesome time reading Demon in White and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  This outstanding book gets a full five-star rating from me and if you are not already reading the Sun Eater series you need to start now!

Demon in White Cover 2

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.